The Best Monetary Policy Is Strict Financial Regulation

On Wednesday, in her first speech on monetary policy, Janet Yellen, the new Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, pointed out a discouraging paradox: In recent years, private-sector forecasters have been surprisingly accurate at forecasting changes in the unemployment rate, but they have been equally inaccurate when forecasting changes in the federal funds rate, the baseline interest rate controlled by the Fed.

Since interest rates supposedly have a strong effect on unemployment, how can forecasters be so right about unemployment if they’re so wrong about interest rates?

Three economists at the Bank of International Settlements — Morten L. Bech, Leonardo Gambacorta, and Enisse Kharroubi — have been studying this question, and coincidentally their results were published this week in the journal International Finance.

Bech and his colleagues amassed a dataset of interest rates and economic output for 24 industrialized countries from 1960 to today. Over that time period, these countries experienced 78 recessions, of which 34 were the result of financial crises like the one we experienced a few years ago. In each recession, the BIS economists measured how much the central bank lowered interest rates to stimulate recovery — and then how long it took for the economy to recover its lost output.

Unsurprisingly, they found that “normal” recessions — the ones without a financial crisis — were much less severe. On average, they resulted in an output loss of 1.9 percent, which it took the country 3.8 years to recover. Financial crises, on the other hand, resulted in an output loss of 8.2 percent, which it took 5.1 years to recover.

Monetary Policy in Different RecessionsWhat was perhaps more surprising was the fact that “accommodative” monetary policy — i.e. lowering interest rates — had no effect on the economy after a financial crisis. This wasn’t the case with normal recessions. Typically, the more the central bank lowered the interest rate, the faster the economy recovered its lost output. But not so with financial crises.

In times like these, interest rates simply don’t matter as much as they normally do.

That doesn’t sound like good news for Janet Yellen. What’s a central banker to do?

Fortunately, the BIS economists did find one thing that accelerated recovery from financial crises: private-sector deleveraging. After a normal recession, it doesn’t seem to matter whether households and firms pay down their debt, but after a financial crisis, it significantly speeds up economic growth.

As luck would have it, the Federal Reserve has a tool at its disposal that can reduce the economy’s reliance on debt. It’s called the “capital requirement,” and it refers to the difference between what a bank owns and what it owes.

When a recession strikes, asset prices fall, and since banks own a lot of assets, their value goes down. If they go down too much, they can fall below what the bank owes to its lenders and depositors, meaning it’s basically bankrupt. It doesn’t own enough to pay what it owes.

So the Fed sets a minimum capital requirement. The more capital a bank is required to have, the more it has to own relative to what it owes. It’s a buffer. The bigger the buffer, the more room asset prices have to fall before the bank becomes bankrupt.

Unfortunately, banks don’t like high capital requirements. They want to rely on debt. Why use your own cash when you can use somebody else’s cash? Lower capital requirements are cheaper — but they’re also more dangerous because it’s easier to go bankrupt when you owe so much relative to what you own.

Banks argue that high capital requirements restrain lending because they can’t borrow as much debt to fund their loans, but another paper published in the latest issue of International Finance debunks this myth. In it, the German economists Claudia M. Buch and Esteban Prieto study the behavior of German bank lending for the past 44 years, and they find that banks with higher capital actually issue more business loans.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who understand how banks actually operate. They don’t lend based on how much debt they can borrow. They lend based on how many loans they can sell. The more, the better. The only question is, will they fund the loans with cash or debt?

Janet Yellen may have her work cut out for her in this post-financial-crisis economy, but there is a way to stimulate the economy and prevent future crises. It all starts with financial regulation.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Do the Math: People Don’t Choose to Be Poor or Unemployed

Long-Term Unemployment HistoryGod, I wish I were poor.

And unemployed. That’s the good life. Poor and unemployed.

I mean, just look at all the cool stuff you get. Medicaid and welfare. Food stamps and unemployment insurance. And don’t forget public housing.

This stuff is so awesome that it’s like a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” That’s what Paul Ryan says, at least, and as the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, he’s supposed to know these things, right?

According to Ryan and his fellow Republicans, if I have unemployment insurance, I’ll never want to work again. Senator Rand Paul says it will cause me “to become part of this perpetual unemployed group.” With an average benefit of $269 per week, I’ll be living on Easy Street.

This is a common belief. There’s an email making the rounds from a 54-year-old consulting engineer who makes $60,000 a year and has to pay $482 a month for health insurance under Obamacare, but that’s not his biggest complaint. He’s really upset that his 61-year-old girlfriend who makes $18,000 a year only has to pay $1 a month for health insurance.

He thinks she has it so easy that she can afford to pay more, but he’s wrong.

On average, Americans earning $18,000 a year pay more than $3,000 in taxes, so she really only has $15,000 leftover to pay her expenses. She lives in Monterey, CA, where the average rent and utilities add up to $15,000 a year. So, after paying taxes, rent, and utilities, she’s completely broke. She doesn’t have money for food, let alone health insurance.

The consulting engineer thinks people will choose her lifestyle over his. “Heck, why study engineering when I can be a schlub for $20K per year?” he asks. (Nice way to talk about your girlfriend, by the way.) To which I’d like to reply: If being a “schlub” is so attractive, why don’t you do it? Why don’t you quit your engineering job and join the “$20K per year” club?

For that matter, why don’t we all quit our jobs right now and start collecting unemployment insurance? How far do you honestly think we can stretch $269 a week?

I’ll tell you how far: It would cover less than half of the basic necessities for the average American family.

That’s why unemployment makes you more likely to have to borrow money from a friend, withdraw money from your retirement savings, and have trouble paying your medical bills, rent, and mortgage. It makes you more likely to have a stroke or heart attack, lose self-respect, have difficulty sleeping, and seek professional help for anxiety and depression. It makes you more likely to kill yourself, kill others, and drink yourself to death.

And if you’ve been unemployed for more than a few months, most employers won’t even look at your résumé. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are. It’s like you don’t exist anymore.

The last time it was this bad, with long-term unemployment close to 3 percent of the workforce, was the peak of the 1980-81 recession. Back then, the federal government kept extended unemployment insurance in place for almost two more years, until the long-term unemployment rate fell close to 1 percent. In fact, that’s been standard operating procedure for every recession in the modern era, including 1990-91 and 2001. But now, with long-term unemployment as high as it’s been since World War II, Republicans have killed the emergency unemployment insurance program, and they’re fighting Democrats’ efforts to restore it.

They don’t seem to care that there are 2.9 applicants for every job opening. They don’t seem to care that people on unemployment insurance actually spend more time searching for work than their fellow unemployed who are ineligible for benefits. They’re sticking to their story.

On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, many Americans are still operating under the assumption that people choose to be poor and unemployed, that they’d rather be lazy than rich, that they can afford the basic necessities of life. But the numbers tell a different story.

I don’t wish I were poor. Or unemployed. And I sure don’t wish it on anyone else. If you did the math, neither would you.

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This op-ed was recently published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Huffington Post.

An Open Letter to the One Percent

Back Cover of "Letter to the One Percent"Congratulations. You are the richest class of human beings in the history of the world. Collectively, you own 26 percent of this nation’s wealth. Add in the next richest 5 percent of Americans, and you have more money than everyone else combined. Nowhere else in the world would you be able to earn so much and give back so little.

You worked hard for that money. No one can deny that. You have been rewarded for your talent, your intelligence, your risk-taking, your creativity, and your good fortune. The notion that you should change a system that has worked so well must seem downright stupid.

But, as the philosopher Amartya Sen reminds us, “What we can see is not independent of where we stand in relation to what we are trying to see.”

From where you’re standing, things must look pretty good. In the world you live in, economic growth is strong. Unemployment is brief, rare, and softened by ample savings. Health insurance is affordable. Education is among the best in the world. Food, shelter, and transportation are never hard to come by. And retirement will surely be comfortable.

It’s not perfect. You may get fired. You may lose money. You may experience stress and sacrifice and sorrow. But you will not struggle to survive. You will not be denied the American Dream.

So it’s only natural that you believe this path is open to everyone. But this could not be further from the truth.

In the world outside the One Percent, economic growth is sluggish — and has been so, on average, for more than thirty years. For most Americans, in fact, it has been nonexistent. Unemployment is a common and devastating threat. Retirement is an uphill battle. Education is a crapshoot. Food, shelter, and transportation strain the budget. And until recently, health insurance was a luxury afforded to some but not nearly all.

You’ve read these complaints before. You’ve heard the voices shouting outside your office windows. You’ve seen the faces protesting on your television screens. But, in all likelihood, you haven’t seen the world through their eyes. And that makes all the difference.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, taught that we cannot know what is the right thing to do until we have looked at a situation through the eyes of an “impartial spectator.”

“In solitude,” wrote Smith, “we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves… The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to still a better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty.”

That duty is great, for you wield immense power.

A few years ago, the political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting record of U.S. Senators on issues where the rich, the middle class, and the poor disagreed. He found that the Senators sided with the rich 50 percent more often than they sided with the middle class, and they always sided with the rich and the middle class over the poor.

In a sense, they’re protecting their own. After all, the average legislator is six times richer than the average citizen.

They also have more reasons and more opportunities to hear what you have to say. Corporations, which you own and run, spend significantly more money lobbying and have significantly more high-level government allies than their opponents. The result is that corporations win lobbying battles far more often than unions or citizen groups.

You have an obligation to use that influence responsibly. Since the 1970s, you have failed in that duty. By tilting the playing field away from the 99 Percent, you siphoned an increasing share of the nation’s resources, until the country was drowning in debt, struggling to keep up, and unable to fuel the recovery it so desperately needed. Once you had climbed the ladder of success, you pulled up the ladder so no one could come up after you.

I don’t believe you did so with malicious intent. After all, many of you are my friends and colleagues. Rather, I believe you were practicing what the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “innocent fraud.”

“It is innocent,” explained Galbraith, “because most who employ it are without conscious guilt. It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.”

As opposed to general interest, the interest of all Americans. There is a way to become rich without impoverishing everyone else — and we as Americans celebrate that sort of success — but that’s not what has happened in recent years.

To be clear: It is not your accumulation of wealth per se that lies at the root of our problems. It is the manner in which that wealth was accumulated: through the systematic demolition of the tax code, regulations, public spending, and labor market institutions that created the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

The good news is, all that wealth gives you the ability to undo the damage. You are the most powerful citizens of the most powerful country in the world. Your country needs you. You have the influence, the means, and the brainpower to turn this economy around, but you must know the facts. You must hear the cold, hard truth.

No, I’m not trying to start a class war. Quite the opposite. I’m asking you to end the class war. I’m asking you to construct an economy where everyone benefits, rather than the few at the expense of the many.

“There’s class warfare, all right,” said Warren Buffett in 2006, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

You probably don’t see it that way. “War” is a strong word. But that’s because it’s not your standard of living that’s been under near-constant attack for thirty-plus years. Your piece of the pie has been growing. Your voices have been heard. And that’s why you’re the ones who have to step up.

Nothing less than what Sen calls “the freedom to determine the nature of our lives” is at stake. That’s something that you have and most of the 99 Percent doesn’t. That kind of freedom only comes with a good job with good benefits in a growing economy where good schools and a safe neighborhood in a clean environment create real opportunity. Not only is that kind of freedom at the heart of the American Dream; it’s also our natural birthright as human beings. Yet it’s been slipping out of reach for more and more Americans with each passing year.

Things can get worse. Let us hope they do not. Of course, it’s one thing to hope; it’s quite another to act. But act you must. In my new book Letter to the One Percent, I explain why. To learn more, visit www.LetterToTheOnePercent.com.

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This op-ed is an excerpt from my new book Letter to the One Percent, published this month by Lulu Press, Inc.

Those Obamacare Stories Aren’t as Scary as They Sound

One of Many Plan-Cancellation Letters

‘Tis the season to be scary — and no one is getting in the Halloween spirit more than Obamacare critics. Forget the ghost stories this year, kids. You really want to scare your friends? Tell them some health insurance stories!

Did you hear the one about Dianne Barrette from Winter Haven, Florida? Dianne used to pay $54 a month for health insurance from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. But not anymore. Under Obamacare, her plan has been cancelled…and replaced with a new plan costing $591 a month!

Then there’s the one about Allison Denijs. Allison already pays a lot for insurance. She has a preexisting condition, and her plan covers her husband and one of her two daughters. All told, it costs her $20,000 a year. But Obamacare is cancelling her plan too!

Or maybe you heard the one about Robbie and Tina Robison from Franklin, Tennessee. They too are losing their current plan. In its place, Blue Cross is offering them a new plan that costs over 50 percent more!

And they’re not alone. In Florida alone, 300,000 customers have received letters from Blue Cross and Blue Shield notifying them that they will lose their current plan in 2014. All across the country, millions of Americans are receiving the same news!

But wait. Do you notice anything strange about these scare stories? None of them tell you why they’re losing their plans.

I’ll tell you why: Because the insurance companies wanted to make those plans worse.

Back in 2010, you probably remember President Obama saying, “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your health-care plan, period.” He was referring to the “grandfather” clause of the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA requires that all health-insurance plans meet minimum standards. For example, they all have to cover prescription drugs, ambulatory services, mental health services, and several other categories that are currently excluded from many plans on the individual market. If you signed up for your insurance plan before the law went into effect on March 23, 2010, however, you’re exempt from this requirement. Your plan is “grandfathered” in.

Unless your plan becomes worse — say, because your insurance company wants to take away some of your coverage or raise your co-payments faster than the medical cost of inflation. In that case, it’s no longer exempt because it’s not the same plan anymore.

So, yes, you can keep your old plan. Unless the insurance company changes it. In which case it isn’t your old plan anymore.

That’s what the President meant.

In every one of those cases, the customers who lost their plans are being offered better plans — either by their current insurance carrier or on the government-run exchange.

What CBS and Fox News didn’t tell you about Dianne Barrette, for example, is that her $54-a-month plan didn’t cover hospital stays or ambulance services or brand-name drugs or…really, most of the things she’d need if she ever got really sick. Under Obamacare, she will receive coverage for all of those things.

Not so scary after all, is it?

But what about those premium increases? Those seem pretty scary…if you take the insurance company’s word for it.

After Allison Denijs appeared on Fox News, Salon reporter Eric Stern contacted her and asked if she’d found a new plan on the Obamacare exchange. She hadn’t looked yet, so Stern did it for her. He found a plan that covers her entire family — including her currently uninsured daughter — for $7,600, less than half of what her old plan cost.

Then Stern called the Robison’s. They refused to shop on the Obamacare exchange, which is a shame because Stern found a plan that they could get that would cost them 63 percent less than their old plan — and it would cover more services.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will pay less under Obamacare, but the point of the law is to make health insurance affordable for people who need it the most. For young, healthy Americans, it may result in a slight cost increase, but we must remember why their insurance was so cheap before Obamacare came along: Because insurance companies were discriminating against the sick, excluding the most desperate and most costly customers.

Someday, when they’re not so young and healthy anymore, those Americans are going to be thankful that Obamacare is there — and that they can buy affordable health insurance that covers all the healthcare services they need. You might say Obamacare has given them one less thing to be…scared of.

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Even the Shutdown Can’t Kill Old Republican Fallacies

Annualized Growth in Real GDP per Capita, by President

Old fallacies die hard.

You would think, for instance, that Americans wouldn’t trust Republicans anymore. Poll after poll has shown that the American public holds them responsible for the government shutdown — and the American public hated the shutdown. Their approval rating plummeted to 21 percent, while President Obama’s held steady at 42 percent.

And yet, according to a Pew Research survey released at the end of the shutdown, Americans still believe that Republicans do a “better job dealing with the economy” than Democrats.

Clearly, it will take more than a two-week shutdown to kill the myth that simply won’t die.

And it is a myth. Since the government started collecting economic data around World War II, we have accumulated plenty of evidence to measure each party’s success at “dealing with the economy” — and none of it makes Republicans look good.

In their book Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up on the Issues We Care About, economist Mike Kimel and journalist Michael E. Kanell use this data to calculate the performance of the economy under every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Here’s what they found…

Real GDP per capita. The most basic measure of economic success is the growth of output per person, adjusted for inflation. The fastest growth came in the Kennedy/Johnson years, when “real GDP per capita” grew 3.48 percent per year. The second-fastest came in the Clinton years, a strong 2.49 percent per year. Compare those numbers to laggards like Eisenhower and Bush Sr., who oversaw annual growth of 1.11 percent and 0.93 percent, respectively. When you add up all the Democratic years and all the Republican years, you find that the economy grew 2.82 percent per year under Democratic presidents and 1.54 percent under Republicans.

You may say, “What about the Great Depression? Aren’t they cherry-picking numbers by excluding the biggest economic event of the 20th century?” Actually, if you add Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman, the Democrats’ average score goes up, and the Republicans’ goes down.

Another common criticism is that presidents inherit the problems of their predecessors. Should we really hold them responsible for the beginning of their term, when the economy’s fate is decided largely by the last guy’s policies? Fair enough. Let’s exclude the first year of each president’s term and recalculate the numbers. Guess what? Again, the Democrats’ score goes up, and the Republicans’ goes down.

Employment-to-population ratio. Instead of focusing on output, we could focus on jobs. Is the economy creating enough jobs to employ the same percentage of the population? Under Democrats, the employment-to-population ratio increased. Under Republicans, it decreased.

Real average weekly earnings. Often, economic growth doesn’t translate into the average American’s pocketbook. Why not look at weekly wages? Okay. Under Democrats, average weekly earnings, adjusted for inflation, increased. Under Republicans, they decreased.

Real median income. But wages only tell part of the story. Maybe Americans work more hours or get more income from investments. Let’s look at the average household — the “median” — and see how their inflation-adjusted income changed: Under Democrats, it increased much faster than it did under Republicans.

Real net average disposable income. But Democrats are known for raising taxes (and, indeed, Kimel and Kanell find that the tax burden went higher under Democrats than Republicans). What if all that income growth winds up in the government’s pocket, negating the gains? Let’s measure average income after taxes: Still, the Democrats oversaw much faster income growth than Republicans!

Poverty rate. Under Democrats, the poverty rate decreased. Under Republicans, it increased.

Real adjusted S&P 500. The stock market grew much faster during Democratic administrations than it did during Republican presidencies.

Value of the dollar. Under Democrats, the dollar appreciated, as foreigners invested more in us. Under Republicans, the dollar depreciated, as foreigners invested less.

Of course, the picture is incomplete. Someday, we will add the completed Obama presidency to the list, and the numbers will change. But already GDP growth under Obama is faster than it was under George W. Bush, and it’s only improving. The stock market is surging up, and the shutdown confirmed what the data has proven: Republicans do not do a “better job dealing with the economy.”

The longer we believe that fallacy, the more shutdowns and recessions we will invite.

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This op-ed was published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.