Kevin Drum

Fixed Income Madness

| Sat Oct. 17, 2009 11:52 AM EDT

Anyone who's been paying attention for the past year shouldn't be surprised by this, but it's something that's always worth re-emphasizing: the federal bailout of the banking industry last year has allowed banks to rebound and make enormous amounts of money this year.  Without the bailout, many of them wouldn't even be around today, and they certainly wouldn't be making vast sums of money:

Many of the steps that policy makers took last year to stabilize the financial system — reducing interest rates to near zero, bolstering big banks with taxpayer money, guaranteeing billions of dollars of financial institutions’ debts — helped set the stage for this new era of Wall Street wealth.

....With interest rates so low, banks can borrow money cheaply and put those funds to work in lucrative ways, whether using the money to make loans to companies at higher rates, or to speculate in the markets. Fixed-income trading — an area that includes bonds and currencies — has been particularly profitable.

....Goldman Sachs and its perennial rival Morgan Stanley were allowed to transform themselves into old-fashioned bank holding companies. That switch gave them access to cheap funding from the Federal Reserve, which had been unavailable to them.

Those two banks and others like JPMorgan were also allowed to issue tens of billions of dollars of bonds that are guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank deposits. With the F.D.I.C. standing behind them, the banks could borrow the money on highly advantageous terms. While some have since issued bonds on their own, they nonetheless enjoy the benefits of their cheap financing.

As the piece points out, banks aren't using all this cheap money to increase lending.  They're using it to fund bigger and bigger bets in the fixed-income sector — the same sector that brought us junk bonds, credit default swaps, subprime loan securitization, interest rate carries, collateralized debt obligations, and all the rest of Warren Buffett's "financial weapons of mass destruction."  Fixed income was a sleepy backwater until about 30 years ago, and if we had any brains we'd apply a massive dose of regulatory narcotics to make it that way again.  Instead, we're actually egging it on.  It's like giving Nero a new barbecue lighter for Christmas because his last one got burned up in that big fire.

Anyway, in the absence of any will to seriously regulate these guys, at the very least we should demand that they get themselves off the federal teat immediately.  They're all fond of the fiction that they're rugged individualists now that they've paid back their TARP money, but it ain't so.  Taxpayers saved them last year, and taxpayers are underwriting their profits this year.  I can think of better things for taxpayers to be doing.

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Today's Mystery Guest Cat: Shinobi

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 6:10 PM EDT

It's Laura, dropping off Kevin and David's Friday Week-in-Review podcast, the latest mystery guest cat pic, and a public service announcement on marriage from MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard.

First, the podcast: Where is the GOP hiding all the other Olympia Snowes? What made Kevin decide (thus far) not to get a flu shot this year? And why does David think Glenn Beck still has his work cut out for him in Laura's home state of Tennessee? Listen to the latest Week-In-Review here.

PSA: If you're planning a wedding in Louisiana, here a few things to remember about the state marriage laws: Marriage at age 16? Ok! Interracial marriage to first cousin once removed? Maybe!

And congrats to Guest Cat #3, appearing balloon boy-free in Kevin's Drum Beat newsletter today and below. [For Kevin's newsletter-exclusive weekly bonus post and mystery cat news, sign up here.]

Reader MNPundit: Meet Shinobi, 6, and a total moron. He loves to run up to people and rub them or play fetch with bottle caps and hair ties. He also is addicted to licking plastic bags until he throws up, then running back to lick them again until we have to hide them. I did win the chess match against him though.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer, editor, and sometime geek for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 16 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 2:09 PM EDT

I think I posted one picture from this sequence a couple of weeks ago, but I figured today it would be fun to post the whole thing.  This is standard behavior around here when everyone wakes up from their naps and wants to play.  If I'd had my wits about me, I would have put the camera into movie mode so you could enjoy the whole thing in real time, but I didn't.  So here it is in photos instead: Inkblot and Domino, playing in the sunshine.  As usual, by the time it's all over Inkblot isn't quite sure what happened.

Clinton and Obama

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 1:35 PM EDT

Is Hillary Clinton an also-ran in the Obama power structure?  John Heilemann says no.  She's just adopting the same “workhorse, not a showhorse” attitude that served her well when she first entered the Senate:

To the outside world, all this laying low has made Clinton look like less of a player. But the reality is almost exactly the opposite. From the outset, Hillary recognized that she could only exercise influence inside the administration if she were trusted by Obama and the people close to him. And although the president himself and Emanuel never had much doubt that she could be a team player, many others in the Obamasphere were supremely skeptical. But no longer. “In terms of loyalty, discretion, and collegiality,” says a senior White House official, “she’s been everything we could have asked or hoped for.”

The unfolding debate over Afghanistan is maybe the most conspicuous example of Hillary’s adroitness at working the inside game. Compared with Joe Biden and General Stanley McChrystal, her position has been opaque. But now comes word that Clinton and Gates are lining up on the same side in favor of a middle course in the region — not the full-blown troop surge that the general advocates nor the bare-bones approach that the V.P. favors. By all accounts, the likeliest outcome is that Obama will wind up pursuing the Gates-Clinton split-the-difference. And while no one will ever call it the Hillary doctrine, it will be the kind of quiet win that leads to greater internal power for her in the future.

I think Hillary has another edge as well: staying power.  My guess is that a few years from now Jim Jones will be gone, Robert Gates will be gone, and McChrystal will be gone.  But Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State until the day Obama leaves office, and she'll accumulate influence and intimacy the entire time.  By the time it's all over, my guess is that she'll be widely regarded as one of the most consequential secretaries of state in the postwar era.

Playing the Rush Card

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

Is Rush Limbaugh a race hustler?  Conor Friedersdorf makes the case.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

, this chart shows how often the rest of the world has supported U.S. positions at the United Nations over time.  With the exception of a spike in support from Eastern Europe and central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, there's been a steady, secular decrease from every area of the globe:

The increase in the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world also continued during the Clinton and Carter years: it’s not a Republican versus Democrat thing. Yet, some of it is likely due to the U.S. unwillingness to exercise restraint in its foreign policies. Few countries like heavy-handed uses of power by the world’s lone superpower even when they may agree with its ultimate objectives.

No doubt.  More discussion at the link.

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Why Is the Army Shrinking?

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

A couple of days ago the Army announced that it had met its recuiting goals for this year.  I didn't pay much attention to the news, but Fred Kaplan did.  And he's not buying:

According to the Pentagon's report, the Army's goal for fiscal year 2009 was to sign 65,000 new recruits. It actually signed 70,045 — amounting to 8 percent more than the target.

But the picture is less bright than it seems. Though the Pentagon's report doesn't mention this fact, in each of the previous two years, the Army's recruitment goal was 80,000 — much higher than this year's. The Army met those targets, but only by drastically lowering its standards — accepting more applicants who'd dropped out of high school or flunked the military's aptitude test.

This year, the recruiters restored the old standards — a very good thing for troops' morale and military effectiveness — but they signed up 10,000 fewer new soldiers.

It is, in other words, not the case that high unemployment or a new public spirit is leading more young men and women into the Army. It's not the case that more young men and women are going into the Army at all.

Turns out that retention is down too, so that doesn't explain the lower recruiting goal.  In other words, the Army is shrinking, even though it's supposed to be growing.  So why do official reports go out of their way to give the opposite impression?

Asymmetry in Wonkland

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 11:26 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias muses on a question that's crossed my mind a few times too:

If you think the public option isn’t that big a deal and it’s not worth spiking health reform over it, then you ought to think that it’s not worth spiking health reform in order to kill it either....I get, for example, that Kent Conrad supports the Finance Committee version of health care and opposes adding a public option to it. But suppose a public option does get added. Does that suddenly take a vast package of reforms that he played a key role in crafting and turn it into a terrible bill? Why would that be?

Obviously there's no universal answer to this.  Different people think different things.  But I suspect there really is an asymmetry on this question at the elite wonk level.  Ordinary activists and citizens may feel equally strongly about the public option on both sides, but healthcare pros don't.  On the liberal side, the folks who study this for a living mostly like the idea of a public option (provides competition, helps lower prices a bit, etc.) but don't think it's vital to the success of the reform effort.  On the conservative side, though, opinion is much more entrenched because right-wing think tank types genuinely believe that it's a steppingstone to a fully public single-payer system.  And they might be right!  But if that's the case, then they really do have a lot more at stake than the lefties.

Anyway, this is just a guess.  But if it's right, then this attitude spills over into elite opinion and from there into the halls of Congress.  The result is that there's a big chunk of the Democratic caucus that's lukewarm toward the public option, a smaller chunk toward the center that's actively opposed because they don't like single-payer any more than conservatives do, and then monolithic opposition from the right.  And it's all because our wonks are a little too honest for their own good.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Oct. 16, 2009 10:29 AM EDT

From Ezra Klein, on the possibility that Balloon Boy was a hoax:

But whether or not the drama was staged, it certainly served as a perfect metaphor for cable news: America spent hours riveted by a powerful and gripping story that turned out to be totally meaningless, and will have no significant impact on anybody's lives going forward.

Word.  Or whatever it is that the youngsters say these days to indicate agreement.  (I turn 51 in a few days.  I'm feeling more and more ancient lately.)

True story: I was on the phone yesterday doing our weekly podcast with David Corn, and Laura McClure made some comment about Balloon Boy.  What?  David started to guffaw.  Did I live in a shack or something?  Balloon Boy is everywhere.  I had no idea what they were talking about, but David said that literally every television he had passed in the preceding four or five hours had been tuned to Balloon Boy.  This is the price I pay for not watching cable news during the day.  I am cut off from everything that matters the most.  Like boys who turn out not to be in balloons.

Some Light Evening Reading

| Thu Oct. 15, 2009 11:59 PM EDT

David Roberts emails with a challenge:

Kevin, I've been casting around trying to think of someone who's wonky enough that they might actually read or care about this post. You're my only hope!

You're on, pal.  How bad can this be, after all?  It's not like we're talking about quantum mechanics, are we?

No.  It's much worse.  David is writing about how the CBO does budget scoring for greenhouse gas legislation.  Holy cow.  But we're troupers around here.  The question is: why does increased efficiency, which is (ahem) by far the most efficient way of reducing energy use, get scored so poorly by the CBO?  The answer has to do with the fact that if you tax some part of the economy, that means less spending, which in turn means less taxable income and therefore less tax revenue.  So you don't really get the full benefit of the taxation.  But how much do you lose?

Rather than try to calculate that percentage for every piece of legislation and every set of taxed entities, the CBO [...] has settled on a standard number, which it applies across the board: 25%. So for every buck that’s raised via an indirect tax, a quarter is lost in direct taxes and only $0.75 can be slated for new spending....This revenue offset is colloquially known, by the tiny number of people who have reason to know such a thing colloquially, as the “25% CBO haircut.”

But that's just the start.  It turns out that if you spend the money on certain things you can avoid taking the haircut.  You get to use all 100% of the tax revenue.  Hooray!  Unfortunately it also turns out that tax cuts and tax breaks avoid the haircut but spending on things like state energy efficiency block grants gets the full hit.  And since members of Congress prefer to spend as much money as possible in their bills, they're biased against things that get the haircut.  Things like energy efficiency programs.

Which is a drag, since energy efficiency programs are just about the best use of federal dollars you can imagine.  To learn more — a lot more — click the link and read the whole post.  It counts for three points toward your budget geek certificate.