Kevin Drum - March 2009

Travel Day Today....

| Mon Mar. 30, 2009 9:24 AM PDT
....so light blogging from me.  In fact, probably no blogging unless I have some time at the airport later this afternoon.  Otherwise, I'll be be back on the job tonight, and regular blogging will resume on Tuesday.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 27 March 2009

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 12:10 PM PDT
Today is rolling around in the sun day.  On the left, Domino is rolling around in the wood-chippy dirt where the Jacaranda used to be, getting herself filthy beyond belief in the process.  But she sure enjoyed herself.  On the right, Inkblot prefers the cleaner approach of rolling around on the patio instead.  Either way, it's highly recommended therapy.  Weather permitting, you should try rolling around in the spring air yourself this weekend.  It can't hurt, and it might help.

Too Big To Fail

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 11:58 AM PDT
Last night I made the argument that focusing on crude firm size wasn't the right way to look at our current banking crisis.  It's the overall industry size that's important, not the size of individual banks.

But if you disagree, James Kwak makes about the best case for the prosecution that I've seen yet, suggesting that a financial industry with lots of midsize companies would work just fine:

What would such a world look like? There would be a lot of small- and medium-sized banks that collected deposits and lent money to households and businesses. There would be brokerage and asset management firms that you used to invest your savings. There would be hedge funds and private equity firms that rich people and other institutional investors used to invest their money. There would be investment banks that helped companies issue equity and debt securities. There would be boutique firms that did research and other boutiques that M&A advising. For any financial service anyone wanted, there would be a company that provided that service; it just wouldn’t necessarily provide every other service, and it wouldn’t have $2 trillion in assets. It would look something like the 1970s.

What’s wrong with this picture? Some people would argue that it would limit financial innovation....Some would argue that costs would be higher, because smaller firms would be less able to capture economies of scale and scope....To some people, the idea of size caps will seem anti-capitalist (or even un-American)....

Kwak addresses all of these issues fairly persuasively.  But to me it still has the flavor of a solution that's clear, simple, and wrong.  After all, Bear Stearns was a quarter the size of Citigroup, and it was considered too big to fail.  So just what would the limit be on bank size?  $500 billion in assets?  $200 billion? Can a country the size of the United States even have nationwide banks with limits like that?  And what happens the next time around, when all these smallish banks overleverage themselves and collapse en masse?  Are we any better off than we are with a few big banks failing?

The whole post is worth reading, but I have a feeling that nostalgia for the 70s just isn't going to work.  Big companies are here to stay, and I suspect that any regulation stringent enough to keep banks small enough to fail won't be sustainable.  And unless we reign in overleverage and massive waves of credit expansion, it won't do any good anyway.  The same thing will happen again, just in a slightly different way.

Zero-Based Budgeting

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 11:17 AM PDT
I didn't post about this when it happened, but yesterday the Republican brain trust in the House decided to show their seriousness about cutting the deficit by publishing a "budget" that contained no actual numbers.  The press mostly thought it was pretty comical, and today Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan tried to pretend that they had nothing to do with this project and were only bullied into supporting it.  Matt Yglesias isn't buying:

Reps Ryan and Cantor saw that the press was reacting poorly to the Boehner/Pence flim-flam “budget” and decided to throw their colleagues under the bus. And, frankly, I’m not surprised that Ryan and Cantor were surprised. I was surprised, too. I’ve never really seen political reporters get outraged before about the fact that a policy document makes no sense in the past. It was a curious outbreak of substance among the press corps that I don’t think was particularly foreseeable.

I guess that's a fair point: it is a little unusual for the press to call BS for what it is.  At the same time, it's also worth noting just how invisible this whole exercise was.  It got lots of mockery in the blogosphere, and it also showed up on political shows like Maddow and Olbermann, but aside from that it wasn't so much ridiculed as ignored.  If you get your news from the New York Times or NPR or Katie Couric, you'd barely even know this had happened, let alone that everyone thought it was ridiculous.

Global Capital Flows

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 10:21 AM PDT
That's an exciting headline, isn't it?  But it's important.  One of the key bits of financial deregulation over the past three decades has been the dismantling of capital controls, allowing vast tidal waves of money to flow between borders without hindrance.  In general, this has been a plus: nobody in Britain wants to go back to the days of sleeping on continental friends' couches because they weren't allowed to take more than 50 pounds out of the country. On the other hand, the Asian currency crises of the late 90s were largely due to unsustainable amounts of unregulated foreign capital suddenly flowing into the region (and then just as suddenly stopping), and the current banking crisis in the U.S. is at least partly due to an overreaction to the Asian crisis.  For the past decade all that Asian money has been flowing into the U.S. instead, and a tsunami of cheap money was one of the factors that caused the credit and housing bubble of the past few years.  Megan McArdle examines her free trade beliefs on this score:

[This suggests] that global capital flows may be way more problematic than I have historically been willing to credit.  I don't want to blame all bubbles on foreign money.  But foreign money has two unpleasant characteristics:  there is so much of it that it can relatively easily swamp a nation's productive capacity, and it is relatively uninformed about the local market.

I'm not sure where that leaves me.  The capital controls of the mid-twentieth century were even worse, especially for emerging markets, where they became both focal points for, and sources of, massive corruption.  And one of the reasons America today is such a massively successful economy is that foreign money funded our industrialization.  Bubbles may simply be an inescapable side effect.  But perhaps it's time to rethink a commitment to global capital liberalization.

I'm not sure where it leaves me, either, especially since this has been an active subject of conversation for a decade already and hasn't produced anything even close to a consensus.  But this does seem like the kind of topic that lends itself to my "sand in the gears" theory: we don't need to reinstate capital controls, we just need to slow down the flow of global capital ever so slightly.  Even a tiny tax on foreign capital flows could have a significant impact.  Ideas welcome on this score.

Benchmarks, Again

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 9:34 AM PDT
The New York Times reports on Obama's plan to get serious in Afghanistan:

President Obama plans to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban there and in Pakistan, officials said Thursday.

....Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad....American officials have repeatedly said that Afghanistan has to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban. Mr. Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review.

I was a big proponent of setting benchmarks and milestones in Iraq, so I can hardly complain about this without grossly contradicting my past instincts.  But I guess you can just call me Walt Whitman this morning, because at a gut level something about this whole plan makes my blood run cold.  It's so McNamara-ish I can practically see him making the announcement in my mind's eye.

On a less purely emotional level, the key thing here is how Obama plans to make these benchmarks credible.  The problem with benchmarks in a war like this has always been the unlikelihood that an American president will withdraw troops without at least pretending to have achieved victory.  I mean, how do you do it?  Withdrawing support piecemeal because specific benchmarks in specific regions haven't been met makes no sense tactically, but stepping up to the press room podium one day and announcing, "We're losing, so we're pulling out" is political suicide, and everyone knows it.

In related Afghanistan news, David Brooks becomes about the millionth person to kinda sorta change his mind about one of our overseas quagmires after visiting in person and getting six days of full-court press treatment from the folks on the ground.  The arc of his column was so predictable I practically could have written it myself.

For something different, check out Sarah Chayes, an aid worker in Kandahar province.  She admits that things are going badly, but guess what?  That's a reason to double down too.  "The answer is not to lower the bar but to raise it. What is needed is some of that patented Obama 'Yes, we can!' energy."  Sigh.

OK, fine: I'm in a sour mood this morning.  Just consider this a vent.  But I can't say that anything I've read or heard makes me more optimistic about Afghanistan today than I was yesterday.  I sure as hell hope that Obama knows what he's doing.

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Insert Headline Here

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 9:00 AM PDT
Speaking of the LA Times, check this out.  Jeebus.  You kinda hate to kick someone when they're down, but they still have a few editors left on the copy desk, don't they?

Fuel Inefficiency

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 8:47 AM PDT
Here's an interesting AP dispatch on page A18 of my morning LA Times:

The Obama administration plans to raise fuel efficiency standards by two miles per gallon to a 27.3 average mpg for new cars and trucks in the 2011 model year, marking the first increase in passenger car standards in more than two decades.

Under the changes, which are slightly less stringent than those proposed by the George W. Bush administration, new passenger cars will need to meet 30.2 mpg for the 2011 model year; and pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans will need to reach 24.1 mpg....The Bush administration had proposed regulations last year that would have raised the standards to a combined 27.8 mpg in 2011, requiring passenger cars to meet 31.2 mpg and light trucks to hit 25 mpg that year.

I know that 2011 is only a couple of years away, so nobody expects anything dramatic by then on the auto mileage scene.  But did we really all vote for Obama so that he could set efficiency standards less stringent than George Bush's?

Big Banks, Big Banking Industry

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 10:49 PM PDT
Simon Johnson writes that he's seen a lot of bank crises during his years at the IMF, and eventually problems with the banking sector always roll downhill onto the rest of the economy.  Unsurprisingly, the same thing has happened here:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better — in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way — on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies — lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership — had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits — such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998 — were ignored or swept aside.

Johnson's solution is twofold: nationalize the bad banks and then carve them up into a bunch of small banks so they can never harm us again.  I have my doubts.  Not about nationalization, which I suspect is inevitable, but about the size of individual banks being at the root of our problem.  As Johnson himself suggests, banks would have to get pretty damn small — smaller than Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were — before their failure could be tolerated, and I'm just not sure we live in a world where that's practical.

After World War II we eventually rejected the Morgenthau plan to deindustrialize Germany, deciding (wisely, I think) that industrialization per se wasn't the cause of the conflict.  Likewise, I think crude bank size is a red herring for our current financial collapse.  Small banks can become overleveraged just as easily as big ones, hedge funds pay higher salaries than Wall Street behemoths, the interconnectedness of the global financial sector is a bigger cause of systemic worries than size alone, and credit expansions spiral out of control largely due to lack of political will, not because Citigroup is large and clumsy.  Those are the things we should be focused on.

Now, Johnson makes the fair point that the kind of systemic regulation I prefer is impossible to put in place because big banks have so much lobbying power that they can prevent it.  But again, I don't think it's big banks that produce this kind of power, it's a big banking industry.  If we can somehow shrink the overall size and profitability of the industry, their lobbying power will shrink too.  And if we limit their leverage, limit systemic credit expansion, and force more sunlight into Wall Street's trading activity, there's a pretty good chance we can do that.

It won't be easy, of course.  As Johnson says, the finance industry still has enormous sway in Washington and will fight tooth and nail to keep their toys from being taken away.  But hell — if we can't do it now, of all times, then what chance do we have of permanently slashing the size of big banks either?  Not much.  So since it's going to be a fight either way, why not attack the roots instead of the branches?

POSTSCRIPT: Just in case it's not clear, Johnson's article is terrific reading, well worth a few minutes of your time.  I happen to disagree with his technical approach to reducing the size and power of the finance sector, but his description of the problem is top notch.

Plus, of course, he might be right and I might be wrong.  So go read it.

Electric Cars

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 12:24 PM PDT
For a long time my favorite electric car has been the Aptera, a teardrop-shaped three-wheeled affair that looks like it came straight out of the Jetsons.  Unfortunately, Marian would probably never set foot in one.  Plus it's expensive.  So I'll probably never get one.

But here's an interesting thing: one of the bonuses of the Aptera's design is that since it has three wheels, it counts as a motorcycle, which means you can use it in carpool lanes.  Hooray!  Unfortunately for the Aptera folks, since their car has three wheels it counts as a motorcycle, which means they don't qualify for federal loans for ultra-efficient vehicles.  Boo!  Over on our main site, Steve Aquino and Nick Baumann "investigate."  Video is included.