Opinion

The Great Debate

Despite stimulus, middle class still struggles

Five years ago Monday, President Barack Obama signed the signature economic proposal of his presidency, saying that the passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus package heralded the “the beginning of the end” of the Great Recession.

The president told a Denver audience that he was “keeping the American Dream alive in our time.” But for millions of Americans, he made things worse.

It is now clear that bold White House predictions about stimulus jobs “saved and created” were just a prelude to later pledges about keeping your doctors and falling premiums.

Equally maddening has been the president’s unwavering belief that an economic recovery could be engineered by Washington’s central planners. It’s as if he isn’t aware of the cynicism engendered by a stimulus bill that seemed to have been designed not so much on the basis of real need or an empirical study of what would actually help people get back on their feet, but on ideology and political connections.

From the tens of billions that have been poured into green energy to an executive order that basically excludes non-unionized workers from major construction projects, for many Americans the stimulus looked more like political payback than a jobs bill — all compliments of the taxpayer.

Correcting three myths about the housing market

The U.S. Senate should move quickly to confirm Mel Watt as the new head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), but not for any of the political or procedural reasons usually discussed. A quick confirmation is required because we need new leadership on U.S. housing policy — a policy that on some crucial points is headed in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons.

In the years since the collapse of the housing bubble, major Wall Street firms have prospered while millions of homeowners are still dealing with the wreckage of a damaged housing market. That’s in part because nothing as large as a national housing market turns quickly. But it’s also because persistent myths about the market are obscuring the data and driving policy in the wrong direction.

Here are three such myths, and the right way to think about them:

1.    The foreclosure crisis is over.

Most news stories today focus on overall foreclosure numbers dropping and home prices rising, but the truth is more nuanced. Prices are indeed up in some wealthier neighborhoods, and foreclosures are dropping in many communities.

Foreclosures, capital and sickening cures

-James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

A dilemma at the heart of the response to the financial crisis is that the antidote to so many ills actually causes the symptoms to worsen.

Take for examples bank capital levels and the chaos surrounding home mortgage foreclosures.

Both issues are the fruit of the same tree: the desire to do things quickly, cheaply and with minimal safeguards.
And both, if you want to fix them, are probably going to slow the economy and lower asset prices in the short term.

It’s tough to modify your way out of a hole

jamessaft1(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

If you thought the U.S. housing crash could be blunted if only lenders would cut delinquent borrowers a break, it is perhaps time to move on to another vain hope.

That’s right, the loan modification movement – pushed by the U.S. administration and others as a means of keeping non-paying borrowers in their houses, keeping those same houses from flooding the market as foreclosures, and even helping beleaguered lenders – is running into a reality-shaped wall.

An exhaustive study of loan modifications by economists at the Boston Federal Reserve, under which delinquent borrowers are given lower rates, more time, or even cuts in the principal amount owed, showed fundamental problems with the way that idea works when put into practice.

Here comes another set of dodgy U.S. loans

jimsaftcolumn1– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Banks in the U.S. face a new source of write-downs and failures in the coming year as loans made to developers to finance residential and commercial property development rapidly go bad.

And as these loans are old-fashioned and concentrated in smaller banks, their fate is particularly interesting as it indicates that issues with the banking system go far deeper than the so-called “toxic assets” belonging to the largest lenders that have thus far gotten most of the attention and government aid.

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