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Oversight of Hedge Funds/Top Dem Donors Postponed Until After Election

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 12:33 PM EDT

On Friday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced that a hearing scheduled for Thursday, October 16 on the role of hedge funds in the current financial crisis would be postponed until after the election. The committee, chaired by Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), says the postponement is to "accommodate the schedules of witnesses." Fine. But several of the hedge fund execs asked to testify at the hearing are big Dem donors who the party might not want to embarrass before the election. And by big Dem donors, I mean BIG Dem donors. Here are the numbers for the 2008 election cycle (excluding 527 contributions):

  • John A. Paulson, President, Paulson & Co., Inc: $86,974, $43,400 of that to Democrats
  • George Soros, Chairman, Soros Fund Management, LLC : $111,190, $110,150 of that to Democrats
  • Philip A. Falcone, Senior Managing Director, Harbinger Capital Partners: $0
  • James Simons, President, Renaissance Technologies, LLC: $117,050, $105,050 of it to Democrats (only $2,000 to Republicans—the rest went to a PAC.
  • Kenneth C. Griffin, Chief Executive Officer and President, Citadel Investment Group: $70,100, $60,750 of it to Democrats

That's $385,314 worth of 2008 election cycle donations from five witnesses (one of whom didn't give anything). $319,350 of it, or 82.9 percent, went to Democrats.

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Troopergate II: The Reckoning

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 12:28 PM EDT

TROOPERGATE II: THE RECKONING....After earlier promising to cooperate fully with the Alaska legislature's probe of Troopergate (because she had "nothing to hide," natch), Sarah Palin pulled a 180 after her vice presidential nomination and denounced the probe as an obvious partisan witch hunt. Instead, she wanted the state personnel board to investigate. So how's that working out? Michael Isikoff reports:

Some Democrats ridiculed the move, noting that the personnel board answered to Palin. But the board ended up hiring an aggressive Anchorage trial lawyer, Timothy Petumenos, as an independent counsel. McCain aides were chagrined to discover that Petumenos was a Democrat who had contributed to Palin's 2006 opponent for governor, Tony Knowles. Palin is now scheduled to be questioned next week, and the counsel's report could be released soon after. "We took a gamble when we went to the personnel board," said a McCain aide who asked not to be identified discussing strategy. While the McCain camp still insists Palin "has nothing to hide," it acknowledges a critical finding by Petumenos would be even harder to dismiss.

I'm sure Scooter Libby sympathizes. I'll bet he didn't expect Patrick Fitzgerald to conduct a real investigation either. Stay tuned.

Your Salary in 2016

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 2:47 AM EDT

YOUR SALARY IN 2016....Due to the vagaries of print magazine lead times, my swan song at the Washington Monthly is only now hitting newsstands across the globe. It's part of a package called "The Stakes," and the question put to me and a bunch of my fellow contributing editors (that's the title you get when you're a Monthly alum) was how things would change over the next eight years depending on who wins the election. The subjects include China, the courts, healthcare, broadband infrastructure, and all the other wonkiness that the Monthly is famous for. And me? No mushy predictions here, my friends. My focus was on economic fundamentals, and at the end of my piece my conclusion was blunt:

Democrats really are better for the economy than Republicans, and it really does seem to be related to differences in their economic programs. Given that, then, I'll make this prediction: If Barack Obama is elected president, the economy over the next eight years will be better than if John McCain is elected. In fact, I'll go further and put some hard numbers to that prediction. Here they are:

Click the link to get firm dollar figure forecasts for 2016 for both McCain and Obama. Plus an explanation of where they came from. Email it to all your Republican friends!

And if you want to read all the other essays, you can find them here. Enjoy.

The New Paulson Plan

| Tue Oct. 14, 2008 1:59 AM EDT

THE NEW PAULSON PLAN....Yesterday I had a couple of questions about the Treasury's plan to recapitalize America's banks. One question was, which banks would get help? Big ones? Little ones? The answer, it turns out, is all of them:

One central plank of these new efforts is a plan for the Treasury to take approximately $250 billion in equity stakes in potentially thousands of banks, according to people familiar with the matter....Treasury will buy $25 billion in preferred stock in Bank of America, J.P Morgan and Citigroup; between $20 billion and $25 billion in Wells Fargo; $10 billion in Goldman and Morgan Stanley; and between $2 billion and $3 billion in Bank of New York Mellon and State Street.

Second question: did the banks themselves pressure Paulson into doing this? Apparently not:

Not all of the banks involved are happy with the move, but agreed under pressure from the government.

The justification for forcing all the big banks to participate is that if only a few banks got help, then they'd be instantly stigmatized as failures and no one would do business with them. So it's better to force everyone to recapitalize, thus keeping everyone's relative solvency a secret.

I get the reasoning, but I wonder if it really makes sense? After all, isn't part of the point of this exercise to figure out which banks are really worth saving and which ones aren't? And should we really be wasting money on banks that don't need help? As part of the plan the Fed is also guaranteeing new debt, and it seems as if that, combined with sufficiently large capital injections, would make the rescued banks pretty sound. Plus there's this:

While the Treasury wants to put money into banks, its main goal is to attract private capital. To make sure private investors aren't scared away, the Treasury is expected to structure its investment on terms favorable to the banks and will inject capital in exchange for preferred shares or warrants, these people said, a move that is designed to not hurt existing shareholders.

If they're forcing good banks to take government cash, this is actually reasonable. And if we do it for some banks, I guess we have to do it for all of them. But that means we're also in the business of rescuing shareholders of bad banks. Why?

I dunno. I guess I'll wait for the experts to weigh in and set me straight. The whole thing sounds a little squirrelly, though. I can't help but think that aiming the money more tightly at bad banks and driving harder bargains in the process would have been a better idea.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong is thrilled with the plan. Hilzoy has some concerns.

Bear-Market Biodiversity

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 11:33 PM EDT

450px-Medved_mzoo.jpg Think Wall Street's rollercoaster ride is scary? Imagine if stocks were species. That's what the future looks like in a warming world: a monster bear market robbing the world of its real riches.

A new review published in Science addresses the question of whether the tropical forests and coral reefs of the tropics will have the most to lose as a result of global warming. Some say no: that tropical organisms will do well because their ranges will expand into temperate areas. Others says yes: because there's little or no wilderness left in the temperate zone for them to move into.

Now a review of published papers finds that for plants and insects on a mountain slope in Costa Rica, a 3.2-degree C increase in temperature threatens 53 percent of lowland species with extinction, while 51 percent face range-shift gaps—meaning they have nowhere else to go.

Another reviewed study follows historical range changes for small mammals during 100 years of climate change in Yosemite National Park. These data show that species' ranges are likely to contract dangerously as warming pushes life farther and farther up mountain slopes. . . Bottom line: biodiversity is Earth's credit line. Without it, there's absolutely no way to fund the future. Time to reassess our fatally flawed economics .

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Regulation Followup

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 8:26 PM EDT

REGULATION FOLLOWUP....British prime minister Gordon Brown, everyone's hero of the financial moment, talks about reform:

"Sometimes it does take a crisis for people to agree that what is obvious and should have been done years ago can no longer be postponed," the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said in London in a speech calling for the adoption of a new Bretton Woods-style agreement among major countries. "We must now create the right new financial architecture for the global age."

I mentioned a few days ago that I'd been noodling about this, and I certainly think there's value in talking about specifics: imposing transaction fees on financial trades, tightening up mortgage rules, requiring that credit default swaps be traded on an open exchange, and so forth. But the big picture always seems to come back to two things:

  • Task central banks with paying more attention to asset bubbles. Alan Greenspan famously thought we should just let bubbles inflate away and then deal with the aftermath as best we can, but events of the past decade really don't make that seem like such a great idea anymore. What's more, this piece of the puzzle probably doesn't even require drastic regulation. It's not a matter of trying to get rid of bubbles completely, after all, but of trying to keep them just a wee bit more under control. If we had managed to restrain the housing bubble by even 20% or so, for example, that might very well have made the difference between tough times and global crisis. At the very least, central banks should refrain from throwing fuel on the fire, and should try to persuade government actors to do the same. Combine that with some modest monetary brakes when bubbles are plainly out of control, and we could avoid a lot of future trouble.

  • Regulate leverage everywhere, not just in the formal banking sector. This is probably even more important. If the subprime bubble had been our only problem, it probably would have meant systemwide losses of half a trillion dollars or so. Maybe a trillion. That's nothing to sneeze at, and all by itself it would very likely have led to a few big bank failures, some big losses in the stock market, and a nasty recession. But that's merely a disaster. It was the additional leverage from derivative trading based on the underlying loans that turned a disaster into a global meltdown.

    Figuring out how to fix this is a gargantuan task that's several light years above my pay grade. Simple financial leverage is straightforward enough, but effective leverage hidden in complex debt instruments, often off balance sheet, makes this a regulatory nightmare. Realistically, I suppose it probably needs to be some kind of extension of Basel II with more scope and more bite, but one way or another, after years of talking about the dangers of stratospheric leverage but taking very little actual action to rein it in, something has to be done. If we're looking for work for all the rocket scientists who have been let go from their Wall Street jobs recently, this might not be a bad place to start.

So who should be our go-to guys on this subject? It seems like liberals were caught sort of flat-footed by the Paulson bailout plan, which made it difficult (though, in the end, not impossible) to quickly sell Congress on a different strategy. This time around, when the conversation starts, it would be nice to have some coherent strategies already on the table from people we trust. Any suggestions?

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New Trade Theory and Me

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 7:01 PM EDT

NEW TRADE THEORY AND ME....I've never really paid attention to the breakthroughs in trade theory for which Paul Krugman is most famous as an economist, but Alex Tabarrok explains it this way:

Consider the simplest model [of New Trade Theory]....In this model there are two countries. In each country, consumers have a preference for variety but there is a tradeoff between variety and cost, consumers want variety but since there are economies of scale — a firm's unit costs fall as it produces more — more variety means higher prices. Preferences for variety push in the direction of more variety, economies of scale push in the direction of less. So suppose that without trade country 1 produces varieties A,B,C and country two produces varieties X,Y,Z. In every other respect the countries are identical so there are no traditional comparative advantage reasons for trade.

Nevertheless, if trade is possible it is welfare enhancing. With trade the scale of production can increase which reduces costs and prices. Notice, however, that something interesting happens. The number of world varieties will decrease even as the number of varieties available to each consumer increases. That is, with trade production will concentrate in say A,B,X,Y so each consumer has increased choice even as world variety declines.

Increasing variety for individuals even as world variety declines is a fundamental fact of globalization.

The reason this caught my eye is that it turns out I'm a disciple of New Trade Theory and I didn't even know it. Last year I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about media consolidation, and even though it made me feel like a bad liberal I said that I had never been much bothered by it. Why? Because even though the absolute number of news outlets might have declined thanks to globalization, I personally had access to many more news sources than I did 30 years ago. I called this a "paradox," but apparently it's actually now conventional trade theory. So, like Monsieur Jourdain, who had been speaking in prose for forty years without knowing it, it looks like I've been a Krugmanite for mumblety-mum years without realizing it. I guess I should get out more.

McCain Campaign: We Meant We'd Unveil New Economic Plans Tuesday

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 6:01 PM EDT

The McCain campaign is getting hammered all over the place for promising new economic plans over the weekend and then announcing they had nothing to announce today. The move sent a strong signal that McCain either didn't appreciate the difficulties facing everyday folks, or didn't have any solutions for them. It was doubly damaging because, as I note below, the Obama campaign let loose with a slew of economic proposals designed to help working Americans and small businesses.

Either the negative press surrounding this situation convinced the McCain campaign that it needed to do something, or it always intended to unroll a new economic platform Tuesday and did a terrible job of communicating it. Either way, they are now saying that McCain "never intended" to address the economy today, as previously understood, and will do so tomorrow.

I'm betting McCain's economic policy team is working overtime tonight. Get me a series of economic policies that strike a populist tone while staying true to my fiscally conservative record, combine to articulate a clear vision for the country, and will turn around my failing campaign! You have ten hours!

McCain Passes on Opportunity to Introduce New Solutions on Economy; Obama Makes Him Pay

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 3:13 PM EDT

Today, another misstep for the McCain campaign. How much will it hurt the candidate?

Just about everyone is suggesting John McCain find a more effective way to address the American people's current economic insecurity. But instead of starting the week with a concerted effort on that front, the campaign decided over the weekend that it would decline to unveil any new ideas. Reached for comment, spokesman Tucker Bounds said, "We do not have any immediate plans to announce any policy proposals outside of the proposals that John McCain has announced." McCain's top policy man Douglas Holtz-Eakin could only add, "I have no comment on anything, to anybody."

The Obama campaign is determined to make them pay for their inaction. This morning, it unveiled a "rescue plan for the middle class" that is essentially a bailout for the rest of us. To create jobs, Obama proposes to (1) give companies a $3,000 refundable tax credit for every job they create in America; (2) eliminate the capital gains taxes for small businesses; and (3) finance public works projects that the campaign estimates will save or create one million jobs.

Wingnut Watch

| Mon Oct. 13, 2008 2:40 PM EDT

WINGNUT WATCH....John Cole revives the Golden Wingnut Award today with a worthy successor to the original winner. Unsurprisingly, however, the actual recipient remains the same.