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Economists on Stock Returns: It Depends on the Weather or Maybe Politics Print
Friday, 04 March 2011 05:46

It would be nice if the answers that economists gave us on economic issues did not change when the political environment changed. Unfortunately, we don't live in such a world. This can be seen very clearly in the current debate over the assumption on rates of return that public pensions should make for the assets they hold in stock.

Most economists today seem to be lining up on the side that pensions should only assume that stock will provide the same rate of return as Treasury bonds. Even though the expected nominal return on stocks might be 10 percent, these economists argue that because of the risk associated with stock returns public pension funds should only assume the rate of return on risk free Treasury bonds, roughly 4.5 percent.

The counter-argument is that state pension funds can essentially be indifferent to the risk of market timing. If the market is depressed for a few years, the state pension fund would still have adequate assets to pay all benefits. There would only be a problem if the market remained permanently depressed, which is not plausible if the widely accepted projections for long-term economic growth prove accurate.

This lower rate of return makes a huge difference in the size of pension liabilities. This change in accounting, coming at a time when state budgets are hard-pressed due to the recession, would create substantial pressure to reduce pension benefits and possibly eliminate defined benefit pension plans altogether.

It is interesting to note that the economists' concern with pension fund accounting just happens to coincide with a major push by the right-wing to attack public sector workers and especially public sector pensions. State pensions have been assuming 10 percent nominal returns on their pension's stock holdings for decades. This fact never seemed to trouble economists previously.

Interestingly, many economists had argued the exact opposite position in the context of Social Security privatization. Andrew Biggs, one of the economists who has been very prominent in the debate for lowering the return assumptions on public plans, explicitly argued for assuming a high rate of return for the stock held in privatized Social Security accounts. Other proponents of privatization took the same perspective, which was the main benefit of their proposal.

Even advocates of preserving the current Social Security system wanted to assume a higher rate of return for money held in stock, albeit for stock held in the Social Security trust fund. Two of the country's leading experts on Social Security, Henry Aaron and Robert Reischauer, both explicitly called for putting part of the Social Security trust fund in the stock market to take advantage of the higher rates of return offered by stock. President Clinton made the same proposal.

It is worth noting that these plans for putting Social Security money in the stock market were made near the peak of the stock bubble, when price to earnings ratios were approaching 30. In this context, they were making absurd assumptions about the prospect for future returns, as some people pointed out at the time. By contrast, now that the market has plummeted from its bubble peaks and price to earnings ratios are close to their long-term average, it is plausible that the market will provide its historic rate of return.

If economists were consistent, they would apply the same methodology for assessing stock returns in the context of Social Security privatization in the late 90s as they apply to public pension funds in the current crisis. This does not appear to be the case.

The NYT on Foreclosure: Can We Talk About Sex? Print
Friday, 04 March 2011 04:50

Actually, I meant to say "the housing bubble," but in top policy circles it might be easier to get a discussion going on sex. The NYT's lead editorial defends the Obama administration's housing programs based on the fact that house prices are falling again. This is really confused thinking.

First, we should expect house prices to fall. Nationwide house prices have to fall by about 15 percent to return to their long-term trend level. No one has produced any remotely plausible explanation as to why we should expect house prices to diverge from a 100-year long trend, so this decline is consistent with the market returning to normal.

Why, as a matter of policy, would we want to try to prop up housing prices, even assuming that we could? Should the federal government be running an unaffordable housing program? 

House prices had been supported through the second half of 2009 and the first half of 2010 by the first-time buyers tax credit. This pulled purchases forward and now house prices are back on the path to correcting. Given the still near record housing vacancy rates, there is no reason to expect this decline to stop soon regardless of what we do on foreclosures. 

If we could talk about the housing bubble, there is an argument that the government could take steps to support house prices in markets where the bubble appears to have deflated. In former bubble markets like Las Vegas and Phoenix, it might make sense for the government to target loan money and other support in order to prevent prices from falling too far below the trend level. However, this would require distinguishing between markets where the bubble is still deflating from the ones where it has deflated. The price to rent ratio gives us an obvious to tool to make that assessment, but no one seems to want to have that discussion.

Returning to the question at hand, the Republicans are absolutely right, the Obama administration foreclosure programs have been a disaster. There are both policy and political obstacles that make effective programs a virtual impossibility.

On the policy side, the key problem is that the Obama administration never wanted to force the banks to do anything. This invites efforts at cherry picking. They want to have the government subsidize them to make modifications that it might have been in their interest to make in any case. This means the program is giving money to banks, not homeowners.

There is also the problem that servicers are not in the mortgage modification business. Servicers collect monthly payments, they assess fines and send out threatening letters when the payments are late. They move forward with foreclosures when the payments are repeatedly late. They don't have experience working with owners to do modifications.

Asking servicers to do modifications is like asking the police to be social workers. It might be nice if a beat cop could pull aside a troubled kid and give him some counseling, come by and check on his school work, and help him with his family problems, but that is not what cops do. It is the same story with servicers and putting a few thousand dollars on the table will not change this fact.

On the political side, it looks absolutely horrible for the government to be paying the mortgage of people who have fallen behind. Every person who has fallen behind on their mortgage has a neighbor who is working overtime or taken a second job, scrimped on basic expenses, and taken other extraordinary measures to keep current on their mortgage. Of course the Obama administration policy is not actually giving large amounts of money to defaulting homeowners, but the right has been effective in building this perception.

It is also worth noting that we would have a disaster if the government actually did offer large amounts of money to defaulting homeowners. This would give everyone incentive to default on underwater mortgages and have the government and/or lenders pick up the tab. While many of the people helped this way may be very deserving, many of the biggest gainers would be relatively well off people who bought expensive houses at bubble-inflated prices or opted to take large amounts of money out of their home when the bubble sent the price through the roof.

Some of the losers in this story would be the banks that pushed and packaged fraudulent loans. However the bulk of losses would be incurred by public and private pension funds, who bought mortgage backed securities (MBS) in good faith, and individuals who hold MBS in their retirement funds. 

There are policies that the Obama administration could pursue that provide benefits to troubled homeowners at no cost to taxpayers and with none of the policy and political risks noted here. For example, it could push to allow cramdown in bankruptcy. This means that judges could re-write mortgage contracts when a homeowner declare bankruptcy. It could also push for right to rent laws. This would allow homeowners to stay in their home as renters paying the market rents for a substantial period of time (e.g. 5 years) following foreclosure.

Both of these policies would increase the bargaining power of homeowners relative to lenders, leaving them in a better situation to keep their home and, in the case of right to rent, put them in a much better housing situation in the event that they can't keep their home. Neither policy requires any new government bureaucracy or creates any serious moral hazard problems.

Both cramdown and right to rent would require action by Congress, which may prove impossible, but at least the Obama administration would be pushing for sound policy. As it stands, the Obama administration programs are largely worthless. If the President wants to put on his fiscal austerity hat and cut out government waste, he's got some good targets here.

Is the Obama Administration Still Clueless on Housing Bubble? Print
Thursday, 03 March 2011 06:15

The NYT implied that the Obama administration, which includes not a single economist who recognized the danger of the housing bubble, still does not understand the bubble. According to the NYT:

"the Obama administration, as well as the F.D.I.C., sees any broad settlement with the servicers [over improper foreclosure actions] as an opportunity to do more than just fix the foreclosure process. They want to stabilize the housing market, where prices are continuing to decline, and try to help bolster the economic recovery."

Actually nationwide house prices are still 10-15 percent above their trend levels. The housing vacancy rate, while down somewhat from its peak, is still far higher than any pre-bubble level. In other words, the Obama administration should fully anticipate that house prices will continue to fall. There is no obvious reason to want to prevent house prices from returning to more affordable levels.

Unfortunately the piece does not point out the absurdity of the position attributed to the Obama administration. Nor does it identify any of the officials holding this view so that they can be subjected to the ridicule they deserve.

Why Does the Post Think Politicians Are Philosophers? Print
Thursday, 03 March 2011 06:04
The Post referred to disputes among policymakers on how best to structure regulation of the financial sector told readers that:

"there are also deep philosophical and political differences as to what the government should do to prevent future crises."

The people who are making the decisions about regulating the financial sector are politicians. They get and keep their jobs by appealing to powerful interest groups who can finance election campaigns. Few, if any, of these people are known for their contributions to political philosophy. There is no obvious reason to believe that philosophy is a major factor in determining their approach to this issue and the Post certainly does not give us one.

Ben Bernanke, Who Claims to Have Brought the Economy to the Brink of a Second Great Depression, Gives States Advice on Dealing With Budget Shortfalls Print
Thursday, 03 March 2011 05:44

Suppose former FEMA director Michael Brown gave a lecture on how to best rebuild New Orleans following Katrina. Presumably the media covering the speech would point out that Brown's ineptitude in responding to the storm was one reason that the city's population was so devastated by it.

For this reason, it is surprising that Post never noted the same irony in reporting on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's advice to states dealing with budget shortfalls. The reason that nearly all the states are facing severe budget problems is that the economy is in the middle of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

This downturn is the direct result of the Fed's failure to take steps to curb the growth of the housing bubble before it reached the point where its collapse would devastate the economy. Bernanke was at the center of this failure, having been one of 7 Fed governors from 2002 to 2005 and then coming back as Fed chairman in January of 2006.

Bernanke has never downplayed the extent of this disaster himself, telling Congress in the fall of 2008 that the economy was on the brink of a complete collapse. While the claim that the economy was at risk of a second Great Depression is not true (we know how a reflate an economy, so there never was any risk of a decade of double-digit unemployment), Bernanke has helped to promote it.


Are Republicans Really Worried That The Economy Is Creating Too Many Jobs? Print
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 05:47

That's what the NYT told readers this morning. The NYT said that:

"Republicans worry that the Fed is overstimulating the economy."

For those not familiar with the word "overstimulate," it means that the Fed is causing the economy to grow too rapidly and create too many jobs. This is an interesting position to hold at a time when the economy is experiencing 9.0 percent unemployment. It probably would have been better to just report what the Republicans said rather than directly attribute such an extreme view to them.

The article also quoted Alabama Senator Richard Shelby saying that: "Once price stability has been lost, it’s difficult and very costly to regain," adding that Shelby then invoked the 80s. It would have been useful to point out to readers that the recession brought on by Paul Volcker in 1981 to tame inflation was far milder than the one we are now experiencing.

The unemployment rate rose by 3.6 percentage points from its low in the summer of 1981 to its peak in December of 1982. This compares with a trough to peak increase of 5.7 percentage points in this downturn. Three years after the start of the 1981 recession the unemployment rate was back to its pre-recession level. By contrast, three years after the start of the current recession the unemployment rate stands 4.5 percentage points above its pre-recession level.

In other words, Senator Shelby is warning that if we take stronger steps to reduce the unemployment rate we risk a higher rate of inflation. And, the cost of bringing down this inflation may be less than the costs in unemployment that we are currently experiencing.

This article also presents Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke's assessment on a range of issues. It would have been worth reminding readers that Mr. Bernanke did not see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which brought on the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

The Washington Post Tell Readers That Obama Doesn't Have Fiscal Credibility (Yes, In Its News Sections) Print
Wednesday, 02 March 2011 05:33

In following its practice that there is no division between news and editorial perspective when it comes to budget reporting, The Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) told readers in a front page news article that:

"Obama, who has overseen an expansion in spending, does not have the fiscal credibility that helped give President Bill Clinton the winning political hand in 1995 and 1996."

One might think that whether or not President Obama has "fiscal credibility" is an assessment that readers should make for themselves. According to the Congressional Budget Office and a wide range of private forecasters, the increase in spending that has taken place on President Obama's watch has boosted growth and prevented the unemployment rate from rising further.

It is bizarre to imply that because he acted to prevent a steeper recession President Obama lacks fiscal credibility. By the Post's logic, President Roosevelt could have established fiscal credibility by cutting the defense budget in half in 1943 in the middle of World War II. While most people might have viewed letting our military lose to the Axis powers in order to balance the budget as close to crazy, the Post no doubt would have applauded such an act of fiscal responsibility. At least it would if it applied the paper's current logic. 

They are Just Trade Agreements, not "Free-Trade" Agreements Print
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 06:43

A NYT article on President Obama's trade agenda repeatedly referred to "free-trade" agreements. This is a term that politicians who back these pacts use to garner public support, however, it is not accurate. The deals generally do little or nothing to reduce barriers to trade in highly paid professional services, like physician and lawyer services. They also increase protectionism in some areas, most notably by strengthening copyright and patent protections.

It is understandable that the proponents of these trade pacts would want to dub them "free-trade" pacts to make them more politically appealing. However, the media should not be using such inaccurate terminology.

Uninformed Appraisals Should Lead to Inaccurate Appraisals, Not Low Appraisals Print
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 05:07

USA Today reported that many home sales are not going through because the appraisals are too low to support the mortgage. At one point it reports complaints from realtors that appraisers now often come from outside the area and make low appraisals because they don't know the housing market.

If appraisers are unfamiliar with an area then it would be expected that they would make inaccurate appraisals. This would mean that there might be mortgages that don't go through because an appraisal comes in too low, however some mortgages may end up being issued that should not be because the appraisals are too high. There is no obvious reason that the appraisals would be biased on the low side.

There Are No Rich and Poor In David Brooks' America Print
Tuesday, 01 March 2011 04:47

David Brooks told readers that it is very important that we redistribute money from the old to young. He argues that this is due to the government debt built up as a result of the downturn. This debt will put pressure to reduce government spending, which he argues should come primarily at the expense of the elderly.

It is impressive that Brooks could only think of redistribution by generation after the United States has just gone through the most massive upward redistribution in the history of the world over the last three decades. Other observers might have thought of dealing with unmet needs by adopting measures that partially reverse this upward redistribution.

For example, the government could raise more than $1.8 trillion by taxing financial speculation. This revenue would come almost entirely at the expense of speculators and the financial industry. It could save a comparable amount of money by adopting alternatives to patent monopolies for supporting prescription drug research. And it could substantially reduce the interest burden of the current debt by having the Federal Reserve Board buy and hold a substantial amount of the debt. This would mean that the interest paid on this debt would be refunded to the government, leading to no net interest burden on the bonds held by the Fed.

However, Brooks never considers any measures that could reverse the upward redistribution of the past three decades. He is only interested in taking away Social Security and Medicare benefits and reducing the pay of public sector workers.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.