MacroScope

Common cause for Washington and Tehran in Iraq?

Iraq is going up in flames and there appears to be no question of the West putting boots back on the ground in contrast to 2003 when the United States and Britain invaded to topple Saddam Hussein and set in train a decade of chaos that has now exploded again.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric has urged his followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The chances of ISIL militants taking heavily armed Baghdad are slim but that doesn’t mean conflict will not continue and, with Iraqi Kurdish forces seizing control the oil hub of Kirkuk just outside their autonomous enclave in the north, the prospect of the country splitting along sectarian lines is real.

Over the weekend, ISIL’s advance on Baghdad slowed but spread northwest, with Sunni militants seizing Tal Afar, a town close to the Syrian border.

President Barack Obama said he was reviewing military options, short of sending combat troops. Unusually, the United States may have common cause with Iran in shoring up Maliki’s administration. Iranian president Rouhani said Tehran could cooperate with Washington to restore security and a senior U.S. official said the Obama administration was mulling possible discussions with Iran over the mounting crisis in Iraq.

Whether that reads across to Syria, where ISIL is also active, and negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear negotiations is too early to say.

Letter of the Lew: Treasury comments on change of guard at troubled IRS

Here are comments from a U.S. Treasury official on Secretary Jack Lew’s meeting with incoming Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel this morning, following a scandal of political targeting that cost the previous acting commissioner his job. Treasury officials knew about the problem as early as last June, according to this report in the Wall Street Journal:

Secretary Lew met with incoming Acting IRS Commissioner Werfel this morning and directed him to conduct a thorough review of the organization in an effort to restore public confidence in the IRS and ensure the organization is providing excellent and unbiased service to the taxpayer. Secretary Lew also requested that he take actions immediately as appropriate, and that within the next 30 days, Werfel report back to the President and him about progress made in three areas: 1) ensuring staff that acted inappropriately are held accountable 2) examine and correct any failures in the system that allowed this behavior to happen and 3) take a forward-looking systemic view at the agency’s organization.

Brussels throws gauntlet down to Berlin

The European Commission leapt off the fence yesterday proposing many of the policies – a bank deposit guarantee fund, longer for Spain to make the cuts demanded of it and allowing the euro zone rescue fund to lend to banks direct (though there were some mixed messages on that) – that would buy a considerable period of time to move towards its ultimate goal: the sort of fiscal union that would make the euro zone a credible bloc much harder for the markets to attack.

The proposals would go a long way to removing Spain from the firing line, and suggests Brussels at least has decided it now urgently needs to shore the country up. But Germany opposition to all three still appears to be steadfast.

Time to dust off the golden rule of this crisis – dramatic decisions are taken only when the bloc is staring right into the abyss. We’re not quite there yet, though not far off, so there has to be a chance of something seismic resulting from the end-June EU summit which follows June 17 Greek elections. The leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain meet in between, just after a G20 summit which will presumably press Angela Merkel hard too. As European Commission President Barroso said yesterday, speed and flexibility will be of the essence although at least some of what is being discussed would require time-consuming treaty change.

U.S. lags Portugal, Estonia in science grads

President Barack Obama will seek $80 million in new funding for a program to boost science and math education in U.S. schools. Here is a graph from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that illustrates the extent of the shortfall on a population-adjusted basis:



APEC’S always in fashion

CHILEOne of the most closely guarded secrets at the APEC summit in Japan’s port city of Yokohama this weekend is not what the Asia-Pacific leaders might say about currencies and global imbalances. No, that’s all going to be thrashed out at the G20 meeting Thursday and Friday in Seoul. The big topic of speculation here at the Pacifico Yokohama Convention Center is what the leaders will wear when they gather for the annual class photo that concludes the meetings.

U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin wear Chilean ponchos at APEC meeting  in Santiago in 2004. REUTERS

The last time Japan hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was 1995 in Osaka. There the leaders, apparently trying to depict the Japan Salaryman look, came out in business suits. Nobody remembers much about that APEC meeting, except that it took place in the magnificent, gold-embellished Osaka Castle. 

from Sebastian Tong:

Stop pushing and we’ll do it

The growing acrimony in the international debate over China's currency policy has led some to warn that Beijing could dig in its heels if pushed to hard to let its yuan rise. crybaby

But Barclays Capital says Beijing could let its currency strengthen as early as next month, notwithstanding its public resolve against Washington's threat to label it as a currency manipulator.

"They do have a 'If you stop pushing, we'll do it' attitude, which is kind of childish, really. But it will happen because they are the only country in the world, besides India, where there is a whiff of inflation," says Barclays' asset allocation head Tim Bond.

The Nobel prize for governance

The people who hand out Nobel Prizes are obviously keen this year to trumpet a new world order in economics as well as politics. Hot on the heels of giving Barack Obama the peace prize, they have awarded  this year’s economics prize for research into governance.

American economists Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson won — the former for showing how common property can be managed by user associations, the latter for a theory on corporate conflict resolution.

You can read some background on  their research here and here.

Congratulations or condolences for Bernanke?

Congratulations, Ben Bernanke. It looks like a second term as Federal Reserve chairman is in your future. But considering the tasks before him, is this a blessing or a curse?

Greg Mankiw, the Harvard University economics professor and former adviser to President George W. Bush, summed it up nicely on his blog:

“I extend my congratulations to the President for a fine decision and my condolences to Ben for having the spend the next four years overworked and underpaid.”

U.S. state budgets battered by recession

Eighteen months into the worst recession in decades, and the pain of the downturn is reaching into nearly every U.S. state, city and municipality.

With ever more people out of work, consumer spending has dried up, depriving local government of sales tax revenue. The continued housing slump has wiped out real estate transfer taxes, while declining corporate profits have eroded business tax revenue.

From Maine to California, the slump has drained coffers at the very time that the cost of providing jobless benefits and healthcare has risen, straining public finances.

Wall Street ‘yes,’ economists ‘no’ — what’s your call?

U.S. President Barack Obama receives a daily economic briefing in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, March 23, 2009. Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer (L) and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy (C) Geithner are also pictured. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES POLITICS BUSINESS)The Obama Administration’s toxic asset plan got rave reviews from Wall Street yesterday, but not so much from a few Nobel-prize winning economists.

Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman separately blasted the plan. Stiglitz told Reuters that the plan will rob taxpayers by exposing them to too much risk and is unlikely to work as long as the economy remains weak.

“The Geithner plan is very badly flawed,” Stiglitz said. “Quite frankly, this amounts to robbery of the American people. I don’t think it’s going to work because I think there’ll be a lot of anger about putting the losses so much on the shoulder of the American taxpayer.”