Audit Roundup: Obamanomics

Bloomberg on what's in store; Challenges galore, says the Times; etc.

Bloomberg, better than the Journal, Times, or Post, looks ahead to the economic change likely under an Obama administration.

The Democratic president-elect has much more on his agenda, amounting to what may be the broadest overhaul of the U.S. economy since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Beyond job creation and big investments in public works, Obama intends to shift the tax burden back toward the wealthy, roll back a quarter-century of deregulation, extend health-care coverage to all Americans and reassess the U.S. government’s pursuit of free- trade deals.

“The changes will be far greater than many expect,” said Andrew Laperriere, managing director at International Strategy & Investment Group, a money management and research firm in Washington. “From taxes to energy to health care, it’s a pretty sweeping agenda.”

But the Journal is good in looking at the “cooler climate” Big Business is expecting from Obama.

What appears to worry business interests most is the possibility that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House will shift the balance of power between employers and unions back in favor of unions, after two decades or more in which unions have been in retreat.

It would have been nice if the Journal had noted that much of the changes coming to the business environment are due to the seismic upheaval the markets and economy have been experiencing in recent months. John McCain’s rhetoric in the last several weeks was, if anything, more anti-Big Business than Senator Obama’s.

The Times has a nice piece focusing on the massive challenges facing Obama.

No president since before Barack Obama was born has ascended to the Oval Office confronted by the accumulation of seismic challenges awaiting him. Historians grasping for parallels point to Abraham Lincoln taking office as the nation was collapsing into Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt arriving in Washington in the throes of the Great Depression.

The paper says Obama is planning to step up right away, even during the transition:

While Roosevelt refused to get involved in prescribing economic medicine between his election in 1932 and his inauguration, advisers said Mr. Obama had concluded that he could not follow that example and remain silent until he was sworn in. At the same time, they said, Mr. Obama understands he should not overstep his bounds and wants his inauguration to mark a clean break from the past.

“Those who say wait and let the process unfold for two months before the inauguration are sorely mistaken,” said Jack Quinn, a former top official in the Clinton administration. “We are in such turmoil that his clearly and firmly putting his hand on the tiller is absolutely critical. He needs to do this. He needs to be in the middle of this.”

The LA Times’ David Lazarus is good this morning with a column on banks writing off up to 40 percent of some struggling people’s credit-card debts.

The banks are clearly figuring that the economy is going to get worse before it gets better, and that reducing the number of charge-offs would improve their bottom line (even if they can collect only 60% of some balances).

The banks also would gain an accounting benefit by not having to write off forgiven debt for five years, thus limiting reported losses for what is hoped would be the duration of the economic downturn.

This is amazing: The Journal reports that bankrupt retail chain Mervyn’s owes back pay to its workers, but won’t pay it to them until it pays off its bankers.

After refusing to give fired workers their accrued vacation pay, Mervyn’s LLC said it will reverse its decision as long as going-out-of-business sales raise enough cash to pay off its debt to Wachovia.

Mervyn’s withheld accumulated vacation pay from the final checks of people who lost their jobs in October, citing pressure from creditors and a court order.

The Times has a nice look at why the fancy-pants mathematical models used on Wall Street failed.

In boom times, new markets tend to outpace the human and technical systems to support them, said Richard R. Lindsey, president of the Callcott Group, a quantitative consulting group. Those support systems, he said, include pricing and risk models, back-office clearing and management’s understanding of the financial instruments. That is what happened in the mortgage-backed securities and credit derivatives markets.

Better modeling, more wisely applied, would have helped, Mr. Lindsey said, but so would have common sense in senior management. The mortgage securities markets, he noted, grew rapidly and generated high profits for a decade. “If you are making a high return, I guarantee you there is a high risk there, even if you can’t see it,” said Mr. Lindsey, a former chief economist of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the seemingly daily stories about the downturn in China. Bloomberg is at bat today, reporting that half of the country’s toymakers have shut down:

China’s largest banks, with 4 trillion yuan of cash, are resisting government efforts to boost lending to 42 million small and medium-size companies that drove the economic boom of the past decade. On Nov. 2, the central bank scrapped curbs on loans after three interest rate cuts in seven weeks failed to revive economic growth that has sagged to its slowest in five years.

Half the nation’s toy exporters have closed this year, and 67,000 smaller enterprises filed for bankruptcy in the first half, according to government statistics. Companies with assets of less than 40 million yuan provide three-quarters of urban jobs and 60 percent of China’s gross domestic product.

The LAT reports that the latest homeowner-aid plan is a flop:

But fewer than 100 homeowners applied for the program in October, and the Federal Housing Administration now projects that just 13,300 will be helped in its first year. An FHA official said at a mortgage industry conference recently that one large lender had reported that in a group of 23,000 troubled borrowers only 1,200 would be eligible for the program…

But lenders, mortgage investors and borrowers all see drawbacks in the FHA plan and have been slow to embrace it, industry and government sources say.

In some cases, the interested parties are playing a waiting game, hoping that other potential foreclosure-prevention options, among them a proposal promoted by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair, will be more attractive.

The initial reaction suggests Hope for Homeowners could be just the latest in a series of government and industry efforts that have failed to stem the rising tide of foreclosures.

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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.