For a Strong Economy, Keep Europe Afloat and Keep Americans in Their Homes

For a Strong Economy, Keep Europe Afloat and Keep Americans in Their Homes

August 29, 2011

The persistent sluggishness of the recovery here in the United States and in most of the world’s advanced economies should underscore a stark lesson from economic history: Systemic financial crises are the products of deep economic problems, and they can’t be solved by simply treating the after-effects of slow growth. It’s long overdue that the United States and Europe directly address the deep market distortions that brought about the crisis of 2008 and 2009.

So far, all we’ve done is substitute large doses of fiscal and monetary stimulus for the hard work.  That pulled us back from the brink of a Depression. We also shouldn’t have been surprised that once the stimulus played out, the same distortions reasserted themselves. We may technically be experiencing a recovery. But unless we’re more forthright in our interventions into both the housing and financial markets — on both the international and domestic stage — we’ll remain exposed to the possibility of a renewed crisis, one even more severe than the one that began three years ago.

These considerations don’t drive policy, in part because so many economists still see the crisis as an anomaly, one that will be followed in due course by markets reasserting their natural optimality. This view, of course, ignores or slights the overwhelming evidence of how inefficiently and “sub-optimally” the financial and housing markets have performed for years. U.S. and European financial markets have systematically failed to reasonably price the risks of trillions of dollars of derivative securities; housing markets here and across much of Europe have sustained a classic speculative bubble and equally classic crash.  

Our current predicament has as much to do with our own lame responses to the consequent crisis, as it does with the original crisis itself. Washington provided bailouts and virtually-free credit for financial institutions without applying requirements as to how that new-found money ought to be used. There also were new housing initiatives, but based on a fanciful view that a little federal money would be enough to convince bankers to extend new credit to people already on the brink of default. Finally, there was a substantial fiscal stimulus — a good and necessary move — but one cobbled together from the wish lists of hundreds of members of Congress.

The results are now clear in the data. Financial institutions amassed trillions of dollars without expanding business lending, mainly because the financial-market distortions that brought on the crisis are still with us. These institutions are still holding trillions of dollars in wobbly asset-based securities, whose risks even now they cannot reasonably price. So they sit on most of their new capital (after paying out their bonuses), in hopes of avoiding another bout of bankruptcy from those assets, should another crisis erupt. Yet, the prospect of new legislation to sustainably resolve those weak assets by pulling them off the books — as Sweden did in its early-1990s banking crisis, and we did in the S&L crisis of 1989-1990 — is nonexistent.

The prospect of another imminent crisis on the horizon ought to put the necessary policies into relief. One initiative that cannot wait: President Obama should call an emergency G-8 meeting to help head off a new financial meltdown in Europe. The sobering fact is that many of Europe’s largest banks are nearly insolvent. It’s a legacy from not only the 2008 – 2009 meltdown, but also the EU’s decision in 2007 to reduce bank capital requirements under the level set by the “Basel 2” accords. Americans benefited from the fact that our own banking regulators dawdled in making similar changes desired by the Bush administration, by which time even the Bush Treasury had doubts about cutting capital requirements. The result today is that the German and French banking systems in particular are in much worse shape than Wall Street.

Now these weak banks face additional, large-scale losses from the falling values of Italian and Spanish government bonds, a contagion from the now-anticipated defaults of Greek and Portuguese public sovereign debt.  If this turmoil intensifies, it will probably pull down some of Europe’s largest banks. And if institutions such as BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank (the world’s two largest banks) fail, the U.S. and global economies would probably follow. Moreover, this time, the consequences would be even more dire than in 2008 – 2009, since governments have already exhausted their fiscal and monetary policy options.

We can still head off a 1931 scenario if Germany and France will accept the inevitable and obvious: A common Euro currency requires that every member pledge its full faith and credit for Eurobonds to support the full faith and credit of everybody else. Otherwise, the failure of a small member (today, Greece and/or Portugal) can destroy confidence in the economic sustainability of much larger members (Italy and Spain). And then, everybody’s goose is cooked.

The political catch is that the solution puts French and German taxpayers on the hook to bail out fiscally-inept Greece and Portugal. Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy have tried to avoid the political blowback from introducing Eurobonds by trotting out smaller options. It is a decision that hearkens to the Bush administration’s misguided attempts to avoid bailing out Lehman Brothers. Investors aren’t buying it. So if Greece goes down now, Sarkozy and Merkel will be forced to rescue Italy and Spain — and perhaps France itself — at incalculably greater cost to everyone.

President Obama should not delay to call for a G8 meeting: Europe needs to hear that the United States considers its current course unacceptable, and that Washington would be ready to help fund IMF support for a broader solution that can head off another full-blown crisis.

If we intervene to put Europe back on course and avoid a replay of 1931, we still will be facing the prospect of a persistently slow economy. Preventing that kind of long-term stagnation would require that we finally address the distortions in the housing market by stabilizing housing prices. Policymakers’ most promising avenue to that end would be to focus on bringing down foreclosure rates and keeping American families in their homes.

There is no doubt that housing prices are central to our current growth dilemma. People spend freely when their incomes are rising or their wealth is increasing. During the last expansion and leading up to the current crisis, the incomes of most Americans stagnated. Instead, growth and business investment were driven mainly by the “wealth effect” created by fast-rising housing values. Now, the economy is caught in the flip-side, as four years of sliding housing prices drive a powerful negative wealth effect that continues to hold down consumption.

The broad reach of these effects reflects how wealth is now distributed in the United States: According to Fed data for 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held 40 percent of the value of all real estate assets, compared to a miserable seven percent of the total value of all financial assets (and yes, that includes pensions). Home equity, in short, is very nearly the only real asset for more than half of all Americans. The decision to allow housing values to fall for four straight years—in contrast to the equity and bonds of large financial institutions—leaves the majority of American consumers growing poorer month after month. Just as people who grow richer spend more, people who find themselves poorer spend less. So, consumer demand and with it business investment will not recover until housing values stabilize.

To help make that happen, policymakers could establish a temporary loan program for homeowners whose mortgages are in trouble, to help bring down foreclosure rates and so begin to stabilize housing prices and stem the negative wealth effect. The program should not be a giveaway; if it were, it would create enormous moral hazard and enrage everyone who works hard to keep up their own mortgages. So, the loans would carry an interest rate above current 30-year mortgage rates, and those who take advantage of them would have to turn back to taxpayers a share of any capital gains earned later from selling their homes.

It’s very important that we get this right. Unfortunately, the signs from Washington right now aren’t promising. The Obama administration reportedly is considering a program to promote large-scale mortgage refinancings at the current, low fixed rates. If it worked, lower mortgage payments could free up an estimated $85 billion for consumers. But since those whose mortgages are in trouble probably wouldn’t qualify, the refinancing program would inject a little stimulus without affecting housing values. That means it would leave intact the current, negative wealth effect.

We don’t have time to wait for the markets to begin operating rationally again. The economy will only right itself when housing values stabilize and distortions in Wall Street’s and Europe’s financial systems have been addressed. We will need to intervene on both domestic and international fronts, to restore consumer demand and business investment — and with them, President Obama’s prospects for reelection.

The Best Advice for the President: Think Big and Move On

August 10, 2011

In good times, a President without clear economic policies may not suffer for it. But in shaky and uncertain times like today, failing to advance a coherent strategy to ease people’s genuine economic troubles can be fatal politically, for a president or his opponent. Yet, it happens with some regularity, often because the candidate simply prefers to talk about foreign policy or other things. Consider the first George Bush in 1992, dismissing people’s economic worries to return again and again to his Gulf War success. Think of John McCain in 2008, with no plan to stem the financial meltdown but eager to talk about his opponent’s character failings. And reaching further back, there was George McGovern decrying the Viet Nam War, but with little to say about the inflation and slow growth.

Both parties will certainly have economic programs for 2012. Yet, both parties are in danger of passing lightly over the core issues of jobs, housing values, and incomes. The problem for the Republican nominee is the Tea Party, which may well force him or her to embrace its radical bromides. That assumes, of course, that the GOP doesn’t nominate Rick Perry or Michelle Bachman, who won’t need to be convinced. Whoever the nominee is, he or she will have to stand for abolishing the minimum wage. On the budget, the nominee will have to support moving Medicare towards vouchers with spending caps that don’t take account of health care costs, and a balanced budget amendment that won’t take account of recessions. The nominee also will have to stand for the repeal of Wall Street regulation and more tax cuts to frost the cake of the rich.

This prospect presents President Obama with two choices. He can run against the Tea Party platform and insist that a minimalist approach is preferable to the other side’s eccentric agenda. One catch is that the GOP nominee almost certainly will have a “Sister Souljah” moment when he ostentatiously distances himself from some loony piece of the Tea Party platform. (My personal favorite is the call to abolish our “fiat” currency and revive the long, well-buried gold standard.)  And if the GOP nominee can weave a story about how a balanced budget and less government will help create jobs and restore housing values, and repeat that story often enough, it could be sufficient to trump Democratic minimalism.

But the President has another choice. He can offer up a new program of “Big Ideas” that directly takes on jobs, stagnating incomes, housing values, and the nation’s debt. The conventional wisdom is that this is too risky, because it would tacitly acknowledge that his first-term program didn’t deliver the prosperity his economic team promised. But since everyone in the country is already aware that it didn’t deliver as promised, acknowledging it would be a small concession.

To be sure, the Tea Party-dominated House probably wouldn’t pass anything that Obama proposes before the election. The economy will get a little more support from the Fed, but essentially will be on its own. Nevertheless, the President can lay a foundation for stronger job and income gains in a second term — if he’s reelected — by campaigning for a new economic program.

With persistent, high unemployment, Obama needs to show that he knows how to reduce the costs for businesses to create new jobs and preserve old ones. One direct way to do that would be to cut the employer side of the payroll tax by half, and then he could propose to pay for it through tax reforms that include a carbon-based tax to help address climate change. He also can show that he knows how to help create new, small businesses which, in turn, will create new jobs. Since our major financial institutions have largely stopped providing credit to small entrepreneurs, he could propose a new government-sponsored enterprise that could float bonds for community banks to finance those business loans.

The biggest obstacle to a stronger recovery remains the sick housing market. Nearly two-thirds of American households, in effect, grow poorer every month as the values of their homes decline and, with it, any equity they built up. And people who feel they’re becoming poorer don’t spend, which in turn keeps this recovery anemic. The best leverage we have to stop the decline in housing prices is to bring down home foreclosure rates. The President can show he knows how to do that too, by proposing a new temporary loan program for homeowners with mortgages in trouble. To be sure, this is treacherous territory, politically and economically, since it could enrage homeowners who don’t qualify and induce moral hazard for those who do. But the President can address both problems with some tough love. Homeowners who receive the loans would be on the hook not only to pay them back. On top of that, 10 percent of any capital gains from an eventual home sale could go back to the taxpayers.

Finally, the President can show that he knows how to help Americans prepare for the new jobs that the rest of his program would help create. Nearly half of all working people age 35 and over today still have only the most rudimentary computer skills, leaving them unprepared to perform well in most 21st century jobs. The President could propose a new grant program for community colleges that will keep their computer labs open and staffed in the evenings and on weekends: Any adult would be able to walk in and receive IT training at no personal cost.

This program won’t assuage the Tea Party’s followers — in fact, it will likely incense them. Let’s hope so. The President should welcome a debate — okay, a pitched battle — over a genuine and understandable strategy to improve the lives of Americans. Even if unemployment is still well over 8 percent, a serious plan to bring it down should trump the grab bag of far-right nostrums that passes for policy in the Tea Party.

This Week’s Debt Deal Is George W. Bush’s Revenge – But It Won’t Last

August 4, 2011

There is plenty of blame to go around for the recent debt and deficit shenanigans, but who should get the credit?    I nominate George W. Bush.  Not only did his administration’s negligence secure the foundations for the financial upheavals which ultimately created much of the short-term deficit.  The role of his tax cuts in driving much of the medium term deficits is also certainly well-known.  But the last month’s budget warfare also highlights the significance of his distinctive innovation in fiscal policy:  Unlike FDR and LBJ, W established a major new entitlement – Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits for seniors – without a revenue stream to pay for it.  This unhappy innovation also helped shape the austerity plan the President signed this week.

Consider the following.  The only certain budget cuts in the deal are $915 billion in discretionary program reductions over ten years.  In fact, those cuts very nearly match the $815 billion in unfunded costs for Medicare Part D over the same period.  And Bush’s dogged resistance to paying for those benefits has now revealed the priorities of those in both parties who think we do have to pay for them.  Since those priorities dictate no new revenues for Republicans and no cuts in Part D benefits for Democrats, that leaves only the large-scale cuts in discretionary programs in this week’s deal.

But this also creates a quandary that is certain to become very prominent, very soon.   The plan says clearly that avoiding entitlements and taxes trumps everything else in the budget.  Yet, the arithmetic, both budgetary and political, says that Congress and the President cannot deal with the long-term deficits and debt without venturing deeply into both areas. So far, the Tea Party’s acolytes in both houses have vetoed any new revenues, which in turn has locked in the progressives’ veto on entitlement changes.  Yet, this week’s deal also sets up a choice down the road that will very likely isolate the Tea Party’s denizens in Congress.

The President and Harry Reid in the Senate have already vowed that unless revenues are part of the next, $1.5 trillion tranche of fiscal changes, they’re prepared to let across-the-board cuts go forward – and blame the other side.   And when that tranche of deficit reductions comes due, the Tea Party won’t have the leverage of an expiring debt limit.  Instead, progressives will have more leverage, because the across-the-board cuts would slice through the fat at the Pentagon and well into the muscle.  If history is any guide, conservative Republicans hate deep cuts in defense spending even more than they abhor tax increases.

George W. Bush never had to choose between defense and taxes, because Bill Clinton left a big budget surplus to spend.   When it ran out, W. opted for his legacy of large, structural deficits.  Ronald Reagan started out the same way, but the deep recession of 1981-1982 brought on his big deficits quickly.  And when that happened, Reagan opted repeatedly for new revenues to protect his defense spending.   Today’s Tea Party Republicans are no Reaganites:  As John Boehner discovered when he tried to cut a deal with Barack Obama that included higher revenues and limited defense cuts, Tea Party House members have been determined to avoid new revenues even if it means much less for defense.

Limited defense cuts – $350 billon over ten years – are already part of the initial round of cutbacks.  When the additional $1.5 trillion comes due, defense’s share of across-the-board cuts will draw dire predictions and protests – all with the administration’s tactical blessing.  When that happens, what can conservatives like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell do but follow Ronald Reagan’s example.  So, whatever the rightwing flank of the GOP says today, next time out Republicans will be forced to accept revenue increases.  And since Medicare is on the line with defense, Democrats will also be forced to accept some changes in entitlements.  The combination will leave the Tea Party with no choice but to howl and take their case into the 2012 elections.