Seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s economic plans

This is the post I have dreaded writing.

Now that my inauguration hangover has worn off, I have to start treating the new Obama administration with some degree of objectivity.  The truth is that I like Obama and I certainly see him as a welcome change from George W. Bush for a host of reasons.  However, I have not been particularly impressed by the economic policy vision his team has cooked up.  Let me tell you why.

I come at this from a Libertarian’s point of view.  Now, despite what you might hear in the American media, Libertarians are the true liberals in the classical sense.  That makes Libertarians so-called cultural ‘liberals,’ but economic ‘conservatives.’ This means a belief in the primacy of individual liberty and limited government.  Now, I am not going to tell you that anyone should be able to own AK-47s or that the government is the problem or that the free market always works and we don’t need regulation.  I don’t believe any of those things.

But, what I do believe is that government policy must be well-crafted in order to avoid negative unintended consequences that arise when the government inserts itself into the private sector.  And this is where I am having a problem with the Obama Administration.

Recently, Tim Geithner’s comments about currency manipulation put me over the top; I felt compelled to give you my seven reasons to be skeptical about the policy course now being charted.

  • Obama has no comprehensive game plan
  • Obama needs to put teeth in the bailout packages
  • Obama is silent on prosecuting financial industry villains
  • Obama must re-regulate, but not go overboard
  • Obama should know that the mortgage buy-up solution will be a disaster
  • Obama must beat back the protectionists
  • Obama must provide more stimulus if he provides any at all

Take this as constructive criticism of an administration of which I expect great things, mindful that it has been in office for all of one week.  Nevertheless, it is critical that we adjust the economic course now as time is at a premium.

Obama has no comprehensive game plan

You have probably seen some of my posts on the need for a comprehensive solution to the banking crisis in the U.S. and globally.

However, the Obama Administration has offered zero along these lines.  For all intents and purposes, we are continuing with the ad hoc approach crafted by Henry Paulson.  This creates uncertainty for equity investors, bondholders, and management.  Who is going to be bailed out and under what terms?  Anyone managing capital is likely to husband it in an environment of fear and doubt.  This is not a recipe for increased lending, as Yves Smith has demonstrated quite well.

The bailouts do not have enough strings attached

If Obama’s team is not going to present a comprehensive solution, it needs to create well-crafted bailout structures. But, the recent Citigroup and Bank of America bailouts demonstrate the opposite.  No management was let go.  There were no real pay caps. The government has no board control. The government is getting a dividend, but one that is at once insufficient and destructive to banks’ need to recapitalize.

Moreover, these institutions will need far more money than is presently acknowledged.  They have not written down the tidal wave of Leveraged, Credit Card, Auto and Construction, and Commercial Real Estate Loans that are going to go sour.  Are we to believe that they will not need more funds?  What contingency plan does the Obama team have for distress amongst the large banks?  What about large regional banks?

And don’t get me started on the auto bailouts.  They have already created a competitive bailout response in France, the UK, Germany and Sweden.

I have heard nothing — either during the presidential campaign, after the election, or since the confirmation hearings that gives me comfort regarding these bailout issues.

Obama promises greater oversight.  Start with prosecuting

We have the recent flap over expenses at Merrill Lynch, huge bonuses going out to staff at this failed institution, massive bailouts of Citi and BofA, and more money expected for Fannie and Freddie.  Yet, Angelo Mozilo is living high on the hog.  Dick Fuld is selling his Florida mansion to his wife for $100 to avoid potential confiscation, and no one at Citi has been dismissed or indicted.   I’m sorry, but Bernie Madoff is the tip of the iceberg here.  There is much more impropriety lurking underneath. These issues need to be addressed in a way that leaves people with a sense that the rich and powerful are subject to the same laws as everyone else.

Oversight begins with legislation

I was heartened to hear Timothy Geithner claim that the Obama Administration is planning to straighten out a number of regulatory issues.  But, I was also a bit frightened when he claimed this would be the biggest overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s.  I fear unintended consequences will result.

Nevertheless, I have heard nothing substantive from Obama’s team decrying these egregious examples of the broken financial system or specifics on legislation which I support as yet.  (See naked capitalism’s post to see what I mean) Whilst Obama has promised an end to crony capitalism, the proof is in the putting.  There remains much legislation to be proposed on rating agencies, OTC derivatives, hedge funds, off-balance sheet assets, predatory lending, and more.  Let’s see what we get. I remain skeptical.

Buying mortgage paper at inflated prices props up prices artificially

Then there’s the Fed proposal to spend TARP money on buying distressed mortgage debt.  This was the original Paulson plan.  I find it admirable regarding the need for price discovery.  However, I fear the Fed is going to end up propping up house prices artificially.  Caroline Baum has said similar things in her column today:

Now that we’re here, with more homes for sale than buyers at the current price, what’s the government’s solution? Why, make it easier — and cheaper — to buy homes. The Fed has embarked on a program to buy $500 billion of mortgage bonds in the first half of 2009 in an attempt to lower actual mortgage lending rates, which fell to an all-time low of 5 percent earlier this month.

Rather than let the market “clear” — or let prices seek their own level — policy makers are stimulating artificial demand for housing to prevent prices from falling.

Buying Mortgage-backed securities lowers the interest rate for those securities. Does the resultant interest rate reflect the ‘true’ rate if market liquidity were normal? Or do they reflect easy money, re-creating the problem that got us here to begin with?  I think you know the answer.

Protectionism is a likely outcome

This is my biggest beef. If Tim Geithner continues to explicitly label China a currency manipulator, we will end up in a trade war, irrespective of his motives. To be sure, his motives are not clear; he may be playing to the Democrats in Congress in order to assuage their protectionist wing. But, he is playing a very dangerous game which feeds into a whole protectionist line of argument that is gaining momentum. (See my last post “The Blame Asia Meme“)

Not enough stimulus

Whilst I am no fan of government deficits as far as the eye can see, I have become convinced that government stimulus will be necessary to mitigate a downward spiral of reduced consumption, reduced production, layoffs, bankruptcy, writedowns, reduced lending and more reduced consumption. Government can replace some of the lost private sector consumption temporarily. But much more stimulus is needed if government spending is to be effective.

For whatever reason, Obama has started off by compromising with Republicans and Democrats on core issues of stimulus and spending. To my mind, he is negotiating from a position of weakness instead of strength. If you start the discussion with a position hedged toward your negotiating partner, you will be beaten back to an even worse compromise position. It is much better to begin with a reasonable best-case position — one that is not likely to be dismissed out of hand — and be beaten back from there if at all. Obama needs to go big on stimulus if he goes at all.

The worst-case scenario is one in which Obama tries to stimulate the economy,fails and then, sees this failure shown as prima facie evidence that stimulus never works. This is where we seem to be headed.


Obama has an enormous number of things to sort through. So it is somewhat unfair and premature to attack him just as he gets into office  Nevertheless, I raise these issues not as an attack, but as a reminder of what is at stake here.  As with the Bush Administration, we need to keep Obama’s team honest about the task at hand.

And you thought I had gone soft.

Classical liberalism – Wikipedia
Libertarianism – Wikipedia
Economic Cures Are Like Booze for an Alcoholic: Caroline Baum –

  1. Terry says

    Excellent critique of where the new administration is at this moment. Indeed, what I've seen so far smacks of the same ad hoc-ery that so undermine the markets and economy last year.

    I would disagree mildly on the last point: I don't think the USG has enough resources to stimulate (more like "defibrillate") the economy back into growth without undercutting whatever is left in the way of future American economic soundness. We either have to stand aside (classic libertarianism) and let the market and economy takes its course (with lots of big bank bankruptcies, huge unemployment, etc) or nationalize to protect the interests of the American taxpayer. As for me, I say nationalize a la the Swedish model.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. John Creighton says

    I’m not sure the US has enough money for more stimulus. See the documentary:
    <a href=”https://”_blank”>https://<a href=”…” target=”_blank”>…
    As for the U.S. government buying up mortgages. I agree that it can keep prices artificially high but they can do so in a way to help keep american’s in their homes.
    <a href=”https://”_blank”>https://<a href=”…” target=”_blank”>
    These points you mention concern me a lot:
    •Obama is silent on prosecuting financial industry villains
    •Obama must re-regulate, but not go overboard
    •Obama must beat back the protectionists

    But I do think China does do currency manipulation and without some appreciation of the Chinese dollar it is going to be harder for things to get into balance.

    1. mL says

      I am a Chinese and would like to say something about this topic.

      China is the alpha manufacturer. However, china does not earn as much as most people think as in the trade balance sheet. Most of the factories in China are OEM for foreign companies. For example, Apple finds a manufacturer in China to make iphones each cost about 500USD in retails. China only earns less than 30 cents each of profit while most of the profit goes to Apple, U.S. retailers, shipping (most owed by US companies). At the same time, Chinese factories need to bear the material price fluctuation, retooling… The problem of Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 is that it only count for import prices (FOB) of the products not counting who make most of the profits.

      Another very important point is: even if China appreciate Yuan, it WILL NOT help U.S.'s trade deficit. The labour cost in Mexico is about 1/3 of U.S. The labour cost in China is also about 1/3 of Mexico. If China appreciates yuan, will the manufacturing moves back to the U.S? The answer is no. They will move to somewhere else, to Mexico, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Argentina … anywhere you can name it, but NOT U.S. So why you think if Yuan appreciate will help U.S. trade deficit?

      China is not as a threat as most U.S. people reckoned. The China's reserve is about two trillions dollars. Sounds a large number? But if you compare how much money the US government has poured into the financial system without blinking eyes, these numbers are tiny.


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