Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Romney Will Solve the Crisis with the Exact Same GOP Plan of 2008, 2006, 2004...

    Aug 31, 2012Mike Konczal

    Romney's five-point plan to adress the specific aspects of our current jobs crisis recycles, nearly word for word, plans from far different economic times.

    Romney's five-point plan to adress the specific aspects of our current jobs crisis recycles, nearly word for word, plans from far different economic times.

    I've been watching the 2012 Republican National Convention, trying to get a sense of what the conservative diagnosis is for our weak economy and what they'd do in response. Is it the bizarro stimulus of raising interest rates, balancing the budget, and forcing foreclosures? Is there a secret housing plan? Or will it be a program of Reactionary Keynesianism, with an expanded military, massive tax cuts for the rich, and a SuperDuperCommittee to recommend tax expenditures that will go nowhere?

    I take these arguments seriously -- I actually really enjoy making maps to help explore them. One argument worth bringing up is the idea that they are just proposing to do the policies they want all the time anyway -- the policies they wanted in 2008, or 2006, or 2004 -- but are pretending there's a reason it would be extra important given our current recession.

    So on August 30th, 2012, with unemployment at 8.3 percent and with a serious long-term unemployment problem, Mitt Romney gives the RNC acceptance speech. He outlines a plan to create 12 million jobs in the next four years. As Jared Bernstein pointed out, that's what Moody's says will be created anyway. But forget that. How will Mitt Romney do this? He has a five point plan (numbers in [brackets] here and in the rest of the post are added by me):

    And unlike the president, I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs. It has 5 steps.

    [1] First, by 2020, North America will be energy independent by taking full advantage of our oil and coal and gas and nuclear and renewables.

    [2] Second, we will give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.

    [3] Third, we will make trade work for America by forging new trade agreements. And when nations cheat in trade, there will be unmistakable consequences.

    [4] Fourth, to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish as have those in Greece, we will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget.

    [5] And fifth, we will champion SMALL businesses, America’s engine of job growth. That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them. It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small business the most. And it means that we must rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare by repealing and replacing Obamacare.

    So his plan focuses on domestic energy production, school choice, trade agreements, cutting spending, and reducing taxes and regulations. This must be a set of priorities reflecting our terrifying moment of mass unemployment, right?

    Let's flash back to September 4th, 2008, at the RNC where John McCain is giving his speech accepting the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Unemployment is 6.1 percent, though the Great Moderation is coming to an end; within a year it'll be close to 10 percent. Two weeks later, as Lehman Brothers was collapsing, McCain would say "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." What were his recommendations for the economy in that nomination speech?

    I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy, and it often sees that your government hasn't even noticed... That's going to change on my watch...

    [3] I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them...

    [4] I will cut government spending. He will increase it...

    [5] We all know that keeping taxes low helps small businesses grow and create new jobs...

    [4] Reducing government spending and getting rid of failed programs will let you keep more of your own money to save, spend, and invest as you see fit...

    [2] Education -- education is the civil rights issue of this century. Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice...

    [1] We'll attack -- we'll attack the problem on every front. We'll produce more energy at home.. Senator Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power. But Americans know better than that.

    It's the same exact agenda. Specifically, the Romney agenda for job creation in 2012 is stuff that John McCain wanted to do anyway in 2008.

    Let's go back further. On September 2nd, 2004, George W. Bush is at the RNC, giving his speech accepting the nomination to run for a second term as President of the United States. Unemployment is 5.4 percent. A major housing bubble is kicking into high gear, and the country is debating the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the future of the War on Terror. A few months later, people will be talking about a permanent Republican majority. What are some priorities for a second George W. Bush term in creating jobs?

    To create more jobs in America, America must be the best place in the world to do business.

    [5] To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation and making the tax relief permanent.

    [1] To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy.

    [3] To create jobs, we will expand trade and level the playing field to sell American goods and services across the globe.

    [5] And we must protect small-business owners and workers from the explosion of frivolous lawsuits that threaten jobs across our country. Another drag on our economy is the current tax code, which is a complicated mess...

    [4]  To be fair, there are some things my opponent is for. He's proposed more than $2 trillion in new federal spending so far, and that's a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts.

    It's the same agenda, mentioned back to back almost in the same order. Bush mentioned No Child Left Behind several times, though I'm not sure if that matches up with the school choice of [2] in Romney's economic plan for school choice, so I excluded [2]. It's always time for cutting spending, more oil drilling, free trade, and lower taxes and regulation to fix the economy.

    Let's do one last one. January 31st, 2006, George W. Bush is giving his State of the Union address. Unemployment is 4.7 percent. With the economy healthy and growing (in Bush's mind), now is the time to build on the strengths and address the weaknesses of the economy. What does he suggest?

    Our economy is healthy and vigorous, and growing faster than other major industrialized nations...

    [5] Because America needs more than a temporary expansion, we need more than temporary tax relief. I urge the Congress to act responsibly and make the tax cuts permanent.

    [4] Keeping America competitive requires us to be good stewards of tax dollars. Every year of my presidency, we've reduced the growth of nonsecurity discretionary spending. And last year you passed bills that cut this spending.

    [3] Keeping America competitive requires us to open more markets for all that Americans make and grow... With open markets and a level playing field, no one can out- produce or out-compete the American worker...

    [1] Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

    Again, President Bush mentions No Child Left Behind, but I'm not sure whether it overlaps with [2].

    But the same exact playbook is there in 2006, as it was in 2004 and 2008, and as it is in 2012. Domestic oil production, school choice, trade agreements, cut spending and reduce taxes and regulations -- it's been the conservative answer to times of deep economic stress, times of economic recovery, times of economic worries, and times of economic panic. Which is another way of saying that the Republicans have no plan for how to actually deal with this specific crisis we face.

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    George W. Bush image via Shutterstock.com.

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  • What Could Romney's Secret Housing Plan Look Like?

    Aug 24, 2012Mike Konczal

    Josh Barro, writing from his new column at Bloomberg, wonders if Mitt Romney has a secret economic plan to fix housing: "But where I think a big improvement from Romney is likely is on housing policy. While Romney has been conspicuously silent on housing, one of his top advisers, Glenn Hubbard, advocates an aggressive plan to restructure mortgages.

    Josh Barro, writing from his new column at Bloomberg, wonders if Mitt Romney has a secret economic plan to fix housing: "But where I think a big improvement from Romney is likely is on housing policy. While Romney has been conspicuously silent on housing, one of his top advisers, Glenn Hubbard, advocates an aggressive plan to restructure mortgages. The Hubbard plan would lower mortgage rates and reduce principal for underwater borrowers, both of which would stimulate the economy. That's a tough sell to Republicans in Congress -- but they would be much more open to it under a Republican president than a Democratic one."

    As David Dayen noted in a great, comprehensive Salon piece, none of this matters if Congress doesn't extend a special law put into place during the crisis that keeps principal reduction, even reduction from a short sale, from being treated as income, and thus requiring it to be taxed. The law is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012. Extending it has bipartisan support in the Senate, but none in the House so far. I can't emphasize how much this matters - homeowners would get a giant tax bill under any relief program, making them difficult to do. It isn't clear what Romney would do about this.

    It's worth noting that the Hubbard plan is very similar to the ongoing Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) in that it uses the GSEs to refinance underwater mortgages. HARP was revamped earlier this year to HARP 2.0, which removed a 125 percent loan-to-value limit and waived certain representations and warranties for lenders. It's still early, but it looks like there is a big increase in the number of underwater mortgages refinancing (FHFA data). Over 40 percent of the HARP refinances in July were from mortgages with an LTV over 125 percent. As will become relevant in this post, their proposal is GSE driven and avoids bankruptcy reform, as "moving mortgage debt into bankruptcy courts could well reduce future credit availability and hamper long-run economic growth and homeownership."
    (The original Hubbard plan from 2008 featured mandatory principal writedowns for negative equity, with the losses shared equally by the lender and the government. In exchange, the government gets a lien on the home worth 20 percent of any increase in value. This is much different than current HARP policy and constitutes a really bold approach. However, this negative equity and shared appreciation part is entirely missing from the current 2011 version of the proposal. I'm not sure why Hubbard dropped that section; certainly it's not because the housing market has done better than expected.)
    How can we analyize what potential solutions a Romney presidency could embrace? There's normally one dimension we think of in terms of housing crisis policy, and that is how aggressive we are in dealing with underwater debt and foreclosures. Should we refinance underwater mortgages to create lower monthly payments and take advantage of low interest rates? Should we go further and reduce principal debt, either outright or in exchange for some form of equity claim?
    But there's another, equally important dimension, and that's the mechanism through which these policies are enacted. What is the vehicle that will be used to execute policy? There are four general cases that can be put into play.
    The first policy mechanism tries to go through the financial sector and the mortgage servicing system as it currently exists. This takes the market as it is and tries to nudge agents to act a different way with various incentives. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) program does this by trying to nudge the industry with payments to make modifications that lower interest rates and payments. HAMP was consciously not designed to do principal reductions, though it does have a very small, limited program now. 
    There's a second policy vehicle driven by the fact that the GSEs are in conservatorship under the FHFA. The FHFA's mission is to "Provide effective supervision, regulation and housing mission oversight of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks to promote their safety and soundness, support housing finance and affordable housing, and support a stable and liquid mortgage market," which can support a variety of policy ideas. As mentioned above, HARP is responsible for refinancing GSE loans, and the Hubbard plan focuses on refinancing through the GSEs. Timothy Geithner's recent effort to get the FHFA to support principal reduction through a program called Home Affordable Modification Program Principal Reduction Alternative (HAMP PRA) was recently rejected by FHFA acting director Ed DeMarco. Several progressives responded by calling for DeMarco to be fired.
    There's a third policy vehicle designed to change the basic legal framework for how bankruptcy works. Bankruptcy law could be modified, even temporarily, to deal with the consequences of the housing bust. The mass modification program (also see here at Slate) proposed by Eric Posner and Luigi Zingales, for instance, worked through bankruptcy law. The failed effort to pass a "cramdown" or lien-stripping amendment was entirely about letting judges write down mortgage debt in bankruptcy.
    And then there's the fourth mechanism of direct government policy. Here the government actively goes out and purchases and manages mortgages. The New Deal created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) to directly purchase mortgages; we could recreate such a mechanism today. Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton argued for such programs during the 2008 campaign. Senator Merkley's recent plan would do this for refinancing; eminent domain proposals would do this for principal reduction.

    Let's grid out those two dimensions:

    With this grid in mind, let's re-examine the high-level critique of the Obama administration's housing policy. During the debate over the second round of TARP, the then-incoming Obama administration promised to take action on bankruptcy reform and hinted toward direct government action, or the top two rows in the grid. Larry Summers wrote to Harry Reid promising action on "reforming our bankruptcy laws." Donna Edwards wrote that she "appreciate[d] the personal commitment that Senator Obama" would look "at a program such as one that existed in the 1930s to 1950s to work directly with homeowners."

    This did not happen. Timothy Geithner was against direct government action from the beginning, as this letter he wrote to Brad Miller shows. The administration was publicly silent and privately pushed against reforming bankruptcy. The administration also seemed asleep at the wheel when it came to pushing for big action through the GSEs, making no recess appointments and only updating HARP and pushing for principal writedowns this year.

    Their main effort was to work through the already existing mortgage framework. This effort has largely been seen as a failure. This isn't surprising, as there are well-documented problems with our current mortgage servicing system. The same problems with Wall Street slicing and dicing mortgages that were present when the housing bubble was inflating are still there now that it has collapsed.

    We often don't get second chances in life, but the Obama administration had a second chance at a serious reform of this broken system when news of the scandals surrounding financial fraud started breaking. Though there's still a taskforce out there somewhere, I think it is safe to say the administration wanted to remove these problems rather than take them on directly, which would have opened up a space to reform the current system. They succeeded. This only leaves working through the system.

    Maybe your eyes roll when you read the term "neoliberal hegemony," but there's something to the idea that the Obama administration simply felt that the only legimate way to try and deal with the foreclosure crisis was by nudging the incentives of various markets this or that way. The market is the ultimate, efficient arbiter of value, and policy should only seek to adjust some incentives here and there. Measures to intervene directly by the government, or measures to change the way property is regulated through bankruptcy, were ignored right away. Those actions require the government to act as a force in the marketplace directly, or to acknowledge that the economy is created through law and can be adjusted accordingly, both of which are taboo under neoliberal economic ideology.

    Working within a system, no matter how aggressive your actions are, means you don't ultimately have to challenge that system. As Harper's wrote back in 2009, in a great essay on President Obama as Hoover, "The common thread running through all of Obama’s major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict." In a practical sense, for Romney to go bigger than Obama on housing would require either adjusting the bankruptcy code, running a government program that directly intervenes in the marketplace in a big way, or firing DeMarco. In the theoretical sense, it would likely require challenging the reigning paradigm in political economy as well as challenging the current financial system. Are these actions realistic for Romney?

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


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  • The Problem of Committing Against Bailouts

    Aug 22, 2012Mike Konczal

    Economist Robert Stein had a recent post at the American Enterprise Institute about ending Too Big To Fail (h/t James Pethokoukis). His major advice, which frames the rest of his argument, is that "Ideally, the federal government would end Too Big To Fail (TBTF) by credibly pre-committing not to bailout large financial firms when they run into trouble."

    Economist Robert Stein had a recent post at the American Enterprise Institute about ending Too Big To Fail (h/t James Pethokoukis). His major advice, which frames the rest of his argument, is that "Ideally, the federal government would end Too Big To Fail (TBTF) by credibly pre-committing not to bailout large financial firms when they run into trouble."

    There's some other problems with the piece [1], but I want to run with this statement. The implication is that the Dodd-Frank financial reform act doesn't do such things. Let's take a second and document what Dodd-Frank does in terms of pre-committing to avoid bailing out a large financial firm, and where the problems with such a process could really occur.

    Federal Reserve: Dodd-Frank strips out previous language from the Federal Reserve Act that was used to execute the (unpopular) emergency lending facilities (Sec. 1101). The Federal Reserve can no longer use its 13(3) powers to, in "unusual" circumstances, provide support for an "individual, partnership, or corporation." That language has been removed, and replaced with "program or facility with broad-based eligibility.” Dodd-Frank explicitly writes into the Federal Reserve Act that "any emergency lending program or facility is for the purpose of providing liquidity to the financial system, and not to aid a failing financial company." Going further it writes "The Board shall establish procedures to prohibit borrowing from programs and facilities by borrowers that are insolvent."

    Provided we want the Federal Reserve to act as a lender-of-last-resort, this is a proper way to do it. At one point, even Richard Shelby seemed to think these reforms were the right approach.

    Activating Resolution Authority: Now let's look at what is required to activate an orderly-liquidation action, or what is often called resolution authority. This is the FDIC taking over a failing financial institution and winding it down. If you've seen movies where two people need to turn their key to activate a nuclear weapon, then you'll understand that there's a three-key mechanism for resolution authority (Sec. 203).

    The Treasury Secretary, after consulting with the President, needs to determine whether resolution is an appropriate path for a firm, one where "the failure of the financial company and its resolution under otherwise applicable Federal or State law would have serious adverse effects on financial stability in the United States." The Treasury Secretary then needs the recommendation of 2/3rds of the Board of Governors, as well as 2/3rds of FDIC (with the SEC replacing the FDIC for brokers and dealers, and the Federal Insurance Office for insurance companies), to approve going forward with resolution. So you have three institutions who have to turn their keys for resolution to go, institutions including both independent regulators and people with politicial accountability.

    What should guide the recommendation for the Board of Govenors and the FDIC? Their written recommendation requires "an evaluation of the likelihood of a private sector alternative to prevent the default of the financial company" as well as "an evaluation of why a case under the Bankruptcy Code is not appropriate for the financial company." The default setting in the law is that the private sector alternative is always better to government action, and that the Bankruptcy Code is always better than resolution. This is consistent with the logic of those who want the government to pre-commit to as little action as possible.

    Executing Resolution Authority: If the FDIC starts to resolve a failing financial company using its liquidation powers, what strict, legal limitations does it have to follow? There's a section titled "Mandatory Terms and Conditions for all Orderly Liquidation Actions" (Sec. 206) that can give us a start. If there's a liquidation, the FDIC has to wipe out shareholders if necessary ("ensure that the shareholders of a covered financial company do not receive payment until after all other claims and the Fund are fully paid") and hit creditors ("ensure that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim provisions").  The government isn't allowed to redo TARP or AIG and buy equity in the firm to keep it alive ("not take an equity interest in or become a shareholder of any covered financial company or any covered subsidiary"). The FDIC can't act for "the purpose of preserving the covered financial company."

    They also have to fire management ("ensure that management responsible for the failed condition of the covered financial company is removed") and fire board members ("ensure that the members of the board of directors...are removed") by law. There's explicit legal language to allows FDIC to claw back compensation (Sec. 210, "may recover from any current or former senior executive or director substantially responsible for the failed condition of the covered financial company any compensation received during the 2-year period preceding"). It's difficult to imagine a firm really excited about going through such a procedure.

    The Problem: Dodd-Frank goes out of its way to pre-commit against further bailouts. The problem with pre-committing against bailouts isn't Dodd-Frank; it's that the financial sector broadly will be too unstable and that Dodd-Frank won't have sufficient reforms in place to keep that in check. Remember the bailouts of 2008 were the results of GOP-appointed Hank Paulson, GOP-appointed Sheila Bair and GOP-appointed Ben Bernanke, all with the support of a Bush White House-sponsored EESA, going to Congress and asking that an emergency bill be passed to allow for TARP. Dodd-Frank cannot prevent that from happening again no matter what its precommittments are. No law can prevent Congress from acting in such a way. The best that can be done is set up the basic legal structures of the financial industry to make it so it isn't prone to collapse and abuses, and when there is failure to make sure losses are allocated in a fair way.

    [1] Stein also proposes that "One way to signal this intent would be phasing out deposit insurance, a cornerstone of the government’s involvement in 'safeguarding' the financial system." Mark Calabria at Cato has called for capping deposit insurance access from its current 10 percent to 5 percent as anti-TBTF policy; Tim Carney and Matt Yglesias like this idea as well.

    Let's graph out the size of major financial institutions in both their deposit and non-deposit dimensions, using a chart I use to help explain the SAFE Banking Act that would Break Up the Banks:

    If we had to place Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns, the shadow banks that caused the market panic, the shadow banks that need to be folded under traditional banking regulations, on this graph, it would clock in more like Morgan Stanley than Wells Fargo. You could proceed with such a 5% cap on deposit liabilities - though Treasury would tell you that it just forces banks to go into the more prone-to-panic and poorly regulated non-deposit/repo market for funding, as you can see from Bank of America above - but it would regulate Wells Fargo more than it would regulate firms like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, or the firms where the focus should be.

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  • What's the Best Liberal Case Against Principal Reduction?

    Aug 21, 2012Mike Konczal

    Binyamin Appelbaum has an article in the New York Times about the administration’s terrible response to the housing crisis.

    Binyamin Appelbaum has an article in the New York Times about the administration’s terrible response to the housing crisis. The administration “tried to finesse the cleanup of the housing crash, rejecting unpopular proposals for a broad bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure in favor of a limited aid program — and a bet that a recovering economy would take care of the rest.” This has several responses, including David Dayen at firedoglake, as well as Ezra Klein writing about the administration's response from a balance-sheet recession and housing point of view. That got a response from Dean Baker arguing that this balance-sheet recession point of view, and the subsequent focus on mortgage debt reduction, is a distraction from better policy.

    With President Obama pushing for a wider refinancing plan and the debate over refinancing and principal reduction back in the headlines due to the book Bailout and the fight over the GSEs, it might be useful to formalize the best liberal case against principal reduction. It'll give us a set of arguments to wrestle with so that we can then work backwards toward better arguments. So what is the best case? I see three broad arguments.

    1. Wealth Effect Means It Doesn't Matter

    This is the approach Dean Baker takes, and I think it is influential among many liberal wonks. The housing crashed destroyed a lot of housing value, leaving us feeling poorer, which means we spend less. An important way to understand this argument is that if every house during the housing bubble was paid for with cash instead of a mortgage, and we had the same housing bubble and crash but no mortgage debt overhang, our recession and slow recovery would look virtually identical. Reducing housing debt in our situation won't help the economy as a whole (though it will help the individuals involved), because housing debt hanging on the economy isn't the drag.

    Foreclosures are still bad in this argument (and Dean has been at the forefront of fighting against foreclosures), but they only need to be stopped in the sense that all bad things should be stopped; housing crisis policy will help some and hurt some, but it isn't a check on the recovery. It is not necessary and isn't effective in getting us back to full employment.

    I think there are some empirical problems with this argument. The elasticities people are finding are an order of magnitude bigger than realistic expectations. Declines in housing prices are nonlinear against wealth distribution. Something else is in play. See this interview or this paper for more on these arguments. The administration seems to be moving in this balance-sheet direction. Let's say we reject this wealth effect argument -- should we change policy?

    2. Fiscal and Monetary Uber Alles

    Christina Romer would say no. She, like many, would argue that housing debt is probably a drag on demand, but we should respond to it with fiscal and monetary stimulus. She would stay out of the policy in the purple circle above, which is the mapping I use around here to approach how people think of the recession. Romer, from September 2011:

    [One argument is that the] bubble and bust in house prices has left households burdened with too much debt. Until we deal with this problem — perhaps by providing principal relief to the 11 million households whose mortgages are larger than the current value of their homeswe’ll never get the economy going.

    The premise of this argument is probably true: recent evidence suggests that high debt is holding back consumer demand. But it doesn’t follow that the government needs to directly lower debt burdens to stimulate job growth.

    Recent research shows that government spending on infrastructure or other investments raises demand even in an economy beset by over-indebted consumers. Another effective approach is to aim tax cuts and government payments at households that would like to spend, but can’t borrow because of their debt loads (such as the poor and the unemployed).

    History actually suggests that the “tackle housing first” crowd may have the direction of causation backwards. In the recovery from the Great Depression, economic growth, which raised incomes and asset prices, played a big role in lowering debt burdens. I strongly suspect that fiscal stimulus will be more cost effective at speeding deleveraging and recovery than government-paid policies aimed directly at reducing debt.

    There's a general critique of the president's stimulus program that argues it was too focused on tax cuts instead of long-term investments, which have a better bang for the buck. The same critique can be used on spending money on principal reduction. It's money that by definition isn't spent (it was already spent), so you need second-order effects for it to go. We'd prefer just giving people money (tax cuts) over principal reduction in the same sense that we'd prefer infrastructure over tax cuts.

    And one doesn't need to be a conservative worried about helping the "losers" or someone who is uncomfortable with the fairness of mortgage debt reduction to think there are better ways to spend this money. Consider having $250 billion dollars to spend, one benchmark put forward as the amount of money that could have been spent from TARP. You could hand it out in some manner to pay off underwater debts, perhaps a matching scheme with the banks. That wouldn't reduce overall mortgage debt that much because there is a lot of it.

    Meanwhile, with $250 billion dollars, you could build 5,000 miles of high-speed rail. You could fund universal pre-K for a decade. You could take the 13 million people unemployed under the traditional unemployment measure and give them a basic income of almost $10,000 for two years. You could build infrastructure, create social goods designed to foster egalitarianism, or tackle poverty. These are all better investments for us to make, plus they build a better society and they get us to full employment faster. Tackling mortgage debt produces none of these benefits.

    When Geithner's argued against principal reduction, saying that it would be "dramatically more expensive for the American taxpayer, harder to justify, [and] create much greater risk of unfairness," he followed it up by saying "The whole foreclosure crisis across the country now is really driven by what happened to unemployment and what happened to the income of Americans. The best things we can do now to help mitigate that risk is to help get the economy. growing again, bring unemployment down as quickly as we can, put people back to work." I view that as in line with Romer's argument.

    By itself, I think this is correct. But one important response to that is that principal reduction can often pay for itself, especially in situations where a borrower is at risk. A lender will want a consistent, if lower, payment stream rather than to take ownership of an abandoned house in a depressed market. As Lew Ranieri said, "You are almost always better off restructuring a loan in a crisis with a borrower than going to a foreclosure." So it is good economics, especially in a distressed market. Another response is that few people propose just giving money away, but instead want to tie it to some sense of risk and reward, or reaccounting of the banks' balance sheets. So how does that play out?

    3. Upsides and Downsides

    One reason giving away money to pay off underwater debts is a bailout, and thus politically unpopular, is that there would be a disconnect between who absorbed the costs on the downside and who gains the potential value from the upside. If taxpayers just paid off mortgage debts, banks and homeowners would gain a windfall that isn't directly shared with taxpayers. One way to deal with this is either to force creditors to eat a cost upfront -- they absorb the downside and then can benefit from the upside. The other is for taxpayers to gain from the upside, usually through the mass purchase and/or refinancing of mortgages. Let's look at the first way.

    Why aren't bank servicers doing writedowns? There's a mix of bad incentives and poor resources that result in bad practices. The administration hasn't been aggressive with using financial fraud, like the range of practices including robosigning and documentation fraud, to force reform here, instead focusing on removing legal liabilities from the banks. Maybe that task force will someday do something, but from my read even sympathetic observers think it was a wasted opportunity. 

    But even if policy is centered on forcing servicers to clean up their fraud, there's a lot of creditor free-riding in ad hoc debt writedowns that becomes problematic. Is writing down first mortgages good policy even if junior mortgages, often held by the biggest banks, are untouched? If home equity lines of credit are acting as a last line of income maintenance and credit for households in this weak recovery, is it wise to push policy to extinguish them to adjust first mortgages? If you wipe out both, isn't that a giant transfer to other creditors like auto lenders, private student loans, and credit card companies? Should we be concerned about moral hazard from the debtor's side? You need some mechanism to coordinate and bind the collective behavior of creditors while preventing free riding and also bringing in impartial adjudication, which is a traditional function of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy reform was famously not pushed by the administration, and to me that was its biggest mistake.

    The other approach to avoid a bailout is for the government to gain a share of the upside for taking on the downside. This is one reason writedowns for the GSEs make sense: we gain the upside, as we own the GSEs, and we're already on the hook for the downside, so the risk on the downside isn't a "bailout" but prudent policy.

    When it comes to dealing with the broader housing market, a lot of the programs proposed, like revitalizing HOLC or Senator Merkley's plan on refinancing, would have taxpayers put up money but gain in the upside. Even the IMF is now encouraging the United States and other countries to investigate bringing back something like an HOLC. The two counter-arguments would be that HOLC still had a high redefault rate, a rate that would have a lot of people crying foul. The second is the problem of what to pay for the mortgages. Recent attempts to use eminent domain to purchase mortgages at below-market rate in order to compensate taxpayers for absorbing these risks in a terrible market also have a lot of people crying foul.

    My general thought is that moral hazard can be a problem, but the misery and wasted lives of mass unemployment is a much bigger problem. That said, bankruptcy and these government programs eliminate most moral hazard concerns. Bankruptcy can be done in such a way to hit homeowners as well; for the government program you'd want people to be trying to take advantage of them. That's why so many people have been shocked that the administration hasn't pushed on either.

    What I find interesting is that all these articles about what could have been done with housing take the way TARP played out as given. But starting a HOLC program, rebooting the broken servicing model, or otherwise writing down mortgage principal would have been significantly easier if the banks were put into a receivership in early 2009. TARP policy, which was to protect the banks' balance sheets at all costs, worked counter-productively, putting administration resistence to enacting even the lowest-hanging policy fruit. Receivership would have cost more upfront, but it would have been significantly easier to tackle these problems. There is a major debate to have on this topic.


    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


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  • How Does Education Help in the Great Recession?

    Aug 21, 2012Mike Konczal

    There's a new report from Anthony Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Ban Cheah, "Weathering the College Storm," that has attracted some attention in the economic blogs.

    There's a new report from Anthony Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Ban Cheah, "Weathering the College Storm," that has attracted some attention in the economic blogs. Dylan Matthews wrote about it here and again here, with Dean Baker and Larry Mishel adding in critical commentary.

    The report looks at who has gained the most jobs since the "recovery" started, a period they benchmark to January 2010. They find that people with bachelor's degrees and some college have gained all the jobs, while people with just a high-school diploma or less haven't gained any jobs over this time period. They also find that about 80 percent of the new jobs created since January 2010 have gone to men.

    What should one conclude? Well, one conclusion is that we wouldn't have any unemployment if we had fewer women and more men. Since men are gaining all the jobs, it stands to reason that if we, on net, had more men and fewer women, we'd have a lot more people employed. Public policy should involve job-training programs where unemployed women get boyish haircuts and study movies like the cult 1980s hit Just One of the Guys and other high school movies loosely based on Twelfth Night. They should learn about swagger, sports metaphors, and that thing where dudes treat job requirements as suggestions when they apply for them, while women don't apply unless they have all of the requirements.

    You might point out that I must have skipped a step somewhere. When we are so far away from full employment, does this analysis make sense? Instead of actually reflecting the proper allocation of labor this is just reflecting the fact that, for a variety of reasons including discrimination, men are jumping to the front of the queue to take all of the new jobs that are created. But the report seems to go in the other direction and argue that if there were a lot more college-educated workers we'd have more employment; alternatively, the lack of properly educated workers is a check on recovery.

    Dean Baker and Larry Mishel focus on the fact that unemployment rates have gone up for college-educated workers and that most of the big net job increases have gone to those with post-bachelor degrees. I'm interested in the issue of line-jumping. How much does growing employment for college-educated workers in this recession have to do with being prepared for a variety of new, cutting-edge jobs that require a high level of education? And how much is education like a zero-sum hedge that puts the person in question at the front of the line for the limited jobs the economy is creating, even if those jobs require less education?

    This chart from the report is interesting:

    These are numbers since the recovery began in January 2010. Here people with bachelor's degrees have substantial growth in "high education" occupations. But they also have substantial growth in middle-education ones as well. Meanwhile, those with associate degress have significant growth in "low education" occupations. All the while those with high school diplomas are falling out of middle-education occupations. So two big trends are those with a high-school diploma being kicked out of middle-education (and presumably middle-class) jobs, combined with a down-tier move in education -- those with bachelor's degrees taking middle-education jobs and those with associate degrees taking low education jobs.

    The 866,000 jobs lost in middle-education for those with a high school diploma or less are largely a function of the job category "office and administrative support occupations" (see Table 9 of the main report). There were 502,000 jobs lost for high-school diploma or less education in this category; if this is excluded it is a significantly different analysis. Bryce Covert and I flagged this category of work as explaining a lot of missing jobs for women and a broader change in the work environment for GOOD Magazine (data supplement here). This is a function of both longer-term trends and a speedup that has taken place in workplaces since the recession, where people are expected to do more with less. Workplaces keep the same amount of work even as they lose their support staff. So these changes aren't just the result of technological change, but reflect the way that recessions are reworking office environments to put more pressure on workers.

    There's no denominator in the graphic above. Is the percentage of those with an associate degree working in the low-education occupations increasing, or has it held constant? What do these changes look like? Though not definitive, it would give us a clue as to whether or not this hedge aspect of education, the ability to jump to the front of the line for jobs, even crappy jobs, is in play in this weak recovery. I take education by occupation for all workers over 25, first quarter 2010 and first quarter 2012, from BLS/CPS, using the reports division of education levels, and compare the percentage of each education group in an occupation before and after to see how they are changing:

    As we can see, there is a movement downward in education. BAs gain in their share of medium-education jobs, while AAs and some college gain in the low-education jobs.

    In a buried part of the report, the authors anticipate this, noting "increased hiring of more educated workers in low- and middle-education occupations raises a valid concern about whether the workers need more education to perform the tasks or whether workers are being 'underemployed' in a slack labor market. This concern is addressed in detail in the Center on Education and the Workforce report, The Undereducated American....The analysis found a Bachelor’s degree wage premium in jobs at all education levels. The simple fact that employers are willing to pay more for educated workers suggests that they see added benefit in such workers."

    I'm willing to believe this, though it still wouldn't directly address the underemployment issue. However, the analysis cited (page 28) only looks at 2007 through 2009, and doesn't look at people specifically hired in that period, much less the recovery. That premium has a lot to do with differentiation within occupations that analysis isn't capturing, like rookie cops and veteran detectives falling under the same occupation, but the second more likely to have more education and pay. But to the extent that premium exists, it isn't clear that it is going to people who now require some college to get even the most menial jobs our economy is producing.

    When the economy is stalled, the limited number of new jobs will create certain winners and certain losers. But the first priority for us isn't to make sure that we help people fight for the scraps of a weak economy; it's that we grow the economy and demand full employment to provide for all.

    Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


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