Financial Regulation

The Economy is Slowing Down – Alas, Much as We Expected

Recent polls have left most Democrats discouraged, even if their loss of public confidence reflects economic weaknesses largely beyond their control. Life in politics is often unfair, and today Americans seem to both blame President Obama for economic developments that were not his doing and discount his real accomplishments in other areas. The White House’s misstep here, however, has been its persistent short-term optimism about the economy, since the basic shape and force of the current economic undertow were entirely predictable – and actually predicted by a number of us.  

This is not a case of the partisan hooey bandied about, that the President’s stimulus “failed.” Regardless of what he might have done in early 2009, the U.S. economy could not have avoided a long, deep recession – nor, without heroic action could we have escaped the slow recovery now disappointing many Americans. What we got is the basic shape of recessions triggered by financial meltdowns and the recoveries that eventually follow them. Yes, the crisis grew out of years of regulatory and economic-policy neglect, mainly by the Bush crew. But once it arrived, there was never a realistic prospect that $800 billion of new spending and tax cuts over two years would produce a big, V-shaped bounce back, as it might have if this were just part of a normal business cycle. But all of that fiscal stimulus, on top of even more powerful easy Fed policies, did stop the slide into a Depression and finally pushed us into a slow recovery.  

We also know why the stimulus couldn’t do more than that – or, more precisely, why it’s in the nature of a financial crisis to take years for an economy to recover fully. To begin, financial meltdowns leave most households markedly poorer in ways that ordinary business cycles don’t – what’s your house worth today? – and that makes most people less eager to spend for years. So, as the stimulus has wound down, retail sales have stumbled in both of the last two months – in fact, the only people spending like most Americans used to are the very wealthy, who still have more money than they know what to do with. And most others, even if they are inclined to spend, have a hard time getting credit because a financial meltdown also leaves lenders much weaker. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that this reluctance to lend extends to most businesses, keeping investment weak.  

Moreover, these developments are unfolding in an economy that had serious problems before the meltdown and everything that followed. The recession has drawn people’s attention to a decade-long problem: American business’ capacity to create new jobs, even when growth is strong, has weakened markedly. In the Bush expansion of 2001-2007, we produced less than half as many new jobs as we did during comparable periods of the 1982-1989 expansion and the 1992-2000 expansion. And when the economy turns down these days, it also sheds jobs at a prodigious rate. More than 3 million jobs were lost in the 2001 recession and its aftermath, which was six times the job losses, relative to the decline in the GDP, seen in previous recessions. Much of the same happened this time, as the recent recession cost nearly 8 million jobs. In fact, the jobs losses have been so large and so persistent that they’ve put independent downward pressure on the economy, eating away further at investment and consumer spending.  

On top of all this, the potential for a second financial crisis, or a second round, is out there. The problem this time begins in Europe, where governments struggling with unproductive economies and large and fast-mounting deficits are having trouble finding global investors to finance their new bonds. It started in Greece and is spreading to Portugal, Spain and perhaps beyond; and while the EU says it will bail them out if the worst comes, the markets continue to bid down the value of their debt. The rub here is that nearly all of that debt is held by financial institutions still weakened from the last crisis, especially French and German banks which, for example, hold $630 billion just in Spanish government bonds. Even if those bonds, along with Greece’s and Portugal’s, skirt a formal default , their declining value is driving some major European banks to the edge – much as the plummeting value of mortgage-backed securities two years ago destroyed Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and AIG. And if large European institutions fall, their counterparties on Wall Street will be left holding tens of billions of dollars in obligations no longer worth much. This scenario is still far from likely, but it remains quite possible that we could find ourselves back where we were in late 2008.

The good news is that if another crisis comes, the administration will have more tools to deal with it, as Congress is on the verge of passing some decent financial reforms. They might need those new powers, because congressional Republicans seem committed to blocking anything the President proposes, whatever the cost to the American economy. And whether or not the administration finds itself facing another economic crisis, or merely has to deal with a stagnant job market and meager wage gains, the luxury of large Democratic margins will soon be gone. In either case, President Obama will have to reclaim center stage and mobilize American opinion in ways that force his opponents to concede to sensible measures – much as Bill Clinton did after the Democrats’ 1994 setback and Ronald Reagan did after the big GOP losses in 1982. If the President can pull that off, he can still build a serious and successful economic legacy.

A New, Progressive Economic Strategy, Part 4: The Global Economy

In a global economy, even the world’s largest economy by a factor of three (that’s us, compared to Japan and China) cannot by itself ensure job opportunities for everyone and healthy incomes gains for everyone who works hard and well. We may wish it were otherwise, but the United States and the forces of globalization now share control over America’s economic path. The challenge is to work with those forces to benefit average Americans, and to exercise the global leadership required to ensure that other countries work with us to promote the growth and stability of the global system. This part of the progressive agenda has many elements, including efforts to advance open trade in ways that help average workers, steps to promote innovation and protect the rights of American innovators around the world, and responsible regulation of finance while promoting free flows of global capital.

In one way or another, just about every economic activity in America is touched by global forces, whether it’s the operations of foreign companies, investors, innovators, consumers, or governments. We’re still the world’s largest economic actor by a long shot; but the global economy has grown too large, complex and fast-changing for even us to dominate, much less direct. Let’s start with trade. Twenty years ago, 18 percent of all the goods and services produced in the world were traded across national borders – today, in a global economy two-thirds larger (adjusted for inflation), one-third of everything produced anywhere is traded – some $20 trillion worth per-year. Most of this rapid increase is tied to the explosive modernization of China and other large developing countries, and the fast-expanding consumption of their people.

America can generate good jobs and rising incomes for average families only by working with this historic expansion of worldwide trade. Progressives should be committed not only to equip American workers and companies with what they need to compete in a global trading system, but also to open markets here and around the world, especially in services and agriculture. The first commitment involves many of the initiatives described in earlier essays, including access to free IT training, health care reforms to reduce business costs, and tax reforms to make American companies more competitive. 

In exchange, progressives should push to conclude the Doha trade round to open foreign markets in services, where U.S. companies excel, to negotiate fair, free trade status with burgeoning economies such as Korea and, in time, with Japan; and to hold China and other fast-growing emerging markets to their WTO promises to open their markets. In all of these cases, American firms and workers would gain, because our markets already are far more open than most others in the world. And there’s no one else who can lead effectively here, since no other country has as much leverage with the holdouts in the EU and the developing world. 

America’s greatest exports are its new ideas, whether they’re embodied in new software code, breakthrough pharmaceuticals and medical devices, new business services, genetically-enhanced foods, new forms of entertainment, or the latest-generation equipment. In fact, America’s unique role in globalization is being the world’s largest source of economic innovations and the testing grounds for adopting them on a large scale. To be sure, innovators come from every part of the globe; but for the last generation, American inventors, entrepreneurs and companies have dominated the development of most (not all) critical new technologies and new ways of doing business. And the effective application of new ideas is the principal source of most of the competitive edge American companies retain in many global markets.

To help keep all of this going, our new economic plan has to actively spur continuing economic innovation through tax reforms, a larger federal commitment to basic research, and by maintaining the healthy competitive pressures that spur innovation and their broad adoption.  In this context, too, American workers need access to the skills required to use these innovations and perform effectively in workplaces dense with advanced technologies. These steps not only can help average families succeed as new ideas unfold; they also support America’s place as the world’s largest domestic market for innovations, which in turn will spur additional investments to develop their next generation. 

A progressive economic program should include two initiatives in this area. First, since innovation is the essence of our competitive advantage in the world, we need a no-holds-barred campaign to cajole or coerce every other nation to respect the intellectual property rights of American innovators and companies. In addition, we need to reclaim the global leadership we exercised in the 1990s in addressing climate change by enacting measure to fix a strict and environmentally-appropriate price on carbon emissions, preferably with a carbon-based tax that recycles its revenues in other tax cuts. This would not only be part of America’s responsibility for broad economic leadership, it also could spur to a dramatic degree American companies to develop new, climate-friendly fuels and technologies, and then broadly adopt them.

A progressive economic plan also has to take serious account of the global financial system. American companies are the world’s largest foreign direct and portfolio investors, with operations and other investments spread across the developing and advanced world. The United States is also the world’s largest single recipient of direct investments by foreign companies and portfolio investments by foreign funds and governments. So, we have an enormous stake in a healthy and stable financial system, here and around the world. And in the wake of the recent meltdowns, the central issue here is how best to regulate finance, here and around the world. 

Based on the recent crisis, the basic terms of regulation seem clear. First, require that all financial institutions hold more capital, relative to their investments, and adjust those stricter capital requirements for the riskiness of a bank or fund’s portfolio. That should help end their risky practice of making huge wagers, for example in asset derivative or interest rate futures, using almost entirely borrowed funds. Second, make sure that every transaction in finance, involving any kind of instrument, occurs on a public exchange or through a publicly-chartered clearinghouse. That can ensure that every trade or purchase is transparent and subject to the same disclosure and soundness rules. Third, end self-dealing compensation practices that just encourage the most risky wagers, for example by paying out bonuses long before anyone knows whether the transaction will actually work out. And none of these sensible changes would impede the free flow of investment and money – in fact, they should enhance America’s premier position in the global capital system.

The good news here is that the regulatory plans passed by the House and being considered this week in the Senate both contain versions of these three basic changes. The bad news is that they’re all weaker than needed – so, it’s up to progressives to strengthen them.

That leaves the sticky matter of “Too Big to Fail,” or what to do about funds or banks whose failure could trigger another broad crisis. We have two alternatives: Break them up, so no bank or fund can jeopardize the stability of the entire financial system. In its’ favor, there is little evidence of real economic benefits derived from the huge size of the institutions that dominated the sector before the crisis, much less the even greater size of the behemoths that dominate it now. Many conservatives like this approach, from Alan Greenspan to Mervyn King (he runs the Bank of England), because it avoids the alternative, which would be a new process to take over the investment activities of any large player at the first sign of trouble. Either way, the plan should reject out-of-hand the current, reckless GOP position: No prophylactic break-ups, no new process to take them over when they’re in trouble, and no future bailouts. That would be a formula for a global depression the next time that big finance implodes.  

There’s more to consider as well for a progressive plan to help Americans make the best of globalization, from sensible immigration reforms to measures to help recognize asset bubbles before they get out of hand. In one way or another, we will return to those issues later, along with some others. For now, we conclude this four-part series hopeful that somewhere out there, in Washington or beyond, there is a growing recognition that now is the time for progressives to rethink our national economic approach and reconfigure the economic agenda. 

For a background on this series on a New, Progressive Economic Strategy, please read:

Getting Serious about Our Financial Mess

Stockholm -- The best way to clear your head of the political chatter that passes for policy debate in Washington is to get out of town. I’m writing today from Stockholm, a grand old city on a picturesque harbor and archipelago, where it’s harder to care much about Larry Summers’ squabbles with White House colleagues, the cynical fulminations from Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh, or even the heated discussions inside Obamaland over its legislative strategy for health care reform. With a little distance, it’s easier to focus on developments which may actually matter for the rest of us, such as the prospects of Iran electing a democratic reformer as president this week or how the unfolding, deep slump in global trade may imperil economic recovery by China, Japan and Germany.

 It’s also easier to concentrate on our own economic conundrums. Let’s start with the crying need for new financial regulation that can prevent a system whose dysfunctions have just wiped out 20 percent of America’s wealth from doing it all over again sometime soon. The current TARP program, now officially a tangled mess, isn’t much of a model. This week the Treasury announced that 10 large institutions will be permitted to repay their TARP loans, including Goldman Sachs and Morgan, while nine others, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citicorp, have to stay in the system. It sounds reasonable, since the lucky 10 can afford to repay while most of the rest cannot. But the TARP system ties regulation to outstanding loans, so now we’re left with a two-caste financial market where the weaker ones operate at a market disadvantage and others who used the taxpayers to fund their comebacks are no longer constrained to operate in the interests of a public which rescued them less than nine months ago.

We also learned this week that the Treasury’s clever plan to use taxpayer guarantees to create a private market for the toxic assets of all these institutions is a flop: Even with all that largesse, nobody wants to buy much of the toxic paper. So if the economy dips again, the 10 institutions now exiting the TARP regulations will be back for more, and there won’t be enough money in the Treasury or the Fed to save Citicorp and Bank of America again.

Then there’s the matter of how to regulate the derivatives that knocked the pins out from under the vaunted U.S. financial markets last year. The Administration’s current economic mandarins, along with the most elevated mandarin of all, Alan Greenspan, all have confessed publicly to their errors in dismissing the need for such regulation in the late-1990s. With the catastrophic collapse of the multi-trillion dollar markets for mortgage-backed securities and their credit default swap derivatives, strict regulation of these transactions to protect the rest of us -- which basically means transparency and reasonable limits on the leverage used to create or buy these instruments -- should be a no-brainer.

So what’s the logic behind the Administration's decision to keep trading in large, “private” deals in derivatives outside regulated markets? Those are precisely the deals that pose a danger for the rest of us, since they’re the large ones and inevitably the deals carried out by the institutions now acknowledged to be too large to fail. That’s Washington-speak for companies important enough to demand help from the taxpayers whenever they need it. The justification is the same as in the 1990s -- it will reduce their profits. That’s correct, in order to protect the rest of us from the now well-known consequences of a mindless drive for higher and higher profits regardless of the risks.

The next time you feel yourself drawn to the insider accounts of the greasy pole inside the White House or the breakup of the Republican coalition, take a deep breath and remind yourself that these are the players actually responsible for serious matters that ultimately may determine whether you ever have the income and assets required to send your kids to college or retire before you’re 80 years old.

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