James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Kudlow: Profits today, politics tomorrow

Apr 28, 2010 18:12 UTC

The Great One opines thusly:

To be perfectly honest here, as much as I love to dig into all the money-politics issues — including the financial-reform bill — I’m much more interested in these big profits and capital gains. This V-shaped recovery is the most important item on my radar screen. It’s the single-biggest investor issue out there right now. I don’t think the bull market in stocks is over yet. Again, regarding taxes and regulations, I’ll warn about next year. But frankly, I think the prosperity theme is issue number one.

COMMENT

I believe Arthur Laffer is correct, the US economy will collapse at some point in the future. There is nothing on the horizon that bodes well for economic recovery or any kind of a boom. With deficits out of control and taxation on the rise, it is just a matter of time until we forced to realize the fact that we are insolvent, bankrupt. Just because we can print our own currency and rely of foreigners to buy our useless bonds, does not eras the fact that are economy is nothing but the largest ponzi scheme in history!

Posted by fthomascain | Report as abusive

Has the Obama deficit panel already failed?

Apr 28, 2010 17:02 UTC

Well, if you define success as having the commission come up with solutions that can pass Congress, then yes. I am watching several commission members at the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit.  They are all downplaying what the commission can accomplish, saying that as long as the panel educates the American public on the debt problem, they will consider it a success.  But will bondholders of U.S. debt agree? Downplaying expectations may avoid an adverse financial market reaction to failure, but I am not sure it should. We won’t cut spending. We won’t raise taxes broadly. And we ignore policies that would boost economic growth. What else is there?

COMMENT

re-freelove
your comments on just who pays the taxes in the usa, and how much they pay….is quite interesting.
you see, it reflects just how little you know about who really pays the bills in this country.
you want a middle class?
you want some of the money brought back to the lower levels of society?
heres a tip…it already is being distributed.
our govt is engaged in a social engineering experiment whereas they take billions from the top 10% of wage earners and disperse it to the lower 47% of wage earners in the form of tax refunds or earned income credits.

how about…instead…the lower 47% pay their fair share of taxes and not rely on the top 10% to pay the majority of the taxes for this country.

in other words…if you aint paying anything …then you dont really have the right to say anything.

Posted by JayWx | Report as abusive

Volcanoes, healthcare reform and global warming

Apr 27, 2010 17:49 UTC

Over at Edge, a variety of scientists give their take on the Iceland volcano eruption and its impact on air travel. Two really stood out to me. The first also highlights the problem of defensive medicine; the second shows the downside to action dealing with global warming:

DANIEL KAHNEMAN

Psychologist, Princeton; Recipient, 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Imagine a public official who considers an action that involves a small and ambiguous risk of disaster. Imagine further that the best expert judgment available is that the expected social benefit of the action is large and that the risks are real but tolerably small. Such situations inevitably create a conflict between the interests of society and those of the officials who are charged to decide on its behalf.

Hindsight and personal accountability are the problem. Decision makers can be certain that if the worst happens their decision to act — however justified it was ex ante — will be perceived ex post as a horrendous mistake. They face the possibility of devastating blame and guilt, as well as career-destroying consequences. The risks are asymmetric because the costs of playing it safe are likely to be negligible.

Even if future analyses of the ash cloud incident conclude that flights could have resumed safely much sooner, it is unlikely that any of the officials involved in delaying the flights will lose their jobs. In this situation and in many others — defensive medicine is an example — the valid anticipation of hindsight combines with social norms of personal accountability to produce overly cautious behavior.

The solution?

Where the social good requires taking risks, we need procedures that will reduce personal accountability and diffuse responsibility, perhaps by assigning some categories of decisions to designated groups of experts rather than to individual functionaries.

MATT RIDLEY
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The ash cloud reminds us of the risks of risk aversion. Shutting down Europe’s airspace removed the risk of an ash-caused crash, but it also increased all sorts of other risks: the risk of death to a patient because an urgent medical operation might have to be postponed for lack of supplies, the risk of poverty to a Kenyan farm worker because roses could not be flown to European markets, the risk of a collision between ferries on extra night-time sailings in the English Channel. And so on. Risk decisions cannot be taken in isolation. The precautionary principle makes too little allowance for the risks that are run by avoiding risks — the innovations not made, the existing suffering not alleviated. The ash cloud, by reminding us of the risks of not being able to fly planes, is a timely reminder that the risks of global warming must be weighed against the risks of high energy costs — the risks of poverty (cheap energy creates jobs), of hunger (fertiliser costs depend on energy costs), of rainforest destruction and indoor air pollution (expensive electricity makes firewood seem cheaper), of orangutan extinction in subsidised biofuel palm oil plantations.

Oh, and remember the lessons of public choice theory: if you set up a body called the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, don’t be surprised if it over-reacts the first time it gets a chance the demonstrate that it considers itself — as all public bodies always do — underfunded.

COMMENT

Excellent points all.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Government and venture capital

Apr 27, 2010 17:05 UTC

Stumbled across some interesting research on government support of startup businesses. First, this new piece on the Vox site:

We are all for policy support for entrepreneurs. But, we believe it must be channelled correctly. An approach that seeks to pick winners ex ante is likely to fail. We base this assessment in part on the very poor performance of policy interventions of this type (Lerner 2009). Our view is also based on the underlying firm dynamics that are observed in the data and discussed above. We instead believe policymakers should focus more consistently on the many small businesses and entrepreneurs that make large and small improvements to the economy. The best support policymakers can provide is to encourage competition among local banks and financiers. Governments should forget about picking winners and focus on picking the right system.

Me: Right, capital access is important. But then I took a look at that Lerner report (Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed — and What to Do About It) by Josh Lerner at Harvard. Here is an interesting bit of a Q&A he did with the NYTimes Freakonomics blog (anything in bold is mine):

Q. Are government interventions to boost entrepreneurship always successful? Why do these programs fail?

A. Sadly, for every successful effort such as those in Israel and Singapore, there are numerous unsuccessful ones.

First, they can simply get it wrong: allocating funds and support in an inept or, even worse, a counterproductive manner. Decisions that seem plausible within the halls of a legislative body or a government bureaucracy can be wildly at odds with what entrepreneurs and their backers really need. When Australia legalized the venture capital limited partnership structure earlier this decade, for instance, legislators worried that foreign funds or firms might exploit the favorable tax treatment these entities enjoyed. So they required that each company backed by a venture partnership have at least half its assets in Australia. The venture funds found that this restriction handicapped the companies in their portfolio. The entrepreneurs could not expand their software development activities in India or their manufacturing operations in China without putting the venture funds’ tax status in danger, even as they competed against American ventures that made heavy use of “off-shoring.”

Q. You write about “The Neglected Art of Setting the Table” i.e. establishing a favorable environment for entrepreneurs. Tell us about the ideal place setting.

A. Often, in their eagerness to get to the “fun stuff” of handing out money, public leaders neglect the importance of setting the table, or creating a favorable environment. Such efforts to create the right climate for entrepreneurship are likely to have several dimensions. Ensuring that creative ideas can move easily from universities and government laboratories is critically important. However, many entrepreneurs come not from academia, but rather from corporate positions, and studies have documented that, for these individuals, the attractiveness of entrepreneurial activity is very sensitive to tax policy (particularly low capital gains tax rates). Also important is ensuring that the law allows firms to enter into the needed contracts — for instance, with a potential financier or a source of technology — and that these contracts can be enforced.

COMMENT

Another phase on the global Marxofascist war on Americans, for the sake of their globally controlled society.

One may wish to Web search: “greatest scandal in modern history – treason in process”

Posted by ArlenWilliams | Report as abusive

Obama’s deficit commission and the politics of crisis

Apr 27, 2010 16:30 UTC

Good luck to the Obama deficit commission. In my heart, I do not believe Congress will pass huge entitlement cuts (preferable)  or tax increases without a  crisis.  (There needs to be a focus on boosting economic growth.) To quote Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Here is one crisis scenario, as outlined by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

If low interest rates lead to continued debt accumulation and then suddenly, creditor preferences shift, we could experience a “catastrophic budget failure” as set out in a recent paper by Len Burman of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and his colleagues at the Tax Policy Center.

Under this scenario, at some point financial markets or foreign lenders decide we are no longer a good credit risk, possibly due to debt affordability concerns. They conclude the United States cannot escape basic economic and financial “laws of gravity” forever. They stop buying our debt securities or demand dramatically higher interest rates due to increased perceived risk. With the sudden shift and large rise in interest rates, the economy goes into a severe recession. (“The longer it takes for the crisis to occur, the worse it will be.”) Unlike the past two years, we cannot, however, borrow to stimulate the economy because the crisis was caused by excessive debt and lost confidence. “In the extreme case, the U.S. may not be able to borrow at any interest rate.” Creditors concerned with hyperinflation or even default will not buy U.S. debt.

COMMENT

wait!
What happens after that? The Road Warrior – Hilly Have Eyes scenario?

Seriously. What would the landscape look like after the “unthinkable” happens? I’m curious.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

The Fantastic Four … Fed presidents against the Dodd bill

Apr 26, 2010 17:14 UTC

ffAgain, it isn’t just Republicans making the charge that the Dodd bill does not end Too Big To Fail. So are a quartet of regional Fed bank presidents:

1) Thomas Hoenig of the KC Fed (in a chat with the Huffington Post):

As for Dodd’s treatment of Too Big To Fail, Hoenig said the bill puts too much power in the hands of regulators. “What I worry about [is] if you have a large institution, and it got into very serious trouble and you only have a weekend to take care of it, the procedures under the Dodd bill would make that very difficult,” Hoenig said. “Let’s say you were coming into Monday morning and you didn’t have the ability to get to the judges in time to get this thing approved, and you had to get to another day. What you would tend to do is lend to that institution — if it were not a commercial bank, you would even use the [Fed's] so-called 13-3 authority… and you would lend to it,” he said in a reference to the legal authority that the Fed claimed gave it the power to lend taxpayer money to AIG. “So you would still have it as an operating bank, you would not have taken control of it, not put it in receivership yet, and yet you would be bailing it out. That’s what we have to avoid.
“There’s still this desire to leave discretion in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, and while I understand that desire — because you never know what the circumstance is going to be — the problem is in those circumstances you always take the path of least resistance because of the nature of the crisis.

“You don’t want to be the person responsible for the meltdown, so you take the exception and you move it through.

“But if you had a good firm rule of law, and the markets knew… there were no exceptions… you would be in the long run much better off. It does affect behavior,” he said.

2) Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed (in a speech):

The dangers posed by TBTF banks are too great. To be sure, having a clearly articulated “resolution regime” would represent steps forward, though I fear they might provide false comfort in that a special resolution treatment for large firms might be viewed favorably by creditors, continuing the government-sponsored advantage bestowed upon them. Given the danger these institutions pose to spreading debilitating viruses throughout the financial world, my preference is for a more prophylactic approach: an international accord to break up these institutions into ones of more manageable size—more manageable for both the executives of these institutions and their regulatory supervisors.

3) Jeffrey Lacker of the Richmond Fed (in a CNBC interview with Steve Liesman):

Lacker: The issue of our time has to do with the government safety net for financial firms. And it’s grown tremendously, and containing that, establishing clear boundaries of that, is the number one priority. As I read the Dodd bill and the mechanism it sets up for the resolution authority, it doesn’t strike me that it’s likely to help us there. And in fact, it seems to me like a major danger is that there’s going to be more instability in financial markets instead of less.

Liesman: The Dodd bill allows for a three-bankruptcy judge panel to declare insolvency. It allows losses to go to unsecured creditors; it allows management to be replaced and shareholders to be wiped out. How much clearer could the government be in this bill that there will be real losses to investors?

Lacker: It allows those things, but it does not require them. Moreover, it provides tremendous discretion for the Treasury and FDIC to use that fund to buy assets from the failed firm, to guarantee liabilities of the failed firm, to buy liabilities of the failed firm. They can support creditors in the failed firm. They have a tremendous amount of discretion. And if they have the discretion, they are likely to be forced to use it in a crisis.

4) Charles Plosser of the Philly Fed:

In order to end TBTF, we must have a way that credibly convinces large financial firms and the markets that firms on the verge of failure will, in fact, be allowed to fail. If the resolution mechanism is either too vague or allows for too much discretion by regulators or Congress to rescue firms through subsidies or bailouts, then troubled firms will surely argue that the risks of failure are so severe and systemic that they must be bailed out. This is what we saw in the recent crisis. A credible commitment by government not to intervene or bail out firms must be the centerpiece of the resolution mechanism.

I believe the best approach to making such a credible commitment and thus ending TBTF is amending the bankruptcy code for nonbank financial firms and bank holding companies, rather than expanding the bank resolution process under the FDIC Improvement Act (FDICIA). While the Senate bill has tightened up the proposal with a stronger bias toward liquidating a troubled firm, the bill would still give a great deal of discretion to policymakers to avoid the discipline of a bankruptcy court. I recognize that the current bankruptcy code does not adequately address the inherent challenges in liquidating large financial institutions without risks to the market, but I believe a modified bankruptcy process would eliminate discretion and strengthen market discipline, by permitting creditors as well as regulators to place the firm into bankruptcy when it is unable to meet its financial obligations.

Becker vs. Posner on the VAT

Apr 26, 2010 14:35 UTC

The online conversation between Gary Becker and Richard Posner is one of my favorite things on the web. Currently they are taking on the the idea of the US implementing a value-added tax. First a bit from Becker, as excerpted by me:

1) A flat VAT tax would be more efficient for two reasons than a progressive income tax that raises the same revenue: it does not discourage savings relative to consumption, and it induces fewer distortions on other behavior because it has flat rather than rising tax rates. A flat income tax eliminates the effects of rising tax rates, but still distorts savings behavior.

2) The downside of a value added tax to anyone concerned about growing government spending and taxing is very much related to its upside; namely, that a VAT is a more efficient and relatively painless tax. … For example, the VAT rate in Europe started low but now ranges from 15 to 25%, and averages about 20%. In Denmark, for example, the VAT rate was 9% in 1962, but quickly rose to 25% by 1992, and has remained at that level.

3) However, the problems is that a VAT would be introduced not as a partial or full substitute for personal and corporate income taxes, but rather as an additional tax. This would make it much easier to close the fiscal gap by maintaining or increasing government spending and overall tax levels.

4) Since high taxes and high levels of government spending would discourage economic growth and raise rather than lower the overall distortions in an economy, I am highly dubious about introducing a VAT into the federal tax system unless accompanied by a major overall of this system. One big improvement that does not involve a VAT would be to flatten the present income tax rates and greatly reduce the various exemptions, so that the tax basis is widened. Even then it is necessary to be vigilant about combating the incentives government officials have to increase flat taxes over time, whether they are flat income taxes or flat value added taxes.

Now Posner:

1) Because (assuming no exemptions) the tax base for a VAT is so broad—all goods and services—a VAT can generate enormous tax revenues at a low tax rate, which reduces the distortionary effect of the tax. … The VAT also avoids the double taxation of savings under a corporate plus individual income tax system, further encourages savings by making consumption more costly, and reduces the disincentive effects of heavy income taxation. … Of course the benefits of the VAT are greatest if it is substituted for income taxes and other inefficient taxes rather than being added to the existing tax system to generate additional tax revenues.

2) Becker’s main objection to the adoption of the VAT by the federal government, which is similar to the objection to taxes on Internet sales and indeed any new taxes that do not merely replace existing taxes, is that by increasing government revenues it will increase the size of government relative to the private economy, and if (as is doubtless true) government is less efficient, the result will be a reduction in economic welfare. … I agree but on the other side of the issue is our awful fiscal situation.

3) In light of the nation’s fiscal bind, the imposition of a federal VAT becomes a more attractive prospect. One immediate beneficial effect, provided that the VAT was not entirely additive to existing taxes but was coupled with some reduction in corporate and payroll taxes, would be a reduction in export prices and therefore an increase in exports and hence a reduction in our trade deficit, which is a contributor to our public debt. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade permits VAT to be rebated on exports, thus lowering the cost to the foreign buyers.

4) More important, the VAT would increase federal tax revenues with minimal distortion because it is an efficient tax. To the extent (even if modest) that it replaced less efficient taxes, it would increase economic efficiency and thus increase the rate of economic growth. Most important, by discouraging consumption in favor of savings, a VAT would reduce the interest rate on our public debt and the Treasury’s dependence on foreign lenders.

American job insecurity

Apr 26, 2010 14:11 UTC

Two interesting polls from Gallup show why a few ticks in the unemployment rate here and there are really besides the point. (Thanks to Jim Geraghty of NR.)  This downturn has scarred the American psyche. The first chart shows how worried workers are about finding a comparable job if they ever lose their current one. The second chart shows that they are still pretty worried about losing their existing job.

gallup2

gallup1

COMMENT

Last night when Fu Bo appeared at the venue next, “Legal Evening News” reporter noted that is different from the previous game in his dress, a black suit, a dark grey cashmere scarf, this has been a sportswear based coach, in such a way that the game for his meaning something different

The state of play for financial reform

Apr 26, 2010 13:53 UTC

A few observations, comments and highlights:

1) Three things can happen today, as I see it: a) Chris Dodd and Richard Shelby reach a deal; b) Dems pick off a few Rs, get cloture, and the debate on the bill proceeds; or c) no deal, Rs stay unified and negotiations continue. Of those “c’ is the likely option — and that will eventually lead to a bill that may be getting tougher by moment. On Good Morning America today, Shelby seemed supportive of tougher derivatives language. And although it will not be in the bill, Kent Conrad’s comments that a bank tax is coming is reflective of the growing anti-Wall Street mood on Capitol Hill.

2) An interesting piece in The American by economist Phil Swagel, formerly of the Paulson Treasury Department, on whether the Dodd bill is a “bailout bill.” Read the whole thing, but in this bit he uses Lehman Brothers as an example:

In the fall of 2008, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was followed by severe negative effects as short-term credit markets shut down. This is sometimes taken as evidence that bankruptcy is not a tenable outcome for a large financial firm. This is wrong. The disruptions that followed Lehman’s collapse were greatly magnified by the idiosyncratic problem that a large money-market mutual fund broke the buck as a result of losses on Lehman debt. This sparked a panicked flight out of money-market mutual funds, which led commercial paper markets to seize up and in turn begat TARP. This situation would have been prevented only by guaranteeing Lehman debt—that is, by a bailout that the administration says would not be allowed to occur under its financial regulatory reform proposals. This means that either the administration intends to allow bailouts or that its approach would not in fact solve the problem of Lehman’s collapse—it cannot be both ways. In fact, the Dodd bill allows two forms of a bailout, since the government can put cash directly into a failing firm or guarantee its debt. The Dodd proposal is a bailout bill, plain and simple.

3) Here is Charles Plosser, head of the Philly Fed, on Dodd and TBTF:

I believe the best approach to making such a credible commitment and thus ending TBTF is amending the bankruptcy code for nonbank financial firms and bank holding companies, rather than expanding the bank resolution process under the FDIC Improvement Act (FDICIA). While the Senate bill has tightened up the proposal with a stronger bias toward liquidating a troubled firm, the bill would still give a great deal of discretion to policymakers to avoid the discipline of a bankruptcy court.

The Senate bill’s proposal to restrict the Federal Reserve’s supervisory authority to about 35 of the largest financial firms with $50 billion or more in assets further undermines the effort to end TBTF. The markets will likely interpret this provision as signaling that these firms are unique and will continue to be treated as TBTF. Many would assume that the language in the resolution section that emphasizes bankruptcy would not apply to these firms. This provision would, de facto, make the Federal Reserve supervisor of the firms deemed TBTF.

In addition, restricting the Federal Reserve’s supervisory authority to these large firms would focus the Federal Reserve’s attention more toward Wall Street and less on Main Street.

COMMENT

Dodd needs a job on Wall Street upon retirement, so he can’t be too aggressive

Posted by STORYBURNcom_0 | Report as abusive

The reality behind the VAT

Apr 22, 2010 14:27 UTC

Over at the very fine TaxVox blog, Howard Gleckman writes a good explanatory piece on the current VAT debate. But this one  part really struck me:

Our current revenue system has reached its breaking point. To fix our terrible budget problem, we are going to have to cut spending. But we are also going to have to raise more revenue. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to do so in the most efficient way possible. And that may lead us to a consumption tax in one form or another, Senate resolutions notwithstanding.

Me:  That was directed at conservative critics of the VAT.  Now from what I can tell, plenty of conservatives would have no problem with a VAT if it a) replaced the income tax and b) was designed to boost tax revenue by boosting economic growth.  And as far as a way of increasing the tax burden, the budget cuts are going to have to come first. Optimize government, try to quick the pace of GDP growth and then raise taxes if necessary.

COMMENT

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