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November 30, 2011

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Self-Referral Increases Medical Costs

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 12:42 AM PST

This isn't a surprise -- we've known about this problem for a long time -- the question is why we haven't done something about it:

Self-referral leads to more negative exams for patients, EurekAlert: Physicians who have a financial interest in imaging equipment are more likely to refer their patients for potentially unnecessary imaging exams...
"Self-referral," whereby a non-radiologist physician orders imaging exams and directs patients to imaging services in which that physician has a financial interest, is a concerning trend in medicine and a significant driver of healthcare costs. "Self-referred medical imaging has been shown to be an important contributor to escalating medical costs," said Ben E. Paxton, M.D., radiology resident at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. ...
Between 2000 and 2005, ownership or leasing of MRI equipment by non-radiologists grew by 254 percent, compared to 83 percent among radiologists. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the proportion of non-radiologists billing for in-office imaging more than doubled from 2000 to 2006. During that same time period, private office imaging utilization rates by non-radiologists who control patient referral grew by 71 percent.
For the study, the researchers set out to determine if utilization of lumbar spine MRI differs, depending on the financial interest of the physician ordering the exam. They reviewed 500 consecutive diagnostic lumbar spine MRI exams ordered by two orthopedic physician groups serving the same community. The first group had financial interest in the MRI equipment used (FI group), and the second had no financial interest in the equipment (NFI group). ...
"Orthopedic surgeons with financial interest in the equipment had a much higher rate of negative lumbar spine MRIs," Dr. Paxton said. "In addition, they were much more likely to order MRI exams on younger patients. This suggests that there is a different clinical threshold for ordering MRI exams in the setting of financial incentivization."
Dr. Paxton added that increased imaging utilization due to self-referral may not yield medically useful information and may place the patient at risk for potential adverse consequences.
"It is important for patients to be aware of the problem of self-referral and to understand the conflict of interest that exists when their doctor orders an imaging exam and then collects money on that imaging exam," he said.

Links for 2011-11-30

Posted: 30 Nov 2011 12:06 AM PST

More Europessimism

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 03:42 PM PST

One more from Tim Duy:

More Europessimism, by Tim Duy: I hate to beat a dead horse, but the situation in Europe is dire, and two issues crossing my desk this afternoon only add to my angst. First, Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior sees that the ECB is losing all control of monetary policy:

Based on entirely different indicators this looks to be the point where the ECB's control over Eurozone monetary policy began to come unmoored.

At the crux of the problem seems to be the inability to arbitrage away differences in funding costs between institutions and countries because of malfunctioning in the European Repo market.

This malfunctioning appears to be down right mechanical with trades regularly not settling on time, collateral not being delivered, awkward interventions by local regulatory agencies and a host of other deep, deep problems.

Very, very scary - remember that the ECB is the last great hope. But it can't be effective if the European banking system collapses, which looks more likely each day. A signal that the related rush to cash is severe is that the ECB is no longer able to fully sterilize its asset purchases. Stories at the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Recognize the risk that even when the ECB switches to quantitative easing, the resulting cash just sits unused in bank reserves. Sound familiar? Europe has liquidity trap written all over it.

A second point comes from Edward Harrison, who spots a story which claims France and Germany are looking to impose a strict zero (!) percent budget deficit target by 2016. Harrison's take:

Note that an adjustment to balanced budgets throughout the euro zone requires either an exactly equivalent offset in private sector savings down or in the export sector up . So implicitly, Germany and France are calling for a massive private sector dissaving or a large reduction in the external value of the euro area currency. I see this as a pipe dream. It tells you that bad things are definitely going to happen in Euroland.

This is my fear - that Germany and France continue to press ahead with the "austerity first" plan, with the ECB cheering them along. Unequivocally, this is not going to work. It hasn't worked yet, and there is zero reason to believe that it will in the future. All Europe is doing is setting itself up for greater speculative attacks as each new turn toward austerity pushes the deficit targets further out of reach.

We are setting the stage for a massive counter-example to the US reaction to its financial crisis. The US allowed the fiscal deficit to swell while force-feeding capital to the banking sector (not enough, but that is another story). Europe is pushing for massive fiscal austerity and, to prevent additional fiscal borrowing, pretending that the banks can survive via "liability management exercises." If you think the US would have been better off shrinking the deficit while letting the banking system collapse, it is time for you to go long on Europe.

For the rest of us, enjoy the policy-driven market upturns while they last.

Another European "Solution" Coming?

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 12:15 PM PST

Tim Duy:

Another European "Solution" Coming?, by Tim Duy: Financial market participants continue to digest what is viewed as generally good news coming out of Europe. Importantly, European policymakers appear to be aggressively moving toward what they see as an overarching response to the crisis. Edward Harrison at Credit Writedowns offers a possible three pillar policy path that has emerged in recent days. My summary:

  1. An IMF aid package for Italy and likely Spain, financed by the ECB.
  2. A credible, binding agreement for EU fiscal oversight. In return, the ECB would intervene more aggressively to support sovereign debt.
  3. A path to Eurobonds, assuming point 2 above.

Despite these optimistic signals, there remains room for plenty of disappointment in the days ahead. Notably, Reuters reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not back Eurobonds or additional ECB intervention. This may be just internal posturing, but does speak to the high degree of internal resistance toward greater EU fiscal integration. Moreover, we have seen in the past the internal bickering yields responses that seem bold at first but quickly fail to stabilize the crisis.

And, when assessing the economic impact, what you don't see is as important as what you do see. What I don't see here is:

  1. A path to true fiscal integration, which would imply direct transfers from relatively rich to relatively poor member states.
  2. Similarly, a new path toward internal rebalancing. A commitment to stronger fiscal oversight implies continued pursuit of rebalancing via deflation in troubled economies. Moreover, as Paul Krugman notes, this will be attempted in the context of low inflation, which only exacerbates and extends the pain of adjustment. This path only ensures deeper recession.
  3. A coordinated, continent-wide banking sector recapitalization. Note that Moody's just placed European bank debt under review. Downgrades are almost inevitable at this point.
  4. An open door for stimulative policies to offset the demand contraction currently underway.

These are not small details. My fear is that European leaders think they can avoid these issues by enshrining fiscal austerity which, when combined with ECB intervention, will end the sovereign debt crisis. Confidence fairies will then fly to the rescue and fix the rest of the problems. To be sure, I think getting the sovereign debt crisis under control is critically important, but that alone will not stop the recession from deepening.

For those still expecting a mild European recession, I offer up Bloomberg's chart of the day - shipping rates from China to the US and Europe. The text:

Slumping shipping costs show exports to Europe from China are "falling off a cliff" as the euro- region crisis chokes off consumer spending, according to RS Platou Markets AS, a unit of Norway's biggest shipbroking group.

The CHART OF THE DAY shows how the cost of hauling goods to Europe from China is falling faster than rates for deliveries to the U.S. The price for shipments to Europe is down 39 percent to $511 per twenty-foot box since Aug. 31, according to figures from Clarkson Securities Ltd., a unit of the world's largest shipbroker. That's more than double the 18 percent slide in the cost to the U.S. West Coast, measured in 40-foot units.

Not surprisingly, the appreciation of the renminbi has come to a standstill as Chinese authorities act to support exporters.

Finally, note that Portuguese bond yields are pushing higher in recent days, up 15bp to 13.60% today, above the highs of last July. It looks like market participants expect the next bailout will require some private sector involvement. Unsurprisingly, austerity isn't working. From Market News International:

The deterioration of Europe's debt crisis over the past months is hitting Portugal's banking sector and making it more difficult for the country to execute its fiscal adjustment program, the Bank of Portugal said in its financial stability report published Tuesday.

The central bank noted that in the past six months, the "materialization of risks" to financial stability have intensified "substantially," both internationally and inside Portugal. "This aggravation of economic and financial conditions has resulted in a deterioration of profitability in the Portuguese banking system," it added. "In the short term, this trend towards aggravation of risks is likely to persist."

The bank warned that the situation "is increasing the challenges confronted by the Portuguese economy, as well as by the Portuguese financial system, given that the adjustment of economic imbalances must now be carried out in a much more adverse context, particularly as regards the expected trajectory of external demand."

Bottom Line: European policymakers understand they need faster and bolder action. But the situation has many, many moving pieces. It is increasingly difficult to pull the brakes on this runaway train.

November 29, 2011

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How to Avoid Public Anger over Bank Bailouts

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 01:08 AM PST

How to avoid public anger over bank bailouts, e.g. the recent uproar over the report from Bloomberg that too big to fail banks made $13 billion on loans from the discount window:

Better than a Bank Bailout: A Federal Lottery

(I'm not sure if I'm serious about this or not, the point is that we need to focus policy on people, not banks.)

Time for the Fed to Take Over the ECB’s Job?

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 12:42 AM PST

Dean Baker says the Fed should step in if the ECB refuses to act as a lender of last resort (Antonio Fatas is also frustrated with the ECB's failure to act):

Time for the Fed to Take Over the European Central Bank's Job, by Dean Baker, Al Jazeera English: The European Central Bank (ECB) has been working hard to convince the world that it is not competent to act as central bank. One of the main responsibilities of a central bank is to act as the lender of last resort in a crisis. The ECB is insisting that it will not fill this role. It ... would sooner see the eurozone collapse than risk inflation exceeding its 2.0 percent target.
It would be bad enough if the ECB's incompetence just put Europe's economy at risk. ... However, it is also likely that the financial panic following the collapse of the euro will lead to the same sort of financial freeze-up that we saw following the collapse of Lehman. In this case,... we will be seeing unemployment possibly rising into a 14-15 percent range. This would be a really serious disaster.
Fortunately, the Fed has the tools needed to prevent this sort of meltdown. It can simply take the steps that the ECB has failed to do. First and most importantly it has to guarantee the sovereign debt of eurozone countries. ... This doesn't mean giving the eurozone countries a blank check. The Fed can adjust the interest rate at which it guarantees debt depending on the extent to which countries reform their fiscal systems. ... The difference between a 2.0 percent interest rate and 7.0 percent interest would be a powerful incentive to eliminate corruption and waste. ...
Of course this sort of intervention will look horrible from the standpoint of the eurozone countries. It will appear as though they cannot be trusted to manage their own central bank and deal with their own economic affairs.
Unfortunately, this is the case. They have entrusted the continent's most important economic institution to a group of ideological zealots who are infatuated by the sight of low inflation rates...
Perhaps the Europeans will respond... But if they can't rise to the task, we should not allow the ECB ideologues to wreak havoc on the lives of tens of millions of innocent people in Europe, the developing world, and here in the United States.

While the Fed is solving the world's problems, it might also think about the high rates of unemployment that already exist in the US, and how easing policy at home could help.

Republicans Don't Mind a Payroll Tax Increase

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 12:33 AM PST

John Kyl doesn't mind some types of tax increases:

Saturday's Jon Kyl vs. Sunday's Jon Kyl, by Steve Benen: On Saturday, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), along with his five other GOP colleagues from the super-committee, wrote a Washington Post op-ed on the debt-reduction process. Kyl's point wasn't subtle: he and other Republicans just can't accept tax increases, at least for the foreseeable future.

Kyl called tax increases "the wrong medicine for our ailing economy," and said the mere possibility of tax increases has "put a wet blanket over job creation and economic recovery."

That was Saturday. Just 24 hours later, Kyl told a national television audience he's comfortable with a payroll tax increase on all American workers on 2012. ......

Senate Democrats are moving forward with its plan to extend the payroll tax cut, with a vote perhaps coming as early as this week. Republicans will filibuster the proposal, though Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) told ABC yesterday that "probably some package" that includes a payroll extension "might very well pass."

The reason for the objection, as Steve Benen points out, is that the payroll tax cut would be paid for by increasing taxes on the very wealthy. Can't have that. But unlike their reaction to other types of proposed tax increases, Republicans are not insisting that spending be cut to protect workers from a tax increase. Wonder why?

Links for 2011-11-29

Posted: 29 Nov 2011 12:06 AM PST

Can the US Decouple From the Eurozone?

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 04:23 PM PST

Tim Duy:

Can the US Decouple From the Eurozone?, by Tim Duy: The OECD cut forecasts for 2012. Via the Wall Street Journal:

The Paris-based think tank cut its forecasts among its 34 members to 1.9% this year and 1.6% in 2012, from 2.3% and 2.8% in May. The OECD said it expects the euro zone's economy to contract by 1% at an annualized rate in the last quarter of this year and by 0.4% in the first three months of 2012.

For 2012, the OECD said the 17-country bloc's economy will only grow by 0.2%.

This is far too optimistic. The European economy is about to fall over a cliff, and last week's Eurostat report on new industrial orders reveals that manufacturing is leading the way. New orders fell by a whopping 6.4%, a move that hearkens back to the darkest days of 2008. Will the US be able to resist the pull of the European downturn? These charts don't offer much optimism:

Fedwatch1

Fedwatch2

Not a perfect match, but enough to suggest the idea of substantial decoupling looks like more myth than reality, especially in the face of a severe recession. Could this be why US Treasury yields held steady today even as equities roared forward?  

Bottom Line: Don't take US resilience for granted this time around - Europe is getting ugly, and it is far too late to prevent severe recession. The best policymakers can hope for at this point is too avoid a depression.

The Source of Cronyism Is *Not* Social Programs for the Poor

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 11:34 AM PST

Jeff Sachs:

Fairness and the Occupy Movement Revisited, by Jeff Sachs: A recent Wall Street Journal article by Arthur C. Brooks on the Occupy Movement and fairness says some interesting things about potential common ground between free-market ideas and the Occupy movement. Yet Brooks also commits some very important errors. ...
Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, denounces crony capitalism as the dark side of American politics and economics. On this we should all agree. The level of corruption in Washington is staggering, growing, and rife in both parties. ...
The Republicans answer to crony capitalism is to slash government. Yet by this they mean mainly an attack on the remaining social programs. This is a kind of bait-and-switch strategy: rev up the anger against government corruption, and then kill the life-support programs of the poor and working class. Crony capitalism exists mainly in the big-ticket sectors of the economy -- banking, oil, real estate, private health insurance, military contractors, and infrastructure -- not in the essential but much smaller parts of the economy: malnutrition of poor children, lack of quality pre-school, insufficient job training, and inadequate student loan coverage.
Yes, crony capitalism should be confronted anywhere in the economy, yet cutting the life-support systems for the working class and poor won't fix government, but instead would cripple the prospects of more than 100 million poor and near-poor Americans. To control crony capitalism, we need to direct our attention where it belongs: the wealth-support systems of the rich, not the life-support systems of the poor. ...
Yes, Mr. Brooks, let us find common ground. We all agree on the need to end crony capitalism. But let us also work together not to cripple government but to make it work for all Americans.

The hope for common ground where there is none can lead to Obama like one-sided concessionary behavior, and we have more than enough of that already. Yes, let's find common ground where it exists, but let's also be careful not to try to meet in the middle when the other side is pursuing a bait and switch strategy. The Republican goal of reducing the size of government through reductions in social programs is unwavering, and they will pursue any argument handy at the moment to bring this about. In recessions, they tell us tax cuts are needed to stimulate the economy, but the real goal is to cut funding for the government permanently. Once the taxes are reduced, they won't agree to increase them again (unless it's to protect their cronies, i.e. an increase in payroll taxes is fine so long as it prevents the increase in taxes on the wealthy needed to fund it). In normal times, we're told tax cuts stimulate economic growth even though there's not much evidence to support this claim. Presently, it's the cronyism argument, and tomorrow it will be something else. The Republicans have their eyes on the ball, and the rules of the game are to be adjusted as necessary to allow them the best opportunity to take the ball across the goal line. Winning is all that matters. Fairness for both sides playing the game, etc. has nothing to do with it and we'd be wise to keep our eyes on the ball as well.

The other thing to note is that the location of common ground has shifted to the right from where it used to be. "Meet us in the middle" now means meeting on ground that would have been considered on the right not all that long ago. Democrats have already conceded too much in the ideological war, and there comes time when leaders in the party must take a stand and hold their ground. That time is long past.

"Don't Read Too Much Into Holiday Shopping"

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 09:18 AM PST

Tim Duy wrote this yesterday, but I forgot to post it:

Don't Read Too Much Into Holiday Shopping, by Tim Duy: I have something of a visceral dislike of the media frenzy that surrounds the holiday shopping season. And I sense this year will be worse than usual, as we are entering the season with what I believe are relatively low expectations. At first blush, those expectations will be easily beaten. From the Wall Street Journal:

Black Friday sales rose 6.6% from a year ago, getting the holiday shopping season off to a strong start, retail data and consulting firm ShopperTrak said Saturday.

The gains were the strongest since 2007 and topped last year's anemic 0.3% increase, said ShopperTrak, which installs monitoring devices in stores to gauge foot traffic.

Discounting works - more on that later. Although I believe underlying household budgets are fragile, I also have faith the American consumer will not break easily. Indeed, note the path of retail sales - excluding autos, gas, and restaurants - since the end of the recession:

Fedwatch1

For all the talk of a "new normal," retail spending is growing at nearly exactly its pre-recession trend of 0.43% a month. I have no reason to believe this trend will falter in the next two months, and, therefore, would anticipate the holiday season, at least in nominal terms to be at least average if not a little better (average includes some bad years).
What I believe is more interesting is the path of real sales:

Fedwatch2

In this measure, I converted to real dollars using the GAFO (deparment store type goods) deflator. Note again the similarity between the pre- and post-recession trends, 0.53% and 0.58% respectively. The high real growth is the product of steady price deflation in the retail sector:

Fedwatch3

Whatever ill is said about outsourcing, it does deliver cheap toys to put under the Christmas tree. Arguably, we are see the tiniest bit of trend reversion, attributable to an acceleration in the deflationary trend through early 2010:

Fedwatch6

Note that mid-year, retailers attempted to push through higher prices:

Fedwatch4

Bad timing, as nominal spending slowed somewhat this period to 0.37% a month. The end result was that real growth stalled in the April to August period, growing just 0.2% a month. Retailers apparently expected consumers to simply absorb the higher prices while holding the path of real spending constant. This grossly overestimated the strength of household budgets, and retailers soon reversed course. Prices fell between August and October at a 3.3% annualized pace.

The interesting question is how much retailers will panic and extend the price declines, resorting to deep discounting to continue to move volume. If so, we could see a solid real gain in the November to January period. At least so far, it appears discounting is indeed a key factor enticing early shopping. Back to the Wall Street Journal:

Brick-and-mortar retailers also saw more visits, with foot traffic to malls and shopping centers up 5.5%, ShopperTrak said.

Consumers were drawn out by heavy promotions and early store openings, said Bill Martin, co-founder of the firm.

They remain value conscious, however, and are more targeted in their shopping. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the season until Christmas —which accounts for about a fifth of retailers' annual sales—will keep up the strong pace, ShopperTrak said.

Will a solid holiday season put the nail on the coffin of recession fears? I don't think so. The US is not in recession right now; it is simply premature to be looking for recession in the data flow. If you are concerned about recession, which I am, you are looking at impending fiscal contraction in 2012 coupled with the implosion of the Eurozone, an event that will likely blow back to the US via the financial channels. But if those fears are realized, don't expect too much of it in the data before the middle of next year.

Finally, note that retail sales do not necessarily suffer greatly during a recession. Recall 2001:

Fedwatch5

The sharp drop we saw in 2008-09 is a relatively unusual permanent (for lack of a better term) negative IS shock that is costing retailers something on the order of $375 billion a year. That is not to likely to be repeated anytime soon. At least I hope not!
Bottom Line: Enjoy the Holiday Season. Don't get too preoccupied with the media-driven "holiday spending" frenzy. It just isn't that important, nor is it a key economic indicator.

November 28, 2011

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Paul Krugman: Things to Tax

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 12:33 AM PST

Increased in revenue from taxes on very high incomes and taxes on financial transactions should be part of the long-term deficit reduction plan:

Things to Tax, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: The supercommittee was a superdud — and we should be glad. Nonetheless, at some point we'll have to rein in budget deficits. And when we do, here's a thought: How about making increased revenue an important part of the deal?
And I don't just mean a return to Clinton-era tax rates. ... The long-run budget outlook has darkened, which means that some hard choices must be made. Why should those choices only involve spending cuts? Why not also push some taxes above their levels in the 1990s?
Let me suggest two areas in which it would make a lot of sense to raise taxes in earnest...: taxes on very high incomes and taxes on financial transactions.
About those high incomes: In my last column I suggested that the very rich ... should pay more in taxes. I got many responses from readers ... that even confiscatory taxes on the wealthy couldn't possibly raise enough money to matter.
Folks, you're living in the past. ... The IRS reports that in 2007 ... the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — roughly speaking, people with annual incomes over $2 million — had a combined income of more than a trillion dollars. That's a lot of money, and ... taxes ... would raise a significant amount of revenue...
For example,... before 1980 very-high-income individuals fell into tax brackets well above the 35 percent top rate that applies today. ... I've extrapolated ... using Congressional Budget Office projections, and what I get for the next decade is that high-income taxation could shave more than $1 trillion off the deficit. ...
So raising taxes on the very rich could make a serious contribution to deficit reduction. Don't believe anyone who claims otherwise.
And then there's the idea of taxing financial transactions... Because there are so many transactions, such a fee could yield several hundred billion dollars in revenue over the next decade. Again, this compares favorably with the savings from many of the harsh spending cuts being proposed in the name of fiscal responsibility.
But wouldn't such a tax hurt economic growth? As I said, the evidence suggests not — if anything,... to the extent that taxing financial transactions reduces the volume of wheeling and dealing, that would be a good thing. ...
Now, the tax ideas I've just mentioned wouldn't be enough, by themselves, to fix our deficit. But the same is true of proposals for spending cuts. The point I'm making here isn't that taxes are all we need; it is that they could and should be a significant part of the solution.

Links for 2011-11-28

Posted: 28 Nov 2011 12:06 AM PST

Social Insurance and Unemployment: Do People Deserve Poverty?

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 01:17 PM PST

Casey Mulligan claims that social insurance is a big reason that unemployment is so high:

Were it not for government assistance,... the recession would have pushed 4.2 percent of the population into poverty, rather than 0.6 percent.

One interpretation of these results is that the safety net did a great job... Perhaps if the 2009 stimulus law had been a little bigger or a little more oriented to safety-net programs, all seven would have been caught.
Another interpretation is that the safety net has taken away incentives... Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.

A comment from this post responding to Casey Mulligan takes on this claim:

I'm sure my daughter connived to get herself laid off at Peet's Coffee just as her health insurance would have kicked in and live on $98 a week, far less than she would have brought in in wages, and not even enough to pay her $500 a month rent. And she was so thrilled with this condition that she kept it up for a full two months, and then found herself another job, this one with no health benefits.

The idea that the unemployment problem is due to lack of effort on behalf of the unemployed rather than a lack of demand is convenient for the moralists, but inconsistent with the facts. The problem is lack of demand, not the means through which we smooth the negative consequences of recessions.

But what really irks me is the implicit moralizing, the idea that people deserve to be thrown into poverty. Someone who gets up every day and goes to a job day after day, often a job they don't like very much, to support their families can suddenly become unemployed in a recession through no fault of their own. They did nothing wrong -- it's not their fault the economy went into a recession and they certainly couldn't be expected to foresee a recession that experts such as Casey Mulligan missed entirely. They had no reason to believe they had chosen the wrong place to go to work, but unemployment hit them anyway. And since one of the biggest causes of foreclosure is an event like unemployment, it's entirely possible that this household would lose its home, be forced to declare bankruptcy, etc., and end up in severe poverty if there were no social services to rely upon.

What moral lesson is being taught here? Why does this household deserve to be punished for their bad decisions? It did nothing wrong. I understand that people should suffer the consequences of their own bad choices, but that's not what happens in recessions. People who have done nothing to deserve it are nevertheless hit by severe negative shocks. That's what social insurance is for, to smooth the path for such unfortunate households, to avoid sending people into poverty who have done nothing to deserve it (see "The Need for Social Insurance"). It is not an attempt to reward bad behavior and most programs do their best to avoid giving benefits to people who have made bad choices (for example, the system is far from perfect but in most states unemployment insurance can only be obtained if you lose your job through no fault of your, e.g. if you quit or get yourself fired it is not available). The extent to which we should distinguish between deserving and undeserving households for social insurance programs is debatable and depends upon the type of program, but the idea that all households are undeserving is, in my view, simply wrong. I would apply the social safety net widely myself -- I think the benefit of the doubt should go to compassion, not harshness and moralizing -- but in any case I'd dispute the idea that "safety-net generosity" is too high. If anything, we are not generous enough.

Update: Karl Smith comments on this topic.

The Demand for Jobs

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 09:45 AM PST

Businesses won't hire workers because there is not enough demand to support them, and the public can't supply the needed demand because too many people don't have jobs.

That's what's so frustrating. If the unemployed had jobs, the demand would be there to support them. But the demand has to come first, and workers won't be hired until the demand is there.

I wonder who could provide the missing demand needed to overcome this problem?

Fed Watch: Europe Scrambles for Solutions

Posted: 27 Nov 2011 09:36 AM PST

Tim Duy:

Europe Scrambles for Solutions, by Tim Duy: Monday morning is fast approaching, and European leaders are scrambling to come up with something credible to float ahead of the market opening. Recall that we ended last week with the S&P downgrade of Belgium, and policymakers would like to have something on the table in response. Most significant is that policymakers now realize that changing the Lisbon Treaty to enshrine fiscal discipline is a far too lengthy process to serve as an effective counterweight to emerging the soveriegn debt crisis. From Reuters:

Germany's original plan was to try to secure agreement among all 27 EU countries for a limited change to the Lisbon Treaty by the end of 2012, making it possible to impose much tighter budget controls over the 17 euro zone countries -- a way of shoring up the region's defenses against the debt crisis.

But in meetings with EU leaders in recent weeks, it has become clear to both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that it may not be possible to get all 27 countries on board, EU sources say.

Even if that were possible, it could take a year or more to finally secure the changes while market attacks on Italy, Spain and now France suggest bold measures are needed within weeks.

As a result, senior French and German civil servants have been exploring other ways of achieving the goal, either via an agreement among just the euro zone countries, or a separate agreement outside the EU treaty that could involve a core of around 8-10 euro zone countries, officials say.

The goal is to provide enough of a framework to allow the ECB to step in and shore up debt markets more decisively:

Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported on Sunday that Merkel and Sarkozy were working on a new Stability Pact, setting out national debt limits, that could be signed up to by a number of euro zone countries and which would allow the ECB to act more decisively in the crisis.

"If the politicians can agree to a comprehensive step, the ECB will jump in and help," the paper quoted a central banker as saying.

Is the plan for real or just a bargaining ploy?

While EU officials are clear about the determination of France and Germany to push for more rapid euro zone integration, some caution that the idea of doing so with fewer than 17 countries via a sideline agreement may be more about applying pressure on the remainder to act.

By threatening that some countries could be left behind if they don't sign up to deeper integration, it may be impossible for a country to say no, fearing that doing so could leave it even more exposed to market pressures.

The risk here is that market paricipants read the bilateral agreements as they emerge as an invitation to attack those nations not yet signed up to the plan. Those nations would be even more vulnerable as they would explicitly lose any ECB backstop. The other choice for some nations would to be to go down the road of Greece and accept crushing austerity in order to stay in the Eurozone. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Note also that although these ideas are bandied about in terms of "greater fiscal integration," I don't think we are seeing much mention of fiscal transfers, just mechanisms to enforce budget discipline. This is certainly a framework for a two-speed Europe.

In other news, someone is floating rumors that the IMF is preparing a massive lending program for Italy. From Bloomberg:

The International Monetary Fund is preparing a 600-billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy in case the country's debt crisis worsens, La Stampa said.

The money would give Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti 12 to 18 months to implement his reforms without having to refinance the country's existing debt, the Italian daily reported, without saying where it got the information. Monti could draw on the money if his planned austerity measures fail to stop speculation on Italian debt, La Stampa said.

Details are unclear. Ed Harrison at Credit Writedowns has a translation of a German version of the story that mentions the possibility of ECB funding of the bailout, with an IMF gaurantee.

Speaking of Italy, the austerity parade marches forward, via Bloomberg:

The Italian government, led by Prime Minister Mario Monti, may introduce additional austerity measures totaling as much as 15 billion euros ($20 billion) on Dec. 5, Il Sole 24 Ore reported.

Monti may levy a tax on first homes, increase value-added tax, and introduce anti-evasion measures on transactions of more than 300 euros to 500 euros, the Italian daily reported, without saying where it got the information. The introduction of a wealth tax is still uncertain, Il Sole said.

Italy needs reform, to be sure. But in the near term, austerity only worsens the European crisis. Troubled European nations need compasionate austerity that rewards progress toward long-term goals with near-term stimulus. But without a fiscal transfer mechanism, their is no way to offer such stimulus.

Finally, I emphasize that austerity and ECB intervention may bring short-term relief to financial markets, and at least one element of the crisis under control, but these efforts do not address the banking crisis that is settling over the Continent. Felix Salmon points us to a must-read IFR report:

European banks are being forced to abandon their efforts to sell off trillions of euros worth of loans, mortgages and real estate after a series of talks with potential investors broke down, leaving many already struggling firms with piles of assets they can barely support.

Lenders have instead turned their attention to reducing the burden of carrying such assets over months and years, with many looking at popular pre-crisis "capital alchemy" arrangements to minimise capital requirements and boost their ability to use the assets to tap central banks for cash.

Deadlocked talks with potential buyers – a mix of private equity firms, hedge funds, foreign banks and insurers – show little sign of making breakthroughs, say bankers taking part in those negotiations, with the stalemate threatening to block the industry's ability to save itself from collapse through a mass deleveraging.

The article concludes with a key insight:

"Natural deleveraging through not renewing loans is one of the few options remaining to banks to shrink their balance sheets, but the timetable for implementing this kind of strategy can be very protracted," said Ryan O'Grady, head of fixed income syndicate for EMEA at JP Morgan.

One way or another, Europe will experience a massive credit shock. Presumable, the ECB could help offset this by allowing governments to loosen spending to support demand and fund bank recapitalization. But the path we are on appears to provide ECB help only in return for more austerity. And it is that never-ending pursuit of austerity that leaves me bearish on Europe, regardless of the political news of the day.

November 27, 2011

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Posted: 27 Nov 2011 12:06 AM PST

What Could Bernanke Do?

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 02:34 PM PST

Brad DeLong explains how the "Federal Reserve might be able to spark a real economic recovery": What Could Bernanke Do?.

"A Share of the Burden"

Posted: 26 Nov 2011 09:54 AM PST

A little less than two weeks ago, I said:

This trick is used again and again to oppose raising taxes on one interest group or another, but the fact that raising taxes on a particular group won't fully solve the debt problem does not imply that the change in taxes for that group should be zero."

Here's Paul Krugman making the same point -- more forcefully with numbers -- and he shows that raising taxes on the wealthy makes a contribution to deficit reduction that is far from trivial. But even if the numbers were smaller, it still wouldn't imply that the change in these taxes should be zero. Even then, the wealthy "should be bearing a share of the burden" whatever that share might be:

Where The Money Is, by Paul Krugman: I've been getting the predictable hysterical reactions to today's column. And it's true — I'm a Sharia Jewish atheist Marxist who hates America! Bwahahaha!
But one thing actually worth reacting to is the assertion I keep getting that this is all a distraction, that even if we seized all the money of the top 0.1% it would make no difference to the fiscal outlook. Here's a piece of advice nobody will take: before you make assertions about numbers, look at the numbers.
So, what we learn from IRS data is that in 2007, before the Great Recession depressed everyone's income, the top 0.1% had around $1 trillion in taxable income. Now, even confiscating that whole sum wouldn't eliminate our current deficit, especially since the top 0.1% already paid something like a third of that total in taxes. But then, no single action would close our current budget gap — not even the complete elimination of Social Security or Medicare.
What you want to ask is how much higher taxes on the super-elite might contribute to deficit reduction, as compared with the kinds of things politicians are actually proposing.
So let's suppose that it was possible to collect an additional 10 percent of that super-elite's income in taxes, to the tune of $100 billion a year. How would this stack up against the kinds of things on the table right now?
Well, consider the idea of raising the Medicare eligibility age — a move that would create vast hardship. According to the Congressional Budget Office (big pdf), when fully phased in this would save … $42 billion a year.
I could multiply comparisons, but the point is that higher taxes on the very rich could make a significant contribution to deficit reduction. They couldn't eliminate the deficit on their own, but what could? There's real money up there, and those making it should be bearing a share of the burden.

November 26, 2011

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Posted: 26 Nov 2011 12:06 AM PST

Fed Watch: Greece Again

Posted: 25 Nov 2011 10:44 AM PST

One more from Tim Duy:

Greece Again, by Tim Duy: Just a day after Greece's ND opposition party "committed" in writing to the details of the October summit agreement, Zero Hedge spots a potentially decisive Reuters story:

The country has now started talking to its creditor banks directly, the sources said.

"There are a number of people in the market who are saying why did (the IIF) take upon themselves this responsibility," one of the people said, asking not to be named.

"In part for that reason, Greece has been talking to creditors individually, just to get their own sense of market sentiment," the person said.

The Greeks are demanding that the new bonds' Net Present Value, -- a measure of the current worth of their future cash flows -- be cut to 25 percent, a second person said, a far harsher measure than a number in the high 40s the banks have in mind.

Banks represented by the IIF agreed to write off the notional value of their Greek bondholdings by 50 percent last month, in a deal to reduce Greece's debt ratio to 120 percent of its Gross Domestic Product by 2020.

In all fairness to Greece, the details of the October summit were somewhat fuzzy (as in nonexistent), and so arguably they are not backing out. But the banks were clearly thinking the ultimately haircut not be as great as Greece is demanding. Once again, the complete lack of useful outcomes calls into question why the Europeans even bother to have summits.

But probably more important is the fact that Greece is now taking a direct role in negotiations. Remember that the previous haircuts were "voluntary" and negotiated by Greece's European overlords to prevent triggering a credit event and CDS payouts. And one has to believe that "following the October agreement" implicitly means the Greeks will not upset the apple cart and trigger a credit event unilaterally. But if Greece is at the table forcing lenders to take massive haircuts, it will be virtually impossible to justify that this is not a technical default.

This is shaping up to be the final test of the credibility of the sovereign CDS market - either exposure is hedged or it is not. Interestingly, either outcome is potentially catastrophic, with the end result being either the unknown outcomes of triggering CDS payouts or a complete flight from European sovereign debt. Maybe both.

I really hope somebody at the ECB is sticking around to work this weekend.

Ideoloogical Bias and Antitrust Law

Posted: 25 Nov 2011 10:17 AM PST

Apparently some judges refuse to enforce antritrust law because "Such judges just do not like antitrust laws for ideological reasons." That attitude -- which is not confined to judges -- explains a lot about detrimental the rise of economic and political power in recent decades. This is Shane Greenstein discussing the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile:

Lawyers invariably ... launch into comments about the uncertain state of antitrust law in the United States, observing that many judges today do not think there is any valid reason to enforce any antitrust law, irrespective of the facts of the case. Such judges just do not like antitrust laws for ideological reasons. Recently such friends have gotten more specific, commenting on the odds of getting past the particular judge assigned to hear the from Department of Justice, as it tries to block the merger.
Political analysts, in contrast,... invariably launch into comments about AT&T's enormous powerful presence in Washington, observing that AT&T has gotten whatever it has wanted from the Obama and Bush administrations. Recently such friends have gotten very specific, about which representatives and senators were most likely to act on AT&T's behalf.

The point he is making, however, is that in this particular instance economics did seem to matter:

To make a long story short, there was not much evidence of benefits. To make efficiency gains AT&T would have to fire quite a few people, but to get the merger past its unions AT&T's management had to promise to preserve jobs. To buy political support AT&T had to promise to build broadband in under-served areas, but independent analysis showed that far cheaper ways to build such broadband than through a thirty billion dollar merger. The economic benefits did not exist. To use an old expression, there was no there there.

And therefore:

The FCC recently announced it would move to have a hearing about the AT&T and T-Mobile merger. In response, AT&T withdrew its application from the FCC, delaying the hearing indefinitely (or until AT&T resubmits the application).

But the fact that the police catch the bad people when (and seemingly only when) the facts are really, really obvious isn't all that comforting. Big banks, for example, appear to be far larger than the size required to take advantage of economies of scale/scope, etc., and the additional size enhances their political clout and the chances of regulatory capture without any clear economic benefits. There are potential costs, large ones -- see the recession. But it's hard to find a solid analysis demonstrating that there's any reason banks need to be so large that they are able to dominate particular markets. However, prior to the crisis instead of looking at these banks with an eye toward reining in their market power, we were told how wonderful such large institutions were -- how necessary firms with so much power are in a global economy. Even now we still hear arguments about how much these firms are needed (and it's still hard to get people to care about this issue).

Anyway, I could go on with this rant -- the problem of large, powerful firms is by no means confined to the financial industry -- but I've made these points many times in the past (starting before the crisis hit) and hopefully the point is clear. To me, the rise of economic power among the few is one of the strongest and clearest indications of how thoroughly economic and political power has shifted to the rich and powerful in recent decades.

Fed Watch: From Bad to Worse

Posted: 25 Nov 2011 09:27 AM PST

Tim Duy:

From Bad to Worse, by Tim Duy: I awoke to this news, via the Wall Street Journal:

Italian two-year and five-year government-bond yields soared to euro-era highs Friday as investors began giving up on the euro zone's ability to break the political gridlock that is blocking a more decisive response to the currency bloc's debt crisis.

Italian two-year and five-year yields climbed to 7.7% and 7.8%, respectively, and the 10-year yield moved further above the key 7% mark to 7.3%.

This just a day after an apparently not-confidence boosting meeting of the leaders of Germany, France and Italy. Perhaps European policymakers need fewer summits, not more?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Ralph Atkins at the Financial Times views yesterday's European commitment to back off the ECB as a positive development:

My reaction on hearing that Mr Sarkozy had agreed to keep silent was that it would actually increase the ECB's room for manoeuvre. Fiercely independent, the Frankfurt-based institution would have hated any suggestion it was reacting to pressure from Paris. Now, any steps it took would clearly be at its own initiative.

I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning. That said, Atkins gets to the next problem:

Of course, this does not mean the ECB will act. Mario Draghi, new ECB president, sees governments as responsible for resolving the crisis and the central bank as having a limited role. He worries about putting ECB credibility at stake.

Yes, if European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has more room to act, he apparently isn't using it. The ECB's forays into the bond markets appear to be increasingly futile. Via the Financial Times, the ECB is in the market again today:

The European Central Bank again bought Italian and Spanish debt on Friday but analysts have complained that its purchases are no longer sufficient to stem a wave of selling. Yields on the 2-5 year range for Italy were 7.67-7.77 per cent in late Friday trading.

Despite the mess in Europe, hope springs eternal on Wall Street. The early news from Bloomberg:

U.S. stocks rose, snapping a six-day drop in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, as speculation European leaders will do more to fight the debt crisis overshadowed concern about higher borrowing costs in the region.

I think it is dangerous to attribute too much day-to-day noise to news flow. Still, if this is anywhere near accurate, whoever is left on Wall Street today must still be groggy from Thanksgiving feasting. Zero Hedge attributes the morning rally to hopes the Swiss National Bank will act to support the Euro. In any event, the momentum looks to be fading in the late-morning as reality sets in.

Bottom Line: Europe is quickly moving from bad to worse. To be sure, we should anticipate a rally will follow the eventual ECB capitulation on quantitative easing, but that will only be half the battle. The ECB will only capitulate in return for massive, sustained austerity. It is too late for an easy end to this story.