James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

A tale of two economic recoveries

Nov 3, 2009 18:38 UTC

Which one do you believe? John Hussman sketches them out:

1) One possibility, which is clearly the one that Wall Street has subscribed to, is that the recent downturn was a standard, if somewhat more severe than normal, post-war recession; that the market’s recent strength is an indication that it is looking forward to a full “V-shaped” recovery, and that the positive print for third-quarter GDP is a signal that the recession is officially over. Applying the post-war norms for stock market performance following the end of a recession, the implications are for further market strength and the elongation of the recent advance into a multi-year bull market.

2) The alternate possibility, which is the one that I personally subscribe to, is that the recent downturn was the initial phase of a more prolonged deleveraging cycle; that the advance we’ve observed in recent months most likely represents mean-reversion – qualitatively and quantitatively similar to the large and often abruptly terminated “clearing rallies” of past post-crash markets; that major credit losses are continuing quietly but are going unreported thanks to changes in accounting rules by the FASB this past spring, which allowed for “substantial discretion” in accounting for loan losses and deterioration in the value of securitized mortgages; that a huge second-wave of mortgage losses can be expected from a reset schedule on Alt-A and Option-ARMs that has just started (following a lull in the reset schedule since March) and will continue into 2010 and 2011; that intrinsiceconomic activity remains abysmal; that recent GDP growth is an artifact of massive fiscal stimulus that is unlikely to have sustained follow-through; and that recent market valuations are not representative of those observed at the end of most post-war recessions, but are instead similar to those observed at major market peaks prior to the mid-1990′s.


How about a middle ground? My take is the 3.5% GDP number took the v-shaped recovery off the table. As you pointed out in a previous blog entry, that number is quite low compared to the first quarter of recovery after previous downturns and therefore should have been interpreted as a disappointment.

Having said that, I’m not sure I can buy off on an overly gloomy picture going forward. I’ll take Hoffman at his word regarding the credit problems he listed, but does all of that translate into an economy that has only one place to go — down? I’d say it translates into an economy that still faces some headwinds. But headwinds or not, it’s usually been foolish to bet against the American economy. And oh yeah, don’t fight the Fed.

So my vote is for a modest recovery going forward, but recovery nonetheless.

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Economic fears drive Pelosi’s healthcare push

Oct 30, 2009 14:17 UTC

First you have to realize that Mark Zandi has become the de facto chief economist for congressional Democrats. Here is a bit from his testimony yesterday to the Joint Economic Committee:

The Great Recession is over, but the recovery will be a difficult slog through much of next year. The risks are also uncomfortably high that the economy will backtrack into recession. This would be an especially dark scenario, as the economy would almost certainly be engulfed in a deflationary cycle of falling wages and prices. The Federal Reserve and fiscal policymakers would also have fewer options and resources with which to respond.
A range of problems suggest that such a scenario cannot be easily dismissed. Most obvious are the very high and rising unemployment and increasingly weak wage growth, the mounting foreclosure crisis, rising commercial mortgage loan defaults and resulting small bank failures, budget problems at state and local governments, and dysfunctional structured-finance markets that are restricting credit to consumers and businesses.

Me: So if you are Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid, here is how you interpret this: The economy will still stink on Election Day 2012. Voter disapproval of Dems will continue rise.  Better pass healthcare as soon as possible or you won’t be able to pass it all.


Good point. Another problem is that the benefits to any bill that passes won’t start until 2013, but the taxes will start earlier, which won’t go over well, especially in a bad economy. Obama told people their premiums would fall if he passed his bill, but this seems unlikely to happen. That is when we’ll hear that you just can’t trust the insurance industry and it’s time for single-payer.

And after the GDP report ….

Oct 29, 2009 17:37 UTC

Some cold water via economist Dean Baker of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research:

While the growth shown in this report allows us to pronounce the recession ended, it does not provide much basis for optimism about the future. Consumption spending is virtually certain to shrink in future quarters. The same is true of structure investment and state and local government spending. We are unlikely to get much boost from the trade sector or much further boost from defense spending. The only sector that is likely to be a source of substantial growth in the next year is inventories, as the rundown eventually reaches an endpoint. However, with so much weakness elsewhere in the economy, inventories fluctuations will not turn the economy around.

America’s Potemkin Economy

Oct 29, 2009 14:34 UTC

That the US economy has stopped shrinking is certainly good news. But what kind of recovery is this? Strip out Cash for Clunkers and 3Q GDP growth came in at 1.6 percent. Also strip out slowing inventory cuts and GDP would have been just 0.6 percent. Then you have a report that the WH has overestimated the number of jobs created by the stimulus.

More from economist Robert Brusca:

1) But the fact is that inventories are still being cut, not being built up. Although less inventory cutting is a technical boost to GDP the fact of cutting tells us that the economy has not yet turned any corner very sharply.

2) Consumer spending spurted at a 3.4% pace this quarter, spurred important by cash for clunkers. But that program has come and gone and spending levels have SUNK BACK. So consumption is not yet on a strong sustainable expansion path.  … Cash for clunkers carried the quarter. It’s gone in Q4 and spending levels will recede, with GDP growth taking a hit. Will other spending pick up and compensate?

3) Business investment spending was a net negative this quarter and commercial real estate is under pressure – it will be no source of growth. Still business spending on equipment and software turned positive for the first time in six quarters.

4) Government spending rose by 2.3% the fifth highest rise in the last seven quarters. This is not a very good return on our stimulus monies spent. About three-quarters of a trillion dollars has been spent and with no discernable impact on GDP or on jobs.


We won’t enter a real recovery until we move from consumption mode to production mode. We produce little if anything of any real value. We make nice nick knacks but that’s about it. We can’t cure Cancer, AIDS, dementia, or anything else with a “financial product”. But we can sure watch others out perform the US in these areas with stunning clarity on a nice plasma screen tv made over seas.

We are magnificent killers. Our military is probably the best in the world. But that’s pretty much the only thing we’re any good at. Or at least, that’s the only thing we show the world we’re good at.

Wall Street pay continues to be the Great Distraction

Oct 27, 2009 17:05 UTC

Again, all this focus on Wall Street pay distracts from more important issues.  Gary Becker summarizes:

I have not seen convincing evidence that either the level or structure of the pay of top financial executives were important causes of this worldwide financial crash. These executives bought large quantities of mortgage-backed securities and other securitized assets because they expected this to increase the average return on their assets without taking on much additional risk through the better risk management offered by derivatives, credit default swaps, and other newer types of securities. They turned out to be badly wrong, but so too were the many financial economists who had no sizable financial stake in these assets, but supported this approach to risk management.

The experience of other financial crashes also does not indicate that either the level or form of compensation of top financial executives were major factors in precipitating these crashes. Thousands of banks failed during the Great Depression, as did hundreds of American savings and loans institutions during the 1980s, without heads of these institutions in either case getting particularly high pay, or pay that was mainly in the form of bonuses and stock options. My impression is that this same conclusion applies to the Mexican bank crisis of the mid 1990s, and the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s.

The generous bonuses and stock options received by financial executives may often have been unwarranted, but they are being used as a scapegoat for other more crucial factors. Financial institutions underrated the systemic risks of the more exotic assets, and apparently so too did the Fed and other regulators of financial institutions. In addition, large financial institutions may have recognized that they were “too big to fail”, and that they would be rescued by taxpayer monies if they were on the verge of bankruptcy because they took on excessively risky assets.


I think you’re both missing the point. This whole business of Wall Street pay levels and bonuses &c. has been a convenient shield for Mr. Obama and his radical advisors to move into territory previously off-limits. See David Rosenberg’s analysis of the current situation in the subsequent article. Mr. Obama has moved into corporate management (GM, Chrysler, AIG); has demonized insurance companies preparatory to taking over (read: socializing) the healthcare industry; and attempted to delegitimize FOX news and anyone else who would dare differ with his agenda. (Think Jimmy Carter and his criticism = racism remarks) Keeping the ignorant masses occupied watching some hapless Wall Street executives get crucified might have seemed a winning strategy for Mr. Obama’s radical advisors. American voters may be getting wise to this game.

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Riding a downbound train

Oct 27, 2009 16:41 UTC

This has to be a classic piece of analysis by David Rosenberg:

Without either deep spending cuts or tax increases (a dirty three-letter word in the U.S.A. — remember Bush Sr.’s “read my lips” back in the early 90s that cost him the election?) the only way out of this fiscal mess caused perhaps by the prior Administration and now accentuated by the current Administration will be by monetizing the debt. …  In the final analysis, we all should know how this is going to play out. It is going to be somebody else that foots the bill for all this government incursion, and that is very likely the creditors who hold U.S. government paper. Not that the U.S. would ever default; that will never happen. However, there is very likely going to be a stage where this mountain of public sector debt gets monetized, and while gold is inherently difficult to value, what is going to drive the price higher, in the future, to new record highs will be the supply of bullion relative to the supply of dollars. ( …  Let’s face it, the degree of retrenchment that would be needed to bring the deficit-to-GDP ratio down to the 3-4% level that would allow the debt/GDP ratio to stabilize, would simply be too much for the U.S. electorate to put up with.

Nor does think much of the state of the stock market:

In other words, this is not the onset of a sustainable secular bull market as we had coming off the fundamental lows of prior bear phases, such as August 1982, when:

• Dividend yields were 6%, not sub-2%.
• Price-to-earnings multiples were 8x, not 26x.
• The market traded at book value, not over two times book.
• Inflation and bond yields were in double digits and headed down in the future, not near-zero and only headed higher.
• The stock market competed with 18% cash rates, not zero, and as such had a much higher hurdle to clear.
• Sentiment was universally bearish; hardly the case today.
• Global trade flows were in the process of accelerating as barriers were taken down; today, we are seeing trade flows recede as frictions, disputes and tariffs become the order of the day.
• A Reagan-led movement was afoot to reduce the role of government with attendant productivity gains in the future; as opposed to the infiltration by the public sector into the capital markets, union sector, economy and of course, the realm of CEO compensation

Oil prices, inflation and a double-dip recession

Oct 26, 2009 14:24 UTC

Andy Xie paints a dire scenario:

Central banks around the world have released massive amounts of money in response to the current financial crisis … But the proposition that a weak economy means low inflation is false. The stagflation of the 1970s proves it.

This round of monetary growth has mainly fed speculation, not credit demand for consumption or investment. Speculation has reached a dangerous point with the oil price threatening to reach triple digits again. Its implications for inflation may spook the central banks to raise interest rates quickly and trigger another crash.The excess money supply has created a new liquidity bubble.

The resulting asset inflation (stocks and bonds in developed markets and everything in emerging markets) has stabilised the global economy. The current equilibrium is one on a pinhead. The hope for strong economic recovery led by emerging economies raises investor optimism – and asset prices. This eases pressure on corporate balance sheets, spurs property production and boosts consumption through the wealth effect, making the hope self-fulfilling in the short term.

A rising oil price threatens to derail this recovery. It can trigger a surge in inflation expectation and a major crash of bond markets. The resulting high bond yields may force the central banks to raise interest rates to cool inflation fears. Another major downturn in asset prices would reignite fears about the balance sheets of global financial institutions, leading to new chaos.

Wall Street pay is the Great Distraction of the Great Recession

Oct 22, 2009 11:49 UTC

If I made of list of factors contributing to the recession and financial crisis, Wall Street pay would come in around 6th, after 1) easy monetary policy; 2) TBTF; 3) US housing policy; 4) global savings glut/China labor shock; 5) Wall Street group think.  Yet pay is where so much energy is being directed at this issue thanks to its populist appeal. America hates TARP so Washington needs to make amends by hammering execs at TARP recipients.

Now two other takes. First, Marginal Revolution:

There is no way this will work as advertised.  If the administration actually follows through, most of these executives will quit and get higher paying jobs elsewhere.  Executives not directly affected by the pay cuts will also quit when they see their prospects for future salary gains have been cut.  Chaos will be created at these firms as top people leave in droves.  Will the administration then order people back to work?

Here is Naked Capitalism:

The point is that the collection of these scalps will do nothing to comp levels ex these firms. The companies that also enjoy implicit government guarantees are free to do the “heads I win, tails you lose” game of privatized gains and socialized losses. And Ken Lewis is the poster child of why these measures are completely meaningless. He sacrificed his 2009 pay, but will still collect $125 million when he departs Bank of America.

If the government is going to backstop the industry (and this isn’t an “if” anymore), it needs to limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking. As we have said, reining in executive pay (and note there is no will to do that anyhow) is not an effective approach. Those employees who don’t like that are free to decamp and raise money in ways that do not involve the regulated firms in any way, shape, or form, save perhaps counterparty exposures on very safe, highly liquid instruments.


I agree with much, but take issue with the Naked Capitalism blurb. The solution is not to’limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking.’ The solution is to eliminate the government policy of too big to fail.

Once that message is sent loud and clear, then the behavior of market participants will adjust accordingly and ‘excessive’ or ‘irresponsible’ risk taking will decline by virtue of the natural dynamics of capitalist discipline. Because the prospect of real failure is powerful incentive for any institution to be more judicious in the risks that it takes — as opposed to today’s environment where ‘failure’ means the government will likely step in to make you whole.

Posted by Bill, Fairfax, VA | Report as abusive

Is the amazing American jobs machine broken?

Oct 21, 2009 19:10 UTC

This chart, constructed by the Vice President’s office via BLS data, would seem to indicate just that:



There are 3 groups of people in any economy; call them A, B and C

Group-A goes to work and creates wealth.
Group-B chooses to live on the generosity of Group-A, through taxation and charitable giving.
Group-C is truly unable to care for themselves and relies on charity.

To have a vibrant economy with social justice the Government must ensure that Group-A can and does go to work. This requires infrastructure and reasonable taxes. Failure to do this will cause Group-C to die. The logical conclusion is that the cuts in government spending need to be from the program politicians have used to buy the Group-B votes.
Jobs are created by the activity of Group-A, if we continue to reduce the size of Group-A our economy cannot create jobs.

Study: Blame China, not Wall Street, for Great Recession

Oct 21, 2009 19:02 UTC

This paper make a great case for blaming the Great Recession on the massive influx of cheap labor (and the continued weak yuan) into the global economy. Bad decisions on Wall Street didn’t help, but they are not the root cause:

The common wisdom is that cheap money and lax supervision of financial institutions led
to this financial crisis, and solving that crisis will take us out of the recession. In our view,
the financial crisis is just the symptom. The fundamental cause of the crisis is the huge
labor supply shock the world has experienced, not the glut in liquidity in money supply.

In what follows we argue that this huge and rapid increase in developed world’s labor
supply, triggered by geo-political events and technological innovations, is the major underlying
force that is affecting world events today. The inability of existing financial and legal
institutions in the US and abroad to cope with the events set off by this force is the reason for
the current great recession: The inability of emerging economies to absorb savings through
domestic investment and consumption caused by inadequate national financial markets and
difficulties in enforcing financial contracts through the legal system; the currency controls
motivated by immediate national objectives; the inability of the US economy to adjust to
the perverse incentives caused by huge moneys inflow leading to a break down of checks
and balances at various financial institutions, set the stage for the great recession. The
financial crisis was the first symptom.


You come to LA and all you do is hang out with the elitist Don and don’t come visit us at IBD? Shame on you. Don’t tell me you are an elitist, too.
I mean, you are good, but you are not that good.
Brian Deagon

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