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from Nicholas Wapshott:

Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

One thing is clear. Using the good offices of the state to punish a person or persons is broadly considered beyond the pale -- which is why Christie is in such a precarious position. If any link is established between him and this act of punitive politics, or if there is any attempt to cover up any link between him and the order to squeeze three lanes of traffic into one for four long days, the Republicans’ brightest 2016 hope is toast.

from MacroScope:

Curious timing for Fed self-doubt on monetary policy

If there was ever a time to be worried about whether the Federal Reserve's bond-buying stimulus is having a positive effect on the economy, the last few months were probably not it. Everyone expected government spending cuts and tax increases to push the economic recovery off the proverbial cliff, while the outlook for overseas economies has very quickly gone from rosy to flashing red. But the American expansion has remained the fastest-moving among industrialized laggards, with second quarter gross domestic product revised up sharply to 2.5 percent.

Yet for some reason, at the highest levels of the U.S. central bank and in its most dovish nooks, the notion that asset purchases might not be having as great an impact as previously thought has become pervasive.

from The Great Debate:

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

The sequester is just as destructive as we thought

Remember the sequester? When seven weeks ago the deadline to find a federal budget compromise came and went, there was much handwringing in Washington. In the event that no agreement was found there were to be cuts to public spending so severe and painful that no one would dare fail to agree. To deter Republicans from holding out, half the immediate spending savings of $85.4 billion was to be found from the defense budget, and, to ensure Democrats would work to find a deal, half from annually funded federal programs. Despite these encouragements to fiscal discipline, the March 1 deadline came and went.

For weeks the word “sequestration” was used so often that commentators and their readers grew sick of it. The headlines moved on. But quietly, without making much news, implementation is well under way and proving just as dire and destructive as advertised. It is hard to fully comprehend the impact of death by a thousand cuts and where they fall. This week the sequester broke surface when it began affecting air travel, causing long delays at airports, which is to be expected when you send 1,500 air traffic controllers home without pay. One in 10 controllers will stay at home on unpaid leave every day until October. With the vacation season looming, crowded airports full of frustrated passengers will become commonplace.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

The North Korean threat in an age of Pentagon cuts

It may not feel like it, but we are closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The temptation to dismiss the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a cartoonish figure of fun belies the real and present danger his samurai sword rattling presents. A strange time, then, for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to set out on the most thorough reappraisal of our defense spending since the end of Vietnam.

It is no secret that Hagel relishes the chance to slim the armed forces to a more affordable size. It is what commended him to President Barack Obama. He has already commissioned a wholesale “strategic choice and management review” of the Defense Department, which has been told to think the unthinkable in terms of cutting spending. This week, before defending his vision before the House Armed Services Committee, he offered a glimpse into what he has in mind: a slimming of the desk-bound middle management whose pay and perks cost more than the value of their contribution to the nation’s defense; a clearheaded look at the generous health and retirement benefits the nation’s military and veterans enjoy; the abandonment of expensive advanced weapons that may not be necessary; and an unsentimental assessment of the need for all of our domestic military bases.

from MuniLand:

Sequester is skewed against the poorest citizens

A well known political maxim is that politicians remain in office when they bring home benefits for their constituents. Nothing proves this point more than how the sequester process protects the senior citizen entitlement programs - Medicare and Social Security - while cutting federal spending for the most economically disadvantaged Americans. One of the nation’s most prominent sell-side analysts, Natalie Cohen of Wells Fargo, thinks the effects of these cuts have big consequences, and  eventually could even be socially destabilizing. From Cohen’s recent report:

Medicare is lightly touched (2 percent) and Social Security not at all. We see Congress protecting the programs that matter most to retirees while traditional anti-poverty programs, largely managed by state and local governments, are being rolled back.  In all, we see a more disturbing longer-term trend away from a vision of government that assures opportunity for all citizens while protecting the poor. Over the longer term, we believe this new approach will deepen the divide between ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ both generationally and racially, a trend that could lead to unrest, in our view.

from Judgement Call:

The fiscal crisis nears – or not

Few economists preach spending cuts as a cure for high unemployment. Yet that’s exactly what Congress decided when it imposed, starting March 1, across-the-board spending cuts (the “sequester”). Despite Friday’s mildly upbeat jobs numbers, the economy remains limp, with 15 million or so unemployed individuals who want to work. Federal spending cuts won’t make their plight any better.

Congress has known for quite some time that the federal budget will turn sour in 10 to 15 years, with expected outlays far outstripping expected revenue. For complicated, if not odd, reasons, Congress now feels compelled to do what it ordinarily shuns: cut federal programs and raise taxes. That might seem politically brave and responsible. But brushed up against facts, the case for Congress taking swift action wobbles, hitting wrong targets at the wrong time.

from MacroScope:

Another U.S. debt ceiling showdown could roil markets: NY Fed paper

After two days of testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman last week in which he decisively criticized Congress’ decision to slash spending arbitrarily in the middle of a fragile economic recovery, a report on money market funds from the New York Fed nails home the point.

The paper’s key finding is that, as most observers already knew, investors were a lot more worried about a break-up of the euro zone in the summer of 2011 than they were about U.S. congressional bickering over the debt ceiling.

from MuniLand:

The sequester disconnect

Last week media was in a frenzy about the effects that federal spending cuts would have on states and cities under sequestration. Last Monday morning, the White House put out information including the graphic above to highlight the implications of spending cuts for the most vulnerable Americans. These are tough numbers, but there is no context provided to understand the magnitude of spending reductions.

I spent all week on Twitter trying to point out that cuts to state and local governments from the sequester would sting, but they would not chop off limbs. Media were reporting that communities would be devastated. Reports highlighted personal stories from employees who were worried about their jobs or loss of services. But almost all the frantic coverage failed to put the funding reductions for state and local governments in context. None of the coverage focused on the possibility that state governments could, and most likely would, damper or avert these cuts by finding internal efficiencies and re-prioritizing their own budgets.

from MacroScope:

The real sequester threat: rising political risk in the United States

Despite the Obama administration's cataclysmic warnings about the effects of $85 billion in looming spending cuts known as the "sequester," chances are the lights will not go out when they kick in this weekend. Still, the economic impact could be significant. The cutbacks might shave a half percentage point or more from an economy that is forecast to grow around 2 percent this year -- but which only mustered a 0.1 percent increase in annualized fourth quarter GDP. This, at a time when a similar austerity-driven approach has left much of Europe mired in recession.

Both the public and the markets seem to be taking Washington's latest war of words in stride. After all, people are becoming inured to the regularly scheduled fiscal crises that have become a part of the capital's landscape. But the sequester's most frightening potential consequence is much broader than its near-term economic ripples. The real danger is that, with every new episode of political theater over the budget, America's credibility as a serious, trustworthy nation is eroded. The concept of political risk, once reserved for banana republics in the developing world, is now very much alive in the United States. And that is one liberty a debtor nation cannot afford to take.

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