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June 24, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

FOMC Press Release

Not much new here, except perhaps the emphasis that the FOMC does not see inflation as a problem to be immediately concerned about. (Also, the WSJ notes that "officials deleted previous references to the risk that inflation could persist below desired rates, an indication that they don't see deflation as a risk." The Financial Times adds that the FOMC "maintained that it was moving ahead with its $300bn Treasury purchase plan and said that it would 'continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities'. It made no changes to its previously announced plans for the total volume of purchases or for timing." Bloomberg makes the same points.):

Press Release, Release Date: June 24, 2009, For immediate release: Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April suggests that the pace of economic contraction is slowing. Conditions in financial markets have generally improved in recent months. Household spending has shown further signs of stabilizing but remains constrained by ongoing job losses, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Businesses are cutting back on fixed investment and staffing but appear to be making progress in bringing inventory stocks into better alignment with sales. Although economic activity is likely to remain weak for a time, the Committee continues to anticipate that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, fiscal and monetary stimulus, and market forces will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth in a context of price stability.

The prices of energy and other commodities have risen of late. However, substantial resource slack is likely to dampen cost pressures, and the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued for some time.

In these circumstances, the Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote economic recovery and to preserve price stability. The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period. As previously announced, to provide support to mortgage lending and housing markets and to improve overall conditions in private credit markets, the Federal Reserve will purchase a total of up to $1.25 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities and up to $200 billion of agency debt by the end of the year. In addition, the Federal Reserve will buy up to $300 billion of Treasury securities by autumn. The Committee will continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. The Federal Reserve is monitoring the size and composition of its balance sheet and will make adjustments to its credit and liquidity programs as warranted.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Elizabeth A. Duke; Charles L. Evans; Donald L. Kohn; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Daniel K. Tarullo; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.

"Obama and 'Regulatory Capture'"

Thomas Frank says the administration's regulatory overhaul plan is not putting enough emphasis on the problem of regulatory capture:

Obama and 'Regulatory Capture', by Thomas Frank, Commentary, WSJ: ...We have just come through the most wrenching financial disaster in decades, brought about in no small part by either the absence of federal regulation or the amazing indifference of the regulators.

This is the moment for a ringing reclamation of the regulatory project. President Barack Obama is clearly the sort of man who could do it. But ... a white paper his administration released on the subject last week ... uses bland, impersonal explanations for the current crisis. Regulatory agencies were ill-designed... Their jurisdictions overlapped. They had blind spots. They had been obsolete for years.

All of which is true enough. What the report leaves largely unaddressed, however, is the political problem. ... The people who filled regulatory jobs in the past administration were asleep at the switch because they were supposed to be. ...

The reason for that is simple: There are powerful institutions that don't like being regulated. Regulation sometimes cuts into their profits... So they have used the political process to sabotage, redirect, defund, undo or hijack the regulatory state since the regulatory state was first invented.

The first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was set up to regulate railroad freight rates in the 1880s. Soon thereafter, Richard Olney, a prominent railroad lawyer, came to Washington to serve as Grover Cleveland's attorney general. Olney's former boss asked him if he would help kill off the hated ICC. Olney's reply ... should be regarded as an urtext of the regulatory state:

"The Commission . . . is, or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of the railroads, at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things. . . . The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it."

The George W. Bush administration elevated this strategy to a snickering, sarcastic art form. It gave us a Food and Drug Administration that sometimes looked as though it was taking orders from Big Pharma, an Environmental Protection Agency that could never rouse itself from the recliner, an energy policy that might well have been dictated by Enron, and a Consumer Product Safety Commission that moved like a rusty wind-up toy.

And it created a situation where banking regulators posed for pictures with banking lobbyists while putting a chainsaw to a pile of regulations. ...

Misgovernment of this kind is not a partisan phenomenon, of course. Democrats have been guilty of it as well as Republicans. ... Yet today we talk around this problem, with its nose-on-your-face obviousness, as though it didn't exist. It's not until page 29 of the Obama administration's densely worded white paper that you find a reference to "regulatory capture," and then it is buried in a list of items to be considered by a future Treasury working group. ...

[T]he administration must go further. ... After all, the Bush team was only able to install the dreadful regulators it did because the governance of federal agencies was rarely a topic of public debate in those days. Mr. Obama should make it an unavoidable subject, something that future politicians will be required to address. The issue cries out for it. And the nation, for once, is listening.

I see this a little bit different. I think the regulatory capture that helped to open the door for the current crisis had more to do with the adoption and promotion of free market ideology and the culture that ideology brought about within the regulatory bodies than to direct capture by regulated industries.

The financail industry certainly promoted the free market, self-healing, self-regulating approach since it coincided with their interests in shedding regulatory constraints, and they also aided politicians who promoted these ideas. Those politicians, in turn, made appointments to key positions within regulatory agencies that were designed to further this ideology and that, too, contributed to the changing culture within the regulatory bodies.

But the idea that, in almost all cases cases markets will self-correct and self-regulate, and that society is best served with a hands off approach to these markets, did not originate within industry. It came from a dominant strain of economic thought supported by theoretical models and empirical evidence. Without the support of these models, the empirical evidence, and the many economists who carried the message - and most of the profession did - it would have been much more difficult for industry to successfully promote the "deregulation is good for everybody always and everywhere" within the political and regulatory arenas.

I don't want to be mistaken here, I still believe that most markets function well with minimal regulation, and that a hands off approach is generally best. But I hope we have learned that financial markets are not among the markets for which this is true. I also hope that, as a profession, we will be more receptive to the idea that markets can fail, and can do so catastrophically, that we will build models that help us to better understand how to minimize the risk that markets will break down, and more importantly that we will interpret data with this in mind. All of the data in the world is useless if you cannot see, refuse to see, or cannot accept what it is trying to tell you.

"Critics of a Public Option for Health Care Are Wrong"

Robert Reich addresses objections to including a public plan as part of the health care reform package:

Why the Critics of a Public Option for Health Care Are Wrong, by Robert Reich [longer version]: ...Critics say the public option is really a Trojan horse for a government takeover of all of health insurance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It's an option. No one has to choose it. ...

Private insurers say a public option would have an unfair advantage..., it will have large economies of scale that will enable it to negotiate more favorable terms with pharmaceutical companies and other providers. But why, exactly, is this unfair? ... If the public plan negotiates better terms -- thereby demonstrating that ... providers can meet them -- private plans could seek similar deals.

But, say the critics, the public plan starts off with an unfair advantage because it's likely to have lower administrative costs. That may be true -- Medicare's administrative costs per enrollee are a small fraction of typical private insurance costs -- but here again, why exactly is this unfair? Isn't one of the goals ... to lower administrative costs? If the public option pushes private plans to trim their bureaucracies and become more efficient, that's fine. ...

Critics charge that the public plan will be subsidized by the government. Here they have their facts wrong. Under every plan that's being discussed on Capitol Hill, subsidies go to individuals and families who need them in order to afford health care, not to a public plan. Individuals and families use the subsidies to shop for the best care they can find. They're free to choose the public plan, but that's only one option. ... Legislation should also make crystal clear that the public plan ... may not dip into general revenues to cover its costs. It must pay for itself. And any government entity that oversees ... health-insurance ... must not favor the public plan.

Finally, critics say that because of its breadth and national reach, the public plan will be able to collect and analyze patient information on a large scale to discover the best ways to improve care. The public plan might even allow clinicians who form accountable-care organizations to keep a portion of the savings they generate. Those opposed to a public option ask how private plans can ever compete with all this. The answer is they can and should. It's the only way we have a prayer of taming health-care costs. But here's some good news for the private plans. The information gleaned by the public plan about best practices will be made available to the private plans...

As a practical matter, the choice people make between private plans and a public one is likely to function as a check on both. Such competition will encourage private plans to do better... At the same time, it will encourage the public plan to be as flexible as possible. ... [T]he president ... should come out swinging for the public option.

links for 2009-06-24

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