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Archive for June, 2009

Wednesday was a rare day in Washington: the Federal government was actually cash-flow positive.

The reason, of course, is that ten major banks repaid $68 billion in TARP money. Smaller banks had previously repaid about $2 billion, so Wednesday’s action lifted total repayments to $70 billion, almost 30% of TARP support to individual banks.

TARP Peace Sign(For those who don’t get the title, this pie chart reminds me of a peace sign.)

As noted in my previous post on TARP, that means that two firms — Citigroup and Bank of America — now account for the majority of outstanding TARP support to banks.  Citigroup has received $50 billion in three transactions, and B of A has received $45 billion in two transactions. Investments in all other banks now total “only” $79 billion.

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This morning, the Wall Street Journal editorial page questioned the oft-alleged link between health care costs and the competitiveness of American business. Echoing Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer, it referred to that argument as “schlock.” At the same time, everyone interested in health policy is still absorbing the trillion-dollar price tag that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put on the Kennedy health bill.

I’d like to point out that these two issues – any link between health care and competitiveness and the estimated cost of health reform – are closely related. The way that CBO estimated the budget impacts of the Kennedy bill implies that health care has little effect on competitiveness. If you take the contrary view, that health care is a big deal for American competitiveness, then you should also believe that CBO has underestimated the difficulty of paying for health reform.

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I must confess that I find Jim Cramer entertaining and, on occasion, even illuminating.  The key is to Tivo his show and fast forward through the less-than-illuminating parts.  That can trim an hour show down to ten minutes or less.

The highlight of Tuesday night’s show was Cramer’s declaration that the housing market had reached bottom. His evidence?  Tuesday’s data on housing starts, which came in stronger than expected.  That prompted me to take a closer look at the data. Here’s a chart of single-family housing starts since 1970 (when the data begin):

Housing StartsAs the chart shows, Cramer may be on to something, at least as far as starts are concerned.  Single-family starts bounced around the 360,000 level (at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate) in January through March, rose to 373,000 in April, and hit 401,000 in May.  It’s been more than two years since we’ve seen starts increase that much.

That’s good news, but I think we should still expect further pain in housing.

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CBO on the Kennedy Health Bill

On Monday afternoon, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a preliminary analysis of the Affordable Health Choices Act, commonly known as the Kennedy Health Bill.  The draft bill language was distributed last week by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) which Senator Kennedy chairs.

Based on work by CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), the analysis provides preliminary estimates of the budget impact of the bill as well as its impacts on health insurance coverage.  Some highlights:

1.  The analysis is preliminary. CBO and JCT have not yet had time to analyze every provision in the bill, some provisions remain in flux, and new provisions may be added.  In short, health policy is a moving target.

2. The bill would have a net budgetary cost of slightly more than $1 trillion over the next ten years (2010 – 2019). To get the bill passed, its proponents will have to find a way to offset most or all of those costs.  That’s why President Obama and others have been talking about various spending reductions (e.g., reduced payment rates for some providers) and revenue increases (e.g., reducing the benefit of itemized deductions) in recent days.  As a political matter, the offsets may turn out to be more difficult than the core policy.

3. The bill would increase Federal spending by $1.3 trillion, which would be partially offset by about $260 billion in higher tax revenues; the net cost is slightly more than $1 trillion. Spending would increase primarily because the Federal government would provide subsidies for individuals and families to purchase health insurance through insurance exchanges (also known as gateways). Revenues would increase because fewer workers would receive employer-sponsored health insurance (which is not subject to income and payroll taxes).  Those workers would still be compensated at market rates, but more of their compensation would be in taxable forms (e.g., wages and salaries).

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When policy debates heat up, it’s not enough for policy analysts to run the numbers and for political analysts to count votes and gauge the influence of affected interests. You also need communicators to craft a crisp, clean message. One that resonates with listeners consciously and, if possible, subconsciously.

Every word counts. As a result, one of the key communication battlegrounds is very basic: What do you call the policy?  If you can win the naming battle, you are a long way toward winning the policy war.

Having participated in a number of these debates, I would like to offer the following conjecture, which I will boldly characterize as a rule:

The Rule of Three:  If debate about an economic policy is sufficiently important, that policy will have three different names: one used by proponents, one used by opponents, and one used by non-partisan agencies that don’t want to take sides.

That rule is asserting itself today in the debate over reforming the health care system, much as it did in the debate over Social Security a few years ago.

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It’s no surprise that Americans have been cutting back in the face of job losses, pay reductions, and shrunken retirement accounts. One result has been a sharp increase in the saving rate, which has averaged more than 4.5% this year after flirting with 0% in recent years.

A second result is a rebound in doing-it-yourself.  Home-cooking has replaced some restaurant visits, for example, and more Americans are picking up a hammer rather than calling a handyman.

This morning’s Washington Post provides another example of such rising home production — a boom in vegetable gardening:

Seed producers and merchants across the United States are reporting the same phenomenon of crazy demand and even some shortages, especially of staples like beans, potatoes and lettuces. Sales of seed packets picked up last year and have grown significantly again this season, which runs from January to June.

Industry observers attribute the boost in sales to a concern for food safety following outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisonings and a desire by consumers to be a part of the local food movement. Michelle Obama’s new vegetable garden at the White House may also be inspiring people, they said.

But the primary reasons, they speculate, are the recession, income loss and the need for people to lower their grocery bills by growing their own. (my emphasis)

Anecdotes like this have a number of larger implications:

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Better GDP Data

Every five years, the fine people at the Bureau of Economic Analysis update the way that they measure the U.S. economy.  Yesterday, the BEA released a helpful document that outlines some of the upcoming improvements.  Among the things that caught my eye:

  • BEA will employ plain English, rather than bureaucratese, to describe the three vintages of GDP estimates, which are reported one, two, and three months after the end of each quarter. Those vintages are currently known as the Advance estimate, the Preliminary Estimate, and Final estimate. The latter two names always struck me as nonsensical: “Preliminary” sounds like it should come before “Advance,” and “Final” estimates aren’t really final. Hence the new names: the Advance Estimate, the Second Estimate, and the Third Estimate.  A definite improvement.

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Some good items elaborating on topics I’ve discussed in the past week:

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The TARP continues to grab headlines, so I thought it would be useful to summarize how the TARP money has been used to date.

As you may recall, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) created a pool of $700 billion that the Treasury Secretary could use to stabilize the financial sector.  The following chart summarizes the TARP transactions that have already occurred (dark blue) and any additional funds that Treasury has announced for each program (grayish):

Tracking the TARP

As the chart illustrates, Treasury has announced plans for about $645 billion of the TARP money, of which $435 billion has been committed to specific transactions.  But the most interesting facts involve the specific programs:

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Last week the Federal Reserve issued a its annual overview of bank profits and balance sheets.  The bulletin overflows with charts and data about the health of the U.S. banking system.  Here are a few charts that particularly caught my eye:

The well-known collapse of the securitization market:

Fed MBS and ABS

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