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September 27, 2010

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Paul Krugman: Structure of Excuses

Posted: 27 Sep 2010 12:42 AM PDT

Arguments that we can't do anything about the unemployment problem are structurally unsound:

Structure of Excuses, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: What can be done about mass unemployment? All the wise heads agree: there are no quick or easy answers. There is work to be done, but workers aren't ready to do it — they're in the wrong places, or they have the wrong skills. Our problems are "structural," and will take many years to solve. ...
Who are these wise heads I'm talking about? ...Narayana Kocherlakota, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis,... has attracted a lot of attention by insisting that dealing with high unemployment isn't a Fed responsibility: "Firms have jobs, but can't find appropriate workers. The workers want to work, but can't find appropriate jobs," he asserts, concluding that "It is hard to see how the Fed can do much to cure this problem."
Now, the Minneapolis Fed is known for its conservative outlook, and claims that unemployment is mainly structural do tend to come from the right... But some people on the other side of the aisle say similar things. For example, former President Bill Clinton recently told an interviewer that unemployment remained high because "people don't have the job skills for the jobs that are open."
Well,... what should we be seeing if statements like those of Mr. Kocherlakota or Mr. Clinton were true? The answer is, there should be significant labor shortages somewhere... — major industries that are trying to expand but are having trouble hiring, major classes of workers who find their skills in great demand, major parts of the country with low unemployment even as the rest of the nation suffers.
None of these things exist. Job openings have plunged in every major sector, while the number of workers forced into part-time employment ... has soared. Unemployment has surged in every major occupational category. Only three states, with a combined population not much larger than that of Brooklyn, have unemployment rates below 5 percent.
Oh, and where are these firms that "can't find appropriate workers"? The National Federation of Independent Business has been surveying small businesses for many years, asking them to name their most important problem; the percentage citing problems with labor quality is now at an all-time low...
So all the evidence contradicts the claim that we're mainly suffering from structural unemployment. Why, then, has this claim become so popular?
Part of the answer is that this ... always happens during periods of high unemployment — ...pundits and analysts believe that declaring the problem deeply rooted, with no easy answers, makes them sound serious.
I've been looking at what self-proclaimed experts were saying about unemployment during the Great Depression; it was almost identical to what Very Serious People are saying now. Unemployment cannot be brought down rapidly, declared one 1935 analysis, because the work force is "unadaptable and untrained. It cannot respond to the opportunities which industry may offer." A few years later, a large defense buildup finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy's needs — and suddenly industry was eager to employ those "unadaptable and untrained" workers.
But now, as then, powerful forces are ideologically opposed to ... government action on a sufficient scale to jump-start the economy. And that, fundamentally, is why claims that we face huge structural problems have been proliferating: they offer a reason to do nothing about the mass unemployment that is crippling our economy and our society. ...
We aren't suffering from a shortage of needed skills; we're suffering from a lack of policy resolve. As I said, structural unemployment isn't a real problem, it's an excuse — a reason not to act on America's problems at a time when action is desperately needed.

"Raters Ignored Proof of Unsafe Loans"

Posted: 27 Sep 2010 12:24 AM PDT

This sounds pretty fishy:

Raters Ignored Proof of Unsafe Loans, Panel Is Told, by Gretchen Morgenstern, NY Times: As the mortgage market grew frothy in 2006 ... ratings agencies charged with assessing risk in mortgage pools dismissed conclusive evidence that many of the loans were dubious, according to testimony given last week to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. ...

D. Keith Johnson, a former president of Clayton Holdings, a company that analyzed mortgage pools for the Wall Street firms that sold them, told the commission on Thursday that almost half the mortgages Clayton sampled from the beginning of 2006 through June 2007 failed to meet crucial quality benchmarks that banks had promised to investors. Yet, Clayton found, Wall Street was placing many of the troubled loans into bundles known as mortgage securities.

Mr. Johnson said he took this data to officials at Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings and to the executive team at Moody's Investors Service. "We went to the ratings agencies and said, 'Wouldn't this information be great for you to have as you assign tranche levels of risk?' " ... But none of the agencies took him up on his offer, he said, indicating that it was against their business interests to be too critical of Wall Street. "If any one of them would have adopted it," he testified, "they would have lost market share." ...

Before assembling mortgage pools, brokerage firms hired independent analytical companies like Clayton to sample loans and flag any that were problematic. Clayton was one of two large due diligence companies that watched for loans that did not meet specifications like geographic diversity and the loan-to-value ratios..., as well as the credit scores and incomes of borrowers. ...

Because these loan samples were provided to the Wall Street investment banks that commissioned them, they could see throughout 2006 and into 2007 that the mortgages they were financing and selling to investors were becoming increasingly sketchy.

The results of the Clayton analyses were not disclosed to investors buying the loan pools. Instead, Wall Street firms used the information to pressure the lenders issuing the most troubled loans to accept a lower price for them, according to prosecutors who have investigated these cases.

A more proper procedure ... would have been for lenders ... to buy back the problem loans and replace them with higher-quality mortgages. But because these companies did not have enough capital to do that, they were happy to sell the troubled mortgages cheaply to the brokerage firms.

Since Wall Street firms were paying lower prices for the troubled loans, they could have passed along those discounts to customers, reducing investor risk. But Wall Street charged investors the same high prices associated with better-quality loans, thereby increasing their own profits on the problematic securities... To be sure, the prospectuses ... contained brief warnings that some of the mortgages might not meet stated underwriting standards. But few investors probably realized that huge portions of the pools had failed to meet the benchmarks. ...

links for 2010-09-26

Posted: 26 Sep 2010 11:03 PM PDT

Reich: Republican Economics as Social Darwinism

Posted: 26 Sep 2010 04:14 PM PDT

Robert Reich:

Republican Economics as Social Darwinism, by Robert Reich: John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life."
Actually, those weren't Boehner's words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover's treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929. But they might as well have been Boehner's because Hoover's and Mellon's means of purging the rottenness was by doing exactly what Boehner and his colleagues are now calling for: shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget. And we all know what happened after 1929, at least until FDR reversed course.
Boehner and other Republicans would even like to roll back the New Deal and get rid of Barack Obama's smaller deal health-care law. The issue isn't just economic. We're back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them. In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.
Republicans have wanted to destroy Social Security since it was invented in 1935... Republicans also hate unemployment insurance. ... Finally, like Hoover and Mellon, Republicans want to cut the deficit and balance the budget at a time when a large portion of the workforce is idle.
This defies economic logic. When consumers aren't spending, businesses aren't investing and exports can't possibly fill the gap, and when state governments are slashing their budgets, the federal government has to spend more. Otherwise, the Great Recession will turn into exactly what Hoover and Mellon ushered in – a seemingly endless Great Depression.
It's also cruel. Cutting the deficit and balancing the budget any time soon will subject tens of millions of American families to unnecessary hardship and throw even more into poverty.
Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon thought their economic policies would purge the rottenness out of the system and lead to a more moral life. Instead, it purged morality out of the system and lead to a more rotten life for millions of Americans.
And that's exactly what Republicans are offering yet again.

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