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Great Piece on Goldman, AIG, and the Fed Print
Wednesday, 30 June 2010 04:12
If you're wondering why Goldman Sachs is richer than you are, and we supposedly have to cut Social Security, remember friends are everything.
 
Are Republicans Balking at Stimulus in an Election Year Because They Want to Raise Unemployment? Print
Tuesday, 29 June 2010 05:00

The Post noted that Congress has been reluctant to extend unemployment benefits in spite of the evidence that they will boost the economy. It then told readers that: "Congress is balking at the added expense in an election year, as Republicans accuse Democrats of out-of-control spending and as many rank-and-file Democrats struggle to justify an increase in already sky-high deficits."

It is not clear that members who oppose extending benefits (most of whom are Republican) are actually concerned "out-of-control" spending or "sky-high" deficits. Of course, spending grew in response to the economic downturn, as the Post should know. So it is misleading to refer to it as "out-of-control" or the deficits as "sky-high."

While the Republicans who oppose stimulus measures such as extending unemployment benefits because they are now concerned about budget deficits (most were not during the Bush presidency), it is also possible that they oppose these measures because they feel they would gain politically in November from seeing them voted down. It is likely that a weak economy will benefit the Republicans in the election. This article should have at least noted the possibility that politicians may not act for the reasons they claim in public, sometimes they don't.

This piece also said that President Obama "acknowledged" that reining in the debt may require cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The correct word would be "said" or "asserted" unless the Post has some independent basis for knowing that changes in such programs are necessary, in which case it should share this evidence with readers.

 
Death and Ironing Boards at the Washington Post Print
Tuesday, 29 June 2010 04:43

Last week the Washington Post devoted a major front page story to a report on tariffs on Chinese ironing boards that can be as high as 150 percent. Today a page 2 article reported on evidence that a popular diabetes drug, Avandia, increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

The Avandia article never discussed the government imposed patent protection that allows Avandia's manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, to charge prices that are several thousand percent above the competitive market price. The enormous profits that result from this protection gave GlaxoSmithKline a powerful incentive to conceal evidence that the drug was harmful, as is alleged in the article.

It is interesting that the Post would devote so much attention to highlighting protectionism in the context of ironing boards, while ignoring the issue altogether in the case of a drug with sales of $3 billion a year and which could lead to thousands of unnecessary of heart attacks and strokes. There are other mechanisms to support drug research which would allow drugs to be sold at competitive market prices. 

 
Ireland's Economy Is Still Being Managed by People Too Incompetent to See a Massive Housing Bubble Print
Tuesday, 29 June 2010 04:14

It might have been worth pointing this out in an NYT piece telling readers how Ireland's deficit reduction has devastated the country and still left it with large deficits. It also might have been worth talking to an economist who could have pointed out that it is not just markets that are forcing Ireland to go the austerity route, it is the European Central Bank (ECB). 

The ECB, like the Fed in the United States, could adopt a more aggressive policy of supporting member states governments. For example, the ECB could buy up large amounts of member state debt and offer extensive guarantees. This would allow Ireland, which had run budget surpluses and had a low national debt before the collapse of its housing bubble, more time to re-orient its economy. Given the huge amount of unemployment and excess capacity in the European Union, there is little risk of inflation from going this route.

This otherwise good piece does a disservice to readers by implying that markets are forcing this suffering on the Irish population. It is the decisions of the ECB that is leading to this suffering.

 
Robert Samuelson: Economics Is Hard Print
Monday, 28 June 2010 04:51

That seems to be the main point of Robert Samuelson's column today. It might be a bit easier with a bit more careful thought.

For example, Samuelson tells readers that the debt burdens of major countries are rapidly approaching "financial and psychological limits" that prevent further fiscal stimulus. He then cites the 92 percent debt to GDP ratio for France, 82 percent for Germany, and 83 percent for the UK as countries that are reaching these limits.

If he was looking for financial and psychological limits, he might have considered the case of Japan. Its debt to GDP ratio is close to 220 percent. Its interest payment take up a bit more than 1.0 percent of GDP each year and it can borrow at long-term interest rates of around 1.5 percent. This is possible because its central bank has bought up much of the government's debt over the last 15 years. Since the economy remains well below its capacity, the central bank's actions have not to led to inflation. In fact, Japan continues to be troubled by deflation.

The European Central Bank could similarly adopt a policy of buying and holding large amounts of the debt of euro member governments. The interest on debt held by the central bank does not impose a burden on governments, since it is rebated to them.

The column also touts some recent research which purports to show the benefits of deficit reduction as stimulus. It is worth noting that nearly all the examples of deficit reduction as stimulus involve countries that faced very high interest rates and in which trade comprised a very large share of the economy.

In these circumstances, a reduction in the deficit could produce a substantial stimulus through two channels. First, it would lower interest rates, which would provide a direct boost to domestic investment and consumption. Second, lower interest rates would lower the value of the currency, which in turn would make its goods more competitive internationally, thereby increasing net exports.

These conditions do not apply for most countries at present and certainly not to the United States. It is very doubtful that even the strongest deficit reduction measures will have a noticeable effect on lowering already low interest rates. It is also not clear that there would be any substantial investment response to lower interest rates by businesses that already are sitting on huge amounts of retained earnings. Heavily indebted consumers are also not likely to substantially boost consumption.

The trade route also does not look especially promising. If interest rates fell in the United States it is unlikely that it will lead to much of a decline in the dollar in a context where it has been pushed up by a flight to safety in uncertain times. Furthermore, it is not clear that the United States will be able to increase its net exports by much at a time when every other country is trying to go the same route and is also constricting demand through fiscal contraction.

See, economics really isn't hard.

 
Senator Brown is Concerned About a Tax Equal to 0.01 Percent of GDP Print
Sunday, 27 June 2010 18:22

Senator Scott Brown has indicated that he may reverse himself and vote against the final version of the financial reform bill. He claims to be upset about fees levied on financial institutions that will total $18 billion over the next decade.

It would have been helpful to put this number in some context so readers would have clearer idea of what is at stake. The fee is approximately equal to 0.01 percent of projected GDP over the next decade. If it is fully passed on by financial institutions to customers will cost people an average of $6 a year. 

 
The U.S. and South Korea Have a Trade Deal, Not a "Free Trade" Deal Print
Sunday, 27 June 2010 15:40

The NYT used the term "free trade" three times in a short article on President Obama's plans to push Congress to approve the trade agreement this year. The agreement is not a free trade deal in that it leaves many barriers to trade in place and actually increases some barriers by requiring South Korea to increase the stringency of patent and copyright protection, notably for prescription drugs. It is not clear what information the NYT considers to be added by the inclusion of the word "free" in this article. Excluding it would both save space and increase accuracy.

 
Are We Better Off Getting Advice from the IMF than a Drunk in the Street? Print
Sunday, 27 June 2010 07:44

If we look at the track record, probably not. After all, where was the IMF when the housing bubble in the United States and elsewhere was building up to ever more dangerous levels? Was it frantically yelling at governments to rein in the bubbles before they burst with disastrous consequences? No, the housing bubbles were no big deal at IMF land.

This would have been worth noting in a Washington Post article that repeats at length IMF recommendations about reducing budget deficits, cutting back on labor market protections for workers, and rolling back pension and health care benefits. After all, any reasonable person would ask when the IMF stopped being wrong about the economy. 

Actually, advice from the IMF may compare unfavorably to advice from a random drunk. The drunk will just be incoherent. There is reason to believe that the IMF has political motivations in the advice it gives. At the end of 2001 Argentina defaulted on its debt enraging the IMF. Prior to the default Argentina had been an IMF poster child eagerly embracing the IMF's program. 

The IMF's growth forecasts clearly reflected its change of attitude toward Argentina. Prior to the default the IMF was consistently overly optimistic about Argentina's growth prospects projecting much higher growth than Argentina actually experienced. After the default, the IMF was hugely over-pessimistic, projecting much lower growth rates than it subsequently experienced. It is difficult to explain this pattern of errors except by a political motivation.  

 

 
Pension Fund Accounting: The Crash Does Not Lower Future Returns, it Increases Them Print
Sunday, 27 June 2010 05:46

The NYT had another piece complaining that state and local pension funds are using overly optimistic assumptions on returns. The complaint is that the funds assume an 8 percent (nominal) average annual rate based on the historic returns on the mix of assets held by these funds, rather than a 6 percent rate which would be closer to the average risk-free rate on long-term U.S. Treasury debt.

At one point the piece presents us with the good news that:

"The financial crash provoked a few states to lower their assumed returns. This will better reflect reality, but it will not repair the present crisis."

Actually, the opposite is the case. Because the crisis sent stock prices plummeting, the ratio of stock prices to trend earnings ratio is much lower than it had been previously. As a result, it is much more reasonable to now to assume 8 percent average returns going forward than it was before the crisis. State and local pension funds do face substantial shortfalls, but calculations based on a 6 percent rate of return on assets would exaggerate the size of this shortfall.

 
The Post Tries to Get the Fed Off the Hook Print
Saturday, 26 June 2010 07:51

In a chart accompanying an article on the financial reform bill approved by the House-Senate Conference Committee the Washington Post told readers that:

"Ahead of the crisis, there was no agency in the government responsible for monitoring the financial system as a whole and looking for potential threats to its health."

This is not true. There was an agency that had responsibility for the monitoring the financial system as a whole and looking for potential threats to its health. It is called the "Federal Reserve Board." This is a main purpose of the Fed and it has fulfilled this role on several occasions, most notably when it intervened to halt the stock market crash in 1987 and to arrange the orderly unraveling of the Long-Term Capital Hedge Fund in 1998.

This point is important, because the problem that led to this crisis was not a lack of regulatory authority as this assertion implies. Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke had all the power they needed to rein in the housing bubble before it grew large enough to threaten the health of the economy. They chose to not use this authority either because they did not recognize the bubble or did not consider it a serious problem.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that if we had the newly created "Financial Services Oversight Council" in place in the years 2002-2007, when the housing bubble was inflating, that anything would have been different. Greenspan and Bernanke both repeatedly insisted that everything was fine in the housing market and the financial system more generally.

There were very few dissenting voices to the Greenspan-Bernanke position. Those in authority (and newspapers like the Washington Post) had no problem ignoring these dissenting voices. If there had been a Financial Services Oversight Council in the years when the bubble was inflating it almost certainly would have been staffed entirely by people who shared the Greenspan-Bernanke view. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that it would have done anything to avert the current economic crisis.

 
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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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