Free Markets, Free People

Economy


How Bad Is It?

Amidst all the “happy talk” about signs that the economy is “turning around” we see more troubling signs that it is, in fact, being badly mishandled:

The US Treasury is facing an ordeal by fire this week as it tries to sell $100bn (£62bn) of bonds to a deeply sceptical market amid growing fears of a sovereign bond crisis in the Anglo-Saxon world.

[...]

The interest yield on 10-year US Treasuries – the benchmark price of long-term credit for the global system – jumped 33 basis points last week to 3.45pc week on contagion effects after Standard & Poor’s issued a warning on Britain’s “AAA” credit rating.

The yield has risen over 90 basis points since March when the US Federal Reserve first announced its controversial plan to buy Treasury bonds directly, a move designed to force down the borrowing costs and help stabilise the housing market.

The yield-spike may be nearing the point where it threatens to short-circuit economic recovery. While lower spreads on mortgage rates have kept a lid on home loan costs so far, mortgage rates have nevertheless crept back up to 5pc.

The housing market hasn’t yet bottomed out and Britain isn’t the only country whose credit rating Standard & Poors is reviewing. If we can’t sell debt instruments there are only a couple avenues left to us aren’t there? And, as noted, both would certainly “short-circuit” any economic recovery.

~McQ


GM To Be “Chryslered”

I hesitate to call it bankruptcy when it is really a sham of a bankruptcy. In fact, it is the same sham that Chrysler has undergone:

The government previously indicated that it planned to take at least 50 percent of the restructured company, and likely would take the right to name members to its board of directors, as it has at Chrysler, where the government will control four of nine seats.

The United Auto Workers retiree health fund is set to own as much as 39 percent of the restructured GM, in exchange for giving up its claim to at least $10 billion that the company owes it. Yesterday, the union announced that it reached an agreement with GM that will reduce the company’s labor costs.

Still unknown is what part the Canadian government might play in the ongoing GM restructuring.

GM operates several plants north of the border. The Canadians agreed to invest about $3.5 billion in the Chrysler restructuring and control one of the nine board seats.

Sound familiar? So government will now have 5 of 9 board seats, the union has a huge share of the company and bondholders?

The chief obstacle to an out-of-court settlement for GM remains: There has been no agreement between the company and the investors who hold $27 billion worth of GM bonds.

Under orders from the Obama administration, GM has offered to give the bondholders a 10 percent equity stake in the restructured company in exchange for giving up their bonds.

That’s the offer made and, as you might imagine, bondholders are resisting this. That, of course, gives the administration the same excuse it used to take Chrysler to bankruptcy under its apparently newly written rules which gave government the lion’s share of ownership.

As you might imagine, not everyone is happy. And since this “bankruptcy” is now being politically managed, more politicians are getting into the act.

For instance, on the subject of cutting Chrysler dealerships:

There are also challenges outside court. Chrysler has moved to close 789 dealerships on June 9. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has introduced legislation that would withhold federal funding if the automaker does not give dealers an extra 60 days to close down operations and sell remaining inventory. Her amendment has won the backing of a number of other senators.

Should such legislation pass, you can expect something similar with GM.

And some Democrats aren’t particularly happy either:

Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he hopes to meet with White House officials today to discuss changing Chrysler’s bankruptcy plan and GM’s future. Conyers did not outline what he wanted, but a nine-person panel he assembled for a hearing yesterday offered a hint. Liberal consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a conservative Heritage Foundation analyst and minority auto dealers all criticized the automakers’ restructuring.

Conyers and other committee members attacked the administration for abusing bankruptcy laws, unfairly eliminating dealerships and jeopardizing consumer safety.

Yup, looks like the political bureaucracy is kicking into high-gear and you can just imagine how well this is going to work out, can’t you? That and the fact that contracts will never be viewed in the same light again have to make you fear for our economic future.


How…stimulating!

Apparently the Fed has decided that their doubling of the monetary base in the last 7 months has done so fantastically, that they’re ready to do more of it.

Some Federal Reserve officials are open to raising the amounts of mortgage and Treasury securities purchase programs beyond the $1.75 trillion that they have already committed to buying, according to minutes from the Fed’s April meeting.

Please pay no attention to the inflation lurking behind the curtain.  Our benevolent overlords have everything under control.  So, why more monetary loosening.

Officials, meanwhile, projected an even deeper recession than they expected three months earlier and a more sluggish recovery over the next two years as labor markets remain under pressure.

Huh.  So much for that “turned the corner’ crap from last month.  But that’s OK.  because, you see, if you’re in the middle of a bursted bubble cused by overly loose monetary policy in the first place, then the way to get back on track is an even looser monetary policy.  That’ll fix you right up, you see.

At least, that’s what the Harvard econo-boys tell us.  And they are, of course, the Best and Brightest.

Meanwhile, the DoL reports that weekly claims for unemployment for last week were revised upwards to 643,000, but this week’s numbers were only 628,500.  So, that’s a nice little downward tick.  Except that we’ve got all those upcoming claims from shutting down car dealerships for Chrysler and GM.  Let’s call that 2,000 dealerships with an average of–I’m just spit-balling, here–25 persons per dealership left unemployed.  Let’s call it 50,000 new claims ahead.


So Will The Federal Government Bail Out California?

Is it too big to fail? Megan McArdle believes the possibility certainly exists (I mean was Arnie really in DC yesterday just to see the sights). Says McArdle:

If the government does bail out the muni bond market, how should it go about things? The initial assumption is that they’ll only guarantee existing debt. Otherwise, it would be like handing the keys to the treasury to every mayor, county board, and state legislature, and telling them to go to town.

But once the treasury has bailed out a single state, there will be a strongly implied guarantee on all such debt. So you don’t give them the keys to the vaults, but you do leave a window open, point out where the money’s kept, and casually mention that you’ve given the armed guards the week off.

Of course the right answer is not to bail out either. Failure is a great teacher. And then there’s the moral hazzard angle.

But in this day and age, that’s approach is almost unthinkable apparently. Government, as we’re being told, is the answer to everything.

My fear, based on what the federal government has done to this point, is they’ll “hand the keys to the treasury” on both the muni bond market and the states (with bailouts). They have no business doing anything in either place, but we’ve already seen that the arbitrary assessment that some entity is too big to fail apparently takes priority over economic law.

Once a single state is bailed out, there is nothing to stop other states from making a similar claim on the treasury.

Should such a thing happen in either case (or both), Federalism, which is on its last legs anyway, will be officially dead.

~McQ


Predicted vs. Actual

Here’s an interesting little chart I found at Innocent Bystanders.  The light blue line is the Obama administration’s prediction of how terrible unemployment would be if we didn’t pass the stimulus plan.  The dark blue line is the prediction of how much better things would be we did pass it.  The dark red triangles show the actual unemployment statistics.

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

The Amazing Effectiveness of Stimulus

So, how’s that recovery plan working out for us?  Not so good, apparently.

I merely provide the chart for informational purposes.  I know it’s useless to make any criticisms of the actual performance of the plan, just as it was useless to predict that this is pretty much what would happen.

Besides, saying, “I told you so”, is so churlish and mean.


Podcast for 10 May 09

In this podcast, Michael, and Dale discuss the county’s failing energy and economic policies.

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.


Energy Policy – “10 Inconvenient Truths”

Sometimes the little surprises life hands you are the most pleasant. While in Houston at the Offshore Technology Conference, my trip sponsored by API, I happened to meet another blogger who introduced himself to me as a “raging liberal”. In the course of three days and a few good beers, Chris Nelder and I had some very enjoyable and interesting conversations. And, interestingly, Chris and I agree on where the policy debate stands as it pertains to energy. Chris wrote an outstanding article detailing his observations about the current situation, and, for the most part, I agree completely with his well thought out assessment. Here is his list of “10 Inconvenient Truths” that he feels all policy makers must understand before they can effectively plan for the future:

1. We have extracted nearly all of the world’s easy, cheap oil and gas, and now we’re getting down to the difficult, expensive stuff. The largest untapped resources that remain are in extreme places like deepwater and the Arctic, and marginal formations like shale. As a result, global oil production has for all intents and purposes peaked. Natural gas production will also peak in 10 to 15 years. Neither technology nor high prices will change that. Therefore we must begin to replace those fuels with renewables, and use what remains much more efficiently, with the expectation that most of the world’s oil and gas will be gone by the end of this century.

While I agree with Chris’s point about renewables, I’m not quite ready to buy into the idea that “most” of the world’s gas and oil will be gone by the end of the century, especially if we make progress developing cheap, renewable and clean alternatives. That’s not to say he might not be right, but I continue to look at the improvements in technology and the fact that the same sort of predictions have been made for decades and here we are. But on the main point of gearing up renewables, we agree completely. We must prepare for the possibility Chris is right and we need to do that now.

2. Drilling for oil and gas drilling in the OCS and ANWR must and will be done; our need for those fuels is simply too great to pass them up. An additional 2-3 mbpd will put a dent in the roughly 12 mbpd we now import, but if we drill for it now, it won’t come to market for 10 years or more. By that time, it probably won’t even compensate for the depletion of conventional oil in North America, nor will it do much to reduce prices. But it will be crucially necessary, and producing it won’t make an ugly mess of the environment.

You see someone on the left here who has studied the problem, understands the processes used and has formed an opinion that is outside his side’s political mainstream. He understands that technology has advanced to the point that the oil and gas industry can drill for oil and gas safely and with a very small footprint. In fact, advances in sub sea technology are almost to the point where the entire process can be safely and productively located under the waves. So, in a “comprehensive” scheme, the left has got to drop its almost knee-jerk resistance to such drilling and understand it must be a part of an overall energy solution.

3. Renewables are clearly the long-term answer, as is an all-electric infrastructure that runs on its clean power. However, it will likely take over 30 years for renewables to ramp up from a less than 2% share of primary energy today to 20% or more. They probably won’t even be able to fill the gap created by the decline of fossil fuels. Oil and gas currently provide about 58% of the world’s primary energy, and they will remain our primary fuels for a long time to come.

To believe “green fuels”/renewables are the immediate and total answer to today’s energy needs is to deny reality. We have to remember that there is going to be a growing energy gap as more and more nations come on-line in the first-world and demand more energy as a result. Oil, gas, nuclear and coal are going to play a large and significant part of bridging that gap even as we work to develop renewables. As a nation we cannot afford that sort of short-sighted thinking. It is critical that everyone understand that while the preference is for renewable, clean fuels, the reality is they’re still quite a ways off, while the energy demand continues to grow unabated and certainly with no concern for our personal energy preferences.

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How To Kill An Economic Recovery

Hugo Chávez is in the news again, appropriating and nationalizing more of the oil industry in his country.

That sort of move by him has become so routine that it almost isn’t news anymore. But this particular sentence caught my eye and reminded me of what we’ve seen here as well:

This move forms part of a broader assault against the private sector, which Mr Chávez has increasingly blamed as Venezuela slides into recession.

Vilification is a political tactic in use by a certain type of politician, and anyone paying attention to what has been going on in this country has seen it deployed in earnest against the wealthy and certain industry sectors in the US in the last few months. The health care industry is next. And, as in Venezuela, the government is being offered as the best alternative. Yet watching Venezuela, most understand the ramifications of moves such as Chavez is making on the long-term viability of Venezuela’s economy:

But analysts say that by shifting its problems onto its suppliers, PDVSA is storing up even bigger problems for the future. Not only does it lack the ability to operate as efficiently as the service providers, but it sends a grim signal to companies considering investing in Venezuela. Consequently, future oil production is under threat.

While the moves taking place here aren’t as drastic as those in Venezuela, they’re just as problematic. Government appointed board members on auto company boards and government calling the shots in the financial sector aren’t direct takeovers, but they portend a level of government meddling unseen here before. And health care and energy are next.

The key word in the quoted paragraph above is “investing”. Investors are very wary about both the auto and financial industries at this point. They’re wary of the auto industry because government is essentially throwing the bankruptcy procedures out of the window and those investors which should be guaranteed the first seat at the table for the recovery of their investment are now being vilified as “greedy” and pushed to the side. Any reason they or any other investor should take a monetary stake in either of the government controlled auto companies again? And given the experience with autos, don’t you suppose investors in the financial sector are having second thoughts?

Investment is the road to recovery in recessionary times. The moves Hugo Chávez is making in Venezuela are exactly the wrong moves in terms of economic recovery (not to mention being a complete violation of property rights). While not as drastic as Chávez, the moves the Obama administration have made are sending a similar signal to investors.  And that doesn’t bode well for a swift economic recovery.

Health care and energy are next.

~McQ


Knee-capping Recovery

Dale makes an incredibly important point about investment below – investors aren’t going to commit their money to industries which are being manipulated by government for political goals and payoffs.

And, the Wall Street Journal makes a similar argument about corporate taxation and the Obama administration’s apparent plan to compound the problem he hopes to “deincentivize” by driving both investors and US companies off shore..

The energy picture is no rosier. Because there is no comprehensive and clear-cut, long-term energy plan from government, and because it is clear to many that the present administration’s plans for energy involve achieving political goals dictated by government vs. a straight market based plan which would see decentralized signals and decisions determine the energy future, investors are sitting on the sidelines. As Sen. Murkowski said, too many in national government today see the energy sector, and especially the oil and gas industry, as an “ATM to pay for other programs”.

When government is so deeply involved in picking winners and losers, investors are not going to invest. Especially given the example of the car and financial industries.

You can guess what that means in terms of economic recovery, not to mention economic growth. Investment is the engine of economic growth. Without it, nothing sustainable happens. Government can make all the make-work jobs in the world, but until investors commit to the economy, we only mark time economically speaking. If anything government should create a climate that provides incentives for private investors – low taxes, favorable investment rules, etc. to encourage investors to risk their money here in the US.

Instead, we have at least three critical areas where government intrusion and manipulation is having exactly the opposite effect.

~McQ