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“Christie Runs Into Budgeting And Bullying Trouble”: How Often Do You Have To Be Wrong Before You’re Dismissed Governor?

The speculation about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) plans two years from now is not only premature, it’s also obscuring the fact that the governor has some pressing problems right now.

A major Wall Street credit-rating agency downgraded New Jersey’s debt again Thursday, unnerved by “both the scale and belatedness” of an $807 million budget gap disclosed this week by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration.

The action by Fitch Ratings followed a similar ratings cut last month by Standard & Poor’s. Earlier this week, Moody’s Investors Service called the shortfall a “credit negative development,” forewarning that yet another downgrade may be coming.

The Fitch analysts wrote that the downgrade “incorporates the state’s ongoing budget strain created by overly optimistic revenue forecasts, a multitude of long-term spending pressures, and the state’s repeated reliance on one-time solutions to achieve budgetary balance.”

The more a state’s debt is downgraded, the more difficult it is for the state to borrow for capital improvements.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D), the legislature’s budget committee chairman, told the Star-Ledger, “Credit-rating agencies have no faith in the fiscal health of the state of New Jersey because year in and year out we miss our revenue targets. If we continue at this pace, we’re going to end up in junk-bond status. This is crazy.”

And how does this relate to Christe? Because it was the governor who was warned about “overly optimistic revenue forecasts,” and instead of taking them seriously, Christie bullied those who told him the truth.

Andrew Prokop had a good report on this the other day.

“Governor Christie’s predictions for tax collections have missed the mark,” the Bergen Record’s John Reitmeyer writes today, and the state now has an $800 million budget shortfall. It’s only the latest in a series of optimistic budget estimates by Christie that have been disproven by reality.

Economic forecasting is hard, and there isn’t malfeasance behind every missed projection. But what makes this particularly embarrassing for Christie is that, when the state’s top budget wonk criticized his past forecasts, Christie responded by insulting him and suggesting that he be fired.

Almost immediately after Christie released his budget projections for 2014 last year, they seemed wildly unrealistic. But as the governor geared up for re-election, he didn’t want to increase taxes or make sharp spending cuts, so Christie assured everyone that a revenue windfall was on the way.

David Rosen, the chief budget officer for the last 30 years for New Jersey’s Office of Legislative Services, tried to explain that the governor’s projections simply weren’t reliable. The governor, true to form, attacked.

Weeks later, Christie went further, going after Rosen personally in what the Star-Ledger called “a fiery 20-minute tirade.” He called Rosen, widely respected among legislators of both parties for years, a “Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers” and asked, “Why would anybody with a functioning brain believe this guy? … How often do you have to be wrong to finally be dismissed?” Christie went on: “It should be humiliating to him. Nobody in this state believes David Rosen, anymore, nobody. And nobody should. He’s so wrong, for so long, that his credibility is now gone.”

But Rosen wasn’t wrong; Christie was. In fact, Rosen’s restrained criticism of the governor’s numbers was too kind – Christie was even further from reality than Rosen predicted.

In other words, the Republican governor was (a) wrong; (b) irresponsible with state finances; and (c) tried to bully the one credible figure who told Christie the truth he didn’t want to hear. And now New Jersey is struggling to deal with the consequences.

Two weeks ago, at a town-hall forum, the governor demanded proof that he’d created a culture of intimidation in Trenton. The evidence  really isn’t that hard to come by.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 5, 2014

May 6, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Virtuous Cycle”: At Least The Federal Reserve Is Not Obsessing About The Budget Deficit

With deficit hawks circling overhead, the responsibility for creating jobs has fallen by default to Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. Last week the Fed said it expected to keep interest rates near zero through mid 2015 in order to stimulate employment.

Two cheers.

The problem is, low interest rates alone won’t do it. The Fed has held interest rates near zero for several years without that much to show for it. A smaller portion of American adults is now working than at any time in the last thirty years.

So far, the biggest beneficiaries of near-zero interest rates haven’t been average Americans. They’ve been too weighed down with debt to borrow more, and their wages keep dropping. And because they won’t and can’t borrow more, businesses haven’t had more customers. So there’s been no reason for businesses to borrow to expand and hire more people, even at low interest rates.

The biggest winners from the Fed’s near-zero rates have been the big banks, which are now assured of two or more years of almost free money. The big banks haven’t used the money to refinance mortgages – why should they when they can squeeze more money out of homeowners by keeping them at higher rates? Instead, they’ve used the almost free money to make big bets on derivatives. If the bets continue to go well, the bankers will continue to make a bundle. If the bets sour, well, you know what happens then. Watch your wallets.

The truth is, low interest rates won’t boost the economy without an expansive fiscal policy that makes up for the timid spending of consumers and businesses. Until more Americans have more money in their pockets, government spending has to fill the gap.

On this score, the big news isn’t the Fed’s renewed determination to keep interest rates low. The big news is global lender’s desperation to park their savings in Treasury bills. The euro is way too risky, the yen is still a basket case, China is slowing down and no one knows what will happen to its currency, and you’d have to be crazy to park your savings in Russia.

It’s a match made in heaven – or should be. Because foreigners are so willing to buy T-bills, America can borrow money more cheaply than ever. We could use it to put Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges and schools, cleaning up our national parks and city parks and playgrounds, and doing everything else that needs doing that we’ve neglected for too long.

This would put money in people’s pockets and encourage them to take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates to borrow even more. And their spending, in turn, would induce businesses to expand and create more jobs. A virtuous cycle.

Yet for purely ideological reasons we’re heading in the opposite direction. The federal government is cutting back spending. It’s not even helping state and local governments — which continue to lay off teachers, fire fighters, social workers, and police officers.

Worst of all, we’re facing a so-called “fiscal cliff” next year when $109 billion in federal spending cuts automatically go into effect. The Congressional Budget Office warns this may push us into recession – which will cause more joblessness and make the federal budget deficit even larger relative to the size of the economy. That’s the austerity trap Europe has fallen into.

Mitt Romney has been criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more to avoid the cliff, but he seems to forget that congressional Republicans brought it on when they refused to raise the debt ceiling. They then created the cliff as a fall-back mechanism. Romney’s vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, chair of the House budget committee, voted for it.

It’s a mindless gimmick that presumes our biggest problem is the deficit, when even the Fed understands our biggest problem right now is unemployment. Yet even the nation’s credit-rating agencies have bought into the mindlessness. Last week Moody’s said it would likely downgrade U.S. government bonds if Congress and the White House don’t come up with a credible plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. (Standard & Poor’s has already downgraded U.S. debt.)

Hello? Can we please stop obsessing about the federal budget deficit? Repeat after me: America’s #1 economic problem is unemployment. Our #1 goal should be to restore job growth. Period.

The Federal Reserve Board understands this. And at least it’s trying. But it can’t succeed on its own. Global lenders are giving us a way out. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

 

By: Robert Reich, Robert Reich Blog, September 15, 2012

September 16, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Standard And Poor’s Goes Tea Party

Big headlines for a Friday night: “U.S. Loses Top Credit Rating!” Yes, as most now know, Standard & Poor’s went ahead with its warnings of the past weeks and downgraded the sovereign debt of the United States government from its pristine triple-A to a still stellar but one notch less so AA+. And after a miserable week in global equity markets that was almost as ugly as it gets, a week that began with the conclusion of a universally reviled debt-ceiling deal, the late-night downgrade was the fitting end.

The symbolism is undeniable. This is the first downgrade in history, as commentators rushed to remind us. But of course, that history goes back only to the late 1930s, when the ratings agencies began to hold sway. And S&P is the only one of the major three—Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P—to downgrade. So this was big bad news, a bad coda to a bad week, but only as news and not as a trenchant analysis of the creditworthiness of the United States or its ability to meet its debt obligations going forward.

Let’s be clear: Congress and the White House did not cover themselves with glory during the debt debate throughout July. The United States has a stalled economy and a large amount of debt. But on so many levels, this downgrade is absurd.

First there is the question of math. When S&P informed the White House of its intention to downgrade on Friday afternoon, the Treasury Department took issue with S&P’s math and claimed that their assessment of the trends of the U.S. debt burden and its ratio to GDP was off by trillions of dollars. No matter. After a brief review, the wizards at S&P went ahead and removed an A.

A news ticker reads “Standard & Poor’s downgrades US credit rating from AAA to AA+” in Times Square on August 5, 2011 in New York City., Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Second, what’s with the fetish for a so-called proper ratio of debt-to-GDP. Academic economists have done no favors here. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become the go-to economists for their work showing how countries that reach a 90% ratio slide into recession and see slowing growth well before. The U.S. current level according to S&P is 74% and will rise to 85% by 2021. The explanation of the downgrade closely tracks this academic logic.

I have no criticism of an academic theory about how nations function economically. But when debatable theories become the underpinnings of decisions by unelected individuals who run organizations with significant sway (sway ceded to them by governments throughout the 20th century), then we have a problem. We have a problem when that argument gives short shrift to the debt-servicing burden. The current interest rate that the U.S. government pays to service its massive debts is hovering around 2.5%, which makes interest payments as a percentage of GDP as low as they have been since the mid-1970s.

Servicing the debt does not enter into the analysis, yet that and current interest rates make all the difference. Dismissing that counterargument, warning that rates will of course rise (yet even if they double, that will still leave the U.S. more than able to meet its obligations), and drawing on theories about the “right” level of debt puts S&P in a strange bedfellow alliance with the Tea Party.

The people who run the ratings agencies are welcome to their analysis, as is the Tea Party. But if Rogoff and Reinhart or the Tea Party announced that they were downgrading U.S. sovereign debt, they would be laughed for their audacity. Yet when it is one of the anointed ratings agencies, there is this sudden need to genuflect.

This is largely because covenant after covenant in both SEC rulings and institutional money management (pensions especially) dictate that many types of capital can only be invested in credit-worthy instruments as determined by Moody’s, S&P and Fitch. The downgrade doesn’t remotely begin to threaten the “investment grade” status of U.S. debt, and there is little reason to suspect that borrowing costs will go up as a result. Still, the reason we are in this situation of having to genuflect to S&P is because an entire structure of credit and investments, and the issuance and purchase of bonds above all, has been built on the shaky and questionable foundation of the ratings agencies.

The worst part of the downgrade is this: S&P spent considerable time in the body of their explanation about debt and GDP and growth. But they didn’t lead with that. That wasn’t the kicker. No, this was: “the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” The company assailed the Washington culture of “brinkmanship” so in display during the debt ceiling fiasco, and used that as the primary reason to take us down a notch.

Excuse me, but since when is a pristine political process a key ingredient to good credit? Are we supposed to have civil politics in order to maintain the rating? Are we supposed to have some mythic Scandinavian concord? Washington has usually been a mess, and arguably more now than ever. Nonetheless, the great distortion of the debt-ceiling imbroglio was that failure to do a deal would have led to a default. It would have led to a partial and then increasing complete shut down of the government, which would have soon enough forced a resolution. At no point would there have been insufficient tax revenue to meet the $20 billion of so in monthly interest payments on the debt, unless the crisis had gone on for months and months, which barring collective national psychosis simply could not have happened.

So S&P doesn’t feel comfortable that the American political process is conducive to dealing with long-term debt issues and so issued a downgrade. Yet S&P is a ratings agency, not a political arbiter. Olympic judges rule on athletic aptitude, not the politics of the athletes (usually). There is not a scintilla of evidence that the political process has yet impeded the ability of the United States to meet its debt obligations, even with the debt ceiling brinkmanship. The political process may indeed be contributing to the morass of the American economy, but the larger causes are the challenges of emerging economic centers and changing patterns of global commerce. Those are long-term issues that have little bearing on current ability to manage debts.

Finally, as a symbol that the United States is sliding off the rails, the downgrade is potent. It’s hard to argue with the reality that America is in a challenging moment that looks and feels a lot like decline. Whether that proves false and a new dawn awaits, we’ll find out soon enough. But the actions of S&P are part of problem and not just an independent verification that one exists.

These agencies have been elevated to heights that should not ascend; they have been chronically wrong and late in the past; and their rationale for a downgrade sounds more like a prim distaste for a dysfunctional political process that a reasoned assessment of the ability of the United States to discharge its obligations. No defense can be offered of our current political system or near-term economic prospects. But S&P—already on overreach as “neutral” judge of American creditworthiness—has no special standing to rule on the political system, and using that as a cudgel to prove their own power is a destructive act.

 

By: Zachary Karabell, The Daily Beast, August 6, 2011

August 7, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democracy, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Personal Parachutes: How Elites Could Profit From A U.S. Debt Crisis

Have you developed a hedging strategy to protect against America’s rapid decline? Or repositioned your portfolio to take advantage of orphaned Treasury securities? Or stashed some cash so you can buy distressed assets from the newly bankrupt?

If you’re like most Americans, the answer is, of course not. But if you work on Wall Street, the man-made debt crisis that’s brewing in Washington might represent a surprising opportunity to make money. As the whole world knows by now, the U.S. government will no longer be able to borrow money as of early August, unless Republicans and Democrats swallow their vitriol and come up with a compromise deal that will begin dealing with America’s oversized debt and allow the government to function normally. The nation’s mushrooming debt load is a big problem, but abruptly halting all federal borrowing would transform it into a disaster, since it would require vast government spending cuts that would promptly trigger another recession.

The ongoing assumption is that legislators will puff and posture until the last second, then congratulate themselves for making a deal that should have been in place months ago. But even if politicians avert the worst-case scenario, the size of the debt and the deep dysfunction in the nation’s capital are likely to cause other trouble. It’s increasingly likely, for instance, that rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s will cut America’s credit rating from AAA—the top rating, which the United States has held for decades—to a notch or two lower. That would force thousands of institutional investors to determine whether they can keep holding Treasury securities or whether they need to dump them. Even small spending cuts that come as part of a deal to raise the federal borrowing limit could cut into weak economic growth, especially if they go into effect immediately.

The knock-on effects of a U.S. debt downgrade, sharp spending cuts or a “policy mistake” in Washington could rattle financial markets, depress hiring and drive confidence back down to recessionary levels. But smart investors know that one man’s crisis is another’s opportunity, and the monied class is planning how to profit if America goes bust. As the New York Times reported recently, some hedge funds are stockpiling cash, to buy U.S. government securities at fire-sale prices if there’s a credit downgrade and conservative investing vehicles like pension or money-market funds are forced to dump Treasuries. Others are trying to identify institutions that might be damaged by a U.S. debt crisis and forced to sell assets that vulture investors could buy on the cheap. Another way to gamble on America’s collapse is to invest in credit-default swaps that would pay out if the United States defaults on its debt. The price of such insurance has doubled recently, indicating a lively market for bets against America.

The modern financial markets are sophisticated casinos that allow steely investors to gamble on almost anything, including gloom-and-doom scenarios that could potentially harm millions. Though it might sound unctuous, betting on the likelihood of adverse events is a healthy part of a free market, because it creates an even stronger incentive for those who would suffer from bad outcomes to prevent them—and punishes those who destroy value, such as CEOs who mismanage their companies. But it doesn’t always work that way, and besides, this kind of gambling is generally open only to professional investors or those wealthy enough to have experts handling their money.

In his 2010 financial disclosure forms, for instance, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor listed a small investment in a fund that bets against U.S. Treasury securities and would benefit if the U.S. government defaulted or something else happened that devalued Treasuries. That became controversial, since Cantor is one of the key Republicans involved in the debt negotiations and a conservative stalwart who insists there should be no new taxes as part of a deal. Cantor’s office says the fund is in his wife’s and his mother-in-law’s name and amounts to less than $4,000, while the vast majority of Cantor’s retirement savings are invested in conventional securities that would lose value if there were a true U.S. debt crisis. But Cantor’s portfolio is probably similar to those of other affluent Americans, with traditional investments offset by a hedging strategy meant to minimize losses if something profoundly bad happens.

Ordinary Americans who lack investment funds or live paycheck-to-paycheck don’t have much of a hedging strategy, however, which makes them directly vulnerable if Washington wrecks the economy and jobs gets even scarcer. Some economists think the drawn-out debt drama—and the near-total absence of action on other big problems, like the foreclosure epidemic or sky-high unemployment—is already causing harm. Businesses, for instance, have virtually stopped hiring while they await the outcome of the Washington Follies. A sliding stock market reflects jittery investors who can’t figure out if they should invest in a global recovery or gird for Armageddon. “Washington is locked in a budget war that will determine the U.S. economy’s fate, not only for this year and next but for generations,” writes economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. “Lawmakers may well misstep on this path to fiscal sustainability.” If they do, many of them will no doubt have their own personal parachutes. If possible, get your own.

By: Rick Newman, Columnist, U. S. News and World Report, July 22, 2011

July 24, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Public, Republicans, Unemployment, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Default Would Harm Homeowners, Cities, Businesses And Everyone Else

It’s easy to understand why the government will have more trouble borrowing if it fails to pay its debts, or even has a difficult time paying its debts. It’s a bit harder to see why ordinary Americans, the city of Pittsburgh, hospitals in Iowa, and medium-sized corporations will have more trouble borrowing. But they will. And their trouble borrowing is the main channels through which a default, or even something too close to it for the market’s comfort, could deal a body blow to the economy.

On Wednesday, Moody’s warned that it was putting the U.S. government credit rating on review for a downgrade. But they didn’t stop there. Another 7,000 debt products that are “directly linked to the U.S. government or are otherwise vulnerable to sovereign risk” were also put on review for a possible downgrade. That’s about $130 billion worth of debt. If America tumbles, so do they. But Moody’s still wasn’t done. An unknown amount of “indirectly linked” debt is also getting reviewed.

If America’s credit rating falls, it’s taking a lot more than just Treasury securities with it. It’s going to take the whole credit market with it. Which, as you’ll remember, is exactly how the subprime housing sector took the economy down in 2008.

The first to fall will be “directly linked” debt. These are bonds that rely on payments from the federal government. Naomi Richman, a managing director in Moody’s Public Finance division, puts it bluntly: “There are certain kinds of municipal bonds that are directly reliant on Treasury paying or some other direct payment,” she says. “If those bonds don’t receive their payment, they have no other source of revenue.” So down they go.

Then there’s the “indirectly linked” debt. That’s debt from state government, local governments, hospitals, universities and other institutions that rely, in some way or another, on payments from the federal government. If Medicaid stops paying its bills, all the hospitals that rely on Medicaid’s payments become less creditworthy. If we stop funding Pell grants, then all the universities that enroll students who pay using financial aid become less creditworthy. And since the federal government passes one-fifth of its revenues through to the states, and the states pass those revenues through to cities, if the federal government stops paying its bills, all states and all cities are suddenly in worse financial shape, which will make it harder for them to get loans.

And then there’s everything else. Mortgages. Credit cards. Loans that businesses take out to expand. Much of the debt in the American economy, and in fact globally, is “benchmarked” to Treasury debt. When your bank quotes you a mortgage rate, the calculation begins with the rate on 10-year treasuries and then adds premiums for various types of risk specific to you and your area on top of that. “There’s a whole credit structure,” says Pete Davis, president of Davis Capital Investment Ideas. “Think of it as roads and bridges, but it’s finance, it’s all connected, and it’s all on top of treasuries. Your CD at a bank, your credit card interest rates, your car loans, your mortgages — that’s all built on Treasury rates. So when you shake the basis of it, everything on top of it shakes, too.”

The 2008 economic crisis wasn’t started by a nuclear bomb detonating in New York, or a campaign to sabotage the country’s factories, or a plague that struck our able-bodied young males. Rather, investors bought a lot of debt based on subprime mortgages. They performed some tricky financial wizardry that they thought made the debt low-risk. They found out they were wrong. And then, because the players in the financial system no longer knew how much money anyone had, the credit markets froze and the economy crashed.

Now imagine that happening, not with the housing market, but with the government of the United States of America. The cornerstone of the global financial economy is the idea that Treasuries are risk-free. If they’re not, then like in the financial crisis, no one knows how much money anyone who holds treasuries has. But they also don’t know how much money anyone who depends on the federal government — be they businesses or individuals — holds.

This is how a default gets into the rest of the economy: It takes everything the financial markets thought they could know and rely on and upends it. It then shuts off credit, or makes it prohibitively expensive, for nearly every participant in the economy, from states and cities to hospitals and universities to homebuyers and credit-card applicants. That, in turn, freezes all of their activity, which destabilizes everyone who relies on them, which then destabilizes financial markets further, and so on.

It was one thing to have forgotten that this sort of thing could happen in 2006, when America hadn’t seen it for 70 years. But we just went through it. And if we go through it again, the Federal Reserve, which has pushed interest rates as low as they can go, and Congress, which has vastly expanded the deficit, have a lot less ammunition left for a response.

Are we likely to get to that point? No, of course not. But between here and there are worlds where the economy doesn’t crash, but because the federal government panics the market, interest rates rise and the economy slows. In a recovery this weak, that would be a disaster. And it would be entirely of our own making.

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, July 15, 2011

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July 17, 2011 Posted by | Banks, Budget, Businesses, Congress, Conservatives, Consumer Credit, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Financial Institutions, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Middle Class, Politics, Public, Republicans, Right Wing, States | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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