Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Congressional Bonuses

The Wall Street Journal reports,

While Congress has been flaying companies for giving out bonuses while on the government dole, lawmakers have a longstanding tradition of rewarding their own employees with extra cash — also courtesy of taxpayers.

And at the very time that Congress was mishandling the financial crisis and trying to direct popular outrage at Wall Street, not Washington, the bonuses were getting bigger:

Capitol Hill bonuses in 2008 were among the highest in years, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks payroll data. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to the data.

LegiStorm is a pretty scary website for congressional staff members and privacy advocates. It makes readily available not just staffers’ salaries but their financial disclosure forms, including their spouses’ sources of income, as the Washington Post reported this week. I used LegiStorm myself (or technically interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod did) to write about how the Republicans shoveled bonus money to their staff members before they lost control of committee budgets after the 2006 election. Now that bonuses have become a focus of outrage, maybe Congress should impose 90 percent clawbacks on the bonuses of congressional staffers — and bonuses to other federal employees. After all, they’ve mismanaged the government’s finances far worse than AIG employees mismanaged that company.

So Much for the Promise of Financial Transparency

President Barack Obama promised transparency and accountability for how the federal government spends the trillions – or is it quadrillions (I’ve lost count)? – in bail-out money, stimulus outlays, and expanded government programs.  Alas, his administration doesn’t seem interested in living up to his promises.

Reports ABC News:

The watchdog for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s financial rescue plan, said today that the Treasury Department has not been cooperating with oversight efforts up to this point.

“We do not seem to be a priority for the Treasury Department,” the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Elizabeth Warren told a Senate Finance Committee hearing today.

“We have sent letters. We have requested that there be someone named so that we can get technical information. And so far, we have not been a first priority,” Warren said. “We use what you give us, and we will exercise the leverage given to us by Congress. In part, that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to talk to you about what’s happened so far, what we have discovered so far, the inquiries that we have in mid-stream and for which we continue to await responses.”

Warren, visibly frustrated with a lack of cooperation from the administration, emphasized, “This problem starts with Treasury.”

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that a presidential commitment has gone aglimmering.  But given the extraordinary opportunity for pervasive waste, fraud, and abuse in the tsunami of new federal spending, few presidential commitments have been as important.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

A few bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • New York Times blogger Andrew C. Revkin wrote about Cato’s forthcoming full-page ad on climate change that will run in newspapers around the country next week.
  • Wes Messamore helped set the record straight: Cato scholars have criticized the growth of government regardless of who’s in power.
  • Brandon Dutcher posted Cato’s Monday podcast with Adam Schaeffer on universal pre-school.

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:

The Fed Is Now Scared

Bloomberg News (March 25, 2009) reported a speech by San Francisco Fed president Janet Yellen in which she called for authority for the central bank to issue its own debt. The request must have most people perplexed, especially since her rationale was delivered in Fed-speak. “Issuing such debt would reduce the volume of reserves in the financial system and push up the funds rate without shrinking the total size of our balance sheet,” Yellen said.

Actually, Yellen, who is also an economist, is addressing a very serious issue. It is one that critics of current Fed policy have been raising for some time.

The Fed is loading up its balance sheet with illiquid assets, including many dubious assets taken in as collateral for loans of money and Treasury securities to financial institutions. In the process, the Fed has an ever diminishing supply of highly liquid (and safe) Treasury securities on its own balance sheet.

Critics like economic historian Anna J. Schwartz and former Fed attorney Walker F. Todd have pointed out that the Fed will have a technical problem if it wants to start sopping up all the liquidity it has created. In a 2008 paper in International Finance, Schwartz and Todd wrote that “it is fair to ask what the Fed intends to do if it decided that it would tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates.” Without a sufficient supply of highly liquid assets to sell in the markets, the Fed would need to dispose of its illiquid assets at losses. That would possibly drive up interest rates more than desired.

Yellen’s call for the power to issue Fed debt signals a number of things. First, the Fed, contrary to recent happy talk from other officials, is worried about inflation. Second, its critics are correct that the Fed has painted itself into a corner by taking illiquid assets onto its balance sheet. Third, the Fed wants to hold those dubious assets to maturity (hence Yellen’s point about not “shrinking the total size of our balance sheet”).

Yellen’s trial balloon drew a “no comment” from the Fed’s Washington headquarters. The issue will not go away.