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The Return of the TARP Lie About the Commercial Paper Market Print
Monday, 25 October 2010 12:11

In September of 2008 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke deliberately misled Congress. He told them that they had to approve the $700 billion TARP bailout because the commercial paper markets were shutting down.

A shutdown of the commercial paper markets would genuinely have been disastrous for the economy since most major corporations are dependent on issuing commercial paper for meeting payroll and other ongoing expenses. If even healthy companies couldn't raise money through the commercial paper market then we would be looking at an economic collapse in fairly short order.

Bernanke was deceiving Congress with his discussion of the commercial paper market because he single handedly possessed the ability to support the commercial paper market. In fact, the weekend after Congress voted for the TARP he announced that he would create a special Fed lending facility to directly buy commercial paper from non-financial companies.

If Bernanke had been honest with Congress he could have told them of his plans to create such a facility before they voted on TARP and explained that the commercial paper market could be sustained whether or not they approved the TARP bailout.

This is worth mentioning now because this hoary lie keeps popping up. Let's be clear, it was important for the Fed/government to take steps to sustain a working financial system. But these steps could have included conditions that made Wall Street pay a huge price and change its mode of operation forever.

The decision to give the money essentially without conditions was a political decision that was attributable to the banks' political power. As a result, these parasites are more economically and politically powerful than ever. The public should know the truth even if they lack the money to do anything about it.

 
AP Follows Fox and Washington Post in Surrendering Commitment to Objectivity Print
Sunday, 24 October 2010 15:20

AP appears to be following in the steps of Fox and the Washington Post as it joins the crusade for deficit reduction and ignores normal journalistic standards of objectivity. The first sentence of an article that asserts that the Obama administration will make deficit reduction the top priority of his second term describes the country as "a nation sick of spending." There is zero evidence to support this position in the article. There are also no sources within the Obama administration cited for an article titled "Obama likely to focus on deficit in next two years."

At one point the article tells readers that the country wants to see reduced spending, then lists a number of small programs which voters are willing to see cut if it is necessary to get deficits down. It would have been worth pointing out that these programs taken together would have only a very modest impact on spending even if they were eliminated altogether.

The article tells readers:

"Moving to the fore will be a more serious focus on how to balance the federal budget and pay for the programs that keep sinking the country into debt." In fact, it is not "programs" that keep sinking the country in debt, but rather the recession, as can be easily shown. The main cause of the run-up in debt associated with the downturn was a falloff of tax revenue and an increase in spending on automatic stabilizers, like unemployment compensation.

The article then tells readers:

"In other times, that discussion might seem like dry, Washington talk. Not now. People are fed up with federal spending, particularly as many remain jobless." Of course the reason that the federal government is spending more is because "many remain jobless." The statement would be like saying that people are upset with the fire department's use of water, especially at a time when the city is seeing so many fires. In the old days, reporters would have investigated how people could be so confused, if in fact they are, instead of trying to propagate such confusion.

The article later tells readers that:

"Obama defends the huge economic stimulus plan and the bailout of U.S. automakers, and doesn't blame people for getting tired of all the spending." A real reporter would have written this sentence without the word "huge." It is an especially bizarre adjective since the size of the net stimulus from the government sector was about $150 billion a year, a bit more than one-tenth of the size of the lost private sector demand.

Finally, the article gets billions and trillion confused when it tells readers:

"The yearly budget deficit stands at $1.3 billion."

This level of confusion is typical for this article which clearly is intended to promote a deficit reduction agenda rather than inform readers about the issues involved.

 
Thomas Friedman Argues That There are Still Good Paying Jobs for Workers Without Skills Print
Sunday, 24 October 2010 08:06

Friedman argues by example of course. He argues for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, which would of course be a great thing. However, he wants the country to pay for it with more taxes on the middle class and cutting Social Security benefits.

A skilled columnist would know that the U.S. Social Security system is already among the least generous of the OECD countries. A skilled columnist would also know that most near retirees will have almost nothing to support themselves in their retirement other than Social Security because the people who Friedman thinks of as experts (economists) are not very good at their jobs (i.e. they allowed the housing bubble to grow to a level where its collapse would inevitably wreck the economy and destroy the savings [mostly home equity] of near retirees).

A skilled columnist would suggest a tax on the people who have profited from and caused the economic decay of the last three decades. Specifically a financial speculation tax, which could raise more than $150 billion a year while discouraging financial speculation and reducing the drain of resources that the financial sector imposes on the economy.

A skilled columnist would also know that the real source of the long-term budget problems projected for the United States is health care. A skilled columnist would focus on the need to get U.S. health care costs in line with the rest of the world as the only way to fix the country's long-term budget problems as well as removing an enormous source of strain on the private economy.

But Friedman shows that the U.S. economy still has good paying jobs for people without skills by writing a column that addresses economic issues with no apparent awareness of most of the relevant facts. If the NYT had more op-ed positions it could go far toward reducing inequality. 

 
In France, Age 60 Is an EARLY Retirement Age Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 08:42
How can reporters have been covering the debate in France for weeks and still not know that age 60 is an early retirement age, not the normal retirement age? It is comparable to the early retirement age of 62 for Social Security benefits. The normal retirement age in France is currently 65. In France, as in the United States, most workers start collecting benefits shortly after reaching the early retirement age. It would have been useful to make this distinction so that readers would understand what is at issue.
 
For the 645,546th Time, We Can Put Conditions on Bank Bailouts Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 08:14

Joe Nocera has a nice discussion of the foreclosure scandal in the NYT. However at the end he decries the fact that if we require Bank of America and other big banks to adhere to the law, then the losses could be so large that we would need to bail them out again.

The part missing from this story is that we could have bailed the banks out with conditions that were so onerous the banks would not be happy about the bailouts. We could have wiped out the shareholders, forced the creditors to take large haircuts and also put real caps (instead of the idiot versions intended to fool gullible reporters) on executive compensation.

The reason that these conditions were not imposed in 2008 is because the of the power of Wall Street, not the underlying dynamics of the situation. Nocera should have figured this one out by now.

 
The New York Times Uses Its News Section to Express Its Dislike of the Welfare State Print
Saturday, 23 October 2010 07:33

A NYT news article described the strikes in France over the increase in the retirement age as being:

"a cents-and-euros struggle to avert the inevitable moment when decades of cumulative benefits — from short work weeks to long vacations, from state health care to early retirement — begin to unravel."

The article presents no evidence as to why it is inevitable that "decades of cumulative benefits begin to unravel." Nor does it present any statements from any expert who supports this view.

In fact, since productivity in France is growing through time (i.e. it is producing more in each hour of work), there is no reason whatsoever that its benefits need unravel. Workers can continue to enjoy increases in after-tax wages while maintaining the welfare state at its current level.

The comment about the "inevitable" unraveling of the French welfare state is an expression of distaste on the part of the NYT that should be left to the opinion pages. 

 
The Washington Post STILL Has Not Noticed the $8 Trillion Housing Bubble Print
Friday, 22 October 2010 05:26

News apparently takes a long time to reach downtown Washington, D.C. That is the only conclusion that Washington Post readers can have after seeing the paper attribute the economic downturn to: "the ways the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007 would ripple through the economy."

Of course the downturn was not due to subprime mortgage crisis, it was due to the collapse of a housing bubble. Residential construction would not have been cut by more than 50 percent if the issue was just the subprime crisis. It fell by 50 percent because the bubble led to enormous overbuilding of housing.

Similarly the saving rate has risen by more than 6 percentage points, leading to falloff in annual consumption of more than $600 billion. This is not the result of the subprime crisis. This is the result of the loss of $6 trillion in housing bubble wealth, along with the loss of $6 trillion in stock market wealth which was supported by housing bubble driven growth.

The subprime crisis was a triggering event. Had there not been an enormous housing bubble in the process of bursting the subprime crisis would have had little macroeconomic consequence. This news may at some point reach the Post. 

The article also includes a strange analysis of the current housing market:

"If the foreclosure process is slowed down too much, it could lead people to hold off on home purchases as they wait for a new, cheaper supply of homes to hit the market. In that sense, it could further delay a recovery in the long-ailing housing market."

If the foreclosure process is slowed then it reduces supply. If people delay purchases, then this reduces demand. In principle, this doesn't move prices in either direction, unless there is a reason to believe that one effect is markedly larger than the other.

As a practical matter, banks are sitting on a huge inventory of foreclosed homes so a moratorium is likely to have very little impact on the supply of foreclosed homes coming on the market. The dire warnings of the consequences of such a moratorium don't really have a basis in reality.

 
The Washington Post Explains How Foreclosure Moratorium Hurts Homeowners Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 07:32

No, unfortunately that is not a joke. The Washington Post devoted a major article to explaining to readers how a foreclosure moratorium is actually bad for homeowners. The article explains that for government workers with security clearance, the ambiguous debt status of a mortgage facing foreclosure may raise issues, since being behind in one's debts can be grounds for revoking a security clearance. (The logic is that if you can't manage your finances you might be susceptible to blackmail.)

There are two serious problems with the Post's piece. First, it is unlikely that someone stands in a better position with their security clearance after their house has been foreclosed than before. There may be some uncertainty while the process is in limbo, but the uncertainty is better than having the foreclosure actually take place.

Second, it is not true as the Post asserts that:

"Foreclosure delays started when Ally Financial, formerly GMAC, suspended evictions last month after concerns arose about flaws in court documents used to seize homes."

Actually, the flood of defaults has created a huge backlog as banks try to catch up with the huge number of people who are behind in their mortgages and also in many cases consider loan modifications. In other words, it is not new that many homeowners who are behind in their mortgages would find themselves in an uncertain status on foreclosure. So, there really is no story here.

 

 

 
Currency Wars: Developing Countries Are Supposed to Be Borrowers Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 05:07

The NYT had a piece on the recent decline in the value of the dollar and effort by other countries to offset its impact. The article noted in particular developing country efforts to reduce capital inflows that are raising the value of their currency.

It would have been worth noting that in standard economic theory, developing countries are supposed to be borrowers. The logic is that capital is relatively scarce in the developing countries, which means that it gets a higher return. Capital therefore should flow from relatively to slow growing rich countries to more rapidly growing developing countries.

This was the direction of flows until the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. The harsh conditions that the IMF imposed on the East Asian countries led developing countries throughout the world to focus on building up reserves so that they would not have to deal with the IMF. This reversal coincided with the "high dollar" policy touted by then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. It helped to lay the basis for the imbalances associated with the stock and housing bubbles.

To a large extent, the decline in the value of the dollar would effectively reverse the distortions to the world economy resulting from the IMF-Rubin policy of the late 90s. It is also worth noting the recent decline in the dollar is largely just reversing its run-up as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. Money flowed into the U.S. as a safe haven, pushing the dollar well above its pre-crisis levels. It is now falling back toward the level it was at before the crisis.

 
Washington Post Does Cover Up Duty for Republican Plans to Cut Social Security Print
Thursday, 21 October 2010 04:39

The Washington Post headlined a piece on a Republican proposal to cut Social Security benefits, "GOP Social Security plan would cut benefits for higher earners." This headline may lead one to believe that the plan would only cut benefits for relatively affluent workers. In fact, the plan would cut benefits for 70 percent of all workers, as indicated in the first sentence. The plan also raises the retirement age to 70, which amounts to an additional benefit cut of roughly 15 percent for all workers. 

The table accompanying the article also badly understates the impact of the cuts proposed in the Republican plan. It compares the benefits that a medium earner would get under the Republican plan in 2050 with the earnings that a medium earner would get today. The more appropriate comparison is the currently scheduled benefits for a medium earner in 2050. This is projected to rise by more than 48 percent to over $1,800 a month (in 2010 dollars) by 2050. The Republican plan would imply a cut of more than 35 percent against this scheduled level of benefits.

The article also presents an inaccurate statement from a spokesperson for Representative Ryan (the author of the Republican plan) without pointing out to readers that it is wrong. The spokesperson said that:

"According to the Social Security Administration, Congressman Pomeroy's do-nothing plan will impose painful, across-the-board benefit cuts on current seniors and those nearing retirement."

Actually, the trustees project that the program can pay full benefits for through the year 2037 with no changes whatsoever, at which point it would be able to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. Very few current retirees can expect to live more than 27 years.

 

[Addendum: Actually, the numbers in the chart refers to benefits that are indexed to the average wage in the economy. This means that if benefits doubled in nominal dollars and the average wage doubled, then indexed benefit would show no increase. The size of the cuts in the plan put forward by Representative Ryan depend on the exact point a worker's wages fall in the distribution.  If one combines the impact of the change in the indexation formula proposed by Representative Ryan and his proposed increase in the retirement age, it would lead to a 25 percent cut from scheduled benefits for medium wage earner.]

 

 
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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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