President Obama, continuing his recent streak of verbal fiscal hawkishness (our view is admittedly contrarian) signed a memorandum today regarding tax delinquencies among government contractors. To the extent that federal contracts are awared to tax evaders and tax cheats due to poor information sharing or availability, this is a good initiative, and it’s based on analyses from the GAO like this one.
It was the President’s remarks that were most telling, especially his argument that the federal government needs to align itself with the values and norms that tax paying households live by (of course, this completely ignores the fact that only the federal government can create the money required to fulfill tax, debt, and other financial obligations, not just of the public sector, but of the private sector as well). The underlying message of recent remarks by the President is that tightening via “fiscal discipline” is very likely in the months and years ahead; Obama is clearly signalling that he has staked out a very center-right position among Democrats, similar to the Blue Dogs and Democratic Leadership Council, as summed up in this recent piece by Harold Ford, Jr:
The ability of the private sector to produce new jobs — our economic future — depends on how quickly we can get back on the path to fiscal responsibility. This means that any health-care reform plan should be paid for — a promise that President Obama has made, and one that his predecessor should have made.
Ford’s assertions are based on the rather shaky assumption that they hold under all economic conditions. But as we’ve noted recently, there are only some environments where this holds true, while there are other environments where it does not. In the former, fiscal conservatism may be appropriate due to “crowding out” and other concerns. In the latter, the private sector’s capacity to produce jobs actually depends on public sector demand, investment, and intermediation, i.e., deficits.
Most people, Ford included, accept this idea in the short run, e.g., during a financial crisis or a sharp economic downturn. But what we’re arguing, essentially, is that pessimistic expectations are sometimes rational, and that the factors driving them can theoretically remain in force over fairly long cycles of ten, twenty, or thirty years, even longer. In the situation at hand, when we look at demographic shifts in the U.S. and residual damage from the financial crisis, we think the decade ahead will be of the latter variety in both the U.S. and mature European economies. So the message of Ford, his fellow Blue Dogs, the DLC, and President Obama (especially of late) might be a suboptimal direction for policy, however well it might have worked in the 1980s and 1990s. [1/20/2010 UPDATE - well written piece here on how public thinking about policy is heavily informed by experiences since the 1980s, which might be akin to driving by the rear view mirror]
As a result, we now see several forces at work that lead us to expect a strengthening USD, all else equal. First, the prevailing view among Democrats appears to be that voters will favor fiscal hawks in midterm elections, and they will respond accordingly. Second, we expect upside volatility in the real economy in 2010 (due in no small part to public sector demand), which will relax pressures for additional fiscal stimulus. Third, invoking the ideas of the neo-Chartalists, we’d argue that when the federal government places a high value on “fiscal responsibility” or “fiscal conservatism”, it implies that monetary units are going to become more scarce, and thus more valuable. In other words, if the President’s recent signalling is sincere, the USD is likely to appreciate (as will Treasuries, despite their compressed yields), and commodities and other carry trade and risky assets are likely to suffer (today’s market movements seem to support this argument).
While most pundits are attributing today’s market developments to the Republican capture of Kennedy’s senate seat yesterday, and/or to policy tightening in China, which are almost certainly factors, we would argue that far too many are overlooking the impact that President Obama’s current policy tenor is having on the USD. He’s essentially promising that the “tokens” required to settle economic transactions and engage in productive activity are going to become scarcer.
This implies some important changes in who the marginal actors are in the political economy. After the 2008 election, we asserted that the Blue Dogs would be the marginal player in setting the course of economic policy. The President’s upcoming budget will give us a clearer idea of whether their fiscal conservatism, as Obama’s current rhetoric implies, has indeed become dominant. If it has, then we think the Fed becomes the marginal factor in policy direction and economic outcomes. How soon and how sharply they tighten will determine the risk of a 1937 or Japan style recession, and it will also have critical implications for the performance of emerging market equities and other risky assets in the short to intermediate term.