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 highlighting the latest Beat the Press posts.

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The NYT notes that interest rates have recently risen and are generally predicted to continue to rise. It then told readers: "That, economists say, is the inevitable outcome of the nation’s ballooning debt and the renewed prospect of inflation as the economy recovers from the depths of the recent recession."

Okay, what are they smoking there? We have just been through a period of extraordinarily low interest rates. Interest rates fell to their lowest levels in more than 50 years. This was a deliberate policy response to the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Once we are out of the worst of this downturn, everyone expected that interest rates would rise even if we had a balanced budget and moderate inflation, the latter of which is predicted by almost all economists.

In other words, the standard projections from the Fed, the Congressional Budget Office and most private economists is that interest rates will be rising to normal levels from very low levels. Almost no one is projecting soaring interest rates in response to "the nation’s ballooning debt and the renewed prospect of inflation." This is the invention of the NYT.

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This would have been a better headline for the Washington Post article on the testimony before the crisis commission of Fannie's former chief executive as well its top regulator. The discussion before the commission was apparently whether Fannie and Freddie were motivated by profit when they moved into Alt-A mortgages in 2005 and 2006 or whether they were trying to fulfill their mission of increasing homeownership.

While there may be some debate over individual motivations, the obvious point that apparently went unmentioned in this article was that if the executives at Fannie and Freddie were not totally clueless about the housing market, they would have been cutting back on buying mortgages altogether in 2005 and 2006, when house prices were at levels badly inflated by the bubble. It was guaranteed that prices would drop and a high percentage of even traditional prime mortgages would go bad.

In this environment, the responsible route for Fannie and Freddie would have been to only issue mortgages that could be justified by appraisals of rental values. If a house price exceeded a multiple of 15 of its appraised annual rent, then F&F should not have purchased it. This action, along with its public justification by F&F executives and economists, likely would have had a substantial impact in dampening the bubble. This action would have best filled both the institutions' responsibility to promote homeownership and also likely kept them out of conservatorship.

Fannie and Freddie's executives should have been questioned on why they did not see the bubble. This was their biggest failing in the crisis. After all, these are both huge institutions and housing is all they do. The commission failed badly in its task and the inept reporting helped to conceal the commission's failure.

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We need reporters to do this? In the course of the report NPR assured readers that there was nothing that could be done about AIG's explosive issuance of credit default swaps (CDS) because it was an insurance company that operates in hundreds of countries. And furthermore, the federal government doesn't even regulate insurance, states do.

Did this mean that the Fed could do nothing if it chose? Where were the statutory powers that allowed the Fed to arrange the unraveling of the Long-Term Capital Hedge Fund? Neither NPR's reporters nor anyone else would be able to find any statutory authorization for this action. The Fed used its authority and its ability to threaten non-cooperative actors to force most of the major banks to join this effort.

In the same vein, if it had decided that the issuance of trillions of dollars of CDS by AIG was a problem, there were certainly steps it could have taken. For example, it could have told the major banks that they should not be buying CDS from AIG. The Fed is also allowed to talk to other regulatory agencies, like the state insurance agency in NY, which would have had authority over much of AIG's activity. The Fed opted to do nothing in this case because it did not want to do anything, not because it lacked the ability to restrain AIG.

The piece also absurdly claims that the bills before Congress will take care of the problem of "too big to fail" banks. Few analysts would agree with this assessment. The bills leave in place huge financial conglomerates that would be extremely difficult to unravel in the event of a financial crisis.

Listeners would be better served if NPR focused on making the issues surrounding the bill understandable rather than spending its brief news time telling its audience how complicated it is.

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The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th) feels so strongly that we should reduce the budget deficit that they ran yet another front page editorial on the topic. The piece told readers in the second paragraph:

"This mounting government debt poses a painful choice for developed countries such as Britain, Japan and the United States: either a deep reordering of public expectations about everything from the retirement age to tax rates, or slower growth as record levels of borrowing crimp economic activity."

Well, that's pretty clear. The Washington Post told us in no uncertain terms that things will have to be pretty bad, no two ways about it. Only those who bothered to read to page two would find out that there is actually considerable uncertainty about the point at which debt really poses a serious burden on the economy. On page two they would discover the United States actually had a debt to GDP ratio that was nearly twice as high as it is presently. This did not prevent it from having three decades of extraordinarily rapid growth.

The Post's sharp paragraph two warning also ignores the great Citigroup profit trick that the Post applauded last week. The Citigroup profit trick involved the government buying Citigroup stock, guaranteeing the company's survival when it otherwise would have been bankrupt, then selling the stock at a profit when the price rises because of the government guarantee.

The Post warmly applauded this move and saw it as giving the government money -- a great win-win story. Of course, the government can follow the same route pretty much without limit. It can take large stakes in all sorts of companies, then guarantee the companies' debts, thereby lowering borrowing costs and increasing profits. This will raise the stock price, thereby allowing the government to sell at a profit.

The real story of course is that the economy is well below its full employment level of output. This means that it can increase output by just printing money. However, superstitions held by the people who set economic policy and write about it at leading outlets like the Post are preventing the government from taking this simple and obvious step to increase demand. So, if the straightforward route is blocked by superstition, then we effectively accomplish the same thing by using Citigroup profit trick and win great applause the Post and other deficit hawks.

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The Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th Street) told readers that: "Social Security is already draining resources from the broader federal budget, as spending on benefits has risen above this year's Social Security tax collections."

Yes, Social Security benefit payments exceed the money currently being collected in Social Security taxes. The gap is being made up by the interest it earns on the $2.5 trillion in government bonds held in the Social Security trust fund. It is peculiar to describe spending money from its interest earning (or for that matter the bonds themselves) as "draining resources from the broader federal budget." However, if that is the standard the Post wants to use, then we should say that any individual or entity that draws interest from the federal government on bonds it holds is also "draining resources from the federal budget."

This means that billionaire Wall Street investment banker and long-time foe of Social Security Peter Peterson is also draining resources from the federal budget by the Washington Post standard (assuming that he owns some government bonds. No doubt the WAPO will have a story on this fact sometime in the near future.

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That is the only thing that readers can conclude from a statement in an article on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's urgings to reduce the deficit. The WSJ told readers that: "The government is running a budget deficit in excess of about $1.3 trillion, more than 10% of the nation's total economic output." Of course, the Commerce Department is telling us that GDP for the fourth quarter of 2009 was $14.5 trillion, which would mean that the deficit is less than 9.0 percent of GDP.

This trouble with numbers carries over to the substance of the piece which is supposed to be that the country faces an imminent crisis in being able to sell its debt. It warns readers that: "yields on 10-year Treasury notes have risen from around 3.25% in late November to just under 3.9% today, in part because of concerns in credit markets about the mountains of government debt investors are being asked to buy to fund U.S deficits."

Hmmm, we are paying 3.9 interest because there are concerns in credit markets about "mountains of government debt." Were investors also concerned about "mountains of government debt" when they demanded interest rates of more than 6.0 percent to hold federal debt back in 2000? Oh yeah, we had a $250 billion surplus back in 2000.

The reality is that the WSJ is just telling us that they don't like the government's debt. The markets did not tell them why interest rates rose from the extraordinarily low levels of last November. They are just making this stuff up and feeding it readers as truth.

We expect this sort of thing on the WSJ editorial page. We expect better in the news section.

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The NYT reports that China's government signed a deal with the state of California and General Electric to provide engineering expertise and high tech parts for the construction of high-speed rail. This is a fascinating and totally predictable story which cause great pain to many purveyors of the economic conventional wisdom (CW).

China has been building high-speed trains, the United States hasn't. This means that the country has substantially more expertise in this area than the United States. As a result the transfer of this green technology will go from China to the United States, the opposite direction assumed by purveyors of the CW.

More generally, this story shows the absurdity of the assumption of the purveyors of the CW that somehow the U.S. will transfer all its grunt work (i.e. manufacturing) to the developing world and leave the high tech stuff for our smart workers. The reality is that the developing world has hundreds of millions of smart workers who are able to do everything that our smart workers do, but are willing to accept much lower wages. If we subject our more highly educated workers to the same sort of international competition as we have subjected our low-wage workers, they will also lose. This will only change when currencies adjust and wages in the developing world move closer to U.S. levels.

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Steven Pearlstein often has insightful columns, not today. He discusses a conference he attended in which a repeated theme was how the media contributed to the crisis with its poor reporting. He then comments: "although it's a bit overdone, I'll admit there is a dollop of truth in it."

A "dollop?" How about an enormous ocean full of truth to it and Pearlstein continues to contribute to the crisis today by covering up the earlier failure. He tells readers that:

"Three years after the onset of what was then thought of as the "subprime crisis," there remarkably is still no consensus on why it happened, who is to blame, how necessary the government bailouts were and what needs to be done to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again. Over time, the issues have been overwhelmed by populist anger, infused with political ideology, distorted by partisan maneuvering and special-interest pleading, and ultimately eclipsed by economic recovery."

Yeah, it's all really really complicated. Except it isn't.

Nationwide house prices had diverged from a 100-year long trend, increasing by more than 70 percent in real terms. There was no remotely plausible explanation for this run-up. What is hard to to understand to about this? What is complicated? Third grade arithmetic was all that was needed. It's simple, not complicated.

The run-up in house prices was driving the economy. This was also really easy to see. The government publishes GDP data every quarter. The data showed that housing construction had exploded as a share of the economy. You just had to look at the data. It's simple, not complicated.

The data also showed that consumption was booming and savings had fallen to near zero. This was driven by the well-known housing wealth effect. It's simple, not complicated.

It was also easy to see the explosion in subprime and Alt-A loans that people were using to buy homes they could not otherwise afford. These loans were sure to reset at higher interest rates. This works until house prices stop rising. It's simple, not complicated.

And, it was easy to see that house prices would stop rising. Vacancy rates were running at record levels. There is a concept called "supply and demand" in economics and the data showed that we had serious amounts of excess supply. It's simple, not complicated.

And when house prices started to fall, we knew that millions of loans would go bad, construction would plummet and consumption would fall back to more normal levels. This implied a really bad recession and serious financial problems. It's simple, not complicated.

So, Pearlstein is badly misleading reading when he tells us that it is all very complicated. Obviously the buffoons and hacks who either could not see the bubble or deliberately misled the public about it have good reason to tell everyone that it is all very complicated, but it isn't and was not. They did not do their job.

Include the Post high on the list of those who did not do their job. They had no space in their pages for anyone warning of the dangers of the bubble. The paper's main source for information on the housing market was David Lereah, the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors and the author of Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust and How You Can Profit From it.

The Post and the rest of the media failed disastrously at their job to inform the public and they continue to do so. It's simple, not complicated.

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David Leonhardt had a column discussing overuse of expensive medical care in the NYT today. Remarkably, this discussion did not mention the effect of patents in complicated decisions on treatment and raising costs.

Patents are essential to this discussion for two reasons. First, drugs and medical tests that are very expensive are generally expensive because of government granted patent monopolies, not their inherent cost. For example, a new generation of cancer drugs that can cost tens of thousands per year would be relatively cheap in the absence of patent protection. These drugs were expensive to develop, but once they have been developed, the production is cheap. By forcing patients to pay the high patent protected price, an otherwise simple decision (use the cheap drug) can instead be made very complicated.

The other reason why patents play such an important role in this discussion is that they give a party (the patent holder) a huge stake in misrepresenting the issues. Because drug companies or makes of medical equipment stand to make patent rents on the use of their product, they have an enormous incentive to promote its use even in cases where it may not be appropriate. This can lead to overuse and misuse, especially since the patent holder has the most information on their product. They may conceal evidence that it is less beneficial than claimed or even that it is harmful.

This column is the sort of place where it would be expected that readers would find a serious discussion of the role of patents in complicating decisions on appropriate care. It is disappointing that this issue is not addressed.

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California has done some really really stupid things (like a tax credit for first time homebuyers), but the NYT did the state and its readers a disservice in going after California's pension fund liabilities. The basic story is that if you assume a 4.14 nominal rate of return on pension fund assets, then the state's pension liabilities look really really bad.

The big question that readers should ask is, so what?

There have been few people who have been more critical of assuming exaggerated market returns than me, but 4.14 percent nominal? Anyone want to take a bet that California's pension funds will do better than this?

Look, the market has plummeted from its prior levels. This is good news for future returns. Lower price to earnings ratios open the door for higher future returns. The logic is simple: you are paying much less for each dollar of profits. For this reason, the assumption of 4.14 percent average nominal returns (that gives us just over 2.0 percent real, assuming a 2.0 percent inflation rate) is ridiculously low.

Suppose we assume that pension liabilities grow at the nominal rate of 5 percent a year. If we sum the liabilities over 40 years, using a 4.14 percent discount rate gives a 70 percent higher cost than using a 7.0 percent discount rate. Stocks have historically provided a real return of 7 percentage points above the inflation rate, so assuming a nominal return of 7.0 percent for the mixed portfolio is hardly unreasonable.

In short, the story of outsized pension liabilities in this article is driven largely by a ridiculous assumptions about pension returns. There is no reason whatsoever that the state of California should use this 4.14 percent discount rate in assessing its pension liabilities. This calculation would lead it to exaggerate its pension liabilities and therefore raise taxes or cut pensions and/or other spending unnecessarily.

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