Economic View

 

 

BY the time President Obama gave his State of the Union address last year, the speech felt like an old friend. It had been part of my life — from the brainstorming sessions in late November 2009 to the last minute fact-checking. I knew when all of my favorite lines were coming. That led to an awkward moment during the address when I sprang to my feet, applauding the president’s tacit endorsement of the free-trade agreement with South Korea, before noticing that the only other person cheering seemed to be Ron Kirk, the special trade representative.

David G. Klein

 

This year, instead of being on the floor of Congress with the rest of the cabinet, I will be watching on television with the rest of the country. Instead of knowing what is coming, I can write about what I hope the president will say. My hope is that the centerpiece of the speech will be a comprehensive plan for dealing with the long-run budget deficit.

I am not talking about two paragraphs lamenting the problem and vowing to fix it. I am looking for pages and pages of concrete proposals that the administration is ready to fight for. The recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that the president created are a very good place to start.

The need for such a bold plan is urgent — both politically and economically. Voters made it clear last November that they were fed up with red ink. President Obama should embrace the reality that his re-election may depend on facing up to the budget problem.

The economic need is also pressing. The extreme deficits of the last few years are largely a consequence of the terrible state of the economy and the actions needed to stem the downturn. But even with a strong recovery, under current policy the deficit is projected to be more than 6 percent of gross domestic product in 2020. By 2035, if the twin tsunami of rising health care costs and the retirement of the baby boomers hits with full force, we will be looking at deficits of at least 15 percent of G.D.P.

Such deficits are not sustainable. At some point — likely well before 2035 — investors would revolt and the United States would be unable to borrow. We would become the Argentina of the 21st century.

So what should the president say and do? First, he should make clear that the issue is spending and taxes over the coming decades, not spending in 2011. Republicans in Congress have pledged to cut nonmilitary, non-entitlement spending in 2011 by $100 billion (less if recent reports are correct). Such a step would do nothing to address the fundamental drivers of the budget problem, and would weaken the economy when we are only beginning to recover.

Instead, the president should outline major cuts in spending that would go into effect over the next few decades, and that he wants to sign into law in 2011.

Respected analysts across the ideological spectrum agree that rising health care spending is the biggest source of the frightening long-run deficit projections. That is why the president made cost control central to health reform legislation. He should vow not just to veto a repeal of the legislation, but to fight to strengthen its cost-containment mechanisms.

One important provision of the law was the creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which must propose reforms if Medicare spending exceeds the target rate of growth. But the legislation exempted some providers and much government health spending from the board’s purview. The president should work to give the board a broader mandate for cost control.

The fiscal commission recommended that military spending — which has risen by more than 50 percent in real terms since 2001 — grow much more slowly in the future. It also proposed thoughtful ways to slow the growth of Social Security spending while protecting the disabled and the poor. And it recommended caps on nonmilitary, non-entitlement spending.

President Obama needs to explain that while these cuts will be painful, there is no way to solve our budget problem without shared sacrifice. At the same time, he should give a ringing endorsement of government investment in infrastructure, research and education, which increases productivity and thus improves both our standard of living and the budget situation over time. And, following the fiscal commission, he should ensure that spending cuts not fall on the disadvantaged.

Finally, the president has to be frank about the need for more tax revenue. Even with bold spending cuts, there will still be a large deficit. The only realistic way to close the gap is by raising revenue. Some of it can and should come from higher taxes on the rich. But because there are far more middle-class families than wealthy ones, much of the additional money will have to come from ordinary people. Since any agreement will have to be bipartisan, Congressional Republicans will have to come to terms with this fact as well.

AGAIN, the fiscal commission has made sensible proposals. It recommended broad tax reform that lowers marginal tax rates and cuts tax expenditures — deductions and exemptions for mortgage interest, employer-provided benefits, charitable giving, and so on. Such tax reform cannot be revenue-neutral — it needs to increase tax receipts. But it can make the system simpler, fairer and more efficient while doing so.

Limiting the exemption of employer-provided health benefits would have the further advantage of making companies and workers more cost-conscious about health care.

Another revenue measure should be a tax on polluting energy. Basic economics says that something that has widespread adverse effects should be taxed. A gradual increase in the gasoline tax would raise revenue and encourage the development of cleaner energy sources. A broader carbon tax would be even better.

None of these changes should be immediate. With unemployment at 9.4 percent and the economy constrained by lack of demand, it would be heartless and counterproductive to move to fiscal austerity in 2011. Indeed, the additional fiscal stimulus passed in the lame-duck session — particularly the payroll tax cut and the unemployment insurance extension — is the right policy for now. But legislation that gradually and persistently trims the deficit would not harm the economy today. Indeed, it could increase demand by raising confidence and certainty.

The president has a monumental task. It’s extremely hard to build consensus around a deficit reduction plan that will be painful and unpopular with powerful interest groups. The only way to do so is to marshal the good sense and patriotism of the American people. That process should start with the State of the Union.

Christina D. Romer is an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the chairwoman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

 

Written by

Martin Feldstein

CAMBRIDGE –The tax package agreed to by President Barack Obama and his Republican opponents in the United States Congress represents the right mix of an appropriate short-run fiscal policy and a first step toward longer-term fiscal prudence. The key feature of the agreement is to continue the existing 2010 income-tax rates for another two years with no commitment about what will happen to tax rates after that.

Without that agreement, tax rates would have reverted in 2011 to the higher level that prevailed before the Bush tax cuts of 2001. That would mean higher taxes for all taxpayers, raising tax liabilities in 2011 and 2012 by about $450 billion (1.5% of GDP).

Because America’s GDP has recently been growing at an annual rate of only about 2% – and final sales at only about 1% – such a tax increase would probably have pushed the US economy into a new recession. Although the new tax law is generally described as a fiscal stimulus, it is more accurate to say that it avoids a large immediate fiscal contraction.

The long-term implications of the agreement stand in sharp contrast both to Obama’s February 2010 budget proposal and to the Republicans’ counter-proposal. Obama wanted to continue the 2010 tax rates permanently for all taxpayers except those with annual incomes over $250,000. The Republicans proposed continuing the 2010 tax rates permanently for all taxpayers. By agreeing to limit the current tax rates for just two years, the tax package reduces the projected national debt at the end of the decade (relative to what it would have been with the Obama budget) by some $2 trillion or nearly 10% of GDP in 2020.

That reduction in potential deficits and debt can by itself give a boost to the economy in 2011 by calming fears that an exploding national debt would eventually force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates – perhaps sharply if foreign buyers of US Treasuries suddenly became frightened by the deficit prospects.

The official budget arithmetic will treat the agreement on personal-income tax rates as a $450 billion increase in the deficit, making it seem like a big fiscal stimulus. But the agreement only maintains the existing tax rates, so taxpayers do not see it as a tax cut. It would be a fiscal stimulus only if taxpayers had previously expected that Congress and the administration would allow the tax rates to rise – an unlikely prospect, given the highly adverse effects that doing so would have had on the currently weak economy.

Even for those taxpayers who had feared a tax increase in 2011 and 2012, it is not clear how much the lower tax payments will actually boost consumer spending. The previous temporary tax cuts in 2008 and 2009 appear to have gone largely into saving and debt reduction rather than increased spending.

It is surprising, therefore, that forecasters raised their GDP growth forecasts for 2011 significantly on the basis of the tax agreement. A typical reaction was to raise the forecast for 2011 from 2.5% to 3.5%. While an increase of this magnitude would be plausible if a forecaster had previously expected tax rates to increase in 2011, it would not have been reasonable to forecast 2.5% growth in the first place with that assumption in mind. So, either the initial 2.5% forecast was too high or the increase of one percentage point is too large.

What is true of the agreement is also true of the decision, as part of that agreement, to maintain unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed. This, too, is essentially just a continuation of the status quo. No new benefit has been created.

The most substantial potential boost to spending comes from a temporary reduction of the payroll tax, lowering the rate paid by employees on income up to about $100,000 from 6.2% to 4.2%. But, while the decline in tax payments will be about 0.8% of GDP, it is not clear how much of this will translate into additional consumer spending and how much into additional saving. Because this tax cut will take the form of lower withholding from weekly or monthly wages, it may seem more permanent than it really is, and therefore have a greater impact on spending than households’ very feeble response to the previous temporary tax changes.

The final component of the agreement is temporary acceleration of tax depreciation, allowing firms in 2011 to write off 100% of capital investment immediately, in contrast to the current rule, which stipulates a 50% immediate write-off, followed by depreciation of the remaining 50% over the statutory life of the equipment. But, at a time when interest rates are very low and large businesses have enormous amounts of cash on their balance sheets, this change in the timing of tax payments is not likely to do much to stimulate investment.

A greater stimulus to business investment may come from the perception that Obama’s agreement to extend the personal-income tax cuts for high-income individuals signals his administration’s reduced antagonism to business and the wealthy. Obama’s recent statement that he favors reforming personal and corporate taxes by lowering rates and broadening the tax base reinforces that impression. Let’s hope that’s true.

Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics at Harvard, was Chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, and is former President of the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
http://www.project-syndicate.org

CHRIS KAHN | 11/ 9/10 06:06 PM | AP

What’s Your Reaction?

Earns Exxon Mobil
 

NEW YORK — Pretty soon, Big Oil will be more like Big Gas.

The major oil companies are increasingly betting their futures on natural gas, with older oil fields producing less crude and newer ones either hard to reach or controlled by unfriendly nations.

They are focusing more than ever on natural gas because it burns cleaner than oil and is gaining traction as a fuel for transportation. The latest move came Tuesday, when Chevron made a $4.3 billion deal to buy up natural gas fields in the Northeast.

Earlier this year, Exxon Mobil bought XTO Energy to become America’s largest producer of natural gas. And Royal Dutch Shell expects natural gas to make up half its total global production in two years.

“If you look at most of the big developments now, they’re not about oil, it’s gas,” said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit.

The world will continue to run on crude oil for years to come, but even with new discoveries, oil production is expected to flatten out during the next few decades, according to the latest estimates from the International Energy Association.

Far down the road, Gheit believes, Exxon and Shell will lead the energy industry into a new era where oil companies devote most of their efforts to producing natural gas. The Energy Information Administration expects worldwide natural gas production to increase 46 percent from 2007 to 2035, compared with a 30 percent increase in world production of crude and natural gas liquids.

Gas is becoming more attractive to the oil companies because it’s more accessible. While OPEC controls most of the world’s oil reserves, it controls less than half of the natural gas reserves.

In the United States and Europe, natural gas is primarily used to heat homes. About three in five American homes use it for heat. And more and more power plants are using it to generate power. Natural gas is used to generate 23 percent of electricity in the U.S., up from 16 percent a decade ago.

If the country focuses more on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in years to come, the trend should accelerate. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels.

Natural gas is used in small amounts for transportation in the U.S., mostly for city buses and garbage trucks. The oil industry is pressing Congress to add financial incentives for trucking and freight companies to convert their fleets.

Until recently, Big Oil watched the rise of U.S. natural gas from the sidelines, and smaller companies drilled into underground layers of shale. New techniques allowed companies to drill parallel to the ground and hit previously tough-to-reach deposits, helping them tap ever larger bounties of shale gas.

Production costs fell. Drilling rigs started popping up along America’s shale-rich regions in Appalachia, Texas and North Dakota. Experts now say the U.S. is sitting on enough natural gas to last the country for the next century.

This year, Big Oil jumped in. Exxon bought XTO for more than $30 billion, immediately making it America’s largest natural gas producer. XTO so far has helped Exxon increase its natural gas production by 50 percent.

Then Shell agreed to buy East Resources Inc. for $4.7 billion, and China’s state-owned offshore oil and gas company, CNOOC Ltd., invested $2.16 billion in oil and gas fields owned by Chesapeake Energy.

Production jumped to 1.94 trillion cubic feet in August, the highest monthly total since January 1973, according to available government data.

“Production is screaming,” said E. Russell Braziel, managing director of BENTEK Energy, which tracks natural gas prices in the U.S.

The U.S. now holds about 3.82 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in storage, about 10 percent more than the average over the past five years. And the industry keeps pumping more out of the ground.

There are challenges. The same low prices that make the assets affordable have caused some companies, namely ConocoPhillips, to pull back on production. Natural gas has dropped about 24 percent this year.

And people near shale rigs complained that groundwater supplies were contaminated by the industrial chemicals used in the drilling process. The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the possible effects on drinking water and the public health.

Still, most of the big companies continue to press ahead with multibillion-dollar acquisitions.

“When the market is weak, that’s when it’s time to act,” Argus Research analyst Phil Weiss said.

JEANNINE AVERSA | 12/22/10 11:23 AM | AP

WASHINGTON — Expectations for economic growth next year are turning more optimistic now that Americans will have a little more cash in their pockets.

A cut in workers’ Social Security taxes and rising consumer spending have led economists to predict a strong start for 2011.

Still, most people won’t feel much better until employers ramp up hiring and people buy more homes.

Analysts are predicting economic growth next year will come in next year close to 4 percent. It would mark an improvement from the 2.8 percent growth expected for this year and would be the strongest showing since 2000.

“Looking ahead, circumstances are ripe for the economy to develop additional traction,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc. in New York. He is estimating growth for 2011 to be above 3.5 percent.

The economy grew at a moderate pace last summer, reflecting stronger spending by businesses to replenish stockpiles, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Gross domestic product increased at a 2.6 percent annual rate in the July-September quarter. That’s up from the 2.5 percent pace estimated a month ago. While businesses spent more to build inventories, consumers spent a bit less.

Many analysts predict the economy strengthened in the October-December quarter. They think the economy is growing at a 3.5 percent pace or better mainly because consumers are spending more freely again.

Still, the housing market remains a drag on the slowly improving economy.

The National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday that more people bought previously owned homes rose in November. The sales pace rose 5.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.68 million units. Even with the gain, sales are still well below what analysts consider a healthy pace.

Even if analysts are right about 2011 being a better year for the economy, growth still wouldn’t be strong enough to dramatically lower the 9.8 percent unemployment rate.

By some estimates, the economy would need to grow by 5 percent for a full year to push down the unemployment rate by a full percentage point. Even with growth at around 4 percent, as many analysts predict, the unemployment rate is still expected to hover around 9 percent.

The third-quarter’s performance marks an improvement from the feeble 1.7 percent growth logged in the April-June quarter. The economy’s growth slowed sharply then. Fears about the European debt crisis roiled Wall Street and prompted businesses to limit their spending.

“It sure looks like the `soft patch’ is over,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

In the third quarter, greater spending by businesses on replenishing their stocks was the main factor behind the slight upward revision to GDP.

Consumers boosted their spending at a 2.4 percent pace. That was down from a 2.8 percent growth rate previously estimated. Even so, consumers increased their spending at the fastest pace in four years. The slight downward revision reflected less spending on health care and financial services than previously estimated.

More recent reports from retailers, however, show that shoppers are spending at a greater rate in the final months of the year.

Companies are discounting merchandise to lure shoppers. A price gauge tied to the GDP report showed that prices – excluding food and energy – rose at a 0.5 percent pace in the third quarter, the slowest quarterly pace on records going back to 1959.

Americans have more reasons to be confident. Stock prices are rising, helping Americans regain vast losses in wealth suffered during the recession. Job insecurity remains a problem, but the hiring market is slowly improving. And loans aren’t as difficult to obtain for those with solid credit histories.

Even with the improvements, though, consumers are showing some restraint. In the past, lavish spending by consumers propelled the economy to grow at a rapid pace. After the 1981-1982 recession, the economy expanded at a 9.3 percent clip. Consumers increased their spending at an 8.2 percent pace.

Consumers have yet to display that level of confidence in the economy. While hiring is improving, employers still aren’t adding enough jobs to lower the unemployment rate.

Even with stronger economic growth anticipated for next year, analysts predict it will still take until near the end of this decade to drop unemployment back down to a more normal 5.5 percent to 6 percent level.

The government’s estimate of GDP in the July-September quarter was its third and final one. The government makes a total of three estimates for any given quarter. Each new reading is based on more complete information. GDP measures the value of all goods and services – from machinery to manicures – produced within the United States.

As reported in the Huffington Post

Written by Robert Reich

It’s a perfect storm. And I’m not talking about the impending dangers facing Democrats. I’m talking about the dangers facing our democracy.

First, income in America is now more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 80 years. Almost a quarter of total income generated in the United States is going to the top 1 percent of Americans.

The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us.

Who are these people? With the exception of a few entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, they’re top executives of big corporations and Wall Street, hedge fund managers, and private equity managers. They include the Koch brothers, whose wealth increased by billions last year, and who are now funding tea party candidates across the nation.

Which gets us to the second part of the perfect storm. A relatively few Americans are buying our democracy as never before. And they’re doing it completely in secret.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into advertisements for and against candidates — without a trace of where the dollars are coming from. They’re laundered through a handful of groups. Fred Maleck, whom you may remember as deputy director of Richard Nixon’s notorious Committee to Reelect the President (dubbed Creep in the Watergate scandal), is running one of them. Republican operative Karl Rove runs another. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a third.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission made it possible. The Federal Election Commission says only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.

We’re back to the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators. The public never knew who was bribing whom.

Just before it recessed the House passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be publicly disclosed. But it couldn’t get through the Senate. Every Republican voted against it. (To see how far the GOP has come, nearly ten years ago campaign disclosure was supported by 48 of 54 Republican senators.)

Here’s the third part of the perfect storm. Most Americans are in trouble. Their jobs, incomes, savings, and even homes are on the line. They need a government that’s working for them, not for the privileged and the powerful.

Yet their state and local taxes are rising. And their services are being cut. Teachers and firefighters are being laid off. The roads and bridges they count on are crumbling, pipelines are leaking, schools are dilapidated, and public libraries are being shut.

There’s no jobs bill to speak of. No WPA to hire those who can’t find jobs in the private sector. Unemployment insurance doesn’t reach half of the unemployed.

Washington says nothing can be done. There’s no money left.

No money? The marginal income tax rate on the very rich is the lowest it’s been in more than 80 years. Under President Dwight Eisenhower (who no one would have accused of being a radical) it was 91 percent. Now it’s 36 percent. Congress is even fighting over whether to end the temporary Bush tax cut for the rich and return them to the Clinton top tax of 39 percent.

Much of the income of the highest earners is treated as capital gains, anyway — subject to a 15 percent tax. The typical hedge-fund and private-equity manager paid only 17 percent last year. Their earnings were not exactly modest. The top 15 hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion.

Congress won’t even return to the estate tax in place during the Clinton administration – which applied only to those in the top 2 percent of incomes.

It won’t limit the tax deductions of the very rich, which include interest payments on multimillion dollar mortgages. (Yet Wall Street refuses to allow homeowners who can’t meet mortgage payments to include their primary residence in personal bankruptcy.)

There’s plenty of money to help stranded Americans, just not the political will to raise it. And at the rate secret money is flooding our political system, even less political will in the future.

The perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work.

We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.

Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.

 

Fortune
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 2:32 AM

 As reported in Washington Post

Let us tell you an Ugly Truth about the economy, a truth that no one in power or who aspires to power wants to share with you, at least until after the midterm elections are over. It’s this: There is nothing that the U.S. government or the Federal Reserve or tax cutters can do to make our economic pain vanish overnight. There are no all-powerful, all-knowing superheroes or supervillains who can rescue or tank the economy all by themselves.

From listening to what passes for public debate in our country, you’d never know that. You’d think that the federal government could revive the economy quickly if only Congress would let it be more aggressive with stimulus spending. Or that the Fed could fix it if only it weren’t overly worried about touching off inflation. Or that the free market could fix it if only we made deep and permanent tax cuts.

Watch enough cable TV, listen to enough talk radio, read enough blogs and columns, and you’d think that they – the bad guys – are forcing the country to suffer needlessly when a simple and painless solution to our problems is at hand. But if you look at things rationally rather than politically, you’ll see that Washington has far less power over the economy, and far less maneuvering room, than people think.

“It’s endemic in our type of society that we always think there’s a person who holds the magic wand,” says Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a fiscal conservative who isn’t running for reelection, so he can, well, be blunt. “But this society and this economy are far too complex to be susceptible to magic wands.”

Heaven knows we could use such a wondrous fix. Even though the Great Recession ended 16 months ago, according to the business-cycle arbiters at the National Bureau of Economic Research, that only means that the economy started to grow in June 2009. It doesn’t mean that the economy has healed. It certainly doesn’t mean that the recession’s victims have healed. Tens of millions of people are still economically wounded from declines in their home values and investment accounts. Worse, despite some modest employment growth we’re down almost 8 million jobs from the end of 2007, when the Great Recession officially began.

Now, on to the real problems in the economy: why they’ve been so resistant to the traditional cures of lower interest rates and higher government spending. And we’ll show you that, when you talk to them in private (albeit on-the-record) forums, people from across the political and economic spectrum agree that there’s no magic cure for what ails the economy.

The fact is that our nation has suffered a huge financial trauma, and it’s going to take years to get well again. This isn’t exactly unknown in Washington, but it’s not something people in power go out of their way to emphasize.

For President Obama, who campaigned on the promise of transformational change, it’s been especially tough medicine to deliver. Take his performance in a September town hall session on CNBC. People in the audience were looking for immediate solutions to their problems, and Obama seemed to struggle with how to answer them. You can see why. Look what happened to the last president who ran for reelection during bad economic times: George H.W. Bush, in 1992. Bush came under fire for not doing more to help people who lost their jobs in the recession that had started in 1990, and for not showing more empathy in public.

After losing to Bill “It’s the economy, stupid” Clinton, Bush blamed Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan for his defeat. (If Greenspan had cut interest rates, the thinking goes, it would have looked as though Bush were doing something.) Seven weeks after Election Day, the recession arbiters announced that the downturn had actually ended in March 1991 – some 20 months before the election. Bush was right, as it turned out, not to push for extraordinary measures. But tell that to the voters.

Not the normal recession

If you think Bush had troubles, imagine what Obama is wrestling with. Today’s economic problems have proved enormously resistant to the traditional rate-cutting cure Bush wanted “Maestro” Greenspan to order up. That’s because the Great Recession, whose aftermath we’re living through, was different from the 10 previous post-World War II recessions. Those slowdowns were caused by the Fed’s increase of short-term interest rates to combat inflation. Recessions caused by the Fed’s rate-raising could be cured by the Fed’s rate-lowering. If things looked especially dicey, the federal government would send people checks to generate economic activity and spur confidence.

But the Great Recession was different. It was triggered by a financial meltdown brought on by excessive lending, reckless risk-taking, the implosion of an unregulated shadow banking system that assumed that short-term money would always be available – and ignorant and careless borrowing by people and institutions. The recession’s genesis is why things are still sluggish even though the Fed has cut short-term rates, which it controls, to virtually zero and has forced down long-term rates, which it doesn’t control, by buying more than $1 trillion of securities in the open market and letting it be known that it and other central banks will buy more.

Yet although such “quantitative easing” – econo-speak for “printing money” – helped allay financial panic in 2009 by providing cash to institutions that needed it badly, it’s less effective and more risky to use it to stimulate the economy. Hence the knife fight at the Fed Board of Governors between the fans of quantitative easing and those opposing it.

 

Let us explain. Even though the Fed is very powerful, it’s not all-powerful, just as the United States is not all-powerful when it comes to its own financial affairs. The Fed has to worry not only about the U.S. economy and money supply but also about debasing the dollar too much too quickly, lest it spook the foreigners who finance our trade and federal budget deficits. If foreigners lose faith in the dollar’s value, it could run our interest rates up sharply and abort any recovery.

To its credit, the Fed – the one institution that because of its independence can actually act quickly without making a political show – sort of admits that its power is limited.

“Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems,” Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a speech at the Fed’s conclave in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in August.

The Fed wouldn’t let us interview Bernanke about the limits of the Fed’s power. It’s easy to see why: He’d risk diminishing what remains of the Fed mystique by talking on the record about its limitations and problems.

However, former Fed vice chairman Donald Kohn, a 40-year Fed veteran, agreed to discuss those limits, provided we made it clear he was speaking for himself as an outsider, not for the Fed.

“The Federal Reserve can make a difference, but it doesn’t have a magic bullet,” Kohn said. “It can’t take a weak economy facing a lot of major challenges and rapidly turn it into a strong economy.”

Kohn isn’t alone in that view.

“The public has been sold this notion that somehow we can control the economy – that we can fine-tune it so we don’t get inflation on the upside, we don’t get recessions on the downside, [that] when something happens, they can step in and offset it,” says another longtime Washington insider, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. “The economics profession is painfully aware that this is just not true, and [that it] has a terrible impact on politicians, presidents in particular.”

Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, was Sen. John McCain’s economic adviser in the 2008 campaign. He and his Democratic counterparts know the dirty little secret: that the huge financial trauma suffered by the economy won’t disappear overnight.

“No one has found a way to have an incredibly severe financial crisis and snap back a year or two later,” says Jason Furman, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council.

Losses: Plenty of them

Look at the numbers on the economy and you’ll see why. The biggest single source of wealth for many people – their home equity – has fallen almost 50 percent from its peak in 2006, according to Federal Reserve statistics. Loss: $6.5 trillion. U.S. stocks are still down 25 percent from their peak in 2007, their 75 percent gain in the past 19 months notwithstanding. Cost: $4.8 trillion. Then there are the 7.7 million lost jobs with their associated lost income, lost wealth and lost consumer spending. Loss: untold trillions of dollars.

This wealth-reducing trauma, combined with consumers becoming afraid to spend and lenders changing from being ultra-lax to ultra-strict, has sucked huge amounts of money from the economy. Don’t let occasional upticks in consumer spending, the stock market or home equity fool you into thinking that things are okay, because they aren’t.

 

“The economy suffered a really deep wound – it’s healing, and it’s a little bit uneven,” says Alan Krueger, assistant Treasury secretary for economic policy. “But that is what you’d expect given the loss of wealth from the financial crisis.”

People used to collectively spend more than they took home – hence, our negative national savings rate, which was covered by borrowing. Now we’re spending 6 percent or so less than we’re taking home. That’s a big head wind to fight. The switch from borrowers to savers augurs well for the long run, if the trend lasts. But in the short run, it hurts the economy by diminishing activity. Compared with all the losses we’ve talked about, the $814 billion in stimulus spending – the effectiveness of which we won’t get into today – is small beer.

So what do you do? One proposed solution is to jump-start the economy with deep and permanent tax cuts. That’s more than a little problematic, given that the Great Recession began in 2007, when tax rates, especially on investment income, were about the lowest in modern times and there were no “Obama tax increases” on the horizon.

President George W. Bush had pushed through two big tax cuts – one in 2001 because the government was supposedly taking in too much money, the second in 2003 to stimulate investment. But the economy tanked anyway. The latest tax-cut screed, the Republican Party’s Pledge to America, has no meaningful numbers, proposes no changes in programs like Social Security, Medicare and defense, and asks no sacrifices of anyone, yet it says it can balance the budget. Good luck with that.

What about having the Treasury engage in a massive stimulus program to put money in people’s pockets and have them spend it, ginning up economic activity and restoring confidence? But stimulus money has to come from somewhere – and it doesn’t seem possible for the Treasury to raise a few trillion more stimulus bucks without dire consequences to interest rates and the dollar’s value.

It doesn’t help that the administration wrongly predicted that its stimulus package would hold unemployment to 8 percent; the rate soared to 10 percent and still hangs stubbornly in the mid-nines.

Other institutions, such as the Fed and the Social Security Administration, both nonpartisan, also underestimated our economic problems. But the administration’s mistake, which seems to have been an honest one, has undermined its credibility.

The fact that stimulus programs seemed designed to favor unionized workers, a core Democratic constituency, didn’t help. Nor did the fact that Cash for Clunkers and the $8,000 credit for first-time home buyers caused one-time spikes in new-car and house sales that fell off sharply after the programs expired.

‘Quantitative’ what?

Our final little secret is that the United States is now being forced to live within its means, and that’s not fun. For years our country could spend and spend because two bubbles showered companies, consumers and governments with free money. Who needed to save when stocks were producing returns of almost 20 percent a year, which they did from August 1982 through the spring of 2000? Or when house prices rose at double-digit rates and you could get cash easily and quickly through refinancing, a second mortgage or a home equity loan? Homeowners raising and spending cash propped the economy for years.

The closest we’re likely to come to free money is the Fed’s proposed quantitative-easing moves to buy Treasury securities. Let us show you how it works – and the problems with it.

Let’s say the Fed buys $1 trillion of Treasury securities in the secondary market. Out of thin air, it creates $1 trillion in credit balances in the sellers’ accounts. The sellers have $1 trillion more cash than they did, increasing the money supply. There is now $1 trillion less in publicly traded Treasurys, which props up their price.

By contrast, if Goldman Sachs wanted to buy $1 trillion of Treasury securities, it would have to find $1 trillion of cash to pay for them. Sellers would have $1 trillion more cash than before. Goldman would have $1 trillion less. There would be no increase in the money supply or decrease in the Treasury supply.

 

If the Fed could buy endless amounts of Treasury securities without any side effects, it would be almost like free money. The securities would cost the Treasury little or nothing in the way of interest, because the Fed turns over its profits – $53 billion last year, $40 billion in the first half of 2010 – to the Treasury.

So if the Fed buys $1 trillion of 2.5 percent, 10-year Treasury notes, Treasury’s $25 billion annual interest expense is offset by the $25 billion of extra profit the Fed would make, all (or almost all) of which would be turned over to the Treasury. See? Isn’t that grand?

There is, however, a problem. The Fed can’t do that indefinitely without touching off inflation, debasing the dollar, or both. Markets are bigger and more powerful than the Fed.

Consider the reaction of people like veteran Wall Street value investor Hugh Lamle of M.D. Sass to quantitative easing.

“It’s one thing to do $800 billion once,” he says. “But if the federal government is going to print $1 trillion a year for five years, maybe I don’t want to be in dollars.”

A second factor is that long-term rates are already so low that it’s not clear how much stimulus you get from cutting them more. It’s a big deal to cut interest rates to 5 percent from 8 percent. But at lower levels, the result is less dramatic.

Do you think the difference between 3 percent and 2.5 percent is going to matter? Meanwhile, these ultra-low rates are penalizing American savers – especially retirees relying on CD income to supplement Social Security. They tend to spend all their income, and it’s down sharply. That’s one reason the economy is weak.

Don’t get us wrong, there are plenty of winners in this game – just not the ones who need help. Cash-rich corporations are issuing billions of dollars of cheap debt for purposes such as buying back stock rather than expanding and creating new jobs. Corporations have record cash on hand but aren’t using it to expand in the United States.

Banks, too, are profiting mightily from quantitative easing. They can borrow short-term money for essentially nothing, then buy Treasury securities, knowing that the Fed will support the securities’ prices by buying them in the market. Playing the yield curve is easier, less risky and more lucrative than what the government wants the banks to do, which is to make loans.

It comes down to housing

Perhaps the biggest problem we have standing in the way of having good times return is housing – which is an example of how deep-rooted our problems are and how resistant they are to government programs.

Housing was a major source of national wealth for decades, and home equity, however sadly diminished, is still the biggest single piece of wealth many Americans have. That’s especially true of lower-income people.

No one shouts this from the rooftops, but the federal government and the Fed are doing all they can to prop up house prices. Thanks to the Fed’s forcing down of long-term rates, fixed-rate mortgages are at record lows. Most of those mortgages come via Uncle Sam.

For the first half of the year, 89 percent of mortgages came from the government-run Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Federal Housing Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. That’s almost triple the levels of housing’s peak years: 31 percent in 2005 and 30 percent in 2006.

Even with all that effort, though, housing prices may be stabilizing at levels far below their peak four years ago rather than recovering broadly.

When will house prices get back to where they were? John Burns of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, one of the nation’s savviest real estate analysts, invokes the seven-and-seven rule. In previous local-market bubbles, Burns says, “the rule of thumb is seven years down and seven years up” after the bubble pops. Apply that rule to the national market, where the bubble popped in 2006, and we’re talking about a sustained recovery starting in 2013, and taking until 2020. That’s pretty grim, but probably realistic.

So when are we going to know when things are getting better? They may, in fact, be getting better now, but it’s going to take a long time for the wound to heal completely. We need to take care of people who have lost their jobs and lost their hope.

But after the midterm elections, when there’s going to be immense pressure to adopt everyone’s programs, we can’t just throw money at everything, searching for magic cures and magic sound bites. If we do, it will take us that much longer to climb out of the hole.

Allan Sloan is senior editor at large at Fortune magazine. Tory Newmyer is a writer at Fortune. Doris Burke is a senior reporter at Fortune.

This Is Not a Recovery

August 27, 2010

By PAUL KRUGMAN  NY Times Op-Ed Colmnist
Published: August 26, 2010What will Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, say in his big speech Friday in Jackson Hole, Wyo.? Will he hint at new steps to boost the economy? Stay tuned.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

But we can safely predict what he and other officials will say about where we are right now: that the economy is continuing to recover, albeit more slowly than they would like. Unfortunately, that’s not true: this isn’t a recovery, in any sense that matters. And policy makers should be doing everything they can to change that fact.

The small sliver of truth in claims of continuing recovery is the fact that G.D.P. is still rising: we’re not in a classic recession, in which everything goes down. But so what?

The important question is whether growth is fast enough to bring down sky-high unemployment. We need about 2.5 percent growth just to keep unemployment from rising, and much faster growth to bring it significantly down. Yet growth is currently running somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, with a good chance that it will slow even further in the months ahead. Will the economy actually enter a double dip, with G.D.P. shrinking? Who cares? If unemployment rises for the rest of this year, which seems likely, it won’t matter whether the G.D.P. numbers are slightly positive or slightly negative.

All of this is obvious. Yet policy makers are in denial.

After its last monetary policy meeting, the Fed released a statement declaring that it “anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization” — Fedspeak for falling unemployment. Nothing in the data supports that kind of optimism. Meanwhile, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, says that “we’re on the road to recovery.” No, we aren’t.

Why are people who know better sugar-coating economic reality? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that it’s all about evading responsibility.

In the case of the Fed, admitting that the economy isn’t recovering would put the institution under pressure to do more. And so far, at least, the Fed seems more afraid of the possible loss of face if it tries to help the economy and fails than it is of the costs to the American people if it does nothing, and settles for a recovery that isn’t.

In the case of the Obama administration, officials seem loath to admit that the original stimulus was too small. True, it was enough to limit the depth of the slump — a recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office says unemployment would probably be well into double digits now without the stimulus — but it wasn’t big enough to bring unemployment down significantly.

Now, it’s arguable that even in early 2009, when President Obama was at the peak of his popularity, he couldn’t have gotten a bigger plan through the Senate. And he certainly couldn’t pass a supplemental stimulus now. So officials could, with considerable justification, place the onus for the non-recovery on Republican obstructionism. But they’ve chosen, instead, to draw smiley faces on a grim picture, convincing nobody. And the likely result in November — big gains for the obstructionists — will paralyze policy for years to come.

So what should officials be doing, aside from telling the truth about the economy?

The Fed has a number of options. It can buy more long-term and private debt; it can push down long-term interest rates by announcing its intention to keep short-term rates low; it can raise its medium-term target for inflation, making it less attractive for businesses to simply sit on their cash. Nobody can be sure how well these measures would work, but it’s better to try something that might not work than to make excuses while workers suffer.

The administration has less freedom of action, since it can’t get legislation past the Republican blockade. But it still has options. It can revamp its deeply unsuccessful attempt to aid troubled homeowners. It can use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders, to engineer mortgage refinancing that puts money in the hands of American families — yes, Republicans will howl, but they’re doing that anyway. It can finally get serious about confronting China over its currency manipulation: how many times do the Chinese have to promise to change their policies, then renege, before the administration decides that it’s time to act?

Which of these options should policy makers pursue? If I had my way, all of them.

I know what some players both at the Fed and in the administration will say: they’ll warn about the risks of doing anything unconventional. But we’ve already seen the consequences of playing it safe, and waiting for recovery to happen all by itself: it’s landed us in what looks increasingly like a permanent state of stagnation and high unemployment. It’s time to admit that what we have now isn’t a recovery, and do whatever we can to change that situation.

 

By Neil Irwin

Friday, August 27, 2010; 11:06 AM

JACKSON HOLE, WYO. – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke acknowledged in a much-awaited speech Friday that the pace of economic growth “recently appears somewhat less vigorous” than expected, and said that the central bank would take new steps to bolster the economy if conditions worsen.

“The pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed somewhat in recent months,” Bernanke said at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual economic symposium. “Despite this recent slowing, however, it is reasonable to expect some pickup in growth in 2011 and in subsequent years.”

Just this morning, the Commerce Department reported that gross domestic product rose at only a 1.6 percent annual rate in the April-through-June quarter, much worse than the 2.4 percent earlier estimated.

Bernanke said that the Fed’s policy committee “is prepared to provide additional monetary accommodation through unconventional measures if it proves necessary, especially if the outlook were to deteriorate significantly.”

“The issue at this stage” Bernanke said, “is not whether we have the tools to help support economic activity and guard against disinflation. We do. . . . The issue is instead whether, at any given juncture, the benefits of each tool, in terms of additional stimulus, outweigh the associated costs or risks of using the tool.”

In other words, the economy has not deteriorated enough, nor the outlook changed enough, to warrant pulling out some big new monetary policy guns, but the Fed would be willing to do so if its forecast of continued slow-but-steady growth proves to be overly optimistic.

Bernanke enumerated the policy options on the table. At recent Fed policy meetings, he said, participants have discussed renewed large-scale purchases of Treasury bonds and other securities; pledging to keep the Fed’s short-term interest rate target near zero for even longer than analysts now expect; or cutting the rate paid on money that banks park at the Fed.

However, Bernanke explicitly rejected a notion, advanced by some economists outside the Fed, that the central bank temporarily increase its target for inflation. “I see no support for this option” on the Federal Open Market Committee, he said.

In discussing the trade-offs involved in undertaking a major new program to buy securities and thus expand the Fed’s balance sheet to try to boost growth, which is the most powerful of the tools under consideration, Bernanke noted various risks: that the central bank lacks precise knowledge of what effect the action would have; that the action would have the most impact in a time of financial market distress; and that the bigger balance sheet “could reduce public confidence in the Fed’s ability” to unwind the policies.

The speech is one of the most hotly anticipated of Bernanke’s tenure as Fed chairman, especially on Wall Street. In recent weeks, the economic situation has deteriorated markedly, and many forecasters now expect that the U.S. economy will grow much too slowly to bring down the unemployment rate in the second half of the year. Fed watchers were eager for Bernanke to offer clarity on what the approach of Fed policy is over the months ahead, particularly following an action at its Aug. 10 meeting to reinvest proceeds from maturing mortgage securities on its balance sheet.

In discussing the economy, Bernanke adopted a mixed tone, expressing confidence in growth over the medium term while acknowledging that the situation is disappointing at the moment. “In many countries, including the United States and most other industrial nations, growth during the past year has been too slow and joblessness remains too high,” he said.

“Incoming data on the labor market has been disappointing,” Bernanke added, while business investment in equipment and software “should continue to advance at a solid pace.”

The major drain on second-quarter gross domestic product was from trade. “Like others,” Bernanke said, we were surprised by the sharp deterioration in the U.S. trade balance in the second quarter. However, that deterioration seems to have reflected a number of temporary and special factors.”

The revision to gross domestic product data Friday is only the latest reminder of how far the economic outlook has fallen. Just in the past week, new data have indicated that the housing sector was in near free-fall in July, that business orders for big-ticket equipment contracted that month, and that new claims for unemployment insurance benefits remained at recessionary levels last week.

Bernanke takes a measure of optimism from recent reports that Americans are saving more. Although a higher savings rate – about 6 percent, compared with the 4 percent earlier estimated – has helped depress consumption in recent months, in the longer term, he said, it “implies greater progress in the repair of household balance sheets,” which should in turn allow Americans to increase their spending more rapidly in the future.

In the speech, Bernanke made an effort to try to dissuade listeners from the idea that the Fed, or any central bank, can create a return to prosperity on its own. “A return to strong and stable economic growth will require appropriate and effective response from economic policymakers across a wide spectrum, as well as from leaders in the private sector,” he said. “Central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems.”

Years ago, AT&T ruled the U.S. telecommunications industry. However, once deregulation was introduced, it opened the field to competition and allowed customers to shop for alternative carriers.

The same rings true for the energy marketplace, which saw deregulation gain momentum in the late 1990’s, giving customers a choice of energy suppliers, products and prices in their utility jurisdictions. There are approximately 20 states today with deregulated natural gas and approximately 15 with deregulated electricity.

Natural gas market

In the past 20 years, the majority of new electric generating plants have been designed to run on natural gas. When the pipelines were deregulated and the fuel was labeled “clean”, federal, state and local governments pushed for natural gas’s usage and consumers responded by using more gas every year since.

Natural gas has a relatively non-polluting production cycle and poses very little risk when it’s transported in pipelines. There also aren’t the emissions you have with shipping fuel by trucks and ships.

Yor current local utility provider buys natural gas in the wholesale market and then sells it to their customers at retail prices. We put our clients in a wholesale position. 

Expanding electricity

Unlike the natural gas market, it’s trickier to deregulate the electricity industry. Whereas the former has a direct line from well to pipeline to user, electricity comes from multiple sources, including nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas and renewable energies.

Deregulation of electricity allows for competion for the purchase of your electric supply in the local market and this means savings for you. 

Your natural gas and electric is still delivered by your local provider. Should there and be any service issues or disruption, your local provider is still responsible for servicing the account.

Hutchinson Business Solutions is an independent broker reresenting all the major deregulated providers selling natural gas and electric in the tri state area for the last 10 years.

We offer a free analysis of your current annual natural gas and electric supply cost. Our clients are finding savings from 11% upto 48%.

For more information and to order your free energy analysis email george@hbsadvantage.com

On August 1 1999, New Jersey implemented electric deregulation in its state, opening its borders to competition and lower electricity prices. Electricity can be provided more cheaply in New Jersey where there is a number of competitive suppliers in the marketplace. Electric consumers need not change their electric supplier (it is the same electricity) and they only need to choose their electric provider. These electric providers buy electricity in bulk at competitive prices and redistribute savings to their customers.

Deregulated Electric and Gas

Natural Gas and Electric competition has substantially benefited industrial electric and gas consumers in the states of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Hutchinson Business Solutions (HBS) is an independent broker representing all the major deregulated providers in this area. We will provide a free cost analysis of your commercial / industrial annual electricity and natural gas supply expense. 

Your local providers purchase natural gas and electric in the wholesale market and then sells it to their customers at retail prices. HBS puts our clients in a wholesale position and the savings will fall to your bottom line.

To obtain your free analysis on your commercial, industrial or business electricity email your contact information to george@hbsadvantage.com.

In these hard economic times, Why Pay More!

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