Tag Archive for 'Barack Obama'

US treasury interest rates and (disin|de)flation

This Bloomberg piece from a few days ago caught my eye.  Let me quote a few hefty chunks from the article (highlighting is mine):

Bond investors seeking top-rated securities face fewer alternatives to Treasuries, allowing President Barack Obama to sell unprecedented sums of debt at ever lower rates to finance a $1.47 trillion deficit.

While net issuance of Treasuries will rise by $1.2 trillion this year, the net supply of corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities and debt tied to consumer loans may recede by $1.3 trillion, according to Jeffrey Rosenberg, a fixed-income strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Shrinking credit markets help explain why some Treasury yields are at record lows even after the amount of marketable government debt outstanding increased by 21 percent from a year earlier to $8.18 trillion. Last week, the U.S. government auctioned $34 billion of three-year notes at a yield of 0.844 percent, the lowest ever for that maturity.
Global demand for long-term U.S. financial assets rose in June from a month earlier as investors abroad bought Treasuries and agency debt and sold stocks, the Treasury Department reported today in Washington. Net buying of long-term equities, notes and bonds totaled $44.4 billion for the month, compared with net purchases of $35.3 billion in May. Foreign holdings of Treasuries rose to $33.3 billion.
A decline in issuance is expected in other sectors of the fixed-income market. Net issuance of asset-backed securities, after taking into account reinvested coupons, will decline by $684 billion this year, according to Bank of America’s Rosenberg. The supply of residential mortgage-backed securities issued by government-sponsored companies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is projected to be negative $320 billion, while the debt they sell directly will shrink by $164 billion. Investment- grade corporate bonds will decrease $132 billion.

“The constriction in supply is all about deleveraging,” Rosenberg said.
“There’s been a collapse in both consumer and business credit demand,” said James Kochan, the chief fixed-income strategist at Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Wells Fargo Fund Management, which oversees $179 billion. “To see both categories so weak for such an extended period of time, you’d probably have to go back to the Depression.”

Greg Mankiw is clearly right to say:

“I am neither a supply-side economist nor a demand-side economist. I am a supply-and-demand economist.”

(although I’m not entirely sure about the ideas of Casey Mulligan that he endorses in that post — I do think that there are supply-side issues at work in the economy at large, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that they are the greater fraction of America’s macroeconomic problems, or that demand-side stimulus wouldn’t help even if they were).

When it comes to US treasuries, it’s clear that shifts in both demand and supply are at play.  Treasuries are just one of the investment-grade securities on the market that are, as a first approximation, close substitutes for each other.  While the supply of treasuries is increasing, the supply of investment-grade securities as a whole is shrinking (a sure sign that demand is falling in the broader economy) and the demand curve for those same securities is shifting out (if the quantity is rising and the price is going up and supply is shifting back, then demand must also be shifting out).

Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have been going on for a while about invisible bond market vigilantes, criticising the critics of US fiscal stimulus by pointing out that if there were genuine fears in the market over government debt, then interest rates on the same (which move inversely to bond prices) should be rising, not falling as they have been.  Why the increased demand for treasuries if everyone’s meant to be so afraid of them?

They’re right, of course (as they so often are), but that’s not the whole picture.  In the narrowly-defined treasuries market, the increasing demand for US treasuries is driven not only by the increasing demand in the broader market for investment-grade securities, but also by the contraction of supply in the broader market.

It’s all, in slow motion, the very thing many people were predicting a couple of years ago — the gradual nationalisation of hither-to private debt.  Disinflation (or even deflation) is essentially occurring because the government is not replacing all of the contraction in private credit.

Obama’s (i.e. The Volcker) bank plan

Those of us who aren’t American but still follow U.S. politics were quietly giggling (okay, openly guffawing) into our latte’s last week when Scott Brown won the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy.  The Daily Show’s take on the whole affair (I think it was broadcast the night before the election day) was spot on and I urge anyone with the capability to hunt down that episode.  In short, the Democrat’s handling of the event is a classic example of why the word clusterfuck was invented. What in blazes they now intend to do in passing any reasonable kind of reform in health-care (and the ideas on the table weren’t really all that reasonable to start with) is beyond me.

Anyway.  I tip my hat to the newest federal Senator in the United States for an expertly handled campaign.

I was then surprised to (finally) see some equally smart politics from the White House in the form of Obama publically supporting the banking regulation ideas of former Fed chair and octogenarian, Paul Volcker.

The White House had already been making noises about imposing a fee on financial institutions to recoup any losses in TARP.  TARP, if you remember, is the US$700 billion officially set aside under president Bush Jr. to help the finance industry weather the storm.  Of course, a large fraction of TARP was diverted to help the car (that’s “auto” for any Americans in the audience) industry and not all assistance to the financial industry was included in TARP.  Still, it’s the closest thing to an easy target with a pronounceable name.  If you care, you can read my incredibly brief thoughts on the levy here and, more importantly, here.

But the Volcker plan is an entirely different kettle of fish and can be boiled down to a simple and beautiful phrase:  “Too big to fail is just too big.”

It calls for constraints on the scope and the size of US banks.  It seeks to ban proprietary trading at institutions that hold retail deposits.  It’s an armchair commentator’s wet dream come true!  It’s also, unfortunately, staggeringly unlikely to ever become reality.  There are two reasons for this.

First, as expertly described by the Economics of Contempt, the White House has no intention of pushing this through anyway.  Instead, it was …

… a fairly transparent political stunt — the White House needed to do something to take the media’s focus off of health care 24/7, so they flew in Volcker and announced some proposals that sound good to the media. The two Senate staffers I talk to regularly both said their offices were basically ignoring Obama’s proposals, because even if the White House fights for them (which they won’t), Chris Dodd has no intention of inserting them into his committee’s bill. I like how some people think Obama’s proposals represent a fundamental turning point on financial reform, because….well, clearly this is their first rodeo. (Hence the uber-quixotic language they use to describe financial reform.)

[Update: Just to clarify, when I said Obama’s announcement was a “fairly transparent political stunt,” I wasn’t criticizing the Obama administration. We live in a political world, and political stunts are often useful. If I were Rahm Emanuel, I’d be a dick have done the same thing. I think it was probably a savvy move, and if health care reform ends up passing, then it was worth it.]

Second, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the second move in the space of a week to leave the America-watchers of the world chuckling, decided to reverse decades of precedent and assert that when it came to political speech, corporations, unions and other groups of individuals have more power than individuals.  Not only can corporations, unions and the like directly fund political campaigns, but unlike individuals, they are subject to no limit on their donations.  It’s great.  You’re going to end up seeing major political events sponsored by Pepsi.  You’re going to have unlimited funding available to opponents of any politician that does anything that runs contrary to a company that employs people in his or her district or state.  In short, you will never, ever again see anything serious passed in an election year in the United States unless it has not just bipartisan, but unanimous support.

So, no, as much as I like what Obama said, I don’t think it’ll ever become law.  It certainly won’t in 2010.

Food stamps in America

Here is a NY Times article doing what the NY Times does well, this time looking at the use of food stamps across America.  Here are the basic details (emphasis is all mine):

With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.

It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese
the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day. There are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps
Nationwide, food stamps reach about two-thirds of those eligible, with rates ranging from an estimated 50 percent in California to 98 percent in Missouri. Mr. Concannon urged lagging states to do more to enroll the needy, citing a recent government report that found a sharp rise in Americans with inconsistent access to adequate food.
Unemployment insurance, despite rapid growth, reaches about only half the jobless (and replaces about half their income), making food stamps the only aid many people can get — the safety net’s safety net.

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Now nearly 12 percent of Americans receive aid — 28 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Latinos and 8 percent of whites. Benefits average about $130 a month for each person in the household, but vary with shelter and child care costs.
Use among children is especially high. A third of the children in Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee receive food aid. In the Bronx, the rate is 46 percent. In East Carroll Parish, La., three-quarters of the children receive food stamps.

A recent study by Mark R. Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, startled some policy makers in finding that half of Americans receive food stamps, at least briefly, by the time they turn 20. Among black children, the figure was 90 percent.

I’m not sure how I feel about food stamps.  The classically-trained economist in me wants to point out that money is fungible, so that:

  • for people that, if they were given the equivalent amount of cash, would have bought the same amount of food,  the program largely serves to impose unnecessary administrative costs over a simple cash transfer and places a stigma on the recipients; and
  • for people that, if they were given the equivalent amount of cash, would have bought less food, the program (arguably) willfully deprives them of welfare in addition to the administrative costs and stigma.

On the other hand, we have that:

  • for the (presumed) minority of recipients that have problems with drug or alcohol abuse or have a family member that has problems, receiving aid in the form of food stamps helps ensure that there’s still food on the table (although I do assume that there is a secondary market in food stamps, not to mention in food itself);
  • for the recipients living in high-crime areas, the incentive to steal food stamps is lower than that to steal cash (even if there is a secondary market, it’ll be annoying to deal with and won’t give 100 cents on the dollar), so receiving food stamps is safer;
  • by giving people food stamps instead of cash, you reduce the possibility of a sense of entitlement emerging (one of the major problems in countries, like Britain, with comprehensive welfare systems is that recipients can come to consider the aid they receive as their right and not just (hopefully temporary) assistance); and
  • America, for some reason that is mostly beyond me, has always had trouble facing up to the moral imperative to assist those in genuine need and presenting that assistance as food stamps seems to have granted it some political cover.

Anyway, the NY Times piece comes with some more fantastic graphics.  Here are two snapshots (click-through on either of them to get to the good stuff on the NY Times website):




So on top of the financial crisis in general, the bank stress tests in particular, the ensuing recession, the reaching out in foreign policy, the push for healthcare reform, the changes in taxation policy, the regulation of carbon dioxide, the implosion of the US car industry and an influenza pandemic, Obama now gets to deal with a retiring supreme court judge.  And he’s now in day 103 or something.

Why Obama chose Hillary for State

I like both of these answers:

Tyler Cowen:

This is exactly the kind of detailed political question I don’t follow so let’s try some crude, fact-poor economism. Hillary Clinton commands the loyalties of significant segments of the Democratic Party. The implication is that Obama will need these segments for what he is trying to do. Since Obama already has 58 (?) Democratic Senators on his side, we should conclude that Obama will try to do lots in the first few months of his term; this is the “throw long and deep” scenario.

He can always encourage her to leave later, if the relationship does not work out. Latinos, on the other hand, are stronger as voters than as a lobby or as an organized segment of the Democratic Party. The implication is that they will get relatively little at the beginning of Obama’s term — when lobbies are needed — but successively more as the next election approaches.

Andrew Sullivan:

Earlier this year, it seemed a good idea to plonk her on the ticket to defang the threat. That would have followed the “team of rivals” concept that Obama wanted to purloin from Lincoln. It would also have given the Clintons an independent claim on power. By winning without them and even, in some measure, despite them, Obama can now bring the Clintons into the power structure while retaining clear dominance. The State Department appointment is prestigious enough not to be condescending, yet also keeps Clinton off the Washington circuit more than any other position. She’ll be on a plane or abroad a great deal. Extra bonus: Bill will just love that. Sending his wife to the Middle East is the ex-president’s idea of a good time.

There’s also the small question of Iraq. Think of the appointment this way: “You voted for this bloody war, Hillary; you can end it.”

Withdrawing from Iraq will not be easy and it may well be gruesome. I have no confidence that the place won’t erupt into an even nastier civil war when the United States pulls out than it did when the United States didn’t fully push in. How does a president avoid the domestic blow-back of essentially cutting his losses on a doomed adventure? He uses Clinton as a protective shield from domestic critics. It’s also a rather brilliant manoeuvre against those elements on the right – from Fox News to Washington neocons – who came out in praise of Clinton in the spring when she sounded more hawkish than Obama on the Middle East. Having hailed Clinton as the Iron Lady of the Jews, the stab-in-the-back right will find it hard to pivot immediately and accuse her of treason if and when she ends the Iraq occupation.

But why did Hillary accept the job?

The best I can imagine off the top of my head is that (a) she really believes that the Obama presidency will be a successful one; and (b) a successful stint as Secretary of State after time in the Senate would look very, very good on the resume in eight years time.