Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).

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David Leonhardt has an interesting discussion of public attitudes towards President Obama and the Democrats on the eve of the elections. He notes that the stimulus helped, but the economy is not where President Obama's advisers expected it to be right now.

It is worth noting that President Obama's advisers seriously underestimated the severity of the downturn. They had projected that even without any stimulus package the unemployment rate would peak at just over 9.0 percent. In fact, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.1 percent last fall, even with the stimulus in effect. It had already reached 9.4 percent in May, just as the first effects of the stimulus were being felt. A major reason for the inadequacy of the stimulus was this failure to fully appreciate the severity of the downturn.

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NPR told us yet again that we should be happy about the TARP because it really didn't cost us very much. Since the notion of the TARP free lunch continues to be promulgated widely let's look at it from a slightly different perspective.

In the past, I have made the point that the government made loans and guarantees to huge banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup at well below the market price during a financial crisis. This allowed these banks to survive and prosper. If the market had been allowed to work its magic, the shareholders of these banks would have lost all their holdings, their top executives would be walking the unemployment lines, and many of their creditors would have been forced to accept less than 100 cents on the dollar for their debt. This would mean that they would not have claim to trillions of dollars of the economy's wealth which they now have.

The costless TARP argument says that this should not concern us since the TARP did not add significantly to the national debt. So, let's try another approach.

Suppose that in October of 2008 we saw Goldman, Citi and the rest were in big trouble. Instead of the trillions in loans and guarantees from the Treasury and the Fed, we told the banks to just print up money. The government said that the banks should print as much money as they need to survive. The counterfeit money would then be circulated through the economic system just like real money, allowing the banks to survive. At the appropriate time the Fed would withdraw enough reserves from the system to ensure that the counterfeit money did not lead to inflation.

Okay, did the bailout cost us anything? Well, it certainly did not add to the deficit, we never gave the banks any public money. However, the decision to allow the Wall Street banks to freely counterfeit money for a period of time gave them a claim to the economy's wealth that they would not otherwise have. As a result, they are richer than they otherwise would be.

If the economy ever gets back to full employment, their wealth will reduce the resources available to the rest of us. Because the CEOs at Goldman, Citi and the rest have their hundreds of millions in wealth, as do their shareholders, they can command resources (e.g. homes, cares, labor) and thereby prevent the rest of us from enjoying the same resources. In short, the government's authorized counterfeiting cost us some of our wealth, even though it did not involve a single taxpayer dollar. This is the same story with the TARP/Fed bank bailouts.

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In September of 2008 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke deliberately misled Congress. He told them that they had to approve the $700 billion TARP bailout because the commercial paper markets were shutting down.

A shutdown of the commercial paper markets would genuinely have been disastrous for the economy since most major corporations are dependent on issuing commercial paper for meeting payroll and other ongoing expenses. If even healthy companies couldn't raise money through the commercial paper market then we would be looking at an economic collapse in fairly short order.

Bernanke was deceiving Congress with his discussion of the commercial paper market because he single handedly possessed the ability to support the commercial paper market. In fact, the weekend after Congress voted for the TARP he announced that he would create a special Fed lending facility to directly buy commercial paper from non-financial companies.

If Bernanke had been honest with Congress he could have told them of his plans to create such a facility before they voted on TARP and explained that the commercial paper market could be sustained whether or not they approved the TARP bailout.

This is worth mentioning now because this hoary lie keeps popping up. Let's be clear, it was important for the Fed/government to take steps to sustain a working financial system. But these steps could have included conditions that made Wall Street pay a huge price and change its mode of operation forever.

The decision to give the money essentially without conditions was a political decision that was attributable to the banks' political power. As a result, these parasites are more economically and politically powerful than ever. The public should know the truth even if they lack the money to do anything about it.

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AP appears to be following in the steps of Fox and the Washington Post as it joins the crusade for deficit reduction and ignores normal journalistic standards of objectivity. The first sentence of an article that asserts that the Obama administration will make deficit reduction the top priority of his second term describes the country as "a nation sick of spending." There is zero evidence to support this position in the article. There are also no sources within the Obama administration cited for an article titled "Obama likely to focus on deficit in next two years."

At one point the article tells readers that the country wants to see reduced spending, then lists a number of small programs which voters are willing to see cut if it is necessary to get deficits down. It would have been worth pointing out that these programs taken together would have only a very modest impact on spending even if they were eliminated altogether.

The article tells readers:

"Moving to the fore will be a more serious focus on how to balance the federal budget and pay for the programs that keep sinking the country into debt." In fact, it is not "programs" that keep sinking the country in debt, but rather the recession, as can be easily shown. The main cause of the run-up in debt associated with the downturn was a falloff of tax revenue and an increase in spending on automatic stabilizers, like unemployment compensation.

The article then tells readers:

"In other times, that discussion might seem like dry, Washington talk. Not now. People are fed up with federal spending, particularly as many remain jobless." Of course the reason that the federal government is spending more is because "many remain jobless." The statement would be like saying that people are upset with the fire department's use of water, especially at a time when the city is seeing so many fires. In the old days, reporters would have investigated how people could be so confused, if in fact they are, instead of trying to propagate such confusion.

The article later tells readers that:

"Obama defends the huge economic stimulus plan and the bailout of U.S. automakers, and doesn't blame people for getting tired of all the spending." A real reporter would have written this sentence without the word "huge." It is an especially bizarre adjective since the size of the net stimulus from the government sector was about $150 billion a year, a bit more than one-tenth of the size of the lost private sector demand.

Finally, the article gets billions and trillion confused when it tells readers:

"The yearly budget deficit stands at $1.3 billion."

This level of confusion is typical for this article which clearly is intended to promote a deficit reduction agenda rather than inform readers about the issues involved.

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Friedman argues by example of course. He argues for rebuilding the country's infrastructure, which would of course be a great thing. However, he wants the country to pay for it with more taxes on the middle class and cutting Social Security benefits.

A skilled columnist would know that the U.S. Social Security system is already among the least generous of the OECD countries. A skilled columnist would also know that most near retirees will have almost nothing to support themselves in their retirement other than Social Security because the people who Friedman thinks of as experts (economists) are not very good at their jobs (i.e. they allowed the housing bubble to grow to a level where its collapse would inevitably wreck the economy and destroy the savings [mostly home equity] of near retirees).

A skilled columnist would suggest a tax on the people who have profited from and caused the economic decay of the last three decades. Specifically a financial speculation tax, which could raise more than $150 billion a year while discouraging financial speculation and reducing the drain of resources that the financial sector imposes on the economy.

A skilled columnist would also know that the real source of the long-term budget problems projected for the United States is health care. A skilled columnist would focus on the need to get U.S. health care costs in line with the rest of the world as the only way to fix the country's long-term budget problems as well as removing an enormous source of strain on the private economy.

But Friedman shows that the U.S. economy still has good paying jobs for people without skills by writing a column that addresses economic issues with no apparent awareness of most of the relevant facts. If the NYT had more op-ed positions it could go far toward reducing inequality. 

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How can reporters have been covering the debate in France for weeks and still not know that age 60 is an early retirement age, not the normal retirement age? It is comparable to the early retirement age of 62 for Social Security benefits. The normal retirement age in France is currently 65. In France, as in the United States, most workers start collecting benefits shortly after reaching the early retirement age. It would have been useful to make this distinction so that readers would understand what is at issue. Add a comment

Joe Nocera has a nice discussion of the foreclosure scandal in the NYT. However at the end he decries the fact that if we require Bank of America and other big banks to adhere to the law, then the losses could be so large that we would need to bail them out again.

The part missing from this story is that we could have bailed the banks out with conditions that were so onerous the banks would not be happy about the bailouts. We could have wiped out the shareholders, forced the creditors to take large haircuts and also put real caps (instead of the idiot versions intended to fool gullible reporters) on executive compensation.

The reason that these conditions were not imposed in 2008 is because the of the power of Wall Street, not the underlying dynamics of the situation. Nocera should have figured this one out by now.

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A NYT news article described the strikes in France over the increase in the retirement age as being:

"a cents-and-euros struggle to avert the inevitable moment when decades of cumulative benefits — from short work weeks to long vacations, from state health care to early retirement — begin to unravel."

The article presents no evidence as to why it is inevitable that "decades of cumulative benefits begin to unravel." Nor does it present any statements from any expert who supports this view.

In fact, since productivity in France is growing through time (i.e. it is producing more in each hour of work), there is no reason whatsoever that its benefits need unravel. Workers can continue to enjoy increases in after-tax wages while maintaining the welfare state at its current level.

The comment about the "inevitable" unraveling of the French welfare state is an expression of distaste on the part of the NYT that should be left to the opinion pages. 

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News apparently takes a long time to reach downtown Washington, D.C. That is the only conclusion that Washington Post readers can have after seeing the paper attribute the economic downturn to: "the ways the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007 would ripple through the economy."

Of course the downturn was not due to subprime mortgage crisis, it was due to the collapse of a housing bubble. Residential construction would not have been cut by more than 50 percent if the issue was just the subprime crisis. It fell by 50 percent because the bubble led to enormous overbuilding of housing.

Similarly the saving rate has risen by more than 6 percentage points, leading to falloff in annual consumption of more than $600 billion. This is not the result of the subprime crisis. This is the result of the loss of $6 trillion in housing bubble wealth, along with the loss of $6 trillion in stock market wealth which was supported by housing bubble driven growth.

The subprime crisis was a triggering event. Had there not been an enormous housing bubble in the process of bursting the subprime crisis would have had little macroeconomic consequence. This news may at some point reach the Post. 

The article also includes a strange analysis of the current housing market:

"If the foreclosure process is slowed down too much, it could lead people to hold off on home purchases as they wait for a new, cheaper supply of homes to hit the market. In that sense, it could further delay a recovery in the long-ailing housing market."

If the foreclosure process is slowed then it reduces supply. If people delay purchases, then this reduces demand. In principle, this doesn't move prices in either direction, unless there is a reason to believe that one effect is markedly larger than the other.

As a practical matter, banks are sitting on a huge inventory of foreclosed homes so a moratorium is likely to have very little impact on the supply of foreclosed homes coming on the market. The dire warnings of the consequences of such a moratorium don't really have a basis in reality.

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No, unfortunately that is not a joke. The Washington Post devoted a major article to explaining to readers how a foreclosure moratorium is actually bad for homeowners. The article explains that for government workers with security clearance, the ambiguous debt status of a mortgage facing foreclosure may raise issues, since being behind in one's debts can be grounds for revoking a security clearance. (The logic is that if you can't manage your finances you might be susceptible to blackmail.)

There are two serious problems with the Post's piece. First, it is unlikely that someone stands in a better position with their security clearance after their house has been foreclosed than before. There may be some uncertainty while the process is in limbo, but the uncertainty is better than having the foreclosure actually take place.

Second, it is not true as the Post asserts that:

"Foreclosure delays started when Ally Financial, formerly GMAC, suspended evictions last month after concerns arose about flaws in court documents used to seize homes."

Actually, the flood of defaults has created a huge backlog as banks try to catch up with the huge number of people who are behind in their mortgages and also in many cases consider loan modifications. In other words, it is not new that many homeowners who are behind in their mortgages would find themselves in an uncertain status on foreclosure. So, there really is no story here.

 

 

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The NYT had a piece on the recent decline in the value of the dollar and effort by other countries to offset its impact. The article noted in particular developing country efforts to reduce capital inflows that are raising the value of their currency.

It would have been worth noting that in standard economic theory, developing countries are supposed to be borrowers. The logic is that capital is relatively scarce in the developing countries, which means that it gets a higher return. Capital therefore should flow from relatively to slow growing rich countries to more rapidly growing developing countries.

This was the direction of flows until the East Asian financial crisis in 1997. The harsh conditions that the IMF imposed on the East Asian countries led developing countries throughout the world to focus on building up reserves so that they would not have to deal with the IMF. This reversal coincided with the "high dollar" policy touted by then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. It helped to lay the basis for the imbalances associated with the stock and housing bubbles.

To a large extent, the decline in the value of the dollar would effectively reverse the distortions to the world economy resulting from the IMF-Rubin policy of the late 90s. It is also worth noting the recent decline in the dollar is largely just reversing its run-up as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. Money flowed into the U.S. as a safe haven, pushing the dollar well above its pre-crisis levels. It is now falling back toward the level it was at before the crisis.

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The Washington Post headlined a piece on a Republican proposal to cut Social Security benefits, "GOP Social Security plan would cut benefits for higher earners." This headline may lead one to believe that the plan would only cut benefits for relatively affluent workers. In fact, the plan would cut benefits for 70 percent of all workers, as indicated in the first sentence. The plan also raises the retirement age to 70, which amounts to an additional benefit cut of roughly 15 percent for all workers. 

The table accompanying the article also badly understates the impact of the cuts proposed in the Republican plan. It compares the benefits that a medium earner would get under the Republican plan in 2050 with the earnings that a medium earner would get today. The more appropriate comparison is the currently scheduled benefits for a medium earner in 2050. This is projected to rise by more than 48 percent to over $1,800 a month (in 2010 dollars) by 2050. The Republican plan would imply a cut of more than 35 percent against this scheduled level of benefits.

The article also presents an inaccurate statement from a spokesperson for Representative Ryan (the author of the Republican plan) without pointing out to readers that it is wrong. The spokesperson said that:

"According to the Social Security Administration, Congressman Pomeroy's do-nothing plan will impose painful, across-the-board benefit cuts on current seniors and those nearing retirement."

Actually, the trustees project that the program can pay full benefits for through the year 2037 with no changes whatsoever, at which point it would be able to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. Very few current retirees can expect to live more than 27 years.

 

[Addendum: Actually, the numbers in the chart refers to benefits that are indexed to the average wage in the economy. This means that if benefits doubled in nominal dollars and the average wage doubled, then indexed benefit would show no increase. The size of the cuts in the plan put forward by Representative Ryan depend on the exact point a worker's wages fall in the distribution.  If one combines the impact of the change in the indexation formula proposed by Representative Ryan and his proposed increase in the retirement age, it would lead to a 25 percent cut from scheduled benefits for medium wage earner.]

 

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A Washington Post editorial expressing doubts about the Federal Reserve Board's plan to boost the economy with additional quantitative easing told readers:

"it's not clear how the Fed will sop up all the extra liquidity it's creating once growth resumes." 

Actually, it is clear. The Fed has several tools to reduce the money supply and prevent inflation. It can raise the federal funds rate that banks pay for borrowing reserves overnight, it can increase the reserve requirement, forcing banks to hold more reserves, and it can raise the interest rate it pays on reserves encouraging banks to hold more reserves. One would hope that the Post's editors would be familiar with these mechanisms.

The piece then goes on to express its real concern:

"The deeper fear is that QE2 is a cyclical solution to a structural problem. Many corporations are flush with cash already but simply don't see enough opportunities for profitable investment within the United States. The list of reasons include households with too much debt; political and policy uncertainty; a growing mismatch between the skills of unemployed U.S. workers and the available work; and a broader shift in economic dynamism from the developed to emerging markets."

This is an interesting story. All the evidence, including what appears in the Washington Post news section, suggests that we have a cyclical (i.e. not structural) problem. In other words, unemployment as soared because the economy lacks demand.

The problem is that the economy was driven by an $8 trillion housing bubble. Now that this source of demand has disappeared, the economy needs a new source of demand. In the short-term this demand can only come from the government and from very stimulatory monetary policy. In the longer term, a lower dollar is needed to move the trade deficit closer to balance.

There is zero evidence to support the Post's claim of, "a growing mismatch between the skills of unemployed U.S. workers and the available work." It would be an important news item if it uncovers any evidence of this phenomenon.

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David Leonhardt outlines an interesting proposal to reduce the cost of Medicare. He challenges readers to come up with alternatives.

There is an easy and simple one that health care reformers appear unwilling to consider. Let Medicare patients buy into the more efficient health care systems in other countries and split the savings. According to the Congressional Budget Office's projections, these savings will rise into the tens of thousands per beneficiary per year.

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The NYT had an interesting piece this morning on how insurers are trying to reduce the cost of treating cancer. While the piece notes that much of the cost is related to the high price of new cancer drugs it would have been worth mentioning that this is the result of government granted patent monopolies. If the government used a different mechanism for financing drug development and allowed drugs to be sold at the free market price, all of these treatments would be relatively low cost. The doctors would be able to choose the one that they viewed as best for their patient without worrying about the cost. Add a comment

Eric Schurenberg is upset about Social Security and Medicare benefits because the federal government spends 7 times as much on each senior as it does on each child. This is taken from a paper that came out from the Brookings Institution. 

Let's use the Schurenberg-Brookings methodology to see the ratio of average federal spending on the country's 400 billionaires to spending per child. For convenience let's say that federal spending averages $5,000 per child.

How much does the federal government spend on each billionaire? Most wealthy people hold some amount of their wealth in government bonds. Let's conservatively assume that our 400 billionaires hold an average of $1 billion worth of government bonds. Let's assume that these bonds pay an average interest rate of 4 percent. This means that the government is paying our billionaires an average of $40 million a year in interest. This is about 8,000 times what we spend on children on average. How's that for fairness?

Okay, everyone is jumping up and down saying that our billionaires paid for these bonds and this interest is just a return on that payment. This is true, but guess what? Our seniors paid Social Security and Medicare taxes to cover their benefits. In other words, they paid for these benefits much like the billionaires paid for their bonds, except of course that the seniors had no choice in the matter.

Ignoring the fact that Social Security and Medicare were paid for with designated taxes is dishonest, just as it would be dishonest to comment on the interest payments going to the billionaires without noting that they had paid for their bonds. But hey, this is the state of public debate in Washington.

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The Washington Post appears to have outdone itself in a discussion of the politics surrounding the foreclosure crisis. For beginners, it told readers that:

"Reviving the economy requires repairing the housing market."

What does the Post possibly think it means by this statement? Does it mean that reviving the economy means re-inflating the housing bubble? That's a novel economic theory. Maybe they should find an economist who won't laugh at it.

Does it mean that reviving the economy means allowing the bubble to complete its process of deflation. This would arguably be a good thing, because then people stop throwing money in the toilet buying homes at bubble-inflated prices. The further deflation of the bubble also means that homeowners would recognize how little equity they actually have so they can adjust their savings accordingly. But, this means a higher saving rate (i.e. less consumption), which would slow the economy, so it is difficult to understand how that promotes economic revival.

This great sentence continues:

"which won't happen until foreclosed properties and delinquent mortgages are dealt with."

The rest of the paragraph explains to readers that:

"So the White House, which is looking past the midterm elections, has been restrained. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan wrote over the weekend that 'a national, blanket moratorium on all foreclosure sales would do far more harm than good, hurting homeowners and home buyers alike.'"

Okay, it's fun with logic time. Secretary Donovan wants more foreclosures, presumably to further depress prices. Nevermind that the impact is likely to be very limited at the moment, since banks already have a huge inventory of foreclosed homes that they are holding off the market.

If Donovan thinks it is good to speed up the foreclosure process then why is the administration pushing HAMP? According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, one of the main purposes of HAMP was to slow down the foreclosure process. So the administration thinks that it is very important to both speed up and slow down the foreclosure process? That may make sense to the Washington Post, but probably not to anyone else.

We should probably also mention the homebuyers' tax credits. These credits also temporarily supported the market. This allowed many homeowners to dump their homes at bubble-inflated prices. It also allowed banks to get out of mortgages that might otherwise have gone underwater, or in many cases, further underwater.

The article then gives us a quote from a Democratic consultant without a name:

"But shutting down foreclosures has the potential of shutting down the whole housing market, which isn't helpful to anybody."

Let's see, we have how many hundreds of thousands of homes that non-foreclosed sellers are putting on the market each month, plus a backlog of several hundred thousand foreclosed homes already in the banks' possession. How exactly does a moratorium on foreclosures shut down the whole housing market?

Then we have the orphan and widow sob story:

"A freeze in foreclosure sales also hurts private investors - including endowments, pension funds and mutual funds - who in good times greased the wheels of the real estate market by buying mortgage securities."

Yes, some endowments, pension funds and mutual funds made bad investments because their highly paid investment advisers were too incompetent to see an $8 trillion housing bubble. What does that have to do with an insistence that the law be followed when houses are foreclosed. Endowments, pension funds and mutual funds also lost money when companies in which they held stock were hurt by trade agreements. The Post has never mentioned this fact prominently. In any case, this is the way a capitalist economy works. Almost anything the government does or does not do will cause endowments, pension funds and mutual funds to lose money on some of their holdings.

The Post concludes by giving us a tirade from a Virginia realtor who "upset that deadbeat borrowers may get a break." Of course the issue here is simply making sure that the law is followed -- a fact that the Post managed to obscure very effectively in this article. Presumably even the Virginia realtor would agree that banks should not be able to throw people out of their home without going through the normal legal process. 

 

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If you asked people what the retirement age is for Social Security most people would probably say 66, or perhaps age 65 if they missed the fact that the age for full benefits has been increased. However, workers can qualify for early benefits at age 62 and most workers do in fact start collecting benefits shortly after reaching this age.

This is why it is very disturbing to see the NYT and other reports on France routinely refer to President Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age in France from age 60 to 62. This refers to the early retirement age. The normal retirement age is already age 65 and would rise to age 67 under Sarkozy's proposal.

In the same vein, the article refers to a plan by Germany to raise its retirement age to 63 without noting that this refers to the early retirement age. The age for full benefits in Germany is currently 67.

The article also points out projections for declining ratios of workers to retirees, which will put pressure on retirement systems. It would have been helpful to point out that real wages are projected to increase at the rate of approximately 1 percent annually. This would allow workers to spend a larger portion of their life in retirement if they opt to take a portion of this gain in longer retirements with somewhat smaller pay gains.

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I'm not kidding, read it for yourself. Samuelson notes Fed plans to buy more Treasury bonds. He then warns of the "dangers." He comments that the policy may prove ineffective -- the Fed may be pushing on a string:

"But if all the cheap money spurs much higher economic growth, many of these reserves will turn into loans and raise the specter of higher inflation -- 'too much money chasing too few goods.' The Fed would then have to withdraw or neutralize the added money through higher interest rates."

That's great, we're sitting here in the most prolonged downturn since the Great Depression, with the inflation rate closing in on zero, and Samuelson is worried that we may get a burst of growth that could lead to higher inflation. Only in the Washington Post.

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The Washington Post apparently thinks that banks have a fixed number of employees. This is the only meaning that can be attached to their warning in an editorial arguing a foreclosure moratorium that:

"An ironic consequence of diverting staff to fixing affidavits now is that it leaves fewer people to modify salvageable loans."

See, the way this would work is the banks would realize that they need more workers to handle the foreclosure process in a way that complies with the law. (You know, the law, what the rest of us have to obey.) The banks would run help wanted ads, maybe even in the Post, and employ some of the millions of people who have lost their jobs in the downturn. Hiring more workers would of course lower bank profits and dip into executive bonuses, but that is the way things are supposed to work in a market economy.

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The mind readers at the NYT told readers that:

"The Obama administration has resisted calls for a more forceful response, worried that added pressure might spook the banks and hobble the broader economy [emphasis added]."

It is easy to see how a foreclosure moratorium might hurt bank profits. After all, the banks could be forced to follow the same laws on mortgages and property transfers as the rest of us. This would raise their costs and reduce their profits, which is why they had been taking short-cuts instead of following the law.

However it is not easy to see the chain of events whereby a foreclosure moratorium hurts the broader economy. Certainly Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan couldn't produce a credible story in the piece in the Huffington Post cited in this article.

Donovan uses the absurd story of a young woman who just bought a foreclosed property who he claims would have been unable to achieve her dream of homeownership if a foreclosure moratorium were in place.

Huh? Doesn't the housing secretary know that there is a huge inventory of foreclosed homes that banks are holding off the market waiting for better times? If the pipeline of newly foreclosed homes was temporarily stopped by a moratorium, this inventory would easily keep the market well-supplied with foreclosed properties for long into the future.

And, wasn't one of the main purposes of HAMP to slow the process of foreclosure? The argument was that this slowing was necessary to stabilize the market. Does the Obama administration want to slow or speed up the process of foreclosure, or both? And are both essential for the housing market?

This is what a reporter would be asking after seeing Secretary Donovan's piece. (Btw, yes both HAMP and blocking a foreclosure moratorium helps banks.)

 

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