Opinion

The Great Debate

Can Congress pull back from the brink?

Americans want to see Congress and the president make a deal on the “fiscal cliff,” that noxious mix of expiring tax cuts and mandatory spending slashing due at year’s end. They just don’t think it will happen without a lot of pain, according to recent polls.

But if Washington leaders don’t reach an agreement, which looks more than possible, it will be for a good reason: Incentives are strongest for policymakers to act only after the cliff has come and gone ‑ and wreaked a great deal of havoc in the process.

So far, the fiscal cliff looks like the Y2K of 2012. It’s an eventuality that requires a great deal of preparation and occupies politicians and the chattering classes but which has yet to produce the visible scars of crushed 401(k) statements, widespread layoffs or television graphics about a plunging Dow.

In a Washington where lawmakers rarely move unless an impending locomotive is about to run them over, it is hard to see how the mere possibility of a crisis can lead to action.

Some economists and politicians cite the 2008 TARP vote as proof that policymakers will indeed avert disaster and reach a deal before January 1. They say the House of Representatives’ passage of the troubled assets program shows that Congress can make politically difficult decisions on behalf of the greater good when financial markets push them.

The perils of cliff-diving

The fiscal cliff is a danger to the economy.  Some have argued that cliff diving is benign either because the cliff itself is an illusion – it is really a gentle slope – or because policymakers have the cartoon-like power to reverse going over the cliff without hitting the abyss.

Both arguments miss the key role that would be played by financial markets.  Cliff diving would have a significant impact on financial markets, impairing asset values, exacerbating credit stringency and amplifying the direct effects on the Main Street economy. These effects cannot be “unwound” by retroactively legislating away the fiscal cliff.

Taken at face value, the fiscal cliff is a large negative policy shock.  The tax increases are nearly $400 billion and the spending cuts about $145 billion.  The total, $540 billion is roughly 3 percent of gross domestic product.   For perspective, trend economic growth now appears to be less than 2 percent — but certainly nowhere close to 3 percent.

2013: The year of tax reform

Policy and political circles are now both talking about the prospect of comprehensive federal tax reform next year. From Capitol Hill to Wall Street to Main Street, people are asking how this reform will be structured. They should look to states across the country for their model. Many are due to embark on sweeping overhauls, even complete rewrites, of their tax codes in 2013.

Lawmakers in numerous state capitals are now poised to introduce major tax reform when they come back into session early next year. As we’ve seen with other policy matters, reforms that percolate in the states often make their way to Washington. More than half of all state governments are controlled by one political party, so it’s likely that state lawmakers will move far more quickly than the folks on Capitol Hill. What these state legislators do will provide a preview of and parallel the debate in the new Congress.

Consider North Carolina. Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction, and next month the Tar Heel State is likely to become the 26th state where Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature. The Republican gubernatorial nominee, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, has said that tax reform will be a top priority if he is elected, which appears likely given his double-digit lead in the latest polls. The state now has one of the nation’s least competitive tax regimes. But based on proposals being discussed at the capitol, North Carolina lawmakers next year could enact one of the boldest and most pro-growth state tax reforms in history.

Are the big banks winning?

The Dodd-Frank Act to re-regulate the big banks was intentionally tough. It was passed in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crash to end cowboy banking; require far more capital  and much less leverage, and rein in the trading-desk geniuses who pumped up serial bubbles. Since Congress is a poor forum for crafting such a complex statute, the details were left to the expert regulatory agencies.

The big banks pay lip-service to the goals of Dodd-Frank — but they’re mounting bitter, rearguard actions in federal courts to block meaningful constraints and regulations on procedural and other grounds. This is an ominous turn of events, since these banks have the legal firepower to overwhelm budget-constrained U.S. regulatory agencies.

While Dodd-Frank is aimed at preventing another cycle of bubble-and-bust, shrinking the financial sector is crucial for other reasons. One is a mass of evidence demonstrating that hyper-financialized economies have lower growth. Another is the appalling ethical record of large financial companies. The chance of making huge paydays by risking other people’s money, it seems, can sometimes derange moral compasses.

On Wall Street, big paychecks do not replace corporate culture

Goldman Sachs can’t seem to stay out of the wrong spotlight these days. With reports about executive layoffs and high numbers of senior people leaving, Goldman is losing its once-untouchable luster as analysts scrutinize its performance through a new lens.

The oceanic rift between average Wall Street salaries and those of everybody else has been measured by both public and private facilities. The New York State Comptroller’s office released a report last October showing that while total profits at Wall Street’s major brokerage houses declined during the first half of 2011, employee compensation, which accounts for about 60 percent of expenses for the firms, increased by 18.7 percent compared with the same period the year before.

The report showed the average salary in the securities industry was $361,330 in 2010. The national average wage that year was $45,230, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A big difference was that while many suffered unemployment and pay freezes during the recessionary years, finance firms rewarded employees with raises. According to a survey by eFinancialCareers.com that polled 2,860 financial professionals, 54 percent were offered higher salaries in 2011.

from David Cay Johnston:

Closing Wall Street’s casino

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A superb example of a sound rule in law and economics that needs reviving, because it can halt the rampant speculation in derivatives, is the ancient legal principle that gambling debts are not enforceable through court action.

Not so long ago -- before casinos, currency and commodities speculation, and credit default swaps became big business -- U.S. courts would not enforce gambling debts.

Restoring this principle offers a simple way to shrink the rampant speculation in derivatives that was central to the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street.

Senate vote exposes Wall Street impotence

Wall Street’s diminished influence in Washington was made plain yesterday when the Senate voted to approve financial reform legislation by 59 votes to 39.

Industry lobbyists will point out the bill only just managed to scrape the required votes needed to end debate and forestall a filibuster. It fell far short of a lopsided bipartisan majority.

But the formal tally on HR 4173 (Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act 2009) as amended by S 3217 (Restoring American Financial Stability Act 2010) conceals a much wider bigger majority of 63-37 for enacting far-reaching reforms.

Wall Street’s biggest trade of the year

Wall Street’s famed army of lobbyists does not seem to have had much success pushing back on the regulatory overhaul bills now being considered by the U.S. Congress.

The Street remains perilously isolated in Washington, deserted even by its normal friends. As a result it has little influence over the course of bills that will have a significant impact reshaping the industry over the next few years and risks being steamrollered.

Isolation is the result of a basic miscalculation about how angry voters are about the financial crisis and its aftermath in terms of lost jobs and income.

from James Saft:

Learning from Ken Feinberg

Sometimes it's what doesn't happen that is most illuminating.

When Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg first slashed executive compensation at U.S. firms that benefited most from a government bailout the cry was that this would hurt these weakened firms when they could least afford it, as the best and brightest would leave for better money elsewhere, where the free market still ruled.

Well, the door didn't hit them on their way out, but mostly because they stayed rooted to their desk chairs.
Feinberg evaluated the compensation of 104 top executives at affected companies in 2009, reducing pay for most to levels far below financial industry norms and their own former earnings.

Yet here we are in 2010 and about 85 percent are still working for the same firms, still toiling for the kinds of wages that may well make them wish they'd gone into the law rather than finance. Remember all those articles in glossy magazines about how impossible it is to make it in New York City on $500,000 a year?

from Commentaries:

Wall Street’s $4 trillion kitty

matthewgoldstein.jpgThe Obama administration's plan for reining in derivatives leaves unchecked one of Wall Street's dirty little secrets: the ability of a derivatives dealer to redeploy cash collateral that gets posted by one of its trading partners.

On Wall Street, this practice of taking collateral and reusing it is called rehypothecation. In essence, it's a form of free money for derivatives dealers to use as they please -- even to repost it as collateral to finance their parent company's own borrowings.

And we're talking big bucks. The International Swaps and Derivatives Association recently reported that derivatives dealers have taken in $4 trillion in collateral from their trading partners. That's an 86 percent increase over the $2.1 trillion in cash collateral those same dealers reported having on their books in early 2008.

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