Posts tagged ‘Federal Reserve’

We Are In the Best of Hands: Janet Yellen Edition

The Arizona Republic today reviews a speech given by Yellen in January, 2007 in Phoenix:

It was January 2007 when Yellen, then head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, spoke here about financial literacy before transitioning into comments about the economy — comments that now look remarkably unperceptive.

Back then, months before the real-estate and banking crisis took down the economy, Yellen expressed concern that inflation was uncomfortably high while job gains were coming too swiftly.

“If labor markets are as tight as the unemployment rate suggests, then there may be reason for concern about building inflationary pressures,” she said according to my Jan. 18, 2007, article.

Subsequent events showed that inflation was the last thing we had to worry about, while the lack of jobs has emerged as a central drag on the economy. Back then, U.S. unemployment was around 4.5 percent. But after the recession took hold, it more than doubled, peaking at 10 percent in late 2009. At 7.3 percent currently, it remains well above where it should be this far into an economic recovery.

In contrast, core consumer inflation (which excludes food and energy costs) of 1.8 percent today has hardly budged from the 2.2 percent rate that had Yellen all worked up back then.

In another comment during her Phoenix talk that now looks wildly off-base, Yellen, who later was named vice chair of the Fed’s board of governors, said recession risks had receded despite lingering weakness in housing. She cited the Valley as a place where home-price appreciation had come down from unsustainably high rates of increase.

The Great Recession, as we all now know in hindsight, began later that year, triggered by a home-price slide of epic proportions.

I don't want to beat her up too bad for missing the bubble burst, since most everyone did.  They also all missed the last bubble burst, and the one before that, etc.

This is what makes me crazy:  not that these folks were wrong, even consistently brutally wrong, but that they display absolutely no modesty in their actions given that they were so wrong.  They propose policy steps, such as seemingly eternal QE, that are astoundingly risky unless one assumes that they have a very, very good grasp on exactly where the economy is going.  Which they clearly never have had in the past.  If they acted like they had been wrong most of the time, then I would have little to criticize.  But to be consistently wrong and then make huge risky bets as if you have reliable predictive powers is hubris of the worst sort.

The Problem With Affirmative Action

Janet Yellen may soon be a victim of affirmative action.  I know that sounds odd, but I think it is true.

To preface, I have no preferences in the competition to become the next head of the Federal Reserve, and assume that Janet Yellen and Larry Summers are equally qualified.   I don't think the immense power the Fed has to screw with the economy can be wielded rationally by any individual, so it almost does not matter who sits in the chair.  Perhaps someone with a bit less hubris and a little more self-awareness would be better with such power, which would certainly mitigate against Summers.

But Yellen has a problem.  When this horse race first emerged in the press, many in the media suggested that Yellen would be a great choice because she was a woman, and qualified.  Most of the press coverage centered (probably unfairly given that she does seem to be quite qualified) on her woman-ness.  This leaves Yellen with a problem because many people were left with a first impression that the reason to choose her was primarily due to her having a womb, rather than her economic chops.

This is the downside of affirmative action.

Most Unsurprising Headline of the Year

Via the AZ Republic:

The pay gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America widened to a record last year.

...

Last year, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose 19.6 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent.

...

But since the recession officially ended in June 2009, the top 1 percent have enjoyed the benefits of rising corporate profits and stock prices: 95 percent of the income gains reported since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent.

That compares with a 45 percent share for the top 1 percent in the economic expansion of the 1990s and a 65 percent share from the expansion that followed the 2001 recession.

The Federal Reserve is pumping over a half trillion dollars of printed money into inflating a bubble in financial assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc).  It should be zero surprise that the rich, who disproportionately get their income and wealth from such financial assets, should benefit the most.   QE is the greatest bit of cronyism the government has yet to invent.

(yes, I understand that there are many reasons for this one-year result, including tax changes that encouraged income to be moved forward into last year and the fact it was a recovery off of a low base.  Never-the-less, despite decades of Progressive derision for "trickle down" economics, this Administration has pursue the theory that creating an asset bubble that makes the rich much richer will in the long term help the economy via the "wealth effect.")

Obamacare-Driven Stagnation

From the file of things that are absolutely obvious to business owners, and a total shocker to the pundit and policy class:

In its latest monthly report on economic conditions across the country, the Federal Reserve points to Obamacare as one reason the unemployment rate has remained near or above 8 percent under the current administration.

That’s what Sally Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute, writes in an op-ed piece for Forbes magazine.

The Fed’s so-called “beige book” noted that employers across the country have “cited the unknown effects of the Affordable Care Act as reasons for planned layoffs and reluctance to hire more staff,” Pipes says, adding that as more businesses learn about Obamacare, “the more they’re coming to realize that affordable care” is the last thing it will provide.

Here is my attempt to illustrate the same thing in one chart (net monthly job creation, which Kevin Drum helpfully posts each month):

click to enlarge

I will revise this chart later - this is actually public and private totals.  When you look at private only, the April 2010 peak goes away (that was temporary census hiring) and the chart has an even more stark inflection right there in March 2010 when Obamacare was passed.

 

When Low Interest Rates are Anti-Stimulus

We have heard about the difficulty folks who are retired are having with low interest rates.  But low interest rates are having a huge impact on corporations that still have defined-benefit pensions.

Across America's business landscape, the gap between the amount that companies expect to owe retirees and what they have on hand to pay them was an estimated $347 billion at the end of 2012. That is better than the $386 billion gap recorded at the end of 2011, but the two years represent the worst deficits ever, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

The firm estimates that companies now hold only $81 of every $100 promised to pensioners.

In general, everything happening on the liability side of the pension equation is working against companies. A big source of the problem: persistently low interest rates, set largely by the Federal Reserve....

Pension liabilities change over time as employees enter and leave a pension plan. For financial-reporting purposes, companies use a so-called discount rate to calculate the present value of payments they expect to make over the life of their plan.

The discount rate serves as a proxy for the hypothetical interest rate that an insurance company would expect on a bond today to fund a company's future pension payments. The lower the discount rate, the greater the company's pension liabilities.

Boeing's discount rate, for example, fell to 3.8% last year from 6.2% in 2007. The aircraft manufacturer said in a securities filing that a 0.25-percentage-point decrease in its discount rate would add $3.1 billion to its projected pension obligations.

Boeing reported a net pension deficit of $19.7 billion at the end of 2012.

The discount rate is based on the yields of highly rated corporate bonds—double-A or higher—with maturities equal to the expected schedule of pension-benefit payouts.

Moody's decision last summer to lower the credit rating of big banks hurt UPS and other companies by booting those banks out of the calculation. And because bonds issued by some of those banks carried higher yields than other bonds used in the calculation, UPS's discount rate fell 1.20 percentage points.

This is obviously not a wildly productive use of corporate funds, to divert ever-increasing amounts of money to pay people who are no longer producing.  But at least corporations are acknowledged the problem (I will give credit where it is due -- thanks to accounting rules and government regulations that force a fair amount of transparency here).

It is interesting to note the Boeing example, where their expected rate of return on pension funds fell from 6.2% to 3.8%.  Compare that to corrupt government entities like Calpers, which bravely faced this new reality by cutting its discount rate from an absurd 7.75% to a still absurd 7.5%.  This despite returns last year around 1%.  By keeping the number artificially high, Calpers is hiding its underfunding problem.  An interesting reform would be to force Calpers to use a discount rate equal to the average of that used by the 10 largest private pension funds.

Sleep With The Dogs, Wake Up With Fleas

JP Morgan finds itself under the government microscope for having heartlessly... cooperated with the government four years ago

The U.S. Department of Justice and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman teamed up last week to sue J.P. Morgan in a headline-grabbing case alleging the fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities.

One notable detail: J.P. Morgan didn't sell the securities. The seller was Bear Stearns—yes, the same Bear Stearns that the government persuaded Morgan to buy in 2008. And, yes, the same government that is now participating in the lawsuit against Morgan to answer for stuff Bear did before the government got Morgan to buy it....

As for the federal government's role, it's helpful to recall some recent history: In the mid-2000s, Bear Stearns became—outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—perhaps the most reckless financial firm in the housing market. Bear was the smallest of the major Wall Street investment banks. But instead of allowing market punishment for Bear and its creditors when it was headed to bankruptcy, the feds decided the country could not survive a Bear failure. So they orchestrated a sale to J.P. Morgan and provided $29 billion in taxpayer financing to make it happen.

The principal author of the Bear deal was Timothy Geithner, who was then the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is now the Secretary of the Treasury. Until this week, we didn't think the Bear intervention could look any worse.

Somewhere there was a legal department fail here - I can't ever, ever imagine buying a company with Bear's reputation that was sinking into bankruptcy without doing either via an asset sale or letting the mess wash through Chapter 7 so there could be an old bank / new bank split.  But Bank of America made exactly the same mistake at roughly the same time with Countrywide, so it must have appeared at the time that the government largess here (or the government pressure) was too much to ignore.

Risks of QE

So far, I have mainly been concerned about inflationary risks from quantitative easing, which is effectively a fancy term for substituting printed money for government debt (I know there are folks out there that swear up and down that QE does not involve printing (electronically of course) money, but it simply has to.  Operation Twist, the more recent Fed action, is different, and does not involve printing money but essentially involves the Fed taking on longer-term debt in exchange for putting more shorter term debt on the market.

Scott Minder in the Financial Times highlights another potential problem:

In 2008, just before the first of two rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve had $41bn in capital and roughly $872bn in liabilities, resulting in a debt to equity ratio of roughly 21-to-one. The Federal Reserve’s portfolio had $480bn in Treasury securities with an asset duration of about 2.5 years. Therefore, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would have caused the value of its portfolio to fall by 2.5 per cent, or $12bn. A loss of that magnitude would have been severe but not devastating.

By 2011, the Fed’s portfolio consisted of more than $2.6tn in Treasury and agency securities, mortgage bonds and other fixed income assets, and its debt-to-equity ratio had dramatically increased to 51-to-one. Under Operation Twist, the Fed swapped its short-term securities holdings for longer-term ones, thereby extending the duration of its portfolio to more than eight years. Now, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would cause the market value of the Federal Reserve’s assets to fall by about 8 per cent, or $200bn, leaving it insolvent, with a capital deficit of about $150bn. Hypothetically, a 5 per cent rise in interest rates could cause a trillion dollar decline in the value of the Federal Reserve’s assets.

As the economy continues to expand, the Federal Reserve will eventually seek to normalise monetary policy, resulting in higher interest rates. In this scenario, the central bank could find that the market value of its portfolio has declined to the point where it no longer has enough sellable assets to adequately reduce the money supply and maintain the purchasing power of the dollar. Given US dependence on foreign capital flows, if the stability of the dollar is drawn into question, the ability of the US to finance its deficits may falter. The Federal Reserve could then find itself the buyer of last resort for Treasury securities. In doing so, the government would become hostage to its printing press, and a currency crisis or runaway inflation could take hold.

George Dorgan observes, on the pages of Zero Hedge, that European countries are taking even large balance sheet risks.  The most surprising is the Swiss.

When Bad Things Happen to Well-Intentioned Legislation

My Forbes article is up for this week, and discusses 10 reasons why legislation frequently fails.  A buffet of Austrian economics, Bastiat, and public choice theory that I wrote for the high school economics class I teach each year.

Here is an example:

3.  Overriding Price Signals

The importance of prices is frequently underestimated.  Prices are the primary means by which literally billions of people (most of whom will never meet or even know of each others' existence) coordinate their actions, without any top-down planning.  With rising oil prices, for example, consumers around the world are telling oil companies:  "Go find more!"

For a business person, prices (of raw materials, labor, their products, and competitive products) are his or her primary navigation system, like the compass of an explorer or the GPS of a ship.  And just as disaster could well result from corrupting the readings of the explorer's compass while he is trekking across the Amazon, so too economic damage can result from government overriding price signals in the market.   Messing with the pricing mechanisms of markets turns the economy into a hall of mirrors that is almost impossible to navigate.  For example:

  • In the best case, corrupting market prices tends to result in gluts or shortages of individual products.  For example, price floors on labor (minimum wages) have created a huge glut of young and unskilled workers unable to find work.  On the other side, in the 1970s, caps on oil prices resulted in huge shortages in the US and those famous lines at gas stations.  These shortages and gas lines were repeated several times in the 1970's, but never have returned since the price caps were phased out.
  • In the worst case, overriding market price mechanisms can create enormous problems for the entire economy.   For example, it is quite likely that the artificially low interest rates promoted by the Federal Reserve over the last decade and higher housing prices driven by a myriad of US laws, organizations, and tax subsidies helped to drive the recent housing and financial bubble and subsequent crash.  Many will counter that it was the exuberance of private bankers that drove the bubble, but many bankers were like ship captains who drove their ships onto the rocks because their GPS signal had been altered

The Only Winning Move is Not to Play

The 5-year old transcripts of Federal Reserve Board meetings make for interesting reading.  Bernanke & Geithner basically yawn at concerns raised about housing prices and mortgages.

Let's be clear.  Unlike most of those who are likely commenting on this, I do NOT blame these folks for being wrong about the direction of the incredibly complex economy, and how one or two factors might influence the whole.   My sense has always been that it is impossible to be consistently right.

What I do criticize is the hubris of making major top-down Federal policy decisions that require that these folks be consistently right.  It's simply madness, and I am exhausted with the continuing reaction of both the media and most politicians that if we only had the right folks making these decisions, all would be well.  The reality is that these decisions are impossible to make, and will virtually always lead to gross mis-allocations of capital and resources in the economy that lead to recessions.

Update:  Here is one example

JUNE 28-29: In summarizing Fed officials’ views, Bernanke notes how it’s getting more and more difficult to make forecasts, describing the economic situation as “exceptionally complicated.” Since housing is particularly hard to project, Bernanke calls it “an important risk and one that should lead us to be cautious in our policy decisions.”

So, this seems like an admirable statement of humility.  Given these remarks, the group did nothing, right?  Of course not ... they raised interest rates a quarter of a point.

 

State Bankruptcy Prediction

There seems to be discussion in Washington about creating a legal framework for state bankruptcies.  My guess is that any law that might be passed will simply be a Trojan Horse.

A lot of people (including myself) would like the idea of the tough provisions applied to individuals who are bankrupt being applied to states.  Unfortunately, it is wildly unlikely that this is actually what we will get.  Any such law would likely just be a bailout program renamed "bankruptcy" to make it more palatable to the public, a transfer of obligations from state to federal taxpayers without any real imposition of discipline or cleanup of long-term obligations like pensions.  Heck, this is exactly what happened at GM, and that was just a private company.

Some might assume that a Republican House would be loathe to support bailout provisions for California, but two thoughts come to mind.

First, California, despite being a blue state, has plenty of red Congresspersons who will scream support for a bailout (for a parallel, think ethanol or farm subsidies, where grain state Republicans are among the first to break ranks with their brethren to support government interventionism).

Second, it is not clear that the Administration even needs the Congress any more to dish out money.  It has found so many extra-Constitutional ways to appropriate money without actually having to go to Congress (e.g. use of TARP funds for about anything, use of the Federal Reserve, etc.) that it should be no problem to do this without the House.  Take just one idea -- Imagine California issues a $100 billion in 0.0000005% 100-year bonds that the Fed then buys at face value with printed money (as they have been buying US securities).  Instant bailout, no Congress.

If I Had to Listen to Congress Every Day I'd Short Treasuries Too

Repeat after me:  There is nothing wrong, immoral, evil, or even unsavory about short-selling.  No one gets mad at you for selling an over-valued security which you actually own, so there should be no ethical difference in selling an over-valued security you don't actually own.  Somehow people who are traditionally long in the market (e.g. corporate executives) have convinced the world that short-sellers should be vilified.  I don't understand it.  If you love the stock and short-sellers drive it down, you should treat it as a gift that the stock you love can now be bought more cheaply.

So I thought this was particularly awesome:

On Oct. 8 and 9, 2008"”as the Federal Reserve was bailing out American International Group Inc."”an account Sen. Isakson held invested more than $30,000 in ProShares UltraShort 7-10 Year Treasury and UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury, the records show. These are "leveraged short" funds, designed to gain $2 for each $1 drop in the daily value of U.S. Treasury bonds.

Isakson claims he was not actively managing the account, a claim that is probably true given the ethics rules in Congress (not that anyone follows those).  My response in his place would have been, "F*cking-A right I was shorting government bonds.  Haven't you been paying attention over the last 12 months?"

Unfortunately, Isakson falls out of my hero category into my "hypocritical goat" category for this:

In February, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) argued on the Senate floor that "we don't need those speculating in the marketplace to take unfair advantage of the values of equities that are owned by Americans all over this country for the sake of making a buck on a short sale."

Again this unaccountable bias that somehow people who are long are morally superior, and somehow more entitled, than people who are short.

Ht Radley Balko

Perils of Populism

One of the perils of being a populist, as John McCain is finding out, is that the public is allowed to change its mind, but politicians who attempt to follow them end up looking bad.

the four-term senator says he was misled by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. McCain said the pair assured him that the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program would focus on what was seen as the cause of the financial crisis, the housing meltdown.

"Obviously, that didn't happen," McCain said in a meeting Thursday with The [Arizona] Republic's Editorial Board, recounting his decision-making during the critical initial days of the fiscal crisis. "They decided to stabilize the Wall Street institutions, bail out (insurance giant) AIG, bail out Chrysler, bail out General Motors.... What they figured was that if they stabilized Wall Street - I guess it was trickle-down economics - that therefore Main Street would be fine."

I am not sure this is much of a defense.  Even without McCain's access to such financial luminaries, I and many others predicted at the time the $700 billion slush fund would be used as, well, as slush fund to bail out the politically well-connected.  I must admit I didn't see the GM/UAW bailout coming, but its not wildly surprising in retrospect.

Unfortunately for all of us, McCain's competition in the next election, JD Hayworth, is even less appealing.

Fed To Start Buying Commercial Paper

Paul Kedrosky reports:

The Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday announced the creation of the
Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF), a facility that will
complement the Federal Reserve's existing credit facilities to help
provide liquidity to term funding markets. The CPFF will provide a
liquidity backstop to U.S. issuers of commercial paper through a
special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will purchase three-month unsecured
and asset-backed commercial paper directly from eligible issuers.

Kedrosky has a lot of interesting coverage of the current financial crisis.  He observes:

As Buffett has said, everyone in the world is trying to deleverage at
once -- which is unworkable -- leaving the U.S. as the only institution
in the world that can lever up at all -- and levering up it is. I just
wish it was more obvious to me how you exit the other side of programs
like this. Would we not be better off to quickly recapitalize and
backstop some banks?

I share his concerns, but I actually kind of like the idea of bringing liquidity to main street business directly, rather than indirectly by bailing out failing financial institutions.  The problem of unwinding the program is a big one.  Right now, I get the sense that the financial markets are operating almost entirely on expectations of government action -  will the Feds buy back mortgages, will the Feds keep the overnight borrowing window wide open, will the feds gaurantee commercial paper, how much commercial paper will they buy.  This latter actually seem the least bad of a lot of other options.  At least the Feds are buying good assets from good companies.

Zoning and the Housing Bubble

The Anti-Planner links an article by a Federal Reserve Bank economist on the housing market in Houston and how it is affected by zoning:

"Given that Houstonians had access to the same new types of
mortgages as the rest of the country and that Houston has had greater
population growth than other large metros, we might expect price
appreciation to be stronger in Houston than elsewhere," says the
article. "However, the opposite has been true."

The reason? Houston's lack of zoning and its large supply of land
available for development allowed builders to respond to easy credit by
increasing the pace of construction. Slow and unpredictable permitting
processes prevented builders in many other regions, including Florida
and the Pacific Coast states, from similarly stepping up production.

While some cities and regions have further delayed construction by imposing adequate public facilities or concurrency ordinances, Houston allows developers to create their own municipal utility districts.
Through these districts, the developers install the sewer, water, and
other facilities needed by their developments and charge the property
owners over time.

The result is that housing prices did not bubble, and they are not
significantly declining today. As of the fourth quarter of 2007, in
fact, they were still increasing. Anecdotal evidence from local
realtors and developers indicates that the tightening credit market has
soften the demand for homes under $200,000, but homes above that price
are still selling well.

Whatever correction Houston faces, says the article, "takes place in
the context of prices that are squarely in line with local construction
costs and without the painful supply-induced downturn under way in many
other markets." This leaves Houston relatively immune to the ups and
downs of housing prices experienced in regions with planning-induced
housing shortages.

I need to think a bit about how that relates to this.

More on the Teens as the New Seventies

For a while, I have been worried that the next decade may well be a return to 1970's economics, with bipartisan commitment to large government, ever-expanding government micro-management of... everything, growth-destroying taxes, and consumer-unfriendly protection of dead US industries.

Now, Megan McArdle points to an article that hints that the stagflation of the 1970's may be back as well.

Inflation and sluggish growth haven't joined in that ugly brew called
stagflation since the 1970s. They may not be ready for a reunion, but
they are making simultaneous threats to the economy and battling one
might only encourage the other.

Among a batch of economic readings today, the Labor Department
reported that import prices jumped 1.7% last month. The data included
troubling signs that consumer products, many imported from China, have
caught the inflation bug. The signs pointing to slowing growth included
a sharp deterioration in consumers' mood, as measured by the
Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, and a worsening
outlook for manufacturers, revealed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New
York's Empire State Manufacturing survey for February. The government
also reported that U.S. industrial production only increased slightly
during January, as colder weather elevated utilities output and offset
sharp declines in the auto and housing sectors. If indeed inflation is
teaming up with slower growth, it means big headaches for policy
makers, in particular Ben Bernanke. The Federal Reserve chief in
congressional testimony yesterday suggested that he is willing to keep
lowering interest-rates if the economy stalls. But, naturally, he will
have less room to do so if those lower rates would accelerate inflation
to unacceptable levels.

I am a Crank

As defined by Kevin Drum:

Well, since you asked, the reason I
think Ron Paul is a crank is because he wants to repeal the 16th
amendment, eliminate the personal income tax, abolish the minimum wage,
deep six the Federal Reserve, and return the United States to some kind
of weird quasi-gold standard.

Oops, Our Bad. Sorry.

I thought this was pretty funny, via TJIC.  The Fed apologizes for the Great Depression:

Ben Shalom Bernanke (born December 13, 1953)"¦ is an American
macroeconomist who is the current Chairman of the Board of Governors of
the United States Federal Reserve ("the Fed")"¦

On Milton Friedman's Ninetieth Birthday, Nov. 8, 2002 he
stated: "Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an
official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to
Milton and Rose: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did
it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.""¦

The quote is from Wikipedia, so I take it with a huge grain of salt.  Anyone have a link to another source, because the quote is pretty funny.  Good to see the government take responsibility for the economic messes it creates, even if 75 years late.  Of course, 75 years after the Hawley-Smoot tariffs helped throw a recession into the Great Depression, Congress is about to launch us down the same protectionist path, so don't give the feds too much credit.

Revisiting the New Deal. Finally.

By this definition of "not normal", I am not normal either.  I share with Tabarrok the strong sense that the New Deal (combined with shockingly stupid use of Wilson's Federal Reserve and of course rampant scorched-earth protectionism) extended rather than shortened the Great Depression. 

Imagine, increasing the power of
unions to strike and raise wages during a time of mass strikes and mass
unemployment. Imagine thinking that cartelizing whole industries
thereby raising prices and reducing output could improve the economy.
Not everything Roosevelt did was counterproductive - he did end
prohibition (although in order to raise taxes) - but plenty was and
worst of all was the uncertainty created by Roosevelt's vicious attacks
on business.

One of the things I think we have done historically is understate the true degree to which Roosevelt showed himself willing to take the country down the road to socialism, or more accurately, Mussolini-style fascism. Via David Gordon:

Roosevelt never had much
use for Hitler, but Mussolini was another matter. "'I don't mind
telling you in confidence,' FDR remarked to a White House
correspondent, 'that I am keeping in fairly close touch with that
admirable Italian gentleman'" (p. 31). Rexford Tugwell, a leading
adviser to the president, had difficulty containing his enthusiasm for
Mussolini's program to modernize Italy: "It's the cleanest "¦ most
efficiently operating piece of social machinery I've ever seen. It
makes me envious" (p. 32, quoting Tugwell).

Why did these
contemporaries sees an affinity between Roosevelt and the two leading
European dictators, while most people today view them as polar
opposites? People read history backwards: they project the fierce
antagonisms of World War II, when America battled the Axis, to an
earlier period. At the time, what impressed many observers, including
as we have seen the principal actors themselves, was a new style of
leadership common to America, Germany, and Italy.

Once more we must avoid a
common misconception. Because of the ruthless crimes of Hitler and his
Italian ally, it is mistakenly assumed that the dictators were for the
most part hated and feared by the people they ruled. Quite the
contrary, they were in those pre-war years the objects of considerable
adulation. A leader who embodied the spirit of the people had
superseded the old bureaucratic apparatus of government.

If you don't believe me, it is probably because you are not familiar with the National Recover Act (NRA) -- the famous "blue eagle".  This program was the very heart of Roosevelt's vision for the American economy, a vision of cartelized industries managed by government planners. (via Sheldon Richman of the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics):

The image of a strong
leader taking direct charge of an economy during hard times fascinated
observers abroad. Italy was one of the places that Franklin Roosevelt
looked to for ideas in 1933. Roosevelt's National Recovery Act (NRA)
attempted to cartelize the American economy just as Mussolini had
cartelized Italy's. Under the NRA Roosevelt established industry-wide
boards with the power to set and enforce prices, wages, and other terms
of employment, production, and distribution for all companies in an
industry. Through the Agricultural Adjustment Act the government
exercised similar control over farmers. Interestingly, Mussolini viewed
Roosevelt's New Deal as "boldly... interventionist in the field of
economics." Hitler's nazism also shared many features with Italian
fascism, including the syndicalist front. Nazism, too, featured
complete government control of industry, agriculture, finance, and
investment.

And further, from John Flynn's The Roosevelt Myth via Anthony Gregory:

[Mussolini] organized each trade or industrial group or professional
group into a state-supervised trade association. He called it a
corporative. These corporatives operated under state supervision and
could plan production, quality, prices, distribution, labor standards,
etc. The NRA provided that in America each industry should be organized
into a federally supervised trade association. It was not called a
corporative. It was called a Code Authority. But it was essentially the
same thing. These code authorities could regulate production,
quantities, qualities, prices, distribution methods, etc., under the
supervision of the NRA. This was fascism. The anti-trust laws forbade
such organizations. Roosevelt had denounced Hoover for not enforcing
these laws sufficiently. Now he suspended them and compelled men to
combine.

And read this to see the downright creepy Soviet-style propaganda Roosevelt used to promote the NRA.  One example:

A hundred thousand schoolchildren
clustered on Boston Common and were led in an oath administered by
Mayor James Michael Curley: "I promise as a good American citizen to do
my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies."

The fact that the worst of the NRA was dumped by the Supreme Court, and eventually by FDR under pressure, cause us to forget what businessmen in the 1930's were seeing.  The unprecedented fall in asset prices in the early thirties would normally have started to attract capital, at least from the bottom-fishers.  But any reasonable observer at that time would have seen the US government on a path to controlling wages, prices, capacity, etc  -- not an environment conducive to investment.  In fact, under Roosevelt's NRA industry cartels, its not clear that private industrial investment was even legal without the approval of the Code Authority for that industry.

People look back fondly and give credit to the CCC and large public works programs for our recovery, but in fact these programs were necessary because FDR's New Deal, and particularly the NRA, made private investment dry up.

Postscript:  By the way, questioning the greatness of the New Deal is one of those issues that will get you labeled a wacko almost as fast as being a climate change skepticHere is Janice Rogers Brown getting slammed for questioning the New Deal.