Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stocks Blast Off! Only Question Is, Why?

Jobless claims this morning were bad again, with the 16th consecutive week above 400,000. But stocks are up about 150 points in the early part of the session. Another divergence between reality and Wall Street!

Crude Regains a $100 Foothold

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Three Competing Economic Theories

By Lacy Hunt, Hoisington Asset Management
The three competing theories for economic contractions are: 1) the Keynesian, 2) the Friedmanite, and 3) the Fisherian. The Keynesian view is that normal economic contractions are caused by an insufficiency of aggregate demand (or total spending). This problem is to be solved by deficit spending. The Friedmanite view, one shared by our current Federal Reserve Chairman, is that protracted economic slumps are also caused by an insufficiency of aggregate demand, but are preventable or ameliorated by increasing the money stock. Both economic theories are consistent with the widely-held view that the economy experiences three to seven years of growth, followed by one to two years of decline. The slumps are worrisome, but not too daunting since two years lapse fairly quickly and then the economy is off to the races again. This normal business cycle framework has been the standard since World War II until now.
The Fisherian theory is that an excessive buildup of debt relative to GDP is the key factor in causing major contractions, as opposed to the typical business cycle slumps (Chart 1). Only a time consuming and difficult process of deleveraging corrects this economic circumstance. Symptoms of the excessive indebtedness are: weakness in aggregate demand; slow money growth; falling velocity; sustained underperformance of the labor markets; low levels of confidence; and possibly even a decline in the birth rate and household formation. In other words, the normal business cycle models of the Keynesian and Friedmanite theories are overwhelmed in such extreme, overindebted situations.

Economists are aware of Fisher’s views, but until the onset of the present economic circumstances they have been largely ignored, even though Friedman called Irving Fisher “America’s greatest economist.” Part of that oversight results from the fact that Fisher’s position was not spelled out in one complete work. The bulk of his ideas are reflected in an article and book written in 1933, but he made important revisions in a series of letters later written to FDR, which currently reside in the Presidential Library at Hyde Park. In 1933, Fisher held out some hope that fiscal policy might be helpful in dealing with excessive debt, but within several years he had completely rejected the Keynesian view. By 1940, Fisher had firmly stated to FDR in several letters that government spending of borrowed funds was counterproductive to stimulating economic growth. Significantly, by 2011, Fisher’s seven decade-old ideas have been supported by thorough, comprehensive and robust econometric and empirical analysis. It is now evident that the actions of monetary and fiscal authorities since 2008 have made economic conditions worse, just as Fisher suggested. In other words, we are painfully re-learning a lesson that a truly great economist gave us a road map to avoid.

High Dollar Policy Failures

If governmental financial transactions, advocated by following Keynesian and Friedmanite policies, were the keys to prosperity, the U.S. should be in an unparalleled boom. For instance, on the monetary side, since 2007 excess reserves of depository institutions have increased from $1.8 billion to more than $1.5 trillion, an amazing gain of more than 83,000%. The fiscal response is equally unparalleled. Combining 2009, 2010, and 2011 the U.S. budget deficit will total 28.3% of GDP, the highest three year total since World War II, and up from 6.3% of GDP in the three years ending 2008 (Chart 2). Importantly, the massive advance in the deficit was primarily due to a surge in outlays that was more than double the fall in revenues. In the current three years, spending was an astounding $2.2 trillion more than in the three years ending 2008. The fiscal and monetary actions combined have had no meaningful impact on improving the standard of living of the average American family (Chart 3).

Why Has Fiscal Policy Failed?

Four considerations, all drawn from contemporary economic analysis, explain the underlying cause of the fiscal policy failures and clearly show that continuing to repeat such programs will generate even more unsatisfactory results.
First, the government expenditure multiplier is zero, and quite possibly slightly negative. Depending on the initial conditions, deficit spending can increase economic activity, but only for a mere three to five quarters. Within twelve quarters these early gains are fully reversed. Thus, if the economy starts with $15 trillion in GDP and deficit spending is increased, then it will end with $15 trillion of GDP within three years. Reflecting the deficit spending, the government sector takes over a larger share of economic activity, reducing the private sector share while saddling the same-sized economy with a higher level of indebtedness. However, the resources to cover the interest expense associated with the rise in debt must be generated from a diminished private sector.
The problem is not the size or the timing of the actions, but the inherent flaws in the approach. Indeed, rigorous, independently produced statistical studies by Robert Barro of Harvard University in the United States and Roberto Perotti of Universita Bocconi in Italy were uncannily accurate in suggesting the path of failure that these programs would take. From 1955 to 2006, Dr. Barro estimates the expenditure multiplier at -0.1 (p. 206 Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach, Southwestern 2009). Perotti, a MIT Ph.D., found a low but positive multiplier in the U.S., U.K., Japan, Germany, Australia and Canada. Worsening the problem, most of those who took college economic courses assume that propositions learned decades ago are still valid. Unfortunately, new tests and the availability of more and longer streams of macroeconomic statistics have rendered many of the well-schooled propositions of the past five decades invalid.Second, temporary tax cuts enlarge budget deficits but they do not change behavior, providing no meaningful boost to economic activity. Transitory tax cuts have been enacted under Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush (41), Bush (43), and Obama. No meaningful difference in the outcome was observable, regardless of whether transitory tax cuts were in the form of rebate checks, earned income tax credits, or short-term changes in tax rates like the one year reduction in FICA taxes or the two year extension of the 2001/2003 tax cuts, both of which are currently in effect. Long run studies of consumer spending habits (the consumption function in academic circles), as well as detailed examinations of these separate episodes indicate that such efforts are a waste of borrowed funds. This is because while consumers will respond strongly to permanent or sustained increases in income, the response to transitory gains is insignificant. The cut in FICA taxes appears to have been a futile effort since there was no acceleration in economic growth, and the unfunded liabilities in the Social Security system are now even greater. Cutting payroll taxes for a year, as former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers advocates, would be no more successful, while further adding to the unfunded Social Security liability.
Third, when private sector tax rates are changed permanently behavior is altered, and according to the best evidence available, the response of the private sector is quite large. For permanent tax changes, the tax multiplier is between minus 2 and minus 3. If higher taxes are used to redress the deficit because of the seemingly rational need to have“shared sacrifice,” growth will be impaired even further. Thus, attempting to reduce the budget deficit by hiking marginal tax rates will be counterproductive since economic activity will deteriorate and revenues will be lost.
Fourth, existing programs suggest that more of the federal budget will go for basic income maintenance and interest expense; therefore the government expenditure multiplier may become more negative. Positive multiplier expenditures such as military hardware, space exploration and infrastructure programs will all become a smaller part of future budgets. Even the multiplier of such meritorious programs may be much less than anticipated since the expended funds for such programs have to come from somewhere, and it is never possible to identify precisely what private sector program will be sacrificed so that more funds would be available for federal spending. Clearly, some programs like the first-time home buyers program and cash for clunkers had highly negative side effects. Both programs only further exacerbated the problems in the auto and housing markets.

Permanent Fiscal Solutions Versus Quick Fixes

While the fiscal steps have been debilitating, new programs could improve business considerably over time. A federal tax code with rates of 15%, 20%, and 25% for both the household and corporate sectors, but without deductions, would serve several worthwhile purposes. Such measures would be revenue neutral, but at the same time they would lower the marginal tax rates permanently which, over time, would provide a considerable boost for economic growth. Moreover, the private sector would save $400-$500 billion of tax preparation expenses that could then be channeled to other uses. Admittedly, the path to such changes would entail a long and difficult political debate.
In the 2011 IMF working paper, “An Analysis of U.S. Fiscal and Generational Imbalances,” authored by Nicoletta Batini, Giovanni Callegari, and Julia Guerreiro, the options to correct the problem are identified thoroughly. These authors enumerate the ways to close the gaps under different scenarios in what they call “Menu of Pain.” Rather than lacking the knowledge to improve the economic situation, there may not be the political will to deal with the problems because of their enormity and the huge numbers of Americans who would be required to share in the sacrifices. If this assessment is correct, the U.S. government will not act until a major emergency arises.

The Debt Bomb

The two major U.S. government debt to GDP statistics commonly referred to in budget discussions are shown in Chart 4. The first is the ratio of U.S. debt held by the public to GDP, which excludes federal debt held in various government entities such as Social Security and the Federal Reserve banks. The second is the ratio of gross U.S. debt to GDP. Historically, the debt held by the public ratio was the more useful, but now the gross debt ratio is more relevant. By 2015, according to the CBO, debt held by the public will jump to more than 75% of GDP, while gross debt will exceed 104% of GDP. The CBO figures may be too optimistic. The IMF estimates that gross debt will amount to 110% of GDP by 2015, and others have even higher numbers. The gross debt ratio, however, does not capture the magnitude of the approaching problem.

According to a recent report in USA Today, the unfunded liabilities in the Social Security and Medicare programs now total $59.1 trillion. This amounts to almost four times current GDP. Modern accrual accounting requires corporations to record expenses at the time the liability is incurred, even when payment will be made later. But this is not the case for the federal government. By modern private sector accounting standards, gross federal debt is already 500% of GDP.

Federal Debt – the End Game

Economic research on U.S. Treasury credit worthiness is of significant interest to Hoisington Management because it is possible that if nothing is politically accomplished in reducing our long-term debt liabilities, a large risk premium could be established in Treasury securities. It is not possible to predict whether this will occur in five years, twenty years, or longer. However, John H. Cochrane of the University of Chicago, and currently President of the American Finance Association, spells out the end game if the deficits and debt are not contained. Dr. Cochrane observes that real, or inflation adjusted Federal government debt, plus the liabilities of the Federal Reserve (which are just another form of federal debt) must be equal to the present value of future government surpluses (Table 1). In plain language, you owe a certain amount of money so your income in the future should equal that figure on a present value basis. Federal Reserve liabilities are also known as high powered money (the sum of deposits at the Federal Reserve banks plus currency in circulation). This proposition is critical because it means that when the Fed buys government securities it has merely substituted one type of federal debt for another. In quantitative easing (QE), the Fed purchases Treasury securities with an average maturity of about four years and replaces it with federal obligations with zero maturity. Federal Reserve deposits and currency are due on demand, and as economists say, they are zero maturity money. Thus, QE shortens the maturity of the federal debt but, as Dr. Cochrane points out, the operation has merely substituted one type for another. The sum of the two different types of liabilities must equal the present value of future governmental surpluses since both the Treasury and Fed are components of the federal government.

Calculating the present value of the stream of future surpluses requires federal outlays and expenditures and the discount rate at which the dollar value of that stream is expressed in today’s real dollars. The formula where all future liabilities must equal future surpluses must always hold. At the point that investors lose confidence in the dollar stream of future surpluses, the interest rate, or discount rate on that stream, will soar in order to keep the present value equation in balance. The surge in the discount rate is likely to result in a severe crisis like those that occurred in the past and that currently exist in Europe. In such a crisis the U.S. will be forced to make extremely difficult decisions in a very short period of time, possibly without much input from the political will of American citizens. Dr. Cochrane does not believe this point is at hand, and observes that Japan has avoided this day of reckoning for two decades. The U.S. may also be able to avoid this, but not if the deficits and debt problem are not corrected. Our interpretation of Dr. Cochrane’s analysis is that, although the U.S. has time, not to urgently redress these imbalances is irresponsible and begs for an eventual crisis.

Monetary Policy’s Numerous Misadventures

Fed policy has aggravated, rather than ameliorated our basic problems because it has encouraged an unwise and debilitating buildup of debt, while also pursuing short term policies that have increased inflation, weakened economic growth, and decreased the standard of living. No objective evidence exists that QE has improved economic conditions. Even before the Japanese earthquake and weather related problems arose this spring, real economic growth was worse than prior to QE2. Some measures of nominal activity improved, but these gains were more than eroded by the higher commodity inflation. Clearly, the median standard of living has deteriorated.
When the Fed diverts attention with QE, it is possible to lose sight of the important deficit spending, tax and regulatory barriers that are restraining the economy’s ability to grow. Raising expectations that Fed actions can make things better is a disservice since these hopes are bound to be dashed. There is ample evidence that such a treadmill serves to make consumers even more cynical and depressed. To quote Dr. Cochrane, “Mostly, it is dangerous for the Fed to claim immense power, and for us to trust that power when it is basically helpless. If Bernanke had admitted to Congress, ‘There’s nothing the Fed can do. You’d better clean this mess up fast,’ he might have a much more salutary effect.” Instead, Bernanke wrote newspaper editorials, gave speeches, and appeared on national television taking credit for improved economic conditions. In all instances these claims about the Fed’s power were greatly exaggerated.

Summary and Outlook

In the broadest sense, monetary and fiscal policies have failed because government financial transactions are not the key to prosperity. Instead, the economic well-being of a country is determined by the creativity, inventiveness and hard work of its households and individuals.
A meaningful risk exists that the economy could turn down prior to the general election in 2012, even though this would be highly unusual for presidential election years. The econometric studies that indicate the government expenditure multiplier is zero are evidenced by the prevailing, dismal business conditions. In essence, the massive federal budget deficits have not produced economic gain, but have left the country with a massively inflated level of debt and the prospect of higher interest expense for decades to come. This will be the case even if interest rates remain extremely low for the foreseeable future. The flow of state and local tax revenues will be unreliable in an environment of weak labor markets that will produce little opportunity for full time employment. Thus, state and local governments will continue to constrain the pace of economic expansion. Unemployment will remain unacceptably high and further increases should not be ruled out. The weak labor markets could in turn force home prices lower, another problematic development in current circumstances. Inflationary forces should turn tranquil, thereby contributing to an elongated period of low bond yields. The Fed may resort to another round of quantitative easing, or some other untested gimmick with a new name. Such undertakings will be no more successful than previous efforts that increased over-indebtedness or raised transitory inflation, which in turn weakened the economy by directly, or indirectly, intensifying financial pressures on households of modest and moderate means.
While the massive budget deficits and the buildup of federal debt, if not addressed, may someday result in a substantial increase in interest rates, that day is not at hand. The U.S. economy is too fragile to sustain higher interest rates except for interim, transitory periods that have been recurring in recent years. As it stands, deflation is our largest concern, therefore we remain fully committed to the long end of the Treasury bond market.

Existing Home Sales Miss, Cancellations Rise

from Zero Hedge:

According to the NAR, June existing home sales once again declined, this time to 4.77MM from 4.81MM, the lowest since November, and well below the expected rise to 4.90MM. This number was 8.8% below June 2010's 5.23MM. Total inventory increased by 3.3% to 3.77 million units, or 9.5 months of supply at the current sales rate up from 9.1 in May. The biggest question mark is the surge in order cancellations which soared from 4% in May to an unprecedented 16% in June. That's one in five home transactions being cancelled in the middle of the deal.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pollyanna Gets Her Fix

The people on Wall Street must be truly insane to rally stocks in this environment!

Marco Rubio: "It's the Debt, Not the Debt Ceiling!"

"The real problem here is not the debt LIMIT; the real problem here is the DEBT!" -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio

US Misery Index Hits 28-Year High

Stocks down 150 points! That tiny little opening rally didn't last long!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

John Mauldin: Hard Dose of Economic Reality

This week we are going to revisit some themes concerning the problems of the debt and the deficit. I am getting a number of questions, so while long-time readers may have read most of this in one letter or another, it is clearly time for a review, especially given the deficit/debt-ceiling debate. I will probably offend some cherished beliefs of most readers, but that is the nature of the times we live in. It is the time of the Endgame, where things are not as black and white as they have been in the past.
Let’s begin with a question that is representative of a lot of the questions I have been getting, from reader John:
“John, it appears that you're arguing that two contradictory things have the same effect: adding government spending doesn't help the economy, and reducing government spending hurts the economy. Which is it? At first, you say that adding government spending doesn't help, no new jobs are actually created, it fails the sharp pencil test, etc. So, we should reduce this waste, right? Well, yes, you say, but that will reduce GDP too. I just don't get it. You seem to have it both ways: increasing government spending is bad, and reducing it is bad. What is your point?”
Yes, I am saying both things, and they are not contradictory. We are coming to the end of the debt supercycle in the US, and have reached that point in much of Europe, and soon will in Japan. So while I am going to focus on the US, at least this week, the same principles apply to all the developed world.
For some 65-odd years, we have added to the national debt – individually, corporately, and as governments. But as Greece is finding out, there is a limit (more on that later). Eventually the bond market decides that loaning you more money is not a high-value proposition. If your home or your government is debt financed, you are forced to cut back. While the US is not there yet, we soon (as in a few years) will be.
One way or another, the budget deficits are going to come down. As we will see later, we can choose to proactively deal with the deficit problem or we can wait until there is a crisis and be forced to react. These choices result in entirely different outcomes.
In the US, the real question we must ask ourselves as a nation is, “How much health care do we want and how do we want to pay for it?” Everything else can be dealt with if we get that basic question answered. We can radically cut health care along with other discretionary budget items, or we can raise taxes, or some combination. Both have consequences. The polls say a large, bipartisan majority of people want to maintain Medicare and other health programs (perhaps reformed), and yet a large bipartisan majority does not want a tax increase. We can’t have it both ways, which means there is a major job of education to be done.
The point of the exercise is to reduce the deficit over 5-6 years to below the growth rate of nominal GDP (which includes inflation). A country can run a deficit below that rate forever, without endangering its economic survival. While it may be wiser to run some surpluses and pay down debt, if you keep your fiscal deficits lower than income growth, over time the debt becomes less of an issue.

GDP = C + I + G + Net Exports

But either raising taxes or cutting spending has side effects that cannot be ignored. Either one or both will make it more difficult for the economy to grow. Let’s quickly look at a few basic economic equations. The first is GDP = C + I + G + net exports, or GDP is equal to Consumption (Consumer and Business) + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports (Exports – Imports). This is true for all times and countries.
Now, what typically happens in a business-cycle recession is that, as businesses produce too many goods and start to cut back, consumption falls; and the Keynesian response is to increase government spending in order to assist the economy to start buying and spending; and the theory is that when the economy recovers you can reduce government spending as a percentage of the economy – except that has not happened for a long time. Government spending just kept going up. In response to the Great Recession, government (both parties) increased spending massively. And it did have an effect. But it wasn’t just the cost of the stimulus, it was the absolute size of government that increased as well.
And now massive deficits are projected for a very long time, unless we make changes. The problem is that taking away that deficit spending is going to be the reverse of the stimulus – a negative stimulus if you will. Why? Because the economy is not growing fast enough to overcome the loss of that stimulus. We will notice it. This is a short-term effect, which most economists agree will last 4-5 quarters; and then the economy may be better, with lower deficits and smaller government.
However, in order to get the deficit under control, we are talking on the order of reducing the deficit by 1% of GDP every year for 5-6 years. That is a very large headwind on growth, if you reduce potential nominal GDP by 1% a year in a world of a 2% Muddle Through economy. (And GDP for the US came in at an anemic 1.75% yesterday, with very weak final demand.)
Further, tax increases reduce GDP by anywhere from 1 to 3 times the size of the increase, depending on which academic study you choose. Large tax increases will reduce GDP and potential GDP. That may be the price we want to pay as a country, but we need to recognize that there is a hit to growth and employment. Those who argue that taking away the Bush tax cuts will have no effect on the economy are simply not dealing with either the facts or the well-established research. (Now, that is different from the argument that says we should allow them to expire anyway.)

Increasing Productivity

There are only two ways to grow an economy. Just two. You can increase the working-age population or you can increase productivity. That’s it. No secret sauce. The key is for us to figure out how to increase productivity. Let’s refer again to our equation:
GDP = C + I + G + net exports
The I in the equation is investments. That is what produces the tools and businesses that make “stuff” and buy and sell services. Increasing government spending, G, does not increase productivity. It transfers taxes taken from one sector of the economy and to another, with a cost of transfer, of course. While the people who get the transfer payments and services certainly feel better off, those who pay taxes are left with less to invest in private businesses that actually increase productivity. As I have shown elsewhere, over the last two decades, the net new jobs in the US have come from business start-ups. Not large businesses (they are a net drag) and not even small businesses. Understand, some of those start-ups became Google and Apple, etc.; but many just become good small businesses, hiring 5-10-50-100 people. But the cumulative effect is growth in productivity and the economy.
Now, if you mess with our equation, what you find is that Investments = Savings.
If the government “dis-saves” or runs deficits, it takes away potential savings from private investments. That money has to come from somewhere. Of late, it has come from QE2, but that is going away soon. And again, let’s be very clear. It is private investment that increases productivity, which allows for growth, which produces jobs. Yes, if the government takes money from one group and employs another, those are real jobs; but that is money that could have been put to use in private business investment. It is the government saying we know how to create jobs better than the taxpayers and businesses we take the taxes from.
This is not to argue against government and taxes. There are true roles for government. The discussion we must now have is how much government we want, and recognize that there are costs to large government involvement in the economy. How large a drag can government be? Let’s look at a few charts. The first two are from my friend Louis Gave, of GaveKal. This first one reveals the correlation between the growth of GDP in France and the size of government. It shows the rate of growth in GDP and the ratio of the size of the public sector in relation to the private sector. The larger the percentage of government in the ratio, the lower the growth.

I know, you think this is just the French. We all know their government is too involved in everything, don’t we. But it works in the US as well. The chart below shows the combined US federal, state, and local expenditures as a percentage of GDP (left-hand scale, which is inverted) versus the 7-year structural growth rate, shown on the right-hand side. And you see a very clear correlation between the size of total government and structural growth. This chart and others like it can be done for countries all over the world.

Now let’s review a graph from Rob Arnott of Research Affiliates. The chart needs a little setup. It shows the contributions of the private sector and the public sector to GDP. Remember, the C in our equation was private and business consumption. The G is government. And G makes up a rather large portion of overall GDP.
The top line (in dark blue) is real GDP per capita. The next line (yellow) shows what GDP would have been without borrowing. So a very real portion of GDP the last few years has come from government debt. Now, the green line below that is private-sector GDP. This is sad, because it shows that the private sector, per capita, is roughly where it was in 1998. The growth of the “economy” has been limited to government.

Notice that real GDP without government spending or deficits has been flat for 15 years (which, as a sidebar, also explains why real wages for private individuals are flat as well, but that’s a topic for another letter). Now, here is what to pay attention to. For the last several years, the real growth in GDP has come from the US government borrowing money. Without that growth in debt, we would be in what most would characterize as a depression.
This is why Paul Krugman and his fellow neo-Keynesians argue that we need larger deficits, not smaller ones. For them the issue is final aggregate consumer demand, and they believe you can stimulate that by giving people money to spend and letting future generations pay for that spending. And sine WW2 they have been right, kind of. When the US has gone into a recession, the government has embarked on deficit spending and the economy has recovered. The Keynesians see cause and effect. And thus they argue we now need more “hair of the dog” to prompt the recovery, which is clearly starting to lag behind what they think of as normal growth.
But others (and I am in this camp) argue that business-cycle recessions are normal and that recoveries would come anyway, and are not caused by increased government debt and spending but by businesses adjusting and entrepreneurs creating new companies. Correlation is not causation. Just because recoveries happened when the government ran deficits does not mean that they were the result of government spending. This is not to argue that the government should not step in with a safety net for the unemployed – again, a subject for another letter.
Let’s see what Rob Arnott says about this conundrum:
“GDP is consumer spending, plus government outlays, plus gross investments, plus exports, minus imports. With the exception of exports, GDP measures spending. The problem is, GDP makes no distinction between debt-financed spending and spending that we can cover out of current income.
“Consumption is not prosperity. The credit-addicted family measures its success by how much it is able to spend, applauding any new source of credit, regardless of the family income or ability to repay. The credit-addicted family enjoys a rising “family GDP” – consumption – as long as they can find new lenders, and suffers a family “recession” when they prudently cut up their credit cards.
“In much the same way, the current definition of GDP causes us to ignore the fact that we are mortgaging our future to feed current consumption. Worse, like the credit-addicted family, we can consciously game our GDP and GDP growth rates – our consumption and consumption growth – at any levels our creditors will permit!
“Consider a simple thought experiment. Let’s suppose the government wants to dazzle us with 5% growth next quarter (equivalent to 20% annualized growth!). If they borrow an additional 5% of GDP in new additional debt and spend it immediately, this magnificent GDP growth is achieved! We would all see it as phony growth, sabotaging our national balance sheet – right? Maybe not. We are already borrowing and spending 2% to 3% each quarter, equivalent to 10% to 12% of GDP, and yet few observers have decried this as artificial GDP growth because we’re not accustomed to looking at the underlying GDP before deficit spending!
“From this perspective, real GDP seems unreal, at best. GDP that stems from new debt – mainly deficit spending – is phony: it is debt-financed consumption, not prosperity. Isn’t GDP after excluding net new debt obligations a more relevant measure? Deficit spending is supposed to trigger growth in the remainder of the economy, net of deficit-financed spending, which we can call our “Structural GDP.” If Structural GDP fails to grow as a consequence of our deficits, then deficit spending has failed in its sole and singular purpose.
“Of course, even Structural GDP offers a misleading picture. Our Structural GDP has grown nearly 100-fold in the last 70 years. Most of that growth is due to inflation and population growth; a truer measure of the prosperity of the average citizen must adjust for these effects.”
And thus the graph above showing private GDP and the difference in the GDP numbers that are reported in the media. I used Rob’s entire (and brilliant) piece as an Outside the Box last May. If you missed it, you can go to
and review it.

The Trillion Dollar Question

Now, in our review, let’s get back to reader John’s question. I have used this chart before, but it bears another quick look. This is from the Heritage Foundation. It is a year old, and one can quibble about the specifics. That is not the point of today’s issue. The point is that, whatever the deficit is, it is huge. This is a chart of something that will not happen, as the bond market will simply not finance a deficit as large as the one that looms in our future. Long before we get to 2019, we will have our own Greek (or Irish or Portuguese or Japanese, etc.) moment. (Or Spanish or Italian or Belgian – so many countries, so much debt!)

For the sake of the argument and our thought experiment, let’s split the difference on that chart. Somehow we must then find about $1.2 trillion in cuts or taxes to get the deficit down to below the growth rate of nominal GDP. And another few hundred billion if we actually want to balance the budget.
And that, gentle reader, is no small hill to climb. Let’s say we cut spending and/or raise taxes by $200 billion a year for 6 years. That is more than 1% of GDP each and every year! Go back to the first chart. That means that potential GDP growth will be reduced by over 1% a year! Every year. We would need to rely upon private GDP growth, which Rob’s chart shows has been flat for almost 15 years! The growth of the last 11 years has been a government-financed illusion.
There are no good choices. The time for good choices was years ago. I was and still am a fan of the Bush tax cuts. They were not the problem; a few years after the cuts, tax revenues were up considerably. The problem was a profligate Republican Congress which allowed spending to rise even more. And you can’t just blame it on the wars. That contributed, but it was not even close to the lion’s share. If we had held the line on spending, we would have paid off the entire debt and been in good shape when the crisis hit in 2008. The following graph is from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. They use it to show how much Democrats allowed the budget in terms of GDP to rise and spin out of control.
I would point out that in the 8 previous years, under Bush/Hastert/Delay et al., there was also a rise in the growth of government, as the chart shows. While it was not as large, it was clearly there. The drop in the previous period was the Bill Clinton/Newt Gingrich years. How many people are nostalgic for that pairing? Say what you will about them, their collaboration was a good era for growth in the private sector – the last we have had.

And that is the crux of the problem. Either we willingly cut the deficit by a far more significant amount than anyone is discussing, or we hit the wall at some point and become Greece. $4 trillion? No, let’s talk about 10 or 12.
And that, John, is the problem. We have painted ourselves into the corner of no good choices. We are left with difficult and disastrous choices. We have condemned ourselves to a slow-growth, Muddle Through Economy for another 5-6 years, at best, as we are forced to right-size government. If we raise taxes to partially solve the problem, we have to recognize that higher taxes will result in slower private growth. That’s just the rules. There are no easy buttons to push.
So, we must cut spending and the deficit, and yes, it is going to slow the economy for a period of time. The economic literature suggests that a spending cut will have 4-5 quarters of effect and then be neutral going forward. But we are going to have to make those cuts year after year after year.
I know the Tea Party types want to do it all at once, but that would guarantee a decade-long depression. You just really don’t want to go there. It MUST be a slower, controlled “glide-path” approach. I wrote about this back in 2009, along with all the other options. Nothing has changed:
. The present contains all possible futures. But not all futures are good ones. Some can be quite cruel. The one we actually get is determined by the choices we make.
It is getting time to close, so a few quick observations. While choosing a President and Congress next year will be a referendum of sorts, I would like to see a real, non-binding referendum appear on our primary ballots. How much Medicare do we want? Should we raise taxes? How do we get to $10 trillion in cuts? You would have to confirm you have read a 20-page document outlining the choices and consequences, and that should be posted everywhere and mailed to everyone. We need to have a real national conversation.p>
If Obama says he wants $4 trillion in cuts, then let him give us details rather than asking Congress to give him a plan, as he did today. He has his brain trust; surely they can come up with some details. The problem is that if he offers specifics he will have to show his supporters what he is willing to cut. And those cuts will not be without pain.
The real issue, as I have said, will boil down to how much Medicare we want and how we want to pay for it. Congressman Ryan’s cuts don’t get us even halfway there.

A Summer of Ultimatums

In closing, this from my friends at GaveKal:
“ In the past 24 hours, we have seen the Greek deputy finance minister announce that Athens would fall far short of planned asset sales (this can only come as a surprise to investors born yesterday) and the Greek prime minister publish an open letter to Eurogroup Chairman Juncker warning that Greece has done all that it could. Mr Panandreaou went on to say that the onus is now on European policymakers to meet in a closed forum, with no damaging press leaks, and emerge with a strong, unambiguous message – we have to assume that the irony of asking for more secrecy through an open letter to the general media was perhaps lost on the Greek PM. Diplomacy aside, it seems that Greece is placing an ultimatum on Europe and this for a very simple reason: the end game for the EMU is approaching much faster than most investors had expected. Indeed, the choice between fiscal union or disintegration may well have to be faced this very summer.
“In his eloquent letter, Papandreou boldly stated that, in essence, Greece is no longer prepared to make further concessions and will thus blow up Europe's financial system if it is subjected to any more pressure. In other words, it is now time for all additional concessions to come from the side of Germany, the ECB and the EU. The willingness of Papandreou to speak so boldly is hugely important since it marks a recognition by the debtors that they now have the whip-hand in these negotiations. The Greeks (and Irish) for some reason failed to realize their power last year, but they do now. This transforms the balance of power in the negotiations. As a result, Germany and the ECB have reached the moment of truth – either they comply with the debtor countries' demands or they abandon the euro. This ultimatum probably helps explain why the euro has been so weak and why it should be heading even lower.”
There will be yet another emergency meeting next Thursday. The crisis is coming to the final innings. Will Germany and the ECB finance Greece? Print money in a fashion that would make Bernanke and Krugman envious? But if we in the US do not get our own act together, in the not-too-distant future we will face our own moment of truth as the bond market forces us to choose between disastrous and worse. The cuts we will have to make under pressure will be far worse than those we can make now.