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September 9, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

Did the Administration Make a Tactical Error?

Barry Ritholtz says the administration should have pursued financial reform before health care reform:

Tactical Error: Health Care vs Finance Regulatory Reform, by Barry Ritholtz: I believe the brain trust behind the Obama White House has made a huge tactical error.
As Rahm Emmanuel likes to say, one should "never waste a crisis" — and the White House has done just that.
There was a narrow window to effect a full regulatory reform of Wall Street, the Banking Industry and other causes of the collapse. Instead, the White House tacked in a different direction, pursuing health care reform.
This was an enormous miscalculation. ... What we got instead, was the usual lobbying efforts by the finance industry. They own Congress, lock stock and barrel, and they throttled Financial Reform. It did not help that the Obama economic team is filled with defenders of the Status Quo — primarily Summers, but it appears Geithner also — the dynamic duo that fiddled while the economy burned.
Such dithering can be fatal to an administration.
This was a colossal blunder. Passing reform legislation successfully would have fulfilled the campaign promise of "Change;" it would have created legislative momentum. It could have provided a healthy outlet for the Tea Party anger and the raucous Town Hall meetings. It might have even led to a "throw the Bums out" attitude in the mid-term elections, forcing the most radical de-regulators from office.
Also wasted: The enormous anti-Bush attitude throughout the country that swept team Obama into office. He should have been "Hooverized," and O should have tapped into that same wave to force the greatest set of Wall Street and Banking regulatory reforms seen since the 1930s.
Instead, we have a White House that appears adrift, and the most importantly, may very well have missed the best chance to clean up Wall Street in five generations.
Never waste a crisis, indeed . . .

I also believe that the administration should have moved faster on financial reform, but if the cost is to delay and possible endanger health care reform (lobbying efforts would have been in full force there too), then it's less clear. Would it have been impossible to do both? And where does climate change legislation fit into all of this?

"Rethinking GDP"

Joseph Stiglitz says we need better measures of economic performance:

Rethink GDP fetish, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Commentary, Project Syndicate: ...Eighteen months ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy established an international Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, owing to his dissatisfaction - and that of many others - with the current state of statistical information about the economy... On Sept. 14, the commission will issue its long-awaited report.
The big question concerns whether GDP provides a good measure of living standards. In many cases, GDP statistics seem to suggest that the economy is doing far better than most citizens' own perceptions. Moreover, the focus on GDP creates conflicts: political leaders are told to maximize it, but citizens also demand that attention be paid to enhancing security, reducing pollution, and so forth - all of which might lower GDP growth.
The fact that GDP may be a poor measure of well-being, or even of market activity, has, of course, long been recognized. But changes in society and the economy may have heightened the problems...
For example,... in one key sector - government - we ... often measure the output simply by the inputs. If government spends more - even if inefficiently - output goes up. In the last 60 years, the share of government output in GDP has increased [substantially]... So what was a relatively minor problem has now become a major one.
Likewise, quality improvements ... account for much of the increase in GDP nowadays. But assessing quality improvements is difficult. ...
Another marked change in most societies is an increase in inequality. ... If a few bankers get much richer, average income can go up, even as most individuals' incomes are declining. So GDP per person statistics may not reflect what is happening to most citizens.
We use market prices to value goods and services. But ... the ... pre-crisis profits of banks - one-third of all corporate profits - appear to have been a mirage.
This realization casts a new light not only on our measures of performance, but also on the inferences we make. Before the crisis, when U.S. growth ... seemed so much stronger than that of Europe, many Europeans argued that Europe should adopt U.S.-style capitalism. Of course, anyone who wanted to could have seen American households' growing indebtedness, which would have gone a long way toward correcting the false impression of success given by the GDP statistic.
Recent methodological advances have enabled us to assess better what contributes to citizens' sense of well-being... These studies, for instance, verify and quantify what should be obvious: the loss of a job has a greater impact than can be accounted for just by the loss of income. They also demonstrate the importance of social connectedness.
Any good measure of how well we are doing must also take account of sustainability..., our national accounts need to reflect the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of our environment.
Statistical frameworks are intended to summarize what is going on in our complex society in a few easily interpretable numbers. It should have been obvious that one couldn't reduce everything to a single number, GDP. The report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress ... should ... provide guidance for creating a broader set of indicators that more accurately capture both well-being and sustainability...

"Ugly Truths About Housing"

Ed Glaeser explains some of the lessons he's learned from the recent crash of housing markets:

What We've Learned: Ugly Truths About Housing, by Edward L. Glaeser: ...What have we learned from the great housing bubble and crash of the aughts? Most obviously, we have learned that housing prices can be extraordinary volatile. This was less obvious from previous housing cycles. ...
So let no one ever again say foolish things like housing prices never fall. In the current drop, eight of the 20 Case-Shiller areas had housing price drops of 40 percent of more. ... Buyers and bankers should never again think that an area's recent price increases are the sign of a strong market where prices have nowhere to go but up. In the long run, price increases are followed by price drops, and special caution, by regulators as well, needs to be taken in booming markets.
In places like Las Vegas and Phoenix, there are no fundamental constraints on building new homes — like a shortage of land or onerous restrictions on construction... I once thought that this obvious lack of limits on building meant that such open areas would sit bubbles out,... but I was wrong. The logic of supply and demand can be ignored for longer than I thought, but it ultimately reasserts itself.
The second lesson of the housing debacle is that there is extraordinary pain in both housing price busts and booms. When housing prices soared, ordinary Americans found it increasingly hard to afford a house. ... [This] logic pushed me to boo when housing became outrageously expensive. During the boom, I hoped that housing prices would stop rising and even decline.
Yet I didn't understand the terrible impact that declining housing prices would have on our financial sector. While rising housing prices weren't particularly good for America, declining housing prices were particularly bad for the country. The lesson seems to be that large swings in housing prices, in either direction, can be extremely painful.
The third lesson is that American housing policy has been monumentally foolish. We have used public resources to encourage ordinary Americans to bet all they could on highly risky housing markets. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the home mortgage interest deduction, even the willingness to bail out financial firms..., can all be seen as policies that encourage ordinary people to risk it all on real estate.
I had once thought that these policies were misguided, but not terrible. We now know that encouraging buyers and lenders to bet on housing can impose vast costs on the country. ...
I think that we have not yet fully faced the fact that our tax code encourages people to finance their homes with as much debt as possible, and that our financial regulations abet irresponsible lending.
Now that we have backed away from the abyss, we can consider making much-needed reforms, like reducing the upper cap on the home mortgage interest deduction, that could depress housing prices in the short run, but make future housing bubbles and crashes less likely.

I don't think much of the blame for the crisis can be placed on the home mortgage interest deduction, there was no big change in this deduction that corresponds to the start of the bubble. As for eliminating the deduction, though it's possible to make an argument that there are positive externalities to home ownership such as taking better care of the property, something that benefits surrounding properties, or having more involvement in the community, I don't think the case is very strong, particularly when the inequity between owners and renters is taken into consideration.

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