I was invited to attend the Financial Times Global Conference “The View From the Top: The Future of America” and since I was in New York anyway I thought it would be fun. I don’t hang around with macro types much, and even less with liberal macro types. I will not summarize the entire conference, but a few observations:
- Reinhart-Rogoff was a hit, mentioned several times. Aside from the merits of the book, I think people were trying to give Obama cover for no recovery. R-R apparently says it takes an average of 7 years to get out of a financial crisis.
- The first speaker (Gene Sperling) was late and the Gillian Tett of the FT, the moderator, took some informal polls of the audience (mainly business journalists.) Pretty pessimistic: Thought that there would be a double-dip, the EU would lose at least one member, and yields would not increase.
- Sperling (Director of the National Economic Council) spent a lot of time talking about how bad unemployment is and arguing for the President’s Jobs plan (which the Senate has already rejected.) Not much new to propose.
- Peter Orszagh (former OMB Director, now with CITI) made a few interesting points. He said that the Administration got the original forecast wrong, and did not realize that the recession was “L” and not “V” shaped. He also predicted that middle class incomes will not return to their original level and that policy should not fool people into thinking they would.
- Several speakers (Laura Tyson of Berkeley and former CEA Chair; Steve Case , AOL founder) argued for better immigration laws (no quarrel there: the Republicans have got themselves into a terrible position on immigration). Tyson in particular argued for more STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. I asked her if she thought the increasing gender imbalance in colleges (now about 2 women per man) was responsible for the STEM problem and she indicated that it might be part of the problem. Really something worth further examination and some policy analysis. Of course the immigration mess makes this problem worse since it is harder to import engineers from abroad.
- Someone (I think Steve Rattner, former Auto Czar) made the point that while the American economy is doing badly and unemployment is a real problem, American companies are doing very well, in part because of foreign earnings. There were also several inconclusive discussions of a tax holiday for repatriation of foreign earnings. Some said that this would be “unfair” but others understood that future effects, not past fairness, was what was relevant. Not clear what the effects would be, however.
- A few mentions of Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, but mostly the role of regulation was ignored. Health care was mentioned but not, I believe, Obamacare. Everyone agreed that businesses were “afraid” to spend money but little discussion of the source of the fear.
- Most were not worried about conflict with China. I asked about Chinese demographics (aging population, gender imbalance with too many males.) Whenever I hear discussions of China I raise this issue since people seem to ignore it and it is a serious issue. Michael Spence (Nobel Laureate, now at NYU) said that China was in a position to establish a viable retirement program (no details) but that the gender issue was not one that was being dealt with. There seemed to be almost envy of the ability of the Chinese to do what they wanted independent of the desires of the people.
- Laurence Fink of BlackRock made the interesting point that the current situation seems a lot like the 1970s, including the widespread pessimism. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator of the FT, agreed. But the lesson he drew was that we need more and wiser regulation. I spoke with him briefly and indicated that I was in the Reagan Administration, and that last time we got in a pessimistic mess like this deregulation al la Reagan was the solution. He rejected this approach. But I am hopeful.