Author: Satyajit Das
The world is focused on the fiscal cliff, a term referring to the scheduled reductions in the US budget deficit, by way of expiring tax cuts and mandatory spending cuts. The fiscal cliff may ironically improve public finances, reducing the deficit and slowing the increase in debt levels –America’s debt mountain. But going over the fiscal cliff will not of itself solve America’s fundamental financial problems.
Successive US administrations have avoided dealing with the US debt problem. Policy makers have adopted the rulebook of rapper Tupac Shakur: “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real”.
US government debt currently totals around US$16 trillion. The US Treasury estimates that this debt will rise, in absence of corrective action, to around US$20 trillion by 2015, over 100% of America’s Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”).
There are also additional current and contingent commitments not explicitly included in the debt figures, such as US government support for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (known as government sponsored enterprises (GSEs)) of over US$5 trillion and unfunded obligations of over US$65 trillion for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. US State governments and municipalities have additional debt of around US$3 trillion.
US public finances deteriorated significantly over recent years. In 2001, the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) forecast average annual surpluses of approximately US$850 billion from 2009–2012 allowing Washington to pay off everything it owed.
The surpluses never emerged as the US government has run large budget deficits of around US$1 trillion per annum in recent years. The major drivers of this turnaround include: tax revenue declines due to recessions (28%); tax cuts (21%); increased defence spending (15%); non-defence spending (12%) higher interest costs (11%); and the 2009 stimulus package (6%).
Despite growing concern about the sustainability of its debt levels, demand for US Treasury securities from investors and other governments remains strong.
“Innovative” monetary policy from the US Federal Reserve has allowed the government to increase its debt levels. Around 60-70% of US government bonds have been purchased by the Federal Reserve, as part of successive rounds of quantitative Easing (“QE”).
Federal Reserve action has been a key factor in keeping rates low, allowing the US to keep its interest bill manageable despite increases in debt levels. The government’s average interest rate on new borrowing is around 1%, with one-month Treasury bills paying less than 0.10% per annum and 10 year bonds around 1.80% per annum.
But the current position is not sustainable.
In January 2013, in the absence of political agreement, a series of automatic tax increases and spending cuts will be triggered. These were part of the 2011 legislative package which increased the debt ceiling allowing the government to continue to borrow.
Several temporary tax cuts will expire. The total amount involved is around US$500 billion through to September next year.
These include President George Bush’s tax cuts on income, investments, married couples, families with children and inheritances, which were extended for 2 years by President Barack Obama. In addition, the Alternative Minimum Tax (“AMT”) would commence, affecting up to 26-30 million middle-class Americans, increasing their tax bill by an average of US$3,700. The payroll-tax cut of 2% and extended unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed (both implemented by the Obama Administration to stimulate the economy) would also expire. A number of other smaller tax cuts for individuals and business (most notable tax credits for research and development and a deduction for state sales taxes) would also terminate.
Automatic spending cuts will also commence, totalling about US$600 billion per year and US$6.1 trillion over 10 years. The spending cuts would cover most government programs including cuts in defence spending and domestic programs. Medicare, the federal health programme for the elderly, would reduce payments including a sharp reduction (as much as 30%) in reimbursements to doctors.
The automatic tax increases, non-renewal of tax cuts and spending cuts are equivalent to about 5% of GDP. In a recent Report, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) estimated that the tax increases and spending cuts would reduce output by approximately 3% and increase unemployment to 9.1% by the end of 2012.
Bringing US public finances under control requires bringing budget deficits down, through spending cuts, tax increases or a mixture. The fiscal cliff is merely a step down that long road.
The task is Herculean. Government revenues would need to increase by 20-30% or spending cut by a similar amount.
The US has a lower tax-to-GDP ratio (around 18%) than even much maligned Greece (around 20%). The tax-to-GDP in most developed countries is closer to 30%.
Given 45% of households do not pay tax (because they don’t earn enough or through credits and deductions) and 3% of taxpayers contribute around 52% of total tax revenues, a major overhaul of the taxation system would be necessary. Tax reform, especially higher or new taxes, is politically difficult.
Large components of spending – defence, homeland security, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, (growing) interest payments- are difficult to control and also politically sensitive, making it difficult to reduce.
Reducing the budget deficit and debt may also mire the US economy in a prolonged recession.
In 2009, students at National Defence University in Washington, DC, “war gamed” possible scenarios for bringing the US debt under control. Using a model of the economy, participants tried to get the federal debt down by increasing taxes and reducing spending.
The economy promptly fell into a deep recession, increasing the budget deficit and driving government debt to higher levels. This is precisely the experience of heavily indebted peripheral European nations, such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
As one participant in the National Defence University economic war game observed about the process of bringing US public finances under control: “You’ll never get re-elected and you may do more harm than good”.
Political Debt Dancing…
A decision does not have to be reached by the end of 2012. The US Treasury can juggle its finances to purchase time till perhaps February 2013, especially if an agreement is likely. The major constraint is the need to increase the US Government’s borrowing cap or debt limit (currently US$16.4 trillion), which will be reached late in 2012 or early 2013.
Necessary reform of the tax system, especially a broadening of the tax base, and all spending, including social welfare programmes, is unlikely to be politically easy.
The re-elected President Obama’s ability to implement policy is constrained by continued Republican control of the House of Representatives. The Republicans remain reluctant to entertain tax increases or reductions in exemptions. The Democrats remain reluctant to consider reductions in entitlements and spending.
President Obama asserts that he has a mandate to reform the budget, especially increase taxes on wealthier Americans. Having lost the Presidential election and also having failed to make hoped for gains in Congressional elections, the Republicans are defensive. The GOP position is complicated by its fractious internal politics. More conservative elements believe that the loss was due to a shift to centrist policies and a return to more strict conservatism is required.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has appeared conciliatory, signalling a willingness to consider some higher taxes. In the fissiparous world of US politics, nothing is guaranteed, especially given the short electoral cycle. The prospects of a definitive grand bargain remain poor. The more likely scenario is an incremental strategy.
A short term compromise will be needed, entailing extensions of some tax cuts and delaying some spending cuts. Negotiations on deeper structural tax and spending reforms may take longer. The latter would focus on some tax increases and some adjustment to spending.
President Obama may get some higher taxes. Republicans might accept higher income taxes, particularly for those earning more than $1 million per annum (rather than US$250,000 currently proposed). Some tax deductions and reporting loopholes may also be eliminated. In return, the administration may agree to changes in entitlement, such as higher Medicare retirement age and changes to indexation of social security benefits for inflation. There would probably also be cuts in spending on defence and other social welfare programs such as Medicaid.
The fiscal cliff or the measures likely to be adopted may not to be enough to address the deep-seated problems of American public finances.
What is needed is a radical overhaul of the tax system, including probably a value added tax and wind back of complex deductions and subsidies. What is also needed is a review of all spending, including defence and social welfare, to better target expenditure and align it with tax revenues.
But even with this action, without strong economic growth and decreases in unemployment, it is difficult to see a significant improvement in American public finances. The recent CBO report concluded that “[very few policies] are large enough, by themselves, to accomplish a sizeable portion of the deficit reduction necessary”.
Our Debt, Your Problem…
Given the magnitude of the challenge and the lack of political will, the US will continue to spend more than it receives in taxes for the indefinite future, resulting in increases in US government debt. This will force the Federal Reserve to continue existing policies, especially debt monetisation by purchasing government bonds and the devaluation of the currency.
Debt monetisation (printing money in popular parlance) will continue, entailing the US Federal Reserve purchasing government bonds in return for supplying reserves to the banking system. Zero interest rates policy (“ZIRP”) in conjunction with debt monetisation will be used to devalue the US dollar.
Of the US gross government debt of US$16 trillion, the US government holds around 40% of the debt through the Federal Reserve, Social Security Trust Fund and other government trust funds. Individuals, corporations, banks, insurance companies, pension funds, mutual funds, state or local governments, hold 25%. Foreigner investors -China, Japan, oil exporting nations, Asian central banks and sovereign wealth funds- hold the remaining 35%.
Existing investors, like China, must now continue to purchase US dollars and government bonds to avoid a precipitous drop in the value of existing investments and to avoid a sharp rise in the value of their own currencies which would reduce export competitiveness.
Expedient in the short term, monetisation risks debasing the currency. Despite bouts of dollar buying on its safe haven status, the US dollar has significantly weakened. On a trade weighted basis, the US dollar has lost around 20% against major currencies since 2009. The US dollar has lost around 30% against the Swiss Franc, 25% against the Canadian dollar, 35% against the Australian dollar and 20% against the Singapore dollar over the same period.
The weaker US dollar also allows the US to enhance its competitive position for exports; in effect the devaluation is a de facto cut in costs. This is designed to drive economic growth.
As the US dollar weakens it improves America’s external position. US foreign investments and overseas income gain in value. But the major benefit is in relation to debt owned by foreigners.
As almost of its government debt is denominated in US dollars, devaluation reduces the value of its outstanding debt. It forces existing foreign investors to keep rolling over debt to avoid realising currency losses on their investments. It encourages existing investors to increase investment, to “double down” to lower their average cost of US dollars and US government debt. As John Connally, US Treasury Secretary under President Nixon belligerently observed: “Our dollar, but your problem.”
Given that the US constitutes around 25% of global economy, it is unlikely America’s problems will stay in America. The rest of the global economy is literally tied to the US as it edges closer to the cliff.
If the US takes the decisive action suggested then US growth will slow sharply in the short run, though the downturn may be shorter in duration and the longer term brighter. If, as likely, the US does not take decisive action then US growth will still be affected, though less significantly in the short run. But America’s debt position will become increasingly problematic. America’s long term growth prospects will also be adversely affected.
Any slowdown in US demand will affect its major trading partners such as China and Europe, exacerbating slowing growth affecting their trading partners.
US dollar devaluation will create pressure for appreciation of other currencies. This may force other nations to implement measures, such as zero interest rate policies, QE programs or capital controls, to halt or at least slow the appreciation of their currencies to avoid reductions in competitiveness.
Foreign investors in US dollars and government bonds are likely to suffer losses. Large investors like China and Japan may suffer significant declines in the value of these assets, reducing their national savings.
In Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragic hero states that: “I must be cruel only to be kind; thus bad begins, and worse remains behind”. In trying to preserve its position, the US now is increasingly adopting toxic economic and financial policies, which have the potential to damage other nations and ultimately its own future.
Former French Finance Minister Valery Giscard d’Estaing used the term “exorbitant privilege” to describe American advantages deriving from the role of the dollar as a reserve currency and its central role in global trade. That privilege now is “extortionate”.
Economist Herbert Stein observed: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. How long the US can continue it profligate ways is unknown.
Thursday, November 22, 2012
by Robert Skildelsky
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-need-for-redistribution-of-wealth-and-income-in-order-to-save-capitalism-from-its-current-crisis-by-robert-skidelsky#p5LrOtW22jk826DH.99
LONDON – It is generally agreed that the crisis of 2008-2009 was caused by excessive bank lending, and that the failure to recover adequately from it stems from banks’ refusal to lend, owing to their “broken” balance sheets.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphA typical story, much favored by followers of Friedrich von Hayek and the Austrian School of economics, goes like this: In the run up to the crisis, banks lent more money to borrowers than savers would have been prepared to lend otherwise, thanks to excessively cheap money provided by central banks, particularly the United States Federal Reserve. Commercial banks, flush with central banks’ money, advanced credit for many unsound investment projects, with the explosion of financial innovation (particularly of derivative instruments) fueling the lending frenzy.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThis inverted pyramid of debt collapsed when the Fed finally put a halt to the spending spree by hiking up interest rates. (The Fed raised its benchmark federal funds rate from 1% in 2004 to 5.25% in 2006 and held it there until August 2007). As a result, house prices collapsed, leaving a trail of zombie banks (whose liabilities far exceeded their assets) and ruined borrowers.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThe problem now appears to be one of re-starting bank lending. Impaired banks that do not want to lend must somehow be “made whole.” This has been the purpose of the vast bank bailouts in the US and Europe, followed by several rounds of “quantitative easing,” by which central banks print money and pump it into the banking system through a variety of unorthodox channels. (Hayekians object to this, arguing that, because the crisis was caused by excessive credit, it cannot be overcome with more.)
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAt the same time, regulatory regimes have been toughened everywhere to prevent banks from jeopardizing the financial system again. For example, in addition to its price-stability mandate, the Bank of England has been given the new task of maintaining “the stability of the financial system.”
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThis analysis, while seemingly plausible, depends on the belief that it is the supply of credit that is essential to economic health: too much money ruins it, while too little destroys it.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphBut one can take another view, which is that demand for credit, rather than supply, is the crucial economic driver. After all, banks are bound to lend on adequate collateral; and, in the run-up to the crisis, rising house prices provided it. The supply of credit, in other words, resulted from the demand for credit.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphThis puts the question of the origins of the crisis in a somewhat different light. It was not so much predatory lenders as it was imprudent, or deluded, borrowers, who bear the blame. So the question arises: Why did people want to borrow so much? Why did the ratio of household debt to income soar to unprecedented heights in the pre-recession days?
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphLet us agree that people are greedy, and that they always want more than they can afford. Why, then, did this “greed” manifest itself so manically?
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphTo answer that, we must look at what was happening to the distribution of income. The world was getting steadily richer, but the income distribution within countries was becoming steadily more unequal. Median incomes have been stagnant or even falling for the last 30 years, even as per capita GDP has grown. This means that the rich have been creaming off a giant share of productivity growth.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphAnd what did the relatively poor do to “keep up with the Joneses” in this world of rising standards? They did what the poor have always done: got into debt. In an earlier era, they became indebted to the pawnbroker; now they are indebted to banks or credit-card companies. And, because their poverty was only relative and house prices were racing ahead, creditors were happy to let them sink deeper and deeper into debt.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphOf course, some worried about the collapse of the household savings rate, but few were overly concerned. In one of his last articles, Milton Friedman wrote that savings nowadays took the form of houses.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphTo me, this view of things explains much better than the orthodox account why, for all the money-pumping by central banks, commercial banks have not started lending again, and the economic recovery has petered out. Just as lenders did not force money on the public before the crisis, so now they cannot force heavily indebted households to borrow, or businesses to seek loans to expand production when markets are flat or shrinking.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphIn short, recovery cannot be left to the Fed, the European Central Bank, or the Bank of England. It requires the active involvement of fiscal policymakers. Our current situation requires not a lender of last resort, but a spender of last resort, and that can only be governments.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphIf governments, with their already-high level of indebtedness, believe that they cannot borrow any more from the public, they should borrow from their central banks and spend the extra money themselves on public works and infrastructure projects. This is the only way to get the big economies of the West moving again.
CommentsView/Create comment on this paragraphBut, beyond this, we cannot carry on with a system that allows so much of the national income and wealth to pile up in so few hands. Concerted redistribution of wealth and income has frequently been essential to the long-term survival of capitalism. We are about to learn that lesson again.
Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-need-for-redistribution-of-wealth-and-income-in-order-to-save-capitalism-from-its-current-crisis-by-robert-skidelsky#p5LrOtW22jk826DH.99
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
by Satyajit Das(Excellent job, as usual)
- As requested, I have undertaken an extensive examination of Mr. Global Economy, both physical and psychological.
The patient’s history includes a seizure in 2007/2008 – financial losses, banking problems, a major recession, etc. Liberal injections of taxpayer cash avoided catastrophic multiple organ failure assisting a modest recovery.
Governments ran large budget deficits in the period after the crisis. Interest rates around the world were reduced to historic lows, zero in many developed countries.
With interest rates constrained at zero, central banks have adopted “innovative” treatments, referred to as quantitative easing; the fashionable appellation of a more old-fashioned procedure – printing money. Balance sheets of major central banks have increased from around $6 trillion to $18 trillion, an unprecedented 30% of global gross domestic product (GDP).
As evident from the anticipation of and reaction to decisions by the U.S. and European central bank to provide further support, the global economy is now addicted to monetary heroin. Increasing doses are necessary for the patient to function at all.
Mr. Economy has also not made the recommended changes necessary for a return to full health. He seems to have taken rock star Steven Tyler’s advice: “Fake it until you make it.”
Borrowing levels remain unsustainable. Debt levels for 11 major nations have increased from 381% of GDP in 2007 to 417% of GDP in 2012. Debt has increased in Canada, Germany, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain, Portugal, the UK and the U.S.
There has been a shift of debt from private borrowers to governments. There has also been a change in the identity of the lender – governments and central banks have heroically stepped in to take over debt from commercial lenders and investors.
Global imbalances – major current account surpluses and deficits – remain. Large exporters like China, Japan and Germany remain resistant to abandoning their export-based economic model.
Little progress has been made in bringing the banking system under control. Regulatory initiatives involve activity if little achievement. New regulations of stupefying complexity run to thousands of pages.
The process provides continuing employment to thousands of needy policy advisors, regulators, lawyers and lobbyists, who would otherwise struggle to gain productive employment. Without their heroic efforts and stoic acceptance of privations (first class travel, 5-star hotels, constant conferences and symposiums etc), the recovery would be even more tepid.
Major Organs – U.S.
Physical examination revealed that the U.S. is in marginally better condition than other organs – the “cleanest dirty shirt” is the expression. Despite a $1 trillion annual budget deficit (6% of GDP) and zero interest rates, growth is a tepid 2%.
The housing market’s rate of descent has been arrested but prices remain 30-60% below highs. New housing starts have stabilized, at around 50% below peak levels. Benefiting from a weaker dollar, manufacturing has improved. Lower oil and natural gas prices have benefited the economy.
Employment remains weak. If discouraged workers who have left the workforce and part-time workers seeking full-time employment are included, then unemployment is over 15%, well above the headline 8% rate. The total number of Americans now employed is around 140 million, well below the peak level above 146 million.
Consumer spending remains patchy. Job insecurity, lack of earnings and wealth losses are causing households to reducing spending and repay debt.
Record corporate profits have been achieved mainly through cost reductions and minimal revenue growth. Investment is weak due to the lack of demand.
Bank lending is sluggish due to lower demand for credit and problems of financial institutions.
Federal public finances remain unsustainable. Hardening of the political arteries means that there is little resolve to deal with deep-seated problems. There is risk of a “fiscal cliff” episode.
If there is no political resolution, then automatic tax increases (non-renewal of tax cuts) and spending cuts equivalent to about 5% of GDP, mandated under the 2011 increase in the national debt ceiling, will automatically occur. This would mean a contraction equivalent to more than $600 billion in the first year and $6.1 trillion over 10 years. This would improve the budget deficits and slow the growth in debt, but adversely affect growth.
State and municipal finances are also under stress, with an increasing number of borrowers filing for bankruptcy.
Other Developed Organs
Many European countries have high debt levels, budget and trade deficits, social spending inconsistent with tax revenues, poor industrial competitiveness (with some exceptions), a rigid monetary system and inflexible currency arrangements. This is compounded by weaknesses of the European banking system with large exposure to sovereign bonds issued by peripheral nations.
Intellectually and institutionally, Europe is unable to deal with its debt crisis. Europeans believe stabilization and recovery can be achieved through greater integration. Even if issues of national sovereignty can be overcome, integration will not work. Unsustainable levels of debt do not magically become sustainable by changing the lender or guarantor. The monetary arithmetic of European debt problems is that the EU and Germany, its main banker, does not have enough funds to rescue the beleaguered euro-zone members.
Austerity dooms Europe to a prolonged and severe recession as the debt burden is worked off. The alternative, a debt write-off, would result in significant loss of wealth for the mainly Northern European lenders triggering an economic contraction and prolonged period of economic stagnation.
Japan is in a state of advance atrophy, despite decades of therapy. The temporary rebound, mainly the result of the recovery from the tragic tsunami and government spending, is running out of steam. The political system is even more blocked than that of the U.S., allowing only a trickle of oxygen to circulate, impairing function.
Japan’s primary investment merit is that almost all possible manmade and natural disasters have happened and the worst is factored in.
Mr. Economy’s physicians originally hoped that the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations would offset weakness in more developed and weaker elements. Unfortunately, China’s growth is slowing rapidly. India and Brazil have also lost momentum, with growth weakening. Russia is dependent on high energy prices.
BRIC weakness is a function of lower demand from developed countries reducing exports and weaker commodity prices.
The withdrawal of European banks, historically major lenders to emerging markets, has decreased the flow of money to countries needing foreign investment. For example, in 2011 large European banks accounted for 36% of global trade finance, based on a World Bank study. Some 40% of trade credit to Latin America and Asia was provided by French and Spanish banks. As the European banks, besieged by financial problems at home, reduce their international activities, the supply of financing has decreased and its cost has increased.
Emerging markets also show increased susceptibility to the developed world credit virus. A rapid expansion of domestic credit in China, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Turkey and India will result in banking system problems. The combination of external and internal weaknesses threatens emerging economies, naturally prone to serial crises.
As requested, Dr. Freud assessed the psychological condition of Mr. Global Economy.
He concluded that Mr. Economy is delusional, believing complete recovery is imminent. Presented with contrary evidence, he quoted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Like many terminally ill patients, Mr. Economy has embraced faith healing techniques. Keynesian and monetarist regimes, he believes, will boost demand and create sufficient inflation to bring his elevated debt levels under control.
The Keynesian cure entails government spending financed by taxation or borrowing to restore Mr. Economy’s health. There is no evidence that it can arrest long-term declines in growth.
Government spending boosts activity temporarily, but may create excess capacity in the absence of underlying demand. Nostalgia about President Roosevelt’s infrastructure projects during the Great Depression is misplaced. Excess electricity generation capacity from dam projects was only absorbed by wartime demand for defense equipment.
As tax revenues have fallen due to slower economic activity, governments have already borrowed to finance large budget deficits.
Government ability to borrow to finance further spending is increasingly limited, without resort to the innovative monetary techniques. In recent years, the Federal Reserve has purchased around 60-70% of all U.S. government debt issued. The European Central Bank is now financing governments indirectly by lending to banks to purchase sovereign bonds.
The ability of the U.S. to finance its large budget deficit relies heavily on several unique factors. The Federal Reserve and the banking system flush with central bank funds have been a large purchaser of U.S. government bonds. The status of the dollar as the major trade and reserve currency has allowed the U.S. to find buyers of its securities, even at very low interest rates. The U.S. ability to finance is also underpinned by the balance of financial terror – overseas buyers, such as China, Japan, major oil producers are forced to continue purchasing U.S. government debt to avoid loss of value on existing large holdings.
The limits of government’s ability to borrow and spend are highlighted by the European debt crisis. Investors are increasingly concerned about public finances, becoming reluctant to finance nations with high levels of debt or demanding high interest rates.
Having reduced interest rates to zero, central banks are giving Mr. Economy the modern Monetarist prescription, changing the quantity of money available. Under quantitative easing, they buy government bonds injecting money into the banking system to lower borrowing costs and increase the supply of money to stimulate demand and inflation. Central banks believe they can keep rates low and print money to finance government debt purchases indefinitely.
But greater government spending, lower rates and increased supply of money may not boost economic activity. Crippled by existing high levels of debt, low house prices, uncertain employment prospects and stagnant income, households are reducing, not increasing, borrowing. For companies, the absence of demand and, in some cases, excess capacity, means that low interest rates are unlikely to encourage borrowing and investment.
Loose monetary policies may not also create the hoped-for inflation, needed to lower real debt levels. Banking problems and the lack of demand for credit means the essential transmission mechanism is broken. Banks are not using the reserves created and money provided to increase lending. The reduction in the velocity of money or the rate of circulation has offset the effect of increased money flows. The low velocity of money, the lack of demand and excess productive capacity in many industries means the inflation outlook in the near term remains subdued.
The treatments being taken have serious side effects. Low rates entail a transfer of wealth from investors to borrowers, with the lower coupon payment acting as a disguised reduction of the principal amount of the loan. They provide an artificial subsidy to financial institutions, allowing them to borrow cheaply and then invest in higher yielding safe assets such as government bonds.
Low rates discourage savings, creating a disincentive for capital accumulation. They encourage mispricing of risk and feed asset bubbles, such as that for income (high-dividend-paying shares and high-yield low-grade debt) as well as speculative demand for commodities and alternative investments.
Low policy interest rates have created massive unfunded pension liabilities for governments and companies. S&P 1500 companies have aggregate pension deficits of $543 billion, an increase $59 billion in the first half of 2012.
In the long run, economies become dependent on low rates as high debt levels cannot be sustained at higher borrowing costs.
Internationally, low interest rates distort currency values and also encourage volatile and destabilizing short term capital flows as investors search for higher yields. Attempts by nations to increase their competitive position by weakening their currency also threaten tit-for-tat currency wars, trade restrictions and barriers to investment flows.
The faith healing cures provide symptomatic relief but do not address fundamental problems – the high debt levels, lack of demand, declining employment, lack of income growth or the problems of the banking system. It is not clear how if at all any of the cures being pursued can create real ongoing growth and wealth to restore Mr. Economy’s health.
Limits to Knowledge
The number of medical advisors involved and variety of drugs – stimulus, austerity, quantitative easing, leeches, cupping, witchcraft – is unhelpful. While doing nothing is politically and socially impossible, the treatments may be doing more harm than good. As French playwright Moliere noted: “More men die of their remedies than of their illnesses.”
Interestingly, these same faith healers until recently oversaw Mr. Economy, prescribing regimes that caused the present financial and economic calamity. Perhaps like writer Samuel Beckett they are keen to fail better next time.
There is no recognition of the limits to knowledge and policy tools. Economic relationships are poorly understood, complex and unstable. Cause and effect is uncertain – does money supply influence nominal income or does nominal income affect velocity and the demand for and thereby the supply of money? The ability of governments and central banks to influence economic activity is overstated. As economist Wynn Godley put it: “governments can no more control stocks of either bank money or cash than a gardener can control the direction of a hosepipe by grabbing at the water jet.”
To paraphrase Voltaire’s observation on doctors, Mr. Economy’s faith healers prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in economic and financial systems of which they know nothing.
Prognosis for Mr. Economy
Mr. Economy now has a serious chronic condition with limited prospects of a full cure. He might continue to live but in an impaired state of no or low growth for a prolonged period. The threat of a sudden life threatening seizure cannot be discounted. Constant management will be needed.
Happily, Mr. Economy remains remarkably optimistic. Perhaps he recognizes the truth of Mark Twain’s observation: “Don't part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.”
© 2012 Satyajit Das
Satyajit Das is a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money