Browsing the archives for the crisis tag.

The Republican Senators who voted for the stimulus bill, Round II: The final bill

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

If you were in any suspense about which Republicans voted for the stimulus in the Senate, by the way, now that the previous Senate and House versions have been unified into a final bill, here’s a hint: they were the same ones as last time.

Four days ago, the Senate voted on its own version of the stimulus bil. All of three Republicans voted in favour: Olympia Snowe (ME), Susan Collins (ME) and Arlen Specter (PA). Judd Gregg (R-NH) abstained, and all other Republicans voted Nay, while all the Democrats voted Yea.

Then the bill went into the conference committee, where Senate and House bigwigs hammered out a compromise between the different versions of the bill the two chambers had passed. Yesterday the House passed the new version almost entirely along partisan lines, with not one Republican voting in favour and just seven Democrats voting against (see this post for the details). Which left it to the Senate to confirm the result and pass the new, unified bill as well.

They did so, and the vote was practically identical to last time. The only differences were that Ted Kennedy, battling brain cancer, wasn’t able to come now, and Gregg this time did not abstain but voted against. The result: 60 Yeas and 38 Nays, compared to 61-37 last time.

00064 13-Feb On the Conference Report Agreed to Conference Report; American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
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Polling the stimulus

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

You may have seen Karl Rove opine in the WSJ that “support for the stimulus bill is falling”, and that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.” He is certainly not the only conservative asserting that the bill is impopular.

I’m not in the super-enthusiastic category myself, if obviously for very different reasons than conservatives have for disliking it. Overall I think the bill doesn’t look bad, though my initial enthusiasm has been damped somewhat after reading, for example, Paul Krugman’s very persuasive commentary. It’s probably not enough, and maddeningly worse than it could have been; but it’s still a whole lot better than nothing, and it does have lots of good stuff in it. So far my layman’s take, which is not exactly the most interesting one.

But what does the American population think? Is Karl Rove right? Unsurprisingly, not quite. An overview of the polls that were conducted in the past two and a half weeks, and explicitly asked respondents to express an opinion for or against the bill.

There are two pollsters that have done more than one poll within this timeframe: Gallup and Rasmussen.

Gallup asked: ”As you may know, Congress is considering a new economic stimulus package of at least 800 billion dollars. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this legislation?” All three times it polled the question, it found a majority in favor, and in the last iteration, on the 10th, that majority had grown from 52% to 59%.

Rasmussen asked: ”Do you favor or oppose the economic recovery package proposed by Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats?” It found strikingly different results.

According to Rasmussen, in late January a narrow plurality of 42% was in favour; a week later the roles were reversed, with a plurality of 43% in opposition; and by the 11th a plurality of 44% was in favour again.

Three other pollsters asked a variation of the same question at some point in these last two and a half weeks.

A CBS poll queried respondents: ”Would you approve or disapprove of the federal government passing an economic stimulus bill costing more than 800 billion dollars in order to try to help the economy?” They approved by 51% to 39%.

A Pew poll asked respondents: ”From what you’ve read and heard, do you think [the economic stimulus plan being proposed by President Obama that may cost about $800 billion] is a good idea or a bad idea?”. It found a narrow majority of 51% saying it was a good idea; 34% thought it was a bad idea.

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The Democrats who voted against the stimulus bill in the House, part II: Once more round the bend

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

So the vote is in; the US Representatives in the House have voted on the new, unified, post-conference version of the stimulus bill.

The outcome is predictably, depressingly similar to when the House voted on its own draft of the bill two weeks ago. No minds were changed here, no hearts were won. Well, one or two.

70 13-Feb H R 1 On Agreeing to the Conference Report Making supplemental appropriations for fiscal year ending 2009

The vote: 246 in favour; 183 against. Compare: the previous time it was 244 in favour and 188 against.

Just like last time, not a single Republican voted in favour. On their side, the only differences were that:

  • Last time, Ginny Brown-Waite (VA-5) did not vote; now she voted Nay;
  • Last time, John Campbell (CA-48) and Chris Lee (NY-26) voted against; now they did not vote.

That’s it.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, 246 Representatives voted in favour; 7 against; 1 “present”; and 1 did not vote. Last time round, 244 voted in favour and 11 against.

These are the Democrats who voted against the stimulus both times:

  • Bobby Bright – AL 02
  • Parker Griffith – AL 05
  • Walt Minnick – ID 01
  • Collin Peterson – MN 07
  • Heath Shuler – NC 11
  • Gene Taylor – MS 04
There were actually three vote-changers who went from supporting the bill to opposing it or abstaining (!):
  • Peter DeFazio (OR-4)- changed from Yea to Nay
  • Dan Lipinski (IL-3) - changed from Yea to Present
  • Jim Clyburn (SC-6) - changed from Yea to Not voting (not sure why – he’s the House Majority Whip. Maybe just couldn’t make it for some reason or other?)
And there were all of five who were persuaded by the changes to the bill and now voted in favour:
  • Allen Boyd – FL 02
  • Jim Cooper – TN 05
  • Brad Ellsworth – IN 08
  • Paul Kanjorski – PA 11
  • Frank Kratovil – MD 01
I’m inclined to say, what a waste. All of these compromises in the name of bipartisan change, and all for nought, as the Republican Party remains unified on its course of sabotage. OK, I realise that the compromises were primarily needed for passage in the Senate. Let’s see how many Republicans sign up there. I doubt it will be more than three or four. And considering that their sense of centrism is to take whatever is offered and just slice a vanity (but costly) 10% off it, you could have had a much better bill by going in more aggressively. Instead of giving away the compromises right at the start by building them straight into the first draft. It was a costly lesson Obama learned.
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Annals of the global financial crisis, Eurasian edition (or why the Kazakhs better grow their hair)

Economy, World Economy

“Last year,” Leopolis notes, “if one said that Kazakhstan was the “Iceland of Central Asia” it would have been a compliment.”

Now, not so much. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported, Kazakhstan’s central bank devalued the national currency, the tenge, by 18%.  Propping up the currency at the old rate proved unsustainable after the country spent $1.6 billion, or 6% of its foreign-currency and gold reserves, in January alone to do so. Economic growth is down from a healthy 10% to 1%. Profit for Kazakhstan’s 37 banks plunged 93%. The four biggest banks were seized by the government as part of an emergency program costing the equivalent to 20% of GDP. (In comparison, the $800 billion the US federal government reserved for TARP last year amounted to less than 6% of America’s GDP.) The government is now trying to hawk off the largest bank to the Russian Sberbank. 

Experts are expecting future currency devaluations, even if central bank chairman Grigory Marchenko emphatically rejects the prospect. As one said: “As long as oil prices remain subdued, there is nothing telling you to buy the tenge and there will be pressure there.” The one-sided character of the Kazakh economy makes it very vulnerable, Stratfor noted: the country depends on oil for 70% of its export revenue and 76% of all FDI. With the oil price down and the government spending $21 billion – or another 18% of its GDP – on a stimulus plan this year, the oil-funded National Fund which the country had built as buffer for bad times will all but run out this year.

As Nouriel Roubini commented to Bloomberg:

Kazakhstan looks like a small version of Iceland with its banks borrowing from abroad [..] A currency crisis becomes a banking crisis, it becomes a housing crisis, a sovereign-debt crisis, it becomes a corporate crisis because each one of these agents in these economies has a large amount of foreign liabilities. 

Kazakhstan has one of the highest rates of privately-held foreign debt, Stratfor explains; one which equaled 100% of the country’s GDP in 2007 (compared to 35% for Russia).

And still, how unique is this? The Russian currency is down 35% and the Ukrainian one down 47%, Bloomberg notes. The size of the Kazakh bailout-cum-stimulus seems exceptional, it’s true, with the sum total equalling 38% of the country’s GDP. In comparison, Russia is spending $240 billion, or close to 20% of its GDP, on bank bailouts and stimulus, while the combined bill for TARP I and the new stimulus bill Congress will vote on now will be about 10% of America’s GDP (though TARP II will come on top of that).

Still, at least Kazakhstan is still recording some economic growth, however anemic. The Czech economy entered in a recession in the last quarter of 2008 and will probably see a 2% contraction in 2009, while Hungary, which also entered a recession and is registering the worst data since 1996, may face a 4-5% drop in GDP this year. Which pales, in turn, in comparison with the numbers from the Baltic states, where Estonia’s economy contracted 9% in the fourth quarter from the same period a year earlier, and Latvia’s GDP plummeted 11%. Latvia, in particular, is looking economic collapse in the eye as its GDP may shrink by as much as 20%.

The Baltic states, like Kazakhstan but unlike Hungary, at least enjoyed a number of years of high economic growth until now, with annual growth reaching up into double digits. That doesn’t mean that people have been able to built a protective buffer for the crisis setting on now, though. The economic growth characteristically benefited the upper middle class, and especially the top layer, disproportionally. The collapse now, conversely, is likely to hurt the poor and elderly hardest.

So basically, we’re fucked. Luckily far-right Russian demagogue and all-round buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is also deputy chairman of the Russian parliament, had some advice on surviving the crisis. “I have been thrifty,” he boasted last year: “I am not having my hair cut. My hair has already grown longer than ever. I only shave every other day. [..] There is no need to buy new clothes. They can be swapped with others. I am prepared to give a couple of suits to someone, several pairs of shoes, a wristwatch.”

Personal hygiene products are just “all [..] chemical and hazardous” anyway, so you can leave those as well. (Though this, admittedly, wouldn’t present much in the way of savings for the Kazakhs, as anyone who’s seen Borat will know.) Finally, when it comes to the holidays, well: “no need to travel abroad or to go to a restaurant. Stay [..] at home or invite yourself over to someone else’s place”.

So there you are. When you fall on hard times this year, go to Vlad for clothes. Just make sure to stock up on vodka and cabbage rather than soap and shampoo in case he shows up in turn for Easter. He won’t mind the smell.

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Stimulus bill comes out of conference. While it’s distasteful to see the centrists crow, the bill doesn’t look bad.

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

So the Conference Committee of Senate and House honchos has reached a deal: U.S. Lawmakers Agree on $789 Billion Stimulus Plan (Update4). The $789 billion price tag means that the bill is indeed smaller than either the House or Senate bill – but at first blush the outcome doesn’t look bad (at least not to my distinctly layman ears).

It’s a little distasteful to see the centrists strut themselves on the bill in the most sanctimonious way: 

“It is a jobs bill,” said Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, an architect of the compromise. “And today you might call us the jobs squad.” Nelson and several other senators had insisted that the stimulus plan total less than $800 billion.

Think about this for a second – he prides himself on having cut stuff from the plan – stuff, obviously, that would have created jobs - and even as he touts this dubious achievement, he frames it as having created ”a jobs bill,” actually praising himself as part of “the jobs squad”. Never mind that, if it hadn’t been for the vanity tour of his crew, it would have been more of a jobs bill. The chutzpah these people demonstrate, as Matt Yglesias already laid bare earlier, is truly a piece of work.

But all of that is transient. What’s important is the actual bill. And there seems to be a fair bit of good news about this latest revision, going on the Bloomberg update now. At least if you judge the bill by the criteria of liberal criticism this past month – which I am admittedly reduced to somewhat since I have little economic schooling of my own. (So do chime in!)

All in all, about 35% of the plan has ended up as tax cuts and the remainder as government spending. Just to take a step back from the fray: considering just how much tax cuts have been regarded as the holy grail by every administration since Reagan’s, and extra government spending has been widely framed as almost a bad thing in principle, that’s not bad.

Tax cuts

The tax cuts seem overall revised in the right direction. For example, the biggest tax cut that had been included for businesses, which would have let companies convert losses into tax refunds, has been “all but eliminated”. This was a measure that had been criticized as yielding little immediate stimulus and doing little to help the people most in need - Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Progress called it ”simply a give-away to the financial industry and homebuilders,” which “has nothing to do with stimulus” and wouldn’t “even be considered if it were not for the political power of the financial industry.”

A proposed $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers was reduced to $8,000. Funding for the plan to let car buyers take a tax write-off on their interest payments has been slashed from $11 billion to $2 billion. These, too, were ideas I’ve seen criticized by liberal pundits. The auto measure would have had little immediate stimulus effect, because it would have primarily resulted in the auto industry emptying the current vast stocks of unsold cars and using the profit to plug debts – all things that would be good, but wouldn’t create new jobs. The tax credit for homebuyers, at this point in the housing market, would be like carrying water to the sea.

On the other hand, Obama’s proposed payroll tax credit has mostly survived, reduced from $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families to will be $400 and $800 respectively.

Can’t have it all though – the plan still includes an Alternative Minimum Tax patch, which, if I’m reading his chart right, ranks very poorly in terms of stimulus impact according to James Galbraith.

Spending

As for the actual spending, there’s these tidbits:

  • Nancy Pelosi “said she was reassured by Reid that some of the money Democrats in her chamber sought for school construction were included as part of a stabilization fund for states”. That fund will apparently total $54 billion.
  • There’s “$59 billion in aid for unemployed workers in families, including $27 billion to extend unemployment benefits for 20 additional weeks in most states and 33 additional weeks in states with high unemployment rates”. 
    Note that the Progressive Caucus in the House was already very proud of having gotten “at least $12.7 billion” in the stimulus bill the House passed to extend unemployment benefits – so that means that this end result is actually even better, right? 
  • It “also increases weekly [unemployment] benefits by $25.”
  • The bill “expands a federal subsidy to help jobless workers keep their health benefits by paying 60 percent of their premiums for nine months for married couples who earn under $250,000.”
    Judging on this side-by-side overview of the differences between the House and Senate bills, this seems to have been one of the House bill’s provisions that the Senate centrists had scrapped in theirs.
  • It “authorizes a one-time $250 payment for senior citizens, disabled veterans and disabled people living on Social Security benefits.”
    Judging on the above-linked overview, that looks like a more generous scope than the House bill’s, in which only Social Security beneficiaries would have received it.
  • It provides $90 billion for federal funds for Medicaid and $19 billion to facilitate the digitization of health records.

All sounds like good stuff that will immediately aid those hardest hit by the crisis, as well as nicely reverse the trend of the last decade or two to squeeze the benefits for the poorest ever further.

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How bad is it?

Economy, US Economy


It’s bad, real bad: “Recession-battered employers eliminated 598,000 jobs in January, the most since the end of 1974, and catapulted the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent [..] the highest since September 1992”:

The grim figures were further proof that the nation’s job climate is deteriorating at an alarming clip with no end in sight. [..]

The latest net total of job losses was far worse than the 524,000 that economists expected. Job reductions in November and December also were deeper than previously reported. [..]

All told, the economy has lost a staggering 3.6 million jobs since the start of the recession in December 2007. About one-half of this decline occurred in the past three months.

UPDATED: The NYT has some ferocious-looking graphs on the numbers, with individual details for added depression: blacks have been especially hardest hit, enlarging the race gap in unemployment again; those with only high school are significantly harder hit than those with college degrees. So the vulnerable suffer most.

It also has some choice quotes to hit home the seriousness of the situation:

“Businesses are panicked and fighting for survival and slashing their payrolls,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com. “I think we’re trapped in a very adverse, self-reinforcing cycle. The downturn is intensifying, and likely to intensify further unless policy makers respond aggressively.” [..]

As in previous months, employers [..] slashed their payrolls in almost every industry except health care. Manufacturers eliminated 207,000 jobs, more than in any year since 1982. The construction industry eliminated 111,000 jobs. [..]

“This is a horror show we’re watching,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute [..]. “By every measure available — loss of employment and hours, rise of unemployment, shrinkage of the employment to population rate — this recession is steeper than any recession of the last 40 years, including the harsh recession of the early 1980s.” [..]

[S]ome analysts contend that the current rate of 7.6 percent understates the labor market’s problems because the percentage of adults participating in the labor force has slumped, and those people are not listed as “unemployed.” Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland, estimated that if the labor force participation rate today were as high as it was when President Bush took office, the unemployment rate would be 9.4 percent.

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Dow 36

Economy, Funny, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

Noting that Kevin Hassett, of Dow 36000 fame, is now director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and confidently proclaiming his neo-Hooverite recipes for tackling the financial crisis, Neil Sinhababu of Donkeylicious sighs, “I guess it’s kind of like the Iraq War, where you can give really bad advice and still hold onto an awesome think tank job.”

Which leaves us, he adds, only with the power of satire. Crude satire, to fit crude stupidity. Here’s Neil’s reworking of Hassett’s now-notorious book – and here’s mine:

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Recognizing When You’re Wrong

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

Yesterday, President Elect Obama pulled off what I think is one of the hardest political acts to perform; he admitted he was wrong.  From back in the campaign, Obama suggested that part of his stimulus package would be a tax credit to businesses who create jobs.  In 2007, Obama was one of the senators pushing the “Patriot Employer Act”.  That bill would try to designate businesses who hire more US workers and reward them with tax credits.  Last week, that policy started to take the form of a $3,000 tax credit for each job in Obama’s stimulus package.  But the cry against this came from all quarters.  Republicans, economists, business writers and members of his own party brought up their concerns that this plan won’t work.  It’s like eliminating the tax on gasoline when prices are high: lots of politics, no benefit. 

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A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics
Soup line, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial (Image used under CC license from Flickr user gamillos)

"Soup line", part of Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial (Image used under CC license from Flickr user Gabriel Millos)

If the erupting economic crisis hasn’t already led to soup lines and double digit unemployment, Kevin Drum argued yesterday, it is only thanks to the safeguards that were put in place since the crash of 1929.

Without Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and deposit insurance; without the Treasury pumping capital into the banking system and the abandonment of the gold standard, we would already have reached that point.

So “thanks, FDR,” Drum writes*, “thanks, modern mixed economy” – and thank you LBJ as well, Eisenhower too, and all their counterparts here in Europe for that matter. Add those to your reasons to be cheerful. If it had been up to the Goldwater-Reagan ideology, this crisis would already have incurred much more suffering.

_____

* Though it’s an interesting afterthought that Roosevelt, “concerned about the moral hazard” involved, actually opposed creating the deposit insurance system, along with banking industry groups. Seems like the idea actually came from his left: he thought it went too far and even threatened to veto the legislation.

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I and I and the international financial crisis

Economy, Funny, Music, World Economy

I’m guessing this might be a first: a dub reggea track about the international financial crisis. Called “The international financial crisis”. Could someone please explain to me / this problem with liquidity? Should be #1 in the guy’s MySpace playlist.

Mr Brown he acted quickly
for that we must give him thanks,
He made a Big Decision
and he nationalised the Banks,

France and Germany
they quickly followed suit,
It’s a tempory solution
now we got to get to the root
of this …

International Financial Crisis
International Financial Crisis

Then again, JC Carroll isn’t your average rastaman. Once upon a day, in 1976, he was a trainee merchant banker. Then he joined The Members, which were good for a couple of definite UK punk classics. I still play their Solitary Confinement and Sound of the Suburbs – infectiously simple songs that combined the punk spirit with an irresistible guy-next-door vibe. Check their Wikipedia page for an odd little rundown of events that feels like one of the band members must have had a hand in it – judging on all the talk about “the Tesco-Carroll axis that .. dominate[d] the band” maybe JC himself?

Fast forward 30 years: Tesco’s been in a couple of bands, including the hilarious Leningrad Cowboys, and become a journalist at Music Week, while Carroll established a clothing shop or two and is now online on sites like these. I’m a sucker for obscure post-rock fates and all the idiosyncrasies involved in journeys like the one from here to here. For curiosity value, then, check out the YouTube vid of Carroll announcing and performing the “World Exclusive” of International Financial Crisis on “the legendary Manhattan Cable Show” Rant and Rave too. The MySpace version is definitely better, but … yeah, I’m a sucker for meandering life paths.

Anyway, Carroll may have the first dubby take, but there is, apparently, already something called “recession pop”. And I had to hear it from my septuagenarian father, who got it from the Freakonomics blog. The couple who sent in a home video of their song Fannie Mae Eat Freddie Mac and Cheese surely rival Carroll’s Rant and Rave performance, and Casey Shea’s “hushed and hopeful” Everybody’s Getting Bailed Out (Except for Me) brings romance to the economic angst. But the “noisy and apocalyptic” third exhibit will have to be the poster child for recession pop for now:

Constantines – Credit River

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What’s with the horsemen?

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

After I passed on John Judis’ take on the auto bailout here, we had a bit of a discussion in the comments section. So who could sketch my amazement to see, via TNR, that Bill Kristol – that Bill Kristol – gets it. Here he was, last Monday:

Last week, Senate Republicans picked a fight with the U.A.W. on union pay scales — despite the fact that it’s the legacy benefits for retirees, not pay for current workers, that’s really hurting Detroit, and despite the additional fact that, in any case, labor amounts to only about 10 percent of the cost of a car. But the Republicans were fighting Big Labor! They were standing firm against bailouts! Some of the same conservatives who (correctly, in my view) made the case for $700 billion for Wall Street pitched a fit over $14 billion in loans for the automakers.

There is, of course, plenty in his column to take issue with as well. But there don’t seem to be many nits to pick with this summary:

So Senate Republicans chose to threaten to filibuster the House-passed legislation embodying the George Bush-Nancy Pelosi deal. The bill would have allowed President Bush to name a car czar, who could have begun to force concessions from all sides. It also would have averted for now a collapse of the auto industry, and shifted difficult decisions to the Obama administration.

Instead, Bush will now probably have to use the financial rescue funds to save G.M. [..]. And Senate Republicans now run the risk of being portrayed as Marie Antoinettes with Southern accents.

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