Boehner Sets the Terms of the Fall Election Debate

"President Obama should ask for - and accept - the resignations of the remaining members of his economic team, starting with Secretary Geithner and Larry Summers, the head of the National Economic Council," said Minority Leader John Boehner in a morning speech to business leaders at the City Club of Cleveland. And with that masterful stroke of political rhetoric, long called for by many observers on the left including this one, John Boehner has set the terms of the debate for the Fall election. Granted, the Fall election was always bound to be a referendum on the President's economic policies but now Boehner has floated an idea that many outside the GOP's base can latch onto.

Beyond that demand for personnel changes in the White House Economic Team, Boehner's speech offered the standard Republican boilerplate of failed ideas: lower taxes, fewer regulations, free trade agreements, and unspecified spending cuts but presumably to social safety net entitlement programmes. While the speech is disingenuous -  he quotes John F. Kennedy "an economy constrained by high tax rates will never produce enough revenue to balance the budget, just as it will never create enough jobs." but neglects to mention the top marginal rate in 1961 was 91 percent a far cry from today's 35 percent - the speech, politically speaking, is Boehner's finest hour. It's the pitch for a man who thinks himself the Speaker-in-waiting.

Mind you, the Democrats have somewhat pre-empted Boehner by making him a campaign issue and the White House is firing back. Bill Burton, the White House deputy press secretary, said he had reviewed Boehner's speech and found "what was most surprising was his full-throated defense of the indefensible." Burton rejected Boehner's call for Obama to dismiss Geithner and Summers, saying the "irony of this is that Boehner would fire the people who made the tough decisions, who did the hard work to get the economy going again." And the problem with the Administration, they think the economy is on the right track when we are headed for long period of Japanese-style malaise.  

The other must read piece of news today is in the Wall Street Journal where Jon Hilsenrath covers the on-going debate at the Federal Reserve over how to kick start the economy.

After steering the economy away from another Great Depression, Mr. Bernanke confronts a painfully slow rebound.

Unemployment is still high and inflation is uncomfortably low. Fed officials, who spent much of the early part of this year planning for an exit from easy-money policies, have been forced to think about doing more to jolt the economy to life.

Fed officials emphasize they have common objectives despite being deeply divided over what to do next: They seek to avoid either deflation, a broad decline in prices and wages, or an upsurge of inflation. And they share a strong desire to get the economy growing fast enough to sustain a recovery without unusual government support.

The Fed already has cut the short-term interest rates it targets to near zero, vowed to keep them there for an extended period and purchased trillions of dollars in securities, with money the central bank creates, to push down long-term interest rates.

The most contentious issue now is whether to print more money and buy even more long-term securities, which would expand the Fed's portfolio further. An earlier bond-buying program ended in March.

A decision hinges largely on whether the Fed sees inflation falling much further or if economic growth fails to revive. The Fed and most private forecasters still expect faster growth in 2011, and few economists are predicting outright deflation.

Among the other issues: Should the Fed act quickly, or should it wait for firmer evidence that the economy is truly faltering? And if it does decide to act, should it take small, cautious steps or large, dramatic ones?

Deflation is a concern of mine but what troubles me most isn't the Fed's wrangling though it sheds clarity over the situation but rather that Administration appears lackadaisical in tackling unemployment. From day one, it should have been priority one but the views of Christina Romer were dismissed by Summer, Geithner and Emanuel, the troika that runs the White House economic policy. Rightly or wrongly, the troika is perceived as putting the interests of Wall Street ahead of Main Street and perceptions do matter. Still, it is hard to discern a sustained effort by the Administration on the nation's unemployment problem. By letting unemployment fester, it has gives credence to the GOP thus giving them an opening.

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Beyond the Efficient Market Hypothesis

I've got to run because I'm volunteering on two political campaigns. The thought of Barbara Boxer losing her Senate seat drives me to despair and I'm also volunteering for a local candidate for the Board of Supervisors.

A quick post on the efficient market hypothesis or EMH. “The Efficient Market Hypothesis is not only dead,” noted the financial blog Minyanville on July 29, 2010. “It’s really, most sincerely dead.” Perhaps, first, a quick definition is in order. From Investopedia:

The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) is an investment theory that states it is impossible to "beat the market" because stock market efficiency causes existing share prices to always incorporate and reflect all relevant information. According to the EMH, stocks always trade at their fair value on stock exchanges, making it impossible for investors to either purchase undervalued stocks or sell stocks for inflated prices. As such, it should be impossible to outperform the overall market through expert stock selection or market timing, and that the only way an investor can possibly obtain higher returns is by purchasing riskier investments.

The EMH is at cornerstone of our economic model because it lies at the Greenspanian (and conservative) notion that financial markets can be self-regulated, even though financial markets operate very distinctly from normal supply and demand economic principles. As The Economist has noted that “Financial markets do not operate the same way as those for other goods and services. When the price of a television set or software package goes up, demand for it generally falls. When the prices of a financial asset rises, demand generally rises.”

Financial markets are too often guided by a herd mentality that leads to financial asset bubbles. This was true in the Tulip Mania of the early 17th century in Holland and it was true in the more recent Dot Com Stock Market Crash and US housing bubbles. Irrational exuberance trumps information. The EMH is built on the assumptions of investor rationality. 

John Maynard Keynes, however, argued that the stock market should be seen as a "casino" guided by an "animal spirit". Keynes held that investors are guided by short-run speculative motives. They are not interested in assessing the present value of future dividends and holding an investment for a significant period, but rather in estimating the short-run price movements.

Today, Joseph Stiglitz in the Financial Times writes on the need for a new economic paradigm of moving beyond the efficient market hypothesis.

The blame game continues over who is responsible for the worst recession since the Great Depression – the financiers who did such a bad job of managing risk or the regulators who failed to stop them. But the economics profession bears more than a little culpability. It provided the models that gave comfort to regulators that markets could be self-regulated; that they were efficient and self-correcting. The efficient markets hypothesis – the notion that market prices fully revealed all the relevant information – ruled the day. Today, not only is our economy in a shambles but so too is the economic paradigm that predominated in the years before the crisis – or at least it should be.

It is hard for non-economists to understand how peculiar the predominant macroeconomic models were. Many assumed demand had to equal supply – and that meant there could be no unemployment. (Right now a lot of people are just enjoying an extra dose of leisure; why they are unhappy is a matter for psychiatry, not economics.) Many used “representative agent models” – all individuals were assumed to be identical, and this meant there could be no meaningful financial markets (who would be lending money to whom?). Information asymmetries, the cornerstone of modern economics, also had no place: they could arise only if individuals suffered from acute schizophrenia, an assumption incompatible with another of the favoured assumptions, full rationality.

Bad models lead to bad policy: central banks, for instance, focused on the small economic inefficiencies arising from inflation, to the exclusion of the far, far greater inefficiencies arising from dysfunctional financial markets and asset price bubbles. After all, their models said that financial markets were always efficient. Remarkably, standard macroeconomic models did not even incorporate adequate analyses of banks. No wonder former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, in his famous mea culpa, could express his surprise that banks did not do a better job at risk management. The real surprise was his surprise: even a cursory look at the perverse incentives confronting banks and their managers would have predicted short-sighted behaviour with excessive risk-taking.

Stiglitz also points to the work at the George Soros funded Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) that was founded in October 2009. Its mission is to create an environment nourished by open discourse and critical thinking where the next generation of scholars has the support to go beyond our prevailing economic paradigms and advance the culture of change. Two of my favorite economists are associated with the Institute: Simon Johnson of MIT and Richard Koo of Nomura Securities whose book on Japan's lost decade The Balance Sheet Recession has been my guide for looking at our economic situation.

Here's a short video on the INET:

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Weekly Audit: Foreclosure Mills, Social Security and the Fed’s Failures

by Amanda Anderson, Media Consortium blogger

Editor’s Note: Zach Carter is out this week, but we’ve compiled a rundown of the biggest economy-related stories, including the rise of foreclosure mills and why social security isn’t in jeopardy. Zach will be back next Tuesday, so stay tuned!

Who needs ethics when you’ve got foreclosure mills?

Want to make money quickly, but don’t want ethics to get in the way? Big banks are outsourcing their foreclosure duties to fraudulent law firms, known as foreclosure mills, and getting away with it. Zach Carter explains the latest get rich quick scheme for AlterNet. Foreclosure mills are ethically questionable law firms that process legal documents for foreclosures. They tend to have an emphasis on quantity, not quality. Carter writes:

Big banks are not outsourcing their foreclosure processing to shady law firms with a history of breaking the law for a quick buck. These foreclosure scammers forge documents, backdate signatures, slap families with thousands of dollars in illegal fees and even foreclosure on borrowers who haven’t missed a payment.

Andy Kroll chronicles the evolution of foreclosure mills for Mother Jones. Kroll also exposes a notorious Floridian law firm founded by David J. Stern that is using every trick in the book—including backdating documents and illegally charging clients massive fees—to profit from the foreclosure crisis:

While rushing foreclosures isn’t illegal, Stern’s fledgling firm was promptly accused of something that is: gouging people who are trying to get out of default. In October 1998, Tallahassee attorney Claude Walker filed a class-action lawsuit involving tens of thousands of claimants, alleging that Stern had piled excessive fees on families fighting to keep their homes. (Walker, who visited Stern’s offices in 1999 to collect depositions, described the place as “a big warehouse” where hordes of attorneys holed up in tiny, crowded offices “like hamsters in a cage.”)

Don’t blame Social Security for the deficit

Fact: Social Security benefits will be able to be paid, in full, through 2037.

Fact: 75% of Social Security benefits will be able to be paid thought 2084.

Fact: There is a huge surplus in Social Security trust fund- $2.5 trillion. So why the big push to trim the program? In an interview with The American Prospect, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) explains his proposed legislation that will actually expand benefits:

Ninety-five percent of the people in our country [already] pay Social Security tax on 100 percent of their income. The bill provides both contribution and benefit fairness: Even as people are going to be paying in more, they’re going to receive more benefits. Doing that, by the way, will also ensure the solvency of Social Security, which is terribly important.

The Fed’s failure and the AIG Bailout: A brief history

In The Nation, William Greider explains how the Federal Reserve Board gambled with American taxpayers’ money by not considering alternatives to the AIG bailout. Grieder highlights a report from the Congressional Oversight Panel, which “provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences.”

In short, the Fed acted “under the business-as-usual expectations of the private financial system, while skipping lightly over the public consequences.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



The D-Word

For some time now, the US economy has had all the ingredients—soft, anemic labour markets and wage growth, slack consumer demand, a real estate sector that has to revive after a three year downturn—for a deflationary cycle. Deflation was last seen in the US in the 1930s and in Japan in the 1990s, when the inflation rate fell to zero and then turned negative for several years. But now the Federal Reserve is increasingly concerned that we may be on the cusp of a deflationary asset spiral.

From the New York Times:

On Thursday, James Bullard, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, warned that the Fed’s current policies were putting the American economy at risk of becoming “enmeshed in a Japanese-style deflationary outcome within the next several years.”

The warning by Mr. Bullard, who is a voting member of the Fed committee that determines interest rates, comes days after Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, said the central bank was prepared to do more to stimulate the economy if needed, though it had no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Bullard had been viewed as a centrist and associated with the camp that sees inflation, the Fed’s traditional enemy, as a greater threat than deflation.

But with inflation now very low, about half of the Fed’s unofficial target of 2 percent, and with the European debt crisis having roiled the markets, even self-described inflation hawks like Mr. Bullard have gotten worried that growth has slowed so much that the economy is at risk of a dangerous cycle of falling prices and wages.

Among those seen as already sympathetic to the view that the damage from long-term unemployment and the threat of deflation are among the greatest challenges facing the economy, are three other Fed bank presidents: Eric S. Rosengren of Boston, Janet L. Yellen of San Francisco and William C. Dudley of New York.

Deflation is a particularly vexing economic problem because as prices fall, people who already owe money have to pay back loans in dollars that will buy more goods than the dollars they borrowed. Assets are worth less than the amount owed. For new loans, it raises the real, or inflation-adjusted, cost of credit, the opposite of what monetary policy needs to do to combat falling demand. Plus, in the effort to boost spending, policymakers cannot cut the target rate below zero. At that point, negative inflation can keep the real rate high enough to restrict economic growth.

Here's a recent note from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco on the Risks of Deflation.

A Dark Beige Report

Commonly known as the Beige Book, this report produced by the nation's central bank  covers economic conditions in all 12 Districts that are part of the Federal Reserve system. It is published eight times per year. The latest report, published on Wednesday, describes the economy as struggling under the weight of a depressed real estate market, continued high unemployment with consumers largely wary and lacking confidence with many consumers still reluctant to spend because of worries about the job market.

Two of the Federal Reserve 12 districts — Atlanta and Chicago — reported that "the pace of economic activity had slowed recently," while the Cleveland and Kansas City districts said that "activity generally held steady."

The other eight districts — including San Francisco, which covers California and other Western states — reported "improvements in economic activity" from the spring, the Fed said. But it added that "a number of them noted that the increases were modest."

More from the New York Times:

The manufacturing sector especially appears to be losing steam. The Federal Reserve regional report, said manufacturing activity in most of the 12 districts experienced some growth since the last report in early June.

But the pace of activity “slowed” or “leveled off” in half of them, including Cleveland and Chicago. In both cities, automobile manufacturing grew, while steel manufacturing declined.

Business contacts in Atlanta and Chicago said economic activity slowed in June and July, with significant worries in Atlanta related to the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Analysts say the book offers a qualitative, rather than quantitative, general overview of various sectors and regions across the country.

The report said the retailing and transportation service sectors showed signs of solid growth. Several districts reported that apparel, food and other necessities were strong sellers. However, consumer spending on big-ticket items was weak, reflected in the decline in auto sales in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago and San Francisco. The report also said consumers remained price conscious as they continued to reduce their debts.

Almost all districts reported that they had “sluggish” housing markets as a result of the April expiration of the government’s homebuyer credit. Commercial and residential construction activity was weak in almost all districts. Cleveland, in particular, said it did not expect an improvement in new home construction this year.

The Beige Book report also noted that labor market conditions “improved gradually” in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Richmond, and Atlanta, but that San Francisco reported high levels of unemployment. California remains the state with the third-highest unemployment rate in June at 12.3 percent seasonally adjusted. Nevada had the highest rate, with 14.2 percent, followed by Michigan at 13.2 percent. Not surprisingly, wage pressures remained largely contained across most Districts.

Retail sales, the largest component of the US economy, were higher than year-earlier sales in the New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Kansas City Districts,  while Dallas reported solid gains. But sales in the Boston District were mixed compared with the previous year. Recent sales increased slightly in the Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco Districts; sales in the Richmond District weakened; and sales in the Kansas City District were flat compared with the previous report. Several Districts cited apparel, food, and other necessities as recent strong sellers, while big-ticket items were weak sellers.

The report is likely to give credence to those have been arguing that US economy faces continued weakness and that efforts to rein in the deficit may further undercut the economic recovery which remains tepid and jobless.


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