Archive for December, 2008

Blaming the pushers?

Okay, commenting on global finance is really not my usual shtick, but I’ve got to agree with Barry Ritholtz that there’s something odd in this NY Times article on China’s role in the U.S. housing bubble.  The article describes Ben Bernanke’s 2005 theory that a savings “glut” is driving up the demand for American to borrow from foreign countries.  The article extends the theory to suggest that the financial mess that we are currently in the middle of was, essentially, caused by the Chinese.

Okay, it is true that as a country, we were essentially borrowing money from overseas in order to buy overseas products.  Essentially, borrowing from the Chinese in order to buy their stuff.  The mechanisms were somewhat complicated, home owners typically were borrowing from their homes.  As home prices rose, due to low rates and bubble psychology, people found that they could refinance their homes or take out home equity lines of credit that could then be used, not for home improvements, but for general lifestyle expenses.  Since median incomes have not risen in a decade, this isn’t too surprising.  (As an aside, I was in a conversation last week with someone who claimed that the whole recession could be over if the news would act as a good propaganda arm and declare that it was.  People would start spending and the economy would get moving.  I pointed out that he was wrong because most of the capital financing the economy was borrowed from homes, etc., and that wages hadn’t increased.  In other words, the consumer has no money to restart the economy.  He had to agree that was true.)

So, I agree that China (and other foreign countries) were necessary to the bubble, but does that mean that their “excess” savings caused it as the article implies?  No, there are more than a handful of things wrong with the article:

  1. It takes an uncritical look at the idea there is a savings glut.  I didn’t note any refutations of Bernakne’s thesis.
  2. The article’s URL ends in “26addiction.html” and in a single word, it sums up much of the article.  But this is a sad sort of exculpation for the U.S.  Sticking with the same metaphor, it’s arguing that the a drug dealer is responsible for all of the actions of a junkie and the junkie bears no responsibility.
  3. Switching from the “addiction” metaphore, it’s bad supply-side theory applied to credit.  Okay, it’s true that lower rates will attract more demand from the pool of potential borrowers.  And I’ll buy that having more creditors will drive down rates.  But that’s not what happened here.  In this case, Greenspan artificially held down lending rates through the Federal Reserve.  In other words, it wasn’t a supply-side rate cut driving up demand, it was an artificial rate cut that drove up demand and the Chinese stepped in to meet that demand.
  4. Probably more than anything else, I find the idea that there is a savings “glut” in the rest of the world (particularly China) particularly annoying.  It completely disregards recent history.  Savings imbalance, I’ll believe.  But to suggest that the Chinese are saving too much is completely loony.  At the same time Bernanke was saying that others were saving too much, the U.S. savings rate fell to 0%.  If there’s an imbalance, it’s more likely that the U.S. was to blame for increasing its borrowing.
  5. Finally, there are all sorts of little oddities in the facts and nuance of the article.  For example, there’s a general feel of “red-baiting” to the article. Or that the article notes that the Chinese now hold $2 trillion in U.S. debt, out of the, what, $11 trillion in debt we’re in now?

I do agree with the article that it would be good if China stopped pegging their currency to the dollar.  But I’m not certain how much it would help the problem being discussed here.  It might make us less likely to borrow from the Chinese, but at the same time, I don’t think it would have decreased overall U.S. borrowing.

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A simple suggestion

I wonder if the N&O would print this?

Dear Editors,

I have read with some alarm your recent stories describing a dramatic change to our way of life.  Specifically, I refer to those stories of our poor benighted multi-millionaires and billionaires who are having to downgrade their lifestyle in response to the crash of the financial markets and the banking industry.

As we all know, what has made America great over the past 30 years is the increasing increasing income inequality whereby those at the top of the income ladder make an ever increasing amount of money while the median income has stagnated.  Without these top income earners, all motivation and striving goes out of our populous; leaving us a nation of whiners.  And yet, every day, we hear stories of high powered financiers, who had been making millions each year, now contemplating the need to sell that third vacation home in order to make ends meet.

While I salute the republican administration’s efforts to save the wealth of the top 1/10th of a percent through the preservation of the salaries, benefits and bonuses of financial executives while beggaring retired auto workers, I believe that this effort has not been bold enough and that the situation calls for direct action.

Toward this end, I propose that the country establish a registry of multi-millionaires and billionaires in need.  Those making less than $100,000 a year should then be encouraged (by force if need be!) to contribute 10% of their gross earning to support these beleaguered souls who are the backbone of our economy.  This Adopt-a-Billionaire program would have the effect of immediately raising the standard of living for these poor souls, while reducing the incomes of more than 80% of Americans; thus ensuring that the salary inequities which have made this country great will remain in place for the benefit of the next generation.

Respectfully,

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so the stakes aren’t always that small

I’m not certain if I’ve joked about it here or not, but recently I’ve taken to commenting that if academic politics are so petty because the stakes are so small, then what does that say about non-profit politics.  The implication is that non-profit politics are even more petty because the stakes are even smaller.  Well, after a rough couple of weeks with the non-profit I work with, I can confirm that the politics are definitely petty, I’m just no longer certain that the stakes are small.  In one sense, sure – the budget for the non-profit I work with is smaller than any other budget I’ve dealt with in a work situation.  But at the same time, the politics most often affects people’s livelihoods.  It’s one thing to have a layoff due to lack of funds.  It’s another thing for poor management and personal vendettas leading to a firing.

The moral of the story is this: never get involved in a land war in Asia the board of directors for a non-profit.  It’ll steal all of your time, consume all of your money and break your heart in the end.

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