Explaining Southern California's economy

Tim Geithner discovers the shadow banking system

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US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today in which he makes the case for financial reform based on a "It's déjà vu all over again" argument. We had "financial crisis amnesia" when the financial crisis struck in 2008 — and in 2012, we the amnesia has returned.

But Geithner has his own form of amnesia. Specifically, he's forgotten his role in bringing the financial crisis about in the first place. Here's an excerpt:

Regulators did not have the authority they needed to oversee and impose prudent limits on overall risk and leverage on large nonbank financial institutions. And they had no authority to put these firms, or bank holding companies, through a managed bankruptcy that wound them down in an orderly way or to otherwise adequately contain the damage caused by their failure. The safeguards on banks were much tougher than those applied to any other part of the financial system, but even those provisions were not conservative enough.
 
A large shadow banking system had developed without meaningful regulation, using trillions of dollars in short-term debt to fund inherently risky financial activity. The derivatives markets grew to more than $600 trillion, with little transparency or oversight. Household debt rose to an alarming 130% of income, with a huge portion of those loans originated with little to no supervision and poor consumer protections.

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Debt no more: Steve Keen's radical proposal

The video is of economist Steve Keen, on the BBC's HARDTalk, laying out his plan to escape what he considers a second Great Depression. It's out there. Way out there. But he also presents a very clear analysis of what went so horribly wrong with the global financial system in the lead-up to the financial crisis. Stick around for the part at about 22:30 when Keen talks about being the "non-orthodox" economist with the "biggest mouth."

The upshot is that Keen wants to use the government's ability to "create" money to relieve private debt. Basically, the bank loaned out money it shouldn't have, so the debtors shouldn't be blamed. But you don't make the debt vanish, you empower the debtor — in fact require him or her — to pay it off. You pointedly don't give the money to the bank on the assumption that it will loan it back out.

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Stuckflation continues: 80,000 new jobs in October does not a recovery make

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Getty Images

Unemployment in America grinds on as job seekers confront a weak recovery.

The BLS released October employment numbers this morning, and the numbers were disappointing. We were looking for around 100,000 new jobs, but we got only 80,000. The pattern for the past few months has been for a low number to be revised up. August, for example, came in at zero (yes, zero) but was later revised up, as was September.

So that's the silver lining. Taking revised data into account, we added about 100,000 more jobs than the BLS originally thought at the end of the summer and into the early fall. 

Altogether, this was enough to shave 0.1 percent off the unemployment level: we went from 9.1 to 9.0 (Hooray, U.S. economy!). Obviously, this is a dismal pace of improvement, unlikely to do much at all to bring the economy back to "full" employment of around 4 percent anytime soon. 

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Saving the economy: Infrastructure spending isn't enough

Occupy LA

Eric Richardson / Blogdowntown

Participants in Occupy Los Angeles rally on the steps of City Hall after marching from Pershing Square on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

At Business Insider, Henry Blodget offers a plan to save the economy. In the process, he says that he's choosing sides in a religious-econo war, between the big-spending Keynesians on one side and the no-spending Austrian School economists on the other (this is a super-shorthand version of the major economics debate of the past 100 years). His solution? Massive infrastructure spending:

  • The government should construct and pass a long-term budget plan that
    • Minimizes short-term pain, while
    • Getting the long-term deficit under control
  • This budget plan should be designed to benefit all Americans, not just special-interest groups or different classes or industries
  • This budget plan can theoretically include an increase in short-term spending designed to minimize the country's pain, as long as it also includes a decrease in long-term spending (again, right now, the world is willing to lend us as much money as we want)
  • One form of government spending that unequivocally benefits all Americans is infrastructure spending (when the projects are finished, America has the infrastructure)
  • Infrastructure spending would help America address another reality that has emerged in the past three decades—the reality that the infrastructure of many countries in Europe, Asia, and other regions has vaulted past that in the US and made the US look like a second-world country
  • Infrastructure spending would boost employment in one sector of the economy hammered by the recession—construction
  • Infrastructure spending would involve fewer of the conflicts and misaligned incentives that infuriate many Americans about "entitlement programs," extended unemployment benefits, welfare, food stamps, and other government expenditures that seem to encourage sloth and laziness and "socialism"
  • The 10-year government budget designed to get us out of our current predicament, therefore, should probably include a massive, multi-year infrastructure spending program.

This makes a lot of sense and sticks to the Great Depression playbook, when Harold Ickes oversaw the Public Works Administration and built much of the heavy-duty infrastructure that we assoiciate with that period and the recovery from the crisis. But just as it wasn't enough on its own in the 1930s, it won't be enough in the 2010s. 

For that, the other half of the Great Depression playbook needs to be used. This is the Works Progress Administration, overseen by Harry Hopkins. Its focus was simple and short-term: jobs, jobs, jobs.

Infrastructure spending is the perfect way to find detente between the Keynesian spenders and the Austrian no-spenders because it represents investment rather that, bluntly stated, waste. If you're going to spend, spend long-term and build what the country needs to be competitive in the future. Who can argue with that? In fact, there's aready bipartisan enthusiasm for infrastructure spending. 

But what do you do about, for example, 12 percent unemployment in California — right now? If you follow the Hopkins rules, you throw money at the problem, spending now and asking questions later. At best, you restore dignity and save citizens from the threat of long-term unemployment; at worst, you pump money into some pointless endeavors that won't yield much of anything in 30 years, but will at least attack the problem of idle human capital.

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have shown us that there's a lot of rage and frustration in the land. Rebuilding the nation's infrastructure is a great, partial solution. But if we're going to stave off the potential social fracture that now looms, we need to get the unemployed to work, and we need to do it a lot faster than the time we'll need to approve bridges, tunnels, and roads.

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