Economy

Barack Obama's new theory of the state.

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The public relations campaign packaging the bank stress tests is kicking into high gear and our professional information managers are really hitting their stride. They face, of course, a classic spin problem: you need to get the information out there, but you don't want to be too definitive on the first day or soon after--if you're easy on the banks, that looks bad; if you're tough on the banks, that might be dangerous. The best way to handle this is by jamming your own signal--which they are starting to do in brilliant fashion. To the WSJ you leak that BoA needs to raise a great deal of capit

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The bank stress tests are beginning to create a perception problem, but not--as you might think--for banks. Rather the issue is top level Administration officials' own optics (spin jargon for how we think about our rulers). At one level, the government's approach to banks--delay doing anything until the economy stabilizes--is working out nicely. This is the counterpart of the macroeconomic Summers Strategy and in principle it is brilliant.

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If you haven't picked up on one of the dozens of recommendations from other blogs, I recommend reading Phillip Swagel's long and detailed account of the view of the financial crisis from his seat as assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department. It's particularly useful for people like me who make a habit of criticizing government officials. The writing is dry, but much of the subject matter is fascinating. It often explains or defends Treasury's actions during the crisis, but Swagel certainly owns up to plenty of mistakes or shortcomings.

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In early February I suggested there was a showdown underway between the US Treasury and the country's largest banks.  Treasury (with the Fed and other regulators) is responsible for the safety and soundness of the financial system, the banks are mostly looking out for their own executives, and the tension between these goals is - by now - quite evident. As we've been arguing since the beginning of the year, saving the banking system - at reasonable cost to the taxpayer - implies standing up to the bankers.  You can do this in various ways, through recapitalization if you are willing to commit 

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MBA Frayed

Back in October, not long after Lehman Brothers collapsed and triggered a meltdown on Wall Street, one of the hottest e-mail forwards making the rounds among finance types was a letter by Andrew Lahde, a hedge-fund manager who had posted eye-popping 866 percent returns in 2008 by betting on increases in U.S. subprime mortgage defaults.

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Bankers Delight

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He is co-founder of the global economy website, BaselineScenario.com.   The administration’s media rollout of the Geithner Plan was as meticulously coordinated as a Super Bowl Sunday. In future courses for doctors of spin, there will be a special session on the administration's dogged attempt to get everyone together and work every segment of its increasingly fragmented viewership.

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The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression By Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $26.95) Herbert Hoover By William E. Leuchtenburg (Times Books, 208 pp., $22) Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America By Adam Cohen (Penguin Press, 372 pp., $29.95) A generation ago, the total dismissal of the New Deal remained a marginal sentiment in American politics. Ronald Reagan boasted of having voted for Franklin Roosevelt. Neoconservatives long maintained that American liberalism had gone wrong only in the 1960s.

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Republicans like to accuse Democrats of wasting taxpayer dollars and being condescending eggheads. But if President Obama's economic stimulus fails to prevent a depression--and I'm not saying it will--it will be because he didn't waste enough money, and didn't spend enough time being a condescending egghead. Let's start with the egghead part. The stimulus bill is based on Keynesian theory, which I'll briefly explain in the condescending manner we liberals so enjoy using. When we're in a severe recession, good productive capacity goes to waste.

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Auto Destruct

It's been more than a month since the auto industry came to Washington, begging for a rescue. And, since that time, it's become clear just how dry Detroit's reservoir of goodwill has run. For conservative opponents of bailout legislation, like Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the U.S. auto industry is an object of scorn—"dinosaurs," he has called them. For the liberals who support a rescue, like Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, Detroit remains an embarrassment.

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