James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Who stabilized the U.S. economy, Obama or Bernanke?

Nov 17, 2009 14:15 UTC

Ed Yardeni votes for The Chairman, but now he thinks the Federal Reserve need to change course:

I believe that the Fed did in fact avert a financial meltdown and an economic depression by flooding the financial system with liquidity, and by lowering the federal funds rate to zero. I believe that all the efforts to deal with the financial crisis by the White House and Congress–including TARP, PPIP, and ARRA-were counterproductive and offset some of the effectiveness of the Fed’s responses. On PBS NewsHour last Friday, Sheila Bair, the level-headed head of the FDIC, said that TARP was a huge mistake: “I think at the time it sounded like the right thing to do…but I just see all the problems it’s created.” She implied that had she been consulted by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, she would have tried to dissuade them from pursuing this approach.

I think that the Fed should raise the federal funds rate to 1.0% to demonstrate some confidence in the economic recovery. A zero rate was justified by the effort to avert a financial meltdown and a depression. Now it may be doing more harm than good.

COMMENT

What are you smoking? Our Economy is tubed and Obama and his cronies are throwing it lead weights.. Everything Obama is doing despite what he says is to tank our economy to usher in George Soro’s plans for a new world economy…

Posted by Ballistic45 | Report as abusive

Here’s what happened to cap-and-trade, and why it’s in deep trouble

Nov 17, 2009 14:03 UTC

I am writing a column on this for later today, but I wanted to toss out a few quick thoughts on the state of cap-and-trade. Other than the die-hard greenies, Dems don’t want this bill anymore than Republicans. It is too easy to frame cap-and-trade as both a jobs killer and a distraction from job creation. Actually, some Rs would love for Dems to push this bill since it makes such a great election issue.

But it’s not happening in 2010, which means it not happening during Obama’s term since even under the most optimistic scenario, the Ds will have less control of Congress in 2011 and 2012 than they do now. And under more dire scenarios for the Dems, they lose maybe 4 Senate seats. Do not underestimate the extent to which the Great Recession has affected the issues agenda and political situation in Washington. And an extended period of high unemployment will only exacerbate that. (Bernanke’s speech yesterday was another indication how this is now the new Washington consensus.) The New Normal in economics means a New Normal in politics, too.

COMMENT

Well Obama also sees the writing on the wall in 2012 and will move to use Executive Orders and Agency regulations to circumvent congress on Many issues including Cap and Trade.. The EPA will be used in controlling Carbon without Congressional oversite or approval. Like Muslims, don’t believe a word that comes out of their mouths, watch what they do.. Like Muslims their playbook also tells them to lie to unbelievers

Posted by Ballistic45 | Report as abusive

China questions costs of U.S. healthcare reform

Nov 16, 2009 19:13 UTC

Guess what? It turns out the Chinese are kind of curious about how President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform plans would impact America’s huge fiscal deficit. Government officials are using his Asian trip as an opportunity to ask the White House questions. Detailed questions.

Boilerplate assurances that America won’t default on its debt or inflate the shortfall away are apparently not cutting it. Nor should they, when one owns nearly $2 trillion in assets denominated in the currency of a country about to double its national debt over the next decade.

Nothing happening in Washington today should give Beijing any comfort or confidence about what may happen tomorrow. Healthcare reform was originally promoted as a way to “bend the curve” on escalating entitlement costs, the major part of which is financing Medicare and Medicaid. That is looking more and more like an overpromised deliverable.

For instance, a new study from the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finds that the healthcare reform bill recently passed in the House of Representatives would increase healthcare spending to 21.3 percent of GDP by 2019 compared with 20.8 percent under current law. That’s bending the curve the wrong way. The study also questions the “long-term viability” of the $500 billion in Medicare cuts meant to help pay for expanded insurance coverage.

In addition, the CMS study gives a clearer cost estimate than the one provided by the Congressional Budget Office. According to the CBO, the 10-year cost of PelosiCare is $894 billion. But that analysis includes early years with little government spending, According to the CMS, the House approach would cost $1 trillion from 2013-2019, or some $140 billion a year when fully put into effect.

Few realists in Washington think any of the current reform plans make a significant dent in the long-term healthcare cost to government. Indeed, the Senate Budget Committee recently held hearing about creating a bipartisan commission to find solutions to America’s entitlements problems.

If healthcare reform really bent the curve, there would be a no need for such a commission to do Healthcare Reform 2.0.

The Chinese might want to keep up the questioning.

COMMENT

You got a point there. I never thought about it that way.

2010 outlook for Democrats

Nov 13, 2009 17:58 UTC

Nate Silver on 2010:

My 30,000-foot view is that between the pressures of the jobs situation and the health care debate, the Democrats are in fairly bad shape. But, there’s a long way to go before next year, and their situation does not seem to be quite as bad as it was in August.

Certainly, if I were the Democrats, I’d be adopting a fairly defensive posture, putting money into defending seats — especially those held by non-Blue Dog incumbents — rather than getting cute and trying to pick off more than a handful of potentially vulnerable Republican seats. I’d also be thinking about policies — like a jobs package and financial regulation — that tap a little bit into the populist spirit and might result in somewhat awkward Republican positioning.

So, should the Democrats be panicking? Yeah, maybe a little. But the fundamentals — particularly the poor labor situation and the Republican enthusiasm advantage — should be the reasons for their concern, rather than the results of any one particular poll.

COMMENT

Guys, I’m sticking with my forecast of the Dems losing 65 house seats in 2010. Call me a hero if I’m right or a dummy if I’m wrong. I don’t think it will matter if the economy improves significantly or healthcare passes. The numbers so far look that way on rasmussen (which has been very accurate so far), and the historical relationship has been about a 10 seat change in the margin per every 1 percentage point change in the marginal popular vote.

Posted by T | Report as abusive

Obama, trade and the echoes of 1929

Nov 13, 2009 14:04 UTC

This is the most disturbing thing I have read in a while (via AP):

Trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama won’t be put before Congress until it grapples first with President Barack Obama’s pressing legislative goals, the U.S. commerce secretary said Friday. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Obama has an ambitious high-priority legislative agenda focusing on health care, financial regulation and alternative energy. “Trade agreements are going to have to wait,” he said at a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. “Right now, the administration is focused on a very aggressive and very tight legislative agenda.”

Me: This sounds like Hillary’s “time out” from free trade during the campaign.

COMMENT

Time for a reality check here. In 1929 the US raised tariffs on over 20,000 imported items, sparking retaliations by all its major trading partners. Can you explain how putting a few minor bilateral free trade agreements on hold equates to that disastrous situation? The situation today is nowhere near as disturbing as you make out.

Posted by Kramer | Report as abusive

Maybe not a jobless recovery?

Nov 13, 2009 13:41 UTC

Some interesting analyst from the St. Louis Fed:

What was unique about the jobless recoveries, say DiCecio and Gascon, is that the preceding recessions were structural ones. 75% of jobs lost in the 1990-91 recession and 50% of the losses in the ’01 recession were suffered by the manufacturing sector. That number is down to 25% during this recession. The assumption here is that it’s easier for service workers to find jobs in the growing service economy than for former manufacturing workers to make the shift into the service sector. And that makes sense to me.

COMMENT

Kind of sounds like grasping at straws to me. Or putting lipstick on a pig.

Posted by Bill, Fairfax, VA | Report as abusive

Stan Collender takes issue with me over TARP. Aieee!

Nov 13, 2009 13:26 UTC

Budget guru, raconteur and helluva nice guy Stan Collender takes issue with my recent TARP post over at his must-read Capitol Gains and Games blog. I wrote that

First, as the WSJ story says, the White House is talking about the current fiscal year — 2010 — and it has already made an estimate of the spending that will occur and the revenues that will be collected.  What the administration is saying now is that some of the spending it projected might not be needed and, if so, that it is planning not to find some other use for the funds.  As a result, the projected deficit and the amount the government was expected to borrow could be lower, in this case at least $100 billion or so lower, than was originally assumed. … You definitely can reduce the projected deficit and the debt by not spending funds that were projected to be spent.  That, in fact, is how you do it.  Spending that has occurred has already increased the deficit and the only way to reduce it in the future is not tto continue to spend the dollars again.

On these issues, my default mode is to defer to Stan. (I am waiting a reply from my source.) But then he adds this interesting nugget:

A question should be asked about whether the Obama administration deliberately overestimated how much TARP would cost in 2010 so that it would be able to claim savings later in the year.  This has been a favorite tactic of Office and Management and Budget directors in the past.  Indeed, everyone from David Stockman to Dick Darman to Leon Panetta liked, and it was clearly something that the G.W. Bush administration used with impugnity. But regardless of whether it was intentional or fortuitous, not spending TARP money that had been projected to be spent will in fact lower the deficit and the amount of government borrowing compared to what otherwise would have been spent.

Sinking Dem polls force Stimulus 2.0

Nov 13, 2009 12:31 UTC

Get ready for Stimulus 2.0 — Extreme Jobs Edition. Yes, the U.S. labor market is slowly healing. The declining number of monthly job losses and weekly initial unemployment claims show that. Yet President Obama still felt the need to announce a ‘jobs summit’ at the White House next month.

That’s compelling evidence that the White House doesn’t believe the job market is mending nearly fast enough to keep unemployment from trending higher — or Democratic electoral prospects in 2010 from trending lower.

The summit is likely a table setter for Obama to announce Stimulus 2.0 (though he surely won’t use the word ‘stimulus’) at his State of the Union address in January. Indeed, Harry Reid is already cooking up a plan in the Senate.

How much money are we talking about? Alec Phillips of Goldman Sachs calls $250 billion over three years a “conservative” estimate. And what might be in the bill? Look for more highway spending, more aid to state and local governments and some sort of business hiring tax credit.

All this represents a sharp departure in message from the White House, which has previously counseled patience. Let the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act work, Team Obama kept saying. Even as the unemployment rate blew past 8 percent — a level of joblessness that the stimulus was supposed to prevent — the White House stuck to its guns and dismissed the need for significant new job creation efforts.

On the political side, there were fears that a new package would be tantamount to admitting Stimulus 1.0 was a failure and that it would distract from healthcare reform. On the economic side, many advisers wanted Obama to pivot toward deficit reduction as soon as possible and not spend more on stimulus.

(Indeed, the summit news came as the idea was floated that the administration might use unspent TARP funds for deficit reduction. Obama may also use the January address to announce a commission to deal with the long-term fiscal deficit as well as near-term limits on discretionary spending. Not only is the White House trying to appease bond vigilantes, but also moderate Democrats.)

But economic anxiety and impatience proved lethal for Democrats in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, and may cost the party again in the 2010 midterms. That and the surge to double-digit unemployment changed the White House calculus. And don’t think David Axelrod didn’t notice that Republicans have overtaken Democrats 48-44 in the generic congressional ballot.

The new emphasis on jobs might be too late. Indeed, “new” is the appropriate word since the first package was not geared toward creating jobs so much as increasing economic output, as Lawrence Summers recently clarified. Temporary income tax cuts and credits, for instance, have a poor record of generating jobs.  As it is, some economists are looking for unemployment to hit 11 percent in 2010. David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff doesn’t see 13 percent as out of the question.

But better for the White House, from its perspective, to take the initiative and adjust their 2010 agenda now — so long cap-and-trade –  than have Speaker John Boehner do it for them in 2011.

COMMENT

The economy will heal faster if they just leave it alone.This is not a standard, run-of-the-mill recession, caused by routine business cycle oversupply and under-demand. I wish they would stop treating as one.This recession is a restructuring, driven by excessive debt… personal, business, and government; both here and abroad. And since all of this “stimulus” is borrowed money, the positive effects of the spending cannot exceed the negative effects of the new debt.After all, if the problem is too much debt, how can more debt fix it?

Posted by Three Chord Sloth | Report as abusive

Is ObamaCare in trouble in the Senate?

Nov 12, 2009 21:47 UTC

A few thoughts on healthcare reform:

1) Just talked to a very insightful Capitol Hill Watcher who doesn’t think Harry Reid has the votes in the Senate to pass anything resembling comprehensive healthcare reform. You can count out Lieberman, Landrieu, Nelson and maybe even Bayh.

2) First, of course, comes the CBO’s analysis of various proposals. Any of them that boosts the deficit or healthcare premiums are DOA. Remember, healthcare reform was supposed to expand coverage, lower premiums and bend the curve on the long-term deficit.

3) Assuming Reid can get 60 votes to proceed to the floor sometime next week, we are talking December being taken up with debate on amendments concerning the public option, abortion, taxes. As it is, Reid is reworking the Senate bill on the fly. One day it is a new version of a PO trigger, the next a hike in payroll taxes. Reconciliation? “That ship has sailed.”

5) Time does not help.  Once the Congress goes homes, members could be inundated with complains and protests, just like in August. Also, the rising unemployment rate continues to sap public confidence in the Obama agenda and Washington, in general.

COMMENT

My grown kids think that socialism/communism would be okay. What did I do wrong in raising them? I wonder when they start paying more taxes if it will make any difference to them?They do not seem concerned about the U.S. deficit, they are too wrapped up in their own little worlds and watch the propoganda(?) machines every night.

Using TARP to pay down deficit? The math doesn’t add up

Nov 12, 2009 14:03 UTC

First, the nub of the WH idea:

The White House is looking to cut its budget deficit by using some unspent funds from the U.S. government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Wall Street Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.

Members of the Obama administration are still debating the idea, the paper said, adding that the administration would still like to keep some of the unspent money in case of emergencies.

A U.S. Treasury source told Reuters that it was shifting the focus of the TARP program toward helping small business and the housing sector rather than large banks.

“As that focus shifts, we expect to use significantly less TARP funding than authorized,” the source said. “We will maintain the flexibility to deal with a future crisis, and uninvested TARP money is dedicated to reducing the debt.”

But as my pal Dan Clifton of the  Strategas Group points out, this idea neglects certain budget realities:

Is this really news? The US government has already issued the debt for the funds and any unused money would logically be used to retire that debt. There is about $300bn in unspent TARP funds now. But none of that can be used as deficit reduction. Why? Because the money has not been spent yet. And is it really $300bn? Absolutely not, the administration decided to change the accounting to a net present value basis. So any savings would be negligible. The punchline: This story makes a great headline against the concerns over deficits, but will have zero impact on debt issuance and the deficit.

COMMENT

There are two actions which could substantially reduce (and eventually end) the US debt.

Within the last year companies which received TARP shared the wealth via bonuses when it was not theirs to share. In fact, their response to TARP has been to hog far more in bonuses (at taxpayer expense) than their companies even earned. A substantial tax penalty (a claw back of 70% or better?) on these bonuses would net $Billions which could be used to pay down outstanding debt and discourage future feeding frenzies.

In the late 80′s a pie chart in the 1040 instruction book caught my attention. Still there, it describes the sources and expenditures of US Treasury funds including taxes. Not surprising was that Defense was the greatest spending portion. What I found alarming at that time was that almost as large a piece of the pie went to service the public debt. My reasoning held that this burden would eventually be lifted if the US Treasury would simply STOP selling bonds.

The meltdown on Wall Street last fall has by now been embraced by both Bush and Obama as an excuse to raid the treasury on behalf of the companies which caused the problem. Expect the DEBT piece of the US Expenditures pie to eclipse defense in your next 1040 book.

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