Stimulus for the Long Run

Emergency Stimulus Requires an Emergency Board

New York City - Clean infrastructure stimulus is coming and it is coming fast, perhaps as soon as January 20th, given the new accelerated timetable of President Elect Obama and the Congressional leadership.  For us at NDN, this is an exciting moment, as we have been advocating on behalf of a large green stimulus package that works for the long term as well as the short term for quite some time.

Clean infrastructure stimulus has the ability not only to create jobs in the near term -- particularly in sectors and regions hard hit by the now official recession, the manufacturing belt and the construction industry -- but also to create the clean, modernized physical plant and infrastructure that America needs to ensure our future prosperity.

However, how the stimulus is structured and carried out is as critical as the dollar amount.  On Tuesday, the nation's governors presented President Elect Obama with a list of $176 billion in infrastructure projects ready to go.  However, to get the money out onto the street quickly, moving it through the usual government channels won't work.  Rather, we need to create a new process and structure to get the money out quickly and efficiently.

Dick Ravitch, the former New York City MTA Chairman and head of New York Governor Paterson's new infrastructure commission, knows more about how federal funds flow to the states under ordinary circumstances than most.  Funds normally move slowly.  He argues this is no time for business as usual and his recommendation, an emergency infrastructure board, well supervised, with proper auditing controls and carefully monitored by Congress, is critical to getting funds flowing and jobs starting quickly. 

Rather than allocate money to agencies, Congress should authorize a board to fund valid projects.  Infrastructure projects that get funded should be ones teed up and ready to go with all their zoning and permitting in place so that the only thing missing is funding.  This is a far better way to move the funds out quickly than the usual funding channels that generally go through the Department of Transportation.  At the same time, money should be allocated according to sound, consistent principles to ensure orderly dispensation of funds.  The interests of the people can be adequately addressed by states identifying those that are high priority.

Projects with a green advantage such as public transportation projects, projects that employ green building, water projects and others that move us toward a low carbon economy should go to the head of the line.

As excited as we at NDN are about the speed with which green stimulus is now moving forward, moving money out quickly but also responsibly is vital to making this historic stimulus work.  If the money is spent wastefully, or perceived as being spent wastefully according to political expediency, it will not only be a tragic missed opportunity but also reduce its impact and undermine market confidence. 

Indeed, just yesterday, China's sovereign wealth fund announced it would no longer invest in American banks because of the erratic changes in US policy.  I wrote recently about the problem with the Treasury managing the bailout fund like a hedge fund.  What we need is structure and consistency but a streamlined process to move money out onto the street where it is needed quickly and effectively.

At the same time, we cannot let red tape or ordinary bureaucratic lethargy slow funding when a key purpose of stimulus is to get the money out quickly to create jobs and get the economy moving again.

We don't have that much time to get this right, but we do have a great deal of will as we face up to the severe economic challenges facing the country. An emergency board with emergency powers but also the proper rules in force to guarantee the judicious but expeditious spending of the tax payer's money is a good idea that the incoming Administration and Congress should embrace.

Following are links to some of NDN's work on a clean infrastructure stimulus:

A Vision for a Modernized Electric Grid: Clean Infrastructure for a 21st Century Economy

Understanding the Cleantech Investment Opportunity

A Stimulus for the Long Run

Accelerating the Development of a 21st Century Economy: Investing in Clean Infrastructure

Solar Energy: The Case for Action

Investing in Our Common Future: U.S. Infrastructure

Stimulus Without Waste

President Elect Obama's comments at the press conference yesterday announcing Peter Orszag as head of OMB, following his announcement on Monday of other key economic appointments – Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers as director of the NEC and Christina Romer as head of the CEA – illustrates the tightrope that the new Administration will have to walk in addressing the economic crisis.

On the one hand, on Monday the President Elect highlighted the immense economic challenges facing the country that will require a stimulus package that Larry Summers has said "must be speedy, substantial and sustained."  On the other, however, it is important that the stimulus not be perceived as wasteful spending.  And thus it was appropriate for President Elect Obama to highlight his cost cutting challenge to Orszag, namely to eliminate waste from the federal budget.

By it very nature, a rapidly implemented stimulus cannot be as focused as ordinary elective spending.  To accomplish its goal, the stimulus must be broad, get the money out on the street quickly, and be large enough to do its job.  However, if the money is perceived as being dropped from a helicopter (in the metaphor popularized by Fed Chairman Bernanke), it may undermine faith in the government and hence confidence in markets.

As the stimulus package is developed and released, all eyes will be on whether it appears to be thoughtful or wasteful of the public's money.  President Elect Obama's comments yesterday were thus encouraging in suggesting he recognizes this requirement and that his team will work to ensure that the stimulus meets this crucial test.

As we at NDN have argued, investments in infrastructure not only have a short lead time in getting money where it is needed, they also are not wasteful because they will continue to pay dividends for years to come.  We need new, up to date roads, bridges, rail lines, water mains, fiber and power lines to undergird our future prosperity.  However, as we have also argued, a key part of infrastructure investments being up to date is that they acknowledge our energy and environmental challenges.  Retrofitting older buildings, requiring that every new government facility meet green standards and making transportation investments based on their energy and environmental implications is investing in the future. 

Placing a gigawatt of renewable solar power on government buildings over the next 5 years, for example, is not only desirable but is also cost effective.  Investing in our electricity grid can not only create jobs today but stimulate the economy down the road.  And funding a clean infrastructure bank to make energy smart infrastructure investments will not just stimulate the economy but raise productivity in the future.

In short, energy and environmentally smart represents a responsible use of the public's money.  And making these sorts of investments is one way to meet the challenge of stimulating the economy responsibly.  In coming weeks, we look forward to working with the Administration's new team, Congress, and stakeholders on a stimulus package that addresses both our short and long term economic challenges.

The Hedge Fund and the Stimulus

New York City -- On October 3, the day President Bush signed the $700 billion bailout package that Hank Paulson called vital to saving American capitalism, the Dow closed at 10,325. Yesterday it closed at 8,424. In the six unhappy weeks of the bailout fund's life, the Dow has shed close to 2,000 points or about 20% of its value. Almost as soon as the fund was authorized, the Treasury and the Fed shifted gears and followed Gordon Brown in using the first slice to invest in banks. Capitulating last week to the fund's dubious impact on markets, Secretary Paulson announced that the Troubled Assets fund would not be used, after all, to buy troubled assets. Yesterday, he announced he does not plan to use the unspent funds of about $410 billion at all but will instead leave it as dry powder for the Obama Administration. Some have unkindly called this fund a slush fund. However, launched by a former Goldman star, levered at close to 100% and with the goal of making opportunistic investments, it really resembles nothing so much as a Hedge Fund.

So what's wrong with a government hedge fund?

The advantage of a Hedge Fund over a more constrained capital allocation process is that the fund manager can make the decisions quickly. If the manager is a genius, the fund does well. However, a genius one year can turn out to be not so smart the next. And as the limited partners in this hedge fund, the public should have the right to withdraw its money if the fund manager does not have a strategy.

In a world of constrained debt, one cost of the public's commitment to this hedge fund is that it has used up a healthy amount of the public's credit -- something that has not gone unnoticed by markets. As an article in the current Barrons observes, the yield curve, or the premium for borrowing for a longer period, has stiffened, recalling the famous inflation premium on long-term debt that drove the Clinton Administration's fiscal restraint. That premium disappeared during the Bush years, thanks to supercharged global liquidity from the Asian savings glut and expansion that followed the Asian financial crisis. Its reappearance, however, bears noting. More ominously, perhaps, a little known derivative, the credit default swap for long-term U.S. government bonds -- a derivative that should not exist since it represents insurance against a Treasury default -- has risen in price. In other words, some are now betting against the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. 

However, this hedge fund poses another problem for the economy and government policy that is impacting the proposed government stimulus, its opportunity cost. Any focused stimulus package now pales in comparison with the TARP hedge fund. Of what stimulative impact is $2 billion for weatherization or $10 billion to extend unemployment benefits when the Treasury is giving out chunks of $30 billion or $50 billion at a time to AIG? 

The hedge fund -- while it may have served a purpose in helping the banks stay solvent --threatens to interfere with needed stimulus.

As we have argued at NDN, the unbridled use of monetary tools last year left the Fed empty handed as we enter a recession and a fiscal stimulus is now the primary tool left to policy makers with which to address the slowdown. But we have also argued this fiscal stimulus should work for the long term as well as the short term.

We suggested a substantial share go into clean infrastructure projects that get money out onto the street but also address our long-term energy, environmental and economic challenges. Clean infrastructure projects can not only can create jobs and exert a large multiplier effect, but also pave the way for future prosperity. As President-elect Obama said over the weekend and again yesterday, clean energy is his top priority next year because it has the ability to address so many of our challenges at once. 

However, as long as the Hedge Fund overshadows any proposed stimulus, it will be difficult for Congress to make these needed investments.  What, then, is the answer?

Now that the immediate challenge of stabilizing the banks has been met, Congress and the incoming Administration should reassert their authority over the second half of the hedge fund. A portion of this money might be better allocated to stimulus than loans to banks.  In any case, it should not stand in the way of a meaningful stimulus package. 

The hedge fund may have served a short term purpose, but it is no way over the long term to allocate public funds. The sooner we begin making real investments, not just backstopping financial institutions, the sooner we will get America's economy moving again.

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