Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

No more mister nice guy

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

by Robert Waldmann

Nomoremisterniceblog almost states the bitter truth, but he’s too nice to tell us what fools we are.

He wrote:

I don’t want to relitigate the McGovern and Mondale campaigns, but Dukakis? “Free everything and impossible promises” weren’t what defeated him.

My comment

I want to relitigate events of 1984, which Delaney has sent down the memory hole. Mondale was not hammered because he made promises he couldn’t keep. He said he was going to talk to us like grownups. He said he was going to increase taxes (but not increase taxes on families with income under $ 30,000 which would be about $60,000 now with inflation).

So the people of the USA had to choose between a serious guy who told us the truth and the guy who promised that lower taxes meant higher revenues. It is obvious that most voted for Reagan who made absurd promises which he obviously couldn’t keep.

Now there have been Democratic candidates who promised to reduce the deficit and reduce taxes on most families — Clinton and Obama ‘– exactly the two non incumbent Democrats who won when the Income tax was constitutional and the top rate was under 55%. Obama also actually delivered (not that many people noticed) while Clinton was suddenly (not permanently) unpopular when Rubin convinced him we couldn’t afford a middle class tax cut.

Unlike her husband, Hillary Clinton was honest about budgetary and political limits. Unlike his wife, Bill Clinton was elected President.

The lesson is simple. Don’t treat the US public like adults. Do make promises, including some you can’t keep. The data are clear. Anyone who lives in the real world knows this. Only dreamers like Delaney, Dukakis, Mondale, Gore think you can win as the speaker of inconvenient truths.

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Barro’s Misstated Case for Federal Reserve Independence

Barro’s Misstated Case for Federal Reserve Independence

I guess I should applaud Robert Barro for standing up for the independence of the Federal Reserve and hoping it can resist political pressure to lower interest rates too much. But there are two aspects of his case that strike me as silly to say the least starting with his opening sentence:

In the early 1980s, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, was able to choke off runaway inflation because he was afforded the autonomy necessary to implement steep interest-rate hikes.

This statement glosses over the fact that we had a macroeconomic mess in 1982. This mess was in part to blame on an ill advised fiscal stimulus initiated the moment St. Reagan took office. But clearly the Federal Reserve overreacted. To be fair – Barro continues his magical history tour in a reasonable way until we get this absurdity:

one could infer the normal rate from the average federal funds rate over time. Between January 1986 and August 2008, it was 4.9%, and the average inflation rate was 2.5% (based on the deflator for personal consumption expenditure), meaning that the average real rate was 2.4%. The long-term normal real rate can be regarded as an emergent property of the real economy. From an investment and saving standpoint, economic equilibrium balances the benefit from a low safe real interest rate (which provides low-cost credit for investors) against the benefit from a high real rate (which implies higher returns for savers). In the Great Recession, the federal funds rate dropped precipitously, reaching essentially zero by the end of 2008. That was appropriate, owing to the depth of the crisis. But what few expected was that the federal funds rate would remain close to zero for so long, through the end of then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s term in January 2014 and beyond.

While it is nice that one conservative economist has finally decided that the low interest rates policies during the Great Recession were appropriate and not the harbinger of hyperinflation, Barro seems to be saying the long-run real interest rate has been the same for the last 23 years. There has been a lot of research to suggest otherwise.

Rather than cite all of this research, let’s just check out the interest rate on the 10-Year Treasury Inflation-Indexed Security, which used to hover around 2 percent before the Great Recession but is now less than 0.3 percent. I agree with Barro that the Federal Reserve should resist Donald Trump’s push for significantly lower interest rates at this time but I also hope that the Federal Reserve resists the temptation to increase real interest rates as much as Barro’s devotion to some 23 year average would suggest.

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The Change in the U.S. Direct Investment Position

by Joseph Joyce   (Joseph P. Joyce is a Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, where he holds the M. Margaret Ball Chair of International Relations. He served as the first Faculty Director of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs.)

The Change in the U.S. Direct Investment Position

The U.S. has long held an external balance sheet that is comprised of foreign equity assets, mainly in the form of direct investment (DI), and liabilities held abroad primarily in the form of debt, including U.S. Treasury securities. This composition is known “long equity, short debt.” Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley and Hélène Rey of the London Business School claim that this allocation has allowed the U.S. to serve as the “world’s venture capitalist,” issuing short-term debt in order to invest in high-yield assets. But the U.S. direct investment position has changed from a surplus to a deficit, with uncertain consequences for the international monetary system.

There is more than one reason for the change. To see this, it is important to understand that the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which reports these data, uses several methods to value direct investment. One of these utilizes stock market prices to calculate the market values of the assets and liabilities. The second method is the use of the historical costs of the investments when they were made. The third is the current, or replacement, costs of the direct investment assets and liabilities.

Direct investment includes equity and debt instruments. The latter is based on intra-company borrowing. Historically, the equity component has registered a net positive position that outweighed the negative debt position. But the net direct investment equity position, which had been falling for several years, plunged in late 2017. The falloff continued in 2018 and led to a negative balance, which combined with the negative net direct investment debt position, turned the overall net direct investment balance negative.

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Pledging Zero Carbon Emissions by 2030 or 2050: Does it Matter?

Pledging Zero Carbon Emissions by 2030 or 2050: Does it Matter?

We now have two responses to the climate emergency battling it out among House Democrats, the “aggressive” 2030 target for net zero emissions folded into the Green New Deal and a more “moderate” 2050 target for the same, just announced by a group of mainstream legislators.  How significant is this difference?  Does where you stand on climate policy depend on whether your policy has a 2030 or 2050 checkpoint?

I say no.  Neither target has any more than symbolic value, and what the government does or doesn’t do to prevent a klimapocalypse (can we use this interlingual word?) won’t depend on which one gets chosen.

Endpoint targets have no constraining power at all.  A 2030 target won’t be met or unmet until 2030, and by then it will be too late.  Same, and worse, for a 2050 target.  Moreover, the whole target idea is based on a misconception of how carbon emissions work.  The CO2 we pump into the atmosphere will remain for several human generations; it accumulates, and the sum of the carbon we emit this year plus next plus the one after and so on is what will determine how much climate change we and our descendants will have to endure.  (The relationship between our emissions and the earth system’s response is complex and may embody tipping points due to feedback effects.)  Every additional ton of carbon counts the same, whether it occurs today or just before some arbitrary target date.

What we need instead is a carbon budget, an announced total quantity of emissions we intend to hold ourselves to, starting right now and continuing through the end of the century.  That way, whether we’re living up to our pledge or scrapping it is put to us each year based on how quickly we’re using up our quota.  It sets the meter running now.

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Climate Chaos?

Dan here.  You will be reading more of him soon…David Zetland has contributed here on water issues via Aguanomics. He now publishes his blog The one-handed economist.  He is a native Californian who moved to Amsterdam several years ago. David is an assistant professor of political economy at Leiden University College, a liberal arts school located in The Hague. He teaches courses in social and business entrepreneurship, cooperation in the commons, and environmental, growth and development economics.

Here is a more informal piece on his newsletter:

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The Federal Deficit by Presidential Terms

Under Trump the federal deficit has rebounded to some 4.4 % of GDP  — it is the same whether you look at it quarterly or monthly data as this chart does.  The monthly estimate is calculated by Haver Analytics. So much for the tax cut paying for itself.

 

The shaded areas are by Presidential term, not of recessions as is usually the case.  Typically, Republicans leave office with a larger deficit than they inherited while Democrats leave with a smaller one, or a surplus. Of course, this is exactly what “starve the beast” calls for.

Federal Deficit each Presidential Term

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Bill Black says what if…

(Dan here… Via Real News Network, Bill Black discusses the what-ifs of President Trump’s policies in a spectacular contrast to current expectations…providing. a jumping off point from what we expect from the way it is framed now. I assume the complex interalationships of the wealthy elites (let us see how the Epstein case unwinds for another aspect) plays an important but not so well known role in this drama.  I find his thought his conclusions dismaying if even somewhat accurate.)

BILL BLACK: Sure. The question I ask in the article is why did Trump choose to be so spectacularly unpopular? Because had he done what he promised and had a true middle class tax cut that gave, for example, $5,000 a year to the typical middle class household, he would be spectacularly popular. And almost certainly they would have–the Republicans would have retained control of the House, and quite possibly they would have gained seats in the House. And of course they would have gained seats in the Senate. And Trump would be well positioned for re-election. He would have greatly expanded his base, and he would have paid off to his base, as well. And you know, convinced them that backing him was exactly the right thing.

And that’s the biggest thing. But also, if Trump had done what he promised and had a true infrastructure bill, where he spent $2 trillion on infrastructure, he would have divided the Democratic Party.

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Eliminate The Debt Ceiling

Eliminate The Debt Ceiling

Several days ago in WaPo, Catherine Rampell published a highly reasonable column calling for eliminating the century-old US debt ceiling, something no other nation has ever had, a position supported by a wide array of economists including such a conservative GOP stalwart as the recently deceased Martin Feldstein, a former CEA Chair for Reagan.  I have made numerous posts here on this in the past, but the issue is hot again as once again the debt ceiling is being rapidly approached.

The latest story is that the “adults in the room,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, may be very near an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, Reportedly Pelosi has been open to eliminating the ceiling, but in the current circumstances I certainly understand why she might be wanting to secure a two year agreement to preserve funding for social safety programs crazy right wingers want to use the debt ceiling issue to trash as well as holding off any shutdowns this fall.  This is what used to be known as “good government,” but in the current environment, even this apparently reasonable deal, which also has no non-economic sideshows involving abortion or whatever, may yet not pass.  Pelosi says it must be agreed to by tomorrow evening if it will get passed properly by Congress before they all go on leave and the government might run out of money in early September (corporate tax payments have been way down due to Trump tax law).  Eliminating the ceiling would avoid all this bs, but this is not the moment for that.

This is definitely a weird and unprecedented situation.  For over a century we have had this completely indefensible debt ceiling, which has been raised so many times it is not worth counting, and when the WH and Congress have been controlled by the same party, it has been no big deal, although obviously that is what we need to get rid of the damned thing.  However, historically, when there has been split partisan control the game has been the WH pushing raising the ceiling while the opposition party in Congress has made lots of complaining noises and often made demands for raising it.  The problem this time is that the major power broker of the administration, Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney, was part of the tea party fanatics in the House who when Obama was prez tried to block raising the ceiling.  Apparently at times he and Trump have indulged in fantasies that if there is a default he could personally control which agencies get funded and which do not.  This is not true, and maybe they are figuring it out, but Mulvaney has said nothing, and Trump must pass on this.

If he messes up the deal, it will be all his fault, as his own Treasury Secretary has cut it with the Congressional leader of the opposition party in the House, with reportedly the toadish GOP-controlled Senate ready to go along.  He may or may not have figured out that triggering a shutdown did not help him, but if he thinks triggering a default will not be worse, this will be a big mistake, to put it mildly.

Barkley Rosser

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House’s SECURE Act and the Senate’s RESA Act

Congress has been busily working on a much-needed way to improve Middle Class savings and growth over the span of their employment to boost their retirement.

Dueling bills to restructure IRAs and 401ks appear to be redundant. Better known as the “Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Act” (SECURE Act) H.R.1994 and the Senate has a similar bill, the “Retirement Enhancements and Savings Act” S.792 (RESA). Both bills were passed with bipartisan support.

For the ultra rich? A major outcome of the Trump tax bill were tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. Besides much of the resulting income increases going to 1% of the household taxpayers, the same 1% were given the ability to shelter large amounts of income in gifts to their heirs. It is a great time to be rich in income and have the ability to shelter it by making gifts of it to your heirs’ tax free!

A little history on why Congress might take this up

From 1979 to 2017, the average annual income for the 1% of the household taxpayers has increased 156%, the top 1 hundredth of 1% income increased 343%, and the average American’s income did not increase at all. In spite of increased education from 1970 when half of Americans 25 years and older had a high school degree compared to today when the proportion of Americans having a college degree tripled, income has been stagnant for much of America. Even with the increased education, as Nick Hanauer in a recent Atlantic on this topic stated, the “Education is Not Enough” or was not enough to build, to build a vibrant middle class. Nick is also reiterating what Tom Hertz said in 2006 in his article; “Understanding Mobility in America.”

“The first aspect is the question of intergenerational mobility, or the degree to which the economic success of children is independent of the economic status of their parents. The second aspect is the short-term question of the amount by which family incomes change from year to year. One very clear conclusion is children from low-income families have only a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of the income distribution versus children of the rich who have about a 22 percent chance.”

All the education in the world may not make a bit of difference in upward mobility as Nick and Tom Hertz concluded unless the income and the status is already there. A successful middle class with good income has to be present.

What Congress is doing.

The House passed the SECURE Act with an almost unanimous bipartisan 2nd vote. Prior to the first vote, Republican NC Representative Patrick McHenry made a motion for an affirmative vote (page H4147) stating they stand together against the anti-Semitic BDS movement. How this applies to the average citizen’s IRA is beyond me. It is a tagalong to the SECURE Act with the hope it would pass. It lost with 222 in opposition.

A few things about the House “Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Act (SECURE).

• It lengthens the amount of time a person can contribute to an IRA beyond 70.5 years of age.
• Raised the required minimum distribution (RMD) age to 72 from 70 1/2 years old.
• Increased the Safe Harbor percent from 10 to 15%.
• Allowed long-term, part-time employees to contribute.
• Put in place an small employer tax credit for enrollment.
• Revised how benefits are paid out to a non spousal from 5 to 10 years (page H4234).
• Allowed automatic enrollment.
• Etc.

“The House SECURE Act would eliminate the current rules allowing non-spousal IRA beneficiaries to use (stretch IRA) minimum distributions (RMDs) from an inherited account over their own lifetime (and potentially allow the funds to grow for decades). With the SECURE Act, all funds from an inherited IRA would have to be distributed to non spousal beneficiaries within 10 years of the IRA owner’s death (The rule would apply to inherited funds in a 401(k) account or other defined contribution plan, too.).”

Other than the elimination of the Stretch IRA, these changes were needed and they will improve the amounts accumulated for retirement. As I mentioned earlier, much of America has not incurred the same income increases as the 1% or the 1 tenth of 1% of the household taxpayers. Pre-inflation YOY income growth for non supervisory Labor has been ~3%. Subtract out inflation of 2% and income has grown by 1% for much of America not leaving a lot to put into a 401k. I am waiting for the next shoe to drop of increasing the age of when people can take SS.

The Senate RESA bill is similar in content except for a provision buried in it taking aim at the Middle Class. The Senate’s RESA Act shortens the time period for non-spousal beneficiary withdrawal who have inherited an IRA with greater than $400,000 (IRA, Roth IRA or 401k). RESA exempts the first $400,000 inherited to a life time of RMD withdrawals and then it forces beneficiaries to cash out over a 5-year period any amount greater than $400,000. It could have tax implications if the amount over $400,000 was large or one’s income tax bracket was high.

As one reader pointed out, many people with 401Ks have less than $400,000 in their accounts when they retire. Then too with little growth in income occurring (mentioned earlier), one can see why people are not saving for retirement and why there is less in their 401ks.

Under today’s Stretch IRA rules, heirs of IRA owners were allowed to extend the taxable distributions of an inherited IRA over their lifetime, hence being called “stretch IRAs.” The proposed Senate bill labeled RESA—allows $400,000 of aggregated IRAs to stretch per beneficiary, but chops the cash-out period down to five years for the balance greater than $400,000.

What are the implications in the Senate bill? As I said it affects non spousal beneficiaries of the heads of families who have accumulated money greater than $400,000 over their lifetime to pass on as inheritance to their families. Non-spousal beneficiaries on inheriting sums of money greater than $400,000 could have a substance portion of the inheritance taxed by Uncle Sam and also end up in a higher tax bracket as a result. Ok, I said it enough times.

Similar would hold true for the House bill which eliminates the stretch IRA, does not have an exemption for 400,000 of inheritance, and forces a beneficiary to use up inheritance funds in 10 years rather than a lifetime or RESA’s 5 years. The proposed Acts do not impact spousal beneficiaries or minor children named as beneficiaries until pf a majority age, children with disabilities, etc.

The forced 5 year annual distribution of these savings and retirement plans by beneficiaries is the primary revenue vehicle (taxes) of RESA. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa), who proposed the bill, said on the Senate floor recently that the RESA bill “is paid for” by this provision (as he takes his agricultural benefits resulting from tariffs).

No worries for the 1 percenters.

Back to the 1-percenters, Trump’s Tax Overhaul law doubles the estate-tax exemption to $22 million a couple and possibly avoiding taxes in dynasty trusts. The new law doubles the amount that can be passed to heirs without worrying about estate and gift taxes, to about $22 million for a married couple (redundant, I know). But the thresholds are in place only until 2025, and the ultra-rich are turning to a key tool — the dynasty trust — to secure the financial futures of their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond.

Assured wealth and income giving descendants a place on the ladder of mobility as being necessary to move upwards on that same ladder by Tom Hertz and Nick Hanaeur.

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WARNING: another “debt ceiling debacle” is looming, and could cause nearly immediate recession

WARNING: another “debt ceiling debacle” is looming, and could cause nearly immediate recession

It’s time to start to get seriously worried about another “debt ceiling debacle.” In 2011, the GOP refused to authorize a “clean” debt ceiling hike. The hike in the debt ceiling, for those who may not know, is necessary for the US government to pay debts that *it has already incurred.*

In 2011, as a result of the impasse, US creditworthiness was downgraded from AAA to AA. Consumer confidence plummeted:

Note the next largest spike downward occurred during the government shutdown at the beginning of this year.

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