Free Markets, Free People

Dale Franks

Dale Franks’ QandO posts

Podcast for 12 Apr 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, Bryan, and Dale discuss the Maersk Alabama Piracy conclusion, President Bush’s Obama’s military and terrorism policies, and the poll that found only 52% of Americans beleive that Capitalism is superior to Socialism.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Silver Lining?

The big Econo-boys are weighing in on the state of the economy, and providing a consensus opinion on the coming economic recovery.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

Economists in the latest Wall Street Journal forecasting survey expect the recession to end in September, though most say it won’t be until the second half of 2010 that the economy recovers enough to bring down unemployment.

Gross domestic product was predicted to contract in the first and second quarters of this year by 5.0% and 1.8%, respectively, on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate. A return to growth — a modest 0.4% — isn’t expected until the third quarter. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the most recent period for which data are available, the economy contracted 6.3%.

The outlook for employment isn’t quite as good, though.

Just 12% of the economists expect the unemployment rate to fall some time this year. More than a third of respondents expect the jobless rate to peak in the first half of 2010, while about half don’t see unemployment declining until the second half of 2010. By December of this year, the economists on average expect the unemployment rate to reach 9.5%, up from the 8.5% reported for March. They do see the rate of decline slowing, forecasting 2.6 million job losses in the next 12 months, compared with the 4.8 million jobs lost in the previous period.

I’m a bit more negative on the above.  As of today, weekly initial unemployment claims are still at 650,000 per week.  If that keeps up, we’ll continue to see 0.5% increases in unemployment on a monthly basis.  We might be at 9% by next month, nevermind December.

I’m also concerned about the implications of the rabid expansion of the monetary base over the last 7 months, during which it essentially doubled.  If that  impacts signifigantly on inflation by the end of the year, then we’ll be between a rock and a hard place with a weak economy, and signifigant inflation.  Any Fed moves to contract the monetary base will crater the economy, in much the same way that Paul Volcker’s Fed did in causing the back to back recession of 1981-1982.

There are still treacherous shoals to navigate for the economy before I begin to get bullish on economic growth again.

Toy Design Fail

I‘m not precisely sure what was going through the designer’s mind here.  But, whatever it was…it was wrong.

Epic Fail

Epic Fail

I’m reminded a bit of the dark, alternate-universe, Spiderman comic from 2007, Spiderman: Reign, in which it is revealed that Peter Parker killed MJ, his wife, through the release of radioactive…uh…reproductive cells.  That’s kind of odd and probably not particularly suitable for children reading comic books.  But, wait, it gets better!

Peter Parker addresses the body of his dead wife with this tortured monologue:

Oh God, I’m sorry! The doctors didn’t understand how it happened! How you had been poisoned by radioactivity! How your body slowly became riddled with cancer! I did. I was… I am filled with radioactive blood. And not just blood. Every fluid. Touching me… loving meLoving me killed you!

Perhaps the writers might have slipped by with a PG-13 rating if they had stopped there.  But, unfortunately, Parker adds:

Like a spider, crawling up inside your body and laying a thousand eggs of cancer… I killed you.

Now, that’s just creepy.

(H/T: Samizdata)

Loser Spouts Off

Bob Shrum, perhaps best known for his masterful performance in shepherding John Kerry’s presidential race to…uh…it’s…conclusion, now sounds off about economic myths.

One of the most stubborn [myths] is what [John] Kennedy denounced at Yale—the notion that deficits are always evil and the balanced budget an inherent public good. This myth is now constantly exploited by do-nothing opponents of Obama’s recovery plan. On Sunday, George Stephanopoulos read a viewer’s complaint to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: “How do you justify printing money out of thin air?” Isn’t the inevitable consequence “hyperinflation?” Geithner calmly rebuked the cliché by pointing to the Federal Reserve’s capacity to counter inflation by raising interest rates once the economy is back on track.

Well, he’s cartainly right about that.  The Fed can always just raise interest rates.  It’s what Paul Volcker did as Fed Chairman in the late 70s and early 80s.  If by “back on track” he means that we can have an unemployment rate of 12%, as we did in 1982, and a Fed Funds rate of 14%, then, I guess he’d be right.  It certainly got rid of inflation.

After all, cutting spending now would accelerate, not reverse, the downturn, and trigger a spiral of declining federal revenues that could leave budget balancing out of reach no matter how deeply we cut.

And raising short-term interest rates by the Fed at some point in the future would…not?

This is elementary economics.

I certainly wouldn’t contradict that.

In reality, Roosevelt increased spending overall by 40 percent from 1933 to 1934, and the deficit by nearly a third. In the first five years of the New Deal, the gross domestic product rose more than 40 percent. The New Deal faltered not when FDR disdained conservative advice on deficits, but only when he briefly followed it. After Roosevelt drastically cut the deficit in his 1937 budget, the economy promptly tanked. When FDR reversed course, the economy turned around.

In reality, Roosevelt also increased tax rate; the top tax rate climbing from 63% to 79%.  No doubt his conservative critics encouraged that, too.  In other words, Roosevelt both decreased spending and increased taxes. In addition, there were new Social Security taxes in 1936 and 1937.  And a new corporate tax on undistributed earnings went into effect in 1937, too. If only we had some way to know what effect tax increases have on economic growth!

Oh, and the Fed doubled reserve requirements on banks from 1936 to 1937.

I wonder–pure speculation of course–if significant tax increases and contractions in the money supply might have, in some mysterious way, contributed to the economic downturn of 1937-1938.

Sadly, we may never know.

In 1933, FDR blew up a London economic summit that sought to set fixed currency exchange rates, a virtual return to the gold standard that would have hobbled his economic strategy.

In other words, FDR was a unilateralist cowboy who intentionally flaunted international consensus for his own political ends, and, incidentally, reversed course a year later.

There was a lot more stuff going on in 1933-1940 than simply government spending.  Not that you’d know it from reading Mr. Shrum’s amusing little article.


Podcast for 05 Apr 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale discuss the G-20 Summit, Pres. Obama’s foreign policy, and the Geithner Plan.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

The Newest Emerging Market

Desmond Lachman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was previously chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and deputy director of the International Monetary Fund’s Policy and Review Department.  So, he’s spent a lot of time watching emerging markets from the IMF’s point of view, and pointing out where the leaders of developing countries ran the economy off the rails.

Just like he’s watching our political leaders doing the same thing to us.  In essence, he writes that the US is repeating the same mistakes that led to Japan’s “Lost Decade”, and Russia’s default on it’s debt.

A singular characteristic of an emerging market heading for deep trouble is a seemingly suicidal tendency to become overly indebted to foreign creditors. That tendency underlay the spectacular collapse of the Thai, Indonesian and Korean currencies in 1997. It also led Russia to default on its debt in 1998 and plunged Argentina into its economic depression in 2001. Yet we too seem to have little difficulty becoming increasingly indebted to the tune of a few hundred billion dollars a year. To make matters worse, we do so to countries like China, Russia and an assortment of Middle Eastern oil producers — none of which is particularly well disposed to us.

Like Argentina in its worst moments, we never seem to question whether it is reasonable to expect foreigners to keep financing our extravagance, and we forget the bad things that happen to the Argentinas or Hungarys of the world when foreigners stop financing their excesses. So instead of laying out a realistic plan for increasing our national savings, we choose not to face up to the Social Security and Medicare crises that lie ahead, embarking instead on massive spending programs that — whatever their long-run merits might be — we simply cannot afford.

After experiencing a few emerging-market crises, I get the sense of watching the same movie over and over. All too often, a tragic part of that movie is the failure of the countries’ policymakers to hear the loud cries of canaries in the coal mine. Before running up further outsized budget deficits, should we not heed the markets that now see a 10 percent probability that the U.S. government will default on its sovereign debt in the next five years? And should we not be paying close attention to the Chinese central bank governor’s musings that he does not feel comfortable with the $1 trillion of U.S. government debt that the Chinese central bank already owns, let alone adding to those holdings?

Speaking of canaries in the coal mines, I note with interest that there have been two failed bond auctions in Germany this year, followed by a failed bond auction of 5-year gilts this week in London.

I just keep watching the kangaroo.

Podcast for 22 Mar 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale talk about the AIG bonus Fiasco, limiting executive pay,  and the public’s tolerance for President Obama.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

The Banking Plan

Thanks to last night’s White House info dump, we now have gotten the outlines of the White House’s banking recovery plan.  As I mentioned earlier this week, the banking problem is the fundamental issue in the current financial crisis.  We’ve been waiting for the White House to give it to us.  Now that we’ve got it, I don’t like it much.

The details, as reported, are as follows:

The plan to be announced next week involves three separate approaches. In one, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will set up special-purpose investment partnerships and lend about 85 percent of the money that those partnerships will need to buy up troubled assets that banks want to sell.

In the second, the Treasury will hire four or five investment management firms, matching the private money that each of the firms puts up on a dollar-for-dollar basis with government money.

In the third piece, the Treasury plans to expand lending through the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, a joint venture with the Federal Reserve.

The goal of the plan is to leverage the dwindling resources of the Treasury Department’s bailout program with money from private investors to buy up as many of those toxic assets as possible and free the banks to resume more normal lending…

Although the details of the F.D.I.C. part were still being completed on Friday, it is expected that the government will provide the overwhelming bulk of the money — possibly more than 95 percent — through loans or direct investments of taxpayer money.

The hope is that such a generous taxpayer subsidy will attract private investors into the market and accelerate the recovery of the country’s banks.

The key protection for taxpayers, according to people briefed on the plan, is that the private investors will bid in auctions against each other for the assets. As a result, administration officials contend, the government will be buying the troubled loans of the banks at a deep discount to their original face value.

That last paragraphs is a howler, since it’s so self-evidently untrue.  As Ezra Klein at The American Prospect–hardly an enemy of the Obama Administration–notes:

You almost wonder if that’s a typo. It seems to imply that the protection comes because private investors will accurately price the assets. After all, they don’t want to lose money.

But it’s not their money. It’s our money. The plan uses public funds to protect and subsidize private investors. As such, a private auction will not price the assets. It will price the potential upside of the assets given that taxpayers will assume the brunt of the losses. [Emphasis mine--EDF]

As illustration, imagine an art auction. Now imagine an art auction where Sotheby’s loans money to the participants and promises to pay the losses if the paintings fall in value. Think the pricing will be the same? And who would you say is being protected: Sotheby’s or the private investors? As Calculated Risk says, “With almost no skin in the game, these investors can pay a higher than market price for the toxic assets (since there is little downside risk). This amounts to a direct subsidy from the taxpayers to the banks.”

As for the contention that “the government will be buying the troubled loans of the banks at a deep discount to their original face value,” I’m not even sure what to say about that. Their original face value was a lie. If I pretend this beautiful bic pen is worth $60 million and then sell it to you for $1.00, you’re not getting a $59,999,999 discount because I’ve come down from the imaginary price where I started. The question is what these assets are actually worth, and whether taxpayers are paying more or less than that. We’re in this mess because the original face value is wrong.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.  Moreover, Ezra links to Yves Smith, who further comments:

First, the banks, as in normal auctions, will presumably set a reserve price equal to the value of the assets on their books. If the price does not meet the reserve (and the level of the reserve is not disclosed to the bidders), there is no sale; in this case, the bank would keep the toxic instruments.

Having the banks realize a price at least equal to the value they hold it at on their books is a boundary condition. If the banks sell the assets as a lower level, it will result in a loss, which is a direct hit to equity. The whole point of this exercise is to get rid of the bad paper without further impairing the banks.

So presumably, the point of a competitive process (assuming enough parties show up to produce that result at any particular auction) is to elicit a high enough price that it might reach the bank’s reserve, which would be the value on the bank’s books now.

And notice the utter dishonesty: a competitive bidding process will protect taxpayers. Huh? A competitive bidding process will elicit a higher price which is BAD for taxpayers!

Dear God, the Administration really thinks the public is full of idiots. But there are so many components to the program, and a lot of moving parts in each, they no doubt expect everyone’s eyes to glaze over.

The last point is another big problem.  There are a number of other ways to accomplish recapitalization, from just purchasing the assets from the banks for cash to outright nationalization of the banks.  Whether we would actually like those options is another story, but at least they have the virtue of simplicity.  Even laymen would be able to grasp their essentials.  That certainly isn’t true is the case of what the Obama Administration has released. It is complicated.  It’s made of three different parts, all of which are complicated in their own special ways.  Ezra Klein again:

If it goes bad — and it really might go bad, and the details might prove galling in much the way that AIG’s bonuses did — the byzantine approach could well leave voters feeling tricked. That risk might make sense if this were the only viable path forward. But it’s actually hard to imagine the set of questions you ask that ends in this particular answer.

And it’s difficult to see how this  actually becomes an answer in the real world.  The trouble with these kinds of complicated plans is that they so often crash against the rocks of reality.  When one part of the plan goes awry, the whole plan breaks up.  With the triple complications of the plan leaked by the administration, there is a not insignificant chance that the plan will fail due to it’s unnecessary complexity.

I don’t think that will be helpful.

“Inflation is Our Friend”

So, the Fed, for the first time since the 1960s, is buying back long-term bonds as part of it’s new policy, announced today, of buying back $1.2 trillion in securities to pump out cash into the economy.

With the country sinking deeper into recession, the Federal Reserve launched a bold $1.2 trillion effort Wednesday to lower rates on mortgages and other consumer debt, spur spending and revive the economy. To do so, the Fed will spend up to $300 billion to buy long-term government bonds and an additional $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

On top of this, short-term interest rates are already at 0%.  The fed has one monetary policy tool left–massive increases in the money supply–and they’re using it with a vengeance.  This purchase of $300B in treasury  bonds will be a signifigant increase in demand, pushing treasury prices up, and yields down.  The 10-year note’s yield dropped to 2.5% in the aftermath of this announcement.

Our fundamental problem is still that the banking sector has their balance sheets all out of whack, and the Obama Adminsitration still has no apparent plan for clearing up bank balance sheets via recapitalization, or…well…anything else. Now, theoretically, that much new money being created would lower mortgage rates signifigantly.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20-year fixed rates at 5% or less.

This action, however, opens the door for massive inflation.  The inflationary implications of this move are so huge, that there’s simply no way the loans could be anything but a money-loser for the banks, because a 5% mortage rate may well be far below the rate of inflation.  That will kill banks already weakened by their bad loan portfolios.

This is an extraordinary gamble of the Fed’s part.  If this new money doesn’t stimulate a signifigant increase in demand for money, then we are going to have a huge pool of money chasing a very small pool of goods.  The market knows it, too, and understands the inflationary implications.  The dollar cratered in the FOREX market today, and analysts aren’t excited about the long-term implications:

Bernanke’s view that currency devaluation may be beneficial to economic growth speaks for itself,” writes Mr. Merk. “But even if there are no active efforts to debase the currency, we are cautious about the U.S. dollar. That’s because we simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system.”

“[W]e simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system” because there is no viable exit strategy.  We are either going to have serious inflation, or the Fed will have to tighten up so severely at some point in the near future that it will kill economic growth anyway.

In “Texas Hold ‘Em” terms, this is the equivalent of the Fed going “all in”.  We’ve essentially reached the limits of our monetary policy tools with this action.

AIG Bonuses: Dodd Cracks, Geithner Knew

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary magazine’s blog rounds up the latest info on who knew what about the AIG bonuses.  It’s not pretty, but, of course, we knew it wouldn’t be.

The bottom line: Dodd, after denying it, now admits he and the administration cooked up the language which afforded AIG some protection ( until the firestorm hit) to grant the bonuses.

Time magazine also reports:

Although Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told congressional leaders on Tuesday that he learned of AIG’s impending $160 million bonus payments to members of its troubled financial-products unit on March 10, sources tell TIME that the New York Federal Reserve informed Treasury staff that the payments were imminent on Feb. 28. That is 10 days before Treasury staffers say they first learned “full details” of the bonus plan, and three days before the Administration launched a new $30 billion infusion of cash for AIG. [Emphasis mine.--EDF]

It’s such a relief to have the “best and brightest” running the show, isn’t it?