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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That's what the Washington Post told readers this morning. This claim would news to hundreds of millions of people around the developing world. Back in the 90s the IMF came to be known as the "Typhoid Mary" of emerging markets as its policy prescriptions led to sharp economic downturns in one country after another. It tried to impose a harsh austerity plan on Argentina in 2001 and did everything it could to sabotage its economy when the country refused to go along. Its sabotage effort included economic growth projections that were likely politically motivated, since they consistently under-projected growth. This would have the effect of scaring away potential efforts. By contrast, the IMF consistently over-projected Argentina's growth in the years when it was following policies recommended by the IMF.

The theme of the article is that people in wealthy countries will have to accept lower living standards, as indicated by its headline: "for nations living good life, the party is over, IMF says." Of course, nations don't live the good life, individuals within nations do. In the United States, and to a lesser extent, most other wealthy countries, the last three decades have been marked by an upward redistribution of income. This has led to a situation in which most of the gains from growth have gone to those at the top end of the income distribution. This would suggest policies that focused on cutting back on their good life, for example a financial transaction tax or the financial activities tax (FAT) that was proposed by the IMF last week. This would cutback on the high incomes of Wall Street's "top performers" while leaving most of the rest of the country largely unaffected.

The distributional issue is also important in the context of one of the other policies highlighted by the IMF: reducing the value of the dollar against the yuan and other currencies. This will raise the price of imports and in that way lower living standards in aggregate. However, by making U.S. manufacturing more competitive, it will increase the demand for manufacturing workers, allowing many workers without college degrees to get relatively high-paying jobs. This is likely to lead to an improvement in living standards even if these workers have to pay somewhat more for imported goods. (Imagine a worker can get paid $20 in auto factory instead of $10 working in a convenience store. They will be much better off even if they have topay 20 percent more for their clothes, shoes, and toys.)

Finally, this article includes an assertion that the United States might need: "roughly $1.4 trillion annually, to be cut from government programs or raised through new taxes." There is no remotely plausible story that would give a number even half this large. This is the size of the government's current budget deficit. More than half of this shortfall is attributable to the fact that the economy is operating well below full employment. If the country were at normal levels of output, the current deficit would be less than 5 percent of GDP.

And, there is no reason that the country must balance its budget. Deficits equal to 2-3 percent of GDP are consistent with a stable or declining debt to GDP ratio. This means that the adjustment needed to get the budget on a stable fiscal footing are likely less than one-quarter of what is implied by this Post article. Furthermore, much of this gap can be made up simply by allowing freer trade in medical services.

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Actually, that is not what the Post said about the implications of Greece defaulting on its debt. A front page story told readers:

"A default in Greece could also ripple across the Atlantic, hitting banks and pension funds holding Greek bonds and heightening investor worries about the national debt of the United States"

Yes, it "could" have this effect, just like it could lead to a run on calamari and lamb as people read about Greece in the newspapers and get the urge to eat calamri and lamb. But, that is not likely to happen. To date, as has been reported in the Post and elsewhere, the prospect of a default by Greece has been associated with the opposite reaction: a flight to the dollar as a safe haven, which has meant lower interest rates.

It is of course the Post's editorial to promote concerns about the U.S. debt and deficit. Most newspapers try to keep a separation between their news pages and their editorial pages.

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ProPublica has a good piece on the dealings of Magnetar, one of the hedge funds that shorted the housing market, while at the same time taking a long position that it used to finance its short position. While the piece involves solid investigative reporting, it is more than a little oversold. The piece begins:

"In late 2005, the booming U.S. housing market seemed to be slowing. The Federal Reserve had begun raising interest rates. Subprime mortgage company shares were falling. Investors began to balk at buying complex mortgage securities. The housing bubble, which had propelled a historic growth in home prices, seemed poised to deflate. And if it had, the great financial crisis of 2008, which produced the Great Recession of 2008-09, might have come sooner and been less severe."

According to the article, Magnetar raised a total of $40 billion. This is equal to roughly 0.2 percent of the $20 trillion value of the housing market at the time. Did Magnetar's long investments help to prop up the market? Probably a bit, but it's hard to see it going too far. Furthermore, by last 2005 the bubble was already pretty close to its peak (that came in the summer of 2006), so it's unlikely that they could have pushed prices much higher than they would have otherwise gone, although it may have slowed the process of the air leaving the bubble. (Actually, a full assessment of its impact would have to factor in its short positions, which would have gone the other way.)

As a purely practical matter, business reporters like to focus on the financial crisis and blame it for the severity of the current downturn, but this really makes little sense. The financial crisis clearly sped things along, but is there any reason to believe that house prices would be higher today in the absence of the crisis. (I'm betting they will fall another 15-20 percent in real terms.) If house prices would be at current levels, is there any reason to believe that consumers would be spending more absent the crisis, that businesses would be investing more, that builders would be putting up more homes or malls? I see zero evidence on any of these fronts, hence I don't attribute the severity of the downturn to the financial crisis. But, I'm open to persuasion.

 

 

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It seems that they don't. The Labor Department reported that there were 456,000 new claims for unemployment insurance benefits last week. The 4-week moving average was 460,250. Generally the economy will not be generating jobs if claims exceed 400,000. In the first 8 months of 2008, when the recession had already begun but before the financial crisis, claims averaged around 370,000 a week. Add a comment
It would have been reasonable to include some discussion of the economic impact of Senator Kent Conrad's plans to cut the budget deficit below the levels targeted by President Obama. The Post reports on the political implications of the budget committee's vote on a package that reduces the defiicit below the levels in President Obama's budget with additional cuts beginning in October, at point at which the unemployment rate is still likely to be close to 10.0 percent. Add a comment

That's what readers of a Washington Post article on the possibility of a default by Greece might be wondering. The Post told readers that:

"Other large nations, including the United States, that carry increasing levels of debt have worried that the Greek crisis could be a small-scale sketch of their own future. Sovereign debt is coming under increasing scrutiny by global markets, and many analysts fear that U.S. government bonds are not as attractive as they once were?

Of course "nations" cannot worry, only individuals within nations can worry, but the Post doesn't identify any who do. Nor does it identify the "analysts" who are finding U.S. government bonds less attractive. These analsysts are apparently offset by analysts who continue to view U.S. government debt as a very attractive asset since the yields on U.S. government bonds remain extremely low.

If there was an interest in making comparisons to Greece it would have been useful to remind readers that the United States government, unlike the Greek government, can print as much money as it wants to finance its debt during a period of economic weakness like the present. It also has a large diversified economy which is still largely self-sufficient, unlike Greece.

These differences make the comparisons to Greece highly inappropriate. While there may be people who make these comparisons as the Post claims, these unnamed individuals probably have little knowledge of economics.

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The NYT reported on how the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was struggling to find ways to remove the inherent conflict of interest that arises when a bond rating agency is paid by the company for whom it is doing the rating. Actually, there is no need for much struggle here. If the selection of the rating agency was assigned to a neutral party, like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the stock exchange on which the company is listed, then the agency would have no incentive to tilt its report in favor of the company. It would have been appropriate to point out that there is a simple and obvious solution to this problem, but that that the Senate for some reason is not interested in pursuing it.
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The Washington Post ran a news article complaining that value added taxes are not being taken more seriously in debates over the budget. (A value added tax is effectively a national sales tax that would impose taxes in proportion to consumption.) The first sentence complained that the lack of interest in this tax stemmed from the "hyperpartisan political atmosphere" in Washington.

"Hyperpartisan" is a peculiar term to use in the context of the deficit debate since it actually does not divide people closely along partisan lines. There are both people on the left and right who argue that concerns on the deficit have been hugely overblown. There are also many deficit hawks in both political parties. "Hyperpartisan" is a favorite term of the people connected with the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, but apart from this association, there is no obvious reason that it should appear in the budget debate.

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The Washington Post reported on the restart of the Hamilton Project, a policy-oriented research project that is financed in large part by Robert Rubin. Mr. Rubin made $110 million in his decade as a top Citigroup executive. During his tenure Citigroup went from one of the largest and most profitable financial companies in the world to the edge of bankruptcy. It was only saved from bankruptcy in the fall of 2008 by tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and hundreds of billions of dollars of government guarantees. It would have been worth noting the questionable source of the project's funding in this piece. If a similar project had been launched by a coalition of labor unions, there is no doubt that the source of the funding would have been clearly noted in the piece. Add a comment

Okay, I don't know Paulson's exact role in the Goldman deal. If he helped to deliberately mislead investors about his own role, pretending to be long on a deal that he was actually betting against, then the SEC should hang him. But there was nothing at all wrong or anti-social about betting against the housing market near the peak of the bubble, as Tina Brown implied on this Morning Edition segment.

By that point, house prices had grown hugely out of line with the fundamentals of the housing market. This priced them out of the reach of millions of middle income people. The temporary run-up in prices also led tens of millions of homeowners to spend based on bubble wealth that would disappear when prices returned to more normal levels.

Betting against the bubble was not "ghoulish," as Tina Brown asserts, it was a public service. It was helping to return house prices to more normal levels. Of course this was not Paulson's motive, but it was a side effect of his bet.

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To Toyota, it would be a big difference. The NYT told readers that: "Toyota also agreed to pay a $16.4 billion fine, one of the heaviest fines imposed on a car manufacturer in the United States, for concealing information related to the recall." The actual fine was $16.4 million. This is equal to approximately 0.1 percent of Toyota's profits in a normal year.
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The NYT reports on the Fed handing $47.4 billion in profits to the Treasury. This event should have gotten more attention. The $47.4 billion in profits from the Fed affects the budget in the same way that raising $47.4 billion from taxes or saving $47.4 billion with spending cuts would affect the budget. However, the Fed neither raised taxes nor cut spending. It printed money.

The reason why this is important is that the Fed is now printing large amounts of money and can print more to support the government's deficit during this downturn. The government does not need to raise taxes or cut spending to pay for programs like unemployment benefits or aid to state to and local education. It can simply print money.

While in principle there is a limit to its ability to print money, that would only come after the economy was back near full employment and further increases in demand threatened to cause inflation. However, the economy is nowhere near this point today. Vincent Reinhart, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, is quoted in the article as saying: "If it [the Fed] tried to increase its balance sheet tenfold, say, the public would be unwilling to hold those reserves. You’d get dollar depreciation and inflation."

A tenfold increase in the Fed's balance sheet would raise it by more than $20 trillion. As Reinhart's quote implies, there is no reason to fear moderate increases in the Fed's balance sheet -- say by another $1-2 trillion over the next few years. It is important to note that the portion of the debt financed by the Fed printing money imposes no burden on future generations. The interest paid on this debt goes to the Fed, which in turn is refunded to taxpayers, just like the $47.4 billion noted in this article.

The Peter Peterson/Robert Rubin deficit hawk gang is deceiving the public on this issue by implying that the deficits run up to support the economy through this downturn will burden our children. In fact, insofar as the spending provides their parents with jobs and income, it directly helps our children. Insofar as it goes to support education or maintain and improve the infrastructure, it will also help our children.

The idea that today's deficits are hurting our children is simply not true. Anyone who says otherwise should read this article as many times as necessary until they understand why.

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In an article that discussed an IMF report on new taxes on the financial industry the Washington Post referred to a "financial activities Tax" (FAT) proposed by the IMF and said that: "The IMF's proposed fees would raise more money than the other options under debate, with an emphasis on discouraging the type of risk-taking that caused the recent crisis."

This is not true, a financial transactions tax (FTT), like the ones put forward in recent bills by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, could raise more than $100 billion a year. This is considerably more money than the amount that would be raised by the FAT at the levels suggested by the IMF.

Remarkably, this article contains no mention of the FTT even though one of the main purposes of the IMF report was to assess its merits. The IMF unambiguously concluded that an FTT was an administratively feasible tax, directly contradicting one of the main objections put forward by many officials in the Obama administration and other opponents of the tax. Although the IMF report indicated its preference for the FAT, its assessment of the FTT's feasibility undermines one of the main arguments against the tax. This fact should have been noted in the article.

 

 

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That would have been an appropriate title for an article describing North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad's plan for sharp cuts in the budget deficit over the next four years. Conrad's plan would reduce the projected 2015 deficit by approximately 1.6 percentage points of GDP more than President Obama's budget. Since most projections still show the economy to be well below full employment levels of output by this year, the cuts in spending and higher taxes in Senator Conrad's plan will reduce the level of output. If we assume an average multiplier of 1, then output will be 1.6 percent lower in 2015 than would otherwise be the case. If employment falls by the same amount, then Senator Conrad's plan would throw roughly 2.3 million people out of work.

It is worth noting that our children will pay a substantial cost under Senator Conrad's deficit reduction scheme. He proposes especially large cuts for the Pell Grant program that helps children from moderate income families pay for college.

At one point, the article describes President Obama's plan to extend President Bush's tax cut for middle-income families and other tax measures as "expensive tax breaks." The more normal description in news stories is "tax breaks."

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Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank told readers that: "by the time President Obama faces reelection in 2012, there should be, as there was in 1984 and 1996, a beautiful sunrise on the horizon: Three years of solid economic growth, unemployment down to about 7 percent."

That's really good to hear. Unfortunately, almost no economists agree with Mr. Milbank. The consensus forecast is for extremely slow growth over the next two years. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the unemployment rate will still be close to 8.0 percent -- a level higher than the peak in the prior two recessions -- by 2012.

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It doesn't seem they can. They told readers that Colombia's GDP has doubled since President Uribe took office in 2002. That's not what the IMF says. According to the IMF, the increase has been just over 40 percent during this period. That's respectable growth, but it sure is not a doubling of GDP.

Calculating real GDP is a recurring problem at top media outlets. In December of 2007, in order to argue that the case that NAFTA had been a great success, a Washington Post editorial told readers that Mexico's GDP had quadrupled between 1988 and 2007. In reality, the increase had been just 84 percent. While a huge "nevermind" would have been in order, the Post lacked the integrity to print a correction and own up to this mistake.

 

[Addendum: BusinessWeek has corrected its mistake. We're still waiting on the Post.]

 

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David Leonhardt devoted his column today to an analysis of the relative merits of owning versus renting. It is useful question to raise, since many policy types have pushed homeownership in situations where it was virtually certain to lead to bad outcomes. (Did anyone lose their job for getting moderate income families to buy homes at the peak of the bubble, 2004-2007?)

While this is the right question, Leonhardt's math is off. He assumes a 20 to 1 price to rent ratio leaves a rough balance between owning and renting. In fact, the ratio would be closer to 15 to 1, it's long-term average.

The arithmetic is straightforward. The average real interest rate on mortgages is somewhat over 4.0 percent. Property taxes average 1.0 percent, as do the combination of maintenance costs and insurance. This brings average real annual costs to 6.0 percent of the sale price. Then there are turnover costs (realtor fees and various closing costs) that average roughly 10 percent of the sale price on a round-trip basis. The median period of homeownership is 7 years, which gives a cost of 1.4 percent a year, raising the total to 7.4 percent.

Even if the mortgage tax deduction knocks this down by a percentage point, this still leaves annual costs at 6.4 percent of sale price -- much closer to 15 to 1 ratio than Leonhardt's 20 to 1 ratio.  (A full percentage point tax benefit would be very high -- the actual tax benefit will be based on the difference between tax deductions including mortgage interest and the standard deduction. This will in the vast majority of cases be far less than the full mortgage interest deduction, since the overwhelming majority of homeowners would take the standard deduction if they were not owners.)

 

 

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NPR had a piece on regulating derivatives this morning in which it presented the industry view that effective regulation will cause the industry to move offshore. The show should have brought on an economist to denounce this protectionist view and the harm that it implies for the economy.

There is no more reason for people in the United States to be concerned about buying derivatives abroad than we are about buying shoes and clothes from abroad. If other countries choose to attract trade in derivatives with a more poorly regulated financial system -- implicitly having their taxpayers assume the risk of a meltdown (e.g. Iceland) -- then there is no reason that we should not simply buy our derivatives from these countries and concentrate our production on areas in which we enjoy a comparative advantage. NPR should have included the economist's position in this segment.

 

 

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Budget cutbacks at the state and local level make the downturn worse by reducing demand. This is econ 101. The NYT should have found someone to make this point so that readers would recognize that the members of Congress who refuse to allow more spending to prevent these cutbacks are raising the unemployment rate.

--Dean Baker

 

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Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson makes a habit of using sleight of hand to promote fears about the budget deficit. He was in fine form yesterday in a column that argued that a value added tax offered little hope of addressing the deficit problem.

Samuelson told readers:

"By 2020, it could reach 25.2 percent of GDP and would still be expanding, reckons the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of President Obama's budgets. In 2020, the deficit (assuming a healthy economy with 5 percent unemployment) would be 5.6 percent of GDP. To cover that, taxes would have to rise almost 30 percent"

A 30 percent increase in taxes sounds pretty scary (that's percent, not 30 percentage points), but it is also beside the point. There is no reason to balance the budget in 2020 or ever. The key point is that the debt to GDP ratio cannot be growing indefinitely. To get the deficit down to a level that is consistent with a flat or declining debt to GDP ratio we would need to bring the deficit down to about 3.0 of GDP. The revenue needed to meet that target would involve a tax increase of a bit more than 10 percent or about 2.6 percentage points of GDP. That is not trivial, but not especially terrifying. We have been there before.

The problem is that once you move beyond the cheap tricks, Samuelson really doesn't have much of a story. Hence the need for cheap tricks.

 

--Dean Baker

 

 

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The folks who got it wrong when the housing bubble was growing seem determined to prove to the world that they are incapable of learning anything. The latest tales of Goldman designing CDOs are fascinating in that they reveal the incredible level of corruption at Goldman and on Wall Street more generally, but it was not the CDOs that gave us 10 percent unemployment.

Unemployment soared because demand collapsed. And the reason that demand collapsed is because housing bubble wealth disappeared. And housing bubble wealth disappeared -- well, because it was a bubble that was not supported by the fundamentals.

For the 87,865th time, the collapse of the bubble led to a falloff in annual construction (residential and non-residential) spending of more than $600 billion. The loss of $6 trillion in housing wealth led, through the housing wealth effect (this isn't radical -- it is as old an economics doctrine as you'll find) to a loss of close to $400 billion in consumption demand. That gives a combined loss in demand of more than $1 trillion and hence a really bad recession.

This story has nothing directly to do with CDOs. Insofar as CDOs and other games helped to drive the bubble beyond the levels it would have otherwise attained then they made the crash worse than it otherwise would have been, but the CDOs were not directly the problem. It was the bubble.

The folks who played games on Wall Street should be put safely behind bars for long periods of time, but it is important to know that the real story of this crisis was not the complex shenanigans of the Goldman gang. The real story was a huge bubble that was easy to see and guaranteed to burst. The fact that those involved in making and reporting on economic policy somehow did not see the bubble was a failure of immense proportions that should cost many many people their jobs.

 

--Dean Baker

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