Cutting to Spite Ourselves
by Sinclair Noe
DOW + 99 = 13,979
SPX + 15 = 1511
NAS + 40 = 3171
10 YR YLD +.04 = 2.02%
OIL + .47 = 96.64
GOLD – 1.40 = 1674.00
SILV +.06 = 31.92
The Congressional Budget Office released revised budget projections that show the federal deficit will drop to $845 billion this year, the first time during Obama’s presidency that the red ink would fall below $1 trillion. The budget office also said the economy will grow slowly in 2013. The reason for the slowdown is a tax increase in January and spending cuts coming in the next couple of months.
A few minutes after the CBO report, President Obama spoke to the press and said those spending cuts would damage the economy and must be avoided. He asked Congress for a short-term deficit reduction package that will delay deeper cuts past the automatic start date of March 1, also known as the sequester.
The automatic cuts are part of a 10-year, $1 trillion deficit reduction plan that was supposed to spur Congress and the administration to act on long-term fiscal policies that would stabilize the nation’s debt. Though Congress and the White House have agreed on about $2.6 trillion in cuts and higher taxes since the beginning of 2011, they have been unable to close the deal on their ultimate goal of reducing deficits by about $4 trillion over a decade.
If the automatic cuts are allowed to kick in, they would reduce Pentagon spending by 7.9 percent and domestic programs by 5.3 percent. Food stamps and Medicaid would be exempt, but Medicare could take up to a 2 percent reduction, under the plan.
White House aides say the president’s plan for long-term deficit reduction would increase tax revenue by about $600 billion to $700 billion over 10 years as well as reduce mandatory health care spending, primarily in Medicare, by about $400 billion over the next decade. It would also change an inflation formula that would reduce cost-of-living adjustments for beneficiaries of government programs, including Social Security. Republicans have called for a more comprehensive overhaul of government entitlement programs.
For now, the President is asking for a short-term deficit reduction package of spending cuts and tax revenue that will delay the sequester, and give Congress time to chip away at the problem.
Part of what we should have learned is that austerity is not the answer. Europe has shown that. When economists talk about the role of government in economic recovery, they often focus on the question of whether or not we need more economic stimulus. Government participation in the economy does not just stimulate private sector activity. Government is itself a large, diverse and important sphere of economic enterprise. Our federal, state and local governments produce and deliver important goods and service, things that people want and need, and that they have asked their representatives to create and maintain. And governments employ millions of people in income-earning positions to carry out all of this production. Ordinarily, we would expect that as a society grows, government will grow commensurately along with everything else. As our population grows and private enterprises proliferate, we need more schools and teachers, more courthouses and police stations, more public parks, more inspectors and regulators, more paved roads and street lights, and more government clerical workers. So while it is true that government spending also stimulates additional economic activity in the private sector – just as any economic enterprise stimulates economic activity in the other enterprises it touches and affects – it is also true that the public enterprises governments oversee and the tasks governments perform are all by themselves an important component of overall economic activity.
The part of government spending that is devoted to purchases made in the production of goods and services is called “consumption and gross investment” , or CGI, and it amounts to about 15% to 20% of GDP. Government consumption and gross investment (CGI) can be contrasted with other forms of government spending that do not contribute to GDP, such as transfer payments to the public under social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance programs.
CGI started to dry up after the stimulus package started to wear off in 2011, and public enterprise also started to decline. Paul Krugman asked: “How big a deal is this? Government consumption and investment is about $3 trillion; if it had grown as fast this time as it did in the Bush years, it would be 12 percent, or $360 billion, higher. Given a multiplier of more than one, which is what the IMF among others now thinks reasonable under current conditions, that ends up meaning GDP something like $450 billion higher, which is 3 percent — and an unemployment rate 1.5 points lower. So fiscal austerity is the difference between where we are now and an unemployment rate not much above 6 percent.”
For the past couple of years we’ve heard bipartisan talk about grand bargains, fiscal cliffs, sequestration, and debt ceilings, with different strategies granted, but with a common theme to shrink government.
Obama actually told us government must shrink because we are “out of money”. But notice how absurd it would be if the leaders of private sector industry were to say that the private sector economy has to shrink because it is out of money. Everybody recognizes that if our economy is to grow and progress, private enterprise needs to spend and invest, and that the means of financing are created along with the initiatives that are financed. In the case of government, the financial constraint is even less relevant, I mean they print the currency, so there are no real constraints due to a lack of money.
Yesterday I told you to look for a lawsuit against S&P. As expected, the government is seeking more than $5 billion in a civil lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s and parent company McGraw-Hill over mortgage-bond ratings, marking the first federal enforcement action against a credit rating agency over alleged illegal behavior tied to the recent financial crisis. S&P reportedly had a chance to settle for about $1 billion, but they felt the price was too high. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a news conference that S&P misled investors, causing them to lose billions, and that its ratings were affected by “significant conflicts of interests.” He said that while analysts raised red flags as early as 2003, S&P executives ignored questions about ratings.
In the filing Monday, the government said: “Considerations regarding fees, market share, profits, and relationships with issuers improperly influenced S&P’s rating criteria and models.” In other words, they sold their ratings to the highest bidder and didn’t give a damn about honesty. So, the question is why did it take so long to bring civil charges against the ratings agency?
Well, the lawyer defending S&P says the government intensified its investigation after S&P downgraded the government’s credit rating in 2011, following the debt ceiling dysfunction. I’ll give the lawyer credit for misdirection, if nothing else. S&P will likely use the same defense the industry has been using for years to explain the seemingly misguided ratings — their right to free speech. S&P and other credit rating agencies have claimed that their ratings were merely free speech and are therefore protected under the First Amendment.
There is a paper trail of damaging emails. You’ve heard about this before. And when those emails are read aloud in court, the best hope will be to make jurors think that maybe it’s just a government vendetta. But listen to some of the emails:
In an April 2007 email, an analyst quoted in the lawsuit told an investment banking client that the priorities inside S&P were not centered on providing accurate ratings, but rather were focused on not “p*ssing off too many clients and jumping the gun ahead of [competitors] Fitch and Moody’s.”
The banker emailed back: “I mean come on we pay you to rate our deals, and the better the rating the more money we make?!?! What’s up with that? How are you possibly supposed to be impartial????”
Another S&P analyst wrote: “We rate every deal … it could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”
The email complaints about the integrity of the ratings were so numerous that S&P management directed analysts to stop sending complaints via email. But the emails continued. They wrote about allowing bankers to have greater input into the ratings process; let the bankers help make the grades for the products they were selling; and all designed to increase revenue for S&P. One email that seems particularly damaging came from a director in charge of rating CDOs in late 2006. He wrote: “this market is a wildly spinning top which is going to end badly.”
The paper trail is long and extremely damaging. So, what does it take to come up with criminal charges against a large financial institution? Seriously, what does it take to get a criminal charge started?
Today, Barclays, the British bank, announced it is provisioning another $1.3 billion in its Q4 results to settle claims it mis-sold financial products, bringing total provisions to about $3.5 billion. And UBS, the Swiss banking giant, announced a a $2.1 billion dollar fourth quarter loss, with $1.5 billion of that coming from fines for manipulating Libor interest rates. The Libor rate affects the prices of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products; everything from credit cards to mortgages to municipal bonds. Basically, the price of everything in the world the price is somehow connected to Libor. And these guys were monkeying around with this for individual profit.But nothing illegal happened.
And finally, Dell Computer will be taken private by founder Michael Dell and Silver Lake Partners in a $24.4 billion dollar deal. It works out to about $13.60 per share, roughly one-quarter Dell’s all-time high 12 years ago. Still, it’s the biggest buy out in years.