Free Markets, Free People


Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway: February Housing Edition

On the heels of last weeks delightfully mixed bag of employment data (job creation looks like it may be out of reverse and into neutral) we get some new housing data. There the signals are more disquieting, if expected (at least by me.) The housing market may now be heading back down.

The interesting aspect of this is that so many people see this as unlikely. So let us list some reasons why this is a real risk, if probably not as rapid a fall as we saw previously.

  • Prices are still above a long term stable level. This could be taken care of by stagnating prices and inflation, but there is little inflation right now.
  • The price to rent ratio is out of whack, and rents are still falling, in fact, accelerating. Little wonder, since there is an 11% vacancy rate.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • There are 231,000 newly built housing units sitting vacant.
  • There are 3.29 million vacant homes for sale.
  • Then there is the shadow inventory of homes that are off the market for various reasons (such as foreclosed homes banks are unwilling to sell yet to avoid realizing losses.)
  • Defaults are accelerating, with the largest source of pain now prime loans. As I have maintained for a long time this is not, and never has been, a subprime problem. Subprime was just what collapsed first being the weakest link in the housing market.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • That acceleration is unlikely to slow any time soon as not only are workers still losing jobs and few new potential owners getting jobs, but the length of unemployment is unprecedented in the post war era. The longer a worker is unemployed, the more likely they are to default.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • Lending is still tight for many mortgage seekers.
  • We are forming households at a reduced rate, thus lessening demand for new homes.

Source: Gary Shilling

  • More than 20% of homeowners are currently underwater. Nothing correlates more closely with default rates than negative equity.
  • Worst of all, we need to revisit an old topic of mine that is no longer a longer term risk, but right around the corner. The likely huge wave of defaults represented by Alt-A and Option Arm Loans about to reset. Defaults have followed with a lag each wave of resets, and the largest wave, from the era with the worst underwriting is about to hit. Notice, subprime is receding. With the system as fragile as it is now, what will this wave bring on?

I always am nervous about calling anything a prediction, but further housing deterioration is a very grave possibility.

Needless to say, this has led to further problems at Fannie, Freddie with more to come. Not that you should be concerned about that, the mission has changed. On their way to probably 400 billion in losses (I remember when I was an alarmist claiming that the losses would be far more than the 20-30 million the government was claiming, probably 200 billion. It turns out I was a cockeyed optimist) the government has officially eliminated any limit on their exposure. Why? It seems to be so that they can take losses!

Freddie’s federal overseers nevertheless have instructed Mr. Haldeman to focus on something that isn’t likely to make the bleak balance sheet look any better: carrying out the Obama administration plan to allow defaulted borrowers to hang onto their homes.

On a recent afternoon, employees at Freddie’s headquarters here peppered Mr. Haldeman with concerns about the company’s future. He responded that they were “fortunate” to have such a clear mission—the government’s foreclosure-prevention drive. “We’re doing what’s best for the country,” he told them.

Then there is the poor FHA:

FT Alphaville is certainly in the skeptical camp referred to by Ms Burns, and we were not reassured when the housing agency released its December monthly report on Tuesday.

According to the report, the default rate in the FHA’s single-family portfolio hit 9.12 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with 6.82 per cent in the same period a year prior.

In absolute terms, that means the number single-family mortgages insured by the FHA and in default reached 531,671 in the fourth quarter of 2009. That’s a 66 per cent increase versus the same period in 2008.

The agency is being hit hardest by the 2007 and 2008 mortgage vintages; the performance of these loans is so dismal the FHA expects to have to pay claims on at least one out of every four loans made in those years.

Cross Posted at: The View from the Bluff

Musings, Rants and Links over the 18th Fairway:02/09/2010

We finally got a mixed bag on the employment front this month, a welcome change from the purely awful. However, with everyone focused on “creating” jobs I think this quick synopsis attacking the unrealistic expectations of when and where jobs will come from is well worth reading. This chart gives you an idea of how bad it really has been (click image for larger version)


Yves Smith looks at the problem of how to handle the prospect of the financially weaker members of the European Union possibly defaulting. neither the PIIGS nor their colleague states want to take the steps they may need to take. Markets however are sending a clear message, “Do Something!” The risk goes beyond the direct damage from the potential losses from holding these countries debts. European banks are already shaky, with shaky assets and still a lot more leverage than is safe. I believe Europe’s bear market is likely back on.

European banks are shaky? How provincial of me not to mention our own banks. The coming wave of defaults in the Alt-A and Prime mortgage space are not getting enough attention, Yves helps out there as well. Not only are the losses coming (pretending loans are good only works until they actually default) but the banks are in for some serious lawsuits from all kinds of parties that bought the toxic loans. First in line are Freddie and Fannie. They will still lose at least 400 billion, but they’ll take a good chunk out of the banks hide on the way down.

the phrase “credit specialists at Citi” is not exactly the kind of thing which instills enormous confidence in analysts and investors these days

I think that is an understatement. They want to sell another fancy derivative designed to remove all risk if there is a systemic crisis when, of course, those supposed to pay up will certainly have the money to do so….Right?

Please imagine me banging my head against the keyboard. And no, the response of the Citi Spokesman doesn’t make me feel any different, in fact, it makes me feel worse.

The term liquidity is the pixie dust the financial commentariat uses to obscure what is really going on. I maintain, and have throughout the last few years, that our difficulties have not been a liquidity crisis (though many who had no business exposing themselves individually to liquidity drying up for them certain had a liquidity crisis) but a solvency crisis. David Merkel points out that liquidity always exists, it just goes where the marginal credit buyer has gone. Where insolvency risk seems to be increasing, the marginal buyer can become very scarce and will provide it to areas seemingly exposed to less risk. At the end of the day it is solvency that is our problem, and until we solve that liquidity will go to those perceived to be least at risk. Right now that is the government and those they are backing. Hence a credit crunch for much of the economy.

Speaking of credit, consumer credit has now declined for 11 straight months. A record, and by a long shot. (Click image for a larger version.)


In the “no big surprise department,” and paralleling the argument I made at the time, it has now been shown that the ban on short selling during the crisis did not help support prices and damaged stock market liquidity. In the no surprise at all department the biggest complainers turned out to have fundamental problems that short sellers were pointing out accurately (much better than our regulators.) The loudest complainer of all, and their bizarre CEO, Patrick Byrne. The upshot, they have been cooking their books for years, just like the short sellers were claiming.

Cross posted at The View from the Bluff

Counting Unemployment

The most recent release of unemployment data has raised some questions, namely, how can we lose 20,000 jobs in the same month that the unemployment rate declined to 9.7%.  The answer is simple: The unemployment rate is essentially a made-up figure.  And I can give you a much more accurate way to measure the unemployment rate.

First, let’s take a brief look at how the monthly Employment Situation figures are compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The BLS combines two surveys to compile the Employment Situation.  The first survey is the Establishment Survey.  That’s a pretty accurate survey, because it consists of asking businesses to provide hard payroll data on the number of existing jobs.   The second is the Household Survey, which is where the train runs off the rails.

For the Household survey, they ask if you are employed.  If the answer is “No”, they then ask if you if you’re actively looking for a job. If the answer is no, then they just simply take you out of the labor force.  They don’t care whether you aren’t looking for work because you know there are no jobs available, or whether you’ve retired and are planning to sail a sloop across the Pacific.  If you aren’t actively looking for work, you aren’t part of the labor force.  So, the official unemployment rate generally understates–sometimes substantially–the real level of unemployment.

Fortunately, there is a better way to calculate the rate of real unemployment, and the BLS web site conveniently provides you with all the data you need to do it.  From here, we only need three items: The Civilian Noninstitutional Population, the Participation Rate, and the number of Employed.

The first thing we need to do is figure out the Labor Force Participation Rate during the most recent period of full employment.  If you take the average monthly labor force participation rate from the 70 months between Jan 04 and Oct 08, you get a participation rate in the labor for of 66% of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population.

Next, you multiply the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by 0.66.  That gives you the size of the normal labor force at full employment.

Next, you take the number of Employed, and calculate the actual rate of unermployment using the following equation:

1-(Employed/Normal Labor Force)=Unemployment Rate.

So, with this method, we can compare the unemployment level of Oct 08, right before the economy cratered, to last month.  When we do so, we get the following results:

OCT 08:
Civilian Noninstitutinal Population:
Participation Rate: 66%
Labor Force:
Employed: 145,543,000
Unemployment Rate: 6.0%

Jan 10:
Civilian Noninstitutinal Population:
Participation Rate: 66%
Labor Force:
Employed: 136,809,000
Unemployment Rate: 12.5%

Note that this calculation for Oct 08 is very close to the official unemployment rate of 6.1%.  But as the economy gets worse the official employment rates show greater and greater variance.  In other words, the official unemployment rate becomes progressively less accurate as the Employment Situation worsens, substantially understating the actual rate of unemployment.  This is, by the way a feature of the BLS’s method, not a bug.  It is no coincidence, as our Soviet friends used to say, that discouraged workers fall out of the labor force calculations.

Now, this measure I’ve explained doesn’t tell us anything about people who are working only part-time, when they’d prefer a full time job, so it doesn’t tell us much about underemployment.  But it does tell us, based on the recent historical labor force participation rate, what the size of the labor force should be.  Once we know that, it becomes very easy to see what the actual rate of unemployment is in real terms, rather than the notional terms provided by the Household Survey.

According the BLS, however, the Civilian noninstitutional population has increased by 2,220,000 people  from 234,612,000 to 236,932,000, while, at the same time, the civilian labor force has shrunk by 2,055,000 people  from 155,012,000 to 153,455,000.  Using the BLS numbers, then, the labor force participation rate is 64.6%.  That kind of demographic change might be expected in a couple of years when the baby Boomers begin retiring in large numbers, but for right now, it seems…counter-intuitive.

In any event, 12.5% unemployment is a far more realistic number than the BLS estimate of 9.7%.


Bernanke’s Plan To Drain The Monetary Swamp

Interest rates are at record lows and literally trillions of hastily printed dollars have been pumped into the economy by the Federal Reserve in an effort to stem an even deeper recession. While it is debatable as to whether or not it has really accomplished that goal, what isn’t debatable is at some point, the Fed has to wring that excess money from the economy or risk all sorts of dire consequences.

The Wall Street Journal carries the Bernanke plan for doing so. The centerpiece of that plan is found in the interest rate the Fed pays banks on the reserves it keeps. Right now, that’s .25%. The plan is to gradually raise that rate with the assumption that such rate raises will give an incentive to banks to keep even more money on reserve and thus out of circulation. This “interest on excess reserves” then is the primary vehicle the Fed plans to use to begin to pull money out of circulation.

But that’s a process fraught with risk. Because the immediate effect of any such interest rate increase will be to tighten credit. And depending on the strength of the economy, it has the potential to affect it negatively. Says the WSJ:

Extricating itself from these actions [low interest rates and trillions of infused dollars] will require both skill and luck: If the Fed moves too fast, it could provoke a new economic downturn; if it waits too long, it could unleash inflation, and if it moves clumsily it could unsettle markets in ways that disrupt the nascent economic recovery.

It’s pretty easy to drop interest rates and pump money into a down economy. But going the other way is not at all as easy. “Skill and luck” are understatements. Timing will have to almost be perfect. The problem is, should markets get skittish because of moves by the Fed that it sees as having a negative effect, things could break negatively quickly and spiral out of control. While the Fed would like everyone to believe this is a piece of cake – and will continue to tell us it is – it’s not at all an easy thing to do. The desire of those talking positive about the ease of draining the monetary swamp is to bolster confidence and allay fears if possible so a panic which could undermine the whole plan doesn’t develop. That, however, is going to be extremely difficult:

The nature of its exit from today’s unusually low interest rates will affect everything from mortgage rates and what companies pay on short-term borrowings to the rates savers earn. The timing and sequence of the steps are the subject of intense speculation in financial markets.

At the risk of boring the living hell out of you, I want to stress that this plan may be one of the most important plans in quite some time. If it isn’t executed perfectly, we could see a quick slide back into recession or rampant inflation. Read the whole article if you get a chance. The Fed has some other contingencies and plans as well. But as you’ll see as you read through them, all present the possibility of having a very negative downside if the strength of the economy is misread and/or the execution of each portion of the plan isn’t almost perfect.

The economic high-wire act – without a net – the Fed is about to embark upon is a very difficult one. Yes, it’s necessary and, in fact, critical – but it isn’t going to be easy. And if screwed up, could be pretty devastating to a recovering economy.


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Deficit Spending – Pimping The Great Lie

When the NY Times entitles anything, especially an editorial, starting with “The Truth About …”, you should be immediately suspicious.  As Arnold Kling says, that normally means “The liberal elite narrative about …”.  And it’s editorial, “The Truth About The Deficit” is no exception.  The first part of the editorial is spent on a selective history lesson which makes all of our troubles, as you might imagine, something brought on by the GOP’s focus on tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevermind that they were across the board marginal cuts – this narrative won’t die.

The entire bit of revisionist history (with the normal “blame Bush” tautology) is aimed at justifying this paragraph:

Americans should be anxious, for reasons including the huge deficit. But the cold economic truth is this: At a time of high unemployment and fragile growth, the last thing the government should do is to slash spending. That will only drive the economy into deeper trouble.

What the NYT and the Krugman’s of the world believe is government spending can be substituted for private spending and have the same result – economic growth. And that economic growth, spurred by this spending, will create jobs. But if you think about it, unless the government is buying goods and services produced by the private sector, that’s most likely not going to happen, is it? Temporary jobs located in “infrastructure improvement,” unemployment benefit extensions and jobs “programs” don’t create jobs. Private sector growth does. And when government is borrowing .40 cents for every dollar it spends, it starts to dry up the private credit market. That means if there is a desire to expand, the credit isn’t as readily available as it would be if the 800 pound credit hog weren’t in the market.

Then there’s this:

To truly tame deficits will require serious health care reform …

To which Kling replies:

In Washington, serious health care reform means “fixing” private health insurance. But our deficits are caused not by problems in private health insurance. They are caused by the structure of Medicare and Medicaid. That is where we need reform. But the Times and other liberal mouthpieces need to create a narrative that makes it sound as though unsound government programs are the fault of the private sector.

Spot on. This has been the most irritating part of the “health care reform” issue. It is the public programs – which neither party will touch – that are breaking the bank, yet we continually hear politicians on the left talk about “greedy [private] insurance companies” as the sole reason health care costs or so high. In fact, without private health care insurance to pay the difference, Medicare and Medicaid would have foundered long ago. But the point is the deficit problem is not one caused by private insurance.  It has no effect on public debt.  That is caused by the mismanagement of the government programs. And other than a passing wave at “stopping waste, fraud and abuse” – the promise of every politician since the inception of those programs, and accomplished by none of them – this “reform” package ignores the real problem while attacking the private market.

But back to the primary point of the NYT’s attempt to persuade you that deficit spending – massive deficit spending – is a good thing:

Here is an unpopular but undeniable fact of life: When private sector demand is weak, the federal government must serve as the spender of last resort. Otherwise, collapsing demand sets in motion a negative, self-reinforcing spiral in which lack of demand — for goods, services and new employees — leads to ever deepening economic weakness.

And here’s the undeniable economic truth about the snake oil they’re peddling:

The narrative is that we are suffering from a shortfall in demand. The reality is that the private sector has decided that workers should be hired on the basis of profits, rather than on the basis of debt. The government may choose to make a different decision, of course, but that will not necessarily strengthen our economy.

One of the many economists not at all in agreement – despite President Obama’s claim to the contrary – with the prescription that deficit spending is not only good, but necessary. And while they can blame the situation on anyone they choose, the decisions being made to run up this massive debt based on some pretty flaky economic logic are theirs and theirs alone.


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Jobs, Unemployment And “A Deficit Of Trust”

Yesterday we were told the nation’s employers “unexpectedly” shed more jobs last month than forecast.  Today we’re told that despite that, the unemployment rate “surprisingly” decreased to 9.7%.

Unsurprisingly I don’t believe a word of it.  Call me a cynic, call me a skeptic, but I just don’t believe much of anything coming out of the government these days (I know, let’s call it a “deficit of trust”).  Don’t forget that 9.7% number comes on the heels of a report saying the government forgot to count over 800,000 lost jobs last year.

When the government releases Friday’s unemployment report, nearly a million jobs could be erased. The change won’t show up in the monthly report. Rather, the expected job will show up in the government’s revised job losses from April 2008 to March 2009, showing the labor market was in much worse shape than we knew at the time.

So here we are, rampant and exceedingly high unemployment, no relief in sight and the unicorns and rainbows crowd are spinning the numbers and telling us all is well and getting better.

Well, economic well-being, like is said of politics, is all local.  And for the most part, the locals aren’t buying the spin.  Here’s the brutal truth:

An unemployment rate that’s projected to average 10 percent this year will likely weigh on consumer spending, preventing the biggest part of the economy from accelerating. Without additional gains in sales, companies will be forced to keep cutting costs, limiting staff in order to boost profits.

“Businesses are simply postponing their hiring for as long as possible,” Richard DeKaser, chief economist at Woodley Park Research in Washington, said before the report. “The willingness to hire is not there.”

Fewer customers, less spending. Less spending, less of a need to make things.  Less demand for products means less demand for more employees.

Key line: “Without additional gains in sales, companies will be forced to keep cutting costs, limiting staff in order to boost profits.”

And that’s precisely what they’re doing.  The Labor Department reports:

Nonfarm business sector labor productivity increased at a 6.2 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter of 2009, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. This gain in productivity reflects increases of 7.2 percent in output and 1.0 percent in hours worked. (All quarterly percent changes in this release are seasonally adjusted annual rates.) This was the first quarterly increase in hours worked since the second quarter of 2007 (0.9 percent). Productivity increased 5.1 percent over the last four quarters –more than during any similar period since output per hour rose 6.1 percent from the first quarter of 2001 to the first quarter of 2002.

Even the Riddler could puzzle this one out.  Worker productivity has increased 5.1% over the last four quarters.  But unemployment has continued to grow.  What does that mean?  Well it means companies and businesses have found a way to increase production with fewer employees.  And that, as the key line above suggests, boosts profits.

Now that productivity increase can come in many ways.  Simply distributing the same (or even increased) work load to fewer employees.  That’s happening all over the place now.  Then, in certain industries,  automation replaces employees (it doesn’t require health insurance, vacation days, a 401k and isn’t represented by a union).  And in some places it’s a combination of both plus modified business models. 

The bottom line is there’s not likely to be that much hiring if and when the economy actually turns around unless a huge increase in demand is realized.   And even then, employers are likely to try to hold out as long as possible, given their productivity gains, until those productivity gains are neutralized.  I’m sure there’s a tremendous gap between now and that point.  Then add in the market instability brought on by pending legislation like health care reform and cap-and-trade, and you can see high unemployment in the future for quite some time.

But the unicorn and rainbow crowd are going to tell you everything, relatively speaking, is getting better.  The fact that your relatives are all unemployed and your job isn’t looking so hot at the moment either will cause you to doubt their assertions.  Do.  Doubt them I mean.  They’re as full of crap as a Christmas goose.  And that’s becoming more and more obvious each day as we watch this dance of the dodgers continue.  Because, you know, you can’t handle the truth.  No, that’s not true.  If they tell you the truth, they too will be unemployed.

“Deficit of trust?”

A true understatement.


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Republicans Prefer Tax Cuts To Balanced Budget?

That’s the buzz going around some liberal blogs about a Rasmussen poll which claims that a plurality of Republicans polled would rather see tax cuts and a deficit than a balanced budget and tax increases (one supposes the increases would be used to balance it.  The history of our government says otherwise).

Of course I’m of the opinion there’s a third choice.  Cut spending commensurate with the tax cuts and reduce the size of government until you’re able to balance the budget.  Then start reducing the debt.  Apparently that wasn’t one of the choices however.

On to the poll.  Here are the results with which the left has decided it can use to deride the right as lying no-good deficit lovers:

Fifty percent (50%) of conservatives are comfortable with a budget deficit if taxes are cut versus 63% of liberals who favor a balanced budget with higher taxes. But then 50% of conservative voters also think the federal budget can be balanced without a tax increase. Sixty-one percent (61%) of liberals say that’s impossible.

Ah, ha! Apparently my choice is in the mix, albeit hidden – what do you supposed those 50% who think the federal budget can be balanced without a tax increase mean?

So let’s recast the findings – 50% of “conservatives” want tax cuts and can live with deficits, 50% of “conservatives” say a blanced budget can be done with spending cuts and 61% of “liberals” believe the only way to balance the budget is to increase taxes (apparently eschewing any spending cuts).

Fair recap?

Now here’s the shocker for you (ok, sarcasm again):

Sixty-two percent (62%) of the Political Class prefer a balanced budget with higher taxes, compared to just 26% of Mainstream voters. Forty-six percent (46%) of Mainstream voters would rather see a budget deficit with tax cuts.

Those in the Political Class are twice as likely as Mainstream voters – 70% to 35% – to believe it is not possible to balance the federal budget without raising taxes.

This is a clever way Rasmussen has of letting us know what our political betters think about those questions vs. what you the mainstream voters think (Proles! When will you wise up?).

So what this portion of the poll tells us is if the “Political Class” ever actually gets serious about debt and deficit reduction, you can throw the “cut spending” mantra right out the window (along with tax cuts) and bend over while grabbing your wallet.  At the rate they’re spending right now though, “serious about the deficit” is lightyears away from being considered.  Lip service, however, will be extravagent, since it’s politically cheap.

But it is, as usual, instructive to see how out of touch the “Political Class” is with it’s voters. 

And speaking of our policial masters and referencing the story about Joe Biden below, here’s the public’s answer to Bidenomics:

Fifty-three percent (53%) of voters believe decreasing the level of government spending will help the U.S. economy. Sixty-one percent (61%) say cutting taxes will boost the economy, the highest level of support since May.

What are the administion’s plans?  Increased government spending and higher taxes, of course.  If you want to see the “deficit of trust” Obama spoke about in the SOTU, read through the entire poll results.  It tells the story of the rise of the Tea Parties with percentages.

And we’re suposed to be the ‘ungovernable’ ones?


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Krugman, Peacocks, The Deficit, Health Care And Spending

If you’ve been following Nobel economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman over the last few months, you’ve seen him slowly fall out of love with the Obama administration.  The primary reason is the administration has seemingly ignored his advice about the size of the deficit spending  – stimulus – that should be happening.  Krugman feels that the first stimulus was “too small”. I disagree, I feel it was a poorly targeted pork bill that didn’t address stimulus at all (with spending delayed on most of it for future years, it’s hard to fathom how it acts to stimulate the economy now).  But the amount should have been more than adequate to do that which Keynesian’s like Krugman prefer.  In fact, my guess is Krugman knows that, but can’t bring himself to admit it.  Thus he continues to pretend the size of the “stimulus” is the problem.

That said, today he goes after the president’s claim in the SOTU that he’s addressing the deficit.  Krugman essentially comes to the same conclusion most of us have – it’s not at all a serious attempt to do so:

Last week, the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, published an acerbic essay about the difference between true deficit hawks and showy “deficit peacocks.” You can identify deficit peacocks, readers were told, by the way they pretend that our budget problems can be solved with gimmicks like a temporary freeze in nondefense discretionary spending.

Guess who he identifies as a “deficit peacock?” Anyone who listened to the State of the Union address knows that answer. Krugman goes on to tell us why it is in our best interest to be spending more right now and not worrying about the deficit:

The nature of America’s troubles is easy to state. We’re in the aftermath of a severe financial crisis, which has led to mass job destruction. The only thing that’s keeping us from sliding into a second Great Depression is deficit spending. And right now we need more of that deficit spending because millions of American lives are being blighted by high unemployment, and the government should be doing everything it can to bring unemployment down.

But that brings us back to the $787 billion dollar “stimulus” bill (which, btw, the CBO now says will cost us $862 billion). That bill was supposed to be focused on bringing unemployment down, wasn’t it? In fact, the explicit claim was if it was passed, unemployment wouldn’t rise above 8%.

Of course one has to wonder if the money had been spent to stimulate job growth instead of monitoring the radioactive feces of rabbits whether or not such spending could have kept that unemployment number down. Only $256 billion of the $787 has been spent with no appreciable effect on unemployment at all. Could it have had an effect if it had been spent on what it should have been? We’ll never know. What we do know, as does Krugman, is that politically a second stimulus is a very unpopular.

That’s not to say we won’t see one. What we will see, however, is any second stimulus introduced to the public as a massive “jobs bill”. The word stimulus won’t be attached to it in any way, shape or form. But that’s why the characterization of Obama as a “deficit peacock” is dead on.

Krugman then gets to the pretzel logic that leaves everyone shaking their head:

In the long run, however, even the U.S. government has to pay its way. And the long-run budget outlook was dire even before the recent surge in the deficit, mainly because of inexorably rising health care costs. Looking ahead, we’re going to have to find a way to run smaller, not larger, deficits.

How can this apparent conflict between short-run needs and long-run responsibilities be resolved? Intellectually, it’s not hard at all. We should combine actions that create jobs now with other actions that will reduce deficits later. And economic officials in the Obama administration understand that logic: for the past year they have been very clear that their vision involves combining fiscal stimulus to help the economy now with health care reform to help the budget later.

First, not everyone agrees that you must “spend” to help the recovery. In fact, credit where credit is due, Obama layed out some tax cuts for small businesses and cap gains tax cuts that may indeed provide the impetus for hiring. The fact that he could have done that a year ago shouldn’t be lost on anyone. But while that means some reduced tax revenue for government, it isn’t a massive spending program. And, in fact, to offset that loss of revenue, government ought to cut spending commensurate with the loss. That’s the way toward fiscal sanity and a balanced budget – or at least one which is closer to being balanced than it is now.

So Krugman’s attempt to claim there’s only one “intellectual” solution to the contradiction he’s posed is poppycock. Note also that he brings up health care reform. The “budget” he’s talking about is that of the US government. The reform he’s talking about in this particular case has to do with the government programs which are out of control. Not the private side which as zip to do with the US budget. Only the Medicare/Medicaid side. Which again begs the question of why taking over much of the private side helps solve the crisis on the government side?

He finally admits it later on in the article:

So if health reform fails, you can forget about any serious effort to rein in rising Medicare costs.

He’s most likely right. And here’s what’s interesting about that sentence. Many of us on the right have been saying for quite some time, “if Medicare and Medicaid are the problem, why not fix those problems first and then, if successful, we can talk about further reform”. Instead we’ve gotten this monstrosity which really doesn’t address those problem areas (despite Krugman’s belief it will) and grabs for even more.

I’d love to see Krugman defend the logic of that.

So we’re paralyzed in the face of mass unemployment and out-of-control health care costs. Don’t blame Mr. Obama. There’s only so much one man can do, even if he sits in the White House. Blame our political culture instead, a culture that rewards hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than serious efforts to solve America’s problems. And blame the filibuster, under which 41 senators can make the country ungovernable, if they choose — and they have so chosen.

I mostly agree in general with the sentiments expressed here, just not some of the specifics. Our political culture leaves much to be desired. You have to understand that when the best you can hope for is gridlock, something is very wrong with the mechanism that governs the country. It incentivizes behavior that looks short-term and rewards those who bring money to their home districts and states. Until that sort of system is changed, gridlock is about the best we can hope for. Unfortunately those who would have to change the system are presently rewarded by it.

That said, Obama is as much a part of the problem as anyone. He stole into the White House by promising “change” and people like Krugman bought into it. And while some of the scales have slipped from Krugman’s eyes, he still hasn’t accepted the fact that Obama is a double-talker who says all the right things and then acts exactly like a Chicago machine pol in his daily dealings. Obama is as much a part of the problem as anyone else in the system.

Lastly – it seems all the cool kids in DC and NY have discovered a new word for “they won’t go along with what we want to do” – “ungovernable”. Have you noticed that? We weren’t ungovernable when the Democrats wielded the minority filibuster in the Senate. We weren’t ungovernable when the anti-war crowd filled the streets. We weren’t ungovernable when Democrats used every procedural trick in the book to block Social Security reform. Nope, that only happens when Republicans have 41 seats in the Senate, Tea Parties protest and the right fights health care reform.

Krugman, like much of the left, has a very short and selective memory.


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The Fannie And Freddy “Secret”

The Obama administration and Democrats have consistently blamed the financial problems that the country has faced on Wall Street, banks and their greed. But it has just as consistently ignored the role and cost of two quasi-governmental agencies which were also in the center of the financial storm – Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae. The Wall Street Journal points out that the cost to the government (and therefore the taxpayer) of these two institutions has been kept “off books” by the fiction that they’re “private institutions”. But, in fact, they’re really not:

As the CBO notes in a recent background paper, the standards for when to include government-sponsored entities in the budget go back to the 1960s, when a Presidential commission laid out a set of questions.

To wit: “Who owns the agency?” (In the case of Fan and Fred, taxpayers.) “Who supplies its capital?” (Taxpayers.) “Who selects its managers?” (The federal government.) And finally, “Do the Congress and the President have control over the agency’s program and budget, or are the agency’s policies the responsibility of the Congress or the President only in some broad ultimate sense?” (The feds have control in every sense.)

The point, of course, is the claim they’re “quasi-governmental” or “private” entities is fiction. They are, in every way, controlled by the federal government and were as involved in the financial melt down as any other institution. In fact, there’s an argument that they were the instututions which made the housing bubble possible and, through their policies, encouraged it.

And if you want to talk about losses and costs to taxpayers, take a gander at these numbers:

Since Hank Paulson placed them in conservatorship in September 2008, Fan and Fred have stopped even pretending to be run for profit. Losses have mounted accordingly: Some $291 billion for taxpayers through 2009, $48 billion for the cost of new business in 2009 alone, and $21 billion more this year. Last August, CBO estimated the 10-year cost to taxpayers of keeping Fannie and Freddie afloat at $389 billion.

And it is now estimated that the two will average losses of 8 billion a year for the next 10 years, assuming the housing market stabalizes soon. Yes, that’s 80 billion over 10 years in addition to the losses above. Why isn’t the president hollering “we want our money back” at them?

The full cost of subsidizing mortgages via Fannie and Freddie, the FHA and Ginnie Mae remains hidden and off the official balance sheet, so there is little political pressure to stop the losses.

As the CBO notes, Fannie and Freddie “purchase mortgages at above-market prices,” driving down interest rates and passing some of the savings to home buyers. That subsidy is felt right away, but the risks in providing it are stored up over time, and their real costs may not be felt for years or even decades—as was the case in the years leading up to their spectacular collapse in 2008.

With the spectacular debt the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats are running up, they’re looking for every creative accounting means available to hide the truth. This is one of those ways. By pretending that Freddie and Fanny are “private” institutions, when it is clear they belong to the government in every conceivable way, they can keep their losses off the second set of government books presented to the public and say “see, it’s really not as bad as you think”.

Of course if a bank or Wall Street institution kept those kind of books, they’d go to jail.

WSJ concludes:

We suspect the real reason the White House wants Fan and Fred off budget is to disguise their real costs to taxpayers. They have become off-the-books subsidy engines for the housing lobby, and it is easier to push off the recognition of their losses to some future Administration and Congress rather than pay for them today. The new age of transparency has once again died aborning.


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Warren Buffet – Bank Levy Makes No Sense

Barack Obama was quite fond of quoting Buffet during the campaign. My guess is he’ll not be as willing to quote Buffet about his opposition to the President’s proposed bank tax:

“I don’t see any reason why they should be paying a special tax,” said Buffett, the chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., in an interview on Bloomberg Television today. Supporters of the plan to tax the banks “are trying to punish people,” he said. “I don’t see the rationale for it.”

What he’s talking about, of course, is the tax Obama has proposed ostensibly to recover the losses incurred in the TARP program. Obama has targeted about 50 banks to make this repayment.

The levy would apply to firms with more than $50 billion in assets, including Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs, two companies that Berkshire has investments in. It would exclude Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lenders taken over by the U.S.

Look at the damage Fannie and Freddie caused, and they were run by the Congress,” said Buffett. “Should they have a special tax on congressmen because they let this thing happen to Freddie and Fannie? I don’t think so.”

Of course Buffet throws out a point, which I’ve put it bold, that the administration, Democrats in general and the media have studiously avoided. That’s the role that the two quasi-governmental organizations, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, played in the financial meltdown (and how much of the TARP money they sucked down). In fact, the tax is as much about recovering the money they required as anything. But pointing that out would be detrimental to the narrative the administration has been building about the “greed of Wall Street” and their unilateral culpability. According to Bloomberg data, Freddie and Fanny owe about $110 billion. Buffet, of course, is not so easily fooled:

The levy would apply to firms with more than $50 billion in assets, including Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs, two companies that Berkshire has investments in. It would exclude Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lenders taken over by the U.S.

“Most of the banks didn’t need to be saved,” Buffett said. “Including Wells Fargo.”

The bank tax would raise $90 billion over 10 years and, of course, be paid for by the banks customers. Also note that the sum of $90 billion is very close to the amount owed by Freddie and Fanny.

Obama is correct – “we want out money back”. But we want it back from the institutions which wasted it. Of course that’s impossible since taxing Freddie and Fanny is taxing ourselves. Of course, so is taxing banks. However, it is much more useful to demonize them, play the greed card and pretend the government is blameless than to tell the truth, isn’t it?

I mean, if they told the truth, they’d have to implicate Congressional Democrats like Barney Frank, wouldn’t they – and that would never do.


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