Kevin Drum

Federal Spending and Private Investment

| Wed May 26, 2010 11:35 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen points today to some interesting new research on government spending. Three researchers at Harvard took a look at what happened to federal earmarks when a state's senator or congressman took over chairmanship of a key appropriations committee. Answer: the state's earmarks went up a bunch (by 50% for senators and 20% for House members). No surprise there. So what happens to economic activity after this bounty starts pouring in? From the paper:

Seniority shocks result in economically and statistically significant declines in firm capital expenditures. Across all measures of seniority, the declines are large and highly significant....The coefficient implies a 1.2% drop in scaled capital expenditures []. Since firms have average capital expenditures of 8 percent of assets, Senate chairmanship causes a roughly 15 percent reduction in the representative firm’s capex.

Italics mine. So when federal spending goes up in a random way (committee chairmanships are generally unrelated to broader economic activity), capital expenditures by private industry goes down. A lot. Researcher Joshua Coval takes a crack at explaining why:

Some of the dollars directly supplant private-sector activity — they literally undertake projects the private sector was planning to do on its own. The Tennessee Valley Authority of 1933 is perhaps the most famous example of this. Other dollars appear to indirectly crowd out private firms by hiring away employees and the like. For instance, our effects are strongest when unemployment is low and capacity utilization is high. But we suspect that a third and potentially quite strong effect is the uncertainty that is created by government involvement.

Italics mine again. These are interesting results. But they need some followup. Even if you believe that government spending crowds out private spending in a serious way, the effect here is enormous. How can you possibly get an 8% drop in private sector capital expenditures from the relatively trivial increase in federal spending that comes from earmarks? There has to be something more to this story.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that whatever effect there is, is more pronounced when unemployment is low. That's exactly when you'd expect government spending to crowd out private sector spending. However, it probably doesn't tell us much about current stimulus spending, which is taking place in an environment of zero-bound monetary policy and extremely high unemployment. We haven't had an environment like that since the Great Depression, which means that empirical evidence one way or the other on this kind of federal spending is just very hard to come by. I'd certainly be surprised if the 2009 stimulus bill provoked any significant private sector crowding out.

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What Went Wrong in the Gulf?

| Wed May 26, 2010 1:47 AM EDT

So what caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to fail? Here's the latest:

BP previously told investigators that a "negative pressure" test, which checks for leaks in the well, was inconclusive at best and "not satisfactory" at worst. But in the meeting Tuesday, BP went further, saying the results were an "indicator of a very large abnormality" but that workers — unnamed in the memo — decided by 7:55 p.m. that the test was successful after all. That may have been a "fundamental mistake," BP's investigator said in the meeting, according to the memo.

Next up is a "top kill," in which mud is injected into the well in order to plug the broken pipe. According to one expert, "There's always a trade-off between making it better and making it worse. This probably has the least amount of risk of making it worse." Why does that not make me feel especially comforted?

Global Financial Reform Update

| Wed May 26, 2010 1:30 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports that efforts to coordinate global financial reform aren't going so well. Among other things:

European diplomats are alarmed by a measure, introduced by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), that they say could force European financial companies to shift significant amounts of capital to their U.S. subsidiaries to cover potential losses....Geithner has said that new capital standards are at the heart of reforming the global banking system, and the financial overhaul bill on Capitol Hill largely defers to the Basel committee to set the standards. Some Europeans complain they have found it hard to coordinate with the United States over the Basel process.

Well, look: Collins's amendment requires banks to hold more capital. That will indeed force European banks to shift capital to their U.S. subsidiaries, but only if European negotiators insist on the new Basel accords having toothless capital standards. Conversely, if they adopt standards similar to Collins's, then European banks will simply need to carry similar levels of capital every place they do business.

Now, maybe European banks don't like Collins's capital standard and want Basel to adopt a looser one. What happens then?

The outcome, for instance, could be very different ways of banking in New York and the financial capitals of Europe, prompting leading American firms to shift their riskiest activities overseas beyond the purview of U.S. regulators.

And that right there is the whole enchilada. If we adopt tough rules and banks decide to move their risky activities in Europe to take advantage of their looser rules, then Europe will be taking a big chance. But they'll be doing it with their eyes open. They can reduce that risk anytime by adopting stricter standards. Every country and every region always has that option.

I'm pretty much convinced that the Basel standards are almost certain to be inadequate unless the rest of the world is essentially forced to accept tough standards. And the only effective way to make that happen is for the United States to adopt strict standards first, thus giving Europe an implicit choice: agree to make strict standards global or else accept becoming the worldwide hub for risky investment. Hopefully they'll choose the former.

Are We Japan 2.0?

| Wed May 26, 2010 12:46 AM EDT

A balance sheet recession is different from a normal recession. It's caused not by inventory cycles or monetary manipulation by the Fed, but by a debt fueled boom that eventually bursts and leaves the economy in the doldrums until debt levels get back to normal. That's the kind of recession we went through last year, and it's the kind of recession that wracked Japan in 90s. Mike Konczal points us today to a paper written a few months ago by Richard Koo of Nomura Research that compares what we're going through today to Japan's earlier experience:

As Koo argues, the economy will not enter self-sustaining growth until the private sector balance sheets are repaired. Even with zero interest rates, there are no borrowers of newly generated savings and debt repayments. With no borrowers, the economy will continue to lose aggregate demand.

And how long will it take for balance sheets to get back to normal? Here's Koo on Japan's experience:

With their balance sheets in a shambles, people had no choice but to reorient their economic priorities from the usual profit maximization to debt minimization in order to put their financial houses in order. This shift, in turn, nullified the effectiveness of economic theories and
policies based on the assumption that the private sector always seeks to maximize profits.

....Those whose balance sheets are underwater will try to pay down debt as quickly as possible to restore their credit ratings, regardless of the level of interest rates. By 1995 Japanese interest rates were almost at zero, but instead of borrowing more, Japan’s corporate sector became a net repayer of debt until 2005 — fully 10 years later — as shown in Exhibit 4....No economics or business textbook recommends that the private sector pay down debt when interest rates are at zero, but that was precisely what happened in Japan for a full ten years.

Exhibit 4 is below. Japan's property bubble was roughly similar in size to ours, and their recession lasted 16 years. Between 1995 and 2005, net corporate borrowing was negative despite interest rates of zero percent. Monetary policy simply lost traction: you can't force businesses that are deeply in debt to borrow even more no matter how cheap you make it. So what to do? Koo argues that the only answer is fiscal stimulus and plenty of it, even if that means piling deficits on top of deficits. "Now that the experience of Japan is available for anyone to see," he says, "there is no reason for the U.S. to repeat the same mistake....The U.S. government should not embark on fiscal retrenchment until it is absolutely certain that the private sector is healthy enough to borrow and spend the funds left unborrowed by the government."

Why Now for DADT Repeal?

| Tue May 25, 2010 6:29 PM EDT

OK, so what caused Barack Obama to change his mind and actively press for repeal of DADT this year? Offhand, I'd say there are three leading contenders:

  • Nothing changed his mind. His plan all along has been to do it this summer or next, and he was willing to stay quiet and accept the hostility of advocacy groups before this because he knew that a bit of discretion on his part offered the best chance for enacting permanent change with broad public support. This is more or less Mark Kleiman's view.
  • Strong pressure from the gay community forced his hand. In other words, this is an example of that old FDR legend where he wants to do something, but tells his supporters they have to "go out and make me do it." (It's worth noting that this apocryphal story1 is pretty popular among liberals as a story, but we all sure hate it in practice.)
  • Obama (and congressional Democrats) are afraid they're going to lose their majority in November and will then lose their chance to push this through for good.

Because I'm a milquetoast centrist sellout, I'm going to punt and say that the answer is all three. Obama really has planned to do it all along during his first term but without a more specific timetable; the pressure from gay and lefty advocacy groups helped push congressional leaders into action and they in turn pressured Obama; and there was probably some additional political calculus related to the possibility of Democrats losing their House majority in November. That's my guess, anyway.

1At least, I assume it's apocryphal. I managed to find a reference to it from I.F. Stone in 1969 once, but I've never been able to track it back any further than that.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Polls

| Tue May 25, 2010 5:07 PM EDT

Jon Chait, after judiciously conceding that it's possible that "Rasmussen is right and everybody else is wrong," basically makes the case that Rasmussen's polls are, in fact, just right-wing hackery. Their questions are often loaded, they pick odd topics, and even when they poll on ordinary subjects they produce results that are wild outliers compared to everyone else:

Rasmussen polling occupies an odd place in the political culture. In the conservative world, it is the gold standard. If you go to a conservative [site] on basically any random day, you'll see somebody touting a Rasmussen poll.

....The habitual practice by conservative pundits of quoting only Rasmussen polling reinforces conservatives' overweening certainty that they embody public opinion. It's an important component of right-wing epistemic closure, the Republican base having its own pollster who always tells them what they want to hear. In theory, there ought to be a corrective dynamic. If Rasmussen is wrong about the 2010 elections — and, again, you can't be certain he will be — in theory, this would cause Republicans to question their reliance upon his unusual findings. But it's entirely possible that Republicans would simply question the validity of the results themselves. It's massive voter fraud! Obama dirty tricks!

Some time ago I decided to ignore all Zogby polls for everything other than plain-Jane election projections, and over the past year or so I've added Rasmussen to that list. I don't write about them to debunk them, I don't write about them when they happen to produce a result I like, I just treat them as null data. Now, I might be wrong about this. On Zogby in particular, I don't even quite remember what it was that prompted me to put him on my permanent shitlist. But that's where things stand: with the exception of campaign polling, where the questions are straightforward and house effects are generally modest (though rising in Rasmussen's case), I just don't trust either of these outfits.

That said, I think Rasmussen does provide a public service: it gives us some idea of where public opinion will be once Republican talking points enter the civic consciousness. Ask people what they think about financial reform and they'll tell you X. Ask them what they think about, say, financial reform that includes a fund to bail out banks, and they'll say something else. Is that a loaded question? Sure, but that's how Republicans are going to attack it, so it's useful to know what public opinion might be once they start repeating that talking points a few dozen times a day. It's not exactly an accurate reflection of the public mood, but it can still be useful information.

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Checking Up on Financial Reform

| Tue May 25, 2010 2:25 PM EDT

If financial reform is passed — and it looks like it will be — how can we tell if it's working? Mike Konczal offers a couple of metrics:

The most obvious problem would be if the market finds resolution authority non-credible and starts lending to the five biggest firms as if they had a permanent government and Federal Reserve backstop....The next thing to watch is whether derivatives are reformed, and how much the laws are gamed in general. Will Goldman Sachs drop its bank holding company status, add a 20 percent non-financial wing and declare itself an end-user, and whatever other complicated acrobatics the lawyers are dreaming up? That all depends on the wink-winks that the regulators will give, and we will never see those on the outside. All we can do is watch for the effects.

I'd add a couple of other things. The first is leverage. This is easy to hide and hard to measure, so it's imperfect. Still, there are various good measures of leverage in the banking industry, and if reform works they should stay at moderate levels even when the economy picks up.

The second is easier: industry profitability. If reform works, Wall Street should be less profitable. Not because anyone is trying to punish them (though obviously plenty of people would like to), but because a safer, more real-world-oriented banking sector is inherently less profitable than the trading and finance-oriented one we have right now. If industry profits stay at 2005-07 levels, it's solid evidence that nothing has changed and they're acting pretty much the same way as always. So that's four things to watch for:

  • Borrowing rates for large banks
  • Derivatives trading
  • Leverage ratios
  • Industry profitability

My guess is that on all four of those metrics, we'll end up improving on where we were in 2005-07 but not by as much as we should. But at this point, any improvement at all is a big win.

High-Stakes Testing in San Antonio

| Tue May 25, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

A reader emails me regarding a story about Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, which has finally met state standards for academic achievement:

It's actually a very sad story about kids who are getting screwed by the system and by some educators, and perfectly encapsulates so much of what is wrong with education reporting. At least twice officials explain to the reporter (apparently without realizing they are doing so) why the results being touted are bogus, and yet the paper still presents this as good news about a success. And the school held a pep rally.

Let's take a look. Here's the first explanation:

“I think the main thing is we tested less kids,” English teacher Richard Acuña said. The school identified additional special-needs students who qualified to take tests that aren't counted when the state determines accountability ratings, he said.

And here's the second:

The state requires a 60 percent pass rate in math to reach the academically acceptable threshold. Though Sam scored lower than that, it is still set to receive the acceptable rating because last year the state introduced a new tool that allows schools to get credit for some students who did not pass the TAKS if they appear to be on target to pass in the future.

The formula, the Texas Projection Measure, uses a student's current test scores in several subjects as well as a previous year campus average score to project the student's future test performance. With the TPM, Sam's pass rate in math is 72 percent, enough to put it into academically acceptable territory.

For what it's worth, I'd add a third: the school's passing rate in science jumped from 38% to 62%. In one year. I mean, maybe that's legit, but if it is, they need to figure out how to bottle it and sell it. I'd usually be impressed by a five-point rise in a single year. A 24-point rise hardly seems believable.

As longtime readers know, I have pretty ambivalent feelings about high-stakes testing. I've heard too many horror stories, both in the press and from friends, to be a big fan, but at the same time it's not clear what better option we have. But even if you are a big fan, there's just too much anecdotal evidence that a lot of success in testing regimes comes from gaming the system and lowering the standards of the tests when necessary. Both seem to be in play in this story.

Awe-Inspiring China

| Tue May 25, 2010 12:55 PM EDT

I don't have any big point to make about this, but here's a comment from Matt Yglesias after taking a train trip from Shanghai to Yiwu:

At any rate, along the train route evidence of an enormous boom in construction was obvious. The scale of some of the new housing developments I saw was unbelievable, almost awe-inspiring.....But it really all does make you wonder how much of the Chinese economy consists of construction these days. The scale of everything in a country of 1.3 billion is just so enormous that it’s difficult to eyeball anything.

Italics mine. But seriously: is this true? China has a population of 1.3 billion. The United States has a population of 300 million. So they're about 4x our size. That's not really such an awe-inspiring scale, is it? We're about four times bigger than Germany, after all, and it's not as if German visitors come to America and routinely marvel at the enormous size of our country — and when they do, it's usually about our wide open spaces, not the fact that Los Angeles is overwhelming compared to Frankfurt. What's more, a city is a city. Shanghai is big, but not wildly bigger than New York City. And considerably less dense.

Like I said, I don't have any big point here except for one: China is big on a macro scale. It's big on a statistical scale. It's growing fast. But on a ground level scale? It's just a place. It's no bigger or denser or busier than lots of other places. So why is everyone always so awe-stricken about it?

(This is actually sort of a genuine question. I've never been there aside from a few days in Hong Kong a long time ago. Is there really something about China from a tourist perspective that makes it seem awe-inspiringly big? I mean, you can talk about how many cities with populations over 10 million it has, but that's only impressive as a statistical measure.1 Once you're actually in one of those cities, it's just one city.)

1Actually, China only has two, so it's not all that impressive even statistically. However, they've got more than two dozen cities with populations bigger than Chicago.)

UPDATE: The consensus in comments so far is, yes, you just have to experience it. The scale of the construction is just unlike anything you see in America or Europe. And two dozen Chicagos is impressive no matter how you slice it.

President Obama's Line Item Veto

| Tue May 25, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

President Obama wants a line-item veto. No surprise there: every president wants a line item veto, despite Peter Orszag's admission that "[this] alone is not enough to cut waste [or] streamline government operations." This is an understatement. Here in California the line item veto has been part of the governor's powers forever, and it hasn't had a noticeable impact on improving our fiscal rectitude. (Maybe you've noticed?)

Anyway: a true line item veto is unconstitutional. So instead the president is asking for "enhanced recission authority":

Under this new expedited procedure, the President would submit a package of rescissions shortly after a spending bill is passed. Congress is then required to consider these recommendations as a package, without amendment, and with a guaranteed up-or-down vote within a specified timeframe.

As Stan Collender explains, this is basically the same authority the president has today with one change: under current law, if Congress does nothing with the president's request then the spending stays intact. Under the new law, if Congress takes no action then the spending is halted. This allows Congress to avoid responsibility for spending cuts since they never have to take a vote to approve them. But would it be constitutional? Bruce Bartlett isn't so sure and has a different suggestion:

I think there really is a much simpler way of getting around the constitutional problem — just repeal the part of the Budget Act which prohibits impoundment.

In essence, impoundment means that if the president doesn't want to spend money appropriated by Congress he simply impounds it; i.e., doesn't spend it. It has exactly the same effect as a line-item veto and is unquestionably constitutional — every president up until Nixon had and routinely used impoundment to control spending.

But in 1973, Nixon became heavy-handed in his use of impoundment, which outraged members of Congress of both parties. Legislation was drafted to eliminate impoundment and force the president to spend every penny appropriated by Congress exactly as Congress intended....Therefore, it would seem to me that simply getting rid of or amending the section of the Budget Act relating to impoundment could give the president de facto line item veto power in a way that would be much more effective than enhanced rescission authority and would certainly be constitutional.

OK, fine. Impoundment isn't as elegent as enhanced recission, but it would almost certainly work. Unfortunately, Bruce's potted history suggests why it doesn't matter all that much: Congress doesn't mind the practice too much as long its use is fairly trivial. But if a president actually uses it in big enough chunks to make a difference, they go nuts — and there goes your faux line-item veto.

But look: if it's only used for occasional little doodaws and gimcracks, it's hardly worth the trouble. It might be worth having just as a PR tool, or as a way of giving the president a bit of bargaining power over the budget, but not much more. So I have a hard time understanding why this topic is such a perennial favorite in Washington. If anyone were really serious about this, we would have approved a constitutional amendment giving the president a real line-item veto long ago.