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Archive for the ‘economy’ Category

“With Bold Steps, Fed Chief Quiets Some Criticism”:

[…]

“It has been a really head-spinning range of unprecedented and bold actions,” said Charles W. Calomiris, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, referring to the Fed’s lending activities. “That is exactly as it should be. But I’m not saying that it’s without some cost and without some risk.”

[As yours truly noted back in November, Charles Calomiris wrote a verbose and obtuse article for VoxEU which proclaimed that there was no credit crisis — a restatement of his August claim that there was no credit crisis. I guess that makes him almost as good a forecaster as Bernanke is. ]

Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and a close Bernanke ally, defines the Fed chief’s “doctrine” as the overpowering use of monetary policies and lending to avert an economic collapse. “Ben has, in very consequential ways, altered the framework for how central banks operate in crises,” he said. “Some will criticize it and some will praise it, and it will certainly be examined for decades.”

Mr. Bernanke’s actions have transformed his image as a self-effacing former economics professor.

“I am tempted to think of him as somewhat Buddha-like,” said Richard W. Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. “He’s developed a serenity based on a growing understanding of the hardball ways the system actually works. You can see that it’s no longer an academic or theoretical exercise for him.”

Did he just say “Buddha-like”?

Within the Bush administration, Mr. Bernanke’s willingness to work with Democrats in Congress on measures to prevent mortgage foreclosures has stirred unease. “The fact that he, an appointee of George Bush, has come very close to advocating — though he hasn’t quite advocated it — a piece of legislation that George Bush threatened to veto is an illustration of his willingness to put his head on the chopping block,” said Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and friend of the Fed chief.

One reason Mr. Bernanke is sticking his neck out is that he believes the broader economy’s recovery depends on the housing sector, which remains in a serious slump. Plenty of new evidence surfaced on Tuesday that this year’s spring home-buying season will be dismal, with one report showing that prices fell 14.1 percent in March from a year earlier and another that new-home sales are down 42 percent over the last year.

Among Democrats, Mr. Bernanke, a Republican, had previously been criticized by such party luminaries as the two former Clinton administration Treasury secretaries, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence E. Summers, who worried that he was downplaying the dangers of a recession. But that view has changed.

“I think in the last few months they’ve handled themselves very sure-footedly,” Mr. Rubin said of the Fed. Many Democrats in Congress agree.

“They say that crisis makes the man,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “He’s made believers out of people who were just not sure about him before.”

To lessen the chances of a financial collapse, Mr. Bernanke engineered the takeover of one investment bank, Bear Stearns, and tossed credit lifelines to others with exotic new lending facilities — the Fed now has seven such lending windows, some of them for investment banks as well as commercial banks.

He also allowed the Fed to accept assets of debatable value — mortgage-backed securities, car loans and credit card debt — as collateral for some Fed loans. For the first time ever, he installed Fed regulators inside investment banks to inspect their books.

Much to the dismay of conservative economists, Mr. Bernanke has also presided over an extraordinarily aggressive series of interest rate cuts, lowering the fed funds rate seven times, to 2 percent from 5.75 percent, since last September, though it has signaled a pause in further rate-cutting barring a further crisis. …

Bernanke and Paulson are the worst thing that’s happened to capitalism since Arthur Burns and Richard Nixon. Carter would have been awful, but conditions were so bad by 1979 that he had to authorize significant deregulation and capital gains tax cuts (from 35% to 28%, from memory) kicking and screaming.

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Soros must be fuming that he dumped commodities and called a bottom in equities when he did.

Soros’s public pronouncements are consistently somewhat at odds with how he actually invests. (He couldn’t have made money any other way; the track record of his public pronouncements is awful.) This instance, presumably, is no exception.

Not that he has any other viable choice.

George Soros: rocketing oil price is a bubble

By Edmund Conway, Economics Editor

Last Updated: 12:53am BST 27/05/2008

Speculators are largely responsible for driving crude prices to their peaks in recent weeks and the record oil price now looks like a bubble, George Soros has warned.

The billionaire investor’s comments came only days after the oil price soared to a record high of $135 a barrel amid speculation that crude could soon be catapulted towards the $200 mark.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Soros said that although the weak dollar, ebbing Middle Eastern supply and record Chinese demand could explain some of the increase in energy prices, the crude oil market had been significantly affected by speculation.

“Speculation… is increasingly affecting the price,” he said. “The price has this parabolic shape which is characteristic of bubbles,” he said.

  • ‘We face the most serious recession of our lifetime’
  • The comments are significant, not only because Mr Soros is the world’s most prominent hedge fund investor but also because many experts have claimed speculation is only a minor factor affecting crude prices.

    Oil prices stalled on Friday after their biggest one-day jump since the first Gulf War earlier in the week.

    At just over $130 a barrel, the price has doubled in around a year, causing misery for motorists and businesses.

    However, Mr Soros warned that the oil bubble would not burst until both the US and Britain were in recession, after which prices could fall dramatically.

    “You can also anticipate that [the bubble] will eventually correct but that is unlikely to happen before the recession actually reduces the demand.

    “The rise in the price of oil and food is going to weigh and aggravate the recession.”

    The Bank of England recently warned that soaring energy and food costs would push inflation above its target range for most of the next 18 months, making it more unlikely that it will cut borrowing costs soon.

    Mr Soros warns Britain is facing its worst economic storm in living memory, dwarfing those of the 1970s and early 1990s, with a housing slump and serious recession.

    He said: “The dislocations will be greater [than in the 1970s] because you also have the implications of the house price decline, which you didn’t have in the 1970s.”

    The warning undermines predictions that Britain will suffer only a brief and relatively painless recession, unlike the precipitous dives of previous years.

    Mr Soros also warned that the Bank’s inflation report represents a “Faustian pact”, obliging it to keep interest rates high to control inflation, even as the economy is starting to slump.

    “You had the nice decade,” he said. “Now that is over and you are in a straitjacket.”

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    The credit crisis has separated true libertarians from phony libertarians, and separated true liberals from phony liberals.

    The phony liberals have inadvertently mocked themselves throughout the entire credit crisis, manning the barricades to defend the greatest act of socialism for the rich in US history. Ditto for supposed “libertarians,” eg Robert Rubin, Bruce Kovner, and the vast majority of institutional Wall Street which found itself drowning in its own quagmire, and changed their tune faster than you can say “WTF.”

    Anyway, here’s the link.

    The editorial in question is by Robert J. Shiller, who is a professor of economics and finance and famous analyst of speculative bubbles. A specialist in behavioral economics, in the application of psychology to understanding financial markets. A co-founder of Case Shiller Weiss, that house price index we talk about a lot. His editorial, “The Scars of Losing a Home,” speaks not of lofty academic economic concepts but of human sympathy, of things that are “really important.” With references from famous academic psychologists. I haven’t taken this kind of a tiger by the tail since I went after Austan Goolsbee last year.

    Yes, it was only a year ago that the distinguished Dr. Goolsbee wrote this on the same editorial page:

    And do not forget that the vast majority of even subprime borrowers have been making their payments. Indeed, fewer than 15 percent of borrowers in this most risky group have even been delinquent on a payment, much less defaulted.

    When contemplating ways to prevent excessive mortgages for the 13 percent of subprime borrowers whose loans go sour, regulators must be careful that they do not wreck the ability of the other 87 percent to obtain mortgages.

    For be it ever so humble, there really is no place like home, even if it does come with a balloon payment mortgage.

    I actually think Goolsbee’s piece was the high-water-mark of the “subprime helps the poor” talking point. You certainly don’t hear much about that these days. Less than two months after Dr. Goolsbee’s earnest op-ed, we got an interview in the very same NYT with one Bill Dallas, CEO of the famously defunct Ownit Mortgage, effusively testifying to his own burning desire to help out the unfortunate in a way that finally put paid to the respectability of that line (“‘I am passionate about the normal person owning a home,’ said Mr. Dallas, who is also chairman of the Fox Sports Grill restaurant chain and manages the business interests of the Olsen twins. ‘I think owning a home solves all their problems.'”) Plus by now we’ve got some numbers on the 2007 mortgage vintage, the one that Dr. Goolsbee was afraid wasn’t going to ever materialize if we tightened up lending standards too much. A year ago we were looking at a 13% subprime ARM delinquency rate. Per Moody’s (no link) the Q4 07 subprime ARM delinquencies were running 20.02%. And that is not, you know, “just” another 7%. By now, those delinquent borrowers in Goolsbee’s 13% have probably mostly been foreclosed upon and are off the books. The 20% or so who are now delinquent were either part of the 87% that Goolsbee thought were “successful homeowners” last year, or else they’re those lucky duckies who bought homes after the publication date of Goolsbee’s plea that we not tighten standards too much.

    Of course Shiller wasn’t exactly spending his time a year ago defending the subprime mortgage industry on the grounds that it put poor and minority people into ever-so-humble homes with balloons attached. I seem to recall him mostly arguing that homebuyers were engaged in a speculative mania. In a June 2007 interview:

    Well, human thinking is built around stories, and the story that has sustained the housing boom is that homes are like stocks. Buy one anywhere and it’ll go up. It’s the easiest way to get rich.

    At the time, that kind of statement struck some of us, at least, as not possibly the entire story either, but in any event a useful corrective to the saccharine silliness of the “Ownership Society” and Bill Dallas solving everyone’s problems by letting them put Roots in a Community (for only five points in YSP).

    So I hope I can be just a tad startled by the New Shiller:

    Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.

    MAYBE that’s why President Bush’s “Ownership Society” theme had such resonance in his 2004 re-election campaign. People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.

    So it’s no longer irrational exuberance or plain old speculating; it’s now an instinctive affirmation of some eternal verity of the human psyche? The ultimate patriotism: the definition of self so tied up in ownership of a slice of the motherland that to rent becomes not only psychologically dangerous–these people without selves can’t be up to anything good–but politically dangerous as well? Is it possible that Shiller can mean what he is writing here?

    If you just scanned the first few paragraphs of Shiller’s op-ed you might come away with the impression of a sincere but somewhat hackneyed plea for us all to have a bit of sympathy for the foreclosed among us, foreclosure not in anyone’s experience being a walk in the park. Fair enough. It being Sunday in America, I suspect millions of us are being treated to exhortations to take a kinder view of the unfortunate than we often do; we need those exhortations; we are often lacking in sympathy. Hands up all who disagree.

    But you keep reading and you find Shiller trying to explain the “trauma” of foreclosure. And that’s where this really gets weird:

    Now, let’s take the other perspective — and examine some arguments against the stern view. They have to do with the psychological effects of strict enforcement of a mortgage contract, and economists and people in business may need to be reminded of them. After all, too much attention to abstract economic statistics just might make us overlook what is really important.

    First, we have to consider that we cannot squarely place the blame for the current mortgage mess on the homeowner. It seems to be shared among mortgage brokers, mortgage originators, appraisers, regulatory agencies, securities ratings agencies, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and the president of the United States (who did not issue any warnings, but instead has consistently extolled the virtues of homeownership).

    Because homeowners facing foreclosure must bear the brunt of the pain, they naturally feel indignation when all of these other parties continue to lead comfortable, even affluent lives. Trying to enforce mortgage contracts may thus have a perverse effect: instead of teaching homeowners that they should respect the contracts they sign, it may incline them to take a cynical view of the whole mess.

    We need to modify mortgage contracts to keep homeowners from becoming cynical? That’s somehow more respectable an idea than the one saying we should throw them out on the street to “teach them a lesson”? If Shiller is serious that all those other parties are “to blame,” then why isn’t the obvious solution to throw them out on the street? There seems to be an assumption here that nothing can be done to punish those who are “really” to blame, so we’re left managing the psyches of those who can be punished. And that’s not cynical?

    This the point at which Shiller dredges up the most stunningly unfortunate quote from William effing James (1890) to define the “fundamental” psychology of homeownership:

    Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country. The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    Now, that’s breath-taking. Horses. Yachts. His wife and his children. Ancestors. The whole late-Victorian wealthy male WASP defining the “Self” (with a capital!) as the wealthy male WASP surveying his extensive possessions, an oddly-assorted list that ranks the family and friends somewhere after the clothes and the house. (Yes, James did that on purpose.) The kind of sentiment that was a caricature of the late-Victorian male even in 1890. And Shiller drags this out in aid of generating sympathy for homeowners? Really? You couldn’t find some psychological insight about the emotional relationship of people to their homes that doesn’t speak the language of the male ego surveying his domain, sizing himself up against all the other males to see where he ranks?

    (James on the psychological effect of losing one’s property: ” . . . although it is true that a part of our depression at the loss of possessions is due to our feeling that we must now go without certain goods that we expected the possessions to bring in their train, yet in every case there remains, over and above this, a sense of the shrinkage of our personality, a partial conversion of ourselves to nothingness, which is a psychological phenomenon by itself. We are all at once assimilated to the tramps and poor devils whom we so despise, and at the same time removed farther than ever away from the happy sons of earth who lord it over land and sea and men in the full-blown lustihood that wealth and power can give, and before whom, stiffen ourselves as we will by appealing to anti-snobbish first principles, we cannot escape an emotion, open or sneaking, of respect and dread.”)

    I’m actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.

    It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin’ spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class “homeowner.” But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.

    It’s worse than odd–it’s downright reactionary–to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as “feel[ing] at one with [the] country.” This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller’s earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don’t get too “cynical.”

    I see that Yves at naked capitalism was just as disgusted by Shiller as I am:

    Now admittedly, this is not a validated instrument, but a widely used stress scoring test puts loss of spouse as 100 and divorce at 73. Foreclosure is 30, below sex difficulties (39), pregnancy (40), or personal injury (53). Change in residence is 20.

    Note that if we as a society were worried about psychological damage, being fired (47) is far worse than foreclosure (30), and if it leads to a change in financial status (38) and/or change to a different line of work (36) those are separate, additive stress factors. Yet policy-makers have no qualms about advocating more open trade even though it produces industry restructurings that produce unemployment that does more psychological damage than foreclosures. As a society, we’ll pursue efficiency that first cost blue collar jobs, and now that we’ve gotten inured to that, white collar ones as well (although Alan Blinder draws the line there).

    But efficiency arguments don’t apply to housing since we are sentimental about it. And it’s that sentimentality that bears examination, since it engendered policies that helped produce this mess.

    I would only add that we are about five years too far into a war that has not made a majority of us “feel at one with that country.” I think of another really important policy change we could be pursuing right now to shore up everyone’s psychological estrangement from their patriotic self-satisfaction. But “efficiency arguments” don’t apply to wars, either.

    My fellow bleeding heart liberals like Goolsbee found themselves defending the subprime industry in the name of increasing minority homeownership. Now we’re treated to the spectacle of Shiller arguing for homeowner bailout legislation in the same terms that Bush used to defend the “Ownership Society.” Housing policy, I gather, makes strange bedfellows. It certainly makes strange editorials.

    Shiller’s unwitting self-parody embodies the principle at the heart of the TAF and every other tentacle of the Wall Street bailout. Far more than “economist statistics which can cause us to lose sight of what’s really important,” what’s REALLY important is protection of those Selves which include “lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”

    You can *not* make this stuff up.

    Pardon my French, but our economy is being run by f*cking idiots.

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    IFR:

    [13:57 US GOVTS: Fallout From Credit Crisis Seen in TIC Data]

    Boston, May 15. Though foreigners continued to buy treasuries (a record $55 bln) and agency ($18 bln) paper hand over fist in the latest March TIC data the net flow for the month was actually a negative $48 bln. While far from an expert in these numbers it appears that the shortfall was made in the private flow category and specifically bank liabilities which fell $115 bln.

    The thinking is that the latter number ($115 bln) represents a falloff in US bank lending to their European counterparts over the heighten counterpart concern engendered by the subprime/credit crisis. If so, this may be yet another reason why the Fed is contemplating expanded both the size and term maturity of the TAF program.

    Either way, the data is causing quite a stir on the Street and is seeing a knee-jerk buying and curve steepening reaction in the treasury market as traders try to sort out what it all means.

    Interesting.

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    􀁘 Removing gasoline sales, which have been strongly influenced by the sharp rise in
    prices in recent months, allows a better measure of real or inflation-adjusted sales
    to be examined. Alternative measures of the so-called ‘control group,’ included in
    real consumer spending as measured by the BEA, rose about 0.5% in April,
    following a revised increase of about 0.3% in March (revised from 0.1%).
    Moreover, January ‘control group’ sales are now estimated up 0.3%, about double
    their previously estimated rise.
    􀁘 Categories showing improvement in April included electronics and appliance store
    sales which rose 1.4%, food service and drinking place sales up 0.9%, clothing and
    accessories store sales up 0.7% for a second consecutive month, general
    merchandise stores up 0.5% and health and personal care stores up 0.4%.
    􀁘 While consumers remain under strain from weak employment conditions, falling
    home values, high energy costs, and tight credit conditions, today’s retail sales
    results point to stronger spending emerging this quarter, especially as the ongoing
    tax rebates are more fully distributed this month and next. Moreover, some modest
    upward revision to 1Q consumption is also likely.

    In other words, non-inflating retail is doing well. Large discrete expenses (cars) and rapidly inflating sectors (gas) aren’t.

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