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June 22, 2010

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View


Fed Watch: China, Day One

Posted: 22 Jun 2010 12:33 AM PDT

Tim Duy follows up on his post expressing skepticism about China's announcement that it intends to increase the RMB exchange rate flexibility:

China, Day One, by Tim Duy: My skepticism was valid for at least a day. Market participants quickly lost interest in the Chinese revaluation story, with stock ending down for the day:

"The announcement out of China elicited an emotional response from the market," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist at RidgeWorth Investments in Richmond, Virginia, which oversees $63 billion. "A closer look at the announcement suggests China's approach is very gradual and it is continuing at its own pace. It's a less dramatic move when looked at more closely."

The muted reaction was not limited to equities:

Treasuries pared losses on speculation the drop in debt in response to China's decision to allow a more flexible yuan was too big to be sustained.

"The market is coming to the conclusion that it had overreacted to the news out of China," said Charles Comiskey, head of Treasury trading at Bank of Nova Scotia in New York. "The policy and what it ultimately means is an open question. It's so vague."

The yuan "surged" to just below its existing trading range, while the parity rate was adjusted slightly in response to Monday's moves. This fostered a yuan decline:

China's yuan declined the most since December 2008 on speculation the central bank will encourage more two-way fluctuations in the exchange rate after it pledged to expand flexibility.

The People's Bank of China set the reference rate for yuan trading 0.43 percent stronger, the biggest gain in five years, reflecting appreciation yesterday. China's reforms don't necessarily mean the currency will appreciate, the official People's Daily reported yesterday.

"There is bigger two-way fluctuation, which is quite normal," said Lu Zhengwei, an economist at Industrial Bank Co. in Shanghai. "The reference rate shows it is now based on market demand and supply, and no longer strictly controlled."

The yuan declined 0.2 percent to 6.8111 per dollar as of 10:17 a.m. in Shanghai, from 6.7976 yesterday, according to the China Foreign Exchange Trade system. That was the biggest loss since December 2008. It strengthened as much as 0.1 percent to 6.79 earlier today.

In any event, the today's market response to the Chinese announcement suggests that this is a considerably less dramatic event than the press would like you to believe. Of course, the press is being spoon-fed the news by Washington. From the Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama, badly in need of good news, got some over the weekend from the most unlikely of sources: China, which said it would allow the value of its currency to rise, thereby answering the single most fervent prayer U.S. officials utter when seeking divine intervention to help with America's big trade deficit.

...the two moves show that the U.S.-Chinese relationship has a healthier glow than it did just a few months ago, when the two nations were arguing about global warming, a visit by the Dalai Lama to the White House and American arms sales to Taiwan.

More importantly, the steps suggest a certain maturing of China's view of its role in global affairs—and a more deft touch by the Obama administration in coaxing China into playing that role responsibly.

Note the spin - China's decision represents a "maturing," aided by the "deft touch" of the Obama Administration. Now, what did China exactly do to "mature?" China has not unpegged their currency. At best, they resumed a crawling peg policy put on hiatus two years ago. At worst, they simply uttered empty words that have no real economic relevance, whose only intention was to divert attention from China at the upcoming G20 meeting, allowing for a full court press on Germany. German Chancellor Angel Merkel should take a hint and issue the following statement: "The focus of German fiscal policy will be consistent with G20 goals of promoting global growth." Of course, German policymakers believe that means fiscal austerity, but no matter. It is the words that are important. Actions less so.

The PR overload suggests the Administration is desperately in need of a "win," no matter how trivial. After all, there is a hole in the Gulf of Mexico that is leaking oil uncontrollably, creating an environmental disaster that may rival what, Chernobyl? And it is clear the Administration was late in the game realizing the magnitude of the crisis. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers around 10%, and no one expects it to be much different in six months. While likely sustainable, economic growth is anemic compared to previous recoveries from deep recessions, and appears to guarantee a substantial output gap for years to come. The Administration has no real plan to close that gap, nor do they appear particularly troubled by it. Policymakers can't even push through a low cost jobs bill.

But these are lesser problems. The full effort of American power can instead come to bear on Chinese currency policy and walk away with a monumental commitment to allow the dollar-renminbi rate to fluctuate within its existing trading band and perhaps appreciate imperceptibly.

While China appears willing to adjust the parity rate, changes are likely to be more window dressing than anything else. The industrial base shifted from the US to China over the past twenty years, a transition aided by the Clinton Administration's commitment to a strong dollar, and it is not going to come rushing back for a for percentage points of currency value. The structural shift has happened, and it won't reverse easily. Still, the story is not over yet. With this much praise, the Administration is clearly looking for something else from China. Further support on Iran? North Korea? Time will tell.

Fannie, Freddie, and Fixed Rate Mortgages

Posted: 22 Jun 2010 12:24 AM PDT

Richard Green says "If we do away with Fannie and Freddie, we may also do away with the 30-year fixed rate mortgage," and that may not be good for home buyers:

Bob Hagerty blogs about Patrick Lawyer on Fixed Rate Mortgages, by Richard Green: He writes, in part:

Allotted only about 10 minutes to share his vision, Mr. Lawler....first made the obligatory statement that he was expressing his own views and not those of his federal agency. Yeah, right, I thought, and reached for my triple espresso.
But then Mr. Lawler launched a frontal assault on the most sacred element in U.S. housing-policy dogma: the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage loan, providing the right to refinance at any time, with no prepayment penalty. If more members of the audience had been fully awake at this moment, I feel sure that their gasps would have been audible.
Now, Americans are very attached to their 30-year fixed-rate freely prepayable mortgages. They like not having to fuss about the possibility of 28% interest rates in 2032, even though most of us will move or die long before then. They love to refinance every time rates drop and then brag to their neighbors about how much they are saving per month.
What they don't stop to realize often enough is that they are paying a very large price for that privilege– twice.
The context is important.  One of the reasons the 30 year fixed rate mortgage is ubiquitous is the United States may be the existence of Fannie and Freddie.  If we do away with FF, we may also do away with the 30-year fixed rate mortgage.  So let me defend the 30-year fixed a bit with something I wrote about 3 years ago:
The problem with advising people to use adjustable rate mortgages, however, is that ARMs give households liabilities that have short duration--that is, liabilities whose market value remains close to face value at all times. This is because the rates on ARMs by definition change to meet market rates on a regular basis. Houses, on the other hand, are assets with lots of duration. The services they give to homeowners (shelter and a set of amenities) is pretty much invariant to market conditions. Consequently, house values change with market conditions, such as changing interest rates.
Good financial management practice suggests that to minimize risk, the duration of of assets and liabilities for any institution, including households, should be matched. In the case of houses, this means that households looking to minimize risk should use a fixed rate mortgage to finance their house. There are exceptions--if one buys a house and expects to sell it in five years, a five year ARM makes lots of sense, because the duration of the asset (housing services over five years) and the liability would match.
This is not to say there is anything wrong per se with people getting ARMS, so long as they explicitly understand the risk embedded in them. But a principle I have been pushing for years is that if people can't afford a house with a fixed-rate mortgage, they probably shouldn't buy a house. It is one thing to have the option of the FRM, and then decide to take the risk of the ARM anyway. One of the nice things about the United States is that FRMs are easy to come by--this is not true in most countries around the world. It is something else to be forced into taking a risk in order to buy. Under these circumstances, buying probably isn't worth it. 

links for 2010-06-21

Posted: 21 Jun 2010 11:03 PM PDT

"How to Impress the Bond Markets"

Posted: 21 Jun 2010 12:16 PM PDT

Dean Baker says there's more than one way to reassure bond markets, and cutting benefits for retirees in need of the money is one of the worst options available:

How to impress the bond markets, by Dean Baker, Commentary, CIF: The deficit hawks have been pushing the line in recent months that we have to make cuts in social security, along with some revenue increases, in order to reassure the bond markets about the creditworthiness of the US government. According to this argument, by taking tough steps (i.e. cutting social security benefits) we will have shown the bond markets that we are prepared to do what is necessary to keep our budget deficits within manageable levels.
There is some reason to question the merits of this argument. First off, the deficit hawks don't have an especially good track record in the insight category. Not one person among the leading crusaders was able to see the $8tn housing bubble that wrecked the economy. ...
Furthermore, the fixation on social security is peculiar. The Congressional Budget Office shows the program can pay all future benefits through the year 2044 with no changes whatsoever. Even after that date the shortfalls are relatively minor. ...
Furthermore, cutting benefits for near-retirees (workers in their late 40s and 50s) seems cruel and unwarranted. These people paid for their benefits through decades of work. Also, this cohort has seen most of the wealth that they did manage to accumulate destroyed with the collapse of the housing bubble and the plunge in the stock market. The bulk of this cohort will therefore be relying on social security for the overwhelming majority of their retirement income.
For these reasons, the determination to cut social security has the feeling of the class bullies telling the rest of us that we have beat up the weakest kid in the class in order to be admitted to the club. That may be the way things work in Washington, but this doesn't mean it is right.
If the issue is assuaging the bond markets by convincing them that we are prepared to take tough choices to limit long-term deficits, let's put a few other items on the table. For item number 1: how about a financial speculation tax? Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed by seeing Congress crack down on the Wall Street hot shots whose recklessness helped fueled the housing bubble? That one would show real courage given the power of Goldman Sachs-Citigroup gang.
As a second item, Congress could go after the pharmaceutical industry. By 2020 we are projected to be spending almost $500bn a year on prescription drugs. We pay close to twice as much for our drugs as people in other wealthy countries and about 10 times as much as the drugs would cost if they could be sold in competitive market without government patent monopolies.
Suppose Congress decided to pay for the clinical testing of drugs directly and then allowed all new drugs to be sold as generics. This could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed by seeing Congress stand up to the pharmaceutical industry?
As a third item, suppose Congress revisited plans for a public insurance option. The Congressional Budget Office projected that this would save over $100bn by 2020 and certainly much more in future decades. Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed if Congress stood up to the insurance industry?
These are three clear ways in which Congress can take big steps towards reducing long-term budget deficits by standing up to powerful interest groups. In each case Congress would be reducing the deficit in ways that would likely make most people better off, not worse off. If bringing the long-term deficit into line is the issue, all three of these measures should be at the top of everyone's list.

Remarkably, the leading budget hawks never discuss these measures when they push their deficit-cutting agenda. Somehow we are supposed to believe that cutting social security will do the trick with the markets, even though this will hurt tens of millions of people who actually need the money. ...[W]e should just view them as people who want to cut social security and are putting out some nonsense to rationalize beating up on retirees.

The good news is that Alan Simpson appears to have neutered the Deficit Commission:

It must have sounded like a good idea (although not to me): establish a bipartisan commission of Serious People to develop plans to bring the federal budget under control. But the commission is already dead — and zombies did it.

OK, the immediate problem is the statements of Alan Simpson, the commission's co-chairman. And what got reporters' attention was the combination of incredible insensitivity – the "lesser people"??? — and flat errors of fact.

But it's actually much worse than that. On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie — that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.

Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first.

We went through all this at length back in 2005, but let me do this yet again.

Social Security is a government program funded by a dedicated tax. There are two ways to look at this. First, you can simply view the program as part of the general federal budget, with the the dedicated tax bit just a formality. And there's a lot to be said for that point of view; if you take it, benefits are a federal cost, payroll taxes a source of revenue, and they don't really have anything to do with each other.

Alternatively, you can look at Social Security on its own. And as a practical matter, this has considerable significance too; as long as Social Security still has funds in its trust fund, it doesn't need new legislation to keep paying promised benefits.

OK, so two views, both of some use. But here's what you can't do: you can't have it both ways. You can't say that for the last 25 years, when Social Security ran surpluses, well, that didn't mean anything, because it's just part of the federal government — but when payroll taxes fall short of benefits, even though there's lots of money in the trust fund, Social Security is broke.

And bear in mind what happens when payroll receipts fall short of benefits: NOTHING. No new action is required; the checks just keep going out.

So what does it mean that the co-chair of the commission is resurrecting this zombie lie? It means that at even the most basic level of discussion, either (a) he isn't willing to deal in good faith or (b) the zombies have eaten his brain. And in either case, there's no point going on with this farce.

Speaking of zombies, on Facebook, John Quiggin, author of the forthcoming Zombie Economics (i.e., dead ideas finding new life), says:

Would have been great to have a section on the revival of balanced budget ideology in the European crisis, but that's bookbiz.

It's not just Europe. But in any case, how the words "Deficit Commission" and "cuts to Social Security" became roughly equivalent is a bit of a mystery since the rising cost of health care not Social Security, is the primary problem. The focus on Social Security does speak to the ability of those with power and influence to affect the public debate on these issues, but the simple truth is that if we fix the health cost problem then almost all of the long-run deficit problem goes away. But as others have pointed out, the deficit hawks block any attempts in this direction with charges like "death panels," and that raises questions about the true agenda behind these efforts.

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