The can’ts and the won’ts #wonkbook

June 21, 2012

Here's the state of world economic policymaking in two sentences: Those who want to act to boost the economy can't. Those who can act to boost the economy won't.

This works for pretty much any set of institutional actors you might like to name. Take the United States. The Federal Reserve can act -- or, at the least, it says it can act -- but it doesn't want to. The president would like to act, but can't do it without Congress. Democrats in Congress would like to act, but can't do it without Republicans in Congress. Republicans in Congress can act, but they won't.

In Europe, the European Central Bank can act to end the continent's crises and substantially boost growth prospects, but it doesn't want to. You can argue whether Germany is being held back by ideology or politics, or both but I'd say their resistance to solutions like eurobonds and more ECB involvement puts them in the "can act, don't want to" category, too. Countries like France would like to see more growth-focused policy, and though they're trying to push those preferences, they don't have the power to make them happen.

In the developing world, this breaks down a bit. But just a bit. China would like to do more to boost their slowing economy, but rising problems like inflation and potential real estate bubbles are staying their hand. In India, governmental dysfunction means the capacity of policymakers to act is much reduced. So they're probably in the "can't" camp too.

Bottom line? There's a lot that could be done to boost the recovery right now and improve long-term fiscal prospects for later. But those who would like to pass such policies can't, and those who can pass such policies won't. And so here we are.

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Top story: The Fed's big day

The Fed extended 'Operation Twist' as expected. "The central bank announced a modest expansion Wednesday of its efforts to stimulate growth, pledging to buy $267 billion in long-term Treasury securities over the next six months as part of a continuing campaign to reduce borrowing costs. It is the first time since January that the Fed has intensified its efforts to revive economic growth, and the first time since September that it has announced a new round of asset purchases. This is the fifth such announcement since 2008. But the new program is not large enough to provide significant economic support. Instead it amounts to a placeholder, an effort to soothe markets and preserve the status quo while the Fed seeks greater clarity about the health of the economic recovery. 'We have to get further information about the state of the economy, about where things are going and about what’s happening in Europe,' Mr. Bernanke said at a news conference after the release of the policy statement and projections." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

@mattyglesias: It’s not possible for a central bank to “do nothing.” The Fed took strong action today to reduce expected demand.

@ryanavent: So I hope you all have enjoyed the past three years of recovery, because that's what the next three will look like.

@rortybomb: "The Committee is prepared to take further action as appropriate to promote a stronger economic recovery..." WHY NOT NOW WHHYYYYY

@JustinWolfers: I read the Fed as saying: One more bad jobs report, and we'll do more. Indeed, wouldn't be surprised at an inter-meeting move.

READ: The Federal Open Market Committee's statement of policy.

How the statement changed from April's: http://on.wsj.com/MGCXUg.

They also issued new, super-gloomy economic forecasts. "Economic projections released by the Federal Reserve on Wednesday saw officials expecting weaker growth, higher unemployment and softer inflation over the next few years. The Fed’s 'central tendency' for the U.S. gross domestic product now ranges from 1.9% to 2.4% this year, compared with the 2.4% to 2.9% gain predicted in April. Growth is seen between 2.2% and 2.8% in 2013, from the April view of 2.7% to 3.1%. U.S. GDP growth is seen between 3.0% to 3.5% in 2014." Michael Derby and Kristina Peterson in The Wall Street Journal.

@ObsoleteDogma: Shorter Fed: "Inflation is too low & unemployment is too high, so we'll keep doing what we're doing."

READ: The Fed's new projections.

Wall Street wasn't thrilled with the news. "Wall Street gave a tepid response on Wednesday to the Federal Reserve’s decision to extend a program intended to drive down long-term interest rates, as analysts questioned just how far the measure would go in bolstering economic growth...Initially, the stock market sold off, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling more than 90 points, before prices bounced higher and then fell again. By the end of trading, the key market indicators had recouped their losses and were barely changed." Christine Hauser in The New York Times.

Asset purchases work. "This seems like a good day for a reminder that asset purchases work. The Federal Reserve really can lower interest rates by purchasing large quantities of Treasury securities, mortgage-backed securities, or other kinds of securities. We know this because the Fed has run the experiment three times in recent years, and the results have been parsed, dissected and replicated by a growing number of certified economists, almost all of whom have reached the same basic conclusion...A paper published last month by two Federal Reserve Board economists estimated that the Fed’s first two rounds of asset purchases reduced interest rates on 10-year Treasury bonds by about one percentage point." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

EL-ERIAN: The Fed went ahead with the second best solution. "While the Fed has been able to normalise market functioning and boost valuations, it has repeatedly failed to deliver on its desired economic outcomes. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that things will be any different this time around. Whether you are worried about insufficient demand or the economy’s sluggish supply response, it is hard to argue that what ails the US is in the domain of Fed tools. The most it can do is buy time while trying to inform and -- at the margin -- influence steps that can only be taken elsewhere...Wednesday’s decision signals that America is falling further behind its first best policy responses. And while the Fed should be commended for trying to deliver a second best, net benefits will prove even more difficult to secure. In the process, look for greater distortions that will take years to resolve." Mohamed El-Erian in The Financial Times.

SALMON: Unemployment isn't enough for Bernanke to act. "It was clear from the press conference that Bernanke feels as though he has at least some extra ammunition in the back of his armory in case things get worse still. Which raises the obvious question: why isn’t he using that ammunition now?...From today’s presser, my feeling is that Bernanke maybe doesn’t feel as strongly any more that he would be reckless to act more aggressively. But he does still feel that the upside from doing so is 'doubtful'. If he’s forced by crisis to pull out the ammo, he’ll do so. But Bernanke clearly doesn’t consider the unemployment crisis to be a crisis in that sense. If something happens suddenly, then policymakers can act strongly and decisively. Years of high unemployment are in many ways more damaging than the sudden drop in government spending that risks arriving with the fiscal cliff. But because the damange is slow-acting and invidious, it seems that unemployment, on its own, is incapable of persuading Bernanke to do more." Felix Salmon in Reuters.

KLEIN: The scary explanation for the Fed's reticence. "If there’s more Bernanke could be doing, and if what he’s doing could be effective, then it seems downright cruel to be holding out on a labor market with 8.2 percent unemployment. If the policies he could pull out, however, are so risky and ineffective that even 8.2 percent unemployment isn’t reason enough to use them, then is there really anything more the Fed can do? To put it another way, a scary interpretation of Bernanke’s position is that he doesn’t believe the Fed could do much more to help the economy, but he doesn’t want the market to know that, and so he keeps not doing more but telling the markets he could do more if he wanted to. As one wag put it on Twitter, the bazooka Bernanke says he’s got in his pocket is really just his finger." Ezra Klein in the Washington Post.

O'BRIEN: The Fed has an inflation ceiling. "Remember, the Fed has a dual mandate of low inflation and low unemployment. It's supposed to care about each equally. What does this mean exactly? The 'low inflation' half of the dual mandate is defined is long-term 2 percent inflation -- and it's that 'long-term' bit that gives the Fed some wiggle room. Greg Ip of The Economist has laid out a very sensible way this would work. If unemployment is high, like it is now, the Fed could briefly stray above its 2 percent target. In other words, the Fed's inflation target must be symmetrical: It has to be just as willing to overshoot as undershoot it. The Fed is not telling us it has a symmetrical inflation target. The Fed is telling us it has an inflation ceiling. Look at the inflation projections again. None of them go above 2.0 percent. That's a catastrophe. It puts a speed limit on the recovery. If the economy does pick up, and inflation creeps above 2 percent, the Fed is signaling that they may very well raise rates -- even if unemployment is still high." Matthew O'Brien in The Atlantic.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Monetary policy uncertainty is becoming a problem. "In addition to the tax cliff facing the economy in January, you can now add a monetary ledge. The Federal Reserve added that extra uncertainty by announcing Wednesday that it will extend its Operation Twist bond swap program by another $267 billion and through the end of the year. Just what the economy needs: Another temporary stimulus that may or may not end when the powers in Washington claim it will...The very uncertainty of monetary policy is becoming a problem, as investors hang on every Fed word and play the Treasury market, rather than exercising their animal spirits. Markets can now spend the next two months speculating about whether the Fed will use its August meeting to commit another round of bond purchases that will be called QEIII. The basic mistake is relying on monetary policy to conjure growth, when what we need are supply-side fiscal and regulatory policies." The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.

Top op-eds

1) DIONNE: Big government keeps America from becoming Europe."If the United States were still governed under the Articles of Confederation, might California be in the position of Greece, Spain or Italy? After all, California has a major budget crisis and all sorts of difficulties governing itself. Its initiative system allows voters to mandate specific forms of spending and to limit tax increases and also make them harder to enact. Absent a strong federal government with the power to offset the impact of the recession and the banking crisis, how would California fare in a global financial system?...the metaphor is instructive because it turns on its head the usual nonsense from anti-government politicians that the United States is on the road to becoming Greece. No, we’re not. Our issues are entirely different. To the extent that the crisis in Europe has lessons for the United States, they go the other way." EJ Dionne in the Washington Post.

2) SLAUGHTER: Restrictions on skilled immigrants hurt the economy. "Since the financial crisis, America's immigration policy has further tightened. Buried in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was the Employ American Workers Act, which restricted H1-B hiring at any U.S. company that received government support from either TARP or new Federal Reserve credit facilities. This act foolishly hurt hundreds of finance companies by limiting their talent pool precisely when they needed new talent the most. I saw the damage done by this misguided legislation firsthand...Six Tuckies were soon in my office, confused and upset at suddenly facing unemployment. By graduation only one had secured employment in America, after randomly winning a visa lottery. The other five all secured jobs--but all abroad. All five said they would probably never return to the U.S. because of the Employ American Workers Act. The long-term result? Lost ideas. Lost jobs. Lost taxes. " Matthew Slaughter in The Wall Street Journal.

3) YGLESIAS: Low-skilled immigration matters, too. "It’s become fashionable to focus on the narrow case for immigration of high-skilled workers...But while the case for high-skilled immigrants is strong, and the desire to take the focus off the culturally freighted topic of migration from Latin America politically understandable, an excessive focus on the idea of importing supergeniuses and talented engineers tends to obscure the fact that essentially any able-bodied, hard-working migrant is good for the American economy...For people to reach their full potential, they often need plenty of other people around. An increase in the supply of busboys and dishwashers, for example, creates more opportunities for aspiring chefs and sommeliers as well as for the manufacture and installation of kitchen equipment. Things that don’t even count as skills in a community with no immigrants--the ability to speak English fluently, for example--become at least a little valuable when migrants arrive." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

4) ZAKARIA: Government funding of science is a good investment. "Federal funding for research and development -- a drop in the bucket compared with farm subsidies -- has long been in decline. From 1970 to 1995, it fell as a percentage of gross domestic product by 54 percent in physical sciences and 51 percent in engineering. Federal R&D funding increased slightly in recent years but has resumed its long-term slump -- just as China and South Korea are increasing their funding 10 percent year over year...In a knowledge economy, American jobs will depend more on scientific research that they did in the 1950s, yet we spend much less as a share of GDP. Government investment in basic science has had huge commercial payoffs. For example, 13 Nobel laureates had devoted major parts of their careers to cholesterol research before cholesterol-reducing statins came to market. Now it is the largest-selling class of drugs in the world: More than 40 million people take them." Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post.

5) TORNELL AND WESTERMANN: The ECB should have more power. "The European Central Bank, was created in 1998 to maintain price stability in the new euro zone. With so many depositors taking their money from troubled banks in Greece and Spain, observers are urging the central bank, based in Frankfurt, to fire another round of the 'big bazooka' -- the roughly 1 trillion euros in cheap loans that it granted to banks in December and February. But even if it is willing to do this, the central bank is not equipped to do so..The national central banks -- including Germany’s Bundesbank and the Bank of France -- should become subsidiaries of the European Central Bank like the 12 Federal Reserve Banks (in New York and San Francisco, etc.). Voting rights at the European Central Bank should be reorganized so that they are proportional to the share of the loss that each country would bear in case of default. Those who bear the largest share of the cost should have greater say as to when the drinking should stop." Aaron Tornell and Frank Westermann in The New York Times.

70s nostalgia interlude: Gil Scott-Heron plays "We Almost Lost Detroit" live.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come:Greece has a new prime minister; over a billion in rebates are coming; Snowe may push filibuster reform; the House slows its farm bill progress; and a man repeatedly dances poorly in public.

Economy

Greece has a new coalition and a new prime minister. "The leaders of three Greek political parties committed to keeping the country in the euro and pushing ahead with its €174bn bailout have agreed to form a coalition government. Antonis Samaras, whose centre-right New Democracy party narrowly claimed first place in Sunday’s election, was sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday afternoon at the presidential residence...A New Democracy adviser said representatives of the three parties in the coalition, New Democracy, the PanHellenic Socialist Movement and the Democratic Left splinter group, were working on a joint policy statement to be released later on Wednesday. The three parties won 179 seats in the 300-member parliament...Mr Samaras assumes an ambitious 24-month mandate to turn Greece’s recession-battered economy round before European parliament elections due in mid-2014." Kerin Hope and Tom Burgis in The Financial Times.

Nancy Pelosi wants to use the constitutional option on the debt ceiling. "At a lunch roundtable with columnists earlier today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged President Barack Obama to avoid a new debt ceiling showdown by stating that a statutory borrowing limit is inconsistent with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment which states that 'the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned.' She at first referred to this possibility obliquely while making a larger point about the lack of cooperative spirit between the Republican Party and the Obama administration, but clarified her stance in response to further questions saying 'I would like to see the constitution used to protect the country's full faith and credit.' She didn't offer a legal argument in favor of the position, but argued on policy grounds that 'you cannot put the country through the uncertainty' again, noting that America's sovereign debt was downgraded by ratings agencies in the wake of the standoff even though it was successful resolved." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

Millions more shared households in a bad economy. "Millions of economically pressed Americans cushioned themselves against the recession by doubling up in houses and apartments, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday. The number of adults sharing households with family members or other individuals jumped 11.4 percent between 2007 and 2010, the report said. Overall, such living arrangements accounted for 22 million households in 2010 -- or 18.7 percent of all U.S. households, compared with 17 percent in 2007. Young adults were the most likely to double up, the report said, accounting for more than half of those who moved in with family members or friends. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of adult children who lived in their parents’ homes increased by 1.2 million to 15.8 million...Overall, 27.7 percent of adults -- 61.7 million people -- were doubled up in households in 2007, a number that rose to 69 million, or 30.1 percent, in 2010." Michael Fletcher in The Washington Post.

Most homeowners aren't benefiting from low mortgage costs. "Most US homeowners are paying above-market mortgage rates, new data show, indicating that government efforts to spur refinancings have yet to fully benefit households despite ultra-low headline borrowing costs...The average rate on a new 30-year fixed-rate home loan is 3.71 per cent, according to Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage financier, spurring millions of Americans to lock in record low rates. But figures from CoreLogic, a housing data provider, show 20.5m of 39m creditworthy 'prime' borrowers are paying rates of more than 5 per cent while just 5.7m households are enjoying rates of less than 4 per cent. The data speak of a credit divide that the Fed and Barack Obama’s administration have struggled to close despite numerous schemes to enable borrowers to refinance into cheaper mortgages." Shahien Nasiripour and Tom Braithwaite in The Financial Times.

Star Wars interlude: Existential Star Wars.

Health Care

The healthcare ruling won't just affect health insurers. "It isn't just large employers, medical businesses and constitutional scholars who are invested in the court's decision. Chain restaurants, tanning salons, breast-feeding advocacy groups and others far afield of health care have a lot riding on whether the law stays in place. The broad interest in the decision underscores how the law touches nearly every American and most businesses, often in ways that haven't gotten much notice. The law's central purpose is to expand insurance coverage to more than 30 million people. But it also reworks how consumers and businesses pay taxes and changes how the government reimburses health-care providers. It contains funding for a broad range of projects, including adolescent education on financial literacy and career preparation...Some groups have started lobbying on Capitol Hill to shape the possible replacement legislation...Mostly, action is coming from groups caught up in the first version who don't want to be part of a second." Janet Adamy in The Wall Street Journal.

Health insurers owe over a billion in rebates this summer. "Millions of consumers and businesses will receive $1.1 billion in rebates this summer from health insurance plans that failed to meet a requirement of the new health-care law, according to the Health and Human Services Department. That Affordable Care Act rule requires insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of subscriber premiums on health-care claims and quality improvement initiatives. The other 20 percent is left for administrative costs and profits. Health insurance plans that don’t hit that threshold will send a rebate to consumers to cover the difference. There could, however, be one big hitch. If the Supreme Court overturns the health-care law -- a decision that could come as early as Thursday morning -- experts say those checks are unlikely to hit Americans’ mailboxes...In a new report, the Obama administration found that 12.8 million Americans will receive rebates this year, with an average value of $151 per household." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Some small businesses can't claim the healthcare tax credit. "Hundreds of thousands of small businesses are excluded from claiming a health-care tax credit, and many blame overly narrow restrictions...For a business to qualify, the average wage of employees must be below $50,000. In addition to the average wage limits, the credit restricts many family businesses and firms that cover less than 50% of individual employees' premiums...Starting that year, the Internal Revenue Service sent postcards to 4.4 million firms, providing them with basic information on how it worked. But most of those businesses either didn't offer insurance or otherwise fell outside the eligibility requirements. Only 170,300 employers claimed the tax break in 2010, the year it became available, according to a Government Accountability Office report last month, and only 28,100 were able to claim the full amount. To qualify for the full tax credit, a business must have 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees and $25,000 or less in average annual wages." Emily Maltby in The Wall Street Journal.

The House passed the FDA user fee bill. "The House on Wednesday passed a bill to let the Food and Drug Administration collect about $6 billion in user fees from medical companies to help fund the agency. The bill, passed in a bipartisan majority voice vote, is expected to reach a final vote in the Senate next week. The $6 billion in fees would be paid over five years by the brand-name and generic drug industries and the medical-device industry. The legislation's approval of fees from generic companies and from companies that make generic-like 'biosimilar' knockoffs of complex and expensive medicines also would be new if the law, as expected, wins approval in the Senate...The legislation also calls for quicker agency approval of drugs deemed breakthrough medications that could be lifesaving or for serious illnesses. It also includes certain targeted incentives for the production of new antibiotics...A final version of the bill is expected to be ready for President Obama's signature by the July 4 congressional recess." Thomas Burton in The Wall Street Journal.

@asymmetricinfo: I am making a bold prediction right now, for the record: I have no idea how SC will rule on mandate, or any of the other provisions of PPACA

@petersuderman: I am not even thinking about severability at all right now.

Domestic Policy

Olympia Snowe may take on filibuster reform. "Olympia Snowe is on her way out of Congress. But before she leaves, the Maine Republican may try to do something to fix the political deadlock and dysfunction that drove her to retire in the first place. 'I’ve been sorting through the aspects, procedurally, that contribute to locking down the process,' Snowe said. First and foremost: abuse of the filibuster. In her final months in office, Snowe is now talking to some of her Senate colleagues -- Democrats, she says -- about what, if any, procedural reforms could deter the chamber from turning routine votes into weapons of mass political destruction. She explained her rationale Monday at a Bloomberg panel for soon-departing politicians...Snowe is now looking at ways that Senate procedure could be reformed to help alleviate partisan gridlock. 'I’m doing some research on how cloture has been used' since it was put into effect in 1917, she explains." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

Bad dancing interlude: Some guy named Matt dances poorly in numerous places.

Energy

The House is slowing down its progress on the farm bill. "With the Senate nearing passage of its farm bill, the House Agriculture Committee abruptly pulled back Wednesday from its long-planned markup next week, amid signs that House Republican leaders want a pause to consider how to proceed this summer. House Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) told POLITICO that he will move 'hell or high water' on a farm bill when lawmakers return after the July 4th recess. But he confirmed the change in plans, which came after discussions with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)...Top House Republicans appear caught by surprise by the progress made in the Senate on its farm bill, having assumed it would collapse amid the typical partisan fighting. Instead a deal was reached Monday night allowing for orderly votes, and the measure has steadily advanced to a point where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted passage will be completed Thursday." David Rogers in Politico.

@damianpaletta: Senate considers amendment that pushes fore more "peas, greens, and lentils" in school lunches. Kids are calling their lobbyists ASAP.

Crude prices hit a 18-month low. "Crude oil prices fell on Wednesday to an 18-month low, fast approaching the $90-a-barrel mark, as investors dumped commodities because of fears about global economic growth. The sell-off in oil gathered pace after the US government reported that the country’s crude stockpiles rose last week to a fresh 22-year high, a further sign that strong Saudi Arabian oil production is refilling global inventories. Riyadh is pumping roughly 10m barrels a day, a 30-year peak. The US Department of Energy said that US crude oil inventories last week climbed 2.86m barrels to 387.3m barrels, the highest level since July 1990...US natural gas, gasoline and heating oil prices also fell, dragged down by the big drop in crude prices. Oil traders said that oil demand growth is weakening, not only in Europe and the US, but also in China, the world’s engine of commodities consumption growth. The slowdown, combined with strong Saudi oil output, was likely to push energy prices even lower, traders said." Javier Blas in The Financial Times.

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

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Sarah Kliff · June 20, 2012