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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Transcript: 486 New Year's Non-Happenings

Apologies to our long-time listeners for the spotty podcasting over the past few months. We have pressure from other commitments, which we hope at some point will subside. But we cannot pass up the turn of the year and the opportunity to produce our annual list of events widely reported and sincerely repeated that did not actually happen.

Included on the list,
  • Housing prices bottomed and a recovery in housing began
  • Labor markets recovered, substantial improvements to employment
  • The European debt situation stabilized, banks were in good shape
  • The U.S. returned to more robust growth.
  • Investment rebounded, and provided an important upward impulse for GDP
  • U.S. banks stabilized, with sufficient capital and improving prospects.
  • Bank regulation via the Dodd-Frank Act has made the financial sector safer.

Listen to this episode

First, as most of you are aware, the much ballyhooed passage of the Dodd-Frank Act has resulted in 18 months of intensive backroom lobbying to create nothing. The Consumer Finance Protection Agency is stillborn because of an unprecedented refusal of Congressional Republicans to confirm its director. We had great hopes for this agency, not just to make fine print on the back page into big print on the front page, but to standardize financial products, and so structure the market, so the market could work. Such an organization brings a bit of market discipline, since banks, credit card companies and finance agencies can no longer disguise and misrepresent their products. Mortgages, credit cards, other financial products would be easier to understand and compare.

That would be a major setback to financial product engineers, since the agency would be flexible enough to respond to new products. At least the capacity would be there. The Congress is now blowing a smokescreen of smaller, less intrusive government to cover giving the keys back to Wall Street.

The tragedy of Dodd-Frank, sung in falsetto by designated Wall Street divas and rebroadcast by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and others did not just happen. The exceptions, exclusions and conditions basically allow the big banks to continue in the same incentive structure, trading on their own accounts, continuing to write backroom bets, and continuing to carry massive losses without recognizing them.

This is probably the most important non-event of 2011. A non-change in corporate culture.

But there are others.

Let’s take the return to growth story, since it has some interesting twists. As you may remember, our forecast last January, well … here
As an economic recovery denier, Demand Side can hardly be expected to have the optimistic view of the world going forward that most economic forecasters are demonstrating. The blue chip forecasters are in the stratosphere compared to our assessment of the probable experience of the economy in 2011 and beyond.

Our short form for 2010 was the economy would continue to bounce along the bottom, with significant downside risks from European debt and banking problems and from domestic weakness in commercial real estate. We saw only modest manifestation of those risks in 2010.

The short form for our 2011 outlook is that those risks will be put in play in 2011, triggered by the traditional trigger, rising oil and commodity prices.

But ours was not so accurate.

And we’ll take a detailed look at that in an upcoming podcast.

One thing for today: If you look at the charts, the starting point number is the most wrong. We should have just continued the line from our previous forecast, instead we took the BEA’s number from Q3 2010, the usually final revision, and plugged it in. Only to find it rolled back down in an extraordinary revision in late spring 2011.

The chief state forecaster put it this way in a recent session we sat in on. “Forecasts are very sensitive to the last data point.” We muttered under our breath, “Forecasting the past.” But it wasn’t the latest data point we took, it was three data points back. Quack Quack Quack.

As we cling to our forecast of bouncing along the bottom, with downside risks, we are sometimes concerned that we are stubborn for our own account, not willing to admit defeat, preferring to save face rather than adapt our views. Nah.

Then we look at the media and the people they run up for the edification of their viewers and listeners. That leads us to Idiot of the Week co-winners Leslie Curwen of Business Daily and Pippa Malmgren, the advisor to George W. Bush on financial market issues for the President, which included corporate governance, bank regulation, Government Sponsored Enterprises, mortgages, deposit insurance. Curwen hosted a program with the auspicious title “In the Balance,” and ran Ms. Malmgren up on a panel with former British Chancellor Allistair Darling. Similar to running

But let’s take a listen
PIPPA MALMGREN: Without a doubt, look, Greece has already said, “At best, we’ll pay back 50% of the debt.” But the markets are discounting that they will be lucky to get 20 cents on the Euro out of the Greeks.

If you were Italian, or even Irish Irish, Why would you pay 100% of the debt if the other guys only have to pay half.

ALISTAIR DARLING: Greece is two percent of the Euro area economy

PIPPA MALMGREN: It doesn’t matter…


PIPPA MALMGREN: t doesn’t matter if it’s small. The problem is Italy, the problem is Spain, and even the problem is France, where their banks are on the brink of exactly the same kind of meltdown as we saw then. So the issue of default is imminent. It is with us now. And it remains a problem in an environment where we don’t have the cash to throw at it.

Governments do not create jobs. What we’ve got to do is find ways to lift the tax burden, lift the red tape, from that community, in order to get growth back. That is the end of the story.

Ms. Malmgren starts out as if she has some clue, that quickly dissolves as she conflates the problems of the sovereigns with those of the banks. Then she goes into the absurdity of entrepreneurial risk-taking being the magic ring. She postulates a magic of entrepreneurship that is a figment of her imagination. As must such analysts, she prefers an alternative universe, most likely for its efficacy in this one. It helps keep her job because it plays to the prejudices of her employers. It does not explain anything about this universe. If small business were so important, you’d think she’d talk to small businessmen.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business and its chief economist Bill Dunkelberg, who is hardly a left wing Keynesian, the biggest problem for small business is demand.

At best small business is the tractor. It is not the field, the crop, the rain or the sunshine. It works often quite nimbly if those things are provided, those components of demand. But by itself, it doesn’t produce anything. Saying entrepreneurship is going to save the day is like saying if we super-charge the tractor it is going to grow a crop in the garage.

But as bad as it is that Ms. Malmgren is still getting a hearing, with her history – George W. Bush’s chief advisor, self-proclaimed, on corporate governance, bank regulation, Government Sponsored Enterprises, mortgages, deposit insurance. (How well those turned out!), it is worse that the media – here Business Daily and Leslie Curwen, is still giving her that platform.

So Pippi Malmgren, Leslie Curwen, Business Daily.


We have not reached this place, stagnating employment combined with perpetual crises, because our guides knew where they were going. Record debt, enormous unemployment, massive use of planet-killing fossil fuels, crumbling infrastructure. It is as if your doctor said you have to keep smoking because you need to keep breathing, and don’t worry about the muscles and bones – they’ll take care of themselves when you get back to health.

Companies like Apple … well, maybe only Apple .. are cited as the exemplars of what could be done. We need to have a planet of Apples producing great gobs of technical advances so every nation can be an exporter. I mean, please.

Regardless of the arithmetic impossibility, we need to employ our people in useful tasks, not outfit the technologically advanced with new ways to do old things, no matter how magical. There are people to feed, clothe, house, educate, transport, and keep in good health.

Even more to the point, Apple does not produce the great net gain attributed to it. It takes from the old technologies. Newspapers are failing, traditional media is stagnating, landline telephones are like Model T’s. This is creative destruction, in Shumpeter’s terms, that is driving new investment. Great. But it is on a pitiful scale.

The creative destruction we need is to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, replace auto-based transportation with rail-based, somehow adapt or recreate a housing stock and an urban design with something that works for older people, and more people, and uses one-quarter the energy.

You just don’t get there by saying, first cheap gasoline, then trust the market.

And note, No country should be a net exporter. Sorry. That’s what has built the imbalances. Germany has created a virtue out of a vice, and now stands over Europe waving a promissory note. Shades of Economic Consequences of the Peace. That was Keynes’ break-out work, written after he quit the negotiations at Versailles in disgust. The Allies after World War I were in the process of imposing impossible austerity upon the Germans and he saw that it was, first, impossible, and second would lead to social disruption.

China has built an export machine while exposing its people to ever greater insecurity. The U.S. has borrowed its way to basically being an obese matron with tattoos and a nice hat.

So when the pundits nod sagely and say, “Yes, we have to endure a period of deleveraging and below-par employment growth,” don’t believe they know what they’re talking about. This time last year they were saying, “We’re on our way.” Two short years ago, they were saying, “The recovery is just over the hill. All we need to do is save the banks some more and make those corporations profitable. Investment will boom, companies will hire.” Well, we’re over the hill. This is not the road to recovery.

To say the least.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Richard Parker on the Market as God and the Greek window

Wall Streetʼs Role in the European Financial Crisis - Richard Parker, Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Shorenstein Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Friday, December 16, 2011

Stephen Marglin on Alternatives to Mankiw's Ideology

Heterodox Economics: Alternatives to Mankiw’s Ideology - Stephen Marglin, Walter Barker Professor of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

Friday, December 9, 2011

Transcript 477: Will the Euro Survive? Wrong Question.

Today we return briefly to the podcast on the eve of the non-answer from the European heads of state. It must be a non-answer because it responds to the wrong question.

The question? “Will the euro survive?” Wrong question, since the euro could survive as the currency of a stable economic union or it could survive as the smoke above the rubble.
Listen to this episode

The real question is the debt. Enormous financial obligations have been incurred that cannot be paid back. Households and businesses and governments. Businesses somewhat less so because policy-makers have made the borrowing in that sector cheaper as one of their ineffectual ways of addressing problems that are not addressed by making borrowing for businesses cheaper.

These financial obligations are the liabilities of households and governments and the assets of the financial sector, investors and banks. Because they cannot be paid back, investors will lose money and banks will go under. Though there is the hope the governments can be persuaded or coerced into paying off at 100 cents on the dollar. And that is where we are now.

In the U.S. it was the Fed buying up trillions in mortgage backed securities and other financial instruments while at the same time financing banks and their traders at zero percent, even as the social safety net absorbed millions of people thrown out of work to make way for a corporate sector as profitable as it has been since …. well, it has never been more profitable. The current call is for the European Central Bank to follow suit, and the taxpayers of Europe to follow the lead of their American counterparts.

Why will these debts not be paid back? Because they cannot be paid back. Why can they not be paid back? Because there is no productive source from which to pay them back. They did not finance productive assets. They financed consumption and housing bubbles. Just like in the U.S. when a housing bubble produced massive paper wealth exactly because it was financed by debt. In the clear light of morning, when the value of housing as housing becomes the source of house payments, trillions of dollars in housing as a financial asset disappeared, leaving trillions of dollars in debt on household balance sheets for which there was no asset to balance. All that paper wealth and all that consumption is behind us. Just like the financial asset part of housing. Those dollars have been spent. Only the debt remains.

As Minsky taught us, we have productive finance – what he called “hedge”, we have rollover finance – what he called “speculative”, and we have Ponzi finance – his term. We floated our economies from 2000 to 2007 by building the debt. Now it’s time to pay the piper. But in a macroeconomic sense, unless there is a productive source, payback will appear as contraction, which will actually contract the ability to pay. The piper is going to have to be paid back with the memory of his own music.

So, let’s leave aside the necessary and essential ways of dealing with this debt – writing it down or taxing the winners to pay it off – and let’s look at what is happening in the Euro Crisis. Fundamentally, the banks and bond vigilantes are demanding action and the political establishment has been called in as enforcers. Enforcers of an austerity, the contraction of economies, starvation as opposed to production. Now it appears the banks and bond vigilantes need German control of all national budgets by the middle of next month. Such is the desperation.

This does not mean that the debts won’t be shifted by this action. Indeed, that is the purpose. To shift the assets from the banks who hold them to the taxpayers or central bank. But they won’t be repaid unless there is growth in value with which to repay them. Or unless the winners from the whole boom are taxed to pay them. Right now it is a scramble for the best fitted vigilantes to keep their Ponzi gains at the expense of the rest.

A parenthetical:

The Mundell Trilemma, aka the Unholy Trinity.

Robert Mundell proposed that a country can have any two of the following three options
  • A stable exchange rate
  • Free capital flows
  • Economic sovereignty

Here we have the Eurozone on the horns of this trilemma. The euro provides exchange rates that do not vary because there is only one. The Eurozone free capital flows washed in and are washing out. And the only answer everyone agrees upon is for nations to give up their taxing, interest rate, and spending decisions to some as-yet-unidentified fiscal general.

But the point is – It still doesn’t work. The idea that austerity or German prudence can produce net gains from which profligate German banks can be paid back is just wrong. There is no example of its working, and God knows the IMF has tried it everywhere. Abandoning the euro by a country such as Italy or Spain allows them to write down their debt by unilaterally re-denominating it in the domestic currency. The same thing could be done by a simple haircut in euros. Saves the euro, stabilizes economies, gets things going again.

But the banks don’t survive, either the collapse of the euro and the debts being recalibrated in domestic currencies, or a simple write-down of debt to payable levels, referred to by hysterical traders as a default. The whole Rube Goldberg financial sector contraption comes apart sooner or later, notwithstanding the fact that it has already begun to seize up. Bond investors, hedge funds, banks, all connected by a series of speculative financing structures, comes apart.

Well, that is what happens. Sooner or later. It’s just a case of a forty-pound parasite on a fifty-pound dog.

And before we leave, we should remember we saved the banking sector only a couple three years ago, absorbed its bad housing bets, bridge-loaned even the most egregious speculators – think Goldman Sachs – and set it up to continue doing what it was doing before. All in the name of “Banks first, economy to follow.” It was an explicit quid pro quo that turned into a failed experiment, or at least an experiment in failure. In fact, the experiment did produce the positive knowledge that socializing banking and investor losses doesn’t avert subsequent crises, nor does it lead the real economy back into the light.

The world and the U.S. economies are broken. The fixes are not cosmetic. Current plans to address the problems are ineffectual, or in the case of austerity actually are making matters worse. The policy-makers in thrall to an establishment continue to muddle around in a circus of impotence. Their economic theory is contradicted by events, predicts nothing, diagnoses nothing. It is run up as backdrop to the press conferences of banking and political establishments, but no longer expressed out loud. The diagnosis of a nervous condition, even as the bloodstains spread on the blankets, is malpractice. In the case of the Fed, administering blood thinners to a hemophiliac, it is worse.

On one hand you have a tepid recovery – what we at Demand Side call bouncing along the bottom – which orthodox apologists actually cite as evidence of some sort of success. On the other hand you have massive government deficits and ridiculously low interest rates, which are, in turn, cited as evidence of government being the problem and bankers doing what is necessary. GDP growth is barely above a flat line, in spite of these historically unprecedented interventions. This is not a sign of health or even stability. it is a sign of an economy on life support.

The real economy’s muscular and skeletal systems are atrophying as the patient lies abed. The labor market continues to shrink, jobs continue to deteriorate, median incomes continue to fall, infrastructure continues to crumble, environmental systems continue to decay, education continues to be hollowed out, health care continues to be too costly and not effective, and the transition to a sustainable future for an aging population is being pushed away, rather than brought forward.

Parenthetically, the looming climate crisis is likely to be annotated by the establishment in the same way as the financial crisis – “Why didn’t the government do something? Not our fault.” Well, government didn’t do something because you control government and you told them not to do anything.

Just to highlight how far we are from substantive measures, look at the current fight in Congress over the payroll tax. Obama and the Democrats want to extend the payroll tax cut for another year, at the cost of $180 billion. That’s gross. Net would be less, as some tax revenue will accrue. But what if they hired 4 million people at $45,000 per? They could do things we desperately need to have done. The job multiplier would add at least 3 million more. Income stagnation for the rest of us would end. Same cost. End of unemployment problem. It’s all very well and good to goose consumption for the middle class, I suppose, but it is not job holders who are suffering the most, and it is not by adding another consumer discretionary to the pantry that we are going to get out of this mess.

Is it better than nothing? Not if it is advertised as a solution when it is a placebo. Seven million jobs is direct pressure over a gaping wound.

Before we leave today, look on the blog for a couple of charts.

One from Calculated Risk shows the drop in household wealth. From 2007 to Q3 2011, a loss of about 100 percent of GDP. Nothing more clearly illustrates the bubbles of the 1990s in stocks and of the 2000s in housing. Nor does anything illustrate so well the Ponzi nature of this wealth. Hidden is the difference between debt and so-called equity, the definition of net worth. The debt is sliding a bit, but not as fast as the equity, and so we go into debt deflation.

The second chart taken off Bloomberg is an update of our bunny hops in commodity markets. We noted a couple of months ago the improbably regular pattern of mini-boom and bust that has marked this casino table. Since the peak of the commodities bubble back in April, there has been a two-month cycle, until the past few weeks.

The regular pattern would have us continuing down toward a negative ten in the index, or about $80 per barrel in oil. Not so quick, say the traders. We need some place to play now that Europe is needing the house to clean up our mess. A blip up. The end of the year will be interesting. Commodities are flat for the year, in spite of the 20 percent rise from January to April.

Happy gaming.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joseph Stiglitz: Macroeconomics in Crisis

Joseph Stiglitz's presentation on the occasion of CERGE-EI's 20th anniversary on Monday, 10 October 2011 in Prague, Czech Republic.

The full video, and a highly edited (for style, not substance) series of audio files below.

Macroeconomics in Crisis
Audio Files:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Q&A Question 1

Q&A - Question 2A and 2B

Q&A - Question 3