FedUpUSA

Meredith Whitney: The government is “out of bullets”

By Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns

I am not sure I buy Meredith Whitney’s assertion that the government is “out of bullets” in its quest to prop up the economy. It’s a matter of political will more than anything else. Nevertheless, I do agree with her basic premise in the CNBC video below that the financial sector is likely to see a more unfavourable economic climate in 2010 than it has done in 2009.

In particular, a looming crisis at the state and local government level, coupled with continued distress at regional and local banks will mean a deadly combination of higher taxes, fewer jobs and less credit for households and small businesses. Unless we see a change in the political climate in Washington, now oriented toward deficit reduction over jobs, we are likely to see a double-dip recession late in 2010 or 2011.

Whitney says “the component parts don’t add up” in addressing the Obama Administration’s conflicting rhetoric on jobs, stimulus and deficit reduction.

What’s so frustrating is you have an administration that is arguing such a populist [rhetoric] and not appreciating all the unintended consequences that the consumer and small businesses have far less credit.

I have said Barack Obama gets it because we have confirmation that he understands that raising taxes or cutting spending is what leads to a double dip recession.

I will accept that not everyone believes we should avoid recession if it means more government spending because of the enormous debt loads in the private sector and the unfunded liabilities in the public sector. Fair enough. I have my own doubts due to concerns about crony capitalism. That is an ideological debate about the role of government.

But in executing actual policy, I believe the President’s words and actions are at odds in part due to the political landscape and the wishes of the corporate interests to which he is beholden.

Witness the duelling headlines today where Joe Klein points out a speech with elbows that the President delivered today.  Michael Tomasky was equally impressed. But, this was just a speech. When it comes to actual policy, Robert Reich was less impressed.

Barack Obama is trying once again for balance. On the one hand, he wants enough government spending to offset the timid spending of consumers and businesses. Otherwise, the jobs and wage recession could drag on for years. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to set off more alarm bells about the budget deficit. Otherwise, conservative Democrats might join forces with Republicans to block heath care. So what does he do? A little bit more stimulus spending, but stimulus spending that doesn’t look like more stimulus because it’s not really adding to the deficit. It’s coming out of savings from money already authorized to be spent on the bank bailout. Hmmm?

No president in modern times walks a tightrope as exquisitely as this one. His balance is a thing of beauty. But when it comes to this economy right now — an economy fundamentally out of balance — we need a federal government that moves boldly and swiftly to counter-balance the huge recessionary forces still at large.

States and cities, for example, are estimated to be $350 billion hole this year and next. They can’t run deficits so they’re wildly cutting spending, cutting jobs, cutting contracts, and raising taxes and fees. That’s a huge anti-stimulus package roughly as big as the remaining direct spending in the old federal stimulus package. Which means, Obama’s "new" stimulus, announced today, is about all we have, and it’s not nearly enough.

I am hearing a figure of $70 billion for a jobs initiative – a pathetically small number in an economy of nearly $15 trillion.  In my view, it is better to do nothing than to do something insignificant that acts to discredit your policies.

Returning to the bank world, Whitney’s recent bearishness has been on target (and one CNBC presenter mentions Goldman Sachs as an example). When asked pointedly whether she was making a general market call, Whitney says no. But she does rightly point out that distress in financials does have a spillover effect on the wider economy via restricted credit and this cannot be positive for shares.

As for TARP, Whitney makes an important point when she says the TARP repayments can be seen more as political calculation than an affirmation of banking sector health.  She believes the government needs the TARP funds to help states in severe budgetary distress because no funding will be forthcoming via legislative approval.

I see this as a textbook Larry Summers play and a continuation of the executive branch’s end-run around Congress to affect fiscal policy. In March I wrote:

The political realities of solving a financial crisis have often meant circumventing legislative approval to meet the exigencies of a particular situation. This was certainly the case in 1995 during the so-called Tequila Crisis in Mexico. And I believe it is the case again today in 2009.

Read that post to see how the Clinton Administration was able to bail out Mexico without legislative approval.  They are clearly seeking to exercise the same tactics in this case again.

The fact that this post has been all about government when I intended to write something about financial services should tell you something is seriously wrong.

The video of Whitney is below. It runs eight minutes.


As for Whitney’s comments on people without access to credit, see also Millions in US lack bank access from the Financial Times.


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