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October 10, 2015

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Posted: 09 Oct 2015 01:13 AM PDT
Beat the press:
It's All Benghazi, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: So Representative Kevin McCarthy, who was supposed to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House, won't be pursuing the job after all. He ... finished off his chances by admitting — boasting, actually — that the endless House hearings on Benghazi had nothing to do with national security, that they were all about inflicting political damage on Hillary Clinton.
But we all knew that, didn't we?
I often wonder about commentators who write about things like those hearings as if there were some real issue involved... Surely they have to know better... Somehow, though, politicians who ... are obviously just milking those issues for political gain keep getting a free pass. And it's not just a Clinton story.
Consider the example of an issue ... that dominated much of our political discourse just a few years ago: federal debt.
Many prominent politicians made warnings about the dangers posed by U.S. debt, especially debt owned by China... Paul Ryan ... portrayed himself as a heroic crusader against deficits. Mitt Romney made denunciations of borrowing from China a centerpiece of his campaign... And by and large, commentators treated this posturing as if it were serious. ...
Well, don't tell anyone, but the much feared event has happened: China is no longer buying our debt, and is in fact selling ... U.S. debt... And what has happened is what serious economic analysis always told us would happen: nothing. It was always a false alarm. ...
 People who really worry about government debt don't propose huge tax cuts for the rich, only partly offset by savage cuts in aid to the poor and middle class, and base all claims of debt reduction on unspecified savings to be announced on some future occasion. ... 
Sometimes I have the impression that many people in the media consider it uncouth to acknowledge, even to themselves, the fraudulence of much political posturing. The done thing, it seems, is to pretend that we're having real debates...
But turning our eyes away from political fakery, pretending that we're having a serious discussion when we aren't, is itself a kind of fraudulence. Mr. McCarthy inadvertently did the nation a big favor with his ill-advised honesty, but telling the public what's really going on shouldn't depend on politicians with loose lips.
Sometimes — all too often — there's no substance under the shouting. And then we need to tell the truth, and say that it's all Benghazi.
Posted: 09 Oct 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 08 Oct 2015 11:11 AM PDT
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis president Narayana Kocherlakota:
...Why has the rate of labor market improvement slowed so much in 2015 relative to 2014? In thinking about this question, I find the timing of monetary policy changes to be highly suggestive.
In mid-2013, the FOMC announced its intention to taper its ongoing asset purchase program. We can see that this announcement represented a dramatic change in policy from the sharp upward movements in long-term bond yields that it engendered. Personally, I interpret this policy change back in 2013 as the onset of what the Committee currently intends to be a long, gradual tightening cycle. As I noted earlier, we would typically expect that such a change in monetary policy should affect the economy with a lag of about 18 to 24 months. Viewed through this lens, the slow rate of labor market improvement in 2015 is not all that surprising.
I believe the FOMC should take actions to facilitate a resumption of the 2014 improvement in the labor market by adopting a more accommodative policy stance. Remember, inflation is low, and is expected to remain low, relative to the FOMC's target. In particular, I don't see raising the target range for the fed funds rate above its current low level in 2015 or 2016 as being consistent with the pursuit of the kind of labor market outcomes that we are charged with delivering. Indeed, I would be open to the possibility of reducing the fed funds target funds range even further, as a way of producing better labor market outcomes.
There is, of course, a risk that inflationary pressures could build up more rapidly than I (or others) currently anticipate. But the solution to this scenario is relatively simple: Raise interest rates. Given my current outlook, I believe that it would be appropriate to wait until 2017 to initiate liftoff and then raise the fed funds rate at about 2 percentage points per year. My preferred pace of tightening mirrors the pace of tightening from 2004 to 2006—a pace of tightening that is often seen as gradual. (In fact, some would argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was overly gradual.) In response to unanticipated inflationary pressures, the FOMC could simply react as it did in 1994, and raise the fed funds rate more rapidly than this gradual pace.
... The lesson of 2014 is clear: We can do better. Given 2014, and given how low inflation is expected to be over the next few years, I see no reason why the Committee should not aim to facilitate continued improvement in labor market conditions. Indeed, I currently see no reason why we should not aim for the kind of strong labor market conditions that prevailed at the end of 2006.
But we will get there only if we make the right choices. The FOMC can achieve its congressionally mandated price and employment goals only by being extraordinarily patient in reducing the level of monetary accommodation. Indeed, to best fulfill its congressional mandates, the Committee should be considering reducing the target range for the fed funds rate, not increasing it. ...
Posted: 08 Oct 2015 10:53 AM PDT
In case you are feeling Moody:
Timothy Geithner and the Auditors, by Dean Baker: Eduardo Porter had a good piece in the NYT pointing out the importance of having independent evaluations of government programs. The point is that the agencies undertaking a program have a strong incentive to exaggerate its benefits. ...
One of the areas noted by Porter is in the rating of mortgage backed securities (MBS). During the housing bubble years, the bond-rating agencies routinely gave investment grade ratings to MBS that were stuffed with junk mortgages. They ignored the quality of the mortgages because they wanted the business. They knew if they gave honest ratings, the investment banks would take away their business.
While Porter notes this is a problem with the issuer pays model (the banks pay the rating agencies), there actually is a very simple solution. In the debate on Dodd-Frank, Senator Al Franken proposed an amendment which would have the Securities and Exchange Commission pick the rating agency, instead of the issuer. The bank would still pay the fee, but since they were no longer controlling who got the work, it eliminated the conflict of interest problem. The amendment passed the senate 65-34, with considerable bi-partisan support.
Unfortunately, as Geithner indicated in his autobiography, the Obama administration apparently did not like the dismantling of the perfect system we have today. The Franken amendment was removed in the conference committee and the existing structure was left in place. This was possible because the bond-rating agencies and the banks have real lobbies, whereas the folks who like honest evaluations don't. Of course the news media didn't help much, giving the issue very little coverage. And what attention it did get largely reflected the views of the financial industry.
Anyhow, this is a good example of the difficulties in putting in place the sort of independent auditing process that Porter seeks.
Posted: 08 Oct 2015 09:55 AM PDT
Here at the University of Oregon, one of our specialties is developing models where agents in the macroeconomy don't have rational expectations, instead they learn about the economy over time. Of course, these models need to be taken to the data to see if people do actually learn in the way the models predict. But if the data sets contain too many "Very Serious People", the tests will surely fail. They learn nothing from experience:
The China Debt Fizzle, by Paul Krugman: Remember the dire threat posed by our financial dependence on China? A few years ago it was all over the media, generally stated not as a hypothesis but as a fact. Obviously, terrible things would happen if China stopped buying our debt, or worse yet, started to sell off its holdings. Interest rates would soar and the U.S economy would plunge, right? Indeed, that great monetary expert Admiral Mullen was widely quoted as declaring that debt was our biggest security threat. Anyone who suggested that we didn't actually need to worry about a China selloff was considered weird and irresponsible.
Well, don't tell anyone, but the much-feared event is happening now. As China tries to prop up the yuan in the face of capital flight, it's selling lots of U.S. debt; so are other emerging markets. And the effect on U.S. interest rates so far has been … nothing.
Who could have predicted such a thing? Well,... anyone who seriously thought through the economics of the situation ... quickly realized that the whole China-debt scare story was nonsense. But as I said, this wasn't even reported as a debate; the threat of Chinese debt holdings was reported as fact.
And of course those who got this completely wrong have learned nothing from the experience.
Posted: 08 Oct 2015 09:34 AM PDT
Bryce Covert:
We All Get 'Free Stuff' From the Government: ...Jeb Bush got caught sounding like a Mitt Romney rerun recently: He told a mostly white audience that he could attract black voters because his campaign "isn't one of ... we'll take care of you with free stuff." ...
But the shorthand of "free stuff" also takes an incredibly narrow, and therefore misleading, view of government benefits. There's a whole treasure trove of government handouts that aren't dispensed through spending, but rather through the tax code. That doesn't make them any less "free" than a rent voucher or an Electronic Benefit Transfer card. ...
What the government loses to tax expenditures dwarfs spending on welfare programs. ... These facts are obscured for most people. While those who get government benefits through spending programs are often aware — and too frequently ashamed — of that fact, those who get them through the tax system usually don't realize they've received a handout. ...
Jeb Bush ,,, has saved at least $241,000 since 1981 through the mortgage interest deduction. ... Just days before he vowed not to promise voters more free stuff, he put out a tax plan that would give out a whole lot more of it. ...
Every four years, politicians stigmatize "free stuff" like food stamps and welfare while courting votes — and gloss over tax breaks. ... We turn a blind eye to giving out more and more tax breaks but balk at actually spending enough on welfare to truly help the most vulnerable among us.

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