Monday, January 26, 2009

Joseph Stiglitz with a cogent analysis!

Commentary: How to rescue the bank bailout
Joseph E. Stiglitz: The bank bailout has failed to restart prudent lending by banks
Stiglitz says banks made reckless loans and were burned as a result
Stiglitz: They borrowed so much money that they couldn't handle a downturn
Economist says it's time to consider government takeovers of weaker banks
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By Joseph E. Stiglitz
Special to CNN

Editor's note: Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor at Columbia University, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 for his work on the economics of information. Stiglitz was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration before joining the World Bank as chief economist.

Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz says the strategy followed by the architects of the bank bailout was flawed.

(CNN) -- America's recession is moving into its second year, with the situation only worsening.

The hope that President Obama will be able to get us out of the mess is tempered by the reality that throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at the banks has failed to restore them to health, or even to resuscitate the flow of lending.

Every day brings further evidence that the losses are greater than had been expected and more and more money will be required.

The question is at last being raised: Perhaps the entire strategy is flawed? Perhaps what is needed is a fundamental rethinking. The Paulson-Bernanke-Geithner strategy was based on the realization that maintaining the flow of credit was essential for the economy. But it was also based on a failure to grasp some of the fundamental changes in our financial sector since the Great Depression, and even in the last two decades.

For a while, there was hope that simply lowering interest rates enough, flooding the economy with money, would suffice; but three quarters of a century ago, Keynes explained why, in a downturn such as this, monetary policy is likely to be ineffective. It is like pushing on a string.

Then there was the hope that if the government stood ready to help the banks with enough money -- and enough was a lot -- confidence would be restored, and with the restoration of confidence, asset prices would increase and lending would be restored.

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Remarkably, Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and company simply didn't understand that the banks had made bad loans and engaged in reckless gambling. There had been a bubble, and the bubble had broken. No amount of talking would change these realities.

It soon became clear that just saying that we were ready to spend the money would not suffice. We actually had to get it into the banks. The question was how. At first, the architects of the bailout argued (with complete and utter confidence) that the best way to do this was buying the toxic assets (those in the financial market didn't like the pejorative term, so they used the term "troubled assets") -- the assets that no one in the private sector would touch with a 10-foot pole.

It should have been obvious that this could not be done in a quick way; it took a few weeks for this crushing reality to dawn on them. Besides, there was a fundamental problem: how to value the assets. And if we valued them correctly, it was clear that there would still be a big hole in banks' balance sheets, impeding their ability to lend.

Then came the idea of equity injection, without strings, so that as we poured money into the banks, they poured out money, to their executives in the form of bonuses, to their shareholders in the form of dividends.

Some of what they had left over they used to buy other banks -- to pursue strategic goals for which they could not have found private finance. The last thing in their mind was to restart lending.

The underlying problem is simple: Even in the heyday of finance, there was a huge gap between private rewards and social returns. The bank managers have taken home huge paychecks, even though, over the past five years, the net profits of many of the banks have (in total) been negative.

And the social returns have even been less -- the financial sector is supposed to allocate capital and manage risk, and it did neither well. Our economy is paying the price for these failures -- to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

But this ever-present problem has now grown worse. In effect, the American taxpayers are the major provider of finance to the banks. In some cases, the value of our equity injection, guarantees, and other forms of assistance dwarf the value of the "private" sector's equity contribution; yet we have no voice in how the banks are run.

This helps us understand the reason why banks have not started to lend again. Put yourself in the position of a bank manager, trying to get through this mess. At this juncture, in spite of the massive government cash injections, he sees his equity dwindling. The banks -- who prided themselves on being risk managers -- finally, and a little too late -- seem to have recognized the risk that they have taken on in the past five years.

Leverage, or borrowing, gives big returns when things are going well, but when things turn sour, it is a recipe for disaster. It was not unusual for investment banks to "leverage" themselves by borrowing amounts equal to 25 or 30 times their equity.

At "just" 25 to 1 leverage, a 4 percent fall in the price of assets wipes out a bank's net worth -- and we have seen far more precipitous falls in asset prices. Putting another $20 billion in a bank with $2 trillion of assets will be wiped out with just a 1 percent fall in asset prices. What's the point?

It seems that some of our government officials have finally gotten around to doing some of this elementary arithmetic. So they have come up with another strategy: We'll "insure" the banks, i.e., take the downside risk off of them.

The problem is similar to that confronting the original "cash for trash" initiative: How do we determine the right price for the insurance? And almost surely, if we charge the right price, these institutions are bankrupt. They will need massive equity injections and insurance.

There is a slight variant version of this, much like the original Paulson proposal: Buy the bad assets, but this time, not on a one by one basis, but in large bundles. Again, the problem is -- how do we value the bundles of toxic waste we take off the banks? The suspicion is that the banks have a simple answer: Don't worry about the details. Just give us a big wad of cash.

This variant adds another twist of the kind of financial alchemy that got the country into the mess. Somehow, there is a notion that by moving the assets around, putting the bad assets in an aggregator bank run by the government, things will get better.

Is the rationale that the government is better at disposing of garbage, while the private sector is better at making loans? The record of our financial system in assessing credit worthiness -- evidenced not just by this bailout, but by the repeated bailouts over the past 25 years -- provides little convincing evidence.

But even were we to do all this -- with uncertain risks to our future national debt -- there is still no assurance of a resumption of lending. For the reality is we are in a recession, and risks are high in a recession. Having been burned once, many bankers are staying away from the fire.

Besides, many of the problems that afflict the financial sector are more pervasive. General Motors and GE both got into the finance business, and both showed that banks had no monopoly on bad risk management.

Many a bank may decide that the better strategy is a conservative one: Hoard one's cash, wait until things settle down, hope that you are among the few surviving banks and then start lending. Of course, if all the banks reason so, the recession will be longer and deeper than it otherwise would be.

What's the alternative? Sweden (and several other countries) have shown that there is an alternative -- the government takes over those banks that cannot assemble enough capital through private sources to survive without government assistance.

It is standard practice to shut down banks failing to meet basic requirements on capital, but we almost certainly have been too gentle in enforcing these requirements. (There has been too little transparency in this and every other aspect of government intervention in the financial system.)

To be sure, shareholders and bondholders will lose out, but their gains under the current regime come at the expense of taxpayers. In the good years, they were rewarded for their risk taking. Ownership cannot be a one-sided bet.

Of course, most of the employees will remain, and even much of the management. What then is the difference? The difference is that now, the incentives of the banks can be aligned better with those of the country. And it is in the national interest that prudent lending be restarted.

There are several other marked advantages. One of the problems today is that the banks potentially owe large amounts to each other (through complicated derivatives). With government owning many of the banks, sorting through those obligations ("netting them out," in the jargon) will be far easier.

Inevitably, American taxpayers are going to pick up much of the tab for the banks' failures. The question facing us is, to what extent do we participate in the upside return?

Eventually, America's economy will recover. Eventually, our financial sector will be functioning -- and profitable -- once again, though hopefully, it will focus its attention more on doing what it is supposed to do. When things turn around, we can once again privatize the now-failed banks, and the returns we get can help write down the massive increase in the national debt that has been brought upon us by our financial markets.

We are moving in unchartered waters. No one can be sure what will work. But long-standing economic principles can help guide us. Incentives matter. The long-run fiscal position of the U.S. matters. And it is important to restart prudent lending as fast as possible.

Most of the ways currently being discussed for squaring this circle fail to do so. There is an alternative. We should begin to consider it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph E. Stiglitz.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Concentration of Wealth and The Great Depression, as recounted by Marriner S. Eccles, FDR's Fed Chairman 1934-1948.

Inequality of wealth and income
Marriner S. Eccles, who served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Chairman of the Federal Reserve from November 1934 to February 1948, detailed what he believed caused the Depression in his memoirs, Beckoning Frontiers (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1951)[26]:
As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery. [Emphasis in original.]
Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.
That is what happened to us in the twenties. We sustained high levels of employment in that period with the aid of an exceptional expansion of debt outside of the banking system. This debt was provided by the large growth of business savings as well as savings by individuals, particularly in the upper-income groups where taxes were relatively low. Private debt outside of the banking system increased about fifty per cent. This debt, which was at high interest rates, largely took the form of mortgage debt on housing, office, and hotel structures, consumer installment debt, brokers' loans, and foreign debt. The stimulation to spend by debt-creation of this sort was short-lived and could not be counted on to sustain high levels of employment for long periods of time. Had there been a better distribution of the current income from the national product -- in other words, had there been less savings by business and the higher-income groups and more income in the lower groups -- we should have had far greater stability in our economy. Had the six billion dollars, for instance, that were loaned by corporations and wealthy individuals for stock-market speculation been distributed to the public as lower prices or higher wages and with less profits to the corporations and the well-to-do, it would have prevented or greatly moderated the economic collapse that began at the end of 1929.
The time came when there were no more poker chips to be loaned on credit. Debtors thereupon were forced to curtail their consumption in an effort to create a margin that could be applied to the reduction of outstanding debts. This naturally reduced the demand for goods of all kinds and brought on what seemed to be overproduction, but was in reality underconsumption when judged in terms of the real world instead of the money world. This, in turn, brought about a fall in prices and employment.
Unemployment further decreased the consumption of goods, which further increased unemployment, thus closing the circle in a continuing decline of prices. Earnings began to disappear, requiring economies of all kinds in the wages, salaries, and time of those employed. And thus again the vicious circle of deflation was closed until one third of the entire working population was unemployed, with our national income reduced by fifty per cent, and with the aggregate debt burden greater than ever before, not in dollars, but measured by current values and income that represented the ability to pay. Fixed charges, such as taxes, railroad and other utility rates, insurance and interest charges, clung close to the 1929 level and required such a portion of the national income to meet them that the amount left for consumption of goods was not sufficient to support the population.
This then, was my reading of what brought on the depression.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Congratulations to President Elect Obama

President Elect Obama,

I am delighted that you have been elected president of our country. This is the greatest example of tolerance and belief in fairness that I have personally witnessed in America. We all must be overjoyed that the majority of white people in America were able to put their own prejudices aside and elect a black man as President. There are billions of non-white people in the world, and this has given all hope for the future. I would just like to say that our troubles are many. Specifically, you are clearly the candidate who understood the gravity of the economic distress the majority of Americans are suffering from. So I hope and pray that you will approach the rebuilding of America with caution and humility, as you have promised. As someone who will definitely be paying more taxes, I say that I don't mind. BUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don't want my money going to the oligarchs on Wall Street. Please send my money to people who are suffering and need jobs, food, shelter or health care. Please don't destroy the dollar by massive inflation/debasement. If you need to default on our debt, please do it sooner rather than later so that we may recover. Regarding health care, I believe that all should have access to health care. BUT!!!!! We as a country must really look at where the majority of the costs really are. If anybody is interested in my opinion (truth) let me know.

P.S. Volcker for Secretary of Treasury (NO CLINTONITES/RUBINOMICS BUBBLE HEADS)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A sad but utterly predictable first move. Beginning of the End of Dollar Hegemony!

ECB's Nowotny Sees Global `Tri-Polar' Currency System Evolving
By Jonathan Tirone

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- European Central Bank council member Ewald Nowotny said a ``tri-polar'' global currency system is developing between Asia, Europe and the U.S. and that he's skeptical the U.S. dollar's centrality can be revived.

``What I see is a system where we have more centers of gravity'' Nowotny said today in an interview with Austrian state broadcaster ORF-TV. ``I see for the future a tri-polar development, and I don't think that there will be fixed exchange rates between these poles.''

The leaders of the U.S., France and the European Commission will ask other world leaders to join in a series of summits on the global financial crisis beginning in the U.S. soon after the Nov. 4 presidential election, President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Barroso said in a joint statement yesterday.

Nowotny said he was ``skeptical'' when asked whether the Bretton Woods System of monetary policy, set up after World War II and revised in 1971, could be revived to aid global currency stability. The U.S. meeting should aim to strengthen financial regulation, define bank capital ratios and review the role of debt-rating agencies.

European leaders have pressed to convene an emergency meeting of the world's richest nations, known as the Group of Eight, joined by others such as India and China, to overhaul the world's financial regulatory systems. The meetings are to include developed economies as well as developing nations.

`Real Economy'

Bush, 62, has cautioned that any revamping must not restrict the flow of trade and investment or set a path toward protectionism. The G8 nations are Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. The U.S. hasn't committed itself to the sweeping terms of Europe's agenda, White House press secretary Dana Perino said yesterday.

Sarkozy wants the G8 to consider re-anchoring their currencies, the hallmark of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement that also gave birth to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The current financial crisis, in which European governments have pledged at least 1.3 trillion euros ($1.7 trillion) to guarantee loans and take stakes in lenders, should be ``under control'' by mid-2009, Nowotny said. The economy will suffer longer.

``What comes then, unfortunately in parallel, will be the problems for the real economy,'' Nowotny said. ``The growth rate in 2009 will be significantly below what we have in 2008.''

He predicted gross domestic product growth around 1 percent in Austria next year.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Wall Street Loves to play Brinkmanship!

Congressman Brad Sherman from California gives a chilling account of how Paulson warned of martial law if the bailout wasn't passed. You can deduce his argument rather easily. "We need money to get credit flowing because the banks will fail. And if the banks fail, there will be massive unemployment which will lead to civil unrest. We will have to call in the army and impose martial law and perhaps even have a dictatorship. Now you wouldn't want that on your tenure????? So give us $700 billion or else!!!!!!!! Also Senator Cantwell from Washington stating her opposition to the TARP.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wall Street Journal Op Ed by Nobel Prize Winner Edmund S. Phelps

We Need to Recapitalize the Banks
Let's have cash infusions in return for warrants.


When the speculative fever finally broke in America's housing industry and house prices began falling in search of equilibrium levels, banks everywhere suffered defaults and subsequent losses on a range of assets. In short order, the housing contraction morphed into a banking crisis.

David Gothard
Among most economists, it came as a surprise that the banking industry and, indeed, most of the financial sector, was so devoted to houses. We had not realized that the investment and innovation in the country's business sector was largely getting by on rich uncles, a tiny cottage industry of venture capitalists out West, and a few private-equity funds doing alternative energy. And we didn't foresee that a trillion or two of losses in an economy with $40 trillion of financial wealth could bring high anxiety and, two weeks ago, near panic.

The banks' losses might seem poetic justice after their abominable performance. But costly feedback effects on the rest of us are in prospect. Uncertainty over the quantity and valuation of banks' "toxic assets" has meant that many cannot count on loans from each other to meet daily needs, and this illiquidity in the markets has impaired their ability to lend. Among banks that had excessively leveraged their capital through borrowing and other devices, the losses wiped out much or all of their capital, and this near-insolvency has dampened their willingness to lend.

The resulting credit contraction is starting to crimp working capital and investment outlay at small businesses and is having wider effects on business activity through its impact on interest rates, exchange rates and consumer loans. This feedback is causing a fall of employment on top of the direct effect of the housing contraction on employment in construction and finance. The added fall in jobs will in turn add to mortgage defaults.

Will this chain reaction produce a deep slump, like Japan's in the 1990s or, worse, America's in the 1930s? In my view, the claim by Keynesians that the economy can be stabilized around a satisfactory employment level, thanks to economic science, is false. So is the claim by latter-day neoclassicals that such stability is automatic, thanks to the market. Both dogmas fatally miss the point that the normal activity level is driven by structural shifts, which monetary policy and price-level changes usefully accommodate but cannot reverse. The end of the speculative fever and the credit crunch each have structural effects on the real prices of business assets, real wages, employment and unemployment. As I see it, the former has pushed up the normal, or "natural," volume of structural unemployment. The latter (and the excess houses) is pushing the economy into a temporary slump. It will last as long as required for the banks' self-healing and government therapy to pull us out of it and into the neighborhood of our new, postboom normalcy.

I believe that leaving the process of recovery entirely to the healing powers of the banking industry, as libertarians suggest, would be imprudent, even if the banks could manage it. Lacking much government intervention, Japan's recovery took a decade. Sweden's recovery, with state intervention, took hardly any time at all.

Right now our banking industry is barely operational. Whatever the corrective surgery indicated, the priority is to get the system operating again. Delay would be costly and risky.

The most discussed of the proposed programs would address banks' toxic assets by authorizing the Treasury to buy them, issuing debt to finance the purchase. Proponents of this program add that the government's eventual sale of the assets purchased might repay the investment with a profit -- grossing, say, an 8% rate of return while paying 4% interest.

House Republicans and some economists object, saying that the government could attain its goal with a bigger or surer profit by selling the banks "default insurance" on their distressed assets: the premiums paid are hoped to far exceed the default costs. To me, government entry into the default insurance business is little different from government purchasing the assets. It is not clear to me that selling default insurance would be more profitable.

House Democrats want a parallel program that would help defaulting mortgage borrowers to avoid foreclosure -- to help them "stay in their homes." Such a step might set an undesirable precedent in economic policy. If, after investing in my vocational training, I cannot make it in the line of work I chose -- not at the real wage that the market has since established, at any rate -- will I be entitled to help from the government to "stay in my work"? Furthermore, many defaulters are housing speculators not families caught up in an adjustable rate mortgage they did not understand. Finally, the overinvestment in houses does not present the systemic risk of economic breakdown that the overextension of credit does.

However, the program to revive the operation of the banks through purchase of the toxic assets faces a sticky wicket. If the government sets the prices too low, the banks will supply little of their assets; they will prefer to hold them to maturity in order to get the price appreciation for themselves. The Treasury will then need to raise the terms. But that may cause the banks to hold off longer, speculating on still better terms ahead.

If, instead, the Treasury sets its prices too high, its funds will go far enough to buy only a portion of the toxic assets offered in response. Thus, it is not certain that such a program would work to clean out the toxic assets at all quickly. Subnormal operation of the banking industry might drag on for a few years.

A program of asset purchases, however needed, is limited in scope. It cannot be counted on to increase the equity capital of the banks -- to shore up their solvency. Underpaying for the toxic assets would actually inflict a further loss of capital. Overpaying the banks for their toxic assets could contribute capital, but that may not be politically feasible or attractive.

So it is clear that the main prong of any "rescue" plan must serve to advance the recapitalization of the banks. Cash transfusions in return for warrants are a good way to do it, as it lets taxpayers share in the upside. The rescue of Chrysler used warrants. This past Monday the FDIC got $12 billion in preferred stock and warrants in the deal that saw Citigroup buy Wachovia. The question is which banks are to be thrown a lifeline, which will have to sink or swim. This one-time dose of corporatism is unpleasant, though the banking industry is to blame for its necessity.

But these steps toward making the system operational again will leave it dysfunctional. We don't want to restore the system as it was. And the risk that the industry would cause another round of wreckage is not the only reason.

What has occurred is not just an old-fashioned banking crisis but also a banking scandal. Most of the big banks were shot through with short-termism, deceptive practices and self-dealing. We must institute basic changes in corporate governance and in management practice to restore responsibility and honesty for the sake of the economy and for the self-respect of the country.

We also need to return investment banking to its roots. There is more to the influence of the financial sector than merely its effects when it goes off the rails. The financial system is not a sort of circulatory system that passively carries fresh saving to the places in the economic body that demand the greatest investing -- as if guided by some "invisible hand." Judgment and vision -- of bankers, fund managers, angel investors and the rest -- matter hugely. So do the distortions, the limits and the license created by the regulatory system and the moral climate. To prosper and advance, the American business sector is going to need a financial system oriented toward business, not "home ownership."

Mr. Phelps, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in economics, directs the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University.