Kevin Drum

Keeping Banks Small

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 1:13 AM EDT
I promise not to bore you forever on the subject of limiting bank size, but here's a suggestion from Willem Buiter that seems to make sense.  It's part of a list of proposed regulatory reforms:

(2d) There has to be international agreement on restricting the size and scope of financial institutions.  Aggressive enforcement of anti-monopoly policy and the imposition of capital requirements that are increasing in the size of a bank (for given leverage and risk) would be two obvious tools for achieving this.

This seems both better and more workable than a flat cap on assets.  What he's suggesting is that the bigger a bank gets, the higher its capital ratio should be.  This accomplishes two things: (1) it puts natural downward pressure on bank size since higher capital requirements reduce leverage and profitability, and (2) if a bank gets big anyway, the higher capital ratio makes it less likely to fail and cause systemic problems.  Sounds reasonable to me.

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Radicals in Suits

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 7:04 PM EDT
Via Matt Duss, former Bush speechwriter Christian Brose takes a poke at liberals who have painted the new Foreign Policy Initiative talking shop as just the latest in a long series of neocon warmongering fests:

All that you suspect is true. Bill Kristol, wearing a Viking helmet and a bone through his nose, exhorted the participants to invade Chad, just because. He may have listed other countries, but he was speaking in tongues and war whoops half the time, and my Neo-con-to-English translation kept dropping out. Bob Kagan followed, bare-chested (as usual), in full war paint, banging the Mayflower china with a combat boot, shouting that America needed to put 10 million men under arms to extend its hegemony (benevolent, of course) into the Arctic, shouting something about the road to Moscow leading through the North Pole.

I saw this with my own eyes, people.

If only. It would have been a lot more exciting, that's for sure. As it was, the conference was a pretty staid affair.

But look: that's the whole point.  Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan and all the rest of their neocon bretheren (and sisteren) are sober, suit-wearing, well-modulated members of the foreign policy establishment.  If you listen to what they actually say, they're every bit as radical as any pony-tailed denouncer of empire from the wilds of Berkeley, but they rarely get called on it because they just sound so damn reasonable while they're suggesting a 3-week bombing run to wipe out Iran's nuclear facilities.

Kristol is, within the boundaries of polite society, always in favor of the maximally provocative, maximally militaristic response to any foreign policy problem.  He's about as extreme as you can get this side of the Michigan Militia.  But he wears a nice suit, has a good sense of humor, and makes his doctrine of endless interventionism sound almost soothing.  Who wouldn't want to occupy the Middle East after listening to Kristol's feel-good version of how it will all turn out?

So yesterday's kickoff was "a pretty staid affair"?  Of course it was.  That's the whole problem.

Cap and Trade

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 3:51 PM EDT
The Waxman-Markey climate bill was released yesterday, and if Joe Romm gives it a B+ I'm loathe to be pessimistic about it.  But I am.  It's true that the bill's targets for CO2 reduction are a little more aggressive than the ones Barack Obama campaigned on, but it also includes two provisions that are pretty discouraging.  First, their cap-and-trade program allows a lot of offsets: two billion tons in all, which allows companies to pollute away as long as they "offset" their carbon emissions somewhere else.  In theory, this is fine, but in practice it's an invitation to abuse, substituting purely fictional reductions for real ones.  Second, it allocates a portion of the emission credits directly to affected industries instead of auctioning 100% of them.  This is yet another invitation to abuse.

It's possible, of course, that both of these things can be beaten into submission with the proper oversight and regulation.  But what are the odds?  Ezra Klein anticipates my reaction here:

What concerns me is that it's not clear how it gets better. Waxman and Markey probably represent the leftmost edge of the possible. They're aggressively liberal, terrifically informed legislators who get the moral urgency of climate change and possess the intellectual firepower to grasp the necessary scale of the response. If this is as far as they felt able to go on an opening bid, it's hard to see the legislative pathway that strengthens, rather than weakens, the legislation.

A bill that started out with no offsets and no allocation might eventually end up with offsets and allocation.  But what happens to a bill that caves in on these issues right at the start?  It gets even worse as it wends its way through the sausage factory, that's what.

As Ezra says, Markey and Waxman are as good as they come on this stuff, and if they don't believe that a clean bill stands a chance even as an opening bid, they're probably right.  And God knows, making the perfect the enemy of the good and getting nothing done at all is practically a liberal art form.  Passing this bill in some form or another is certainly way better than passing nothing.

But still.  It's hard not to be a little let down by this.  If this is the best we can do, Bangladesh better get used to being a permanent swamp.

UPDATE: Dave Roberts notes that this is a b-i-i-i-i-g bill, combining a potentially unpopular cap-and-trade program with a tremendous amount of other stuff: "The fact is, doing these pieces separately would mean three, four, possibly five bruising legislative battles, culminating in a battle over cap-and-trade that, in my estimation, simply can't be won on its own in this Senate....So they've decided, uncharacteristically for Democrats, to double down. They are piling all this stuff into one big-ticket, high-profile, must-pass bill....There is now a single point of focus, a put-up-or-shut-up moment. Anyone who wants to transition to a green economy or get the country off foreign oil or prevent global warming knows what to get behind. If nothing else, there will be no doubt by next year whether we're serious about this sh*t."

True, that.  My reservations aside, this bill is the best thing we've seen on the energy front in a long, long time.  I just wish it were even better, that's all.  A guy can dream, can't he?

The Republican "Budget"

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 1:59 PM EDT
I won't even pretend that I understand most of the alternative budget unveiled today by House Republicans.  The gist of it, however, is the classic, time-tested approach taken by "fiscal conservatives" who are too gutless to propose actual, concrete spending cuts: an across-the-board spending freeze.  (Except for the Pentagon, natch, because they're such paragons of efficient procurement.)  That way they can release a 53-page document without taking the political risk of naming an actual program that will get cut.

Even by those standards, though, the section on Social Security is a masterpiece.  Here's the nut of their proposal:

Without reform, [the Social Security] Trust Fund will reach exhaustion in 2041; as a result, future retirees face across-the-board benefit cuts of up to 22 percent in that year....To head off these severe consequences, the budget creates a trigger in Social Security to help extend the program’s viability....The recommendation includes:

• Reducing the 15-percent Primary Insurance Amount bracket by 0.25 percentage points per year, from the date at which SSA finds it cannot meet scheduled benefits within 5 years

• Phasing in the proposal. Because the Trust Fund currently is expected to reach exhaustion by 2041, this provision would not arise until 2036. It would not affect those at or near retirement, and no savings in Social Security are assumed in the budget.

That's it?  Seriously?  They claim Social Security is going bankrupt and their proposal is to reduce PIA by 0.25% per year starting in 2036?  This takes gutlessness to a whole new level.

Later on, it turns out, they drop the mask and admit that this is nothing more than a proposal designed to "begin a process" that will eventually "move toward a consensus for saving and strengthening Social Security."  That's all very New-Agey, but what happened to hard-nosed fiscal rectitude?  Where are the private accounts, the means testing, and the increased age requirements?  Why aren't Republicans standing tall and sticking to their conservative roots on this stuff?  Where's the conviction, guys?

In other news, the Republican budget also proposes privatizing Medicare and putting in place a bunch of tax cuts for the rich, including (of course) temporary elimination of the capital gains tax.  That's bold, innovative thinking.  I'm sure Rush and Sean will be drooling.

Who Runs Pakistan?

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 1:01 PM EDT
So who really runs Pakistan these days?  Foreign Affairs sponsored a roundtable of experts that produced this rollicking, contentious clash of opinions:

Sumit Ganguly: Is there any doubt about that? The army, for all practical purposes, has been and remains in charge....Shaun Gregory: I agree with Sumit on this. The civilian government is very weak. The Pakistani army retains de facto control of foreign policy, defense policy, internal security, and nuclear policy, and will defend its expanded economic interests....Ashley Tellis: Sumit has it dead-on. The army rules on all the critical issues important to it: the nuclear program, the budget, security policy, relations with key foreign partners....Aqil Shah: The military has withdrawn from exercising direct government power by passing the baton to elected civilians, as it has done several times in the past, but it would be naive to expect it to loosen its control over what it sees as its legitimate "structural" missions [...] Once the army chief signs off on a policy, the costs of disobedience can be prohibitively high....Stephen Cohen: The army cannot govern Pakistan but won't let anyone else govern it either. It's a chicken-egg situation, worsened by the total collapse of the economy and the withering away of state institutions.

Hmmm.  Reading between the lines, then, the answer is "the Pakistani army"?  Right?  So, to echo Freud, what does the army want?  Aqil Shah again:

Any desire to deal firmly with cross-border militancy is trumped by the military's perceived need to retain its ties to this or that militant group in order to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. The army continues to fear that the United States could simply lose interest in Afghanistan once it captures the senior leadership of al Qaeda (as Washington did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan), leaving Pakistan exposed to Indian (and Russian) "encirclement".

....There appears to be a pervasive belief in the army, among both mid-level and senior officers, that the United States and India are destabilizing FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the rest of the country as a prelude to depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons. Officers who have served in FATA have told me that they face a U.S.-Indian combined offensive and that the local Taliban receive their funds from across the border. The army might inculcate such beliefs in order to motivate its soldiers, but they also connect to the military's larger worldview. For the generals, the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal is proof of an evolving Indo-U.S., or even Indo-U.S.-Israeli, strategic alliance — not to mention American duplicity.

This is a point that Matt Yglesias is fond of making, and for good reason: we tend to think that foreign policy everywhere is focused on the United States, but it ain't so.  Pakistan obviously cares a lot about its relationship with America, but it cares a whole lot more about its relationships with India, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, which are right on their doorstep and are never going away.

Stevens Walks

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 12:12 PM EDT
Prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case will apparently allow Stevens to go free:

The Justice Department filed court papers this morning asking a federal judge to toss out the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) on corruption charges.

....In a statement, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he and other Justice lawyers had reviewed the case and "concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial."

...."The Department's Office of Professional Responsibility will conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter," he added. "This does not mean or imply that any determination has been made about the conduct of those attorneys who handled the investigation and trial of this case."

It's a shame that Stevens is getting off, since the evidence very strongly suggests that he was guilty.  But misconduct by federal prosecutors is far too widespread, and it stays that way because it's almost never punished by anything more than a tonguelashing.  Good for Holder for sending a message that he takes it more seriously than that.

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Travel to Cuba

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 11:47 AM EDT
A sliver of good news out of Congress:

A bipartisan group of senators predicted Tuesday that Congress was ready to pass legislation to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

....Sponsors said the bill would free Americans to travel to the one place in the world they can't go and encourage Cubans to push for democratic reforms by exposing them to new people and information.

The trade embargo against Cuba has long outlived whatever usefulness it might have had.  It accomplishes nothing and has turned us into an international joke.  Still, it's well within the bounds of normal international relations.  I don't like it, but it's not fundamentally antidemocratic or an assault on basic freedoms.

The travel ban has always been in a separate class.  Autocracies and dictatorships control the movements of their subjects, but free citizens of a liberal democracy should be able to travel wherever they want. So whatever happens with the trade embargo, removing the travel ban should be a no-brainer.  This is America, not North Korea.

Tweet Tweet Tweet

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 3:00 AM EDT
From the Guardian:

Consolidating its position at the cutting edge of new media technology, the Guardian today announces that it will become the first newspaper in the world to be published exclusively via Twitter, the sensationally popular social networking service that has transformed online communication.

....A mammoth project is also under way to rewrite the whole of the newspaper's archive, stretching back to 1821, in the form of tweets. Major stories already completed include "1832 Reform Act gives voting rights to one in five adult males yay!!!"; "OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war see tinyurl.com/b5x6e for more"; and "JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?"

Alternatively, the Guardian, along with every other website on the planet, might be destroyed today by the Conficker worm. In which case you won't be reading this post anyway. They don't make April Fools day like they used to, do they?

Mark to Market

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 1:34 AM EDT
The Wall Street Journal reports that FASB will vote soon on a proposal to loosen rules that force banks to value toxic assets at market prices:

The Financial Accounting Standards Board is proposing significant changes to its mark-to-market rules, allowing banks to set their own values for certain hard-to-value troubled mortgages, corporate loans and consumer loans. The new proposal, called FAS 157-e, is scheduled for a vote this Thursday.

The change was meant to assist U.S. banks after bankers complained current mark-to-market accounting rules forced them to undervalue their assets, by setting prices at deeply discounted, fire-sale values.

This is a complex issue, and it's true that mark-to-market can cause problems during financial panics as firms all start selling assets at once to cover losses, which in turn produces a spiral of plummeting prices, leading to losses, leading to more selling, leading to lower prices.  Rinse and repeat.  Unfortunately, the alternatives are generally worse, allowing banks to value assets using models that can be tweaked so egregiously that they bear only the vaguest relation to reality.  That's how IndyMac could claim it was "well capitalized" right up until the day it was taken over and shown to be a shell of its claimed self.

My tentative preference is to keep mark-to-market but soften its impact with a system of countercyclical regulatory forbearance.  The whole point of bank capital is to act as a cushion against losses, and in good times a bank might reasonably hold capital equal to, say, 8% of assets.  During a recession, as loans and other assets lose value, that capital is going to get eaten way, but then, that's the whole point of having it in the first place.  So why force asset sales in order to maintain arbitrary capital ratios when capital erosion is entirely predictable during recessions?  Why not instead require higher capital ratios in good times (which would reduce leverage and slow down credit expansion) and lower capital ratios in bad times (which would reduce fire sales and encourage banks to expand credit)?

Because banks are so good at lying about the quality and value of their assets, we're better off with a system that gives them as little leeway as possible when it comes to recognizing losses.  We're should force them to face the music honestly, but then allow a certain amount of capital forbearance during economic downturns.  Mark-to-market isn't appropriate for every asset, but it's appropriate for most.  It should be watered down as little as possible.

Rachel Maddow Live!

| Tue Mar. 31, 2009 3:27 PM EDT
OK, it's not live.  She was live at a MoJo fundraiser on Saturday, though, and we taped her conversation with editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein so everyone else could see it too.  The clip on the right is all about Maddow's secrets to ratings success, and there are more clips here.  View them all!

It was a packed event, and when it was over I was almost afraid Maddow was going to get trampled by the throngs of fans who wanted their picture taken with her.  Marian and I didn't stand a chance against the crowd, though, so no pictures of us I'm afraid. Maybe next time.