Audit Notes: Financial Fraud and the Economy, TBTF Debts, Health Care

Mike Konczal has some good thoughts on the Levin-Coburn Report, financial fraud, and ProPublica’s Pulitzer win for their Wall Street reporting:

Why is fraud important? The first is obviously the ideal of justice, that those who have been rewarded at another’s expense ought to pay a price. The second is a regulatory issue, to provide disincentives against wrong acts.

The third is the macroeconomic element. How much did the fraud in Wall Street’s misbehavior create and/or sustain the housing bubble? The general narrative looks at a combination of a “global savings glut,” the actions of the Federal Reserve and/or exuberance in the housing market. Wall Street, obnoxious as they may be, is almost a bystander in this narrative. There’s little role for the idea that Wall Street and accompanying parties’ actions, in creating financial instruments they expected to fail, created or sustained the housing and credit bubble in any meaningful, quantitative sense. This is an understudied part of the crisis, and if the Great Depression is any guide, will likely be lost to history.

It’s also an underreported part of the crisis:

In that sense, it’s good to see Propublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein winning a Pulitzer for their work on Magnetar and the rest of the financial crisis. Magnetar is the hedge fund that kept the demand going for subprime mortgage-backed securities when the housing market was originally starting to cool, pumping the bubble that it then bet against. How much of an effect did that have on the overall market? How much less of a recession would we have had if this conflict wasn’t there? We need better numbers here.

— MIT’s Simon Johnson notes that you can’t get hold of the country’s longterm fiscal future without reining in the financial system, which is the primary current cause of the country’s huge debts:

In early 2008, the CBO projected that debt as a percent of gross domestic product would fall from 36.8 percent to 22.6 percent at the end of 2018. In contrast, the latest CBO forecast has debt soaring to 75.3 percent of GDP in 2018.

What caused this stunning reversal, which in dollar terms works out to a $10 trillion swing for end-year 2018 debt, from $5.1 trillion to $15.8 trillion?

Almost all of this increase is due to the severe recession that followed the financial crisis of late 2008. This lowered output and employment, and therefore reduced tax revenue.

The next time the too big to fail banks get in trouble—and they will, sooner than you think—we’re not going to be able to afford to bail them out:

The impact of a new financial crisis on the U.S. public balance sheet would be huge. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative must stop dodging this issue and start proposing solutions.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece this weekend by Theodore Dalrymple attacking Britain’s National Health Service and asserting that the U.S. is trying to imitate aspects of it. But this piece is long on assertion and short on evidence.

Thus, I could not but smile a little wanly when President Barack Obama said this week that he hoped an increase in the use of generic drugs, together with an expert commission to examine the cost-effectiveness of medical treatments, would make a significant impact on the vast budget deficit of the United States. We in Britain have been there and we have done that, and our health-care costs doubled, perhaps not as a result, but certainly at the same time.

There’s almost no data in this piece to back up any of its assertions. Did health costs in the UK double in five years or did they double in thirty years? Was the doubling in real terms or nominal ones? We’re not told.

But the biggest hole here is how much less the British pay for their health care than we do. They pay less than 40 percent per capita what we do and about half as much on a GDP basis.

And Britons live two years longer on average than Americans.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,