China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘stimulus’ tag

Top Six Questions for the Coming Chinese Structural Economic Shift

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With the coming onset of recession in China, the most important question to ask is: is it cyclical or structural? All answers currently point to structural. In fact, a slightly lower growth rate that comes with massive structural changes to the economy is a good thing and much more sustainable in the long-term. The next question to ask is whether those structural changes are even happening and if so whether they are succeeding. In that vein, here are the most important questions relevant to the coming Chinese structural economic shift:
  1. Will more rounds of infrastructure stimulus be effective?
  2. What is the liability of local government debt?
  3. How does China liberalize capital accounts without a replay of the late-90’s Asian crisis or large-scale capital flight from well-off Chinese/corrupt CCP officials?
  4. What mix of policies gets China to higher domestic consumption?
  5. How big of a drag on the economy are negative externalities like the environment?
  6. How is China meeting its current and future energy needs?

Final bonus question: is the CCP implementing responses to these challenges?

Written by Will

September 8th, 2012 at 11:16 am

Putting the Focus Back on Housing Policy

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With the release of the Treasury Department’s new white paper on housing policy, the administration has restarted a national discussion on reforming the GSEs (government-sponsored enterprises, Freddy Mac and Fannie Mae). The long and short of it is that they distort the market for mortgages, and contributed to the collapse of the economy by backing risky mortgage securities that later blew up. (they are not however the root cause and creators of those exotic securities; you can thank Wall Street for that) Our bailout of Freddy and Fannie has cost the government far more money than the stimulus or TARP ever cost. This entire set-up is rather strange, given that these are for-profit corporations with an arsenal of lobbyists.

What’s the government’s plan? I got curious when I read Ezra Klein write this bit: “But the government isn’t looking to dramatically change the role they play in the housing market. They’re just looking to get away from poorly designed institutions like Fannie and Freddie.” This seems like a contradiction – and I think he misread the report, although I agree with everything else he wrote in that post. The government’s stake in the mortgage market is going to be substantially altered. As Daniel Indiviglio writes, the government will still subsidize a small portion of mortgages for the poor and veterans through FHA and VA programs, but under any of the options provided by the Treasury Department, the U.S. government will gradually exit the 85% percent of the market it had previously inhabited.

The plan makes GSEs less and less competitive with private sources of funding, gradually winding down its influence on the mortgage market. Fees guaranteeing mortgages will rise, more private capital would need to be raised to cover credit losses, and larger mortgages will not qualify for government-backing. Next, the plan offers three options for a limited government presence on the market: completely private, no government role of any kind; a crisis funding mechanism that is so expensive that during good times it is never used, and in bad times much cheaper to ease a credit crunch; and a catastrophic guarantee reinsurance program. Indiviglio describes this better than I can: “Mortgages would pay a premium to obtain this insurance, but the first losses (up to some specified percentage) would hit whoever held the mortgage asset, whether it be a bank or investor. If losses exceed that first loss piece, then the government would cover the remainder. The government would use the guarantee fees it obtained to do so. That way, theoretically, taxpayers would not be harmed. Think of this as a little like depository insurance, where there’s a fund in place paid for by insurance premiums that the government uses to cover losses.”

This is all good. When it comes to housing policy, one major question will shape how you view all related policies: is universal housing ownership a worthy goal of U.S. government policy? I would say: not in of itself. Owning a house is not a smart decision for every single person. It might be the American dream, but we do more harm than good when we try to force it on people. I would suggest everyone also take a look at the GSE section of the Roosevelt Institute’s 2009 report on financial reform, “Let Markets Be Markets”. There’s a very good lecture from Raj Date included. The full report is here (pdf).

Can Frank Luntz Be Serious?

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This is a joke:

“The last time Republicans gained control of the House, in 1994, they achieved more in the first 100 days than some Congresses have in two years. From welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment, they passed every one of their 10 ‘Contract With America’ items. … Once again, Republicans cannot be timid. American voters overwhelmingly support spending cuts to balance the budget; six in 10 of them support a 21 percent across-the-board cut in nonmilitary discretionary spending.”

Reality check: the 111th Congress, as in this Congress (yes, the one where Democrats have been in power), has been one of the most productive in history, on par with congress during the early years of both LBJ and FDR. Luntz cites: “welfare reform to tax cuts to a balanced budget amendment” as examples of Republican productivity 15 years ago. The problem is: everyone loves a tax cut. Everyone loves to cut welfare for Cadillac mommies. And the balanced budget amendment never passed the Senate. And then they shut down government over the deficit. So much for that: we got rid of the deficit by the end of the decade anyway, mostly because of a booming economy.

There are no natural constituencies against for what the Republicans are for. The poor on welfare don’t have a voice in government, but business does. While there might exist policy analysts who think certain tax cuts are bad for our budgets, there’s no constituency who is going to refuse one. Many Democratic priorities, however, require a gentler finesse in order to get passed. In other words, there are vested interests who will lose money if Congress acts for the greater good. It requires some politicking to persuade these vested interests, and that’s hard.

Here are some things the 111th Congress has accomplished: stimulus, which in itself represents a dramatic investment in infrastructure, schools, and a tax cut all rolled into one; healthcare reform, which could be split up into numerous major bills, such as closing the Medicare doughnut hole, providing coverage to 40 million Americans, requiring pre-existing conditions to be covered, allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, making sure all children have health insurance, and reducing the rise in the growth of healthcare spending; financial regulatory reform, which both forms a consumer protection agency to ward against faulty financial products that will explode in consumers’ faces, and derivatives that will likewise explode in bankers’ faces; Ted Kennedy’s final legacy, the SERVE America Act, which dramatically expands the number of young people serving in AmeriCorps and creates a ‘Social Innovation Fund’, which funds evidence-based programs with private and foundational support in pursuit of solving major social challenges; tobacco-regulation legislation; credit-card legislation, which establishes a credit-card bill of rights and bans arbitrary interest rate increases; fully funding and expanding the Veterans Administration; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (for all the ladies out there); fully funding the Violence Against Women Act (again, for the ladies); student loan reform and increased access to Pell Grants; Promise Neighborhood legislation (one of my favorite, and under-exposed in the entire bunch); cracking down on mortgage fraud; and more jobs legislation than I can count, including the Advanced Manufacturing Fund for innovative manufacturing strategies, expanded loan programs in the Small Business Administration, Energy Partnership for the Americas, creating markets overseas for our clean-energy industries, fully funding the Community Development Block Grant, job-training programs for clean energy technologies, and of course, everything already in the Stimulus Act.

Whew. That was a lot. And it makes Frank Luntz argument look ridiculous. Luntz says the Democrats loss is not about “deficient personalities or insufficient communication,” but about wrong priorities. I’m sorry, but Democrats promised this exact agenda when they were elected, and they delivered.

Luntz’s policy suggestions are likewise inane:

(1) Balance the budget as quickly as possible through meaningful spending reductions, a hard spending cap and a constitutional amendment so that it never gets unbalanced again.

(2) Eliminate all earmarks until the budget is balanced, then require a two-thirds vote by Congress for future earmark legislation.

(3) Keep taxes down by requiring supermajorities for increases, and eventually enact tax reform with a simple, low, fair rate that drastically reduces the length of the IRS code.

(4) Create a blue-ribbon task force that engages in a complete, line-by-line forensic audit of federal agencies and programs to end waste and reduce red tape and bureaucracy.

(5) And require Congress to provide specific constitutional authorization for every bill it passes so that the government stays within the boundaries imagined by the founders.

1) Spending reductions won’t get the job done without reductions in the rate of spending growth, especially in the medical sector, while a spending cap is unwieldy and not specific enough; 2) earmarks comprise a pitifully small portion of the annual deficit; 3) supermajority-requirements for tax increases have ruined California’s budget outlook and are a bad idea, while a “simple, low, fair rate” (i.e. the flat tax) is regressive and rewards the rich while punishing the poor; 4) a line-by-line audit of the budget is already being done – there’s already a non-military discretionary spending freeze; 5) who decides what’s acceptable in the eyes of the Constitution? Some wackos think the Constitution was written by Moses. I think this is the job of the Supreme Court, a job it has successfully carried out since Marbury v. Madison.

Ultimately, collective political behavior can seem irrational. Democrats ran on a specific platform, got elected in historic numbers, passed most of their platform, and then got dumped in historic numbers. But really, it’s just the floundering economy, and the Federal Government’s inability to fix a massive sink-hole in demand (now if this were the Reagan recession, which was actually created by the Fed and interest rates were raised to break stratospheric inflation in the late 70’s, it would be a lot easier to fix – just lower interest rates). What do I take from all of this? The Democrats’ loss has to do with anything but their policy accomplishments, and the political winds during a massive recession can switch on a dime.

Culturally Constructed Ignorance

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I am really getting tired of all the obstructionism on Capitol Hill as related to the stimulus bill, et al. Why are there so many agnotological politicians? Don’t they have anything better to do, like run the country? Oh, and the media isn’t helping.

Written by Will

February 4th, 2009 at 2:37 am