Tag: economy

Tarred by TARP

Government-backed equity was offered to adequately capitalized banks in order to remove the “stigma” from banks receiving TARP funds, and the management of these institutions took the bait and accepted the money.

Surprise, surprise: now they discover that the money came with strings.

Some banks want to pay back the TARP money to extricate themselves from government restrictions on compensation and pressure to make loans the banks view as unprofitable. Treasury Secretary Geithner has made it clear that the decision to pay back the funds early won’t be left to the banks, but to the Treasury: “My basic obligation is to make sure the system as a whole … has the ability to provide the credit that recovery requires.”

The banking system has thus become a tool for the government to further its policies. And the bankers themselves put their institutions in that position. While taxpayers may understandably feel the bankers got their comeuppance, there are at least two major problems with the Bush/Obama policy.

First, Mr. Geithner has misdiagnosed the problem.

We are in recovery from the effects of the bursting of a massive housing and finance bubble funded by debt. That boom in turn financed a consumption binge of monumental proportions.

The only resolution of a spending binge is restraint in the form of saving. Recovery requires not more credit and another boom, but a dose of economic sobriety.

Individuals and firms know that and are de-leveraging – unwinding what they now realize is excessive debt. That will take the rest of this year and the better part of 2010. Overall, credit is down because demand is down.

Second, and even more disturbing: it appears that the Obama Administration wants to control the financial sector in order to gain control over what Lenin called the “Commanding Heights” of the U.S. economy: the major industries and sources of employment. The auto industry is a prime example, and one in which the administration has involved itself directly. It is also pressuring major recipients of TARP funds to ease the terms of the loans they have made to firms such as Chrysler. Treasury is attempting to use the banks to conduct fiscal policy through credit allocation.

The bankers taking TARP funds got their firms into a mess and deserve no sympathy. Anyone believing in free markets, however, must oppose this power grab by the Obama Administration.

Let the banks pay the funds back and let it be a lesson for CEOs and their stockholders: If you take government funds, you have taken on an unreliable business partner.

The Chinese Currency Issue Is No Longer

In its first statutory, semi-annual report on foreign currency practices, the Obama Treasury Department refrained from designating China a “currency manipulator,” further affirming the view that an aggressive, sticks-only approach to the bilateral trade relationship advocated (mostly) by campaigning politicians is simply untenable. After serving more than 5 years as a great source of bilateral trade tension, the Chinese currency issue is dead.

Senator Obama and presidential candidate Obama both talked tough about Chinese currency practices, identifying an undervalued yuan as a source of unfairness to U.S. producers and an important cause of the bilateral trade imbalance. Treasury Secretary-designate Geithner, during his confirmation hearing in January, reiterated President Obama’s commitment to dealing with the issue before the Senate Finance Committee:

President Obama - backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency. President Obama has pledged as President to use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices. While in the U.S. Senate he cosponsored tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles.

Those who relied on hyped-up media accounts of Geithner’s testimony, which generally homed in on the terms “aggressively,” “tough,” and “enforcement” in the above passage to imply that Obama would take action against China on this matter, are probably utterly surprised that Treasury balked yesterday. But those who read the rest of Geithner’s response to the question may have noticed this broad canvas for inaction:

The question is how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm. The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.

Those last two sentences of Geithner’s response contained the answer—nearly three months beforehand—to the question of whether Treasury would label China a manipulator. And, taken in its entirety, the response is a perfect summation of the distinctions between criticizing policy as a challenger and being responsible for policy as the guy in charge. You can talk tough as a challenger because you don’t have to account for the consequences of your actions. But when you are responsible for the consequences of potentially incendiary policy changes, circumspection is a rediscovered virtue.

As President Obama knows by now, the consequences of simply labeling China a “currency manipulator” (let alone attempting to do something remedial about it) would undermine broader U.S.-China relations, invite recriminations, inspire potentially adverse policy changes in China, and would inject heaps of uncertainty into global currency and financial markets. Besides, as yesterday’s Treasury report concludes, the yuan continues to appreciate against the dollar, the government’s accumulation of foreign reserves has decelerated, and policies are in place to encourage greater domestic consumption in China and to reduce the economy’s reliance on exports.

I remain hopeful that this distinction between Obama the president and Obama the candidate will become and remain evident in U.S. trade policy more broadly.

Federal Tax Rates

Conveniently timed as Tax Day approaches, the Congressional Budget Office has released new data on the taxes paid by each income group. The CBO data includes federal income taxes, payroll taxes, and excise taxes, which amounts to almost the entire federal tax grab.

The CBO calculates tax rates by quintile from the lowest-earning to the highest earning households. These tax rates are simply total federal taxes paid by the group divided by total income earned by the group.

The chart makes clear that we have a very graduated or redistributive tax system, which some people call “progressive.” President Obama doesn’t think that the 25.8% rate paid by the top quintile is progressive enough, so he plans to penalize that group with an income tax rate hike.

Week in Review: ‘Saving’ the World, Government Control and Drug Decriminalization

G-20 Summit Agrees to International Spending Plan

g-2The Washington Post reports, “Leaders from more than 20 major nations including the United States decided Thursday to make available an additional $1 trillion for the world economy through the International Monetary Fund and other institutions as part of a broad package of measures to overcome the global financial crisis.”

Cato scholars Richard W. Rahn, Daniel J. Ikenson and Ian Vásquez commented on the London-based meeting:

Rahn: “President Obama of the U.S. and Prime Minister Brown of the U.K. will be pressing for more so-called stimulus spending by other nations, despite the fact that the historical evidence shows that big increases in government spending are more likely to be damaging and slow down recovery than they are to promote vigorous economic expansion and job creation.”

Vásquez: “The push by some countries for massive increases in spending to address the global financial crisis smacks of political and bureaucratic opportunism. A prime example is Washington’s call to substantially increase the resources of the International Financial Institutions… There is no reason to think that massive increases of the IFIs’ funds will not worsen, rather than improve, their record or the accountability of the aid agencies and borrower governments.”

Ikenson: “Certainly it is crucial to avoid protectionist policies that clog the arteries of economic recovery and help nobody but politicians. But it is also important to keep things in perspective: the world is not on the brink of a global trade war, as some have suggested.”

Ikenson appeared on CNBC this week to push for a reduction of trade barriers in international markets.

With fears mounting over a global shift toward protectionism, Cato senior fellow Tom Palmer and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation are circulating a petition against restrictive trade measures.

Obama Administration Forces Out GM CEO

rick-wagonerPresident Obama took an unprecedented step toward greater control of a private corporation after forcing General Motors CEO  Rick Wagoner to leave the company. The New York Post reports “the administration threatened to withhold bailout money from the company if he didn’t.”

Writing for the Washington Post, trade analyst Dan Ikenson explained why the government is responsible for any GM failure from now on:

President Obama’s newly discovered prudence with taxpayer money and his tough-love approach to GM and Chrysler would both have more credibility if he hadn’t demanded Rick Wagoner’s resignation, as well. By imposing operational conditions normally reserved for boards of directors, the administration is now bound to the infamous “Pottery Barn” rule: you break it, you buy it. If things go further south, the government is now complicit.

Wagoner’s replacement, Fritz Henderson, said Tuesday that after receiving billions of taxpayer dollars, the company is considering bankruptcy as an option. Cato scholars recommended bankruptcy months ago:

Dan Ikenson, November 21, 2008: “Bailing out Detroit is unnecessary. After all, this is why we have the bankruptcy process. If companies in Chapter 11 can be salvaged, a bankruptcy judge will help them find the way. In the case of the Big Three, a bankruptcy process would almost certainly require them to dissolve their current union contracts. Revamping their labor structures is the single most important change that GM, Ford, and Chrysler could make — and yet it is the one change that many pro-bailout Democrats wish to ignore.”

Daniel J. Mitchell, November 13, 2008:  “Advocates oftentimes admit that bailouts are not good policy, but they invariably argue that short-term considerations should trump long-term sensible policy. Their biggest assertion is that a bailout is necessary to prevent bankruptcy, and that avoiding this result is critical to prevent catastrophe. But Chapter 11 protection may be precisely what is needed to put American auto companies back on the path to profitability. Bankruptcy laws specifically are designed to give companies an opportunity — under court supervision — to reduce costs and streamline operations.”

Dan Ikenson, December 5, 2008: “The best solution is to allow the bankruptcy process to work. It will be needed. There are going to be jobs lost, but there is really nothing policymakers can do about that without exacerbating problems elsewhere. The numbers won’t be as dire as the Big Three have been projecting.”

Cato Links

  • As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrates its 60th birthday, there are signs of mounting trouble within the alliance and increasing reasons to doubt the organization’s relevance regarding the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. In a new study, Cato scholar Ted Galen Carpenter argues that NATO’s time is up.
  • Should immigration agents target businesses knowingly hiring illegal immigrants? Cato scholar Jim Harper weighs in on a Fox News debate.
Topics:

Social Security Is Running a Surplus…Oops

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

Topics:

Week in Review: No End to Spending and Regulation in Sight

Geithner to Propose Unprecedented Restrictions on Financial System

geithnerThe Washington Post reports, “Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner plans to propose today a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system… The administration also will seek to impose uniform standards on all large financial firms, including banks, an unprecedented step that would place significant limits on the scope and risk of their activities.”

Calling Geithner’s plan another “jihad against the market,” Cato senior fellow Jerry Taylor blasts the administration’s proposal:

What President Obama is selling is the idea that government must be the final arbiter regarding how much risk-taking is appropriate in this allegedly free market economy. It is unclear, however, whether anybody short of God is in the position to intelligently make that call for every single actor in the market.

Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll reveals the real reason behind the proposal:

Federal agencies have long had extensive regulatory powers over commercial banks, but allowed the banking crisis to develop despite those powers. It was a failure of will, not an absence of authority.   If the authority is extended over more institutions, there is no reason to believe we will have a different outcome.  This power grab is designed to divert attention away from the manifest failure of, first, the Bush Administration, and now the Obama Administration to devise a credible plan to deal with the crisis.

A new paper from Cato scholar Jagadeesh Gokhale explains the roots of the current global financial crisis and critically examines the reasoning behind the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s actions to prop up the financial sector. Gokhale argues that recovery is likely to be slow with or without the government’s bailout actions.

In the new issue of the Cato Policy Report, Cato chairman emeritus William A. Niskanen explains how President Obama is taking classic steps toward turning this recession into a depression:

Four federal economic policies transformed the Hoover recession into the Great Depression: higher tariffs, stronger unions, higher marginal tax rates, and a lower money supply. President Obama, unfortunately, has endorsed some variant of the first three of these policies, and he will face a critical choice on monetary policy in a year or so.

Obama Defends His Massive Spending Plan

President Obama visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby Democratic lawmakers on his $3.6 trillion budget proposal. Both the House and Senate are expected to vote on the plan next week.

obama-budget1In a new bulletin, Cato scholar Chris Edwards argues, “Sadly, Obama’s first budget sets a course for more government bloat, more economic distortions, and ultimately lower standards of living for everyone who is not living off of federal hand-outs.”

On Cato’s blog, Edwards discusses Obama’s misguided theory on government spending:

Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Obama’s budget calls for a massive influx of government jobs. Writing in National Review, Cato senior fellow Jim Powell explains why government jobs don’t cure depression:

If government jobs were the secret of success, then the Soviet Union wouldn’t have collapsed, because it had nothing but government jobs. Communist China, glutted with government jobs, would have generated more income per capita than Hong Kong where, at least before the Communist takeover, there were hardly any government jobs, but Hong Kong’s per capita income was about 20 times higher than that on the mainland.

Multiplying the number of government jobs did nothing then and does nothing now to revive the private sector that pays all the bills, in large part because of the depressing effect of taxes required to pay for government jobs.

Cato on YouTube

Cato Institute is reaching out to new audiences with our message of individual liberty, free markets and peace. Last year, we launched our first YouTube channel, which has garnered thousands of views and subscriptions. Here are a few highlights:

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.