Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Debt Trap Dynamics: Time To Think The Unthinkable

Marshall Auerback

With the government and external deficits both so large and the private sector so heavily indebted, it is said that satisfactory growth in the US cannot be achieved without a large, sustained and discontinuous increase in net export demand. After perusing the trade data from last year, it is doubtful whether this will happen spontaneously through a continuous fall in the external value of the dollar, and it certainly will not happen without a cut in domestic absorption of goods and services by the US which would impart a deflationary impulse to the rest of the world.

The truth of the matter is this: Across three decades, only one economic event has been guaranteed to produce balanced US trade: a recession. When the economy is contracting, people naturally buy less of everything, including imports. Historically, on the four occasions when the line of exports briefly converged with the line of imports in the post-war period, the country was in recession. Each time economic growth was restored, the trade deficits resumed. A more ominous contradiction occurred during the 2001 recession: The trade gap was so enormous it persisted throughout. Again, in 2004, despite a significant fall in the dollar’s trade weighted index, the external account continued to haemorrhage. This suggests that American dependency on foreign producers has advanced to a dangerous new level.

Economists, politicians, and business executives have repeatedly voice unease about the imbalances in the global financial system, which have been reflected in the dollar's steep fall against the euro and other currencies until recently. But most expressed skepticism that the Bush administration would reduce the trade and budget deficits, which have fed those imbalances. The White House has said that it does not view these issues as a major problem because foreigners still view the American economy as an attractive investment, and Mr Greenspan has recanted some of his earlier expressed concern about the dangers of ignoring America’s mounting imbalances.

The scope of the global imbalances and the potential for crisis makes piecemeal, orthodox solutions to the global imbalance problem unworkable and far too slow. The U.S. service-based economy, with more limited economies of scale than those of newly industrializing economies such as China, will not be able to export its way out of the problem. The only demand left for US goods is largely concentrated in industries such as aerospace and high technology. But these are industries where exports pose national security risks, particularly if the exports are directed toward “strategic competitors” such as China, which generally have extremely poor records in terms of safeguarding intellectual property rights.

As we have noted many times before, there is a danger that over time, the US economy will find itself in a “debt trap”, with an accelerating deterioration in its net foreign asset position and its overall current balance of payments (as net income paid abroad begins to explode). We have never been in a position before where the world’s leading economy has been subject to this condition, so it is difficult to make the case for traditional remedies, such as trade devaluation (where the corresponding knock-on effects would invariably create a huge international growth shock, thereby throwing into doubt the strategy of the US achieving net export growth). Because the US is such a vast economy, it cannot eliminate its current account deficit as readily as a smaller economy. When it tries to improve its trade balance through devaluation or through restrictive demand management, its sheer size affects the economies of its trading partners adversely and to an appreciable degree. Understandably, they object and resist. When foreign economies resist dollar devaluation and the dissipation of their current account surpluses, the U.S. may have to raise interest rates in order to induce creditors to continue financing its debt build-up.

So the problem is likely to get worse, which could ultimately lead to “solutions” that prove highly disruptive to the existing system of multilateral trade and cooperation which has developed over the past several generations. A resort to out and out military force cannot ultimately be ruled out.

If a full-blown crisis does occur, the macroeconomic challenge would be unlike anything the United States has faced in more than half a century. While this would be a time of wrenching, painful change, the new adverse circumstances might also inspire a great shift toward radically different political solutions than have hitherto been considered within the realm of acceptability.

The first imperative--an unavoidable necessity--would be to suppress consumption through credit-restraining measures, fiscal caution or tax reform, and to stimulate greater domestic savings, yet somehow to keep the economy growing. If this great adjustment is left to market forces alone, the predictable consequences will be to punish the innocent--struggling households and small businesses--first.

The jump-shift strategy may ultimately take the form of a “wartime strategy” – not the phony “war on terror” strategy invoked after the September 11, 2001 attacks (in which Messrs O’Neill and McTeer, amongst others, exhorted Americans to go back to the shopping malls, to show the terrorists that they “couldn’t win”). A more accurate precedent is World War II, an extraordinary era of economic development that virtually shut down many forms of domestic consumption (cars and housing) while the government's spending on war production launched major new industries (electronics, petrochemicals, modern aircraft and many others). Essentially, accelerated investment and forced savings replaced consumer spending as the leading fuel for economic growth. After the war, pent-up desires and needs became the economic demand that drove the long postwar era of prosperity.

Of course, an important difference from the World War II example is that it is difficult to see how reconstruction could be financed primarily through deficit spending, given that the country is already burdened by growing indebtedness. This leads to the possibility of the US repudiating its existing debt obligations to external creditors. A decisive President might start by bringing up a taboo subject--tariffs--and inform the world that the United States is prepared to impose a temporary general tariff of 10 or 15 percent on all US imports. Every multinational would have to rethink its industrial strategy, because some of its production might be stranded in the wrong country.

The idea of tariffs is so alien to conventional wisdom it probably sounds illegal. In fact, there is provision for “temporary adjustments” under the new World Trade Organisation rules. It is also worth noting in any case that the legal technicalities of a global multilateral system didn’t stop Richard Nixon, who stunned the world in 1971 when he abruptly announced a 10 percent import surcharge, devalued the dollar and unilaterally discarded the Bretton Woods monetary system. Nor did it stop President Roosevelt in the 1930s, during which he declared it illegal to own circulating gold coins, gold bullion, and gold certificates. In essence, the federal government forced itself into the position by refusing to repay its bond holders in gold coin, forcing them to accept US dollars instead. Hence, subsequent to FDR’s executive order, all holders of such bonds were forced to accept legal tender currency instead of "gold coin of the present standard of value." The act of confiscating gold itself was a violation of private property rights and was illegal – but the taboo was broken. As author Eric Englund notes, “[B]y not paying bondholders in gold coin, the U.S. government has technically defaulted on past Treasury bond obligations.” Americans (and their foreign creditors) might come to see more of these types of actions from future American President.

It is true that such actions on the part of the US may well provoke reactions in kind. On the other hand, given the lack of restraint evident in the country’s current foreign policy aspirations, it is hard to envisage that an economic response to the Americans’ abrogation of existing obligations would come without some possibility of a robust military response (or at least the threat of one). The US has already show itself willing to address the problem that it does not make enough of what the rest of the world wants by going to war to monopolise control of the supply and distribution of what the world needs, petroleum. There are other war aims, of course, but control of the global hydrocarbon net is certainly the most important. As market strategist Chris Sanders has noted, “The truth is that the dangerously destabilising idea has rooted in Washington that, in the words of Vice President Cheney, ‘deficits don’t matter (we proved that in the 90s).’ He is right of course in pure power terms; a fuller expression of Cheney’s dictum might well add, ‘as long as we are able to force everyone else to accept them (deficits).’”

Already, it appears clear that the US is driven to rely more on military adventure because the economic house is in disarray and "overstretched". They can't just bludgeon their way economically anymore. They have to use the stick. Any close look at the inauguration speech bears out the reliance on forcing the world to conform to us dictates. Why should this not extend ultimately to existing debt arrangements if the US finds itself facing an Argentina-like predicament? All these outcomes may sound quite improbable at this moment. Certainly, the establishment would brush them aside. But do not dismiss the possibility that dramatic change and epic political reforms lie ahead. As we have said many times before, Washington’s elites will not go down without a fight.

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