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It Was the Housing Bubble: Not the Damn CDOs Print
Saturday, 17 April 2010 07:10

The folks who got it wrong when the housing bubble was growing seem determined to prove to the world that they are incapable of learning anything. The latest tales of Goldman designing CDOs are fascinating in that they reveal the incredible level of corruption at Goldman and on Wall Street more generally, but it was not the CDOs that gave us 10 percent unemployment.

Unemployment soared because demand collapsed. And the reason that demand collapsed is because housing bubble wealth disappeared. And housing bubble wealth disappeared -- well, because it was a bubble that was not supported by the fundamentals.

For the 87,865th time, the collapse of the bubble led to a falloff in annual construction (residential and non-residential) spending of more than $600 billion. The loss of $6 trillion in housing wealth led, through the housing wealth effect (this isn't radical -- it is as old an economics doctrine as you'll find) to a loss of close to $400 billion in consumption demand. That gives a combined loss in demand of more than $1 trillion and hence a really bad recession.

This story has nothing directly to do with CDOs. Insofar as CDOs and other games helped to drive the bubble beyond the levels it would have otherwise attained then they made the crash worse than it otherwise would have been, but the CDOs were not directly the problem. It was the bubble.

The folks who played games on Wall Street should be put safely behind bars for long periods of time, but it is important to know that the real story of this crisis was not the complex shenanigans of the Goldman gang. The real story was a huge bubble that was easy to see and guaranteed to burst. The fact that those involved in making and reporting on economic policy somehow did not see the bubble was a failure of immense proportions that should cost many many people their jobs.

 

--Dean Baker

 
Protectionist Restrictions Threaten Health Care: Economists Don't Care Print
Friday, 16 April 2010 10:14

The Wall Street Journal told readers that the country will face a serious shortage of doctors in the next decade. It notes that in principle the country could bring in more foreign doctors, however, U.S. rules require foreign doctors to do a residency in the United States. Since U.S. residency slots are limited, the availability of foriegn-trained physicians will not help.

This article is remarkable because it does not include any quotes from economists about the enormous cost that the economy is being forced to bear as a result of the extreme protectionism used to maintain doctors' salaries. It would not be difficult to design residency programs in other countries that met U.S. standards. (Even a doctor should be smart enough to do that.) We can also include a subsidy to the countries of origin of foreign-trained physicians to ensure that they can train more than enough doctors to make up for those that come to practice in the United States.

This could hugely increase the supply of doctors in the United States. This would lower the wages of physicans and reduce the cost of health care. This article should have been reported as an example of protectionism by a powerful special interest group being carried to absurd levels (e.g. Buy American policies times 1000), but instead the issue was never even raised.

 

--Dean Baker

 
Unemployment Claims Go Unmentioned Print
Friday, 16 April 2010 07:41

It seems that the media are not interested in letting bad economic data get in the way of the economic recovery stories. The Labor Department reported that new unemployment claims rose to 484,000 last week, an increase of 24,000 from the previous week. This report got very little attention and seems to have gone unmentioned in both the NYT and WAPO.

While the weekly figure was undoubtedly inflated by people who put off filing the week before Easter, the prior week was exceptionally high given its timing. The 4-week moving average was 457,750, a number that is far above levels consistent with job growth. For 90 percent of the country, the labor market is the economy. This number deserved some serious attention.

 

--Dean Baker

 
Money for Failed Modifications Goes to Banks, Not Homeowners Print
Thursday, 15 April 2010 07:11

The NYT reported on the release of new data from the Treasury Department showing a doubling in the number of redefaults on loans that had been permanently modified through the administration's HAMP program. The new data show that more than 1 percent of permanent modifications have already redefaulted. Since most of the modifications have only been completed in the last few months, this indicates that a very percentage of the permanent modifications are likely to end in default. Since the vast majority of homeowners facing foreclosure will not receive a permanent modification, these means that the program is likely to help only a small minority of homeonwers keep their home.

It would have been useful to point out that the money that the government spends on a failed modification goes to banks, not homeowners. Typically, the government will have subsitituted an FHA insured mortgage for the original mortgage issued by a bank. This means that when a redefault takes place, the bank will have received most of the principle back on the loan, with the government incurring the loss on the redefault. The net result of this policy is that far more money is likely to be given to banks through the HAMP than to homeowners. This should have been pointed out in this article.

 

--Dean Baker

 
Which Country Got All the Royalties in February? Print
Wednesday, 14 April 2010 08:05

That might have been a good question for reporters to address when they reported on the February trade data released yesterday. The data showed that royalties and licensing fees had increased by $883 million from January, a rise of more than 40 percent.

This has occasionally happened in prior months and presumably reflects one-time payments to a producer or set of producers. However, this was a big part of the $2.8 billion rise in the overall trade deficit from January and it deserved some mention in the coverage of the February data.

 
People Are Losing Their Homes and Their Jobs, But They Are Really Mad About the Deficit Print
Tuesday, 13 April 2010 06:00

That's effectively what the Washington Post told readers in another front page editorial highlighting the need for deficit reduction. The article said:

"But by suggesting the deficit may have peaked, administration officials are taking a political gamble. If the favorable number does not hold up in coming months and the budget shortfall surpasses the $1.4 trillion recorded last year, voters in the November midterm elections could punish the Democrats for offering false hope."

That's a great story. Is it plausible that even 1 percent of voters are going to have any clue as to whether this year's deficit is marginally higher or marginally lower than last year's deficit? Is there any reason that anyone should care? Is there any evidence that this will influence their vote in an environment where they are concerned about their jobs and their homes?

In the Post's dreams maybe, but not on this planet.

 
Pew Shows the Lack of Creativity Among Creative Workers Print
Monday, 12 April 2010 10:30

A new Pew poll of reporters and editors found a great deal of pessimism about the prospects for the newspaper industry. At one point, the article reports the poll's finding that: "about three-quarters of the editors who took part said they would have serious objections to accepting direct support from either the government or interest groups, and a similar number said their organizations had not seriously thought about taking donations from nonprofit groups."

Of course there are other ways in which new media can be supported. Currently the government supports newspapers by granting them copyright monopolies. Without this special protection anyone would be able to use content without paying for it, including for commercial purposes. So these editors are already taking government support, even if they don't realize it.

In the Internet era this mechanism of financing newspapers is obviously no longer adequate. It is striking that Pew failed to consider any of the obvious alternative mechanisms in its poll. The article could have also discussed such alternatives.

 
Ben Bernanke, Who Missed an $8 Trillion Housing Bubble, Warned About the Deficit Print
Monday, 12 April 2010 05:56

In an article reporting on the debate over extending unemployment insurance benefits the Washington Post told readers: "on Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned that growing budget deficits imperiled the economy's long-term stability."

It is worth noting that in his capacity as a Federal Reserve Board governor from 2002 to 2005, chief economic adviser President Bush, and then Fed Chair since January of 2006, Bernanke never raised any concerns about the housing bubble and the threat it posed to the economy. Based on this history, readers may question Mr. Bernanke's ability to assess threats to economic stability. The Post should have informed readers of Bernanke's record on this issue.

 
Texas and the Housing Bubble Print
Monday, 12 April 2010 05:31

Paul Krugman asks in his column this morning why Texas managed to largely escape the worst of the housing bubble while Georgia leads the country in the number of failed banks. Both are states in which the major cities have relatively few zoning restrictions or natural barriers, which allows for easy sprawl to meet new housing demand. Krugman explains the difference by the better consumer protection legislation in Texas.

While this may have played a role, it is important to note that Texas had just been through a boom/bust cycle in the 80s. The state was at the epicenter of the S&L crisis. Land prices had soared with the oil boom at the start of the decade, but then collapsed along with the price of oil in the middle of the decade. Texas bankers who had lived through this experience might have had more realization that house prices could fall than bankers in other parts of the country. Of course, the experience of a recent boom and bust cycle did not affect in slowing the bubbles in either southern California or Colorado.

 
How Big Is China and How Ignorant Are They at the WAPO? Print
Sunday, 11 April 2010 10:12

Those are the questions that readers of the WAPO's Sunday Outlook section must be asking. The Post told readers that: "this year, China's economy is expected to produce about $5 trillion in goods and services. That would put it ahead of Japan as the world's second-biggest national economy, but it would still be barely one-third the size of the $14 trillion U.S. economy."

This reflects China's GDP measured on an exchange rate basis. However, economists typically use purchasing power parity measures of GDP for international comparisons. By this measure, China's economy is expected to be about $9.5 trillion this year. At its current growth rate, it will pass the size of the U.S. economy in about five years.

By many measures it is already larger than the U.S.. For example, it has more Internet users, college graduates in science and engineering, a larger car market, and about twice as many cell phone users.

The article also tells readers that the exchange rate will not have much impact on the trade deficit with China. Virtually all economists believe that an increase in the price of imports from China by 20-30 percent would substantially reduce imports. it is not clear why the author of this article believes otherwise.

 
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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.

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