Kevin Drum

Housing Question

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 1:32 AM EDT

HOUSING QUESTION....I have a question related to the bailout bill that maybe some economist can answer. Here it is:

  • Much of the grassroots on both left and right feels that if we're going to bail out the fat cats on Wall Street, we should also bail out homeowners. This seems only fair, and there are various proposals floating around for doing this.

  • Economists seem to unanimously believe that housing is still overpriced and needs to be allowed to drop to its natural level, the sooner the better.

These two desires are in tension, aren't they? If we prop up homeowners with bad loans, we prop up home prices at the same time, don't we? Is there an answer to this dilemma? Or am I just missing something?

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Notes on the Bailout

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 12:35 AM EDT

NOTES ON THE BAILOUT....Sorry for the radio silence this afternoon. I spent most of the day feeling about the same way I did on 9/11, consumed with a debilitating combination of fury and despair. I don't feel much better tonight, but here are a few thoughts on the failure of the bailout bill anyway:

  • The Republican Party is now officially hostage to a band of primitive conservative ideologues whose knowledge of economics was already outdated when Christians were being fed to lions. They are simply beyond belief.

  • I'm not much happier with the Jello-like support the bailout bill got from many of our leading liberals. Unfortunately, I include Brad DeLong in this group, but he's certainly right when he says, "This Republican Party needs to be burned, razed to the ground, and the furrows sown with salt..."

  • John McCain deserves to be tarred and feathered. His behavior over the past week has been almost unbearably craven.

  • Barack Obama's behavior has been a little better. But only a little. He hasn't exactly displayed a backbone of steel on this issue.

  • An awful lot of people really, really still don't get it. I swear, if I hear one more blogger or pundit suggesting that maybe it's actually a good thing the bailout bill failed because now we have a chance to pass an even better bill, I'm going to scream.

  • After the failure of the bill, the GOP leadership invented a fairy tale about Nancy Pelosi being at fault for the vote debacle because she gave a partisan speech on the floor of the House. The press is almost unanimously reporting this seriously. If Republicans had blamed it on Santa Claus, I guess they would have reported that seriously too.

  • Do you know the old saying about credit? "It's like oxygen. You don't know how much you need it until it's gone." We're about to go into financial hypoxia, and it's not the millionaires who are going to suffer most from this.

  • There are many of you who probably think I'm overreacting. I hope you're right.

And if you think this post is too caustic and bleak — well, you should have seen the first draft that Windows ate. This is the toned down version.

No Bailout

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 4:18 PM EDT

NO BAILOUT....The bailout bill has failed. Two-thirds of the House GOP caucus — primarily the lunatics in the Republican Study Committee, I assume — voted against it. I have a feeling we might now get a bunch of emergency nationalizations whether we like it or not.

Our current financial crisis has never been explained well to the public because (a) it's mind-bogglingly complex and (b) even the experts don't entirely know what's going on. And the Paulson plan was never sold well because (a) the initial draft was indefensible and (b) the theory underlying it was uncertain and complicated. So Lou Dobbs and his brand of populist yahooism won out instead.

I don't know what happens next. Hopefully we'll get another bite at the apple, but with Congress adjourning and elections approaching, action is only going to get harder, not easier. In the meantime, I guess we just have to pray that all the Chicken Littles like me are worrying too much.

On another note, an upcoming debate whose main attraction is the possibility of Sarah Palin melting down amusingly is suddenly less appealing than it used to be. I'm not really in the mood for bread and circuses right now.

Olmert on Israeli Security

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 2:57 PM EDT

OLMERT ON ISRAELI SECURITY....Laura Rozen points to a remarkable volte-face from Israel's outgoing prime minister:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published on Monday that Israel must withdraw from nearly all the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem to attain peace with the Palestinians and that any occupied land it held onto would have to be exchanged for the same quantity of Israeli territory.

....He said traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 Independence War. "With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop," he said. "All these things are worthless."

He added, "Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel's basic security?"

....On Iran, Mr. Olmert said Israel would act within the international system, adding, "Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself."

I wonder what Sarah Palin thinks of this? I especially wonder after reading this.

Limiting CEO Pay

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 2:15 PM EDT

LIMITING CEO PAY....Henry Blodget says the provisions of the bailout plan limiting CEO compensation are "toothless":

The plan ostensibly prohibits golden parachute payments to CEOs and other "C-level" execs at bailed-out companies. However, it really only prevents payments on severance deals that are struck AFTER the bailout (specifically, it prohibits these deals completely). There is nothing about cancelling the severance payments that the executives are ALREADY contractually entitled to. What this means in practice is that bailed-out companies will have trouble hiring the best talent...because why would you work at Bailed Out Company A when you could go across the street and get a fat severance deal? It also doesn't mean the companies can't pay their CEOs $500 million a year. IN ADDITION: There's another absurd section that makes all compensation above $500,000 for the three highest paid employees at the company not tax-deductible for the company. This is LUDICROUS. It means the company can pay the executives anything it wants and that the penalty for this will be exacted on the company and its shareholders. (Unless we're mistaken, Americans are furious that CEOs make $50 million a year for running companies into the ground, not that the $50 million is tax deductible).

Unfortunately, this sounds about right to me. Sometimes symbolic stuff like this can be important, but it's symbolic nonetheless. The plain fact is that there's very little in this bill to genuinely limit executive compensation, and probably very little that could have been in the bill. It's better than nothing, but only barely.

Owning the Debate

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 2:00 PM EDT

OWNING THE DEBATE....Ezra Klein on the Paulson rescue package:

One point Paul Krugman makes here is that the terms of the bailout were sharply constrained by the political strategy chosen by the Democrats. When Pelosi and Reid decided that this bill would not go through without Republican votes because Democrats would not be demagogued for cleaning up the mess caused by deregulation, they took more sharply liberal options like nationalization off the table.

That's true, but I think I'd make a different political point. Henry Paulson unveiled his plan on Friday the 19th, and that was when the frame of the debate was set. And that frame was: purchase of troubled assets. At that point, virtually no one had so much as mentioned large scale nationalizations as a potential solution to the banking crisis. It just wasn't on the public radar screen.

Now, maybe that wouldn't have mattered. Maybe our current political coalition wouldn't have been willing to consider it regardless. But virtually everyone agreed that action needed to be taken quickly to prop up the financial markets, and under circumstances like that there's simply no chance of popping up at the last minute with a huge new proposal and thinking it has any chance of passing. If large-scale nationalization was really the preferred solution among liberal activists, the time to start pushing it was before Paulson and Bernanke introduced their bill. Doing it in the middle of last week, and then complaining that it didn't get seriously considered, displays a failure of vision on the left, not from its congressional leadership.

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January 21st

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 1:24 PM EDT

JANUARY 21st....Matt Yglesias isn't happy with the bailout bill:

Under the circumstances, it looks like a bill that'll be good enough to stave off collapse of the financial system, but probably won't wind up addressing the full extent of the problem. This subject is going to have to be revisited after the election. But the unfortunate reality is that the current configuration of power in Washington still leaves the conservatives whose policies and ideology is largely responsible for the collapse in command of too many levers of power to simply implement a solution that's not tainted by their misconception of the problem.

I'm less unhappy than Matt. I think there's a decent chance the bill will provide enough systemic relief to prevent a scattershot government takeover of failed banks, and I'm OK with that. More to the point, though, if the bailout doesn't solve the problem completely, I'm perfectly happy to put off further action until after the election. If widespread nationalizations do turn out to be necessary, there's a way, way better chance of doing it decently on January 21st than there is today. One thing is certain, after all: we're not going to end up with a Swedish-style political solution in which both parties put down their hatchets and sing Kumbaya as they announce a rescue plan. Events of the past week have made that crystal clear. If it happens at all, it will only be because Democrats manage to push it through on sheer muscle.

Biden vs. Palin

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 12:33 PM EDT

BIDEN vs. PALIN....Nancy Gibbs, like many other people, wonders how Sarah Palin is going to do against Joe Biden on Thursday night:

With Charlie Gibson the waters were smooth if shallow; with Katie Couric she seemed forever at risk of drowning in her own syntax. But if she's growing less surefooted with each passing day of cramming, who can blame her, when the highly experienced Republican pols around her don't seem to trust her to talk past her talking points....All I know is that with each passing day, Palin's road gets harder, the expectations higher, the margin for error smaller.

No kidding. But there's a flip side to this too: it takes a lot of pressure off Biden. When Palin was first nominated, pundits fell all over themselves to advise Biden to watch his tongue when he faced Palin in debate. Don't look like a bully! Don't be sarcastic! Don't talk down to her!

Well, guess what? It turns out he doesn't need to. Attacking Palin — all the while worrying about whether this attack is too much or that attack will turn off women — is completely unnecessary. Biden just needs to show up, talk normally, and wait for her to implode. That's got to be a relief, no?

Hedge Fund Watch

| Mon Sep. 29, 2008 1:30 AM EDT

HEDGE FUND WATCH....The end of the third quarter is nearly upon us, and hedge fund managers are feeling nervous:

Even as Washington reached a tentative agreement on Sunday over what may become the largest financial bailout in American history, new worries were building inside the nearly $2 trillion world of hedge funds. After years of explosive growth, losses are mounting — and so are concerns that some investors will head for the exits.

....The big worry is that a spate of hurried sales could unleash a vicious circle within the hedge fund industry, with the sales leading to more losses, and those losses leading to more withdrawals, and so on. A big test will come on Tuesday, when many funds are scheduled to accept withdrawal requests for the end of the year.

"Everybody's watching for redemptions," said James McKee, director of hedge fund research at Callan Associates, a consulting firm in San Francisco. "And there could be a cascading effect, where redemptions cause other redemptions."

The article says optimistically that "No one expects a wholesale flight from hedge funds." But no one ever does, do they?

The Rise of the Technocrats

| Sun Sep. 28, 2008 11:51 PM EDT

THE RISE OF THE TECHNOCRATS....The New York Times on the Paulson bailout plan:

The rescue package, if successful, would make the recognition of losses and the inevitable winnowing of the banking system more an orderly retreat than a collapse. Yet that pruning of the banking industry must take place, economists say, and it is the government's role to move it along instead of coddling the banks if the financial system is going to return to health.

...."The lesson from Japan is that tough love for the banks is what's needed," said Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard. "In the current crisis, you do want to get rid of the bad assets from the banks, to get markets working again. But the key is going to be in the details of how the bailout works. You don't want it to be a subsidy in disguise that keeps insolvent banks alive. That would just prolong the economic pain."

Words to live by. The Treasury technocrats and asset managers who end up running the bailout are going to have a tremendous influence over whether it's successful or not. If they do it right, the plan should shine a bright light on which banks need to fail and which ones can be saved. If they do it wrong, we could be in for a long, gray twilight of economic stagnation.

In other words, we all better cross our fingers and pray that the Treasury department still has good technocrats these days. I wonder what the odds are?