Monthly Archives: January 2010

“US Is on Right Path to Banking Reform”

By James K. Galbraith [via The Sphere]

President Barack Obama took an important step in the right direction Thursday. How can one tell? Bank stocks fell. And on Bloomberg just afterward, the industry’s top lobbyist stated that the big bankers want “a civil, adult conversation” about reform. Great. They must be worried.

Oh, and there’s a third reason. Paul Volcker was there. He’s not corrupt. He’s not ambitious. He’s been around the political track a few times. If Volcker shows up to back the president on this one, that’s got to be a good sign.

The president’s speech established some important principles. First, size matters. We should not allow banks — or any other type of financial firm — to become “too big to fail.” A bank that big is too big to regulate, and too big for its own leadership to manage safely and effectively even if they want to. It is a “systemically dangerous institution.” It should not be allowed to grow, because as it becomes bigger, it becomes more dangerous still.

Second, proprietary trading is dangerous. Leveraged proprietary trading is a highly profitable, but exceptionally risky, form of gambling. It should not be done by institutions whose downside risk is publicly insured — either directly or indirectly — because they can blackmail the country when they go down. Get rid of it. John Reed, the former CEO of Citibank, agrees: In the 1980s and 1990s they didn’t do it, and they don’t need to do it now.

Third, the financial sector must be restructured. We have many viable small and medium-sized banks that didn’t get burned by the sub-prime debacle. They should grow and help rebuild America. The big banks right now are, largely, zombies. They are serving no public purpose, yet they remain dangerous. The “Volcker Rule” can help protect us, restoring something like the protections that helped keep us safe for a half century under Glass-Steagall.

The plan doesn’t do enough. But now that the president has set a direction, he can do more. To begin, he should use regulatory powers he already has. Last year’s stress tests were a farce, a public relations exercise to convey a simple message: that the government was going to back the banks, no matter what. That strategy didn’t work. And that’s no longer the message the government should want to send.

So let’s do those stress tests again. This time let the real regulators — the FDIC and not the Fed or Treasury — take the lead. Let’s have clean audits of the toxic assets at their market values, public exposure of the AIG e-mails — which are public property — and a serious review of the documents underlying all those bad mortgages and mortgage-backed-securities. The big banks should be made to shrink, under FDIC supervision. Outright bans and high taxes are the right deterrent for unsafe practices. And prosecution is the remedy for fraud.

Somehow I doubt that our big bankers want to go through this. Maybe they’ll simply retire, removing at a stroke the biggest eyesore on the American political scene — and a big obstacle to both financial reform and an effective economic recovery program.

Another good sign emerged today. According to The Washington Post, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner opposed Volcker’s approach, and he got beaten. This sentence is telling: “Industry officials … said they were startled and disheartened that Geithner was overruled, in part because they supported the more moderate approach Geithner proposed last year.”

“Startled” and “disheartened” are good signs. Even better, we have headlines this morning that the secretary is fighting back behind the scenes. ABC News reports: “Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has reservations about President Obama’s new proposal to limit the size and scope of the nation’s banks, sources tell ABC News. Specifically, the sources say, Geithner is worried that the proposed limits could damage the competitiveness of U.S. firms with their global competitors.”

Competitiveness? That bit of malarkey is a big-bank lobby talking point, nothing more. Its use here reveals precisely the problem that has faced Team Obama from the beginning: They gave the Treasury to a close ally of the biggest banks.

With today’s news, Geithner’s loyalties are completely clear. The next step, in that matter, is up to the president.

So now the ball is rolling, at last, toward real financial reform. Keep it rolling, Mr. President; you’re on the right road now.

“Deficit Terrorism Could Kill the Euro”

By Marshall Auerback *
Marshall Auerback has a proposal for how to save the euro – before it’s too late.

On more than a few occasions, we have discussed the insanity of self-imposed political constraints which limit the range of fiscal policy. As well as imparting a deflationary bias to an economy (and thereby preventing full employment), these kinds of constraints preclude the adoption of prompt counter-cyclical policy, which would otherwise cushion an economy when confronted with a genuine financial crisis, as we are experiencing today.

The constraints under which the US operates are more apparent than real. As we have discussed before, these constraints are largely based on 19th century gold standard concepts, which have no applicability in a fiat currency world. Tomorrow, if the US wanted to run a budget deficit equivalent to 20 per cent of GDP, it could do so, politics and demagoguery aside.

Such is clearly not the case in the euro zone.

There, countries like Spain, that have 20 per cent unemployment are being forced into further belt tightening. And the news just keeps getting worse: Expansion in Europe’s service and manufacturing industries unexpectedly slowed in January, adding to signs the pace of the economy’s recovery may weaken.

A composite index based on a survey of purchasing managers in both industries in the 16-nation euro region fell to 53.6 from 54.2 in December, London-based Markit Economics said today in an initial estimate. Economists expected an increase to 54.4, according to the median of 15 estimates in a Bloomberg survey. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

The euro-region economy may lose momentum as the effect of government stimulus measures tapers off and rising unemployment erodes consumers’ willingness to spend. More significantly, the very viability of the currency is now being called into question even within the councils of the European Monetary Union (EMU), where fears of a euro breakup have reached the point where the European Central Bank (ECB) itself feels compelled to issue a legal analysis of what would happen if a country tried to leave monetary union.

A currency vaporizing before our very eyes! All for what? Some misguided anti-inflation fear? A desire to maintain the euro as a “store of value”? What’s the point of having a “store of value” in your pocket when you don’t have enough of it to buy anything because you’re unemployed?

We have long viewed the principles underlying Europe’s monetary union as profoundly misconceived. In particular, the so-called Stability and Growth Pact is economically flawed and politically illegitimate, given the power of unelected bureaucrats within the euro zone to ride roughshod over the clearly expressed preferences of national electorates. A law that governs economic decisions — yet is economically illiterate — cannot stand for long. It merely invites non-compliance and worse, as we are witnessing today. And the problem is not restricted to the so-called “PIIGS” countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). The larger — and wealthier — European economies however have never reduced their unemployment rates below 6 per cent and the average for the EMU since inception is 8.5 per cent (as at July 2009) and rising since. The average for the EMU nations from July 1990 to December 1998 (earliest MEI data for the EMU block available) was 9.7 per cent but that included the very drawn out 1991 recession. Underemployment throughout the EMU area is also rising , reaching 20% in Spain and double digits in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Greece.

Until now, the Eurocrats have either remained in denial about the mounting stress fractures within the system, or forced weaker countries to impose even greater fiscal austerity on their suffering populations, which has exacerbated the problems further. And there has been a complete lack of consistency of principle. When larger countries such as Germany and France routinely violated spending limits a few years ago, this was conveniently ignored (or papered over), in contrast to the vituperative criticism now being hurled at Greece. The EU’s repeated tendency to make ad hoc improvisations of EMU’s treaty provisions, rather than engaging in the hard job of reforming its flawed arrangements, are a function of a silly ideology which is neither grounded in political reality, nor economic logic. As a result, a political firestorm, which completely undermines the euro’s credibility, is potentially in the offing.

So what are the alternatives? Exit from the currency union would be the most logical, but also potentially the most economically and politically disruptive. As Professor Bill Mitchell notes, to exit the EMU a nation and regain currency sovereignty, the following changes would occur:

• The nation would have to introduce a new/old currency unit under monopoly issue. Within this currency the national government could purchase anything that was for sale in that currency including domestic unemployed labour.

• The central bank of the nation would receive a refund of the capital it contributed to the ECB.

• The central bank would also get all the foreign currency reserves that it moved over into the EMU system.

• The nation’s central bank would then regain control of monetary policy, which means it could set the interest rates along the yield curve and also add to bank reserves if needed.

There is clearly the additional problem of debt which is now denominated in euros, because, as Mitchell notes, the problem exists because the nation that wanted to exit would have to deal with a foreign currency debt burden, and might find itself involved in a painful adjustment process in which the departing nation is forced to experience a punitive negotiated settlement (unless of course it was able to engineer payment in the new local currency).

Personally, we think the whole euro zone system is an abomination and would prefer to see all euro zone states go back to national currencies and thereby get their respective economies back on track with renewed fiscal capacity. But there is also a short term expedient which might prove minimally disruptive to the European Monetary Union’s current political and institutional arrangements, but could well succeed in restoring growth and employment in the euro zone.

Within the euro zone, short of leaving, the most elegant adjustment mechanism is for the ECB to distribute 1 trillion euro to the national governments on a per capita basis, as our friend, Warren Mosler , has suggested. This proposal would operate along the lines of the revenue sharing proposals we recently advocated for the American states. The nation states of the euro zone would the instructions from European Council of Finance Minister (ECOFIN) and the ECB would then change the balances in all of the national member bank accounts, in effect increasing their assets, and thereby reducing debt as a percentage of GDP.

Within the euro zone, this sort of a proposal would likely give the respective EMU nations more bang for their respective euros, given the more elaborate social welfare programs in the EU. There would be less pressure to “reform” them (i.e., cut them back) if the EU nation states debt ratios are correspondingly lower and “compliant” within the bounds of the SGP.

The per capita criteria deployed here means that we are neither discussing a bailout per se of one individual country, and nor a ‘reward for bad behavior.’ All countries would receive funds from the ECB on a per capita basis, which means that Germany would, in fact, become the biggest beneficiary. The fact that all countries are in the euro zone means there’s no possibility of Germany losing competitive ground to Spain or other low wage countries. It would immediately adjust national govt. debt ratios substantially downward and ease credit fears.

If there is no undesired effect on aggregate demand/inflation/etc., which there should not be, given the prevailing high levels of unemployment in the euro zone, it can be repeated as desired until national government finances are enhanced to the point where they can all take local action to support aggregate demand as desired.

The proposal advanced is the most institutionally elegant solution because it maintains the current arrangements, as flawed as they are, and preserves the euro. Yes, a weaker euro would almost certainly result from this action. However, as “national solvency” is an issue for the euro countries (in a way that it is not for the US or Japan or the UK, given that the euro zone nation states are functionally more like American states than independent countries with their own freely floating non-convertible currencies), the resultant higher export growth that comes from a weaker euro is actually benign for everybody, as it minimizes the markets’ solvency concerns.

The formation of the European Union has been largely driven by the extremism of inter-European conflicts that caused millions of people to be slaughtered during two disastrous world wars. Ironically, the political and economic arrangements that have arisen in response to these horrors are creating a different kind of social devastation which is both wholly self-inflicted and profoundly misconceived. Europe’s very currency could well blow up. The US might well preserve its currency, but the EU’s current situation provides a salutary warning of what can happen in a system that prevents individual member’s from using fiscal policy to improve the circumstances of their citizens.

*This post was first published on New Dew 2.0

President Obama: It’s Not Just The Words!

By Marshall Auerback

The post-mortems following the Massachusetts Senate by-election are coming in fast and furiously, but by far the most instructive remarks come from the President himself. He clearly doesn’t get it.

A majority of Obama voters who switched to Brown said that “Democratic policies were doing more to help Wall Street than Main Street.” A full 95 percent said the economy was important or very important when it came to deciding their vote. Surprise, surprise, policies do matter.

But what was the President’s reaction? ABC News reported, “President Obama said today that he feels he lost a direct connection to the American people in his first year in office because he focused too heavily on policy-making.”

“If there’s one thing that I regret this year is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” Obama told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview at the White House.

The arrogance and presumption of the statement is remarkable. Mr. President, the American people have core values, and they don’t encompass political cronyism and tolerance of fraud and corruption. And they go beyond mere reminders that “change takes time”.

Having persuaded himself that his powers of oratory can solve any problem (even minus the teleprompter?), the President patronizingly suggests that his “change” policies were not the problem, but that he failed in the presentation of them. It’s more likely that people were profoundly upset that with the “stuff” that the President and Congress were getting done, and his failure adequately to address the immediate crises that he faced in his first year in office.

When Obama continued the Bush/Paulson moves on the bank bailouts, that was the beginning of the end of his “change” Presidency. Health care was simply the confirmation as large proportion of his base was prepared to cut him slack waiting to see what he would do with the issue. In the end, we got a terrible bill, and no amount of salesmanship or nice speeches will change the substance. It does not even deliver on the promise that got most people prepared to hold their collective noses and vote for it, that of eliminating the practice of rescinding policies on the basis of “pre-existing condition”. Read the bill.  As Yves Smith has highlighted, it allows an out for fraud. Guess what? Not telling your insurer of a preexisting condition, EVEN ONE YOU DID NOT KNOW ABOUT, is fraud! Unbeknownst to most, fraud is the means under current law that insurers deny coverage. The bill preserves the status quo here. A nursing organization with 150,000 members opposed the bill for this very reason.
We have major problems in this country: rising unemployment, a stagnating economy, overly expensive health care and a large group of uninsured, which adds to the costs of the latter. How is further enriching insurers and Big Pharma (which the bill does) going to solve the cost problem? Similarly, how has throwing ample financial subsidies at Wall Street, helped the average citizen on Main Street?

The President expended so much political capital and goodwill placating the likes of Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein. Now that they’ve got their government checks, they can do whatever they like and continue to poison the polity. The health insurance and pharmaceutical industries have followed the playbook, and used the political process the same way.

I am sure there are some people angered by too much government spending (aka, “socialism”) and others who are genuinely peeved that Obama is not spending enough. But more than that, there remains a profound sense of anger, mixed with helplessness amongst most people. The only means by which these people can manifest this anger (without resorting to riots and burning buildings) is via the ballot box. They will likely continue to take it out on people perceived to be the “ins”, the main feeders at the trough, versus the “outs”, who have got nothing, but the promise of a lot more economic misery. Massachusetts was the first significant political manifestation of this trend, and if his immediate comments are anything to go by, I doubt Obama will interpret the election result correctly, since his faux populism and reliance on “speaking directly to the American people” merely shows how contrived his Administration has become.

President Obama is providing increasingly disturbing parallels with one of Robert Redford’s memorable characters, Bill McKay, from “The Candidate”. If you recall how that movie ended, McKay escapes the victory party and pulls Lucas into a room while throngs of journalists clamor outside. McKay then asks his political spin doctor, Marvin Lucas, who engineered the victory: “Marvin … What do we do now?” The media throng arrives to drag them out at that moment and McKay never receives an answer. Today’s electorate is waiting for an answer from the President which encapsulates something beyond a mere “change” slogan. Judging from the policies, they’ve been getting, they aren’t happy with the answers.

Mosler on Today’s Monetary Arrangements

Reader Note: This is the second entry from Warren Mosler in a debate with Jim Rickards about how to fix the economy. More on the authors here. This is a response to Rickards first piece. Mosler’s first piece is here.*

by Warren Mosler

Jim’s recommendations are “sound money, lower taxes, and light regulation.”

We do agree on lower taxes. My proposals include a full payroll tax holiday to support demand. And while Jim suggests a return to Glass-Steagall, my banking proposals are even more narrow and dramatically reduce the need for regulation. I also support price stability.

We also agree that the Monetarist concept of “velocity” is flawed, but our reasons differ. Jim’s derive from the long-dead gold standard where velocity is a calculation of how many times the given amount of money (gold) is used to buy and sell goods and services. Today, however, monetary expansion has nothing to do with money supply like it used to under the gold standard. The reason banks aren’t lending isn’t because they don’t have money to lend. Lending is constrained only by bank capital and the creditworthiness of willing borrowers, not by gold or any other concept of bank reserves. That’s why quantitative easing – i.e. the Fed printing money to buy securities – has no effect on bank lending.

Interest rate cuts transfer income from savers to banks, reducing overall spending. So while interest on savings dropped from over 5% to near 0%, borrower’s rates fell little if any. The wide yield curve means banks’ profit margins widened.

New Keynesian thought is also flawed, because it too presumes gold standard constraints. Today government never actually has nor doesn’t have dollars, and spends, taxes, and borrows simply by changing numbers in bank accounts at the Fed.

When it comes to the dollar, the US government is the scorekeeper. Unlike the gold standard days, the government can’t run out of money. Nor is it dependent on China to fund spending.

Under the old gold standard, taxes and borrowing did fund spending. Today taxes function only to regulate aggregate demand and to control prices. The federal deficit is merely the difference between the numbers changed upward when the government spends, and the numbers changed downward when it taxes. Taxes therefore function to regulate aggregate demand, not to raise revenue, per se. Tax cuts increase our spending power, tax hikes lower it. This is indisputable operational fact, not theory or philosophy.

Jim’s general warning is that too much spending or monetary stimulus might lead us to cross a “critical threshold where diverse actors reject dollars in a cascading collapse.” But this only applies to fixed exchange rate regimes such as the gold standard, where a weak currency results in gold outflows.

Today the dollar is a non-convertible currency. The exchange rate continually adjusts, always representing indifference levels with no gain or loss of gold reserves. I would note too that the U.S. is actively seeking to weaken the dollar vis-à-vis the Chinese yuan. Would Jim want the reverse?

Jim’s arguments are as good as gold. However, we are not on a gold standard, so they don’t apply. Today’s monetary arrangements call for my solutions to restore output, employment, and price stability.

* This post was first published on Rolfe Winkler’s blog.

Bye, Bye Pensions, Goodbye

I recently attended a financial markets conference at which some pension funds managers as well as a former head of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC, the FDIC of the pension world) spoke. Private pensions are just over 80% funded, meaning that the value of accumulated assets falls short of meeting promised pay-outs of defined benefit pension plans by about a fifth, amounting to a $400 billion shortfall. Not surprisingly, they are down considerably due to losses incurred during the financial crisis. Public pensions provided by state and local governments have a shortfall estimated to run as high as $2 trillion. On any reasonable accounting standard, the PBGC is bankrupt because its reserves will be wiped out by the failure of just a couple of large firms on “legacy” pensions. Most pensions have already been converted to defined contribution plans—which means that workers and retirees take all the risks. That will be the outcome of “legacy” plans that require bail-outs. In spite of some attempts to improve management and transparency of pension funds, it is almost certain that the PBGC , itself, will need a government bail-out, and that retirees face a more difficult future.

It is important to understand how we got into this predicament. During WWII government wanted to hold down wages to prevent inflation given that much of the nation’s productive activity was oriented toward the war. Unions and employers negotiated postponed payment in the form of pensions—which pleased all three parties: big firms, big government, and big unions. Government promoted this with tax advantages for contributions to pensions. Firms loved pushing costs to an indefinite future—rather than paying wages, they would promise to pay pensions 30 or 40 years down the road. Much of the promise was unfunded, or met by stock in the firm. This meant that pensions could be paid only if the firm was successful for a very long time into the future.

(As an aside, it is worth noting the similarities between the US healthcare system and its pension system. Firms also offered healthcare as a tax-advantaged benefit in lieu of wage increases. Over time, this became our current “managed care” highly financialized system. Like pension funds that are controlled by money managers, our healthcare is managed by highly oligopolized financial firms run by well-compensated executives. Workers have little control over their healthcare or their pensions. They are not “sovereign consumers” because they have neither the knowledge nor the ability to shop around for healthcare or pensions—in both cases, employers negotiate with providers and pass fees along to workers. With others in control, there is little to hold down costs—even as wages were sacrificed on the argument that workers were receiving valuable nonwage compensation. Now both healthcare and pensions are endangered by the same Washington forces promoting even greater financialization. (Go here.)

As time went on and it became apparent that “legacy” firms might not survive for the necessary half century (or more), unions and government felt that a mere promise to pay pensions would not suffice. Either firms would have to kick in a huge amount of cash to fully fund the pensions, or government would have to guarantee the pensions. Corporations did not like the costs attached to full funding. The grand compromise was that firms would increase funding a bit, and government would provide insurance through the PBGC. Funding did increase, although the more frequent and more severe crises in the post 1970 period always wiped out enough assets in each crisis to cause pension funding to dip below prudent levels. Only a financial bubble could get them back to full funding. To make matters worse, firms were allowed to reduce contributions during speculative bubbles (since asset values would be rising)—ensuring that the funds would face a crisis whenever the economy was not bubbling.

Just before the current global crisis hit, pension funding was, on average, doing well—thanks to the speculative bubble as well as to some deregulation that took place at the end of the Clinton administration that allowed pensions to gamble in more exotic instruments, and in riskier markets such as commodities. Previous to 2000, pensions could not buy commodities because these are purely speculative bets. There is no return to holding commodities unless their prices rise—indeed, holding them is costly. However, Goldman Sachs promoted investment in commodities as a hedge, on the basis that commodities prices are uncorrelated with equities. In the aftermath of the dot com collapse, that was appealing. (In truth, when managed money flows into an asset class that had previously been uncorrelated with other assets, that asset will become correlated. Hence, by marketing commodities Wall Street ensured a commodities bubble that would collapse along with everything else.)

You know the rest of that story: pension funds poured into commodities and commodity futures, driving up prices of energy, metals, and food. As energy prices rose, Congress mandated biofuels—which added to pressures on food prices that contributed to starvation around the globe. The bubble popped in what is known as the great Mike Masters inventory liquidation, as pension funds pulled out of commodities on the fear that Congress was coming after them. They didn’t want all the bad publicity that would be caused if workers knew that it was their own pension funds that were driving up gas prices at the pump.
However, pensions have quietly moved back into commodities—and oil prices have doubled. (go here) Indeed, pensions are also looking into placing bets on death through the so-called life settlements market (securitized life insurance policies that pay-off when people die early). (Go here) Ironically, this would be a sort of doubling down on death of retirees—since early death reduces the amount of time that pensions have to be paid, even as it increases pension fund assets. To conclude, pension funds are so large that they will bubble-up any financial market they are allowed to enter—and what goes up must come down.

But that is not what I want to write about here. I always had my suspicions about the strategy followed by pension fund managers, so the conference gave me the opportunity to talk to experts.
Here’s the deal. Each pension fund manager must come from the land of Lake Wobegone, because she/he must beat the average return or get fired. There are two fundamental principles widely believed to operate in financial markets that make such an outcome unlikely: the risk-return relation and the efficient markets hypothesis. Higher risk is rewarded with higher returns, hence, fund managers must take on more risk to get the reward of above-average returns. But since the higher return only rewards higher risk, with efficient markets the average fund manager will only receive the risk-free return. The higher returns of the brighter or luckier managers will be offset by the lower returns of the dumber and luckless money runners.

In other words, if your fund manager does not come from Lake Wobegone, you’d be better off investing in riskless Treasury bonds. Indeed, it is even worse than that because hiring an above average fund manager will require above average compensation—so even those funds with B-rated managers would probably provide lower net returns than Treasuries. To be sure, there is some shuffling of the deck so that one manager with a run of good luck can beat the average for a while, but she will probably fail catastrophically and wipe out several years of winnings in one swoop as some other lucky fool takes her place in the Wall Street lottery. Only the fortunate few can permanently live in Lake Wobegone and thereby beat Treasuries over the long run.

To be clear, these two principles may not be entirely correct—or, there could be other forces at play to allow for a positive return to risk even after subtracting losses. If so, that would go against the conventional wisdom that drives Wall Street. I think it is likely that over long periods of time, markets do tend to push risk-adjusted net returns toward zero so that on average safe Treasuries will beat net returns on risky assets. There is, however, a positive return to taking illiquid positions. And all things equal, it is probable that longer term maturities (long duration) receive a premium. Still, when all is said and done, pension managers that follow similar strategies, including taking positions in traded, liquid assets, will push risk spreads toward to the point that they just compensate for losses due to risk.

Each time there is a financial crisis, the funds tank and managers look for strategies to reduce risk. Enter Wall Street marketeers with an array of instruments to hedge and diversify risks. That was one of the big topics of the conference I attended. There is one sure bet when it comes to gambling: the house always wins. In financial markets, the big boys on Wall Street are the house, and they always win. Even if we leave to the side their ability to dupe and defraud country bumpkin pension fund managers, they charge fees for all the stuff they are selling. This ensures that on average pension funds will net less than a risk-free return. But wherever Wall Street intrudes, sucker bets and fraud exist. So the average return should be way below that of Treasuries, and even the managers from Lake Wobegone will probably net less than the risk-free return.
To recap: pension fund managers take on risk on the assumption that with higher risk comes higher return. Wall Street manufactures risky assets such as securitized subprime mortgages. It then convinces pension funds that they ought to diversify to reduce risk, for example by gambling on commodities. By coincidence, Wall Street just happens to be marketing commodities futures indexes to satisfy the demand it has created. It also provides a wide array of complex hedging strategies to shift risk onto better fools, as well as credit default “insurance” and buy-back assurances in case anything goes wrong. If all of these “risk management” strategies were completely successful, the pension fund would achieve a risk-free portfolio. Of course, it could have achieved this if it had bypassed Wall Street entirely and gone straight to the Treasury. However, Wall Street’s masters of the universe then would have had no market for the junk they were pushing, and pension fund managers would not have received their generous compensation. So workers are left with fees that drain their pension funds, and with massive counter-party risk as the hedges, insurance, and assurance go bad.

As mentioned above, we reward pensions with tax advantages and government guarantees. Before this crisis, private pension fund assets reached about 50% of GDP and state and local government pension fund assets reached almost 25%. That is a huge industry that has created a lot of well-compensated jobs for managers as well as Wall Street snake oil sales staff. The entire industry can be justified only if through skill or luck pension fund management can beat the average risk-free return by enough to pay all of those industry compensations. Yet, the expectation should be that fund managers are significantly less skilled and less “lucky” than, say, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan banksters. Hence, workers would be far better off if their employers were required to fully fund pensions with investments restricted to Treasury debt. At most, each pension plan would require one lowly paid employee who would log-in to to transfer funds out of the firm’s bank deposit and into Treasuries, in an amount determined by actuarial tables plus nominal benefits promised. Goodbye fund managers and Wall Street sales staff.

Indeed, this raises the question: should the federal government promote and protect pensions at all? Surely individuals should be free to place savings with fund managers of their choice, and each saver can try to find that manager from Lake Wobegone. But it makes no sense to promote a scheme that cannot succeed at the aggregate level—the average fund manager cannot beat the average, and on average there is no reason to believe that managed funds will provide a net return that is above the return on Treasuries. It would be far better to remove the tax advantages and government guarantees provided to pension plans, and instead allow individuals to put their savings directly into US Treasuries that are automatically government-backed and provide a risk-free return.

The US retirement system is supposed to rest on a three-legged stool: pensions, individual savings, and Social Security. Pensions are mostly employer-related and are chronically and seriously underfunded. There are also huge and growing administrative problems posed by the transformation of the US workplace—with the typical worker switching jobs many times over the course of her career, and with the lifespan of the typical firm measured in years rather than decades. And, finally, as discussed here the most plausible long-term return on managed money would be somewhat below the risk-free return on Treasuries.
The problem with private savings is that Americans do not save enough for their retirement. They never have. And even if they tried to do so, they would be duped out of their savings by Wall Street.
Thus, the best solution would be to eliminate government support for pension plans and instead to boost Social Security to ensure that anyone who works long enough to qualify will receive a comfortable retirement. They can supplement this with private savings, according to ability and desires.

I ran these arguments by several of the pension experts at the conference. All of them agreed that this would be the best public policy. But they pleaded with me to keep it a secret because such a change would be devastating for fund managers and Wall Street. Can you keep a secret?

Sheila Bair Exposes Wall Street’s Power Grab: Angelides Commission Hearings, days 1 and 2

By Michael Hudson*

You almost could hear the bankers heave a sigh of relief when Haiti’s earthquake knocked the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings off the front pages and evening news broadcasts last week. At stake, after all, is Wall Street’s power grab seeking to centralize policy control firmly in its own hands by neutralizing the government’s regulatory agencies. The first day – Wednesday, January 15 – went innocuously enough. Four emperors of finance were called on to voice ceremonial platitudes and pro forma apologies without explaining what they might be apologizing for. Typical was the statement by Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd C. Blankfein: “Whatever we did, it didn’t work out well. We regret the consequence that people have lost money.”

Their strategy certainly made money for themselves – and they made it off those for whom the financial crisis “didn’t work out well,” whose bad bets ended up paying Wall Street’s bonuses. So when Paul Krugman poked fun at the four leading “Bankers without a clue” in his New York Times column, he was giving credibility to their pretense at innocent gullibility.

Recipients of such enormous bonuses cannot be deemed all that clueless. They blamed the problem on natural cycles – what Mr. Blankfein called a “100-year storm.” Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase trivialized the crisis as a normal and even unsurprising event that “happens every five to seven years,” as if the crash is just another business cycle downturn, not aggravated by any systemic financial flaws. If anything, Wall Street accuses liberal government planners of being too nice to poor people, by providing cheap mortgage credit to the uninitiated who could not quite handle the responsibility.

But the Wall Street executives were careful not to blame the government. This was not just an attempt to avoid antagonizing the Congressional panel. The last thing Wall Street wants is for the government to change its behavior.

I think the Wall Street boys are playing possum. Why should we expect them to explain their strategy to us? To understand their game plan, the Commissioners had to wait for the second day of the hearings, when Sheila Bair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) spelled it out. Their first order of business is to make sure that the Federal Reserve Board is designated the sole financial regulator, knocking out any more activist regulators – above all the proposed Consumer Financial Products Agency that Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren has helped design. Wall Street also is seeking to avert any thought of restoring the Glass-Steagall Act in an attempt to protect the economy from having merged retail commercial banking with wholesale investment banking, insurance, real estate brokerage and kindred arms of high finance.

Perception – and exposure – of this strategy is what made the second day’s hearing (on Thursday) so important. From Sheila Bair down to state officials, these administrators explained that the problem was structural. They blamed government and the financial sector’s short-run time frame.

The past few years have demonstrated just how thoroughly the commercial and investment-banking sector already has taken control of government. Having succeeded in disabling the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to such an extent that it refused to act even when warned about Bernie Madoff, deregulators did not raise a protest against the junk accounting that was burying the financial system in junk mortgages and kindred accounting fraud.

The Comptroller of the Currency blocked local prosecutors from moving against financial fraud, citing a small-print rule from the Civil War era National Bank Act giving federal agencies the right to override state agencies. Passed in the era of wildcat banking, the rule aimed to prevent elites from using crooked local courts to protect them. But in the early 2000s it was Washington that was protecting national banking elites from state prosecutors such as New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer and his counterparts in Massachusetts and other states. This prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to remind the Angelides Commission that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision were “actively engaged in a campaign to thwart state efforts to avert the coming crisis.”*

By far the major enabler was the Federal Reserve Board (FRB). Acting as the banking system’s lobbying organization, its tandem of Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke fought as a free-market Taliban against attempts to introduce financial regulation. Working with the Goldman Sachs managers on loan to the Treasury, the Fed managed to block attempts to rein in debt pyramiding.

Mr. Bernanke ignored the very first lesson taught in business schools. This was the lesson taught by William Petty in the 17th century and used by economists ever since: The market price of land, a government bond or other security is calculated by dividing its expected income stream by the going rate of interest – that is, “capitalizing” its rent (or any other flow of income) into what a bank would lend. The lower the rate of interest, the higher a loan can be capitalized. At an interest rate of 10%, a $10,000 annual income is worth $100,000. At 5%, this income stream is worth $200,000; at 4%, $250,000. Mr. Bernanke thus rejected over three hundred years of economic orthodoxy in testifying recently that the Fed was blameless in fueling the real estate bubble by slashing interest rates after 2001. Financial fraud also was not to blame. Anointed with the reputation for being a “student of the Great Depression,” he showed himself to be clueless.

He is not really all that clueless, of course. His role is to play the “useful idiot” whom financial elites can blame to distract attention from how they have gamed the system. Wall Street’s first aim is to make sure that the Fed remains in control as the government’s central regulator – or in the present case, deregulator, able to disable any serious attempt to check Wall Street’s drive to load down the economy with yet more debt so as to “borrow its way out of the bubble.”

Public relations “think tanks” (spin centers adept in crafting blame-the-victim rhetoric) use simple Orwellian Doublethink 101 tactics to call this “free market” policy. Financial self-regulation is to be left to bankers, shifting economic planning out of the hands of elected representatives to those of planners drawn from the ranks of Wall Street. This centralization of authority in a public agency “independent” from control by elected representatives is dubbed “market efficiency,” with an “independent central bank” deemed to be the hallmark of democracy. The words “democracy,” “progress” and “reform,” are thus given meanings opposite from what they meant back in the Progressive Era a century ago. The pretense is that constraints on finance are anti-democratic, not public protection against today’s emerging financial oligarchy. And to distract attention from the road to debt peonage, financial lobbyists accuse governments strong enough to check the financial interest” of threatening to lead society down “the road to serfdom.”

Avoiding regulation by having the Fed “regulate,” with neoliberal deregulators in charge

All that is needed is to reduce the number of regulators to one – and to appoint a deregulator to that key position. The most dependable deregulator is the commercial banking system’s in-house lobbyist, the Federal Reserve. This requires knocking out potential rivals. But at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Sheila Bair is not willing to relinquish this authority. Her testimony last Thursday was buried on the back pages of the press, and her most trenchant written arguments lost in the hubbub caused by the earthquake in Haiti. Not reported by the media-of-record, her testimony should have been welcomed as intellectual dynamite.

For Ms. Bair the task requires blocking three key battles that the financial sector is waging in its war to control and extract tribute from the “real” economy of production and consumption. Her first policy to get the economy back on track is to ward off any plans that politicians might harbor to keep Wall Street unregulated. “Over the past two decades, there was a world view that markets were, by their very nature, self-regulating and self-correcting – resulting in a period that was referred to as the ‘Great Moderation’ [Mr. Bernanke’s notorious euphemism]. However, we now know that this period was one of great excess.” **

Banks are using the ploy familiar to readers of the Uncle Remus stories about B’rer Rabbit. When the fox finally catches him, the rabbit begs, “Please don’t throw me in the briar batch.” The fox does just that, wanting to harm the rabbit – who gets up and laughs, “Born and bred in the briar patch!” and hops happily away, free. This is essentially what the financial scenario would be under Federal Reserve aegis. “Not only did market discipline fail to prevent the excesses of the last few years, but the regulatory system also failed in its responsibilities. There were critical shortcomings in our approach that permitted excessive risks to build in the system. Existing authorities were not always used, regulatory gaps within the financial system provided an environment in which regulatory arbitrage became rampant …”

No more damning reason could be given for Congress to reject Mr. Bernanke out of hand, if not indeed to set about restructuring the Fed to bring it back into the Treasury, from which it emerged in 1914 in one of the most unfortunate Caesarian births of the 20th century. In detail, she explained how the Fed had acted as an agent of the commercial banks perpetrating fraud, protecting their sale of toxic mortgage products against consumer interests and indeed, the solvency of the economy itself. Nobody can read her explanation without seeing what utter folly it would be to put Creditor Fox in charge of the Debtor Henhouse.

Blocking creation of a Consumer Protection Agency

Ms. Bair’s second aim was to counter Wall Street’s attempt to block enactment of the Consumer Protection Agency. Its lobbyists have had a year to disable any real reform, and Washington obviously believes that it can be safely jettisoned. But Ms. Bair spelled out just how willful and egregious the Fed’s refusal to use its regulatory powers – and indeed, its designated responsibilities – has been. “Federal consumer protections from predatory and abusive mortgage-lending practices are established principally under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), which is part of the Truth in Lending Act (TILA). TILA and HOEPA regulations are the responsibility of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (FRB) and apply to both bank and non-bank lenders,” she explained. “Many of the toxic mortgage products that were originated to fund the housing boom … could have been regulated and restricted under another provision of HOEPA that requires the FRB to prohibit acts or practices in connection with any mortgage loan that it finds to be unfair or deceptive, or acts and practices associated with refinancing of mortgage loans that it finds abusive or not otherwise in the interest of the borrower.”

This was not done. It was actively thwarted by the Fed:

Problems in the subprime mortgage market were identified well before many of the abusive mortgage loans were made. A joint report issued in 2000 by HUD and the Department of the Treasury entitled Curbing Predatory Home Mortgage Lending … found that certain terms of subprime loans appear to be harmful or abusive in practically all cases. To address these issues, the report made a number of recommendations, including that the FRB use its HOEPA authority to prohibit certain unfair, deceptive and abusive practices by lenders and third parties. During hearings held in 2000, consumer groups urged the FRB to use its HOEPA rulemaking authority to address concerns about predatory lending. Both the House and Senate held hearings on predatory abuses in the subprime market in May 2000 and July 2001, respectively. In December 2001 the FRB issued a HOEPA rule that addressed a narrow range of predatory lending issues.

It was not until 2008 that the FRB issued a more extensive regulation using its broader HOEPA authority to restrict unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices in the mortgage market.

This was closing the barn door after the horses had fled, of course. “The rule imposes an ‘ability to repay’ standard in connection with higher-priced mortgage loans. For these loans, the rule underscores a fundamental rule of underwriting: that all lenders, banks and nonbanks, should only make loans where they have documented a reasonable ability on the part of the borrower to repay. The rule also restricts abusive prepayment penalties.”

Warning that “the consequences we have seen during this crisis will recur,” Ms. Bair reiterated a recommendation she had earlier made to the effect that “an ability to repay standard should be required for all mortgages, including interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs). Interest-only and negative-amortization mortgages must be underwritten to qualify the borrower to pay a fully amortizing payment.” The Fed blocked this common-sense regulatory policy. And by doing so, it became an enabler of fraud.

As the private-label MBS [Mortgage-Backed Securities] market grew, issuances became increasingly driven by interest-only, hybrid adjustable-rate, second-lien, pay-option and Alt-A mortgage products. Many of these products had debt-service burdens that exceeded the homeowner’s payment capacity. For example, Alt-A mortgages typically included loans with high loan-to-value ratios or loans where borrowers provided little or no documentation regarding the magnitude or source of their income or assets. Unfortunately, this class of mortgage products was particularly susceptible to fraud, both from borrowers who intentionally overstated their financial resources and from the mortgage brokers who misrepresented borrower resources without the borrower’s knowledge.
As Paul Volcker recently suggested, financial “innovation” did not contribute much to production. Packaging junk mortgages and organizing CDO swaps made real estate more debt-leveraged, while adding higher debt balances to the economy’s homes and office properties. But “the regulatory capital requirements for holding these rated instruments were far lower than for directly holding these toxic loans,” Ms. Bair explained. “Many of the current problems affecting the safety and soundness of the financial system were caused by a lack of strong, comprehensive rules against abusive lending practices applying to both banks and non-banks.”
Improved consumer protections are in everyone’s best interest. It is important to understand that many of the current problems affecting the safety and soundness of the financial system were caused by a lack of strong, comprehensive rules against abusive practices in mortgage lending. If HOEPA regulations had been amended in 2001, instead of in 2008, a large number of the toxic mortgage loans could not have been originated and much of the crisis may have been prevented. The FDIC strongly supported the FRB’s promulgation of an “ability to repay” standard for high priced loans in 2008, and continues to urge the FRB to apply common sense, “ability to repay” requirements to all mortgages, including interest-only and option-ARM loans.
The absence of proper consumer protection was a major contributing factor to the present financial meltdown, for “it has now become clear that abrogating sound state laws, particularly regarding consumer protection, created opportunity for regulatory arbitrage that resulted in a regulatory ‘race-to-the-bottom.’” Mortgage fraud became rife as bank regulators failed to protect consumers or the economy at large. This is why an independent agency is needed rather than hoping that the Federal Reserve somehow can change its spots. “If the bank regulators are not performing this role properly, the consumer regulator should retain backup examination and enforcement authority to address any situation where it determines that a banking agency is providing insufficient supervision.”

Summarizing her 54-page written testimony orally, Ms. Bar commented that, “looking back, I think if we had had some good strong constraints at that time, just simple standards like … you’ve got to document income and make sure they can repay the loan . . . we could have avoided a lot of this.”*** But the same day on which her testimony was capsulized, the Wall Street Journal leaked the story that “Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd is considering scrapping the idea of creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency … as a way to secure a bipartisan deal on the legislation,” that is, a deal with “Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has referred to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency as a ‘nanny state.’ … The banking industry has spent months lobbying aggressively to defeat the creation of the CFPA. ‘One of our principal objections all along is that you would have a terrible conflict on an ongoing basis between a separate consumer regulator and the safety and soundness regulator, with the bank constantly caught in the middle,’ said Ed Yingling, chief executive of the American Bankers Association trade group.”**** The idea is that a “conflict” between an institution seeking to protect consumers – and indeed, the economy – from an in-house banking lobbying institution (the Fed), backed by the Treasury safely in the hands of Goldman-Sachs caretakers on loan is “inefficient” rather than a necessary democratic safeguard! But the paper gave more space crowing over the likely defeat of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency than it did to Ms. Bair’s eloquent written testimony!

Avert any thought of re-enacting Glass-Steagall

On the institutional level, Wall Street’s managers want to ward off any threat that the Glass-Steagall legislation might be revived to separate consumer deposit banking and money management from today’s casino capitalism. This is what Paul Volcker has urged, but it is now obvious that Pres. Obama appointed him only for window dressing, much like that of Pres. Johnson said of J. Edgar Hoover: he would rather have him inside his tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Appointing Mr. Volcker as a nominal advisor effectively prevents the former Fed Chairman from making hostile criticisms. Pres. Obama simply ignores his advice to re-instate Glass-Steagall, having appointed as his senior advisor the major advocate of the repeal in the first place – Larry Summers, along with the rest of the old Rubinomics gang taken over from the Clinton administration.

Ms. Bair explained why Wall Street’s preferred “reforms” along the current line – maintaining the “too big to fail” financial oligopoly intact, along with the Bush-Obama deregulatory “free market” ideology – threatens to return the financial system to its bad old ways of crashing. To Wall Street, of course, this is the “good old way.” Wall Street is consolidating the finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector across the board into oligopolistic conglomerates “too big to fail.”

But being realistic under the circumstances, Ms. Bair avoided taking on more of a battle than likely can be won at this time. “One way to address large interconnected institutions,” she proposed, “is to make it expensive to be one. Industry assessments could be risk-based. Firms engaging in higher risk activities, such as proprietary trading, complex structured finance, and other high-risk activities would pay more” for their deposit insurance, to reflect the higher systemic risks they are taking. This suggestion is along the lines of proposals (made for over half a century now) to set different reserve requirements or capital adequacy requirements for different categories of bank loans.

Alas, she acknowledged, the Basel agreements regarding capital adequacy standards are being loosened rather than tightened. “In 2004, the Basel Committee published a new international capital standard, the Basel II advanced internal ratings-based approach (as implemented in the United States, the Advanced Approaches), that allows banks to use their own internal risk assessments to compute their risk-based capital requirements. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence is that the Advanced Approaches will lower capital requirements significantly, to levels well below current requirements that are widely regarded as too low.” She criticized the new, euphemistically termed “Advanced Approach” as producing “capital requirements that are both too low and too subjective.” The result is to increase rather than mitigate financial risk.

The need for tax reform to accompany financial reform

Beyond the scope of the FDIC or other financial regulatory agencies is the symbiosis between financial and fiscal reform.

For example, federal tax policy has long favored investment in owner-occupied housing and the consumption of housing services. The government-sponsored housing enterprises have also used the implicit backing of the government to lower the cost of mortgage credit and stimulate demand for housing and housing-linked debt. In political terms, these policies have proven to be highly popular. Who will stand up to say they are against homeownership? Yet, we have failed to recognize that there are both opportunity costs and downside risks associated with these policies. Policies that channel capital towards housing necessarily divert capital from other investments, such as plant and equipment, technology, and education—investments that are also necessary for long-term economic growth and improved standards of living. *****
The problem is that U.S. financial and fiscal policy has institutionalized the financial sector’s short-term outlook,“distorting of decision-making away from long-term profitability and stability and toward short-term gains with insufficient regard for risk.” For example, money managers are graded every three months on their performance against the norm. Ms. Bair focused on how employee compensation in the form of stock options tended to promote short-termism. “Formula-driven compensation allows high short-term profits to be translated into generous bonus payments, without regard to any longer-term risks. Many derivative products are long-dated, while employees’ compensation was weighted toward near-term results. These short-term incentives magnified risk-taking.” In sum, “performance bonuses and equity-based compensation should have aligned the financial interests of shareholders and managers. Instead, we now see – especially in the financial sector – that they frequently had the effect of promoting short-term thinking and excessive risk-taking that bred instability in our financial system. Meaningful reform of these practices will be essential to promote better long-term decision-making in the U.S. corporate sector.”

Conclusion: Pushing the economy even deeper into debt beyond the ability to pay

The banking system’s marketing departments have set their eyes on the economy’s largest asset, real estate, as its prime customer. The major component of real estate is land. For years, banks lent against the cost of building, using land (tending to rise in value) as the borrower’s equity investment in case of downturn. This was the basic plan in lending 70%, then 80% and finally 100% or even more of the real estate price to mortgage borrowers. The effect is to make housing even more expensive.

Suppose that Wall Street succeeds in its strategy to re-inflate the Bubble Economy. Will this create even larger problems to come, by making the costs of living even higher as labor and industry become even more highly debt leveraged? That is the banking sector’s business plan, after all. The aim of bank marketing departments – backed by the Obama administration – is to steer credit to re-inflate the bubble and thus save financial balance sheets from their current negative equity position.

This policy cannot work. One constraint is the balance of payments. The competitive power of U.S. exports of the products of American labor is undercut by the fact that housing costs absorb some 40% of labor’s family budgets today, other debt 15%, FICA wage withholding 12%, and various taxes another 20%. U.S. labor is priced out of world markets by the economy’s FIRE sector overhead even before food and essential needs of life are bought. The “solution” to the financial sector’s negative equity squeeze thus threatens to create even larger problems for the “real” economy. Ms. Bair appropriately concluded her written testimony by commenting that the context for the present discussion of financial reform should be the fact that “our financial sector has grown disproportionately in relation to the rest of our economy,” from “less than 15 percent of total U.S. corporate profits in the 1950s and 1960s … to 25 percent in the 1990s and 34 percent in the most recent decade through 2008.” While financial services “are essential to our modern economy, the excesses of the last decade” represent “a costly diversion of resources from other sectors of the economy.”

This is the same criticism that John Maynard Keynes levied in his General Theory, citing all the money, effort and genius that went into making money from money in the stock market, without actually contributing to the production process or even to tangible capital formation. In effect, we are seeing finance capitalism autonomous from industrial capitalism. The problem is how to restore a more balanced economy and rescue society from the financial sector’s self-destructive short-term practices.

*Sewell Chan, “A Call for More Regulation at Fiscal Crisis Inquiry,” The New York Times, January 15, 2010. William Black provides the classic narrative in The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He documents how the FBI’s anti-fraud teams and those of other agencies were reduced to merely skeleton levels, overseen by do-nothing deregulatory ideologues of the sort who served as enablers to Wall Street’s Bernie Madoffs.

**Statement of Sheila C. Bair, Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on the Causes and Current State of the Financial Crisis before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission; Room 1100, Longworth House Office Building, January 14, 2010.

***Tom Braithwaite, “Deposits regulator points finger of blame at Fed,” Financial Times, January 15, 2010.

****Damian Paletta, “Consumer Protection Agency in Doubt,” Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2010.

*****The Wall Street Journal cut this passage from the on-line version of Friday’s article by John D. McKinnon and Michael R. Crittenden, “Financial Inquiry Widens to Include Past Regulators,” January 15, 2010.
On-line transcripts of the hearings are available at

Prof. Hudson has just republished a new and expanded edition of his Trade, Development and Foreign Debt, a history of theories of international trade and finance. It is available from

“Enough Wall Street Nonsense”

Geithner-AIG scandal

The Contributions of Paul Samuelson: An Institutionalist’s Perspective

By Phil Klein

I know I’m a little behind, but I’m only just catching up with the debate (see here and here) over the importance of Paul Samuelson’s contribution to economics. I’ve found the discussion of the underconsumption controversy especially interesting because it took me back to a debate in the department of economics, not exactly yesterday, but germane to the discussion in AFEE in December. It also pertains to a reconsideration of the forecasting ability of Paul Samuelson.

I have always found it useful to acquire each edition of Samuelson’s book as it appears because it chronicles neatly each fad in economics, particularly economic theory, as it appears.
The underconsumption controversy and Paul Samuelson were both involved ultimately in the appraisal of Keynes’ General Theory and the work on which it was based.

In Samuelson’s first edition (1948), Keynes is mentioned exactly twice in the index (pages 253 and 303). (How long ago was 1948? For answer, my edition informs us that the book cost $3.25.) To be fair to Samuelson, he did recognize that Keynes might be different – he does call him, “a many-sided genius.” But he then refers to his non-economics interests – a large insurance company, the ballet, the drama, how to make money, etc. In the end, he tells us that the General Theory “created one of the greatest stirs in economic thinking of the century, and is likely to live longer than his other works as a classic.”

It is clear that Samuelson had reservations about Keynes from the beginning. For example, he says of Keynes’ work that “its broad fundamentals are increasingly accepted by economists of all schools of thought, including, it is important to notice, many writers that do not share Keynes’ particular policy viewpoints and who differ on technical details on analysis.”

At the University of Texas, there was considerable discussion concerning the General Theory when it came out in 1936. The Austin discussion of Keynes’ General Theory started from its publication. By the mid 40s, it had begun to focus on the relationship of Keynes’ work in contrast to the work of S. Gordon Hayes. In this early discussion of Keynes, it is interesting and important to note Ayres’ position. At this time, the “underconsumption controversy” was going hot and heavy. Keynes was discussed in connection with the book by H. Gordon Hayes, Spending, Saving, and Employment (1946):

“The principal difference between the position taken in this book and that taken by Keynes is, in part, a matter of emphasis. He stresses the importance of investing what is not consumed, and here the emphasis is on consuming what is not invested. The difference, however, is more than a matter of emphasis. Keynes holds that the real cause of unemployment is lack of investment, while I ascribe it to a lack of consumption. He sees a continuous increase in investment as the remedy for unemployment, while I regard that as impossible. I believe that the very condition that ‘makes investment necessary’ if we are to have employment – namely, lack of consumption – prevents additional investments from being profitable.” (Samuelson’s only comment is to include the underconsumption theory among what he refers to as “one of the five better known theories” of the business cycle.)
The dispute between the underconsumption theory and the overinvestment theory waxed hot and heavy in the department. Ayres sided with the underconsumptionists, and his colleague, Professor Everett Hale, led the overinvestment theorists. The dispute culminated with Ayres’ ultimately declaring, “I would gladly sell Gordon Hayes down the river if it would keep peace in the family.”

Upon reflection, I would think today the possible cause of unemployment, it could be argued, rather than being caused by underconsumption OR overinvestment, is caused by the disparity between the rate of consumption and the rate of investment.

The underconsumption controversy was by no means the last time that Samuelson’s position was murky at best and unhelpful in introducing the Americans to Keynes’ work. (That job was far better done by Dudley Dillard, whose book introduced the basic Keynesian theory in a simpler framework designed to make the introduction to Keynes easier to grasp.) As for the theory itself, Alvin Hansen applied the theory to the United States’ economy in a way that made the international relevance of the theory easier to understand.

Samuelson restricts his comments on Hansen mainly to his work on the “secular stagnation” view.

Work at the National Bureau of Economic Research did a good deal to study the implications of Keynesian theory for the study of business cycles. In this connection, the Bureau, particularly in the work of Ilse Mintz, focused the business cycle theory on growth cycles as well as level cycles. Not only did this work show that the level of economic activity fluctuated cyclically, but so did the rate of growth. The turning points in the rates of growth had the further advantage of leading the fluctuations in the level of activity.

Instead of recognizing the value of this insight for forecasting, Samuelson said that the National Bureau was in danger working itself out of a job. Therefore, it was clear in short order that Samuelson was dead wrong here. Much work has since been done showing that studies of growth rates was a valuable contribution to the efforts to make leading indicators lead cyclical activity as well as reflecting it.

In sum, Paul Samuelson’s reputation for making accurate contributions to our understanding of business cycles are at most very small indeed.

Anti-Regulators: the Federal Reserve’s War against Effective Regulation

By William K. Black


The first decade of this century proved how essential effective regulators are to prevent economic catastrophe and epidemics of fraud. The most severe failure was at the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s failure was the most harmful because it had unique authority to prevent the fraud epidemic and the resulting economic crisis. The Fed refused to exercise that authority despite knowing of the fraud epidemic and potential for crisis.

The Fed’s failures were legion, but five are worthy of particular note.

  • Greenspan believed that the Fed should not regulate v. fraud
  • Bernanke believed that the Fed should rely on self-regulation by “the market”
  • (Former) Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Geithner testified that he had never been a regulator (a true statement, but not one he’s supposed to admit)
  • Bernanke gave the key support to the Chamber of Commerce’s effort to gimmick bank accounting rules to cover up their massive losses – allowing them to report fictional profits and “earn” tens of billions of dollars of bonuses
  • Bernanke recently appointed Dr. Parkinson as the Fed’s top supervisor. He is an economist that has never examined or supervised. He is known for claiming that credit default swaps (CDS) (the financial derivatives that destroyed AIG) should be unregulated because fraud was impossible among sophisticated parties.
Each error arises from the intersection of ideology and bad economics.

The Fed’s regulatory failures pose severe risks today. Three of the key failed anti-regulators occupy some of the most important regulatory positions in the World. Each was a serial failure as regulator. Each has failed to take accountability for their failures. Last week, Dr. Bernanke asserted that bad regulation caused the crisis – yet he was one of the most senior bad regulators that failed to respond to the fraud epidemic and prevent the crisis. As Dr. Bernanke’s appointment of Dr. Parkinson as the Fed’s top supervisor demonstrates, the Fed’s senior leadership has failed, despite the Great Recession, to learn from the crisis and abandon their faith in the theories and policies that caused the crisis. Worse, the Fed is an imperial anti-regulator, seeking vastly greater regulatory scope at the expense of (modestly) more effective sister regulatory agencies. The Fed’s failed leadership is setting us up for repeated, more severe financial crises.

Dr. Parkinson as Anti-Regulator

This essay focuses on Chairman Bernanke’s recent appointment of Dr. Parkinson to lead the Fed’s examination and supervision. My central point is that Dr. Bernanke appointed Dr. Parkinson because he shared Dr. Bernanke’s anti-regulatory ideology and has never changed those views even in the face of the Great Recession. The anti-regulator policies that Bernanke and Parkinson championed were the principal drivers of the fraud epidemic that have produced recurrent, intensifying crises.
Bernanke’s appointment as the Fed’s top supervisor of an individual that had no experience in regulation, in the midst of the greatest crisis of our lifetime, is irresponsible and dangerous on its face. No ideology has proven more disabling in this crisis than neoclassical economics. Dr. Parkinson is a neoclassical economist. The “skills” an economist would purportedly bring to supervision have proven to be disabilities in identifying and understanding fraud and risk.
We need not rely on generalities – Dr. Parkinson has a record relevant to supervision that we can evaluate. The most revealing aspects of that record fall into three categories. First, Dr. Parkinson was a leading proponent of the obscene (and successful) effort to prevent CFTC Chair Born from taking regulatory action to prevent destructive credit default swaps (CDS). Second, Dr. Parkinson, like Greenspan and Bernanke, subscribed to the naïve view that fraud was impossible in sophisticated financial markets and that credit rating agencies were reliable. Third, Dr. Parkinson endorsed the international “competition in regulatory laxity” that Dr. Bernanke (belatedly) warned has degraded regulation on a global basis. Here are the key passages from Dr. Parkinson’s congressional testimony:
Professional counterparties to privately negotiated contracts also have demonstrated their ability to protect themselves from losses from counterparty insolvencies and from fraud. In particular, they have insisted that dealers have financial strength sufficient to warrant a credit rating of A or higher. This, in turn, provides substantial protection against losses from fraud.
If this opportunity is lost, the Board is concerned that market participants will abandon hope for regulatory reform in the United States and take critical steps to shift their activity to jurisdictions that provide more appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks.
The “opportunity” Dr. Parkinson feared would be “lost” was to remove the CFTC’s ability to regulate CDS. Anti-regulation would “win” the international competition in laxity. His policies made possible the catastrophe that is AIG. Dr. Bernanke is aware of Dr. Parkinson’s record of anti-regulatory failure. He chose Dr. Parkinson because of that record in order to ensure that the Fed would not take regulatory actions that would upset the biggest banks, particularly the systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) that are the real governors of the Fed’s anti-regulatory policies.