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Fraudulent Subprime Auto Loans: The Cost of Obama's Soft on Crime Policy Print
Sunday, 20 July 2014 04:30

It is fraud when an issuer of a loan knowingly puts down false information in order for the loan to be approved. When a securitizer includes large numbers of these loans in securities, as Floyd Norris reports was the case with Citigroup during the housing bubble, this is fraud. 

The Obama administration decided not to pursue criminal cases against executives at the major banks who likely committed fraud on a large scale. As a result, most of these bank executives are almost certainly better off as a result of their decision to commit fraud, even though the fraud has been exposed, than if they had obeyed the law.

When crime goes unpunished it naturally leads to more crime. Hence the NYT reported today that subprime auto lenders are doing many of the same scams that subprime mortgage lenders did in the housing bubble days. They are issuing loans, often for more than the value of the car, based on phony income numbers that the lenders themselves wrote in. In a time of generally low interest rates, these loans can be attractive to investors and Wall Street banks are therefore anxious to purchase them and securitize them.

The scale of the subprime auto loan sector is an order of magnitude smaller than the subprime mortgage sector during the bubble days, so it does not pose the same risks to the financial system. (Also, there is not a risk of a downward spiral in car prices as was the case with house prices during the bubble.) However these loans can lead to enormous hardship for the people affected, causing many to be pursued by creditors for years or forced into bankruptcy.

 
The Washington Post Says It Doesn't Miss Lower Unemployment and Rising Wages Print
Saturday, 19 July 2014 10:14

That might not be a surprise to regular readers of the paper, but there it was in black and white in a column talking about the budget deficit. The piece notes how the deficit has gotten much smaller in recent years and therefore people are paying much less attention to it. The last line in the piece told readers;

"Well, we don’t miss the deficit. But we sure miss that clock [a debt clock used as campaign prop by Governor Romney]."

Actually, people who care about jobs and wage growth do very much miss the deficit. The spending that was cut to reduce the deficit was creating jobs. There is no magical process by which this spending will be replaced by demand in the private sector, which means that the reduction in government spending means less demand and jobs in the economy. [If the deficit hawks at the Post think otherwise they could grab themselves a quick Nobel prize in economics by showing how.] 

In addition, fewer jobs means that those at the middle and bottom of the labor force have less market power and therefore less ability to secure higher wages. This is good news for the small segment of the population that owns lots of stock and can benefit from higher corporate profits and cheap help, but it is bad news for the vast majority of people in the country. At least the Post has made clear which side they are on, just in case there was any confusion.

 
Consumers Are Spending, Cash in Checking Accounts Means Alternative Investments Are Not Good Print
Saturday, 19 July 2014 07:50

The Washington Post really has to discover the Commerce Department. It is less than a mile from the WaPo office. Furthermore, if they had access to the Internet, they could get economic data from the Commerce Department in seconds.

If the WaPo knew about the Commerce Department and the data it produces it would not have told readers told readers in a headline:

"Amercians' checking accounts are filling with cash, but they are afraid to spend it."

The Commerce Department's data would have told them that they actually are spending at a fairly rapid clip. The saving rate for the first quarter of 2014 was 4.4 percent. That's somewhat higher than when the wealth effects from the stock and housing bubbles were leading to consumption booms in the late 1990s and the middle of the last decade, but well below the 8-plus percent average for the pre-bubble decades. In other words, there is no doubt that people are spending a lot relative to their incomes.

The accumulation in checking accounts reflects how people opt to save their money. ("Save" just means not spend. From an economic perspective, burning your cash is also a form of saving, since you would not be spending it.) With interest rates on money market funds and other short-term assets very low, it is understandable that people would not bother to transfer their money out of their checking accounts. The same story applies to longer term bonds which also carry a risk of capital losses. And, with price-to-earnings ratios that are higher than normal levels, people can also anticipate lower than normal returns on stock. 

In short, the decision to hold money in checking accounts is easily explained as an asset choice. It is not an alternative to spending, which we know is actually fairly strong.

 
When It Comes to Infrastructure "Vast" Ain't What It Used to Be Print
Saturday, 19 July 2014 07:24

The New York Times doesn't seem to use the term "vast" the way the rest of us would. It told readers that President Obama is:

"stymied by Republican lawmakers who refuse to go along with Mr. Obama’s call for vast new spending on the nation’s infrastructure."

The proposal in question would provide $300 billion in additional spending over the next four years. This is equal to roughly 0.4 percent of GDP over this period and less than 1.8 of projected federal spending.

 

Thanks to Robert Salzberg for calling this one to my attention.

 
Can You Say "Patent Monopoly?" Joe Nocera Can't Print
Friday, 18 July 2014 22:21

Okay, this is really getting pathetic. Yet another piece on drug companies charging hundreds of thousands for drugs (wrongly described as their "cost") which never mentions government granted patent monopolies.

Does the NYT and other media outlets have a ban on discussing patents? Look, we have an incredibly stupid way of financing the research and development of prescription drugs. We don't have to do it this way. Anyone hear of the National Institutes of Health? Just think, if we paid for the research up front these drugs would cost hundreds of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars. All the information uncovered in their discovery would be immediately available for other researchers to benefit from. And, the drug companies would not have enormous incentive to lie about their safety and effectiveness.

And, we wouldn't have all this absurd handwringing about the tough ethical choices in paying for incredibly expensive drugs. Are reporters and columnists prohibited from raising this question or do they really have so little imagination that they can't even envision an alternative to patent financed research?

 
Sanctions Against Iran Lose the U.S. More than 40 Percent of the Exports Supported by the Export-Import Bank Print
Friday, 18 July 2014 08:26

Regular readers of Beat the Press know that putting numbers in context is one of my main beefs with economic reporting. News stories, especially about government budget items, routinely throw out big numbers that are completely meaningless to almost everyone who reads or hears them. That is not serious reporting. Reporting is about informing your audience. (This is why I use the term "frat boy reporting" to refer to the use of big numbers without context. It conforms to a ritual among reporters, but it does not provide information.) 

To his great credit, Glenn Kessler, who runs the Washington Post's Fact Checker section, does believe in putting numbers in context. He did so in a piece today that examined the claims that sanctions against Iran had cost the United States $175 billion in exports. (The original study is here.) Kessler pointed out that this number sums estimates of lost exports over 18 years, and therefore it is deceptively large. He points out that this sum amounts to just 0.5 percent of U.S. exports over this period. 

This analysis is very helpful in giving readers a better sense of how much these lost exports mean to the economy. It is also possible to compare the lost exports to another item that has been in the news lately, the Export-Import Bank whose current authorization ends on September 30th. According to the Bank, its loans supported $37.4 billion in exports in 2013. By comparison, the study on the impact of the sanctions calculated that the United States would have exported $15.4 billion worth of goods and services to Iran in the absence of sanctions in 2012 (the last year covered), an amount that is equal to 41.2 percent of the exports supported by the Export-Import Bank.

This comparison should give readers an indication of the relative importance of the sanctions and Ex-Im Bank. Of course, the volume of exports supported by the Ex-Im Bank exaggerates its actual importance since many of these exports would take place even without the Bank's support. For example, if the Bank supports $15 billion in exports from Boeing, then perhaps $10-$12 billion of these exports would still occur even without the Bank's support. Boeing would simply earn a smaller profit on these exports since it would have to pay the market interest rate on its borrowing.

If we say that between 10 percent and 30 percent of the exports supported by the Bank would not occur without access to its loans or guarantees then it added between $3.7 billion and $11.1 billion to U.S. exports in 2013. This is between 24.0 percent and 72.0 percent of the amount of exports lost in the prior year due to the the sanctions against Iran, according to the study. 

 
Did the Banks Have to Commit Fraud? Print
Friday, 18 July 2014 05:23

Floyd Norris has an interesting piece discussing Citigroup's $7 billion settlement for misrepresenting the quality of the mortgages in the mortgage backed securities it marketed in the housing bubble. Norris notes that the bank had consultants who warned that many of the mortgages did not meet its standards and therefore should not have been included the securities.

Towards the end of the piece Norris comments:

"And it may well be true that actions like Citigroup’s were necessary for any bank that wanted to stay in what then appeared to be a highly profitable business. Imagine for a minute what would have happened in 2006 if Citigroup had listened to its consultants and canceled the offerings. To the mortgage companies making the loans, that might have simply marked Citigroup as uncooperative. The business would have gone to less scrupulous competitors."

This raises the question of what purpose is served by this sort of settlement. Undoubtedly Norris' statement is true. However, the market dynamic might be different if this settlement were different.

Based on the information Norris presents here, Citigroup's top management essentially knew that the bank was engaging in large-scale fraud by passing along billions of dollars worth of bad mortgages. If these people were now facing years of prison as a result of criminal prosecution then it may well affect how bank executives think about these situations in the future. While it will always be true that they do not want to turn away business, they would probably rather sacrifice some of their yearly bonus than risk spending a decade of their life behind bars. The fear of prision may even deter less scrupulous competitors. In that case, securitizing fraudulent mortgages might have been a marginal activity of little consequence for the economy.

Citigroup's settlement will not change the tradeoffs from what Citigroup's top management saw in 2006. As a result, in the future bankers are likely to make the same decisions that they did in 2006.

 
Morning Edition Gets It Right on Patents Print
Thursday, 17 July 2014 06:54

David Kestenbaum of the Planet Money team had an interesting piece on whether patents are an impediment or spur to innovation. The immediate issue was the decision by Tesla Motors to put all its patents in the public domain with the hope of helping to create a mass market for electric cars. However the piece went further and asked the question of whether patents actually promote innovation.

The argument in the opposite direction is that they lock up technologies for the period of the patent's duration. They also create enormous legal uncertainties since the boundaries of a patent's applicability are rarely clear. This means that a deep-pocketed patent holder can often scare away potential innovators with the threat of a lawsuit.

The piece includes an interview with David Levine and Michele Boldrin, who have been warning of the economic harms of patents and copyrights for more than a decade. They also maintain the fascinating website AgainstMonopoly.org.

One area where I would disagree with their argument about experimenting with an alternative approach is the suggestion in the interview that the way to get from here to there is through a gradual shortening of patent duration. This may actually provide little benefit since all the legal structures around patents and the need for secrecy would still be in place. As a result there may be little, if any, perceptible benefit from reducing patent duration from 20 to 18 years, for example.

An alternative would be to carve out areas where research would be publicly funded with all findings and patents put in the public domain. For example, the government could set aside $5 billion a year to finance the research and development of new cancer drugs. We would then be able to compare progress in an area where the research is all openly available and the final products are all sold as generics compared to output in areas that rely on the current patent system. This would provide a quicker and simpler test of the relative merits of research supported by government granted patent monopolies as opposed to research supported by direct upfront funding.

(Publicly funded patents could be subject to a "copyleft" principle where anyone can freely use them as long as they themselves don't use the patent to develop a privately held patent. If they do go that route then they would have to negotiate a payment to the government just as they would a private patent holder.)    

 

Note; Typos corrected.

 
Robert Samuelson Gets Part-Time Work Seriously Wrong Print
Thursday, 17 July 2014 04:53

For decades people have relied on Robert Samuelson to give a confused rendering of economic reality in the pages of the Washington Post. He came through again today in his warnings about an explosion of part-time work.

The centerpiece of Samuelson's concern is a reported, "whopping — 1,115,000 — increase in part-time jobs offset by the 708,000 loss in full-time jobs." Yes, that sounds pretty worrying. The number of full-time jobs is plunging. 

The reason that you are hearing this concern raised by Robert Samuelson and not by any of the economists or analysts who commented on the June jobs report is that the latter group understands the volatility of the data in the household survey from which the numbers on part-time work is obtained. It is not uncommon to see sharp month-to-month movements in part-time or full-time work. This is why economists generally ignore the month to month changes in these numbers in the household survey and rely instead on longer period changes, like year over year comparisons.

If Robert Samuelson had written this piece last month, before the release of the June data, he could have been decrying the disappearance of part-time work, since the economy had lost 318,000 part-time jobs in the prior two months. No one can believe that we really saw a sharp drop in part-time in April and May, only to be reversed by a huge surge in June. These numbers are simply errors in the survey. This is why no one raised the monthly movements.

There is an interesting story if we look at the year over year numbers. These numbers do show an increase in the number of part-time work, but all on the voluntary side. Voluntary part-time employment increased by 840,000 from June of 2013 to June of 2014. At the same time involuntary part-time employment fell by 650,000, leaving a net gain of 190,000. Since this was accompanied by a year over year change in total employment of 2,146,000 jobs, it implies a gain in full-time employment of 1,956,000 jobs. Are you scared?

There is actually a story (a good one in my view) of increased part-time work. Many people would prefer to work part-time. They have young children or ill family members they would like to spend time with. Or, they may be older workers who would like to partially retire. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act these people might have worked full-time because this was the only way they could get health care insurance. However now that they can get insurance on the exchanges, they have the option to work part-time. I don't see the problem with this.

Samuelson does raise the issue that employers are cutting workers hours to less than 30 to avoid the employer sanctions that apply to firms who have more than 50 full-time employees but don't provide health care insurance. The imposition of these sanctions has been delayed, but Helene Jorgensen and I looked at the evidence that such hours reductions were happening in the first half of 2013 when employers thought the sanctions would apply to them. (The Obama administration announced the delay of the sanctions in early July of 2013.) There was none.   

 
Free Trade: The Answer to the Question of "How do you pay for a drug that costs $84,000?" Print
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 12:58

Wonkblog let down its readers badly in a piece on Sovaldi, the hepatitis C drug that Gilead Sciences is marketing in the United States at the price of $84,000 per treatment. While the post is headlined with the question in the title, it never makes the obvious point that the drug really doesn't "cost" $84,000.

This is the price that Gilead Sciences charges. It is able to get away with charging the price because the government gave it a patent monopoly, which means that any competitors would be arrested. In India, where the government ruled that the drug did not deserve a patent (it is a combination drug, not a new chemical compound) the generic version is sold for less than $1,000. "How do you pay for a drug that costs $1,000?" is a much simpler question to answer.

Of course if we did not give drug companies patent monopolies we would need an alternative mechanism for financing research, but such alternatives do exist as people know who have heard of the National Institutes of Health, which get $30 billion a year from the government. (The Defense Department provides another example of how research and development can be paid for upfront, rather than recovered through patent monopolies.)

If the research was financed up front we would not have to deal with Wonkblog's $84,000 question. We also wouldn't be giving drug companies an incredible incentive to lie, cheat, and steal in order to maximize the sale of a product on which they have a mark-up in the neighborhood of 10,000 percent.

 

Note: Typos corrected, thanks to Robert Salzberg.

 
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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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