by Molly Ivins
to our presidential candidates is a splendid example of the dog- that- did- not- bark- in- the- night. (The dog- that- did- not- bark was the crucial clue to the solution of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Elementary, my dear Watson.)
While they snipe at one another over golden oldies -- abortion, soccer moms and who-invented-Willie-Horton -- there is something happening out here. And they don't know what it is, do they, Mr. Jones?
Alan Greenspan, the great pooh-bah of the economy, just raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point -- the fourth increase since June -- and clearly signalled another increase to come on March 21. This was in an effort to tamp down the roaring stock market.
The response from the stock market? According to The Associated Press, "Investors poured money into the shares of technology companies to the exclusion of all other sectors." It was the speculation in high-tech stocks that Greenspan was trying to stop, so that was a brilliant success, wasn't it?
Bill Clinton used to quote a definition of insanity: It's doing the same thing that doesn't work over and over again.
For example, reappointing Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan's increases in the interest rate will eventually have an impact -- they'll slow down the entire economy. When the economy slows down, businesses cut back and it's last-hired, first-fired -- the working poor, the chronically unemployed, the bottom fifth of the people economically who have yet to see their income increase from the longest boom in U.S. history.
The federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and cannot lift a full-time worker with one child out of poverty. The minimum wage is now $5.15; in 1979, it was worth $6.39 in current dollars. And the next three-fifths of the population isn't doing a lot better.
So here is Greenspan, punishing the working poor for the sins of Wall Street speculators. (All you need to know about Wall Street is that it's the place where a drop in the unemployment rate is considered bad news.)
There is another way out of this dangerous financial pass: an increase in margin requirements to curb speculation. There has been a huge surge in margin debt -- money borrowed from brokers to buy stock. Margin debt at the New York Stock Exchange increased from $140.1 billion in 1998 to $228.5 billion last year. In November and December, margin debt shot up by 25 percent while stocks rose 11 percent.
This is how margins work. If you borrow money to buy a stock and the stock's price falls to a point at which its underlying value does not meet the federally required minimum, brokers must demand that their customers deposit more money to bring the accounts back into balance. Margin calls often force indebted stock owners to sell, thus driving prices down further.
The margin requirement since 1974 has been at 50 percent. Greenspan doesn't want to increase it because he thinks that would discriminate in favor of large investors. Charles Peabody of Mitchell Securities, a New York research group, told the Financial Times of London: "Baloney. Small investors can buy options and futures just like anyone else."
According to the financial press, Greenspan, rather than doing anything about margin rates, is hoping the nation's brokerage firms will do it for him by raising their margin rates. But as The New York Times' Market Watch recently noted: "Lending money to investors is very lucrative for these firms. They reap both margin interest and extra commissions from investors buying twice the stock they would otherwise have."
Our man Greenspan is a generally hopeful fellow. He also hopes that the new bank-brokerage-insurance combos will police themselves. The fellow is the Pollyanna, the Mr. Micawber, the Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm of economics.
Along with the spiralling margin debt, we also have a staggering trade deficit, and household debt has reached 103 percent of personal income, up from 85 percent in 1992 -- not exactly a benchmark for fiscal prudence back then.
An increase in the interest rate of 1 or 1.5 percent could break many families already staggering under interest payments. I would say it could force them into bankruptcy, except that you notice the huge campaign contributions made by the financial industry are now buying a bill through Congress that will make it much harder to go into bankruptcy. You'll just have to stay in the economic version of debtor's prison for the rest of your life.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates are debating about whether to make a huge tax cut or a huger tax cut.
Uh, as you may recall, you're supposed to cut taxes during a recession; if you cut taxes during a boom, it fuels Greenspan's favorite bugbear, inflation. Inflation is the one thing that Greenspan is never optimistic about. He likes to raise interest rates before there is any sign of it.
The economic genius of our would-be Republican presidents mandates such a solemn regard for the beauties of a balanced budget that should recession come and government revenues fall, they are quite likely to increase taxes during the recession.
But let's talk about who is running negative ads and who is being nasty to whom instead.
February 6, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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