A key objective raised by President Obama in his state of the union address was to address the ‘fiscal hole’ of the federal government. His rationale was that “like any cash strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.” he asked Congress to reinstate PAYGO, which reportedly helped the federal government “record surpluses in the 1990s,” and advocated investing in people “without leaving them a mountain of debt.” He closed on this point by saying that it’s just common sense.
Culturally, these ideas resonate with Americans. And for a business or household, budget constraints are a matter of common sense (even though we don’t always adhere to them). But there is no budget constraint on a government that can create money, i.e., non-interest bearing debt, out of thin air. The only meaningful constraint to the level of non-interest bearing debt is inflation, which occurs when a government creates more money than the economy requires, causing its non-interest bearing debt to lose value against most goods and services. Thus, while it may score some political points (thanks to our primary educational system’s lack of a financial and economic curriculum?), it’s absurd for the president to embrace the common sense that households and businesses use in setting budgets. The federal government faces an entirely different kind of budget constraint.
Instead, given the government’s power to create money, common sense would hold that the amount of money supplied to the economy should be equal to the amount of money required by the economy (please note, this simplification is not an attempt to resurrect the policy prescriptions of old school monetarism). Thus, the proper approach to budgets at the federal level is to ask whether there is currently a surfeit or deficit of USDs in our economy. Given the number of private financial commitments that were entered into in the past decade, and dramatic declines in economic activity, it’s difficult to argue that there’s currently a surfeit of dollars. And if recent political rhetoric is any indication, dollars are likely to become scarcer in the years ahead (it would be ironic if, instead of inflation, deflation became the motivating force behind a move away from the USD as global reserve currency).
The president did set forth some positive ideas, such as a zero capital gains tax on small business investment, capital investment incentives for companies of all sizes, and infrastructure investment. Assuming these are financed at least in part by new money creation, they would help to prevent a renewed liquidity crunch. But to the extent that they are “offset” by cuts or freezes elsewhere in the name of closing fiscal gaps and filling in budget holes, or by higher taxes on other activities, the net short term effect on the economy will be nil or worse. And like Japan, we’ll be in for our second lost decade out of two. As we’ve pointed out, leaving future generations without a “mountain of debt” sometimes means leaving them with equivalent (or greater) opportunity costs. We should strive to avoid both of those outcomes. To do so, we have to rethink the cultural common sense that debt is always and everywhere to be avoided.
From an investing standpoint, if vigorous policy actions follow the path being laid out by the rhetoric and “common sense” emanating from so many quarters, then the USD will continue to strengthen, the real economy will stagnate or weaken further, and nominal asset values will fall for all but the highest grade government paper. In that scenario, we would be lucky to tread water and leave only 16% of the country underemployed.
Mr. President, I’ll see your PAYGO and raise you a double dip recession.
RELATED READING (file under confirmation bias):
We’re well aware that our current view of things puts us shoulder to shoulder with some members of the “loony left”, but the macroeconomics of this stuff are fairly straightforward. Our lonely wing nut sojourn continues, placing us in lockstep with one Mr. Paul Krugman: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/26/obama-liquidates-himself/.
The Fed is seeking an exit strategy from its liquidity programs and low interest rate policy. The impact of that exit can be either muted or amplified by Congressional actions. If Congress becomes hawkish, there is no reason for the Fed to do so. If they both begin tightening, it’s hello 1937: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601015&sid=aXeUAV7_bz_o
An excellent idea from Warren Mosler — a full payroll tax holiday — that has yet to fall on the radar of federal policymakers: http://moslereconomics.com/2010/01/28/tea-party-plan-for-dems-cut-to-the-front-with-tax-cuts/. Here’s how Mosler describes the cause of poor economic policymaking: “…so-called economic experts have confused themselves and their political masters with contrived explanations for the way the economy works, and their limited vision has limited the range of policy choice. The result has been a monumental economic and social disaster caused by an obvious shortage of aggregate demand. The spending power needed to make mortgage payments, car payments, and do a bit of shopping- all of which would fix the economy and end the financial crisis- just isn’t there.”
Marshall Auerback writes that “Any kind of spending cuts in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression is insane. What we are beginning to see is the return of Herbert Hoover and the ‘liquidationists.’” http://www.newdeal20.org/?p=7731
Ed Harrison posts an email exchange with Auerback, in which the latter wrote: “What the US government is now in danger of repeating is taking its economy down the fast track to a double-dip recession. With investment still flat, consumers trying to increase their saving ratio and net exports making a negative contribution to growth – the President and his advisors evidently believe the persistently high unemployment is something the private sector has to deal with.” http://www.creditwritedowns.com/2010/01/what-president-obama-can-do-to-improve-the-economy.html. As we’ve noted elsewhere, the demographic research of folks like John Geanakoplos, Diane Macunovich, and Ajay Kapur implies that for the next decade, the U.S. private sector is not going to behave as the baby boomer decades have conditioned us to expect. Hence the case for a more activist — and just as importantly, ‘self-financing’ – public sector. ‘Self financing’ today means the Federal Reserve creating the dollars that enable primary dealer banks to absorb Treasury offerings at auction via direct bids. For that process to continue, the federal government must continue to issue debt, rather than shoveling dirt on the people and institutions that are still near the bottom of our deep ’fiscal hole’.
Jonathan Zasloff writes (TOH Krugman) that “At some point someone must make an argument for government.” http://www.samefacts.com/2010/01/politics-and-leadership/obamas-self-inflicted-lobotomy-proceeds-apace/ Why are Democrats today so afraid to make that argument? Like the health care debacle, could the lessons learned in the Clinton years be ill suited to today? As for the GOP, our take is that by harping on government in all its forms (besides those forms that help favored firms and industries collect their share of rents from the rest of us, of course), Republicans leave the door open to the development of increasingly socialist policies. In fact, if our take on the state of the private sector in the coming decade is accurate, they will practically mandate it.
George Soros thinks that premature budget tightening could be bearish for gold prices: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financetopics/davos/7085504/Davos-2010-George-Soros-warns-gold-is-now-the-ultimate-bubble.html. Reminiscent of Jon Nadler’s argument last fall against gold: http://654advisors.com/index.php/blog/2009/11/a-gold-bears-comments/
Finally, in what might be a mirror image of our loney wing nut position, Bill Gross seems to be exhibiting a profound case of anti-Keynesianism: http://www.pimco.com/LeftNav/Featured+Market+Commentary/IO/2010/February+2010+Gross+Ring+of+Fire.htm