Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Progressive and Tested Policy for Job Creation

By Yeva Nersisyan

On February 24, the Senate approved a $15 billion Jobs Bill deemed to be a legislative victory. While it might be the first truly bipartisan measure we have seen for a long time, the important question is whether it will solve the unemployment problem. The centerpiece of the bill (worth $13 billion) is a payroll tax cut to businesses for hiring new workers. It seems that the bill is based on the good old neoclassical reasoning that the unemployment problem will be solved by lowering wages. Tax credits will supposedly lower the labor costs for businesses thus spurring hiring. Unemployment, however, is not due to high wages but is rather caused by insufficient aggregate demand. When the aggregate demand is low, businesses can’t sell what they produce, therefore they cut back on production and fire workers. Lowering wages won’t help, because if the businessmen don’t expect to sell their products, they won’t hire new workers, regardless of how low wages are.

So while unemployment rate is about 10% with alternative measures of unemployment reaching 18% in January 2010, the government hopes that a measly $15 billion bill centered on payroll tax credits will help alleviate the problem. Well, it won’t. The graph below shows the narrowest and most comprehensive measures of labor underutilization for the period 1994 to 2010.

The U6 measure of unemployment unfortunately only goes back to 1994, so we can’t really know what the historical lows are. However, the current number of 18% looks pretty high. During the previous recession of 2001 the U6 measure went up from its all time low of 6.3% to 10.9%, only a 4.6% increase. This time the increase from trough to peak has been over than 10%, more than twice the previous increase of 4.6%. The annual unemployment rate for 2009 was 9.3%. That was much larger than the Post-WWII historical average of 5.6% (1948-2008). People who have been unemployed 27 weeks and longer were 41.2% of the unemployed, double of the January 2009 number of 22.4%.

A small tax credit based policy similar to the current proposal will not work; it never has. On the other hand, we know what works from past experiences. Direct job creation by the government, similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal, will have immediate and direct effects on incomes and jobs. Instead of paying unemployment benefits and tax credits, the federal government should offer to hire anyone who wants to work at the federal minimum wage. A universal jobs program will get the economy going.

The benefit of a government jobs program is that the government doesn’t need to be profitable, unlike businesses. Profitability is the criteria for judging the success of a private firm; an unprofitable business cannot last long. The Federal government, however, doesn’t need to make profit off of its employment projects. This doesn’t mean to say that it should be wasteful. Rather, government programs should be evaluated under different standards and criteria, not profitability. One of the purposes of a democratic government is to supply public services to its citizens, and if a job guarantee program can succeed in doing that, then we could rightly argue that it is effective and “profitable”.

So what services could the government provide? The most obvious one that comes to mind is to improve the infrastructure. A study done by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gave the American Infrastructure a D grade point average. None of the 15 infrastructure categories evaluated had a grade above C+. We will need to make 2.2 Trillions of Investment over five years to improve the conditions of our bridges, dams, roads, schools, drinking water, etc. So why not start from there? Why not hire everyone who wants to work to improve the American infrastructure? This will give people earned income (not handouts by the government that have a shelf life of a banana), will help stop foreclosures and bankruptcies and will get the economy going. Without a direct job creation program, it looks like the economy will continue in this recessionary environment for a long period of time. Even most optimistic commentators predict to see another jobless recovery.

I would go even further and argue that the U.S. economy needs such a Job Guarantee program during the “good” times as well. You might say that usually the economy fares pretty well in providing employment; the US has one of the lowest unemployment rates among developed countries, even reaching lows of 3.7% once in a while. But if you look at the U6 measure of unemployment which is by far a more accurate measure of labor underutilization, the lowest it has been since 1994 (the period of the so-called Great Moderation) was 6.3% at the peak of the NASDAQ boom. Hence even in booms, the private sector doesn’t produce enough jobs to employ everyone who wants to work (and I’m not even talking about the quality of jobs).

We won’t see another bubble of the same magnitude as the housing bubble, the US won’t become a major exporter, consumers are deleveraging, people’s incomes aren’t growing to support income induced consumption. So what will take the U.S. economy out of this recession? Construction, banking and manufacturing, traditional job creating industries don’t offer much hope this time. If we want to have a fast recovery that will also provide jobs, why not start with a federal Job Guarantee program?

President Obama said in an interview that he was hoping that the American people would understand him if he just focused on the right policies. Well, if he really did, maybe Americans would understand him, especially those who would finally be able to get jobs and a source of income. Let’s try a Job Guarantee Program and see what all the jobless Americans have to say.

Professor William K. Black on the Financial Crisis

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What Caused The Budget Deficit? Not What You Think!

By L. Randall Wray and Yeva Nersisyan

Despite all the conservative uproar against Obama’s stimulus plan, the largest portion of the increase in the deficit has come from automatic stabilizers and not from discretionary spending. This is easily observable in the graph below which shows the rate of growth of tax revenues (automatic), government consumption expenditures (somewhat discretionary) and transfer payments (again automatic) relative to the same quarter of the previous year:

In 2005 tax revenues were humming, with a growth rate of 15% per year—far above GDP growth–hence, reducing nongovernment sector income—and above growth of government spending, which was just above 5%. As shown in the figure above, such fiscal tightening invariably results in a downturn. When it came, the budget deficits increased, mostly automatically. While government consumption expenditures have remained relatively stable over the downturn (after a short spike in 2007-2008), the rate of growth of tax revenues has dropped sharply from a 5 % growth rate to a 10 % negative growth rate over just three quarters (from Q 4 of 2007 to Q 2 of 2008), reaching another low of -15% in Q1 of 2009. Transfer payments have been growing at an average rate of 10% since 2007. Decreasing taxes coupled with increased transfer payments have automatically pushed the budget into a larger deficit, notwithstanding the flat consumption expenditures. These automatic stabilizers and not the bailouts or much-belated and smaller-than-needed stimulus are the reason why the economy hasn’t been in a freefall á la the Great Depression. As the economy slowed down, the budget automatically went into a deficit putting a floor on aggregate demand.

As estimated by the New York Times, even if we were to eliminate welfare payments, Medicaid, Medicare, military spending, earmarks, social security payments, and all programs except for entitlements, and in addition stopped the stimulus injections, shut down the education department, got rid of a number of other things and doubled corporate taxes on top of all of this, the budget deficit would still be over 400 billion. This further demonstrates the non-discretionary nature of the budget deficit. And of course this doesn’t take into consideration how much more tax revenues would fall and transfer payments would rise if these cuts were to be undertaken. With the current automatic stabilizers in place, the budget cannot be balanced, and attempts to do so will only cause damage to the real economy as incomes and employment fall.

Even some deficit terrorists have come around. In a recent article in the Politico, DAVID M. WALKER (co-authored with LAWRENCE MISHEL), the president of the Peter Peterson Institute admits that right now it is important to address the jobs issue, rather than worry about the deficits. Moreover, creating more jobs will help boost the economic recovery and at the same time solve the budget problem. He has finally looked at the data and seen that much of the increased budget deficit is due to the automatic stabilizers, rather than profligate deficit spending:

“As in every economic downturn, federal revenues have fallen steeply because individuals and corporations earn less in a recession. High unemployment also results in higher expenditures for safety net programs, like Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps.”

Worst Revelation Yet in the On-going Goldman-AIG-NYFed Scandal

By L. Randall Wray

Richard Teitelbaum reported today (here) that Timothy Geitner’s New York Fed hid the smoking gun that proves Goldman played the key role in bringing down AIG. The only plausible explanation for hiding the document is that Geithner were protecting Goldman. Is this the worst scandal in US history? To ask the question is to answer it.

In brief, here is the story. Recall that securitization of mortgages was supposed to be a risk-reducing innovation that would move mortgages off the books of banks and into well-diversified portfolios of those better able to absorb risks. Mortgage originators would do the underwriting (verify credit-worthiness), securitizers would do the packaging, credit raters would do the rating, and investors would buy the securities and take the risks. Ah, but Wall Street was too clever for all that. So here is how it really worked. Banks owned mortgage lenders who made NINJA loans (no income, no job, no assets), then worked with credit raters to get the ratings desired. The raters did not actually examine any of the loans because the banks bought Credit Default Swap (CDS) “insurance” from AIG to guarantee safety of the Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) issued against the mortgages. Goldman and other banks would then either sell the CDO while using a CDS to bet on default; or they would hold the CDO and use the CDS bet against it to hedge risk. Of course, since Goldman had securitized toxic waste, the bet was not a gamble at all. It knew the CDOs would fail. But meanwhile, it got to book all sorts of fees and income so that it could reward its management with outsized bonuses.

As the subprime market began to crater—due to “unexpected” delinquencies and defaults on mortgages—AIG’s own financial situation was down-graded. This led Goldman and other banks to demand collateral from AIG against their CDS bets. Goldman, in particular, played hardball with AIG—ensuring it would fail.
Here is how bad those CDOs were: losses are running as high as 78% on the toxic waste underwritten by Goldman. No wonder the firm bet against it! Yet, when Geithner’s NYFed intervened to rescue AIG, it demanded that AIG pay Goldman 100 cents on the dollar—for the “insurance” AIG provided on the toxic waste created by—you betcha—Goldman. Timmy’s office then ordered AIG to engage in a cover-up—telling it in November and in December 2008 to keep bank names out of documents filed. As late as January 27 2010 “the New York Fed was still arguing that the contents of Schedule A shouldn’t be fully disclosed”, Teitelbaum reports. Schedule A is the damning document that not only names names but also details the CDO deals.
It shows that Goldman underwrote $17.2 billion of the $62.1 billion in CDOs that AIG “insured”—the most of any bank. Goldman, in turn, received $14 billion from AIG as its share of the settlement (second only to Societe Generale, which got $16.5 billion). If you do the math, Goldman was paid over 80 cents for every dollar of CDO it wrote that got AIG insurance ($14B/$17.2B). The government has poured $182 billion into the rescue to date and now holds much of the toxic waste created by Goldman and others.
Why did Timmy do it? Why does the NY Fed still insist on secrecy? “They must have been trying to shield Goldman” says Professor James Cox of Duke.

And here is the most outrageous part of the story. As Marshall Auerback and I wrote (here) Goldman’s top management was not only betting against the toxic waste they created, they also bet against Goldman:

top management unloaded their Goldman stocks in March 2008 when Bear crashed, and again when Lehman collapsed in September 2008. Why? Quite simple: they knew the firm was full of toxic waste that it would not be able to continue to unload on suckers—and the only protection it had came from AIG, which it knew to be a bad counterparty. Hence on March 19, Jack Levy (co-chair of M&As) sold over $5 million of Goldman’s stock and bet against 60,000 more shares; Gerald Corrigan (former head of the NY Fed who was rewarded for that tenure with a position as managing director of Goldman) sold 15,000 shares in March; Jon Winkelried (Goldman’s co-president) sold 20,000 shares. After the Lehman fiasco, Levy sold over $6 million of Goldman shares and Masanori Mochida (head of Goldman in Japan) sold $56 million worth. The bloodletting by top management only stopped when Goldman got Geithner’s NYFed to produce a bail-out for AIG, which of course turned around and funneled government money to Goldman. With the government rescue, the control frauds decided it was safe to stop betting against their firm.

Goldman appears to be the classic case of what my colleague Bill Black calls a “control fraud”. But the NY Fed and by implication the US Treasury (which is also captured by Goldman) is involved in the cover-up of the frauds perpetrated by Goldman’s top executives—those “savvy businessmen” President Obama has praised. And that, dear reader, is what makes this rank among the worst scandals in US history.

Memo To Greece: Make War Not Love With Goldman Sachs

By Marshall Auerback And L. Randall Wray

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about what to do about Greece. These questions become all the more relevant as the country attempts to float a multibillion-euro bond issue later this week. The Financial Times has called this fund-raising a critical test of Greece’s credibility in financial markets as it battles with a spiraling debt crisis and strikes. (see here) The “credibility” of the financial markets is an important consideration in a country which has functionally ceded its sovereign ability to create currency, and thus remains dependent on the vagaries of the very banking institutions which helped create the mess in the first place.

Maybe Greece should secede from the European Union and default on its euro debt? Or go hat-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to beg for loans while promising to clean up its act? Or to the stronger Euro nations, hoping for charitable acts of forgiveness? Unfortunately, all of these options are going to mean a lot of pain and suffering for an economy that is already sinking rapidly.

And it is questionable whether any of them provide long term viable answers. Polls show that given the perception of fiscal excesses of Greece and the other countries on the periphery, the public in Germany opposes a bailout of these countries at its expense by a significant margin. Periphery countries such as Ireland that have already undertaken harsh austerity measures also oppose the notion of a bailout, despite—nay, because of–the tremendous pain already inflicted on their own respective economies (in Ireland’s case, the banks are probably insolvent as well). The IMF route is also problematic, given that Greece probably doesn’t qualify under normal IMF standards, and many euro zone nations would find this unpalatable from an ideological standpoint, as it would mean ceding control of EU macro policy to an external international institution with strong US influence.
The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted an article by Simon Johnson and Peter Boone, lamenting that the demands being foisted on Greece and other struggling Euronations would “massively curtail demand, lower wages and reduce the public sector workforce. The last time we saw this kind of precipitate fiscal austerity—when nations were tied to the gold standard—it contributed to the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s” (see here). Where we disagree with Johnson and Boone is the suggestion that the IMF be brought in to craft a solution. Any help from this organization will come with tight strings attached—indeed, with a noose around Greece’s neck. Germany and France would be crazy to commit their scarce euros to a bail-out of Greece since they face both internal threats from their own taxpayers and external threats from financial vampires who are looking for yet another nation to attack.
Here’s a more appropriate action: declare war on Goldman Sachs and other global financial firms that created this mess. Send the troops, the planes, the tanks, and the ships. Attack every outpost of the saboteurs on European soil. Blockade the airports and ports. Make Wall Street traders and CEOs fear for their lives, or at least for their freedom to travel. Build some Guantanamo-like facility to hold these enemy financial combatants until they can be tried, convicted, and properly punished.
Ok, if a literal armed attack on Goldman is too far-fetched, then go after the firm using the full force of the regulatory and legal systems. Close the offices and go through the files with a fine-tooth comb. Issue subpoenas to all non-clerical staff for court appearances. Make the internal emails public. Post the names of all managers and traders on Interpol. Arrest anyone who tries to board a plane, train, or boat; confiscate their passports; revoke their visas and work permits; and put a hold on their bank accounts until culpability can be assessed. Make life at least as miserable for them as it now is for Europe’s tens of millions of unemployed workers.

We know that the Obama administration will not go after the banksters that created this global financial calamity. It has been thoroughly co-opted by Wall Street’s fifth column—who hold most of the important posts in the administration. Europe has even more at stake and has shown somewhat more willingness to take action. Perhaps our only hope for retribution lies there.

Some might believe the term “banksters” is too mean. Surely Wall Street was just doing its job—providing the financial services wanted by the world. Yes, it all turned out a tad unfortunate but no one could have foreseen that so many of the financial innovations would turn into black swans. And hasn’t Wall Street learned its lesson and changed its practices? Fat chance. We know from internal emails that everyone on Wall Street saw this coming—indeed, they sold trash assets and placed bets that the trash would crater. The crisis was not a mistake—it was the foregone conclusion. The FBI warned of an epidemic of fraud back in 2004—with 80% of the fraud on the part of lenders. As Bill Black has been warning since the days of the Saving and Loan crisis, the most devastating kind of fraud is the “control fraud”, perpetrated by the financial institution’s management. Wall Street is, and was, run by control frauds. Not only were they busy defrauding the borrowers, like Greece, but they were simultaneously defrauding the owners of the firms they ran. Now add to that list the taxpayers that bailed out the firms. And Goldman is front and center when it comes to bad apples.

Lest anyone believe that Goldman’s executives were somehow unaware of bad deals done by rogue traders, William Cohan (see here) reports that top management unloaded their Goldman stocks in March 2008 when Bear crashed, and again when Lehman collapsed in September 2008. Why? Quite simple: they knew the firm was full of toxic waste that it would not be able to continue to unload on suckers—and the only protection it had came from AIG, which it knew to be a bad counterparty. Hence on March 19, Jack Levy (co-chair of M&As) sold over $5 million of Goldman’s stock and bet against 60,000 more shares; Gerald Corrigan (former head of the NY Fed who was rewarded for that tenure with a position as managing director of Goldman) sold 15,000 shares in March; Jon Winkelried (Goldman’s co-president) sold 20,000 shares. After the Lehman fiasco, Levy sold over $6 million of Goldman shares and Masanori Mochida (head of Goldman in Japan) sold $56 million worth. The bloodletting by top management only stopped when Goldman got Geithner’s NYFed to produce a bail-out for AIG, which of course turned around and funneled government money to Goldman. With the government rescue, the control frauds decided it was safe to stop betting against their firm. So much for the “savvy businessmen” that President Obama believes to be in charge of Wall Street firms like Goldman.
From 2001 through November 2009 (note the date—a full year after Lehman) Goldman created financial instruments to hide European government debt, for example through currency trades or by pushing debt into the future. But not only did Goldman and other financial firms help and encourage Greece to take on more debt, they also brokered credit default swaps on Greece’s debt—making income on bets that Greece would default. No doubt they also took positions as the financial conditions deteriorated—betting on default and driving up CDS spreads.

But it gets even worse: An article by the German newspaper, Handelsblatt, (“Die Fieberkurve der griechischen Schuldenkrise”, Feb. 20, 2010) strongly indicates that AIG, everybody’s favorite poster boy for financial deviancy, may have been the party which sold the credit default swaps on Greece (English translation – here).

Generally, speaking, these CDSs lead to credit downgrades by ratings agencies, which drive spreads higher. In other words, Wall Street, led here by Goldman and AIG, helped to create the debt, then helped to create the hysteria about possible defaults. As CDS prices rise and Greece’s credit rating collapses, the interest rate it must pay on bonds rises—fueling a death spiral because it cannot cut spending or raise taxes sufficiently to reduce its deficit.

Having been bailed out by the Obama Administration, Wall Street firms are already eyeing other victims (and for allowing these kinds of activities to continue, the US Treasury remains indirectly complicit, another good reason why one shouldn’t expect any action coming out of Washington). Since the economic collapse is causing all Euronations to run larger budget deficits and at the same time is raising CDS prices and interest rates, it is easy to pick off nation after nation. This will not stop with Greece, so it is in the interest of Euroland to stop the vampires now.
With Washington unlikely to do anything to constrain Goldman, it looks like the European Union, which is launching a major audit, just might banish the bank from dealing in government debt. The problem is that CDS markets are essentially unregulated so such a ban will not prevent Wall Street from bringing down more countries—because they do not have to hold debt in order to bet against it using CDSs. These kinds of derivatives have already brought down an entire continent – Asia – in the late 1990s (see here), and yet authorities are still standing by and basically doing nothing when CDSs are being used again to speculatively attack Euroland. The absence of sanctions last year, when we had a chance to deal with this problem once and for all, has simply induced even more outrageous and fundamentally anti-social behavior. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor—with, for example, Germany and Greece lobbing insults at one another (Greece has requested reparations for WWII damages; Germany has complained about subsidizing what it perceives to be excessive social spending in Greece).

Of course, as far as Greece goes, the claim now is that these types of off balance sheet transactions in which Goldman and others engaged were not strictly “illegal” under EU law. But these are precisely the kinds of “shadow banking transactions” that almost brought down the global financial system 18 months ago. Literally a year after the Lehman bankruptcy – MONTHS after Goldman itself was saved from total ruin, it was again engaging in these kinds of deals.

And it wasn’t exactly a low-level functionary or “rogue trader” who was carrying out these transactions on behalf of Goldman. Gary Cohn is Lloyd “We’re doing God’s work” Blankfein’s number 2 man. So it’s hard to believe that St. Lloyd did not sanction the activities as well in advance of collecting his “modest” $9m bonus for last year’s work.

If these are examples of Obama’s “savvy businessmen” (see here), then heaven help the global economy. The transaction highlighted, if reported that way in the private sector, would be accounting fraud. Fraud – “Go to jail, do not pass Go” fraud. That senior bankers had no problem in structuring/recommending/selling such deals to cash-strapped governments should probably not surprise us at this point. However, it would be interesting to know if the prop trading desks of those same investment banks, purely by coincidence of course, then took long CDS (short the credit) positions in the credit of the countries doing the hidden swaps. A proper legal investigation by the EU could reveal this and certainly help to uncover much of the financial chicanery which has done so much destruction to the global economy over the past several years.
In this country, we have had a “war on terror” and a “war on drugs” and yet we refuse to declare war on these financial weapons of mass destruction. We all remember Jimmy Carter’s “MEOW”—the attempt to attack creeping inflation that was said to sap the strength of the US economy in the late 1970s. But Europe—and indeed the entire globe—faces a much more dangerous and immediate threat from Wall Street’s banksters. They created this mess and are not only profiting from it, but are actively preventing recovery. They are causing unemployment, starvation, destruction of lives, and even violence and terrorism across the world. They are certainly more dangerous than the inflation of the 1970s, and arguably have disrupted more lives than Osama bin Laden—whose actions led the US to undertake military actions in at least three countries. That should provide ample justification for Greece’s declaration of figurative war on Manhattan.

However, in an ironic twist of fate, it was just announced that Petros Christodoulou will take over as the head of Greece’s national debt management agency. He worked as the head of derivatives at JP Morgan, and also previously worked at Goldman—the firm that got Greece into all this trouble!
Dimitri Papadimitriou has recently made what we consider to be an important plea for moderation of the hysteria about Greece’s debt. Writing in the Financial Times, he complained that “The plethora of articles in your pages and others, some arguing in favour and other against a bail-out, contribute to market confusion and drive the country’s financing costs to record levels. It is not yet clear that a bail-out is even needed, but this market confusion is rendering the government’s ability to achieve its deficit goals ever more difficult.” Indeed, we suspect that the same financial firms that helped to get Greece into its predicament are profiting from—and stoking the fires of—the hysteria. He goes on, “what Greece really needs now is a holiday from further market confusion being created by contradictory, alarmist public commentary” (see here).

Greece, Euroland in general, and the rest of the world all need a holiday from the manipulation and destruction of our economies by Wall Street firms that profit from speculative bubbles, from burying firms, households, and governments under mountains and debt, and even from the crises that they create. Governments all over the globe should use all legal means at their disposal to ferret out the bad faith and even fraudulent deals that global financial behemoths are foisting on us.

Brooksley Born vs. Greenspan, Rubin, and Summers: An Epic Battle Behind Closed Doors

From The Warning:

“We didn’t truly know the dangers of the market, because it was a dark market,” says Brooksley Born, the head of an obscure federal regulatory agency — the Commodity Futures Trading Commission [CFTC] — who not only warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s, but also tried to convince the country’s key economic powerbrokers to take actions that could have helped avert the crisis. “They were totally opposed to it,” Born says. “That puzzled me. What was it that was in this market that had to be hidden?”

Latvia’s Neoliberal Madness

By Michael Hudson and Jeff Summers

While most of the world’s press focuses on Greece (and also Spain, Ireland and Portugal) as the most troubled euro-areas, the much more severe, more devastating and downright deadly crisis in the post-Soviet economies scheduled to join the Eurozone somehow has escaped widespread notice.

No doubt that is because their experience is an indictment of the destructive horror of neoliberalism – and of Europe’s policy of treating these countries not as promised, not as helping them develop along Western European lines, but as areas to be colonized as export markets and bank markets, stripped of their economic surpluses, their skilled labor and indeed, working-age labor generally, their real estate and buildings, and whatever was inherited from the Soviet era.

Latvia experienced one of the world’s worst economic crises. It is not only economic, but demographic. Its 25.5 percent plunge in GDP over just the past two years (almost 20 percent in this past year alone) is already the worst two-year drop on record. The IMF’s own rosy forecasts anticipate a further drop of 4 percent, which would place the Latvian economic collapse ahead of the United States’ Great Depression The bad news does not end there, however. The IMF projects that 2009 will see a total capital and financial account deficit of 4.2 billion euros, with an additional 1.5 billion euros, or 9 percent of GDP, leaving the country in 2010.
Moreover, the Latvian government is rapidly accumulating debt. From just 7.9 percent of GDP in 2007, Latvia’s debt is projected to be 74 percent of GDP for this year, supposedly stabilizing at 89 percent in 2014 in the best-case IMF scenario. This would place it far outside the debt Maastricht debt limits for adopting the euro. Yet achieving entry into the eurozone has been the chief pretext of the Latvia’s Central Bank for the painful austerity measures necessary to keep its currency peg. Maintaining that peg has burned through mountains of currency reserves that otherwise could have been invested in its domestic economy.
Yet nobody in the West is asking why Latvia has suffered this fate, so typical of the Baltics and other post-Soviet economies but only slightly more extreme. Nearly twenty years since these countries achieved freedom from the old USSR in 1991, the Soviet system hardly can be blamed as the sole cause of their problems. Not even corruption alone can be blamed – a legacy of the late Soviet period’s dissolution, to be sure, but magnified, intensified and even encouraged in the kleptocratic form that has provided such rich pickings for Western bankers and investors. It was Western neoliberals who financialized these economies with the “business friendly reforms” so loudly applauded by the World Bank, Washington and Brussels.
Far lower levels of corruption obviously are to be desired (but whom else would the West trust?), but dramatically reducing it would perhaps only improve matters up to the level of Estonia’s road into euro-debt peonage. These neighboring Baltic counties likewise have suffered dramatic unemployment, reduced growth, declining health standards and emigration, in sharp contrast to Scandinavia and Finland.
Joseph Stiglitz, James Tobin and other economists in the West’s public eye have began to explain that there is something radically wrong with the financialized order imported by Western ideological salesmen in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Neoliberal economics certainly was not the road that Western Europe took after World War II. It was a new experiment, whose dress rehearsal was imposed initially at gunpoint by the Chicago Boys in Chile. In Latvia, the advisors were from Georgetown, but the ideology was the same: dismantle the government and turn it over to political insiders.
For the post-Soviet application of this cruel experiment, the idea was to give Western banks, financial investors, and ostensibly “free market” economists (so-called because they gave away public property freely, untaxed it, and gave new meaning to the term “free lunch”) were given a free hand in much of the Soviet bloc to design entire economies. And as matters turned out, every design was the same. The names of individuals were different, but most were linked to and financed by Washington, the World Bank and European Union. And sponsored by the West’s financial institutions, one hardly should be surprised that they came up with a design in their own financial interest.
It was a plan that no democratic government in the West could have passed. Public enterprises were doled out to individuals trusted to sell out quickly to Western investors and local oligarchs who would move their money safely offshore into the Western havens. To cap matters, local tax systems were created that left the traditional two major Western bank customers – real estate and natural infrastructure monopolies – nearly tax free. This left their rents and monopoly pricing “free” of to be paid to Western banks as interest rather than used as the domestic tax base to help reconstruct these economies.
There were almost no commercial banks in the Soviet Union. Rather than helping these countries create banks of their own, Western Europe encouraged its own banks to create credit and load down these economies with interest charges – in euros and other hard currencies for the banks’ protection. This violated a prime axiom of finance: never denominate your debts in hard currency when your revenue is denominated in a softer one. But as in the case of Iceland, Europe promised to help these countries join the Euro by suitably helpful policies. The “reforms” consisted in showing them how to shift taxes off business and real estate (the prime bank customers) onto labor, not only as a flat income tax but a flat “social service” tax, so as to pay Social Security and health care as a user fee by labor rather than funded out of the general budget largely by the higher tax brackets.
Unlike the West, there was no significant property tax. This obliged governments to tax labor and industry. But unlike the West, there was no progressive income or wealth tax. Latvia had the equivalent of a 59 percent flat tax on labor in many cases. (American Congressional committee heads and their lobbyists can only dream of so punitive a tax on labor, so free a lunch for their main campaign contributors!) With a tax like this, European countries had nothing to fear from economies that emerged tax free with no property charges to burden their labor with taxes, low housing costs, low debt costs. These economies were poisoned from the outset. That is what made them so “free market” and “business friendly” from the vantage point of today’s Western economic orthodoxy.
Lacking the power to tax real estate and other property – or even to impose progressive taxation on the higher income brackets – governments were obliged to tax labor and industry. This trickle-down fiscal philosophy sharply increased the price of labor and capital, making industry and agriculture in neoliberalized economies so high-cost as to be uncompetitive with “Old Europe.” In effect the post-Soviet economies were turned into export zones for Old Europe’s industry and banking services.
Western Europe had developed by protecting its industry and labor, and taxing away the land rent and other revenue that had no counterpart in a necessary cost of production. The post-Soviet economies “freed” this revenue to be paid to Western European banks. These economies – debt-free in 1991 – were loaded down with debt, denominated in hard currencies, not their own. Western bank loans were not used to upgrade their capital investment, public investment and living standards. The great bulk of these loans were extended mainly against assets already in place, inherited from the Soviet period. New real estate construction did indeed take off, but the great bulk of it has now sunk into negative equity. And the Western banks are demanding that Latvia and the Baltics pay by squeezing out even more of an economic surplus with even more neoliberal “reforms” that threaten to drive even more of their labor abroad as their economies shrink and poverty spreads.
The pattern of a ruling kleptocracy at the top and an indebted work force – non- or weakly unionized, with few workplace protections – was applauded as a business-friendly model for the rest of the world to emulate. The post-Soviet economies were thoroughly “underdeveloped,” rendered hopelessly high-cost and generally unable to compete on anywhere near equal terms with their Western neighbors.
The result has been an economic experiment seemingly gone mad, a dystopia whose victims are now being blamed. Neoliberal trickle-down ideology – apparently being prepared for application to Europe and North America with an equally optimistic rhetoric – was so economically destructive that it is almost as if these nations were invaded militarily. So it is indeed time to start worrying about whether the Baltics may be a dress rehearsal for what we are about to see in the United States.
The word “reform” is now taking on a negative connotation in the Baltics, as it has in Russia. It has come to signify retrogression back to feudal dependency. But whereas feudal lords from Sweden and Germany ruled their Latvian manors by the power of landownership, they now control the Baltics by their foreign-currency mortgage loans against the region’s real estate. Debt peonage has replaced outright serfdom. Mortgages far in excess of actual market values, which have plunged by 50-70 percent in the past year (depending on housing type), also are far in excess of the ability of Latvian homeowners to pay. The volume of foreign-currency debt is far beyond what these countries can earn by exporting the products of their labor, industry and agriculture to Europe (which hardly wants any imports) or other regions of the world in which democratic governments are pledged to protect their labor force, not sell it out and subject it to unprecedented austerity programs – all in the name of “free markets.”
Several decades have passed since the neoliberal order was introduced, and the results are disastrous, if not almost a crime against humanity. Economic growth has not occurred. Soviet-era assets have simply been loaded down with debt. This is not how Western Europe developed after World War II, or earlier for the matter – or China most recently. These countries pursued the classical path of protection of domestic industry, public infrastructure spending, progressive taxation, public health and workplace safety regulations, legal prohibitions against insider dealing and looting – all anathema to neoliberal free-market ideology.
What is starkly at issue are the underlying assumptions of the world’s economic order. At the core of today’s crisis of economic theory and policy are the all but forgotten premises and guiding concepts of classical political economy. George Soros, Professor Stiglitz and others describe a global casino economy (which Soros certainly enriched himself by playing) in which finance has become detached from the process of wealth creation. The financial sector makes increasingly steep, even unpayably high claims on the real economy of goods and services.
This was the concern of the classical economists when they focused on the problem of rentiers, owners of property and special privilege whose revenues (with no counterpart in any necessary cost of production) led to a de facto tax on the economy – in this case, by imposing debt on it. Classical economists recognized the need to subordinate finance to the needs of the real economy. This was the philosophy that guided U.S. banking regulation in the 1930’s, and which West Europe and Japan followed from the 1950s through the 1970s to promote investment in manufacturing. Instead of checking the financial sector’s ability to engage in speculative excess, the United States overturned these regulations in the 1980s. From a bit below 5 percent of total U.S. profits in 1982, the financial sector’s after-tax profits rose to an unprecedented 41 per cent in 2007. In effect this zero-sum activity was an overhead “tax” on the economy.
Along with financial restructuring, the main item in the classical tool-kit was tax policy. The aim was to reward work and wealth creation, and to collect the “free lunch” resulting from “external” social economies as the natural tax base. This tax policy had the virtue of reducing the burden on earned income (wages and profits). Land was seen as supplied by nature without a labor-cost of production (and hence without cost value). But instead of making it the natural tax base, governments have permitted banks to load it down with debt, turning the rise in land’s rental value into interest charges. The result, in classical terminology, is a financial tax on society – revenue that society was supposed to collect as the tax base to invest in economic and social infrastructure to make society richer. The alternative has been to tax land and industrial capital. And what tax collectors have relinquished, banks now collect in the form of a rising price for land sites – a price for which buyers pay mortgage interest.
Classical economics could have predicted Latvia’s problems. With no curbs on finance or regulation of monopoly pricing, no industrial protection, privatization of the public domain to create “tollbooth economies,” and a tax policy that impoverishes labor and even industrial capital while rewarding speculators, Latvia’s economy has seen little economic development. What it has achieved – and what has won it such loud applause from the West – has been its willingness to rack up huge debts to subsidize its economic disaster. Latvia has too little industry, too little agricultural modernization, but over 9 billion lati in private debt – now at risk of being shifted onto the government’s balance sheet, just as has occurred with the U.S. bank bailouts.
If this credit had been extended productively to build Latvia’s economy, it would have been acceptable. But it was mostly unproductive, extended to fuel land-price inflation and luxury consumption, reducing Latvia to a state of near debt serfdom. In what Sarah Palin would call a “hopey-change thing,” the Bank of Latvia suggests that the bottom of the crisis has been reached. Exports finally have begun to pick up, but the economy is still in desperate straits. If current trends continue there will be no more Latvians left to inherit any economic revival. Unemployment still stands at more than 22 percent. Tens of thousands have left the country, and tens of thousands more have decided not to have children. This is a natural response to saddling the country with billions of lati in public and private debt. Latvia is not on a trajectory toward Western levels of affluence, and there is no way out of its current regressive tax policy and anti-labor, anti-industry and anti-agriculture neoliberalism being imposed so coercively by Brussels as a condition for bailing Latvia’s central bank out so that it can pay Swedish banks that have made such unproductive and parasitic loans.
Albert Einstein stated that “insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Latvia has employed the same self-destructive anti-government, anti-labor, anti-industrial, anti-agricultural “pro-Western” Washington Consensus for almost 20 years, and the results have become worse and worse. The task at hand now is to liberate the economy Latvia from its neoliberal road to neo-serfdom. One would think that the path selected would be the one charted by the classical 19th-century economists that guided the prosperity we see in the West and now also in East Asia. But this will require a change of economic philosophy – and that will require a change of government.
The question is, how will Europe and the West respond. Will it admit its error? Or will it brazen it out? Signs today are not promising. The West says that labor has not been impoverished enough, industry has not been starved enough, and economic the patient has not been bled enough.
If this is what Washington and Brussels are saying to the Baltics, imagine what they are about to do to their own domestic populations!

Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist and now a Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), and president of the Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET). He is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002) and Trade, Development and Foreign Debt: A History of Theories of Polarization v. Convergence in the World Economy. He can be reached via his website, [email protected]

Jeffrey Sommers is co-director of the Baltic Research Group at ISLET, and visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. He can be reached at [email protected]

*This article originally appeared on GlobalResearch

Time to Throw Some Water on The Deficit Hysteria Fire

Yeva Nersisyan and L. Randall Wray

Nowadays the only thing on everybody’s mind is the level of government deficit and national debt. Deficit hysteria is being fueled by reports that the US budget deficit will reach “an all time high” this year. President Obama is going to appoint his own commission to study how to reduce the deficit—since Congress failed in its attempt to establish one. He frets that we will leave crippling mountains of debts for our grandkids. The deficit hysteria hydra is too big to cover in one blog—but here we will address the “deficit cycle” and the possibility of ending it.

There seems to be a deficit mania cycle with hysteria arriving after every recession (because, as we show below, recessions always generate big deficits), only to recede when economic growth resumes and deficits fall. And the fact that there is a Democratic president in office and a largely Democratic congress frees the hands of conservative deficit hawks who complain about spending profligacy and growing national debt (they usually fail to recall that much of this spending and especially tax cuts have been generated under a Republic president and Congress, not to mention the 780 billion Paulson bailout of Wall Street). This deficit hysteria is also a useful tool for distracting people’s attention from really important matters, such as a 10% unemployment rate, the possibility of a double-dip recession, underwater home owners, and rising mortgage delinquencies.

Can the government really balance its budget and run continuous surpluses for a number of years as some politicians promise to do? Here is some data to help you decide that for yourself. Every time the government has tried to balance its budget, the economy has fallen into a recession which has caused the automatic stabilizers to kick in and grow the budget deficit. The graph below depicts the federal budget deficit (or surplus) as a % of GDP with signs reversed (a surplus is below zero, a budget deficit is shown as above zero) and recessionary periods for the entire post-war period. As can be observed in this graph, every budget surplus over this period has preceded a recession. The remaining recessionary episodes have been preceded by reduction of the deficit to GDP ratios. Further, every recession except the one in 1960 led to a budget deficit; the 1960 recession was followed by a reduction of the budget surplus.
These movements of the budget balance are due to automatic stabilizers. When the economy slides into a recession, tax revenues start falling as economic activity declines. Social transfer payments, particularly unemployment benefits, on the other hand, increase, again automatically, as more people loose their jobs. On the other hand when the economy begins to grow, tax revenues grow quickly, moving the budget toward balance or even to a surplus.
The graph below shows the rate of growth of tax revenues (automatic), government consumption expenditures (somewhat discretionary) and social transfer payments (again automatic) relative to the same quarter of the previous year:

While government consumption expenditures have remained relatively stable after a short spike in 2007-2008, the rate of growth of tax revenues has dropped sharply from 5 % growth to 10 % decline in just three quarters (from Q 4 of 2007 to Q 2 of 2008), reaching another low of -15% in Q1 of 2009. Transfer payments, as expected have been growing at an average rate of 10% since 2007. Decreasing taxes coupled with increased transfer payments have automatically pushed the budget into a larger deficit, notwithstanding the change in consumption expenditures. These automatic stabilizers and not the bailouts or much-belated and smaller-than-needed stimulus are the reason why the economy hasn’t been in a freefall similar to the Great Depression. As the economy slowed down, the budget automatically went into a deficit putting a floor on aggregate demand.

Conclusions: the federal government budget cannot be balanced or turned into surplus without killing the economy and causing another Great Depression, which again, will automatically cause the budget to turn into the negative territory. With the loss of 8 million jobs, and given the private sector’s unwillingness to go further into debt (it is now, finally, spending less than its income) there is no way that the federal budget can be balanced, unless the US becomes a net exporter, which is highly unlikely. So if a politician tells you that she is going to balance that budget, she either doesn’t understand what she is talking about or is trying to fool you to get elected.

Wall Street Still Doesn’t Get It

Peasant Insurance, Greek Debts, and CLX Derivatives

By L. Randall Wray

Forget the bonuses. Sure, it is disgusting that Wall Street is funneling government bail-out funds straight to what my colleague Bill Black calls the “control frauds”—the top managers of financial institutions. And, yes, they are blowing the black hole of financial insolvency bigger day by day even as they thumb their noses at Washington while Timmy Geithner and Ben Bernanke look the other way. But what is even more disturbing is that Wall Street is still maniacally creating risk, inventing new ways to bet on the death of “peasants”, economies, and nations.
Previously, Marshall Auerback and I have written about the securitization of “life settlements” (see here). A Wall Streeter buys the life insurance policies of individuals with terminal illnesses, packages them into securities, and profits when the underlying collateral dies. In his most recent movie, Michael Moore documented the practice of taking out “peasant insurance” on employees. Now we learn that firms continue to carry life insurance on former employees, hoping they will die untimely deaths so that the firm can collect (see here). We know how devastating unemployment is for most people, ruining their marriages, mental and physical health, and social life. Hey, why not fire employees in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression, when chances of finding another job are nil? That ought to hasten death. And if a firm can hold life insurance policies on former employees, why not take out policies on down-and-outers who never worked for the firm? Death is the new profit center, packaged and sold by Wall Street insurers.

Second, there is of course Greece. Goldman Sachs sold them financial products to disguise their budget deficits. Of course, Goldman argues that it was doing nothing unusual—it has been creating complex products to hide risk for decades (see here and here). Goldman gets huge fees, but of course the risks always come back to bite its suckers. However, in the case of Greece, Goldman might have bit off more than it can chew. From 2001 through November 2009 Goldman created financial instruments to hide European government debt, for example through currency trades or by pushing debt into the future. But not only did Goldman help (and perhaps even encourage) Greece to take on more debt, it also apparently brokered credit default swaps on Greece’s debt—making income on bets that Greece would default. We don’t know whether Goldman has placed its own bets on the death of Greece—nor is it clear what role Goldman has played in whipping up hysteria about the likelihood of default, but the bank is almost certainly benefiting by the booming business in default “insurance”. As CDS prices rise and Greece’s credit rating collapses, the interest rate it must pay on bonds rises—fueling a death spiral because it cannot cut spending or raise taxes sufficiently to reduce its deficit. And it is probable that other Euronations—perhaps Italy and Portugal—used similar financial products sold by Wall Street. While Washington will not do anything to constrain Goldman, it looks like the European Union, which is launching a major audit, just might banish the bank from dealing in government debt.

Finally, according to a report, Citi is going to launch a new derivative that will allow gamblers to bet directly on financial crises. here Rather than betting on the death of an individual, firm, or government Citi would create a tradable liquidity index, the CLX. Essentially this would allow one to place a bet that a liquidity crisis would occur. If funding costs spike in a run to liquidity the derivative sellers would have to pay. Recall that our current financial collapse began with just such a liquidity “event”: the commercial paper market dried up, which meant that holders of mortgage-backed securities could not continue to finance their positions. The CLX products are supposed to hedge the liquidity risk of a spike of funding costs. The problem, of course, is exactly the one faced by those who had bought CDS “insurance” from AIG: counterparty risk. As Cambridge Professor Chris Rogers says, “This is basically a kind of insurance product. The main issue is: how good is the party issuing it? If it’s going to be paying out huge numbers in the event of a crisis, will it be able to meet obligations? Insurers can buy reinsurance for their liabilities, but the buck has to stop somewhere—there’s a limit to how much a private insurer can pay out. Only the government can cover unlimited losses.” Hence, only the chosen few “too big to fail” sellers of this kind of insurance will be able to play the game. That is, folks like Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Citi, and Bank of America. And guess who will get stuck with the bill when the whole scheme crashes? You betcha, it will be the Treasury.

And that is what this whole Wall Street house of cards boils down to: risky bets, private profits, socialized losses. Worse, yet, it misaligns interests so that Wall Street profits are higher if there is economic and social instability—and Wall Street is powerful enough to generate exactly those conditions. Until Wall Street is constrained and downsized, it will continue on its path of death and destruction.

In spite of all the happy talk about the end of the recession and the successful resolution of the financial crisis, things are much worse today than they were two years ago. Commercial real estate is toast. Option ARMs (the toxic mortgages with low teaser rates) are resetting ahead of schedule because of clauses that allow mortgage holders to jack up rates as homeowners go underwater. Every class of consumer debt—much of it securitized—looks a lot like subprime mortgages. Euroland and Japan are cratering, the UK is going to try to reduce its budget deficit, and even China has decided to slow its growth to reduce inflation pressures. Note that all of these markets are linked, and for every debtor that goes delinquent there are numerous linked financial products that go bad. There are well over $500 trillion of those products still floating around. While it is true that every derivative has both a buyer and a seller—so that every “event” should be a zero-sum game, with the seller paying the buyer—that works only if bad bets can be covered. But we know that Wall Street institutions are not good counter-parties. So what happens instead is that there is a rush to liquidity as everyone tries to sell out positions in assets to cover their commitments, causing asset values to plummet. Be prepared for another global crisis by summer. And also get ready for another Washington bail-out of Wall Street, because the $23 trillion promised so far will not be enough.

So here’s the best policy. Unwind the $23 trillion committed by the Treasury and the Fed. Let the market operate. It wants to close down all the “too big to fail” institutions. The market is right—these institutions are not necessary, indeed, they represent the biggest problem facing the financial sector. Their CEOs instinctively recognize that these institutions serve no useful purpose—which is why their efforts are directed to creation of ever more dangerous and socially destructive financial products. As I have said before, Washington needs to get on the right side of the leverage ratio: for every dollar of real productive activity and income generated, there can be $30 or more of leveraged financial bets. Rather than trying to make all of those good, it makes far more sense to allow default to wipe out the bets, and then work to save the productive activity, jobs, and income.

I know that Wall Street’s protectorate, led by Geithner, Rubin, and Summers, will claim that failure of the behemoths will create an economic disaster. But that is not true. All real economic fall-out can be contained and the economy will emerge much healthier. Replace Wall Street’s life support with support for mainstreet. Start with a payroll tax holiday (don’t collect any payroll taxes from employers or employees for the next two years); add $500 billion for direct job creation to immediately get to full employment; add another $500 billion for relief of state and local governments distributed on a per capita basis; and give all mortgaged homeowners the option of immediate default with a “rent to own” plan. True recovery would begin immediately, and we’d be out of the mess by summer.

Warren Mosler’s Proposals for the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Banking System

By Warren Mosler

The purpose of this paper is to present proposals for the Treasury, the Fed, and the banking system. Government begins with an assumption that it exists for public purpose, and I use that as the guiding assumption of my proposals. I begin with my proposals for the banking system, as banking operations influence both Fed and Treasury operations.

Proposals for the Banking System

U. S. banks are public/private partnerships, established for the public purpose of providing loans based on credit analysis. Supporting this type of lending on an ongoing, stable basis demands a source of funding that is not market dependent. Hence most of the world’s banking systems include some form of government deposit insurance, as well as a central bank standing by to loan to its member banks.

Under a gold standard or other fixed exchange rate regime, bank funding can’t be credibly guaranteed. In fact, fixed exchange rate regimes by design operate with an ongoing constraint on the supply side of the convertible currency. Banks are required to hold reserves of convertible currency, to be able to meet depositor’s demands for withdrawals. Confidence is critical for banks working under a gold standard. No bank can operate with 100% reserves. They depend on depositors not panicking and trying to cash in their deposits for convertible currency. The U.S. experienced a series of severe depressions in the late 1800’s, with the ‘panic’ of 1907 disturbing enough to result in the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Fed was to be the lender of last resort to insure the nation would never again go through another 1907. Unfortunately, that strategy failed. The depression of 1930 was even worse than the panic of 1907. The gold standard regime kept the Fed from being able to lend its banks the convertible currency they needed to meet withdrawal demands. After thousands of catastrophic bank failures, a bank holiday was declared and the remaining banks were closed by the government while the banking system was reorganized. When the banking system reopened in 1934, convertibility of the currency into gold was permanently suspended (domestically), and bank deposits were covered by federal deposit insurance. The Federal Reserve wasn’t able to stop depressions. It was going off the gold standard that did the trick.

It has been 80 years since the great depression. It would now take exceptionally poor policy responses for even the current severe recession to deteriorate into a depression, though misguided and overly tight fiscal policies have unfortunately prolonged the restoration of output and employment.

The hard lesson of banking history is that the liability side of banking is not the place for market discipline. Therefore, with banks funded without limit by government insured deposits and loans from the central bank, discipline is entirely on the asset side. This includes being limited to assets deemed ‘legal’ by the regulators and minimum capital requirements also set by the regulators.

Given that the public purpose of banking is to provide for a payments system and to fund loans based on credit analysis, additional proposals and restrictions are in order:

1. Banks should only be allowed to lend directly to borrowers, and then service and keep those loans on their own balance sheets. There is no further public purpose served by selling loans or other financial assets to third parties, but there are substantial real costs to government regarding the regulation and supervision of those activities. And there are severe consequences for failure to adequately regulate and supervise those secondary market activities as well. For that reason (no public purpose and geometrically growing regulatory
burdens with severe social costs in the case of regulatory and supervisory lapses), banks should be prohibited from engaging in any secondary market activity. The argument that these areas might be profitable for the banks is not a reason to extend government sponsored enterprises into those areas.

2. US banks should not be allowed to contract in LIBOR. LIBOR is an interest rate set in a foreign country (the UK) with a large, subjective component that is out of the hands of the US government. Part of the current crisis was the Federal Reserve’s inability to bring down the LIBOR settings to its target interest rate, as it tried to assist millions of US homeowners and other borrowers who had contacted with US banks to pay interest based on LIBOR settings. Desperate to bring $US interest rates down for domestic borrowers, the Federal Reserve resorted to a very high risk policy of advancing unlimited, functionally unsecured, $US lines of credit called ‘swap lines’ to several foreign central banks. These loans were advanced at the Fed’s low target rate, with the hope that the foreign central banks would lend these funds to their member banks at the low rates, and thereby bring down the LIBOR settings and the cost of borrowing $US for US households and businesses. The loans to the foreign central banks peaked at about $600 billion and did eventually work to bring down the LIBOR settings. But the risks were substantial. There is no way for the Fed to collect a loan from a foreign central bank that elects not to pay it back. If, instead of contracting based on LIBOR settings, US banks had been linking their loan rates and lines of credit to the US fed funds rate, this problem
would have been avoided. The rates paid by US borrowers, including homeowners and businesses, would have come down as the Fed intended when it cut the fed funds rate.

3. Banks should not be allowed to have subsidiaries of any kind. No public purpose is served by allowing bank to hold any assets ‘off balance sheet.’

4. Banks should not be allowed to accept financial assets as collateral for loans. No public purpose is served by financial leverage.

5. US Banks should not be allowed to lend off shore. No public purpose is served by allowing US banks to lend for foreign purposes.

6. Banks should not be allowed to buy (or sell) credit default insurance. The public purpose of banking as a public/private partnership is to allow the private sector to price risk, rather than have the public sector pricing risk through publicly owned banks. If a bank instead relies on credit default insurance it is transferring that pricing of risk to a third party, which is counter to the public purpose of the current public/private banking system.

7. Banks should not be allowed to engage in proprietary trading or any profit making ventures beyond basic lending. If the public sector wants to venture out of banking for some presumed public purpose it can be done through other outlets.

8. My last proposal for the banks in this draft is to utilize FDIC approved credit models for evaluation of bank assets. I would not allow mark to market of bank assets. In fact, if there is a valid argument to marking a particular bank asset to market prices, that likely means that asset should not be a permissible bank asset in the first place. The public purpose of banking is to facilitate loans based on credit analysis rather, than market valuation. And the accompanying provision of government insured funding allows those loans to be held to maturity without liquidity issues, in support of that same public purpose. Therefore, marking to market rather
than evaluation by credit analysis both serves no further public purpose and subverts the existing public purpose of providing a stable platform for lending.

Proposals for the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)

I have three proposals for the FDIC. The first is to remove the $250,000 cap on deposit insurance. The public purpose behind the cap is to help small banks attract deposits, under the theory that if there were no cap large depositors would gravitate towards the larger banks. However, once the Fed is directed to trade in the fed funds markets with all member banks, in unlimited size, the issue of available funding is moot.
The second is to not tax banks in order to recover funds lost on bank failures. The FDIC should be entirely funded by the US Treasury. Taxes on solvent banks should not be on the basis of the funding needs of the FDIC. Taxes on banks have ramifications that can either serve or conflict with the larger public purposes presumably served by government participation in the banking system. These include sustaining the payments system and lending based on credit analysis. Any tax on banks should be judged entirely by how that tax
serves or doesn’t serve public purpose.

My third proposal for the FDIC is to do its job without any assistance by Treasury (apart from funding any FDIC expenditures). The FDIC is charged with taking over any bank it deems insolvent, and then either selling that bank, selling the bank’s assets, reorganizing the bank, or any other similar action that serves the public purpose government participation in the banking system. The TARP program was at least partially established to allow the US Treasury to buy equity in specific banks to keep them from being declared insolvent by the FDIC, and to allow them to continue to have sufficient capital to continue to lend. What the
TARP did, however, was reveal the total failure of both the Bush and Obama administrations to comprehend the essence of the workings of the banking system. Once a bank incurs losses in excess of its private capital, further losses are covered by the FDIC, an arm of the US government. If the Treasury ‘injects capital’ into a bank, all that happens is that once losses exceed the same amount of private capital, the US Treasury, also an arm of the US government is next in line for any losses to the extent of its capital contribution, with the FDIC covering any losses beyond that. So what is changed by Treasury purchases of bank equity? After the private capital is lost, the losses are taken by the US Treasury instead of the FDIC, which also gets its funding from the US Treasury. It makes no difference for the US government and the ‘taxpayers’ whether the Treasury covers the loss indirectly when funding the FDIC, or directly after ‘injecting capital’ into a bank. All that was needed to accomplish the same end as the TARP program- to allow banks to continue to function and acquire FDIC insured deposits- was for the FDIC to directly reduce the private capital requirements. Instead, and as direct evidence of a costly ignorance of the dynamics of the banking model, both the Obama and Bush administrations burned through substantial quantities of political capital to get the legislative authority to allow the Treasury to buy equity positions in dozens of private banks. And, to make matters worse, it was all accounted for as additional federal deficit spending. While this would not matter if Congress and the administrations understood the monetary system, the fact is they don’t, and so the TARP has therefore restricted their inclination to make further fiscal adjustments to restore employment and output. Ironically, the overly tight fiscal policy continues to contribute to the rising delinquency and default rate for
bank loans, which continues to impede the desired growth of bank capital.

Proposals for the Federal Reserve

1. The fed should lend unsecured to member banks, and in unlimited quantities at its target fed funds rate, by simply trading in the fed funds market. There is no reason to do other wise. Currently the Fed will only loan to its banks on a fully collateralized basis. However, this is both redundant and disruptive. The Fed demanding collateral when it lends is redundant because all bank assets are already fully regulated by Federal regulators. It is the job of the regulators to make sure that all FDIC insured deposits are ‘safe’ and ‘taxpayer money’ is not at risk from losses that exceed the available private capital. Therefore, the FDIC has already determined that funds loaned by the Fed to a bank can only be invested in ‘legal’ assets and that the bank is adequately capitalized as required by law. There is no room for funding from the Fed to be ‘misused’ as banks already can obtain virtually unlimited funding by FDIC insured deposits. The only difference between banks funding with FDIC insured deposits and funding directly from the Fed might be the interest rate the bank may have to pay, however it’s the further purpose of the Fed’s monetary policy to target the fed funds rate. The Fed also tends to set quantity limits when it lends to its member banks, when there is every reason to instead lend in unlimited quantities. Bank lending is not reserve constrained, so constraining lending to the banks by quantity does not alter lending. What constraining reserves does is alter the fed funds rate, which is the rate banks pay for reserves as well as the Fed’s target rate. So the only way the Fed can fully stabilize the fed funds rate at its target rate is to simple offer to provide unlimited funds at that rate as well as offer to accept fed funds deposits at that same target rate. And with no monetary risk or adverse economic consequences for lending unlimited quantities at its target rate there is no reason not to do this. Another benefit of this policy would be to entirely eliminate the inter bank fed funds market. There is no public purpose served by banks trading fed funds with each other when they can do it with the Fed, and transactions costs are reduced as well. And to eliminate the inter bank markets entirely the Fed has the further option to provide funding with an entire term structure of rates to its banks to both target those rates and also eliminate the need for any inter bank trading.
2. I would limit the Fed to using banks as agents for monetary policy. I would not pursue the policy of attempting to establish additional public/private partnerships for the purpose of buying various financial assets. Instead, if I agreed with the need to purchase those assets, I would enable the banking system to do this along the same lines proposed for the new public/private partnerships. That might take the form of allowing banks to put these ‘qualifying assets’ in a segregated account, where losses to bank capital would be limited to, for example, 10% of the investment in those accounts. This would have the same result as the recently proposed public/private partnerships but within the existing highly regulated and supervised banking system. Banks are the appropriate instrument of monetary policy for targeting the risk adjusted term structure of interest rates. Why go to the expense and risk of creating new public/private partnerships when there are already approximately 8,000 member banks already set up for that purpose?
3. I would make the current zero interest rate policy permanent. This minimizes cost pressures on output, including investment, and thereby helps to stabilize prices. It also minimizes rentier incomes, thereby encouraging higher labor force participation and increased real output. Additionally, because the non government sectors are net savers of financial assets, this policy hurts savers more than it aids borrowers, so a fiscal adjustment such as a tax cut or spending increase would be appropriate to sustain output and employment.
4. I would instruct the Fed to offer credit default insurance on all Treasury securities through its banking system to any buyer. There is no default risk in US Treasury securities, but, if market participants do want to buy such credit default insurance, I would make it available through the Fed. This would keep the premiums and the perception of risk down to a level determined by the Fed. I would suggest they offer it freely at 5 basis points for any maturity.

Proposals for the Treasury

1. I would cease all issuance of Treasury securities. Instead any deficit spending would accumulate as excess reserve balances at the Fed. No public purpose is served by the issuance of Treasury securities with a non convertible currency and floating exchange rate policy. Issuing Treasury securities only serves to support the term structure of interest rates at higher levels than would be the case. And, as longer term rates are the realm of investment, higher term rates only serve to adversely distort the price structure of all goods and services.
2. I would not allow the Treasury to purchase financial assets. This should be done only by the Fed as has traditionally been the case. When the Treasury buys financial assets instead of the Fed all that changes is the reaction of the President, the Congress, the economists, and the media, as they misread the Treasury purchases of financial assets as federal ‘deficit spending’ that limits other fiscal options.


I conclude with my proposals to support aggregate demand and restore output and employment.

1. A full payroll tax holiday where the Treasury makes all the contributions for employees and employers. This immediately restores the purchasing power of those still working and enables them to make their mortgage payments which also stabilizes the banking system.
2. I would distribute $150 billion of revenue sharing to the State governments on a per capita basis. This would stabilize State governments currently cutting back on public services due to revenue short falls caused by the recession. Distribution on per capita basis makes it ‘fair’ and does not ‘reward bad behavior.
3. I would have the Federal government fund $8/hr full time jobs for anyone willing and able to work, that includes health care benefits. This provides an employed labor buffer stock that’s a superior price anchor to our current unemployed buffer stock. This helps support an expansion in private sector employment as the economy improves. It’s been demonstrated that the private sector prefers to hire those already working rather than those who are unemployed. These three proposals, along with above proposals for the Fed, the Treasury, the FDIC, and banking system, will quickly restore the US economy to positive growth, full employment, and establish a banking system that will promote the intended public purpose and require less regulation while substantially reducing the systemic risk inherent in our current institutional arrangements.

Warren Mosler
October 11, 2009
President, Valance Co.