Weekly Audit: Unemployment Fueling Political Storm

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Unemployment figures in the U.S. are staggering: The official rate stands at 10.2%, the highest in 26 years. A broader measure that includes people who are involuntarily working part-time or who have given up looking for work is at 17.5%. That's a full-blown economic emergency.

But, as Joshua Holland explains for AlterNet, President Barack Obama's response to the unemployment crisis has not matched the urgency of his response to the crisis on Wall Street. This isn't just unfair, it's bad economics.

"It's important to understand that the economic crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a function of a shaky financial system but of a crash in consumption that's come along with the evaporation of $14 trillion worth of the wealth of American families," Holland writes.

Widespread joblessness can be every bit as damaging to the economic structure as a financial crisis. When people are out of work, they buckle down on household expenses. When several million people cut back at the same time, the economic machine grinds to a halt. If people are not buying and selling stuff, the economy isn't working.

As Mary Kane explains for The Washington Independent, about 40% of families don't have enough money to cover expenses through a three-month stretch of unemployment--even if one member of the household is receiving unemployment benefits. Kane highlights a Brandeis University study that reveals the haggard state of the American household and the unfair distribution of wealth along racial lines. A full 66% of African-American and Latino families can't afford three months without work. At a time when 5.6 million workers have been jobless for at least six months, the study highlights just how dire finances have become for many households.

GRITtv's Laura Flanders discusses potential labor market remedies with economist Dean Baker and The Nation's John Nichols. Baker suggests a work-share arrangement, in which employers cut back on their workers' hours to allow more people to work. To prevent losses for households, the government would step in and pay for the shortfall in hours. Employers would have more part-time jobs available, but the government would make sure everyone was paid as if they were working full-time. Baker also endorses a public jobs program, which he says could be especially useful in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

Nichols highlights the political consequences of failing to fix the unemployment mess. Unemployment directly affects the lives of voters. If widespread joblessness persists through November 2010, Democrats will net huge Congressional losses. If Obama thinks it's hard to garner bipartisan support for his legislative priorities now, imagine a few dozen more Republican obstructionists.

It's not that Obama failed to respond to the unemployment crisis. He did. That's what the stimulus package was all about. Today's 10.2% unemployment is a catastrophe, but it would be more like 12% without the stimulus package. But, given the seriousness of the issue, Obama is not giving unemployment enough attention.

In fact, Obama's economic priorities are a mirror-image of his campaign promises, as Robert Scheer argues in both a column for TruthDig and an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! After talking tough about reining in recklessness on Wall Street and making the financial system more accountable, Obama has hired many of the very policy makers who pushed through the deregulatory agenda back in the 1990s. Top Obama administration officials like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler and Neal Wolin helped make this mess in the first place.

"This is not a minor criticism," Scheer says. "I think the guy is betraying his own presidency."

Obama's timid efforts to rein in Wall Street and heal the ailing job market are setting the stage for a political disaster. If Obama and Congressional Democrats can't take strong action to fix the economy, they will find themselves with much narrower majorities next November. The economy, and the public institutions that support it, are supposed to work for everyone, not just the financial elite.

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.

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Senator Sanders Introduces a TBTF Bill

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, today introduced legislation that would give the government the power to identify and break up financial firms that are "too big to fail."

The story from Reuters:

An independent U.S. senator on Friday introduced a bill that would give the government the power to identify and break up financial firms that are "too big to fail," an idea that is catching on.

"If an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist," said Senator Bernie Sanders in a statement.

"We should break them up so they are no longer in a position to bring down the entire economy," he said.

Sanders is an independent outside the U.S. political mainstream. But he is not the only one looking at break-ups.

Representative Paul Kanjorski, the Democratic chairman of the capital markets subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, is working on a break-up power amendment.

It would give a new government systemic risk council break-up power, with clearance from the president.

"It's the natural action of capital to grow and exceed. Now we're going to contain it," Kanjorski told CNBC television.

He said large banks oppose his amendment because it would threaten them. But, he said, mid-sized and smaller financial institutions would be helped by it because they would be better able to compete if mega-firms were downsized.

"When the people's money is being used to bail out these large companies ... We certainly have to have someone to tell them what to do in order to save them," he said.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said earlier on CNBC that a bill he is working on, which Kanjorski wants to toughen, would let a systemic risk regulator "break up" risky financial firms.

The Obama Administration has proposed regulating large firms' risk-taking much more tightly to prevent them from failing, while setting up new protocols for managing failure if things go wrong. Senator Sander's approach, however, would be to prevent the firms from getting so big in the first place.

The legislation introduced by Senator Sanders would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner 90 days to list commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and insurers that he deems too big to fail.

The bill defines that as "any entity that has grown so large that its failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the United States economy without substantial government assistance."

A few quick thoughts. One, I think it important to separate investment banks from commercial banks. Two, exotic derivative products need to be regulated. At times it is difficult to tell the difference between Wall Street and the Vegas Strip. Three, don't allow commercial banks to grow via acquisition. Make them grow organically. That's part of the Canadian banking model and the Canadian banking model is worth studying closely. From an April 2009 Brookings Institution report:

In Canada, over-leveraging is discouraged. The ceiling on leverage ratios (assets to capital) for Canada's financial institutions is capped well below the U.S. norm (an average of 18:1 compared to over 25:1, respectively).

Second, the requirements for mortgage loans are relatively stringent. Down payments of at least 20 percent are ordinarily required, unless the bank obtains mortgage insurance through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The CMHC exerts a prudential influence over mortgage underwriting. Banks rely extensively on it for default insurance, which is conditioned on comparatively strict criteria for creditworthiness.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation transparently plays a role in circumscribing residential mortgage securitization. The great bulk of all lending in Canada takes place within the banking system itself, not through a largely unsupervised secondary market for bundles of loans and securities supposedly backed by other bundles of loans and securities--the "shadow banking system" - hedge funds and buy out firms - that has burgeoned in the United States.

Senator Sanders Unfiltered: Break 'Em Up!

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Weekly Audit: Obama's Regulation Overhaul Comes Up Short

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger 

President Barack Obama rolled out his plan to overhaul financial regulation last week. While much of the Obama plan relies on the same regulators and structures that led to the current meltdown, there is one key exception. The establishment of an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency would give ordinary citizens a seat at the financial policy table for the first time and prevent the abuses in credit card and mortgage lending that have wreaked havoc on households all over the country.  

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Obama Financial Regulation Plan Detailed

According to the New York Times, President Obama's plan to reshape financial regulation is the product of weeks of meetings among government officials, financial experts, lawmakers, industry executives and lobbyists, many of whom were invited to help the White House draft the proposal (as an aside, the cynic in me wonders if this is why the Obama Administration is blocking release of its visitor log). The plan, which is to be unveiled tomorrow, would give the government new powers to seize key companies whose failure jeopardizes the financial system, as well as creation of a watchdog agency to look out for consumers' interests. More below the fold.

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Weekly Audit: Reining in the Subprime Scoundrels

 

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

 President Barack Obama is scheduled to unveil his agenda for revamping financial regulation later this week. As the economy struggles though a recession created by the banking industry, it's crucial that Obama and his advisers craft a set of rules ensuring that the financial sector strengthens our economy instead of destroying it.  

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