Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email roundup of Beat the Press.

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The first sentence of a Washington Post article told readers that the Democratic leadership in Congress is scaling back plans to help the jobless and deficit ridden state and local governments because of: "fire from rank-and-file Democrats worried about the soaring national debt." It is not clear how the Post knows the real concerns of these politicians.

A politician's first priority is usually getting re-elected. Politicians who claim to be worried about the "soaring" national debt tend to get favorable mention from news outlets like the Washington Post and the many organizations financed in part or in whole by Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson. It is not clear how the Post has determined that as a policy question, these rank and file Democrats are really more worried about the deficit than the jobs that will be lost as a result of their efforts at deficit reduction.

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Before its collapse, Lehamn Brothers played a series of games with its balance sheets to hide its true level of indebtedness. Apparently, the games continue. The WSJ has a nice piece showing that three major banks, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Deutsche Bank AG have all been sharply reducing their borrowings just before the end of the quarter so that their quarterly reports would not reflect the true extent of their leverage. Add a comment

Just a quick note to prevent some mistaken reporting. The Census Department reported a 14.8 percent jump in new home sales in April from March and a 47.8 percent increase from April of 2009. However, this increase in sales was accompanied by a 9.7 plunge in the median house price.

These numbers should not be seen as contradictory. The new home sales series measures contracts. The first-time home buyers tax credit expired at the end of April, which meant that people had to have a signed contract by the end of the month. This gave them incentive to rush out and buy homes. First-time buyers are likely to be concentrated in the low end of the market. This means that a surge in home sales coupled with a skewing to lower priced homes is exactly what we should have expected.

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The Washington Post wrongly implied that a provision in the Senate bill that prohibits banks from brokering derivatives will prevent them from offering trades in derivatives to clients. The Post article contrasted this restriction with "one-stop-shopping" offered by European banks.

Actually, this provision would only prevent the bank itself from brokering derivatives which would mean that this trade would not be provided with the protection of the FDIC and the Fed that are intended to apply only to insured deposits. Under this provision, there is nothing that would prevent bank holding companies from establishing derivative trading divisions, which would have to be independently capitalized, or from contracting with independent brokers to offer services to their clients.

In both cases, the banks would be able to offer the same one-stop-shopping provided by their European counterparts. Therefore, one-stop-shopping is clearly not an issue in the debate over this provision.

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The NYT reports on how the euro crisis may end up impeding the U.S. recovery. By lowering growth in Europe and reducing the value of the euro, it will reduce U.S. exports which were expected to be an important engine of growth for the U.S. economy. The article included a quote from Joseph Stiglitz making this point. However, it later presents a comment from James Bullard, the President of  the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that directly contradicts Stiglitiz and appears to defy basic national income accounting, claiming that the United States:

"must 'directly address' its fiscal problems if it is to retain credibility with credit markets. After all, along with the countries of the euro zone, Britain and the United States are running outsize deficits, compounded by their spending to stimulate the economy."

As a matter of accounting identity, net national saving is equal to the trade surplus. Since the United States is running a large trade deficit, because of the over-valued dollar, it must have negative net national saving. This means either very large budget deficits and/or very low private saving. If the government were to reduce its deficit, then either private saving would have to fall, which would mean even further declines in consumer saving from already low levels, or we would see a fall in output and a rise in the unemployment rate.

It is not clear whether Mr. Bullard advocates more consumer indebtedness or higher unemployment, but it would have been useful to point out the logical implications of the policy that he was advocating. Add a comment

Back when I learned economics, companies were supposed to make profits and economies were supposed to grow. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. We have "saavy" businessmen like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein who took his company to the edge of bankruptcy only to be rescued by bailouts from the Fed and Treasury. Most of the crew of Wall Street multi-millionaires would be on the unemployment line today without the big helping hand from the Nanny State.

In the same vein, the NYT is now citing research from Deutsche Bank reporting : "that euro-area countries 'can learn some valuable lessons from the Baltics’ experience over recent quarters.' Those countries survived drastic budget consolidation without devaluing their currencies."

The article then continues to quote the Deutsche Bank experts: "Restoration of competitiveness and weighty fiscal consolidation in the absence of currency adjustment is difficult but doable ... as long as politicians and the general public are willing to accept some up-front pain in return to longer term gains.”

Just to give a clearer idea of what the Deutsche Bank crew is talking about, the IMF projects that GDP in each of the Baltic countries will drop by close to 20 percent from its 2007 levels. In the United States this would be equivalent to losing $3 trillion in annual output. By 2014, the last year for the projections, GDP is expected to be 7.1 percent lower than its 2007 level in Lithuania, 9.1 percent lower in Estonia, and 14.5 percent lower in Latvia. Unemployment in these countries is more than 15 percent in Estonia and Lithuania and more than 20 percent.

It is nice to see that German bankers applaud this pain. Needless to say, it is unlikely that many bankers will ever have the pleasure of making similar sacrifices for the long-term good of their own countries. Of course, it is not clear how long the Baltic countries will have to endure this pain before GDP is back on a healthy growth path and the unemployment rate is at a more normal level. The IMF tends to be overly optimistic in evaluating the prospects of the countries adopting policies it favors.

It would have been worth explicitly discussing the alternative strategy that some countries may wish to pursue -- devaluation and debt restructuring. Argentina pursued this path at the end of the 2001. While the IMF and virtually all economic authorities insisted that this path would lead to disaster, the economy only contracted for six more months. It then turned around and grew robustly for the next six years until it followed the world economy into recession. At its pre-recession peak in 2008 Argentina's economy was more than one-third larger than it had been in 1998 when its crisis first sent GDP downward.

While the bankers may be more inspired by the tales of sacrifice by the Baltic peoples, many non-bankers may find the Argentine experience more interesting. Responsible reporting should note both options.

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At its peak in 2006, the median house price in the United Kingdom was 10 percent higher than the median price in the United States, even though its per capita income is more than 10 percent lower. This bubble was driving the economy in the UK in the same way that it was driving the economy in the U.S.. The collapse of this bubble led to the recession in the UK and its financial crisis in the fall of 2008.

The bubble was completely absent from the NYT's discussion of the UK's current economic problems. Instead, it attributed fiscal profligacy for the UK's problems. In particular, it focused on the UK's public health care system, which it tells readers: "soared to 9 percent of G.D.P. from 3 percent."It also described the public health care system as " elephantine."

It was many decades ago when health care costs in the UK were just 3.0 percent of GDP. Health care costs in the UK have increased in GDP like as in all other wealthy countries. When the Labor government took office in the mid-90s, health care costs in the UK were close to 6.0 percent of GDP.

With the increase in spending, the UK is still spending only a bit more than half as much as the United States, which spends 17 percent of GDP on health care. When adjusted for the difference in per capita income, the US still spends more than twice as much per person on health care as the UK. It therefore seems somwhat bizarre to describe the UK system as elephantine, especially when life expetancy is longer in the UK than the US.

It is also worth noting that the build up of a large debt burden during the housing crash recesssion is the result of the policy decision by the Bank of England not to simply buy and hold the debt issued to finance the deficits currently needed to support the economy. If the Bank of England followed this strategy, then the debt burden would not increase as a result of the downturn.

The Bank of England created this crisis by failing to take steps to rein in the UK's housing bubble. It now appears to be compounding the crisis by failing to use appropriate monetary policy.

 

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I'm back -- thanks for all the nice wishes.From my occasional glimpses at the newspapers the last week and a half I see that I have a lot of work to do.

I'll start with a cheap shot. The NYT just noticed that the pay or play provision in the health care bill makes no sense. The issue here is the extent to which larger employers will be obligated to pick up a portion of their workers' health care costs. The final bill included a provision that subjected employers of more than 50 workers to penalties if employees' health care costs exceeded a certain percent of family income.

The problem with this sort of penalty structure is that employers do not have control over workers family income and in general should not even know it. This sets up an absurd penalty structure where employers do not have the knowledge they need to act to avoid the penalty -- it's sort of like enforcing speed limits that randomly change and are never posted.

The problem with the NYT coverage is its description of this problem as: "a little-noticed provision of the law." Yes, it is true the provision got relatively little attention, but the NYT played a big role in this. Had the NYT opted to pick up on a problem that some people were trying to call attention to, notably Robert Reichsauer, the President of the Urban Insititute and also the former director of CBO (also CEPR), then maybe this ill-conceived penalty never would have made it into the final law.

 

 

 

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I'm on vacation until Tuesday, May 25th. Remember, don't believe anything you read in the paper until then and while I'm gone, take a look at the CEPR Blog for some good reads on economics and policy analysis. Add a comment

Thanks to Senator Al Franken it appears the Senate took the obvious step to end the conflict of interest associated with issuers paying the credit rating agencies for rating their new issues. The Franken amendment to the financial reform bill requires the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to assign the raters. This would mean that the rating agency has no reason to bend its rating to curry the favor of the issuer, since the issuer does not control whether they get hired in the future.

The Post reported on this amendment and then gave the rating agencies complaint, that this will remove the rating agencies incentive to improve their ratings. This is not true. As my friend Peter Eckstein has pointed out, it would be very easy for the SEC to keep a record of the accuracy of ratings (scoring upgrades and downgrades) and then assign business in proportion to the agencies' relative track record. This will ensure that the agencies have incentive to improve their rating systems.

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