"New regulations, new prosecutions or fines against business, new obstacles to investment, more spending and higher taxes...the great tragedy of the Obama nonrecovery is that this Administration still doesn't realize the damage it is doing."
How Not to Grow an Economy
A week in the life of the Obama recovery, WSJ Editorial, August 21, 2011
Financial markets are in turmoil, investors are fleeing to safe havens, and the chances of another recession are rising. This would seem to be a moment when government should be especially careful to do no harm, to talk and walk softly, and to reassure business that Washington wants more private investment and hiring.
But this is not how our current government behaves. Day after day brings headlines of another legislative, regulatory or enforcement action that gives CEOs and investors reason to hunker down, retain as much cash as possible and ride out whatever storms are ahead. This is not the way to nurture an already fragile recovery, much less help the economy to endure shocks from Europe, natural disasters or a big bank failure.
Consider the headlines only from last week, a slow week by Washington standards, with Congress out of session and President Obama campaigning for three days before going on vacation. Even in the dog days of August, your government was hard at work undermining economic confidence.
• Monday: "Warren Buffett right about taxes, says Obama." The week began with a one-two tax punch from Warren Buffett and President Obama. The Omaha stock-picker wrote an op-ed begging Congress to raise taxes on millions of Americans who make less than he does, and the President used the first stop of his bus tour, in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to agree.
"I put a deal before the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that would have solved this problem," Mr. Obama said, "and he walked away because his belief was we can't ask anything of millionaires and billionaires and big corporations in order to close our deficit." So America's main job creators are still on notice that a tax increase is in their future in 2013, if not sooner.
• Tuesday: "Federal mortgage role to be preserved: Obama is working to develop new housing policy." A Washington Post story reported that Mr. Obama has directed a White House team to develop a housing plan that would keep the feds deeply involved in mortgage markets, with subsidies and loan guarantees, perhaps even preserving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
This contradicts the Treasury's February white paper recommending a much smaller government role in housing without Fan and Fred. A Treasury official responded that the white paper is still guiding policy, but private investors who might want to get into housing finance know the Post story came from someone in authority and have another reason to stay on the sidelines.
• Thursday: "Justice Inquiry Is Said to Focus on S.&P. Ratings." Barely two weeks after Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. debt over White House protests, we learn that the feds are going after the firm for its ratings on mortgage securities before the financial crisis. The feds say the probe was underway before the downgrade, but the credit rater's mortgage mistakes have been known for years. And why not Moody's or Fitch?
The message: If you disagree with this Administration, you'd better lawyer-up.
• Thursday: "Exxon, U.S. Government Duel Over Huge Oil Find." Exxon has made the biggest oil discoveries ever in the Gulf of Mexico at some one billion barrels, but the feds have taken the extraordinary action of denying the oil company what had long been routine oil lease extensions. So Exxon and a Norwegian firm are suing the feds to be able to drill on the leases, spending money on lawyers for permission to create jobs and increase domestic oil production.
• Thursday: "Fed Eyes European Banks: Regulators Scrutinize Ability of Institutions' U.S. Units to Fund Themselves." The Wall Street Journal quotes Federal Reserve Bank of New York officials as saying they're worried about the condition of European banks and are on the job making sure that any problems don't damage American banks. It's nice to know U.S. regulators are earning their pay, but the spectacle of regulators publicly broadcasting troubles at European banks does nothing to calm already jittery interbank markets.
• Thursday: "Obama to push stimulus plan." The President signals more government fiscal action, to be unveiled after Labor Day. Ideas on the table: New spending on roads and a tax credit for companies that hire workers.
The thinking, say aides, is to pressure Republicans to pass these proposals or look indifferent to high unemployment. So even as he proposes to reduce deficits far into the future in ways that will depend on decisions by future Congresses, the President will fight to increase spending immediately. Americans may conclude they've heard this cognitive dissonance before.
None of these stories by themselves—or even a week of them—is enough to undermine a recovery. But the cascade of such stories day after day—about new regulations, new prosecutions or fines against business, new obstacles to investment, more spending and higher taxes—contributes to the larger lack of business and consumer confidence.
It's impossible to quantify the impact of such policies on lost GDP or lost job creation, but everyone in the real economy understands how such signals work. The great tragedy of the Obama nonrecovery is that this Administration still doesn't realize the damage it is doing.