Saturday, March 14, 2009

Banking crisis: Baker

A Talk With Dean Baker: "We Really Need Much More
Stimulus"

By Leo Gerard Campaign for America's Future March 4,
2009

http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2009031004/talk-dean-baker-we-really-need-much-more-stimulus

Leo W. Gerard: Economist James K. Galbraith, the Lloyd
M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations
at the University of Texas, recently told Deborah
Solomon of the New York Times that you are 'the person
with the most serious claim' for predicting the
onslaught of the current credit disaster.

The promo for your most recent book, "Plunder and
Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy"
(PoliPoint Press, 2009), says the fall of the bubble
economy was 'completely predictable.' But you were
standing nearly alone out there for some time yelling,
'The collapse is coming, the collapse is coming.'

When did you get the first inkling that the collapse
was impending and what did that feel like?

Dean Baker: I learned from the stock bubble in the
1990s that the timing was hard to predict but I first
became convinced that it was starting to burst in the
fall of 2006, (house prices had begun to fall) and I
wrote a forecast projecting a recession for 2007. It
turned out that I was still somewhat premature. I was
expecting the price decline to gain speed more quickly
and to have a more immediate impact on the economy.
However, according to the National Bureau of Economic
Research, the official arbiter of recessions, the
current recession did begin in 2007, so I was not too
far off.

As a more general matter, I did feel somewhat
vindicated, although it was striking to me, that even
as the bubble was very much in the process of deflating
in late 2007 or even early 2008, most economists were
still convinced that it would have little consequence
for the economy. I recall repeated pronouncements from
former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke that the problems
were contained in the subprime market.

Gerard: What were the clues you saw that others ignored
or missed?

Baker: For most economists, the idea that a market
would take leave from its senses - that it would be
driven by speculation - is almost inconceivable. Given
that we had just seen a massive bubble in the stock
market, it really should not have surprised people to
see one also develop in the housing market.

The main factor that attracted my attention was the
sudden spurt in house prices beginning in the mid-90s.
For the hundred years from the 1890s to the 1990s,
house prices nationwide had just tracked the overall
rate of inflation. Yet, from 1995 to 2002 (when I first
noticed the bubble), house prices rose by 30 percent in
excess of the rate of inflation.

There was no explanation for this sudden jump in prices
based on the fundamentals of supply and demand. Income
growth had been healthy in the late 90s, but not
extraordinary by the standard of the early post-war
years. Furthermore, income growth had largely stopped
during the 2001 recession.

Population growth was slowing, which should have slowed
housing demand. On the supply side, we were building
houses at near record rates, so clearly there was no
serious supply constraint.

If there is a big run-up in house prices and no obvious
force driving it on either the demand or the supply
side, then it sure looks like a bubble. Just as
additional confirmation, I checked rents, which tend to
more or less follow sale prices. Rents had increased
only slightly more than the rate of inflation in the
late 90s, and by this decade, they were falling behind
inflation. There certainly was no evidence of growing
demand pressure on the housing market there.

Finally, I noticed the rise in vacancy rates. This is
consistent with people buying homes for speculative
purposes. Many investors were willing to gamble on a
high price for a new home or condo, betting that it
would go up even more in the future. Of course, this is
not sustainable. Not many people can afford to keep a
unit vacant for a long time, since it means that they
are paying the mortgage and getting little or nothing
back. The high vacancy rates of this era virtually
guaranteed that the bubble would burst.

Gerard: Did you also see problems with subprime
mortgages contributing to the bubble?

Baker: The problems in the mortgage market were hardly
a secret. The subprime share of the market nearly
tripled from 2002 to 2006. The Alt-A share, which are
typically mortgages taken out by small business owners
with variable income (and often in accurate tax
returns), exploded from around 1 percent to 15 percent.
This should have set off flashing red lights to any
serious economist.

And, the stories about liar loans and phony documents
were everywhere. I was getting e-mail from people
around the country telling me about friends and
relatives employed by mortgage banks who were told to
put in fake numbers so that the banks could issue
loans. Certainly the regulatory agencies must have
known this was going on.

Gerard: But if you noticed those clues, and looking
back on it, those clues are actually quite obvious, why
did the vast majority of financial analysts and
economists and managers for large investment funds
including pensions and endowments, fail to see the
bubble and its implications?

Baker: The bulk of financial analysts and economists
largely repeat the conventional wisdom without ever
seriously trying to assess whether it makes sense. They
unthinkingly follow the conventional wisdom because of
the structure of incentives in their profession. No one
is going to get fired because they didn't see the
housing bubble. In fact, few people are likely to even
miss a promotion because they didn't see the bubble.

Economists and financial analysts are not like
steelworkers or people in other occupations. They don't
get evaluated based on their performance. They can mess
up every day of the week through their whole careers,
and this would be just fine, as long as they messed up
in the same way as their peers.

On the other hand, the few economists/analysts who
spoke up to warn about the bubble were taking huge
risks. Of course, we were all ridiculed at the time. If
you were an economist working at a major investment
bank and tried to tell them that all their big money-
making deals were going to get them in trouble, they
would probably tell you to shut up and fire you if you
didn't.

If the housing market stayed strong and house prices
kept rising or just remained stable, then any economist
who had warned of the bubble would be laughed off as a
chicken little.

In short, the incentives are such that the overwhelming
majority of economists will never challenge
conventional wisdom even if they think it is wrong.
They are there to hold on to their jobs, not to inform
the public about the economy.

Gerard: Did you know the collapse would be this bad?
How bad will it get?

Baker: I knew that it could be very bad. I was trying
to be contained in my pessimism (I couldn't completely
ignore the conventional wisdom either), but I did warn
that the downturn could develop into a Japan-style
financial crisis. This obviously is the case that we
are looking at. Of course, if the Fed and Treasury had
moved more quickly, they could have prevented some of
the damage that the financial system is now seeing.

The same applies to fiscal stimulus. It was painful
sitting through the months of the election campaign and
then the transition when the government was completely
paralyzed. At that point, economists from across the
political spectrum all recognized that the economy
needed further stimulus, but the politics were such
that nothing could move.

As it is, the stimulus package passed by Congress is a
good start, but it is nowhere near big enough to turn
the economy around. The unemployment rate is virtually
certain to shoot past 8.0 percent in the February jobs
report and is likely to hit 9.0 percent by summer. If
we are lucky, the stimulus will provide enough of a
boost to keep the unemployment rate from reaching 10
percent, although I would not take this for granted at
this point.

In addition to higher unemployment, house prices will
continue to fall at least until summer. The big
question in my mind is whether house prices return to
their pre-bubble level or they overshoot on the way
down. At this point, I would bet on overshooting. This
implies an even larger loss of wealth for homeowners,
more foreclosures and more big losses for banks.

Gerard: Will the stimulus stop the free fall?

Baker: If we are to turn things around, we really need
much more stimulus and we need it quickly. My favorite
idea at this point is a tax credit to employers for
giving workers paid time off. For example, if employers
offer paid parental leave or sick leave, or paid
vacation, or increase the days they already offer, then
the tax credit would cover the lost work. This can be a
quick way to get millions of people back to work.

The arithmetic on this is straightforward. Suppose that
employers of 100 million people give their workers an
amount of additional paid time off that is equal to 5
percent of their work time. These employers would
suddenly have demand for 5 percent more workers, or 5
million workers. I can't think of a quicker, less
bureaucratic way to create jobs at this point,
especially now that we have already funded most of the
shovel-ready infrastructure projects.

Gerard: What must be done to prevent this from
recurring?

Baker: There are two key points. First we must rein in
the political and economic power of the financial
sector. The financial sector must serve the real
economy, not the other way around. There is a long list
of reforms that are needed to ensure this outcome, but
the main point is that an efficient financial sector is
a small financial sector.

One way to keep it small is to tax it. If we had a very
modest financial transactions tax, for example 0.25
percent on the purchase or sale of a share of stock, it
would have very little impact on people who invest for
the long-term. However, it would have a huge impact on
people who are buying at 2:00 and selling at 3:00. This
sort of tax would discourage such speculation, making
the markets friendlier to long-term investors.

It would also reduce the size of the financial sector,
since the industry makes much of its profit off this
sort of speculation. In addition, such a tax could
raise more than $100 billion a year. That's real money
even in Washington.

The other point is that a balanced economy, in which
workers share in the gains of growth, is not conducive
to financial bubbles. We didn't have any major bubbles
in the three decades following World War II. During
this period, productivity gains were passed on in wage
gains, which in turn fed consumption, which led firms
to invest in expanded capacity. The basis for the
bubble economy was created in the 80s when this
virtuous circle broke down and workers could no longer
count on seeing their wages rise in step with
productivity.

In short, if we want to prevent another financial
bubble and the sort of economic collapse caused by its
bursting, we should support policies that allow workers
to share in the gains of growth. That sort of world
favors investment in the productive economy rather than
financial speculation.

=====

[Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers of
America (USWA)

[Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and
Policy Research in Washington, D.C., has written
several books. His most recent, "Plunder and Blunder:
The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy" (PoliPoint
Press, 2009), chronicles the growth and collapse of the
stock and housing bubbles and explains how policy
blunders and greed led to the catastrophic market
meltdowns.]

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