Barney Frank Admits the Truth

August 21, 2010 at 6:06 pm

This is beyond amazing.

Barney Frank, co-author of the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crisis, calls for the elimination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!

“August 21, 2010

Barney Frank Comes Home to the Facts

By Larry Kudlow

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? In politics, the answer is usually no. Most elected officials cling to their ideological biases, despite the real-world facts that disprove their theories time and again. Most have no common sense, and most never acknowledge that they were wrong.

But one huge exception to this rule is Democrat Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

For years, Frank was a staunch supporter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government housing agencies that played such an enormous role in the financial meltdown that thrust the economy into the Great Recession. But in a recent CNBC interview, Frank told me that he was ready to say goodbye to Fannie and Freddie.

“I hope by next year we’ll have abolished Fannie and Freddie,” he said. Remarkable. And he went on to say that “it was a great mistake to push lower-income people into housing they couldn’t afford and couldn’t really handle once they had it.” He then added, “I had been too sanguine about Fannie and Freddie.”

When I asked Frank about a long-term phase-out plan that would shrink Fannie and Freddie portfolios and mortgage-purchase limits, and merge the agencies into the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) for a separate low-income program that would get government out of middle-income housing subsidies, he replied, “Larry, that, I think, is exactly what we should be doing.”

Frank also said that any federal housing guarantees should be transparently priced and put on budget. But he added that the private sector must be encouraged to re-enter housing finance just as the government gradually withdraws from it.

Some would say Frank’s mea culpa is politically motivated in advance of an election where bailout nation and big government are public enemies No. 1 and 2. Of course, poll after poll shows that the $150 billion Fan-Fred bailout, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates could rise to $400 billion, is detested by voters and taxpayers everywhere.

In fact, these failed government agencies are in such bad shape that they can’t even pay Uncle Sam the dividends owed under the conservatorship deal reached two years ago. That’s right. In order to pay a $1.8 billion dividend on Treasury department stock, Fan and Fred had to borrow $1.5 billion from — you guessed it — the Treasury.

Then there’s this head-scratching detail: In an absolutely outrageous move last Christmas Eve, President Obama signed off on $42 million in bonuses for the top 12 Fannie and Freddie executives, including $6 million apiece for the two CEOs. (Hat tip to attorney Stephen B. Meister.)

Voters are on to all this. So politics may indeed be motivating Barney Frank’s turnaround. But I’m going to credit him with more than that.

I think Chairman Frank watched these government behemoths descend into hell and then witnessed the financial catastrophe that ensued. And I think he has come to realize that the whole system of federal affordable-housing mandates that was central to the real-estate collapse — including the mandates on Fannie and Freddie and the myriad bad decisions made by private banks and other lenders in response to the government’s overreach — simply needs to be abolished.

Noteworthy is the fact that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has come to a similar conclusion. Geithner told a recent Washington conference on the future of housing finance that the system needs fundamental change. He said, “We will not support a return to the system where private gains are subsidized by taxpayer losses.”

Of course, the withdrawal of housing markets from government programs, and the onset of a reinvigorated private sector for providing mortgages, must be done gradually over a period of years. But it is possible that the federal mortgage madness is coming to an end.

We will have to see if Congress really does say goodbye to Fan and Fred, as Republicans like Jeb Hensarling are advocating. Equally important, we will have to see if the federal affordable-housing mandates created by Congress and implemented by HUD and banking regulators are similarly repealed.

And then we will have to see if reformed federally guaranteed housing insurance includes larger down payments, stricter underwriting standards and greater reliance on private capital markets, lenders and insurers. In other words, we need to see if housing will be restored to a market-based system and removed from the government-backed system that has proved so disastrous.

The broader lesson here is that government planning doesn’t work. And if left to their own devices, market processes will work. I don’t know if President Obama gets this. But my hat goes off to a man who does, Chairman Barney Frank.”

July Hayek Dinner: State of the Economy

July 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Our thanks to Tom Cargill for the excellent presentation last evening and to Jerry O’Driscoll for arranging the meeting in my absence.

Jerry opened with a snapshot on employment trends from selected countries since 2008. The US is at the bottom of the pile and trending down!

Tom picked it up from there with a quick look back on the first decade of this century focusing on four remarkable points: 1. US homeland is vulnerable to attack since 911; the first since the war of 1812. 2. Critics of the market are strong despite the increase in standard of living in the last quarter century. 3. Failures of the welfare state notwithstanding, the US is moving toward socialism. And, 4. the political force toward socialism can be traced to our current great recession.

Technically, the recession is still in full force. The question is what kind of recovery will come, weak flat “U” or “J,” or a double dip.  Ten key points are apparent:

  • the US has not seen more economic, financial, and political distress since the Great Depression.
  • our recession was not caused by market failure but mainly by government failure, both monetary with low rates too long and fiscally with housing policies of Fannie-Freddie.
  • yet, the public hypnotized by Obama rhetoric believes market failure was the cause.
  • admittedly, the $700 billion financial bailout was necessary to prevent a liquidity crisis.
  • but the five “stimulus” packages ignored history and had a negative effect, negative Keynesian multiplier, on the GDP. Wasteful spending directed to leftist programs.
  • while we now see some GDP growth, the private sector is not creating jobs and budget pressures will force a decline in public sector employment.
  • the private market is not creating jobs due to the great uncertainty of the rules of the game; we are going to state directed allocation of resources not market directed allocation.
  • Adam Smith calls man an economic animal, “truck, barter, and exchange” but the uncertainty of the rules creates inefficiencies that lower growth potential.
  • the economic game becomes even more uncertain because of the greater role of government; what happens to the chess game if it is announced in the middle of the game that there will be a rule change; Obama is regularly announcing rule changes to come!
  • QED, the most likely “recovery” is a flat “J” over the next several years with a chance of a double dip.

Tom now thinks the chance of a double dip is 50/50, an increase from his earlier thinking. Potential economic shocks which will push toward a double dip are: the dramatic increase in taxes next year, and the questionable stability of the European Union. The current divergence in fiscal policy between the overspending US and the rapid austerity in Europe may well be a third negative shock. Tom concluded saying that only a change in the US congress and administration will offer hope of a solid recovery.

We thank Beth Powers and her crew for her comments and patriotic efforts with LibertyInAmerica.org. Please consider a donation to help continue the fine bus treck.

John Dunn provided a positive report on Yucca mountain efforts, see NV4CFE.org.

Finally, our thanks to Mike Herring for treating the group to dinner and drinks, this an an inducement to make contributions to Sharron Angle’s campaign to retire Dirty Harry.

US Deficit-Debt and the European Debt Quiz

May 27, 2010 at 9:18 pm

It’s rare to see a thoughtful economic comment in the liberal NYT, but David Einhorn penned one yesterday with Easy Money, Hard Truths. In it he suggests that our grandchildren will not need to face the day of reckoning caused by our unmanageable deficits and debt simply because we will face it ahead of them. The future, though, is no less grim for them.

“Public sector jobs used to offer greater job security but lower pay. Not anymore. In 2008, according to the Cato Institute, the average federal civilian salary with benefits was $119,982, compared with $59,909 for the average private sector worker; the disparity has grown enormously over the last decade.

“The question we need to ask is this: If we don’t change direction, how long can we travel down this path without having a crisis? The answer lies in two critical issues. First, how long will the capital markets continue to finance government borrowings that may be refinanced but never repaid on reasonable terms? And second, to what extent can obligations that are not financed through traditional fiscal means be satisfied through central bank monetization of debts — that is, by the printing of money?”

A rather humorous take on the question is given by a couple of Aussie satirists, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, who take on a timely quiz show Q&A on the European debt crisis.

Remember those last words, “laughing as you sink!”

SEC Regulation Fails to Stimulate–Staff Opts For Porn

April 24, 2010 at 10:35 pm

During one of the worst financial crises, while Madoff was making his millions and Wall Street making its billions, senior SEC officials making over $200,000 per year were using government computers to watch porn over the internet!

Obama and the Democrats want to give them more regulatory authority and greater responsibility. So whether it’s “too big to fail,” bail out slush fund, consumer protection agency or general total control of financial services, regulatory incompetence is the issue.

Dodd and company ignore one of the primary causes of the financial debacle, Fannie and Freddie incompetence, and proceed to give more regulatory authority to our failing regulators.

We over pay government employees to watch porn while the financial system collapses. What’s not to like about big government?  Thank you Hussein Obama.

Monthly Reno Hayek Symposium Dinner

April 21, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Last evenings Symposium Dinner was a double-header first with an excellent presentation by Howard Fletcher whom Bob Skach sponsored for the dinner. Howard brought his extensive credentials in international business to bear in discussing the current economy from a big picture, 50,000 foot perspective. Detailed statistics backed up the  main lesson, that our over leverage, over consumption, and under savings caused this “balance sheet” recession. Different from an “inventory” recession because it is caused by inflated values yet constant high debt levels, while the inventory recession is a simple temporary unbalance of supply and demand. The problem here is the lingering nature of the downturn and slow recovery, in this case exacerbated by government mistakes. (What’s new!) Again in this case given the multiple deficit levels, concomitant debt and horrendous unfunded liabilities at all government levels the future is dire short and near term. But Howard does forecast a start-stop recovery  in the second half of the decade.

Our second speaker, Tom Cargill presented his provocative thoughts on the Fed’s anticipated exit from its unprecedented free money policy. This both in terms of zero interest rates and historic, dramatic expansion of money supply (M2). The $12 Trillion of deficits and debt was shockingly illustrated with Federal Reserve graphs. Tom made the point that the political pressure to keep the status quo will not abate. Next, the so-called “independence” of the Fed is ofttimes illusory in face of that pressure. Thus the only issue is the Fed’s political will to use its ample tools to start removing the punchbowl from the party.

After the presentations those in attendance undertook a lively exchange which was at times very telling, at least in the sense that each participant knew what the conclusions were. We face a dismal immediate future. Leaders from both parties tend to get bit by Potomac fever and avoid proper but hard decisions. There is a good chance of a revolution in the two upcoming election cycles as a strong majority of the electorate resent big government. The role of the government is the issue. Given agreement that it is too all-consuming, the question is how to effectively keep restricting and diminishing it.

I want to thank Howard and Tom for a thought provoking evening and great fodder for future discussions.

Underwater But Not In Default….Is That Good?

March 12, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Today’s WSJ front page trumpets, Americans Pare Down Debt, and proceeds to tout the economic benefits of the “de-leveraging,” to wit: the consumer will have more money with which to buy things, resuming its role as driver of the economy. U.S. household debt fell by 1.7% a first, but this occurred largely by default. Is that good? Certainly de-leveraging by prepaying is good, just as increasing savings is good. The bubbled consumer was, and still is, over-leveraged and under-saved! But is a raft of foreclosures and the concomitant drop in real estate values good?

The other side of the story is that 11.3 million homeowner mortgages, 24%, of the total are underwater. Nevada has 70% sucking for air, Arizona 51%, Florida 48%, Michigan 39%, and California 35%. (See CNNMoney report.) This will double to 22 million mortgages, 48% of the total by 2011 according to a Reuters report. This means that a lot of people are still paying the monthly payments on the underwater mortgages. Alternatively, it means that the lenders have not filed notices of default and started foreclosures. Is this situation good?

Under most state’s laws, borrowers can walk away from mortgages with no personal liability; hand the keys to the bank, which has no recourse against the borrower, and then go out and rent for less than the mortgage payments. Why aren’t more of the 11.3 million borrowers taking advantage of this?

Kevin Hassett penned an intriguing article in the March 8th edition of National Review, Mortgage Mortality, that attempts to answer that conundrum. He posits two alternatives:

First, in the long range it is uneconomic to default on that underwater mortgage. The default has immediate adverse consequences: the credit rating gets hammered raising the price of future loans, the loss of future equity and potential profit when housing values recover, and the loss of tax deductions on mortgage interest. These adverse consequences outweigh the benefit of default.

Second, there is a branch of economic literature which suggests that “Americans’ morality is driving their default decisions.” A recent survey by Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales of homeowners about their willingness to default found out that 80% said that it would be “morally wrong” to strategically default on their mortgages! But caution, these results reversed if the respondent already knew someone who had defaulted.

So maybe it’s not “morality” that keeps homeowners paying the underwater loans, but social stigma or the lack thereof. Hassett cites Dan Ariely’s tome, Predictably Irrational, to buttress this “social stigma” concept which goes back to Adam Smith. Ariely relates a controlled test taking experiment at MIT, where two groups take the same math test, with one given more of an opportunity to cheat by self-reporting results; however, in the self-reporting group, half had to also list 10 books they had read, and half had to list as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. The results: cheating occurred in the self-reporting group and to a greater extent in the non-Ten Commandment half of that group!

So do we have a growing ticking time bomb of underwater mortgages? Are the inflated values of those mortgages on bank and investor balance sheets going to create another financial crisis? Is our government doing all it can to hide the problem and support artificial values on the backs of people who can’t afford their mortgages? Should we forecast several Japan-like lost decades or hope that the bomb explodes?

I have no answers but it appears prudent to be well aware of the problems.

Tom Motherway

“Stimulus or Sedative?” Thomas Sowell Never Disappoints

March 9, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Sowell opens his succinct RCP post with an Abe Lincoln story: President Lincoln asked an audience how many legs a dog has, if you call the tail a leg? Some shouted “Five” but Lincoln corrected them saying that the answer was four. “The fact that you call a tail a leg does not make it a leg!”

The professor uses that tale to drive home the truth about the “stimulus” and the “jobs bill.” The idea behind stimulus, for example, is to get investors to invest, lenders to lend, and employers to employ. Prime the pump, put a little bit of water in to get the well flowing. That little bit of water, the government money, was never meant to restore the economy by itself, but to get the private business sector going. What has happened?

  • After the Bush-started stimulus in 2008–business spending fell by 28%.
  • Durable goods spending fell by 22%.
  • Four months after the TARP billions–large TARP banks made 23% fewer loans.
  • The velocity of money fell faster than at any time in the last half century.
  • The WSJ reports the “sharpest decline in lending since 1942.”

Why would banks lend when, “from the White House to Capitol Hill, politicians are coming up with all sorts of bright ideas for borrowers not to have to pay back what they borrowed…”  Why would investors invest when a substantial number of the consumers are unemployed? Why would employers employ when faced with higher taxes and more Obamacare mandates? In short, the outlook is uncertain and certainly more big government than private sector oriented.

Sowell points out that none of this is new: during the Great Depression of the 1930s, money velocity, lending, investing and employment were all lower than they were in the 1920s. The anti-buisness rhetoric and anti-business policies did not inspire any more confidence then than they do now. “In an atmosphere where nobody knows what the federal government is going to come up with next, people tend to hang on to their money until they have some idea of what the rules of the game are going to be.”

Economists have estimated that Roosevelt’s New Deal prolonged the depression by several years, how long will Barack Hussein Obama, Reid and Pelosi prolong our current difficulties?

Tom Motherway

the Spending Limitations Amendment would eventually put us on a sustainable path

March 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Even without any more stimulus, bailouts, Obamacare, or cap and trade the US is on a course to bankruptcy. Consider:

  • In the past five years federal spending has increased 42% to nearly 25% of the economy, the highest level since World War II.
  • The deficit has exploded from $318 Billion in 2005 to $1.4 Trillion, a 400+% increase, equal to the entire accumulation of debt from George Washington to Bill Clinton.

As James Antle points out in his American Spectator article, Amending the Spending, “this will be remembered as a golden era of fiscal responsibility compared to what is to come.” Again I emphasize, this is even without Obamacare, added stimulus, bailouts, etc. With demographic certitude, as baby boomers retire, social security, medicare, and medicaid as we know them will be bankrupt. THE PUBLIC DEBT WILL EXCEED 110% OF THE ECONOMY IN 2026 AND CLIMB PAST 200% BY 2040! Again, this is without Obamacare, added stimulus, bailouts, etc.!

Three congressmen, Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and John Campbell (R-Calif.) have proposed a constitutional amendment to cap federal spending at 20% of the U.S. economy. The limit would be waived only when an official declaration of war is in effect or by two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress. 20% is the historic average share of the economy consumed by the federal government.

The backers admit that Republicans are just as spendthrift as Democrats. They are not naive about getting it passed, 5000 amendments have been offered and only 27 enacted! But the mood of the country seems to be shifting to a serious concern for the current fiscal insanity.

If they’re correct, and the amendment has some legs, the country can get off the current unsustainable course and onto a path that’s fiscally sustainable.

Tom Motherway

What’s Obama Up To?

March 5, 2010 at 8:19 pm

On paper Obama appears to be a smart guy and reasonably well informed. I suspect he knows:

  • We face $1.4 Trillion annual deficits for the next decade.
  • Our current national debt is $12.3 Trillion and will grow by $1 Trillion a year.
  • Estimated unfunded liabilities from social security and medicare are $107 Trillion.
  • States with aggregate deficits of $350 Billion, debt of $1.9 Trillion, and unfunded liabilities of $1.4 Trillion are asking for federal handouts.
  • Unemployment is 9+% with private sector growth stalled.

Why then would he promote a radical takeover of healthcare with 10 year costs of $2.3 Trillion that adds $1.86 Trillion to the deficit over the next 20 years, that creates employment taxes and mandates, each discouraging private sector employment, and that fails to solve the demographically certain failure of medicare, social security and medicaid? We’ve proven our inability to handle two, no three if you include medicaid, major entitlements, why add another? And why would he risk his party’s control of Congress and his own ability to govern to attain this goal that a majority of Americans don’t want?

Obama is smart enough to know that Obamacare will exacerbate the financial straights of the United States. It’s uncertainty will decrease private sector employment. It’s taxes will decrease private capital for investment. It will cede financial and technological leadership to other countries. In short, we will be worse off tomorrow than we are today.  Why would he risk that…want that?

It is clear that he knowingly intends to drive us further to the brink. It is also clear that given his apparent intelligence he has an end-game in mind. Take our admitted crisis, you know the “never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste” kind, explode it into a gigantic, off-the-clff catastrophe, then come up with a one-of-a-kind, popular solution that involves “shared pain” and if we are all lucky, someday “shared gain.”  Call it a Cloward-Piven Strategy on steroids. (See: Cloward-Piven Strategy: Is It Obama’s? and references cited therein.)

As Larry Kudlow said in NRO, One Giant Government Leap Backwards,” One of the most galling features of this plan is a taxpayer-subsidized government-insurance entitlement for people earning up to 400 percent above the poverty line, or nearly $100,000 for a family of four. In other words, a middle-class health-care entitlement that will add millions of people to the federal dole. It’s all too reminiscent of the political dictum of the old New Dealer Harry Hopkins: tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.”

So will Obama’s “Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission” turn out to be the VAT Commission with a European 12% sales tax on top of the income tax, excise tax, etc. And those on top of the various state sales, income and property taxes? All this to finance BIG GOVERNMENT? If so, we will then all have the advantage of being “in the same boat,” “equal,” and “happy” in an ever declining country and economy.

So for the literarily inclined, Obama wants us on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom where we will encounter Orwell’s Animal Farm with 1984‘s Big Brother in control. As Obama recently said in response to a push-back, “we won the election.”  And win the next election and the next, he aims to do with the creation of more and more dependency on him and less and less individual responsibility.

I won’t be around to witness the outcome but I hope the next generation will become informed and engaged, lest our grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffer horrible consequences.

Tom Motherway

IT’S THE SPENDING, Stupid!

February 20, 2010 at 1:40 pm

John Mauldin’s letter this week follows last week’s Greek tragedy with the “pain in Spain” and future of the Euro. How long will the Germans support the spendthrifts?

He then again brings the same spendthrift problem back across the pond concluding with a reference to Dan Henniger’s WSJ February 18th Wonderland column, It’s the Spending, America. Dan treats the runaway spending which has only accelerated under Obama, Reid, and Pelosi. This despite economists of all stripes saying it is unsustainable. I wanted to comment on the column but couldn’t get the graphic. John Mauldin supplied it and here it is:


“We’ve been grinding toward this moment since 1932. It has always been a question of political physics just how high government could go in the U.S. before it arched over and down. Now we have Washington, California, New York, New Jersey and others all arriving at the same time of reckoning. And all for the same reason, public spending by the public sector—its politicians, its unions, its massive schools of pilot fish.”

This blog has previously railed against Dual Bankruptcies-Federal and State which will indeed occur unless the entitlement spending is reined in and reined in hard. Obama’s deficit reduction commission will wind up a side show unless Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are substantially cut, painful as that definitely will be.

Social Security should be means tested and stopped for the upper quartile earners after payments into the system have been returned with some small rate of interest. Cost of living increases should not occur unless the CPI growth exceeds 5% for the year. Retirement age should be lengthened for those under 50 and premiums be increased. Medicaid should be limited to cover only serious illnesses not every sniffle and scratch. Medicare should be means tested and again limited to serious illnesses not every sniffle and scratch; premiums should be increased.

Political will and guts is hard to come by these days. But is seems we should at least be able to expect the current administration to cease its expansion of spending, Obamacare being the prime example followed closely by cap and trade.

Hey, Barack, Harry, Nancy–what part of UNSUSTAINABLE don’t you understand?

Tom Motherway