MONEY Jobs

Don’t Count on Raises Despite Friday’s Jobs Report

Person popping balloon
Getty Images—Getty Images

Despite more Americans finding employment, workers shouldn't expect any big changes in their paychecks just yet.

Workers can be forgiven if they don’t rejoice in Friday’s jobs report.

Employers added 214,000 jobs in October, pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.8%. This is another sign the U.S. economy is starting to get on a roll.

Businesses have added an average of around 230,000 jobs a month since January, when the unemployment started off at 6.6%. Stocks have been hitting all-time highs. And the Federal Reserve just announced that it was ending the third round of its stimulative bond-buying program thanks in part to the fact that the labor market has been improving.

Despite these positive trends, though, there still remains significant slack in the labor market. Millions of discouraged workers who want a job have given up looking — or are working part-time when they prefer full-time employment.

Moreover, the long-term unemployed are still much less likely to find a job now compared to before the 2007-2009 recession, and employees still don’t feel confident enough about their situation to quit their job in search of a high paying one. Meanwhile the unemployment rate lags the pre-recession low by more than a percentage point.

This might help to explain why Americans are still so pessimistic about their personal finances.

Almost three in four Americans think the economy was permanently damaged by the Great Recession, according to research by Rutgers University, which is actually more pessimistic than right after the recession. Moreover, only 37% say their finances are good or excellent shape, per recent Pew Research Center data.

Workers also understand that whatever raises they do get probably won’t outpace inflation. Take the Employment Cost Index, which measures workers salaries and benefits. Before the recession, the ECI rose at a year-over-year rate of more than 3% for about two years. Since 2009, though, the ECI hasn’t jumped above 2.2% (which, to be fair, was last quarter.)

fredgraph

And while the Fed did decide to end its bond-buying — otherwise known as quantitative easing — short-term interest rates remain essentially at zero, with expectations of a small hike potentially put off until well into 2015. By keeping rates so low for so long, the Fed is essentially signaling that consumer demand just isn’t there. Yet consumer demand is an essential ingredient in the recipe for gaining raises.

“We didn’t hear anything that causes us to reconsider our outlook that the Fed will follow a ‘lower for longer’ course when it comes to interest rates,” wrote USAA’s John Toohey in a recent note. “The U.S. recovery from the 2008–09 financial crisis has been slow and at times fragile, so our thinking is that the Fed will not want to risk a setback by raising rates too quickly. What is ending now is the third round of QE since late 2008; after the first two wrapped up, economic gains soon stalled. The Fed has not forgotten this.”

This jobs report seems to be another brick in the slow rebuild of the U.S. economy following the disaster of six years ago. It is encouraging that the Fed feels the economy is strong enough to chug along without it pumping billions of dollars into the financial system each month.

But workers should remember how big a hole we’ve needed to climb out of. Millions are still struggling to get by, or even get a job. And without strong bargaining power, or full employment, workers shouldn’t expect a raise anytime soon.

MONEY Bill Gross

Here’s the Weirdest Economic Commentary You’ll Read Today

141104_INV_BillGrossWeirdThing
Jim Young—Reuters

Bond guru Bill Gross is famous for his wacky but insightful market analyses, and this one is exemplary -- in both regards.

Janus Capital fund manager Bill Gross—most recently in the news for leaving PIMCO, the bond fund giant he co-founded—today published commentary on the global economy and financial markets in his typically quirky style.

Before turning to some important points on inflation, Gross spends a couple paragraphs waxing Yoda-like about humanity… and how he’s made of sand:

I am a philosophical nomad disguised in Western clothing, a wondering drifter, masquerading in a suit near a California beach. Sand forms the foundation of my being and its porosity is at once my greatest strength and deepest wound. I have become after 70 years, a man who believes that no belief is sacred. I have ideals and moral standards, but I believe them specific to me. Had I inherited your body and ego, “I” could just as clearly have assumed “yours.” If so, I wonder, if values are relative, then what are mortals to make of them, and what would a judging God make of us? If a collective humanity is to be rooted in sandy loam, spreading its ideological seeds through howling winds only to root in mutant form at different places and different times, can we judge an individual life?

Then, against all odds, he steers these elaborate metaphors into a commentary on U.S. fiscal and monetary policy—and it turns out he has some important points to make.

Here are the four of them, roughly translated:

  1. Young people should (and do) fear inflation because it means their retirement portfolios will be cut in half or more.
  2. But these days, deflation is just as dangerous a threat as inflation, because the economy has become dependent on inflation to shrink our debt.
  3. The problem is that the monetary policy approach that would ordinarily prevent deflation—printing more money—is not helping to create true growth. “Prices go up, but not the right prices. Alibaba’s stock goes from $68 on opening day to $92 in the first minute, but wages simply sit there for years on end,” Gross writes.
  4. The solution Gross suggests for making the “right prices” go up is government fiscal stimulus — a surprising policy suggestion from a bond fund manager. But he also points out that government spending is a tough sell, thanks to fears about the very debt that makes us dependent on inflation.

These are some wise insights, despite the strange introduction. Actually, there’s evidence that Gross may be in on the joke when it comes to purple prose, or at least that he’s actively cultivating his reputation as an eccentric genius. In any case, today’s commentary wasn’t necessarily Gross’s strangest. He has in the past mused about his dead cat, Cracker Jacks, crows, and, as in the following passage, sneezing:

There’s nothing like a good sneeze; maybe a hot shower or an ice cream sandwich, but no – nothing else even comes close. A sneeze is, to be candid, sort of half erotic, a release of pressure that feels oh so good either before or just after the Achoo! The air, along with 100,000 germs, comes shooting out of your nose faster than a race car at the Indy 500. It feels sooooo good that people used to sneeze on purpose. They’d use snuff and stick it up their nose; the tobacco high and the resultant nasal explosion being the fashion of the times. Healthier than some of the stuff people stick up their nose these days I suppose, but then that’s a generational thing. My generation is closer to the snuff than that other stuff.

The latter commentary, titled “Achoo!”, goes on for another two paragraphs about sneezing before turning to neutral policy rates.

MONEY The Economy

The Stock Market Loses a Big Crutch as the Fed Ends ‘Quantitative Easing’

The Fed has concluded its asset-purchasing program thanks to an improving labor market. Here's what QE3 has meant to investors and the economy.

After spending trillions of dollars on bond purchases since the end of the Great Recession — to keep interest rates low to boost spending, lending, and investments — the Federal Reserve ended its stimulus program known as quantitative easing.

The central bank’s decision to stop buying billions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-related bonds each month comes as the U.S. economy has shown signs of recent improvement.

U.S. gross domestic product grew an impressive 4.6% last quarter. And while growth dropped at the start of this year, thanks to an unusually bad winter, the economy expanded at annual pace of 4.5% and 3.5% in the second half of 2013.

Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 227,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate rests at a post-recession low of 5.9%. It was at 7.8% in September 2012, when this round of quantitative easing, known as QE3, began.

What this means for interest rates
Even with QE over, the Fed is unlikely to start raising short-term interest rates until next year, at the earliest.

In part due to the strengthening dollar and weakening foreign economies, inflation has failed to pick up despite the Fed’s unprecedented easy monetary policy.

And there remains a decent bit of slack in the labor market. For instance, there are still a large number of Americans who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (almost 3 million), and the labor-force participation rate has continued its decade long decline. Even the participation rate of those between 25 to 54 is lower than it was pre-recession.

What this means for investors
For investors, this marks the end of a wild ride that saw equity prices rise, bond yields remain muted, and hand wringing over inflation expectations that never materialized.

S&P 500:
Equities enjoyed an impressive run up after then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced the start of a third round of bond buying in September 2012. Of course the last two times the Fed ended quantitative easing, equities faced sell-offs. From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 rose 35% during QE1 (Dec. 2008 through March 2010), gained 10% during QE2 (Nov. 2010 through June 2011) and has gained about 30% during QE3 (from Sept. 2012 through this month), according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Three months after QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell 12%. And three months after QE2 concluded, the S&P 500 was down 14%.

 

Stocks

10-year Treasury yields:

As has been the case for much of the post-recession recovery, U.S. borrowing costs have remained low thanks to a lack of strong consumer demand — and the Fed’s bond buying. Many investors paid dearly for betting incorrectly on Treasuries, including the Bill Gross who recently left his perch at Pimco for Janus.

Bonds

10-year breakeven inflation rate:

A sign that inflation failed to take hold despite unconventionally accommodative monetary policy is the so-called 10-year breakeven rate, which measures the difference between the yield on 10-year Treasuries and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The higher the gap, the higher the market’s expectation for inflation. As you can see, no such expectation really materialized.

BreakEven

Inflation:

Despite concern that the Fed’s policy would lead to run-away inflation, we remain mired in a low-inflation environment.

fredgraph

Unemployment Rate:

The falling unemployment rate has been a real a bright spot for the economy. If you look at a broader measure of employment, one which takes into account those who’ve just given up looking for a job and part-time workers who want to work full-time, unemployment is elevated, but declining.

unemployment rate

Compared to the economic plight of other developed economies, the U.S. looks to be in reasonable shape. That in part is thanks to bold monetary policy at a time of stagnant growth.

Indeed, many economists now argue that the European Central Bank, faced with an economy that’s teetering on another recession, ought to take a page from the Fed’s playbook and try its own brand of quantitative easing.

MONEY Federal Reserve

Janet Yellen Makes Less Than Over 100 Other Fed Staffers

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Dominick Reuter—Reuters

She's one of the most powerful people in the global economy, but doesn't pull down the top salary in her organization

As Chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen is one of the most powerful economic figures in the world. But she’s not exactly paid like it. In fact, she’s not even the highest paid employee in her own organization.

According to Reuters, which obtained data on the Federal Reserve’s salary structure from a Freedom of Information Act request, Yellen is paid less than at least 113 other Federal Reserve employees. She earns $201,700 a year, compared to the Fed’s highest paid employee, Inspector General Mark Bialek, who makes $312,000. He is followed by the bank’s four regional directors, the general counsel, and chief operating officer, all of whom take home a base pay of $265,000.

Why is Yellen paid less than her underlings? Yellen’s salary is set by Congress, but not the Fed’s senior staff.

As Reuters reporter Michael Flaherty notes, the Fed’s high salaries aren’t costing taxpayers a penny since the organization is funded by returns on the securities it owns. (The Fed’s not a normal federal agency, but a kind of public/private hybrid that’s supposed to operate independently but “within” the government.) However, that hasn’t stopped calls for more transparency: This is the first time the Fed has revealed how much its top brass make, and the information provided to Reuters only included those with salaries of at least $225,000 a year despite the request asking for the names of all board members with wages above $130,810—the highest salary on the usual federal payscale. Some Republicans in Congress have called for legislation that would require the Fed to create a searchable database of all Federal Reserve employees who make more than that sum.

While Yellen is almost certainly underpaid considering her responsibilities, don’t feel too bad for the Fed chair. Fed officials must disclose their wealth in ranges, and according to public records, Yellen and her husband hold assets worth somewhere between $5.3 million and $14.1 million.

In an almost too-perfect twist, the news about Yellen’s pay came on morning when she spoke at a conference about growing inequality.

TIME People

Fed’s Yellen Says She’s Concerned by Rising Economic Inequality

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Economic Conference on Inequality of Economic Opportunity in Boston on Oct. 17, 2014.
U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Economic Conference on Inequality of Economic Opportunity in Boston on Oct. 17, 2014. Brian Snyder—Reuters

In a speech, Fed chief says Americans should ask whether it is compatible with their values

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said on Friday the growth of economic inequality in the United States “greatly” concerns her, and suggested in a detailed speech on the politically charged issue that Americans should ask whether it was compatible with their values.

“The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me,” Yellen told a conference on inequality at the Boston branch of the central bank.

“It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority,” she told economists, professors and community workers.

“I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

The speech, heavy on data compiled by the Fed and by other sources, continued Yellen’s focus on the trials of America’s unemployed and underemployed.

With global financial markets rebounding from days of frenzied selling, Yellen did not comment on the volatility or on monetary policy.

Income disparity between the richest Americans and the rest has risen in the wake of the 2007-2009 recession. An extensive Fed study published last month suggests wealth and income is concentrated not just within the top 1 percent, as some analyses have suggested, but actually among a slightly broader slice of the ultra-rich: the top 3 percent.

Yellen, who raised concerns about inequality well before taking the Fed’s reins earlier this year, acknowledged that a rebound in house prices over the last two years has restored much wealth to those at the bottom.

But she cited several troubling contributors to a lack of equality of opportunity, including the expensive cost of higher education faced by the young.

In another threat to economic opportunity, she said a slowdown in business formation may depress productivity.

The speech comes after a report found that the top 113 earners among staff at the Fed’s Washington headquarters make an average of $246,506 per year, excluding bonuses and other benefits — more than Yellen and nearly double the normal top government rate.

Meanwhile, the Fed was center stage this week in a volatile market selloff not seen in years.

Global stocks jumped on Friday, following a U.S. rebound on Thursday when St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said the central bank should keep buying bonds longer than planned.

Eric Rosengren, head of the Boston Fed, said on Friday however that recent market turbulence and signs of global economic weakness haven’t yet dimmed U.S. economic forecasts and won’t likely change the Fed’s policy path unless they do.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

MONEY The Economy

Why the Fed Should Stop Talking About Raising Interest Rates

Some central bankers have called for raising rates sooner rather than later. Recent economic data — and the huge stock market sell-off — should dampen those calls.

There have been two presidential inaugurations and six Super Bowl champions since interest rates were effectively lowered to 0%. Recently, some Federal Reserve officials have said they expect to raise rates by the middle of next year thanks to a decently expanding economy and stronger job growth.

Some central bankers, though, think the middle of 2015 is too late and have been pushing to increase borrowing costs sooner. Esther George, President of the Kansas City Fed, said as much in a speech earlier this month, and two members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted bristled against easy monetary policy in their most recent meeting.

But with developed economies around the world showing dismal growth and less-than-stellar economic metrics here at home — punctuated by a rapidly declining stock prices (the stock market is, after all, a reflection of the market’s forecast for the economy six to nine months down the road) — it might be time for these inflation hawks to quiet down.

“Until we see wages expanding faster than the rate of inflation, and significantly so, we won’t see much in the way of inflation pressure,” says Mike Schenk, Vice President of Economics & Statistics for the Credit Union National Association. “Why raise rates if you don’t have inflation?”

Inflation Hawks

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against the most recent monetary action policy, according to minutes of the meeting, due to, among other factors, the “continued strength of the real economy” and “the improved outlook for labor utilization.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said that he’s “not too concerned” about inflation growth below the Fed’s 2% target and joined Fisher in voting against the Fed policy because he disagreed with the guidance that said rates will stay at zero for “a considerable time after” the Fed ends its unconventional bond-buying program later this month.

George, meanwhile in a speech earlier this month, said Fed officials should begin talking seriously about raising rates since “starting this process sooner rather than later is important. If we continue to wait — if we continue to wait to see full employment, to see inflation running beyond the 2% target — then we risk having to move faster and steeper with interest rates in a way that is destabilizing to the economy in the long term,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Jobs

The jobs environment has been improving in recent months. The economy added almost 250,000 jobs in September and the unemployment number fell to a post-recession low of 5.9%. But the unemployment number doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you look at another metric that takes into account workers who only recently gave up looking for a job and part-time employees who want to work 40 hours a week, the situation is much worse. Before the recession, this broader unemployment rate sat at around 8%. It’s now at almost 12%. There are still about three million workers who’ve been unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, up from around 1.3 million at the end of 2007.

Inflation

Right now, and for some time, there has been very little inflation. Prices grew 1.7% over the past year in August, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index. Even the Fed’s preferred inflation tracker, the PCE deflator, showed prices gain 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

Wage growth is likewise stalled. Taking into account wages and benefits, workers have only seen a 1.8% raise. It’s just difficult to have inflation in a low interest rate environment without wage growth.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard recently said that the Fed should consider postponing the end of its bond-buying program. “Inflation expectations are declining in the U.S.,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News. “That’s an important consideration for a central bank. And for that reason I think that a logical policy response at this juncture may be to delay the end of the QE.”

Europe

European economic woes aren’t helping. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, recently cut it’s growth forecast, now only expects to grow by 1.2% in 2014 and 2015. Sweden and Spain saw prices actually decline in August, and now there’s fear that the euro zone will endure a so-called triple-dip recession. The relative prowess of the American economy compared to Europe’s has strengthened the U.S. dollar, thus making our exports less competitive.

Look, the U.S. economy isn’t about to go off a cliff. Not only did we see growth of 4.6% last quarter, but employers are adding jobs at a decent clip and the number of workers filing first-time jobless claims fell to the lowest level since 2000, per the Labor Department.

But with low inflation and European struggles to achieve anything close to robust growth, raising interest rates anytime soon doesn’t appear likely.

MONEY stocks

October Can Be Frightful for Stocks. But It Can Also Be Fruitful.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Tom Hardy, 2012.
Ron Phillips—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

By reputation, October is the scariest month on Wall Street. In reality, this month tends to be either very good or bad for the market. Which one will it be this time around?

This story was updated on Oct. 15, 2014

Is the Ghost of October Past haunting Wall Street again?

By reputation, October is the market’s scariest month. Six years ago, October witnessed several knee-buckling plunges during the financial crisis — an 8% drop on the 9th, an even-bigger 9% fall on the 15th, followed by a 6% slide on the 22nd.

Go back further, to the Asian currency crisis, and the Dow plunged 554 points on Oct. 27, 1997. Go back further still, and there was Black Monday, when the S&P 500 fell 20% on Oct. 19, 1987. And don’t forget that the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression will commemorate its 85th birthday at the end of this month.

At first blush, this October seems to be trying to join this list.

On the last day of September, the Dow Jones industrial average had climbed as high as 17,145. Two weeks later, the benchmark index was more than than 800 points lower, thanks in part to fears over the slowing global economy, escalating Mideast violence, continuing Russian conflict, and quite possibly the spreading Ebola virus.

Yet October gets a bad rep, and some market observers think this could be a buying opportunity.

While October may be pockmarked with a minefield of securities devastation, history is also filled with examples of strong Octobers for the S&P 500, according to the Stock Trader’s Almanac. Among them: 1966 (up 5%), 1974 (16%), 1998 (8%), 2002 (9%), and 2011 (11%).

return
Ycharts

Plus, when you average out historical performance, this autumnal month isn’t so shabby.

In fact, if you look at each month’s returns from 1988 to last September, October turns out to the third best-performer on average, behind December and April. The S&P 500 has gained at least 3.8% in three of the last four Octobers, according to data from Morningstar.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, noted that while some investors might be taking profits after a sustained run up for stocks, “we don’t see anything that indicates a more sustained downturn is in store.”

In a note published online, she added:

“We are entering a traditionally positive period seasonally for stocks. According to ISI Research, since 1950, December and November have been the highest returning months of the year, on average. Additionally, according to Strategas Research Group — also since 1950, in midterm election years — October has been the best performing month, followed by November and December. The recent selling we’ve seen could just be setting up for a nice year-end run.”

So is Sonders right? Will this October turn out to be a treat for Wall Street? Or will it just be one big trick?

MONEY Jobs

Why Low Job and Wage Growth is Worse Than Rising Inflation

Hot air balloons floating higher and higher
Jon Larson—Getty Images

As the economy picks up steam, and employers add more workers, investors say that inflation is their biggest impediment to saving. Here’s why they’re wrong.

As the economy added another 248,000 jobs in September, pushing the unemployment rate to a post-recession low of 5.9%, investors are feeling more confident.

In fact, investors are more optimistic than they’ve been since the recession, per a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup survey which measured the mood of those with more than $10,000 in investable assets. Of course the so-called Investor and Retirement Optimism Index is still only at around half the levels of the 12-year average before the 2008 recession. Investors may be more sanguine than three months ago, but that doesn’t mean they think the economy is going gangbusters.

Nevertheless, there was one particularly interesting data point in the survey: “Half of investors (51%) think the pressure on American families’ ability to save is due to rising prices caused by inflation.” Meanwhile only 37% said the pressure was inflicted by stagnant wage growth.

Which is strange.

What inflation?

If you look at the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of core inflation (which strips out volatile energy and food prices), prices have risen around or below the Fed’s stated 2%-target since the recession.

The Consumer Price Index, a gauge of inflation released by the Labor Department, actually fell on a monthly basis in August for the first time in more than a year, and only grew at an annual rate of 1.7% since this time last year.

Proclamations of rising inflation ever since the Federal Reserve started buying bonds and lowering interest rates in response to the recession have yet to materialize. And those advanced economies that did raise interest rates a few years ago (like Sweden), have come close to deflation.

Meanwhile wages aren’t growing at all. Average hourly earnings in August rose 2.1% versus the same period last year, and the growth rate has been stuck at around 2% since the recovery. The same is true for the employment cost index, which measures fringe benefits in addition to salaries. Ten years ago the index increased by 3.8%.

REALERw
St. Louis Federal Reserve

 

While the unemployment rate has fallen considerably this year, other gauges of jobs are still troubling. Long-term unemployment has tumbled since its post-recession peak in 2010, but there are still almost 3 million people who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. If you include workers who’ve recently stopped looking for a job and those working part-time when they’d rather be full time, the unemployment rate is 12%, more than four percentage points above the pre-recession level.

The Fed has implemented an easy monetary policy in order to attack this problem. “The Fed is keeping interest rates low as long as they can and maintaining very loose policy in support of jobs,” says USAA Investments’s chief investment officer Bernie Williams. “They will only tighten up with great reluctance.”

Pick your poison: stronger wages or rising inflation?

In a battle between pushing wages higher and the risk of inflation, the Fed is willing to err on the side of rising wages, says Williams.

BMO senior investment strategist Brent Schutte agrees. “As a society, you decide what is good. Economics is a choice between two things. We’ve clearly decided that higher inflation and rising wages is a good thing.”

Despite years of effort, though, the Fed hasn’t been able to bring back rising wages.

If you’re still unconvinced that a lack of salary increase and slack in the labor market should be more of a concern to your finances than the threat of inflation, check out new research by former Bank of England member David Blanchflower.

Along with three other co-writers, Blanchflower recently published a study titled, “The Happiness Trade-Off between Unemployment and Inflation.”

The researchers found that unemployment actually has a more pernicious effect on happiness than inflation. “Our estimates with European data imply that a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate lowers well-being by more than five times as much as a 1 percentage point increase in the inflation rate.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Blanchflower said, “Unemployment hurts more than inflation does.”

As the economy gently improves, and people start going back to work, the hope is that wages will start to rise. Inflation might then rise above the Fed’s 2% target, and Yellen and Co. may raise rates in effort to cool off the economy. But we’re not there yet. And investors, for the sake of their wallets and psychology, would do well to remember that.

MONEY

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke Can’t Refinance His Home

Even former central bankers can't get a loan

If you’ve failed to get a loan in this market, don’t feel too bad. Not even central bankers can catch a break–as Ben Bernanke, who chaired the Federal Reserve from 2006 through February of 2014, recently revealed that he has been unable to refinance his home.

“Just between the two of us, ” Bernanke told the moderator at a recent conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care, “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage and I was unsuccessful in doing so,” Bloomberg reports.

The audience laughed.

“I’m not making this up,” Bernanke insisted.

Bernanke also complained that stringent credit standards have made the process for first-time homebuyers excessively difficult, especially as economic conditions have improved. “The housing area is one area where regulation has not yet got it right,” Bernanke said. “I think the tightness of mortgage credit, lending is still probably excessive.”

As of press time, there is no word on whether current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been denied for an auto loan.

[Bloomberg]

TIME

The Real Truth About the Wall Street Bailouts

It happens to be the one we already know

It was probably inevitable, which doesn’t make it any less absurd. And it is certainly a reflection of their remarkable success, which doesn’t make it any less unfair. But six years after the spectacularly unpopular Wall Street bailouts, the government rescuers are under fire again—this time, not for their alleged generosity to financial firms, but for their alleged stinginess.

On Monday, a trial began in a lawsuit filed by AIG shareholders who claim the government somehow violated their rights when it rescued the busted insurer and salvaged their worthless investments. But even commentators who have admitted the lawsuit is “asinine” (in the New York Times) and “mostly insane” (in The New Republic) have suggested it’s nonetheless performing a public service, because it’s going to reveal the truth about the Wall Street bailouts. And on Tuesday, the Times ran a blockbuster story quoting unnamed sources who claim the government also could have bailed out Lehman Brothers, the venerable investment bank whose implosion nearly cratered the global economy. Again, the implication is that the official story is askew.

In fact, the lawsuit over the $182 billion AIG bailout is precisely as asinine and insane as it sounds. The government officials who stabilized the world’s most dangerous financial firm were the ones who performed a public service. And they absolutely would have rescued Lehman as well if they could have. Unfortunately, Lehman was hopelessly insolvent, and the government had no legal or practical way to save it without a private buyer willing to take on at least some of its risks. As for the truth about the Wall Street bailouts, well, the truth is already out there.

I have a bias here; I helped former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who helped rescue AIG and tried to rescue Lehman when he was president of the New York Fed, with his memoir, Stress Test. I was even peripherally involved in the AIG case, when Greenberg’s lawyers sought access to transcripts of my conversations with Geithner.

But I wrote a pretty high-octane defense of the AIG bailout back in January 2010, before I ever met Geithner. And it stands up pretty well, except for the part where I said taxpayers would take a hit; in fact, taxpayers ended up earning a $22.7 billion profit on their investment in AIG.

Overall, taxpayers have made more than $100 billion on the bailouts. More importantly, the aggressive U.S. financial response—along with similarly aggressive monetary and (initially) fiscal policies—helped rescue a free-falling economy that was crashing at an 8 percent annual rate. We’ve recovered better than the rest of the developed world—Europe still has 11 percent unemployment—and much better than nations that endured much less damaging financial crises in the past. It’s kind of amazing that we’re still arguing about an emergency response that turned out so much better than anyone, even the emergency responders, expected at the time.

But here we are. Critics still doubt the official story that Lehman could not be saved. They also insist the Fed could have forced AIG’s senior creditors to accept less than 100 cents on the dollar; they’re excited about the lawsuit because they expect it to expose shocking evidence about why the government didn’t insist on haircuts. In fact, these questions have been asked and answered. Geithner tells the story of Lehman and AIG at length in Stress Test. You can find a quick explanation of why Lehman couldn’t be rescued in on pages 206-208 and a quick summary of why AIG’s counterparties didn’t absorb haircuts on pages 246-248. Again, I’m biased, but if you’re interested in this stuff, you should read the whole thing.

Here’s a shorter version. The old conventional wisdom that Geithner and his colleagues were desperate to prevent big Wall Street firms from collapsing during the crisis was basically correct, although I’d say they were right to be desperate. The firms were all dangerously interconnected with the rest of the global financial system at a time when markets had lost confidence in their housing-related assets, and it was clear that any one of them defaulting on its obligations could further depress confidence and spark runs on the others. That’s why when Bear Stearns was failing in March 2008, the Fed helped engineer a deal for JP Morgan Chase to acquire it and stand behind its obligations, providing an emergency loan backed by some of Bear’s sketchiest mortgage securities. And when Lehman was failing that September, Geithner and his colleagues worked feverishly to recruit a buyer for a similar deal, holding a series of emergency meetings documented in crisis books like Too Big to Fail and In Fed We Trust.

So what happened? The only bank willing to buy Lehman and its toxic assets that chaotic weekend was the British firm Barclays—and British regulators balked before a deal could be finalized. That left the Fed without options. It’s only allowed to lend against plausibly solid collateral, and Lehman looked hopelessly insolvent. At the time, then-Fed chair Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson suggested publicly that they had chosen to let Lehman fail, because they didn’t want to accelerate the panic by making the government appear powerless. But really, they had been powerless. They knew the consequences of failure would be disastrous. They would have been thrilled to find a way to save Lehman.

In its carefully hedged, anonymously sourced story, the Times is now suggesting some New York Fed officials were “leaning toward the opposite conclusion—that Lehman was narrowly solvent and therefore might qualify for a bailout.” Put it this way: Their bosses did not agree, and neither did the market; as the Times noted, Bank of America had estimated Lehman’s net worth at about negative $66 billion that weekend. In fact, a subsequent study by economists William R. Cline and Joseph E. Gagnon—a study not mentioned by the Times—found that Lehman was at least $100 billion and perhaps $200 billion in the hole at the time.

“Our overall judgment on Lehman is that it was deeply insolvent,” Cline and Gagnon concluded.

One more point about Lehman: Even if the Fed had broken the law to lend into a run on an insolvent firm, and had somehow managed to stabilize Lehman rather than kiss its cash goodbye, it wouldn’t have defused the larger crisis. The government still lacked the authority to inject massive amounts of capital into the financial system—and a Congress that initially refused to grant that authority through the notorious TARP even after Lehman’s failure certainly wouldn’t have granted it before a failure of similar magnitude. Whatever. I guess some people find it comforting to believe the government could have snapped its fingers and ended the crisis early. It’s not a reality-based belief.

The perennial question is how, if the Fed lacked authority to rescue Lehman, it somehow found the authority to rescue AIG the next day. The short answer is that AIG, despite the awful misjudgments of a subsidiary that insured trillions of dollars worth of mortgage securities, had valuable revenue-generating businesses and a plausible claim to solvency. While Lehman was really nothing more than the sum of its toxic assets and shattered reputation as a venerable brokerage, AIG had solid collateral that the Fed could lend against with a decent expectation of repayment.

Ultimately, AIG would receive an astonishing $182 billion in government financing, and it would pay back every dime with interest. Its shareholders, who would have received nothing if the government had let the firm collapse, are now complaining in court that they should have gotten more. In his Times op-ed, Noam Scheiber aptly compared them to “a formerly starving man insisting he deserved filet mignon rather than a rib-eye.” Yet Scheiber argued that their filet mignon demand “may end up serving a constructive purpose.” He thinks the trial underway in Washington will reveal the real reason AIG’s creditors didn’t face haircuts; he doesn’t think the official explanation—that voluntary haircuts were impossible, and involuntary haircuts would have accelerated the panic—makes any sense. Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson not only called the lawsuit a “public service,” she actually portrayed AIG as an innocent victim in the financial crisis, “the patsy at the poker table.”

Uh…no. AIG was as rapacious and reckless as any bank. The government did push for modest haircuts for its creditors that might have saved taxpayers as much as $1 billion, but seven of the eight top creditors flatly refused. Unfortunately, the Fed could not force them to change their minds; several of them weren’t even U.S. firms. And the Fed could not impose the haircuts without forcing AIG into default; the creditors logically concluded a government that was spending $182 billion to avoid a default wasn’t going to create a default on purpose to save $1 billion.

This is the key: In a financial crisis, default is the enemy. The fear that secured debts won’t be repaid in full is the fear that drives panics. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation learned this the hard way a week later when it foolishly haircut Washington Mutual’s creditors, instantly triggering a run on the next-weakest bank, Wachovia; its ten-year bonds lost two thirds of their value the day after the haircuts. The whole point of the bailouts was to avoid defaults. This is not “counterintuitive” (Scheiber’s word) to anyone who has endured a financial crisis.

But the critics—who were wrong when they predicted the bailouts would cost trillions, and when they warned that the banking system could not be saved without mass nationalization, and in so many other ways—think the frivolous AIG lawsuit will reveal some dirty backroom deal where Geithner and Lord Voldemort conspired to rip off widows and orphans on behalf of Goldman Sachs. “Traumatic historical episodes often require a high-profile public reckoning before the country can move on,” Scheiber wrote. OK, he then admitted, the financial crisis inspired a litany of those, “but none fully exposed the weakness of Mr. Geithner’s logic.”

Hmm. Maybe it’s someone else’s logic that’s weak. And maybe it’s already time for the country to move on.

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