The American Prospect Online, July 10, 2008
This week in economic news: McCain advocates balancing the budget with magic, Greenspan is either a liar or a fool, and government lenders sag under the weight of bad mortgages.
McCain Comes Out for a Balanced Budget (With Tax Cuts)
John McCain would like to claim the legacy of the last popular Republican president, Ronald Reagan. He took a big step toward that goal on Monday when he explained his plans to balance the budget by 2013. Just like Reagan, Sen. McCain claims he can cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget. For his next trick, he will juggle 27 flaming bowling balls, while standing on one foot on the back of a charging bull, blindfolded.
Those keeping score will remember that the deficit exploded in the Reagan years. It was 2.6 percent of gross domestic product in the last Carter budget but exploded to 6 percent of GDP -- the largest deficit of the post-World War II era -- by 1983. The debt to GDP ratio rose from 32.6 percent at the end of 1981 to 53.1 percent after the last Reagan budget in 1989. Prior to Reagan, the debt to GDP ratio had been falling consistently since World War II under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
If McCain thinks that promising tax cuts, higher defense spending, and a balanced budget is "straight talk," what would he consider lying?
What If They Are Telling the Truth?
When a high-powered official makes some really harebrained statement about the economy, I always assume that it is for political purposes and that he or she really knows what's going on.
For example, Alan Greenspan told The Washington Post recently that he first became aware of the explosion in sub-prime mortgage debt in January of 2006, his last month as Fed chairman. But the growth in sub-prime lending was not a trade secret -- by 2006 it was a widely noted development among people following the housing market and the economy.
In the same vein, Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, complained last week about the weak dollar at the same time he defended the European Central Bank's (ECB) recent interest-rate hike.
Presumably, one of the main reasons that the ECB raised interest rates was to strengthen the euro (and thereby weaken the dollar) in an effort to fight inflation. The higher value of the euro against the dollar and other currencies makes U.S. goods cheaper in Europe, causing Europeans to buy more imports and fewer domestically produced goods. (Cheaper imports also lower prices more generally in the euro zone, another way to reduce inflationary pressure.) The lower dollar also raises the price of European exports, causing people in the United States to buy fewer of them. Higher imports and lower exports will have the effect of slowing growth in the European economies, thereby throwing workers out of work and decreasing their bargaining power, which is how central banks fight inflation.
Therefore, it doesn't make sense to both support the rate hike by the ECB and complain about a weak dollar, although the higher interest rate also slows the European economy through other mechanisms. If Barroso didn't want a weak dollar, then he should be opposed to the rate hike.
Anyhow, when prominent figures like Greenspan and Mr. Barroso make statements that really don't make any sense, I have always assumed that they were doing it out of some political calculation. But what if these people are actually being honest and really don't have a clue? Let's hope they are just liars.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Are Going Down. Who Could Have Known?
The stocks of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both fell by more than 15 percent on Monday. These giant companies were established by the federal government to facilitate homeownership through the creation of a secondary mortgage market. The secondary mortgage market allowed the banks or savings and loans that made mortgages to resell them, which meant that they could get more capital to issue new mortgages. This effectively transformed mortgage markets from local to national or international markets. In the last quarter, Fannie and Freddie, along with the Federal Housing Authority and the Department of Veterans Affairs, either issued or backed 80 percent of new mortgages. Essentially, as the private mortgage-financing system collapsed, the quasi-public system has risen to fill the gap.
However, Fannie and Freddie could not possibly have remained immune to the tidal wave of bad mortgage debt coming in the wake of the housing collapse. The only real question was when the size of their losses would become clear to the financial markets and analysts and impair their ability to finance new mortgages.
It now seems as though that time has come. The precipitating factor may have been a report from a research firm warning that a major mortgage insurer, with whom Freddie Mac had substantial dealings, may see its credit downgraded. This would leave Freddie Mac more exposed to losses on bad mortgages. The prospect of this downgrading, combined with negative reports from Lehman brothers and other analysts, sent their stocks plummeting.
CBO Projects Housing-Bailout Program Will Send 140,000 Families Into Second Foreclosure
It's amazing what you can find reading obscure documents from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO's analysis of the Dodd-Frank housing-bailout package projects that 35 percent of the 400,000 homeowners (140,000) who get a new mortgage through the program will still eventually be unable to pay their bills and will lose their homes in foreclosure.
These families can look forward to two or three more years of struggling to pay their mortgages, sacrificing health care, child care, and other necessary expenses in order to hang on to their home. At the end of the day, these 140,000 families will end up out on the street with nothing.
This is what D.C. policy wonks call "asset building."
Can NPR Get Serious on Global Warming?
NPR reported Monday on efforts at the G-8 summit to reach an agreement on global warming. It reported without comment President Bush's insistence that the U.S. will not agree to restrict its emissions until China and India also sign on.
If NPR had a real reporter deal with this topic, she would have told listeners that China's and India's emissions of greenhouse gases are less than one-fourth as much per person as U.S. emissions. No leader of these countries would ever agree to a treaty that permanently committed them to a much lower level of emissions than the U.S. and Europe. (What would be the rationale -- do they have the wrong skin color or are they being punished for not having done more to pollute the planet in the past?)
Without this context, many NPR listeners might actually think that President Bush was trying to arrange a serious agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.