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Category: Ben Bernanke

The Bailouts Caused the Shitty Economy, Part 2

Back in 2013, I wrote an article making the argument that bailouts were responsible for the bad economy.

The reason the economy has not recovered and will not recover for at least a generation is because of the overhang of bad debt, the glorification of financial “profits” (they aren’t), the failure to de-financialize the economy, and the confirmed control of government by the rich.

There is also a section on alternatives to the what we did. “We should do something,” is not the same as, “We must do what we did.”

But, be clear, the economy would be better now if we had not done anything. Yes, the immediate two years after the financial collapse would have been worse, but we’d be better off now than we are.

I think we need to note, first, where we are.

  • We are about to go into worldwide recession. In other words, the good part of this business cycle is mostly over. In many countries, it has been over for some time.
  • Peak to peak—from the peak of the last recovery to the peak of this recovery, the employment to population ratio has not recovered. It didn’t recover in Bush’s economy either, by the way.
  • Median incomes in the US have dropped. This is true in a number of other countries.
  • All of the gains of the recovery went to somewhere between the top 3 percent to top 5 percent. And really, that means the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and so on.
  • The rich are now richer than they were before the crash.
  • China is has hit the mercantile wall. After the financial collapse, they were the engine of global demand. But with so many of their customers in austerity, this could not be maintained.

In other words, the economy never actually recovered. You can argue it did, dishonestly, by looking at stats like unemployment (which don’t consider people who have given up looking for jobs), or GDP, but for most people, this is a shit economy, at best.

It has, however, been a good economy to be rich in.

Now, as I’ve been writing about what Capitalism is this last week, I think it’s worth noting something very fundamental.

The 2000’s economy was sick. It was doing the WRONG THINGS. It was doing them with trillions of dollars. Derivatives such as CDOs, vast expansion of borrowing for stock buybacks, the housing bubble, and so on.

It was doing things which had negative real returns–even measured in money. That these actions had negative, real returns was revealed in the financial collapse when those derivatives were worth ten cents or less on the dollar, and by the fact that central banks and governments had to spend trillions on the bail out.

Measured in human welfare, the mal-investment was worse. When you measure this in “opportunity cost,” meaning what we could have done with those resources instead, which would have increased human welfare, the cost was beyond vast: There are no words.

Capitalism is a system where markets make the primary economic investment decisions through price signals and the availability of money (these are not always identical, which is why I separate them).

More to the point, markets say, “If you are making money, do more of what you are doing.” The assumption is that if you’re making money, other people want what you’re doing, and that what people want is what has the most social utility—the greatest welfare for the buck.

I trust it is obvious to anyone but those brainwashed by the cult of economic utility that, in the 2000’s, the individuals who were making the most money were not creating welfare. They were, instead, reducing human welfare, absolutely and relative to other options.

The other case for capitalism and markets is that they are supposed to be self-correcting. People may make money doing the wrong thing due to market failures, but eventually they will lose that money.

They did.

I repeat, they did. The people making the wrong decisions lost all their money. They lost more than all their money.

We have a shitty economy now because we bailed them out. They then went back to doing all the wrong things, but with a huge debt overhang and more power.

What we needed was new economic decision makers. We needed the people who had all that money to lose their money and thus their political power, making it possible for a different set of people to make money.

Those people would have started off with a lot less money, and a lot less power, and that means there would have been a lot less money in politics, which would have fixed a swathe of problems political, social, and economic.

All that was required for this to happen was to DO NOTHING. Let the banks and brokerages and so on go out of business, and allow the process of law to proceed. The laws on the books at the time made most of what bankers and shadow bankers and various other decision makers doing illegal. Rather than allowing them to pay fines to indemnify themselves against law breaking, actually apply the law. Start with RICO statutes (conspiracy), grab their emails, and prosecute for fraud. (They were, essentially, all engaged in some fraud or another, though I don’t have time to go into that in this piece).

As an additional slice, all their remaining assets would have been seized as proceeds of crime, and they would have had to rely on public defenders.

This is what happens if you just follow the laws and regulations on the books. No special action is needed. None. Except to ensure laws are actually followed, I guess. That it requires special action for rich people to be subject to the law, is, however, part of the point.

So, we have a shitty economy now because we did not get rid of the people making terrible decisions who caused the financial collapse. We have a shitty economy because of the bailouts.

I went into personal decline in 2009 because I recognized that a watershed opportunity had been missed. It was our last chance to get off the train to Hell, really. Oh, we’ll get off that train one day, but we’ll already be in Hell.

The bailouts caused this shitty economy.

Much of what happened was a case of Obama’s decision making, either through action or inaction. TARP passed because he pushed it, for example. Bankers were not properly prosecuted because his DOJ chose not to do so. Many consider the actions of the Fed beyond his purview, but they are wrong.

The full argument is in my pieces “What Can Obama Really Do?” written in 2010, and “Could Obama Have Fixed the Economy?” written in 2014, though I also wrote an absurd number of pieces at Firedoglake on specific policy in real-time. I know for a fact that those articles reached the White House (though I don’t know if Obama ever read them). I know they were included in Dodd’s briefings.

Many other people were writing good proposals at the time as well. People more famous than I. The ideas were available.

So, I once said I don’t hate Clinton. I don’t hate Obama any more, but I did for a long time. He had a historic opportunity to be the next FDR. He deliberately chose not to be, and to instead help and defend the people who caused the financial crisis.

Obama triumphalists who go on about what a great president he is are either misinformed or cockroaches. The true cost of anything is the opportunity cost, and Obama’s opportunity cost is beyond large. Everything he could have done, and did not even try to do.

This is a bad economy, in terms of the numbers that matter to ordinary people. Less have work, and those who do make less money. It is about to get worse. Obama, and yes, Bernanke at the Fed, and Tim Geithner, and various other central bankers and politicians (including, yes, Bush), are responsible for how bad this economy is.

I will add that the most logical, good stimulus, would have been a massive energy project, in which America’s buildings were all retrofitted to be at least energy neutral. It would have directly put to work the people who needed that work, it could not be offshored, with some fairly simple policy, it could have created a solar manufacturing industry in America, and so on.

This means that some of the losses of climate change will also be Obama’s responsibility. Opportunity cost, again.


The Obama presidency will go down as a huge failure to historians looking back in even 20 years. The larger point is this: Capitalism does have some virtues, and one of them is wiping out people who are doing the wrong thing. That doesn’t mean that “all bailouts” were a bad idea, but bailouts of the people who caused the crisis (bankers, shadow bankers) were. The primary bailouts caused the lousy economy.

There will be another crisis. Learn the lesson of the last one. If we don’t, well, crises will continue until we do.

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You will never, again, have a good economy for ordinary people so long as this continues

Reuters on Ben Bernanke’s post-Fed career:

Bernanke was paid at least $250,000 for his first public speaking engagement, in Abu Dhabi, since stepping down in January, according to sources familiar with the matter. That compares to his 2013 paycheck of $199,700, and the appearance was only the first of three around the world this week.’ (two weeks ago)

Ben Bernanke bailed out investors to the tune of trillions of dollars.  Now they are making sure he, personally, will be rich, so that no Federal Reserve Chairman ever thinks of not putting them first, second and last.

You cannot, and will not, have a good egalitarian economy while this sort of thing goes on.  It is not possible.  Those who have been in such positions should be given a very nice pension (say 5x median income) and not allowed to keep any additional earnings for the rest of their lives.

I can hear fools squealing already “gold plated pensions” and “paying them not to work” and “not fair”.

It would be far cheaper than the status quo.  Far, far cheaper.  Right now people like Ben Bernanke and Bill Clinton (worth 100 million after repealing Glass-Stegall and pushing through NAFTA) don’t work for you, they work for the people who will make them rich after they leave office.  That costs you far far more than a generous pension for the rest of their lives.

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The Bailout Caused the Sucky “Recovery”

This will be another brief post.  Bailing out banks, brokerages and so on in the way it was done had the following effects:

1) Fewer, larger financial institutions.  Too bigger to fail.

2) Rewarding people for outright fraud and insane risk taking. Remember, they kept their bonuses and salaries, they are rich, even if they belong to one of the few companies that went under.

3) A huge overhang of bad debts which has to be worked off.

4) An understanding that financial profits are still the way, you, personally get rich.

5) Making the rich, richer (yes, they are richer now)

The reason the economy has not recovered and will not recover for at least a generation is because of the overhang of bad debt, the glorification of financial “profits” (they aren’t), the failure to de-financialize the economy and the confirmed control of government by the rich.

In other words the bailout caused the sucky “recovery”, or, if we are to be honest, the current long Depression.

The standard argument is “we had to do something”.  Yes and no.

1) We could have done something else, like nationalizing the banks, making bondholders and shareholders eat their losses, taking what remains and putting it in bad banks, then breaking the banks up and re-privatizing them.

2) Actually, if we’d just let them go under per the law, with the FDIC taking them over, things would have been worse initially, but there would have been an actual, robust recovery when it occurred.  By now you’d be better off.  And the shock could have been cushioned with generous EI, letting people stay in houses and so on.

TARP, though it actually wasn’t the key bailout (those were done mostly through the Fed) is when Obama said “I am going to keep the same people who caused this mess in power in the financial system, make sure they don’t lose their money, and that’s just too bad for everyone else.”  When he confirmed that Bernanke was to stay on, he confirmed that he was, essentially, ok with what had happened.

The bailout decision did not “save the world” instead it doomed a good chunk of the world to twenty years of a shitty economy, minimum.  Forget the unemployment rate, the percentage of Americans employed hasn’t recovered, and won’t, and that’s before we talk about Europe.

This is the first of Obama’s legacies.

Shorter Federal Reserve: The Economy Breathes Sort of OK if We Keep it On Life Support

That’s what the decision to continue Quantitative Easing 3 (QE3), the purchase of 85 billion dollars of treasuries and mortgage backed securities a month, is an admission of.

It is also a way of not causing Brazil and India’s currencies to crash out, which just the suggestion of a reduction of QE3 was causing.

It is worth reiterating that the purpose of Quantitative Easing is to make the rich richer, and that it has done.  US stock markets increased 150% from their lows, one of those bull markets traders dream of.  However the employment situation has not significantly improved (ignore the unemployment rate, even in absolute terms there are still fewer people employed than there were before the financial crisis.)  Median household net worth is down, median income is down, but the rich are richer.

This is not to say that QE does no good for the regular economy, it does, but it does far less good than could be done with eighty five billion dollars a month.  A program to, say, retrofit every single federal building for active and passive solar would employ more people and have more of a ripple effect.  Eighty five billion dollars a month (970 billion a year) is a LOT of money.

Nonetheless, given its refusal to break up the large banks; the President and Congress’s refusal to actually tax rich people (thus necessitating the Fed buying treasury bonds); and a refusal to allow the housing market to settle to its actual value while supporting underwater homeowners, the Fed is in a bind.  If you refuse to do anything that is primarily intended to help ordinary people, refuse to engage in sufficient measures to break the oil supply bottleneck (and no, Fracking isn’t cutting it); refuse to tax rich people (who have the money); and refuse to engage in any sort of industrial policy while funneling money to industries like banking, insurance, pharma and the military-industrial complex which are ultimately parasitical, why then, it can certainly seem like you have no choice but to continue throwing money at banks and rich people, and hoping some of it gets to the real economy.

Yellen won’t be any better, by the way.  Bernanke’s job was to make sure  that the financial collapse did not cause an FDR or New Deal: to make sure that the rich weren’t wiped out by the financial bubble they caused. His academic work is about this exact problem: how to make sure that a New Deal doesn’t happen: how to make sure ordinary people don’t get their share of the pie.  Yellen won’t change that, no one will be picked for the Federal Reserve who would change that.

QE 3

The Fed has announced its third quantitative easing program.  To state what should be obvious, the effect on the economy for ordinary people will be minimal, as with QE1 and 2.  It will help banks, financial firms most, other large corporations will also benefit.  If you work at the executive level in one of those organizations, it will help you and raise your salary or bonuses.  It will not significantly raise demand for goods and services and will not do much for the rest of the economy.  Remember, 93% of the gains of the Obama recovery went to the rich, and that was not by mistake.

How bailing out the rich created the Depression

The other day, Krugman wrote that we’re in the beginning of a new Long Depression.

Forgive me, but he’s wrong: this isn’t the beginning, it’s been going on for about two years now.

During a Depression there are periods where GDP grows.  There are periods where jobs grow.  It’s just that the periods of job growth don’t last.

There were opportunities to end the Depression before it really dug in its heels.  The last one was at the beginning of Obama’s term.  Kicking out of the Depression required two things.

The first was an adequate stimulus. This didn’t just mean a large enough stimulus, though the one offered was not large enough, it meant one properly constructed.  Tax cuts for ordinary Americans are not stimulative, because folks like banks who have pricing power (you must have a credit card, loans, etc…) will simply take that money away by raising rates and fees.  And it doesn’t mean short term shovel-projects, it means making commitments which will last for years so that businesses, when making plans know that hiring is worth it because those employees will be needed for more than a year or so.

Likewise the US has some serious problems with the structure of the American economy.  The cornerstone of the stimulus had to be reducing US dependence on oil because as long as the US economy is so dependent on oil, full fledged growth is simply not possible.  The days of $20/barrel oil aren’t coming back, and every time the price of oil gets too high, it puts great pressure on the US economy (and every other modern nation.)

The second thing which had to be done is to force the banks to actually eat their losses.  Wipe out the shareholders and let the bondholders take their losses.  All the money plunged into the banks (and it was much more than the TARP money, which was the smallest part of it) was wasted.  Banks are not lending, and restoring lending is what the bailouts were sold as doing.  Moreover they have raised borrowing rates and fees on those who need credit most, soaking up money which otherwise would be helping the economy rather than simply being sopped up to plug holes in bank balance sheets.

The trillions of dollars spent attempting to bail out the banks weren’t just wasted, by keeping zombie banks alive they made the situation worse.  Further by not wiping out the wealth of banks and those rich folks who made foolish investments which wrecked the world economy, they created a political problem: to whit, as Durbin said—the banks still own Congress.  (Along with the military industrial complex, pharma and various other monied interests).  Because monied interests still own Congress, they have made it impossible to fix America’s structural problems.

Six percent of GDP could have been saved by doing health care reform properly, but that didn’t happen.  The current “financial reform” bill under consideration is so week that I don’t know of one credible outside analyst who thinks it is sufficient to make sure there isn’t another financial crash, and on and on.

Historically speaking periods of high concentration of wealth only end when the rich lose it in a huge crash.  They are never ended by, say, high marginal taxation—high marginal taxation only occurs after the losses have occurred as those who saw the run-up do their best to make sure it can’t happen again.

That lasts until the generations who saw the mania and crash start dying off and losing power.  So you start seeing really serious decreases in marginal tax rates and slashing of financial regulations when the generations who lived through not just the Great Depression but the Roaring twenties were no longer around.

The cliche that a crisis is an opportunity is, sadly, true.  But it is only an opportunity if you take it.  What politicians, and this includes Obama and Geithner, as well as Bush, Paulson and Bernanke, did, was they protected the rich from their own folly, and made  ordinary people pay for it.  The wealth of the rich has mostly recovered, corporate profits have recovered, but for ordinary people the economy still sucks and there is no reason to believe it isn’t about to start sucking even more.

The financial elites think that what they can do is create an economy with a permanently high unemployment rate and that Americans (and Europeans, for that matter) will put up with it, because what choice do they have?

We are going to have another kick at this can, because the legislation being put in place is not sufficient to prevent another financial crisis.  This is a Depression, and it is not going to go away.

Next time I hope we will consider doing the right thing.  Make those who crash the system take their losses and break the power of the rich over government.

Be very clear, it’s you, or it’s them.  You break their power, or they will continue to push your wages towards parity with China.

And they are very determined it’s not going to be them.

Are you determined it’s not going to be you?

Crunch Time: Two Economic Scenarios for the rest of the year

Ok, we’re in crunch time.  Bernanke is pulling a strong dollar play and trying to unwind as much of what was done in 08 and 09 as he can.  Meanwhile, across the Western world, we have a wave of Hooverism, everyone wants to cut, cut, cut spending.  And China isn’t looking as healthy as it once did, which is bad, because basically China is keeping the actual (as opposed to financial) world economy afloat.

However, the good news is the drop in oil prices.  High oil prices (and yes, $80 is high) had led to, essentially, only a few half decent months of job growth.  Oil had to be gotten under control.

This is, in essence, the same play Bernanke tried to perform in 08.  He crashed out oil prices, and took the world financial economy with it.

To understand why you need to understand the contradiction at the heart of the modern neoliberal world economy.

There is a lot of hot money in the world economy, more hot money than there are truly safe investments.  The financial bubble and collapse could be summed up as “trying to get AAA security with higher than AAA returns”.  The paper was almost all produced in an attempt to get better than Treasury bond returns while claiming to be as secure as Treasury bonds.  Obviously, the paper wasn’t, and it all crashed out.

There is still too much hot money which wants AAA security, and better than AAA returns.  They demand that governments find a way to give it to them.  One way is for the Fed to give them free money, then borrow it back from them (we’ll lend to you at zero, you lend back to us at 3%.  Free money!)  But there are limits to these sorts of games.

Why?  Well, that’s the contradiction.  Because the hot money is both scared by the prospects of high deficits (government defaults) and by the economy itself crashing out because, well, there isn’t enough stimulus.  If you’re scared of too much stimulus and you’re scared of too high deficits, well, you’re caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Currently the pressure is mostly on the austerity side, with an IMF style crackdown in both Greece and Spain, with a healthcare bill in the US which “saves money” and so on.

The problem is that actual private income in the US, for example, is about 500 billion lower than it was pre-crisis.

The economy breathes fine, as long as we don’t unplug the life support.

And unplug the life support is what everyone except the Chinese seem to want to do.

The US dollar getting higher and commodities getting lower, if it doesn’t crash out the economy when added to global austerity, means that a relatively small amount of money can reorient the economy.  This is the Rubin play, and when Rubin did it for Clinton, it worked.  The thing is, back then, the internet boom was waiting to happen.  I don’t see what Obama and Bernanke will reorient the US economy towards: I don’t see the next big boom (oh, I see some things it could be, but I don’t think they want any of those things.)

The next few months will tell the tale.  Will global austerity throw the world into a second downleg of this depression?  Or will global austerity and Bernanke’s strong dollar play crush commodity prices without crushing the real economy?  And will investors freak out, caught between their twin fears of deficits (don’t want to be in bonds) and lack of stimulus (don’t want to be in stocks), and go on strike again, causing another financial contagion?

Who knows.  I’m coming down on the downside right now, mainly because I believe that when you’re given a choice of betting for or against Bernanke, you should generally bet against.  (Not directly or in the short run, though, he’s still the player with the biggest stack on the table.)

Obama, Congress and Bernanke did not save the world from a Great Depression

Sorry, they simply did not. The baseline IMF forecast before the bailouts and before the stimulus bill tracks almost exactly what happened.

The bailouts were an actual net drag on the economy.  Instead of cleaning up banks balance sheets, they allowed zombie banks to continue to exist, banks which are crippled when it comes to lending.  In order to make sure these banks can pay down their bad debts, the Fed not only had to take on huge amounts of their paper at par when it was worth 20 cents at most, it has had to lend to them at concessionary rates, pay extra interest to them, and let them leverage that to make obscene profits from what lending they are doing (why did your credit card rate go up, that’s why?) and from trading on a captive market.

As best I can figure the stimulus was large enough to counteract the negative effect of the bailout.

The net, is a wash.

Furthermore, there were far, far more intelligent things which could have been done.  The crisis was, as the tired phrase goes, also an opportunity to break the power of monied interests, so that ordinary Americans could prosper again and could reclaim their government.  The stimulus was an opportunity to restructure the US economy to allow real, widespread growth in the future.

Both those opportunities were wasted, and they were wasted by Obama.  TARP would not have passed without him, and once he was in power he could have demanded that Bernanke do as he commanded (break the banks) or step down, if Bernanke wouldn’t, he could have easily impeached him.  The stimulus was his stimulus.

Obama, Congress, Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson—none of them saved anybody except the banks and the rich from apocalypse.  I understand that partisan Democrats want to pretend Dems saved the world, but they did no such thing.

(Addendum. See Rosenbert here (h/t Sean-Paul):

There are classic signs indeed that the recession in the U.S. ended last summer — output, sales, etc. But the depression is ongoing and the reason we say that is because real personal income, excluding handouts from the government, has barely budged. In fact, real organic personal income is nearly $500 billion lower now than it was at the peak 16 months ago and this has never occurred before coming out of any technical recession. It is a depression, as the chart below attests — that is the trendline for real household incomes, until the government comes in to top them off with handouts, subsidies and extended jobless benefits . . .

Real consumer spending is up $200 billion over the past 16 months and everyone believes we have a sustainable recovery even though organic income is down almost $500 billion. Think about that for a second because once the stimulus wears off, and with a 10% deficit-to-GDP ratio and concerns surfacing everywhere about sovereign credit risks, there is little out there to support future growth in consumption.)

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