Can We Start the Merkley Plan Now Using TARP (And Bypass a Dysfunctional Congress)?

Jul 30, 2012Mike Konczal

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has just released a new housing plan for dealing with the mortgage crisis by refinancing underwater mortgages titled "The 4% Mortgage: Rebuilding American Homeownership." This plan would create a Rebuilding American Homeownership (RAH) Trust, modeled after the HOLC plan in the Great Depression. It would buy out underwater mortgages for three years, then wind down while managing its mortgage portfolio.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has just released a new housing plan for dealing with the mortgage crisis by refinancing underwater mortgages titled "The 4% Mortgage: Rebuilding American Homeownership." This plan would create a Rebuilding American Homeownership (RAH) Trust, modeled after the HOLC plan in the Great Depression. It would buy out underwater mortgages for three years, then wind down while managing its mortgage portfolio. Underwater mortgages would have three payment options, including a 15-year 4 percent interest rate plan to help rebuild equity, a 30-year 5 percent plan like a standard mortgage, and a two-part plan that splits the loan into a first mortgage equal to 95 percent of the home's current value and a "soft second" for the rest. Here are links to the summarythe full plan and a YouTube video introduction.

I think it is a great plan. Felix Salmon is also a "huge fan" of the plan and has a description of several of the positive features. Many will probably react to it like Matt Yglesias, who, after discussing the positive parts of the plan, notes that the "chances of Congress actually doing this are slim to none."

But what if this plan didn't need Congress? What if the Executive Branch could do this right now, on its own?

There is interest is moving forward. Senator Merkley told David Dayen that he was hoping that "pilot programs for RAH operating in several states between now and the end of the year." Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that he'd be willing to try to "find legal authority and resources to -- to test [the RAH] on a pilot basis."

The report notes three potential homes for the plan: (1) FHA, (2) Federal Home Loan Banks system, or (3) the Federal Reserve. Of those, FHA seems like a potential place to launch the plan immediately. As the report mentions, "FHA already implements the FHA Short Refi program as one of the government's foreclosure prevention programs." What if the administration took the FHA Short Refi program and replaced it with what is needed to run the RAH? To launch this right away by replacing FHA Short Refi with the Merkley plan you'd need authority and cash, and FHA Short Refi has both.

Why does FHA Short Refi have the authority to implement this plan? FHA Short Refi plan is a part of TARP designed to deal with the housing crisis by modifying underwater mortgages. When Dodd-Frank passed in July 2010, special language was put in to limit the creation of new programs or initiatives under TARP. However, this project exists as part of that already-existing housing priority, and those programs can be modified. These programs are modified all the time to try to make them work better. HAMP, for instance, was modified earlier this year.

FHA Short Refi was designed to "enable lenders to provide additional refinancing options to homeowners who owe more than their home is worth." So it looks like it has the authority to act and change its mission structure from Short Refi to the Merkley plan, provided that Treasury's lawyers (I believe) approve of the changes.

FHA Short Refi also has moneyAccording to SIGTARP's quarterly report to Congress from July 2012, Treasury had allocated $8.1 billion for FHA Short Refinance.

How many mortgages have been modified under the FHA Short Refi program since it started? "As of June 30, 2012, there have been 1,437 refinancings under the program." Less than 1,500 mortgages in the country have gone through this program. How much money has been spent? "Treasury has pre-funded a reserve account with $50 million to pay future claims and spent $6.6 million on administrative expenses." Less than $57 million dollars. Given $8.1 billion dollars to spend on helping the housing market, less than 0.7 percent of it has been allocated, impacting less than 1,500 people.

That's a bit mind-boggling, but the failure of FHA Short Refi to either impact homeowners, help the economy or use its resources could be the genesis for the success of the RAH. FHA can provide the baseline funding for the part of the mortgage that isn't underwater, while the additional resources necessary to ensure the additional funding for the underwater part of the mortgage can come from this FHA Short Refi. That $8 billion could be used to insure the other part of the mortgages involved, which would then be sold off in a new bond. Amplified in this way, that $8 billion dollars could be used to backstop tens of billions of dollars of new mortgages.

At that point funding would end, but we'd have a sense if it was working or not. And if that $8 billion can insure $100 billion dollars worth of underwater debt, between 10 and 18 percent of underwater debt could be refinanced. If it is successful, there will both be a good empirical argument for continuing with additional funding and a political coalition of other underwater homeowners who would want to participate. If it is a failure, then it is a good opportunity to end it right there.

With that in mind, it might be useful to remind ourselves why this plan is important as an economic matter. Most of the recent research finds that underwater mortgage debt is strongly linked with weak consumption, high unemployment, and sluggish wage growth - our economy is stuck in a "balance-sheet recession." The blockage of prepayment has created a windfall for creditors in a weak economy with low interest rates; as Felix Salmon notes "the CBO is saying that if we paid off current bondholders at 100 cents on the dollar, they would lose as much as $15 billion...They’re basically taking unfair advantage of the fact that homeowners are locked into above-market mortgage rates" and can't prepay or refinance their mortgages.

Beyond creating a hangover effect on aggregate demand and basic unfairness, underwater mortgages also blunt the ability of monetary policy to do its full job. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke believes this is happening. Here's Bernanke at a press conference from last November:

One area where monetary policy has been blunted, the effects have been blunted, has been the mortgage market where very tight credit standards have prevented many people from purchasing or refinancing their homes and therefore the low mortgage rates that we’ve achieved have not been as effective as we had hoped. So, monetary policy maybe is somewhat less powerful in the current context than it has been in the past but nevertheless it is affecting economic growth and job creation.

That’s Fed speak for underwater mortgage refinancing being a major boom to boosting demand, which helps the economy as a whole, even people who have no mortgage or debt but are stuck in a terrible jobs market. Given how interested the Federal Reserve is in this blocked channel for the efficiency of monetary policy, I hope they are considering how they can play a role in this.

All in all, Merkley has put together an excellent plan and I believe we have the means to do it. It provides new stimulus while amplifying already existing monetary stimulus, plus it contains a measure of fairness between creditors and everyone else. When can we start?

 

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A Big Banker’s Belated Apology

Jul 30, 2012Jeff Madrick

This op-ed originally appeared at NYTimes.com.

This op-ed originally appeared at NYTimes.com.

Last week, in a CNBC interviewSanford I. Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup, said that America should separate investment banking from commercial banking. This separation, of course, was the prime purpose of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a piece of legislation that Mr. Weill and other bankers had successfully watered down, with Alan Greenspan’s support, before Mr. Weill helped engineer its official demise in 1999. Now, Mr. Weill, the creator of what was once the largest financial conglomerate in the world, suggests that Citigroup and others should be broken up. Banks can no longer “be too big to fail,” he told CNBC.

But what was most eye-catching was Mr. Weill’s claim that the conglomerate model “was right for that time.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mr. Weill’s original business concept — the justification of financial conglomeration — was to provide one-stop shopping to any and all customers. This could now include clients for investment banking, stock research, brokerage and insurance. Then, with the 1998 merger of his Travelers Group with Citicorp, it could include savers, business borrowers and credit card users, too. But few, even among his own executives, ever believed the strategy would work.

Rather, conglomeration bred conflicts of interest in Mr. Weill’s firms, and others — the very conflicts that the original Glass-Steagall Act was designed to prevent. This inevitably led to investment in and promotion of risky, poorly run and, in some cases, deceitful companies that brought us the high-technology and telecommunications bubble of the late 1990s.

Indeed, Mr. Weill’s Citigroup was a primary underwriter of and one of the two largest lenders to the oil and futures trading firm Enron, whose accounting charade resulted in what was in 2001 the biggest bankruptcy of its time. Citigroup was a major underwriter for the telecommunications giants Global Crossing and WorldCom, which would later go bankrupt as a result of flagrant accounting deceptions. There were many other, if less visible, debacles.

Read the full article here.

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Bubble Standards: Why the Poor Are on the Hook for the Housing Crash

Jul 23, 2012Mike Konczal

When it comes to assigning losses from an economic bubble, we apply one set of standards to elite investors and another to struggling homeowners.

When it comes to assigning losses from an economic bubble, we apply one set of standards to elite investors and another to struggling homeowners.

Many are discussing a potential collapse of a housing bubble in Canada and what could be done about it right now. Here are posts on that subject from Matt Yglesias, Dean Baker, and Worthwhile Canadian Initiative. As I read the literature being written on this crisis, the key issue to watch for is whether the rapid growth in housing prices is matched by a similar growth in household mortgage debt. To see why, it might be useful to contrast the aftermath of the United States' housing bubble with the stock market bubble.

The IMF recently studied a series of 25 OECD countries from 1980 to 2011. These countries experienced a total of 99 housing busts ("turning points (peaks) in nominal house prices"). It divided these housing busts into ones with a high run-up in household debt and ones with a low run-up, and found that "housing busts preceded by larger run-ups in household debt tend to be followed by more severe and longer-lasting declines in household consumption...real GDP typically falls more and unemployment rises more for the high-debt busts." This happens with or without a financial crisis occuring at the same time as the housing bust.

Why is this the case? Let's look at the allocation of losses that occur from the collapse of a bubble.

Within a short time after the internet dot-com bubble popped in 2000-2001, people had a sense of the size of the losses and who would take those losses. The equity holders of collapsing dot-com firms, the ones who held companies' stocks, would be wiped out, and the creditors would take huge hits, as there was very little property to be auctioned off or value to be retained. Trying to reorganize and resurrect the dot-com firms under Chapter 11 bankruptcy wouldn't have helped because they were new firms with no real revenues sources, their high-skill employees would flee, and there was little in terms of assets to use as collateral to secure future funding.

Since the firms were mostly webpages and had small-scale intellectual property, they were auctioned off very quickly under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules. Even telecom firms that went bankrupt but had a large amount of assets and were eventually relaunched took less than two years. Global Crossing, for example, went bankrupt in January 2002 and relaunched in December 2003. These bankruptcies involved heavy losses for creditors. According to bankruptcy expert Edward Altman, "Default recoveries continued at persistently low average levels, weighed down by the enormous supply of new defaults and communication firms’ 16.6% average recovery." (h/t Greg Ip) But within a two-year span, the losses were understood and allocated.

It has been roughly five or six years since the United States' housing bubble popped. Have we finished assigning the losses yet? Robbie Whelan at the Wall Street Journal reports that we have a range of estimates from 23 percent of homes with a mortgage being underwater, owing a total of $715 billion more than their homes are worth (CoreLogic's estimates), to 31 percent of homes with a mortgage being underwater, owing a total of $1.2 trillion more than their homes are worth (Zillow's estimate). The evidence is clear that where households are most underwater on their mortgages, consumption is weakest, job losses are the worst, and income gains are struggling.

Mortgage debtors aren't shareholders, but it is fascinating to contrast their fates. In the dot-com bust, losses were assigned very quickly. In the housing bust, losses stick with the equivalent "equity" holder years and years out (and hang like an albatross around the neck of the economy as a whole). The losses that are allocated come about in large part through painful foreclosures, which create more losses by fire-selling assets into a weak marketplace. This system is designed to destroy all possible value and drag out the procedures in long, painful ways.

Crucially, in the dot-com bust there weren't the same moral and political arguments that we see in the current one. Economists who demand to know why U.S. mortgages don't stay with people who walk away from their homes didn't demand to know why the equity holders of Pets.com didn't have to dip into their personal savings to pay off the losses creditors took. Very Serious People wonder if debtors' prisons are necessary for homeowners who would walk away from a mortgage or view bankruptcy as an exit strategy, yet no Very Serious People called for the mass imprisonment of Webvan or Flooz shareholders after those firms declared bankruptcy as an exit strategy. Nobody argues that the shareholders of the dot-com era received a gigantic government bailout through the law when they were not personally on the hook for sticking creditors with an 83.4 percent average loss. Meanwhile, efforts to allow for a cleaner way of allocating the housing bubble losses, from retaining value of the household through bankruptcy reform to local municipalities taking action through eminent domain, face a minefield of political and financial industry opposition that gives the impression that the banks "own the place."

When it comes to assigning losses among elite financial institutions, like shareholders and creditors, there is a clean system in place to make sure that it runs efficiently without dragging the entire economy to a halt. When it comes to assigning losses between household mortgage debtors and elite financial creditors, we sit in a perpetual quasi-recession six years out. As the antropologist David Graber finds historically, "[d]ebts between the very wealthy or between governments can always be renegotiated and always have been throughout world history. They’re not anything set in stone... It’s, generally speaking, when you have debts owed by the poor to the rich that suddenly debts become a sacred obligation, more important than anything else. The idea of renegotiating them becomes unthinkable." This time isn't different.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Four Issues with Miles Kimball's “Federal Lines of Credit” Policy Proposal

Jul 18, 2012Mike Konczal

Economics professor Miles Kimball has a new blog, Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal. In one of his first posts, he outlines a plan for stimulus that he calls “Federal Lines of Credit” (FLOC).

Economics professor Miles Kimball has a new blog, Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal. In one of his first posts, he outlines a plan for stimulus that he calls “Federal Lines of Credit” (FLOC). It's presented in a longer policy paper, “Getting the Biggest Bang for the Buck in Fiscal Policy." This has gotten interest across the political spectrum. Bill Greider has written about it in The Nation, as has Reihan Salam in the National Review.

What's the idea? Under normal fiscal stimulus policy in a recession, we often send people checks so that they'll spend money and boost aggregate demand. Let's say we are going to, as a result of this current recession, send everyone $200. Kimball writes, "What if instead of giving each taxpayer a $200 tax rebate, each taxpayer is mailed a government-issued credit card with a $2,000 line of credit?" What's the advantage here, especially over, say, giving people $2,000? "[B]ecause taxpayers have to pay back whatever they borrow in their monthly withholding taxes, the cost to the government in the end—and therefore the ultimate addition to the national debt—should be smaller. Since the main thing holding back the size of fiscal stimulus in our current situation has been concerns about adding to the national debt, getting more stimulus per dollar added to the national debt is getting more bang for the buck."

Let's kick the tires of this policy. There's a lot to like about the proposal, particularly how it could be used after a recession is over to provide high-quality government services to the under-banked or those who find financial services yet another way in which it is expensive to be poor (modified, it turns right into Steve Waldman's Treasury Express idea). It's not clear whether this is meant to supplement or replace normal demand-based fiscal policy - at one point he proposes it could balance out a "relatively-quickly-phased-in austerity program."

As a supplement it has promise, but I think there are some major problems with this proposal, which can be grouped under four categories.

I: Isn't deleveraging the issue? Is this a solution looking for a problem? From the policy description, you'd think that a big is credit access holding the economy in check.

But taking a look at the latest Federal Reserve credit market growth by sector, you can see that credit demand has collapsed in this recession. Consumer credit drops throughout the beginning of the recession, particularly in 2009. This is true even for consumer credit by itself, which rebounds in 2011. It's not clear that these lines of credit would be used to expand demand at the macro-level; likely, given what we see, it would be used to replace other, higher-interest forms of debt (see III), a giant transfer of credit risk from credit card companies to taxpayers. But certainly some people will benefit, so let's examine why this policy is supposed to work.

II: This policy is like giving a Rorschach test to a vigilante. No, not that vigilante. I mean the bond vigilantes. Because to assume this plan would work, you need to make some curious assumptions about how bond vigilantes think, as it increases the debt by a significant amount.

Let's say our country has a balanced budget with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 50 percent and we hit a recession while at the zero-bound. As a result of less tax revenue coming in and more automatic stabilizers going out, debt-to-GDP will be 60 percent at the end of the year. We want to stimulate the economy further using fiscal stimulus.

Let's say our default is that we take three percent of GDP, divide it among the population, and mail it out. At the end of the year, the debt-to-GDP ratio will be 63 percent (I am ignoring that fiscal stimulus at the zero-bound can be largely self-financing for this example).

In Kimball's FLOC, we instead take 9 percent of GDP, divide it evenly among the population, and mail out lines of credit that add up to that 9 percent of GDP. Let's also say that perfect forecasting tells us that within the year, 6 percent of it will be utilized as a loan not yet paid back, and 3 percent is still available as credit.

What's the government's debt-to-GDP ratio at the end of the year in Kimball's example? I'm not sure how he'd account for it. I imagine it should be 69 percent (60 + 9). Perhaps it is 66 percent (60 + 6)? Either way, it is more than the 63 percent of just giving people money. His plan requires a larger debt-to-GDP ratio. If his accounting ends up with just 60 percent, I'm not sure I understand how he is doing it.

Now Kimball will say that bond vigilantes will be happy with this. Why? Because there's a built-in plan for repaying it. "[T]he fact that much of the money would ultimately be repaid would dramatically reduce the ultimate addition to the national debt...(though at a relatively attractive ratio of additional aggregate demand to addition to national debt)."

If we are guessing as to what the bond vigilantes want, it is clear they want more U.S. government debt. Ten-year Treasuries are selling at 1.5 percent, while real interest rates are negative! But for the purposes of the FOLC, we need a few assumptions about what the bond vigilantes think, which aren't clear.

First (i) it assumes that the bond market will only care about the government's long-run debt ratio instead of the short-term. I think that's correct. But much of the bond vigilante argument is predicated on the opposite, that no matter what the long-term is, the capital markets will freak on short-term deficits.

It also assumes (ii) that the repayments of these FOLC will be made easier through debt collection than just collecting the equivalent amount of money through taxation. I see no reason why that's the case, and many reasons to believe the opposite.

III: This policy will involve trying to get blood from a turnip. I very much distrust it when economists waive away bankruptcy protection. Especially for experimental, controversial debts that have never been tried in known human history.

As the paper admits, this is a machine for generating adverse selection, as the people most likely to use it are people whose credit access is cut due to the recession. High-risk users will likely transfer their balances from higher rate credit cards to their FOLC (either explicitly or implicitly over time if barred) - transferring a nice chunk of credit risk from the financial industry to taxpayers.

It's also not clear what happens a few years later when consumers start to pay off the FOLC. Could that trigger another recession, especially if the creditor (the United States) doesn't increase spending to compensate?

The issue isn't whether or not the government will be able to collect these debts at some point. It has a long time-horizon, the ability to jail debtors and use bail to pay debts, the ability to seize income, old-age pensions and a wide variety of income, and the more general ability to deploy its monopoly on violence. The question is whether this will be smoother, easier, and more predictable than just collecting the money in taxes. We have a really smooth system for collecting taxes, one at least as good as whatever debt collection agencies are out there. If that is the case, there's no reason to believe that this will satisfy the bond vigilantes or bring down our debt-to-GDP ratio in a more satisfactory way.

IV: Since we've very quickly gotten to the idea that we'll need to jettison legal protections under bankruptcy for this plan to work, it is important to emphasize that this policy is the opposite of social insurance.

I don't see a macroeconomic difference between the government borrowing 3 percent of GDP and giving it away and collecting it through taxes later versus the government borrowing 3 percent of GDP, loaning it to individuals, and collecting it later through debt collectors except in the efficiency and the distribution.

The distributional consequences of this proposal aren't addressed, but they are quite radical. Normally taxes in this country are progressive. Some people call for a flat tax. This proposal would be the equivalent of the most regressive taxation, a head tax. And it also undermines the whole idea of social insurance.

Let's assume the poorest would be the people most likely to use this to boost or maintain their spending. I think that's largely fair - certainly the top 10 percent are less likely to use this (they'll prefer to use high-end credit cards that give them money back). This means that as the bottom 50 percent of Americans borrow and pay it off themselves, they would bear all the burden for macroeconomic stability through fiscal policy. Given that the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income growth in the first year of this recovery, that's a pretty major transfer of wealth. One nice thing about tax policy, especially progressive tax policy, is that those who benefit the most from the economy provide more of the resources. This would be the opposite of that, especially in the context of a ""relatively-quickly-phased-in austerity program."

Efficiency is also relevant - as the economy grows, the debt-to-GDP ratio declines, making the debt easier to bear. The most likely borrowers under FOLC, the bottom 50 percent, have seen stagnant or declining wages overall, especially in recessions. A growing economy would keep their wages from falling in the medium term, but this is still a problematic issue - their income is not more likely to grow to balance out the payment burdens than if we did this at a national level, like normal tax policy.

The policy also ignores social insurance's role in macroeconomic stability, and that's insurance against low incomes. Making sure incomes don't fall below a certain threshold when times are tough makes good macroeconomic sense and also happens to be quite humane. This is not that. As friend-of-the-blog JW Mason said, when discussing this proposal, the FOLC is like "if your fire insurance simply consisted of a right to borrow money to rebuild your house if it burned down."

What else am I missing about this proposal?

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Searching for an Honest Debate on Economics

Jul 18, 2012Jeff Madrick

Glen Hubbard's column in today's Financial Times detracts from meaningful academic debate by ignoring counter-arguments and citing discredited research (when he cites evidence at all). 

Glen Hubbard's column in today's Financial Times detracts from meaningful academic debate by ignoring counter-arguments and citing discredited research (when he cites evidence at all). 

Glenn Hubbard, an economic adviser to Mitt Romney, and more relevant to this commentary, dean of the Columbia Business School, has published a column in today’s Financial Times so devoid of basic academic credibility that it is fair to call it disingenuous.  Hubbard claims research shows that reducing debt levels will create more rapid growth. Any such research is highly controversial. You wouldn’t know it to read Hubbard.  He does not deal with counter-arguments at all.

He cites Harvard economist Alberto Alesina who claims that the way to get debt-to-GDP ratios down is to reduce social transfer spending.  He does not note how profoundly the Alesina research has been discredited by researchers at the decidedly neo-classical IMF. Austerity has rarely - if ever - worked to generate growth

He cites work by the conservative Hoover Institution that reducing federal spending to GDP to pre-crisis rates would increase GDP.  The crisis was caused by a collapse in tax revenues - not by too much spending. Few would agree that reducing such spending so drastically in the near- or medium-term would generate growth. Again, austerity.  And the economy performed poorly at those debt levels anway, failing to create adequate jobs or raise wages.

He claims that the tax system discourages work. One would have liked more detail here, but he wants reduced marginal tax rates.  The evidence is abundantly clear that there is no serious academic evidence to support his claim.

On our website, you can find work by Peter Lindert and Jon Bakija, which thoroughly refute these claims. But more to the point, Lindert and Bakija, both serious academics, look at the research of others, they just don’t ignore it, as does Hubbard in this FT piece.  They confront it and  show where the research fails. 

Is this the job of academics? Is this what Hubbard teaches his students?  Small-government economists might counter that public economists must be given more leeway.  But in truth, Pauk Krugman, the focus of so much right wing criticism,  usually deals explicitly with counter-arguments in his blog and often in his column; he does not simply does cite evidence to support his case without a broader context.

We intend our web site to offer broad, honest argument, to enrich the public discussion, not to narrow it.

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Euro - The Risks of a Taboo

Jul 18, 2012Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira

The discontinuation of the euro for all of the Eurozone countries is a taboo topic for the moment but governments must recognize the viability of such an option sooner rather than later. 

Folha de S. Paulo, July 16, 2012

It would be better for all the European countries if they decided in mutual agreement to discontinue the euro.

The discontinuation of the euro for all of the Eurozone countries is a taboo topic for the moment but governments must recognize the viability of such an option sooner rather than later. 

Folha de S. Paulo, July 16, 2012

It would be better for all the European countries if they decided in mutual agreement to discontinue the euro.

I have spent two weeks in Spain, taking part in two academic conferences and exploring the country's beautiful northern region. I found a rich, sunny, but sad Spain, with few people in the streets and restaurants. A very different Spain from that happy and optimistic country that I had found in the visits made in the last 10 years. During all those days I read El País, the great Spanish newspaper, and the climate of its news and of the opinions expressed in it is even more somber. I see Spain in the middle of the euro crisis, a Spain at a dead end.

In the last elections, Spaniards rejected the social democratic government of José Luís Zapatero, because it accepted the “austerity” imposed by the Germans and by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, IMF). They elected a conservative Prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who promised a more independent management of the country, but in his first six months of governement the banking crisis worsened, Spain was forced to ask for help, and now the Troika imposes greater spending cuts, increased taxes, and the elimination of citizens' rights.

In view of this situation, I am telling my Spanish friends that austerity will not solve their problems (with which many of them agree), and that it would be better for all the European countries if they decided in mutual agreement to discontinue the euro, in order to thus avoid a greater crisis and guarantee the European Union. But they do not reply to this remark. For them, the survival of the euro is a taboo.

Last week, in view of the adjustment of 65 billion euros imposed to Spain, the Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner could not help showing her indignation and remembering her own country. Because Argentina's situation in 2000 and 2001 was very similar to that of the indebted Eurozone countries. The Argentinian Plan de Convertibilidad had transformed the Argentinian peso into a foreign currency, as the euro is a foreign currency for the Europeans: a currency they cannot issue nor devaluate. And no one had the courage to revolt against it and propose to abandon the peso's legal parity with the dollar, because that parity had become a taboo. Whoever spoke against it would be “betraying” Argentina. It is precisely the same thing that is happening today in the Eurozone: to propose to depreciate the currencies of the indebted countries is treason.

The Argentinians were not able to prevent the collapse of their economy and the hyperinflation. It was only after both things had happened, after the most terrible financial crisis that I have known had hit its people, that the government was changed, and the problem was faced – with courage. Will the Eurozone also have to wait for a violent crisis in order to react? Or will it be able to take enough measures of bank centralization and fiscal union in order to prevent this violent crisis? European governments are betting on this second alternative, even if it has a much higher cost than the cost of taking a step back and descontinuing the euro in a concerted manner. And the Spaniards I have found are paralyzed, because they know that they cannot put pressure on their government to unilaterally abandon the euro. They can, however, stop making the issue a taboo subject and start to discuss it. To prohibit the debate is risky. It may cost dearly for them and for all the Europeans. 



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Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira is a Brazilian lawyer, economist and political scientist who served as a finance minister during the government of José Sarney and as a Minister of Federal Administration and State Reform during Fernando Henrique Cardoso's first term in office. 

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A Shameful Few Weeks Begs the Question: Where’s Government?

Jul 17, 2012Jeff Madrick

With the recent crises in the financial world, it's clearer than ever that we need government to step up and address our problems.

With the recent crises in the financial world, it's clearer than ever that we need government to step up and address our problems.

There are certain periods in our history during which one can only sit back and wonder what the limits of astonishment really are. A couple of years since Dodd-Frank first passed, we have come through a period of such disrepute for business that one wonders why the working class has not risen as one — except, of course, because it is exhausted with efforts at reform that seem so futile. We have uncovered many disreputable and perhaps fraudulent business activities, but they essentially represent a failure of government. 

Facebook's initial public offering collapsed in price, leaving small investors holding the bag. Brokers took care of their big customers far better than their small ones. Where was the SEC?

New insider trading convictions, most recently of the widely respected Goldman Sachs director Rajan Gupta, show how rampant trading on insider information really is. The $6 billion losses at JPMorgan Chase by a department that was supposed to neutralize risk showed that trading risk is too profitable to be foregone voluntarily.

And now we find out that LIBOR is incontrovertibly rigged. Some may not realize that Barclays, which agreed to pay a $450 million fine, signed a Statement of Facts that admitted its traders rigged this key rate to make profits on positions, and collaborated with bankers/traders at other banks. Now we find out that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, while president of the New York Fed, was worried and even wrote British regulators about this. That’s nice. But why didn't government — and Tim Geithner himself — actually do something about it? Are government regulators that feckless?

Of course, there was a certain political advantage in a LIBOR that could be fudged. LIBOR is the rate at which banks lend to each other. It should be nearly riskless, and is therefore used as such in many transactions. LIBOR was the basis, in fact, for up to 100 percent of subprime mortgages. It is often a key input into complex pricing models for securities like derivatives and collateralized debt obligations.     

It could be that the Bank of England looked the other way when some bankers, including Barclays's, lied and said they were paying a lower interest rate than they were in order to make it seem their credit was good. Especially in the fall of 2008, after Lehman’s collapse, governments wanted to calm the waters. Did the Fed also tolerate fudging the numbers?

Why wouldn’t they? The Treasury puts a better face on matters all the time, as does the White House, no matter who is president. PR is an integral part of government. Has the practice in this age of greed slid off onto regulatory agencies? Surely Ben Bernanke was overly optimistic about controlling any impending subprime wreckage in 2007 because he knew it was better to err on the side of Pollyanish hopes that risk precipitating a crisis. What better way to underplay a crisis than to let the banks do it for you?

But for all these remarkable events — and government failures — most disturbing is the ongoing demands for austerity that even President Obama himself makes. The president wants to extend tax cuts for all except those who make $250,000 or more. But he cannot make the case without saying we have to get our fiscal house in order. The nation is likely to need stimulus. But Obama bought into the budget balancing process so early on by appointing Bowles and Simpson to come up with a solution that there is no effective opposition to impending obtuse budget policies in late 2012 and 2013. The classic case is made by the CEO of Honeywell on the front page of the Financial Times. Seeking to blame Republicans and Democrats alike, the esteemed chairman and member of the Bowles-Simpson Commission claims that business has no confidence until this is resolved.

The truth is more simple. Uncertainly surrounds the possibility that the Republicans will hold up the government again, claiming they demand budget cutting. And Mitt Romney promises to do far more damage. There is no contest between the two, and let’s keep in mind that Obamacare, and even Dodd-Frank, contain very good measures that Romney would try to overturn.  

As we end a bad few weeks and start a period of remedying the damage, let’s keep in mind that America’s fiscal problems in the near run are highly exaggerated. But even down the road, the problem is not what we spend, but the tax cuts we have been giving ourselves for 30 years. I will begin to believe the sincerity of arch deficit hawks when they argue for tax hikes, not only cuts in Medicare and Social Security. And so should the chairman of Honeywell and others of influence like him.

The myths of austerity economics are paralyzing the government and keeping the nation from getting its house in order. How may times can one say it? Not often enough, apparently.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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The Young and the Jobless

Jul 10, 2012Ilyssa Weingarden

By taking innovative steps, the government can help recent college graduates who are confronted by the most daunting job market in recent history. 

By taking innovative steps, the government can help recent college graduates who are confronted by the most daunting job market in recent history. 

As a college student, every new statistic and report on the increasing difficulty for college graduates to find a full time job terrifies me. Haven’t I done everything I was told? I worked hard in high school, applied and was accepted to a reputable university, and now I take the right classes, chose the right major, and get the right grades. I deserve my just reward: a well-paying upper middle class white-collar job in my chosen field. Right? Isn’t that what my parents and society have always promised?

Unfortunately it seems that having a college degree is no longer a guarantee for success in the way it once was. In 2000, 41% of recent college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. Today, we are at 53.6% of degree-holders under the age of 25.

Although certain fields like education and medicine have ever-increasing demand (currently 5.4% unemployment rate, not including underemployment), non-technical degrees in the arts or humanities face rates closer to the national average (11.1 and 9.4% respectively). It seems that the value of having a bachelor’s degree alone has become almost non-existent. It is only the specific skills, experience, and knowledge that a technical degree or prestigious internships provides that employers look for.

While having a bachelor’s degree does give you a statistical advantage, however slight, over those with only a high school education, it also often saddles you with overwhelming debt. The pressure to pay back student loans coupled with an increasingly depressed job market and expected wages for graduates paints a bleak future for current college students. This begs the questions: is getting a degree worthwhile? Is there a way to fix this? Can the government do anything? Should the government do anything?

It is my firm belief as a progressive that the government’s purpose is to respond to issues exactly like this one. Already the government has made strides toward making college a more realistic dream for bright kids across the country. Pell Grants and other need-based aid on the national level supplement state-specific scholarship opportunities. The next step is to focus this aid money as incentives for majors that will be viable in the current job market.

There are students at every university who choose a major solely on earning potential, and there are students that study what they love, regardless of the likelihood of getting a job post-graduation. Then there are those that are unsure, that decide on a major at the last possible moment, and these are the students who can be targeted.

Our country is in desperate need of teachers, nurses, and highly skilled engineers. We graduate thousands of virtually unemployable history and English majors every year. What if those students had monetary incentives to study what the country needs? Programs like this are already in place, like the National SMART Grant that offers money based on need to students majoring in sciences, technology, engineering, or critical foreign languages. What I propose is expanding and marketing these aid programs through the national and state levels. High school students might work more diligently in their math and science classes if they know they can have a more affordable college career by applying to engineering schools. Nursing programs that guarantee jobs after graduation have been around for over 20 years and should be promoted and expanded through government funding.

Funding for this project would involve little to no new funds, because the government could simply reappropriate money from general or merit-based scholarships to more specialized scholarships, or write new requirements into existing aid packages.

Each state should conduct research to find out which industries have the most unfilled positions and are growing the quickest, and issue grants to deserving students who study those subjects. Within a few years, the pool of recent graduates can be more streamlined and viable in the job market so students can flow seamlessly into the working world.

Other ways to make college graduates more attractive to possible employers is to encourage and possibly require greater work-study and internship opportunities at state schools. Employers are more likely to hire a candidate with real-world experience and professional skills. Policy changes on a state level would be helpful, and private institutions would likely jump onboard to keep their graduates competitive in the job market.

These solutions, while certainly helpful in the near future, will not help the current graduates who have already chosen their major and completed (or not completed) their internships. Jena McGregor suggests that a big part of the problem is employers, not the candidates. Many companies rely on software programs that rule out qualified candidates based on restrictive requirements. Candidates without experience in a very specific field can be thrown out despite being a good fit for the job.

Hiring recent college graduates or other young people without much experience can actually be beneficial for the company by exposing them to new and fresh ideas, as well as allowing them an opportunity to train the employees to the company’s specific standards. The government can incentivize hiring less experienced people and giving them on-the-job training by giving tax breaks to companies that hire employees right out of college. This would cost the government very little, and be balanced out (hopefully) by a lower unemployment rate for recent graduates.

The government and some private institutions already have some projects in place that make education more affordable. The next step is to prioritize education to be more applicable to the real world. Getting young educated people into well-paying jobs and off of unemployment has never been more relevant, and taking steps to turn these suggestions into realities should start with people like me; high school and college students who will be facing these issues in the not-too-distant future. The harder we work now, the easier it will be when it’s time for us to enter the real world.

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Ilyssa Weingarden is a Roosevelt Institute summer intern and a rising junior studying International Affairs at George Washington University. 

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Can Tighter Financial Regulation and a Smaller Financial Sector Increase Economic Growth?

Jul 9, 2012Ugo Panizza

Economists are increasingly using statistics to debunk the age-old belief that economic growth goes hand in hand with a large financial sector. 

Economists are increasingly using statistics to debunk the age-old belief that economic growth goes hand in hand with a large financial sector. 

For a long time it was simply taken for granted that a large financial sector was beneficial to economic growth. This assumption supported the long period of financial deregulation and weak enforcement that began in the 1970s. Increasingly, economists are using statistical techniques to challenge this view. In the piece below, Ugo Panizza, the international economist who works for UNCTAD, summarizes the analysis he has done to show that a large financial sector is associated with slower economic growth. Links to the detailed papers he and colleagues have done are included at the end of this post. -Jeff Madrick, Director, Rediscovering Government Initiative

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The financial system acts like the central nervous system of modern market economies. Without a functioning banking and payment system, it would be impossible to manage the complex web of economic relationships that are necessary for a modern decentralized economy. Finance facilitates the exchange of goods and services, allows diversifying and managing risk, and improves capital allocation through the production of information about investment opportunities.

However, there is also a dark side of finance. Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger emphasized the relationship between finance and macroeconomic volatility and wrote extensively about financial instability and financial manias. James Tobin suggested that large financial sector can lead to a misallocation of resources and that "we are throwing more and more of our resources, including the cream of our youth, into financial activities remote from the production of goods and services, into activities that generate high private rewards disproportionate to their social productivity."

A large financial sector could also capture the political process and push for policies that may bring benefits to the sector but not to society at large. This process of political capture is partly driven by campaign contributions but also by the sector's ability to promote a worldview in which what is good for finance is also good for the country. In an influential article on the lobbying power of the U.S. financial industry, former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson suggested that:

The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

The objective of financial regulation is to strike the optimal balance between the risks and opportunities of financial deepening. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers, many observers and policymakers concluded that the process of financial deregulation that started in the 1980s went too far. It is in fact striking that, after 50 years of relative stability, deregulation was accompanied by a wave of banking, stock market, and financial crises. Calls for tighter financial regulation were eventually followed by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and by tighter capital standards in the Basel III international regulatory framework for banks.

Not surprisingly, the financial industry was not happy about this rather mild tightening in financial regulation. The Institute of International Finance argued that that tighter capital regulation will have a negative effect on bank profits and lead to a contraction of lending with negative consequences on future GDP growth. Along similar lines, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times titled “Regulators must risk more, and intervene less,” stating that tighter regulation will lead to the accumulation of "idle resources that are not otherwise engaged in the production of goods and services" and are instead devoted "to fending off once-in-50 or 100-year crises," resulting in an "excess of buffers at the expense of our standards of living"

Greenspan's op-ed was followed by a debate on whether capital buffers are indeed idle resources or, as postulated by the Modigliani-Miller theorem, they have no effect on firms' valuation. To the best of my knowledge, there was no discussion on Greenspan's implicit assumption that larger financial sectors are always good for economic growth and that a reduction in total lending may have a negative effect on future standards of living.

In a new Working Paper titled “Too Much Finance?” and published by the International Monetary Fund, Jean Louis Arcand, Enrico Berkes, and I use various econometric techniques to test whether it is true that limiting the size of the financial sector has a negative effect on economic growth. We reproduce one standard result: at intermediate levels of financial depth, there is a positive relationship between the size of the financial system and economic growth. However, we also show that, at high levels of financial depth, a larger financial sector is associated with less growth. Our findings show that there can be "too much" finance. While Greenspan argued that less credit may hurt our future standard of living, our results indicate that, in countries with very large financial sectors, regulatory policies that reduce the size of the financial sector may have a positive effect on economic growth.

Countries with large financial sectors (the data are for the year 2006):

Source: Arcand, Berkes, and Panizza.

Ugo Panizza is a chief economist with UNCTAD, the United Nations agency dealing with trade, investment, and development, and is a visiting professor at the Geneva Institute.

 

References

Arcand, J.L., Berkes, E., and Panizza U. (2012) “Too Much Finance” IMF Working Paper WP/12/161 http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2012/wp12161.pdf

Greenspan, A. (2011) "Regulators must risk more, and intervene less," Financial Times, July 26, 2011.

Johnson, S. (2009), "The quiet coup," The Atlantic (May 2009).

Kindleberger, C. P. (1978), Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, Basic Books, New York.

Minsky, H. P., (1974), "The modeling of financial instability: An introduction," in Modelling and Simulation, Vol. 5, Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Conference, Instruments Society of America, pp. 267—72.

Tobin, J. (1984), "On the efficiency of the financial system," Lloyds Bank Review 153, 1—15. 


This piece draws from a longer article titled “Finance and Economic Development” and published in International Development Policy (http://poldev.revues.org/?lang=en).

Wall Street image via Shutterstock.com.

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Why That Great Interview Didn't Land You a Job: Recruitment Intensity Rates and Mass Unemployment

Jul 9, 2012Mike Konczal

The problem with the labor market isn't that the unemployed aren't looking for work -- it's that employers aren't looking very hard for workers.

The problem with the labor market isn't that the unemployed aren't looking for work -- it's that employers aren't looking very hard for workers.

Have you, or someone you know, had a great job interview and wound up wondering why, months and months later, there's been no offer and the job remains open? The job opening is on the firm's web page, you are perfect for the spot, but you aren't getting any responses, either for an interview or for post-interview interest. I know many people this has happened to -- so many that I've been wondering if it is quantifiable and generalizable.

We have a lot of ways to observe how the unemployed behave. We have detailed information on the duration of unemployment, lots of economists fretting over whether unemployment insurance keeps people from taking jobs, sophisticated models trying to understand their search behaviors, etc. But none of that mental framework exists for employers and job openings. (A cynic might note that economics, as practiced, is a machine for observing and disciplining labor.)

Luckily, a group of economists has put something together that adds significantly to the debates over structural unemployment. Jason Faberman and Bhash Mazumder at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago put out a report last month asking "Is There a Skills Mismatch in the Labor Market?" Their answer: "we find limited evidence of skills mismatch." In other words, not really.

They reference work that looks fascinating by Steven Davis of the University of Chicago, R. Jason Faberman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and John Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland. Those researchers "find that employers were able to fill jobs relatively easily during the recession, but that their measure of recruiting intensity per vacancy, which captures a variety of efforts employers put into recruiting, remained low well after the end of the recession. One can interpret this as employers imposing relatively high hiring standards despite the abundance of available workers."

This comes out of two previous papers they've put out, "Establishment-Level Behavior of Vacancies and Hiring" and "Recruiting Intensity during and after the Great Recession: National and Industry Evidence." These papers go into micro data from JOLTS and other soruces to create an elasticity measure of how much firms fill job vacancies in respect to the hiring rate.

Recruitment intensity hovers around the 1.0 index through the 2000s, until the recession starts in 2007. In the Great Recession, the recruitment intensity collapses and never recovers going into the end of 2011. What does it mean for recruitment intensity to fall? This recruitment intensity, according to the research, "is shorthand for the other instruments employers use to influence the pace of new hires – e.g., advertising expenditures, screening methods, hiring standards, and the attractiveness of compensation packages. These instruments affect the number and quality of applicants per vacancy, the speed of applicant processing, and the acceptance rate of job offers." This margin for trying to fill jobs is ignored, or assumed away, in most of the major economic models of unemployment and hiring.

The collapse of recruitment intensity helps us understand several things. First, the issue of how job openings are increasing while wages aren't. The research notes that "[i]ncorporating a role for the recruiting intensity index also improves the stability of the Beveridge Curve and yields a better fit to data on the job-finding rate for unemployed workers." This helps us understand some small movements in job openings in the Beveridge Curve while other measures of supply-constraints in the labor market aren't going off.

The second issue it helps us understand is a common media story we see -- the story of the boss who complains about the workforce but doesn't want to raise wages. Dean Baker likes to point out these stories as lacking economic sense. This shows that employers not trying very hard to fill empty jobs, even on non-wage margins, is a general phenomenon.

Finally, it explains why you or your friends and loved ones are having such a hard time finding a job even when you see advertisements for a perfect job that never seems to be filled. It is probably not much comfort to understand that this is a national phenomenon, one we have the tools to fix but that Republicans in Congress, bank regulators, and the FOMC are not willing to address.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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