Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
  
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
 
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Public Sees Past Facade of “Financial Reform”

A new AP-Gfk poll reveals that about two-thirds of the American public lack confidence that the financial regulation bill, currently being crafted by House and Senate conferees, will actually help avert future financial crises. 

The public is right to be skeptical, as there is nothing in either the House or Senate bill that ends bailouts or ends “too-big-to-fail.”  In fact parts of the bill, such as the expansion of deposit insurance, will actually increase the likelihood of future crises.  (The IMF has an insightful working paper on the negative impacts of deposit insurance). 

Perhaps the failure of Congressional efforts to end financial crises is the result of Washington’s unwillingness to recognize that government itself was the major driver of the recent crisis.  Fortunately the public seems to get that.  Some 70 percent of the poll respondents believe that government shares blame for the crisis.  Here’s to hoping that Congress will at some point listen to the public, and end many of the distortionary policies that caused the crisis.

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Congress to Expand Deposit Insurance

While I never had much hope that this Congress would actually fix the real causes of the financial crisis - loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie - I had hoped that they wouldn’t do a lot to make an already bad situation worse.  Boy, was that hope naive.

Take the area of federally provided deposit insurance.  There is a massive amount of scholarly work, much of it empirical, that demonstrates that expanding the level and scope of deposit insurance results in more frequent and severe financial crises.  So what is Congress considering?  Yes, you guessed it:  expanded deposit insurance.

Recall during the financial crisis Congress raised the coverage limit to $250,000 - forget that there were never any premiums charged ahead of time for this coverage.  The FDIC also, without any basis in law, offered unlimited coverage to non-interest bearing accounts, targeted mostly at business customers.  While these expansions may have brought the system some short term stability, they come at the cost of considerable long term instability.

Congress is also making the misguided change of basing  insurance premiums on total assets rather than total deposits.  This will punish banks for relying on sources of funding other than deposits, giving banks an incentive to shift their funding toward deposits, putting the taxpayer ultimately at even greater risk.

So why all these expanded bank guarantees? Smaller banks view these as changes that would give them a competitive advantage relative to larger banks.  After all community and regional banks are far more dependent on deposits as a source of funds.  And while big banks are damaged politically, the smaller banks, despite their higher failure rates, have managed to maintain their political ability to shift the costs of their risk-taking onto the backs of the taxpayer.

Overcriminalization in the Financial Reform Legislation

The Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) made a stir by announcing their joint report, Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law. The report highlights the growth of federal criminal provisions in the 109th Congress. Many criminal statutes are drafted without the traditional requirement of criminal intent. When there is no requirement that the government prove you “willfully” or “knowingly” broke the law, mistakes are treated the same as intentional criminality. Some laws are written so broadly that it is impossible for anyone to know what conduct is illegal. Criminal provisions are included in statutes that are never reviewed by the judiciary committees of either chamber of Congress.

The NACDL has a follow-up analysis of the financial regulatory reform currently being considered by Congress. The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 has passed both houses and is heading into committee.

This 1600-page bill does everything that the Without Intent report warned against. The “reckless disregard” intent requirement is imported from tort law in several provisions and many others have no mental state requirement at all. New bribery and mail/wire fraud provisions are included where none are necessary. Bribery and fraud are already illegal.

Read the whole thing (direct .pdf link here).

Congress Begins Conference on Financial Regulation

Today begins the televised political theatre that Barney Frank has been waiting months for:  the first public meeting of the House and Senate conferees on the two financial regulation bills.  While there are a handful of important differences between the House and Senate bills, these differences are overshadowed by what the bills have in common.  The most important, and tragic, commonality is that both bills ignore the real causes of the financial crisis and focus on convenient political targets.

As our financial system was brought to its knees by an exploding housing bubble, fueled by government mandates and distortions, one would think, just maybe, that Congress would roll back these distortions.  Despite their role in contributing to the crisis and the size of their bailout, however, neither bill barely mentions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.   Except, of course, to continue their favored and privileged status, such as their exemption from a proposed new “consumer protection” agency.  What we really need is a new “taxpayer protection” agency.

Nor will either bill change the government’s meddling in what is probably the most important price in the economy:  the interest rate.  Given the overwhelming evidence that loose monetary policy was a direct cause of the housing bubble, one might expect Congress to spend time and effort preventing the Fed from creating another bubble.  Not only does Congress ignore the issue, the Senate won’t even allow GAO to look at the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

Instead of spending the next few weeks gazing into the camera, Congress should stop and gaze into the mirror.  This was a crisis conceived and born in Washington DC.  The Rayburn building serving as the proverbial back-seat of the housing bubble.

Kazakhstan’s Approach to Bank Failure

Gillian Tett has an interesting column in today’s Financial Times, discussing the recent resolution of one of Kazakhstan’s largest banks, BTA.  What’s novel about this particular bank resolution?  Well instead of the taxpayer, or the rest of the banking sector, covering a large hole in BTA’s balance sheet, the bondholders are taking the hit (of course shareholders are also taking a loss).

Some of this is  probably due to politics; the bondholders in this case are mostly foreign, and of course, the taxpayers are domestic voters.  Not that the foreign bondholders didn’t lobby for a bailout. 

But putting the politics aside, this represents a real test of whether we are stuck only with the choice of bailouts or mass panic, as argued by the Bernanke-Paulson-Geithner crowd.  If, in the weeks ahead, Kazakhstan, and particularly its other banks, are still able to tap the debt markets and its economy does not crater, then I believe we have sufficient evidence to end bailouts here in the United States and start letting the bondholders, instead of the taxpayer, take the losses.

Will lending costs to Kazakhstan banks likely go up?  Of course, that is the point.  One of the most damaging aspects of the 2008 bank bailouts was the elimination of whatever market discipline remained, in terms of large bank creditors.   As most financial institutions fund 90% plus of the activities via borrowing, we simply cannot rely solely on equity, management, and regulators to police their behavior.  Only if creditors really have something to lose will we ever have any hope of ending “too-big-to-fail.”