Stop the madness now!

This is a post I just wrote over at Yves Smith’s site Naked Capitalism in response to a reader request. Marshall Auerback has already written a reply as well and I will post this later today.

A reader at Naked Capitalism asked us to respond to a recent article from the Christian Science Monitor asking Does US need a second stimulus to create jobs?

Marshall Auerback has already done some heavy lifting. He says emphatically yes. Now I want to take a crack at this. My short answer is no. But before I go into this, as an aside, I wanted to mention Marshall’s new smiling, happy picture up at the great blog New Deal 2.0 where he now writes.  Earlier, when Credit Writedowns was hosted at Blogger, he used a picture best described as a mug shot in his profile, but he has changed that one too (although he smiles there a little less). He thinks we haven’t noticed this sleight of hand.  Well I have! Once upon a time, Marshall wrote with a man I called all bearish, all the time this summer. Take a look at that post; you don’t see him smiling now do you? We have Lynn Parramore, New Deal 2.0’s editor to thank for making Marshall Auerback into an optimist.

Different policy choices

But all teasing aside, I do want to take the opposite side of this trade.  You see I too was a deficit hawk. And while I may have been backing fiscal stimulus, I have felt conflicted for doing so. Here’s how I see it. 

You have four options:

  1. No stimulus. Let the chips fall where they may. Yves Smith calls this the ‘Mellonite liquidationist mode.’ The thinking here is that trying to avoid the inevitable bust only makes it that much larger. And the economic policies during recessions in 1991 and 2001 seem to bear that out. The Harding Recession of 1921 is commonly seen as gold standard response.
  2. Monetary stimulus only. Quantitative easing mania. My understanding is this is what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has been advocating.   The thinking here is that the flood of money and the low rates will eventually jump start the economy. No deficit spending needed.
  3. Monetary and fiscal stimulus.  Full tilt Keynesian. This is the Krugman view. The thinking here is that one needs to credibly commit to higher inflation and close the output gap to avoid a deflationary spiral. If that is insufficient, then one needs to go full bore on fiscal stimulus aka deficit spending. And if that doesn’t work, subsidize jobs. The New Deal is commonly seen as the gold standard response.
  4. Fiscal stimulus only. Deficit spending. I have been talking up this view. The thinking here is that we need to both close the output gap to prevent a deflationary spiral and revive private sector savings in order to promote deleveraging.

There is no magic bullet here.  We are living through a situation unique in time with few historical precedents. And there are a lot of competing ideas being tossed about. So policy makers are groping around, desperately seeking the holy grail of depression-busting economic policy.  In that regard, I don’t envy them. They are certainly going to make a lot of mistakes. It may seem at times that I don’t realize this given the harshness of my critiques, but I do.

Deficit hawks are misguided

However, there are some policies which could work and others which are flat out wrong.  One policy which is flat out wrong is the concept that we need to reduce deficit spending in order to avoid a double dip recession. This flies in the face of basic economics which says that more spending and less taxes equals greater demand and recovery/boom. More taxes and less spending equals less demand and recession/depression.

Now, it’s not as if we didn’t see this line of argument coming. As far back as November 2008, I heard the chatter (see my post here). So you knew this we-have-to-stop-or-we’ll be-bankrupt nonsense was coming. The problem is it’s just not true.  Here are a few data points:

  • Private sector debt (incl. financial firms) was 292% of GDP as of Q2 but public sector debt (incl. state and local municipalities) was 67.2%. Who’s more indebted – the private sector by a factor of 4.
  • Adding unfunded liabilities to any public debt number when talking about spiking treasury rates is inaccurate and artificially inflates the number. A lot of people do this to make the public debt scenario look worse. The issue at hand is whether a supply/demand imbalance in Treasury securities spikes interest rates. Unfunded liabilities have absolutely nothing to do with this.
  • Cash and bonds are fungible. They are both obligations of the federal government to be repaid in full with a specific sum of fiat money. The Treasury could literally stop issuing government debt altogether and just start crediting accounts electronically to ‘fund’ its purchases. There is no operational constraint to government spending. The U.S. government is not going broke involuntarily. See my post here.

The real issue with deficits causing a double-dip has to do with inflation and overheating. If inflation increases because the economy begins to overheat, interest rates spike and the Fed raises rates to choke off inflation. That’s not going to happen any time soon – although it may be a problem down the line.  The issue at hand now is deflation not inflation. At least Morgan Stanley understands this when they take a deficit hawk position.

And as for the Chinese, they are not going to pull the plug on Treasuries unless they want to tank their export boom. The reason they must buy Treasuries is the dollar peg; they must re-invest in U.S.-based assets in order to prevent their currency from appreciating. This has caused a huge rise in their U.S. dollar reserves. If they changed the peg, their currency would almost certainly rise and this would choke off exports.

No more stimulus, just jobs

I have said my piece about the need for stimulus in the past. So I won’t repeat it here. If you are interested, see my December 2008 posts “Confessions of an Austrian economist,” “What does Mises say about trying to stimulate the economy out of recession,” and “A brief philosophical argument about the role of government.”

But, on the whole, I look at long-term deficits in a dubious light. There are practical constraints to deficit spending – and they lead to inflation, currency depreciation and lower standards of living. This is not national bankruptcy, but it is what Murray Rothbard called default by inflation and it makes you and me less well off.

This, of course, is over the long-run. In the short run, it is the spectre of a deflationary spiral we care about. Stimulus was important to stop this. I said in February that Obama was making a big mistake with his stimulus measures.

My view here is that Obama is forging a middle path that leads to a dead-end. The stimulus is not nearly enough by half to get the job done. The proposed deficit reduction measures for 2013 are outright scary as they risk repeating a mistake from the 1930s. And the banking sector and mortgage plans, both of which I failed to mention, are dubious half-measures as well. One needs to act aggressively and proactively or not at all.

If you are going to deficit spend you need to do it in a big way. You need to stop the deflationary spiral.  That means hitting the reset button by promoting private sector savings and deleveraging and purging all built-up malinvestments. The risk in addressing the situation this way, of course, is replacing the imperfect invisible hand of markets with the imperfect hand of politicians and legislative fiat.

This is a risk I no longer see as worth taking. I have bailout and deficit fatigue just like most Americans. It is abundantly clear that this Administration has absolutely zero intention of purging any malinvestment or promoting any deleveraging. All they want to do is continue business as usual and go back to the asset-based economy that caused this mess. This is why we have seen bailout after bailout coupled with easy money. It makes for record profits on Wall Street but it does nothing for the unemployed.

Moreover, the political process in the U.S. is such that any stimulus money will be diverted to pet projects and used to pay off political constituents. While this may increase aggregate demand, it does so at the risk of serious social unrest as the outrage will certainly spill over into populism.

So I say no to a second (third) stimulus package.  What the President needs to focus on is jobs. The reason Obama’s poll numbers are shrinking is because he now owns this economy.  And people are not benefitting from this fake recovery.  They are angry at the bailouts and distrustful of government – and with good reason.

Cut payroll taxes, subsidize job creation, divert some military spending to direct job creation by ending the foreign wars. But stop the madness.

  1. V says

    What level of public sector debt (as % of GDP) would you let the economy reach?

    1. Edward Harrison says

      That’s not a question I can answer. The real question is when do we get a self-sustaining recovery i.e. no more need for deleveraging or purge of malinvestment.

  2. Anonymous says

    I have posted this question in Naked Capitalism but as there are dozens of questions I guess I have more chances to get an answer herei

    Even if private debt is purged and reaches a more reasonable level within 5 years thanks to a significant increase of private savings, how will you then start to reduce fiscal deficit without restarting the “private debt – credit economy” rationale?

    You suggest that deleveraging private debt and purging malinvestment would allow the resetting and restarting of the machine, but in a globalized economy where developped countries are all playing the game of unit labour cost deflation, how will you then increase aggregated demand in the middle and long term without increasing the household debt/GDP rate?

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