Do We Need a Social Welfare State?

One must evalulate all the trade-offs.

The following article in today’s NY Times asks the provocative question of whether we can afford a major shift to a social welfare state. One must also ask if the USA needs such a level of social welfare spending and what trade-offs it might impose. This is a question that must be answered through the democratic political process because the economic trade-offs are real.

See comments in RED.

Can America Afford to Become a Major Social Welfare State?

nytimes.com/2021/09/15/opinion/biden-spending-plan-welfare.html

By N. Gregory Mankiw

September 15, 2021

In the reconciliation package now being debated in Washington, President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. Americans should be wary of their plans — not only because of the sizable budgetary cost, but also because of the broader risks to economic prosperity.

The details of the ambitious $3.5 trillion social spending bill are still being discussed, so it is unclear what it will end up including. In many ways, it seems like a grab bag of initiatives assembled from the progressive wish list. And it may be bigger than it sounds: Reports suggest that some provisions will arbitrarily lapse before the end of the 10-year budget window to reduce the bill’s ostensible size, even though lawmakers hope to extend those policies at a later date.

People of all ages are in line to get something: government-funded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded child credits for families with children, two years of tuition-free community college, increased Pell grants for other college students, enhanced health insurance subsidies, paid family and medical leave, and expansions in Medicare for older Americans. A recent Times headline aptly described the plan’s coverage as “cradle to grave.”

If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. It aims to assist people who are struggling in our rough-and-tumble market economy. On its face, that instinct doesn’t sound bad. Many Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction.

Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes. But the policy also raises larger questions about American values and aspirations, and about what kind of nation we want to be.

The issue Prof. Mankiw addresses here is the question as to whether the costs of such programs yield the benefits desired. There is a lot of talk on the left that Modern Monetary Theory demonstrates that deficits don’t constrain government spending so that politicians should spend what’s needed to achieve whatever objective they choose. This is a bit of wishful fantasy. What matters economically and financially is whether such spending yields a greater return in terms of freedom and quality of life for society as a whole. If such spending merely increases the deficit but does not invest in the productivity of the economy, then it is a dead weight upon society. It’s not much different than one’s personal desire to choose between buying a new car or instead investing in education. One must compare how each choice will yield in terms of financial freedom and happiness over the longer term.

The Biden administration has promised to pay for the entire plan with higher taxes on corporations and the very wealthy. But there’s good reason to doubt that claim. Budget experts, such as Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, are skeptical that the government can raise enough tax revenue from the wealthy to finance Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda.

The United States could do what Western Europe does — impose higher taxes on everyone. Most countries use a value-added tax, a form of a national sales tax, to raise a lot of revenue efficiently. If Americans really want larger government, we will have to pay for it, and a VAT could be the best way.

The costs of an expanded welfare state, however, extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects.

Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” According to Mr. Okun, policymakers want to maximize the economic pie while slicing it equally. But these goals often conflict. As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink.

Mr. Okun explains the trade-off with a metaphor: Providing a social safety net is like using a leaky bucket to redistribute water among people with different amounts. While bringing water to the thirstiest may be noble, it is also costly as some water is lost in transit. 

In the real world, this leakage occurs because higher taxes distort incentives and impede economic growth. And those taxes aren’t just the explicit ones that finance benefits such as public education or health care. They also include implicit taxes baked into the benefits themselves. If these benefits decline when your income rises, people are discouraged from working. This implicit tax distorts incentives just as explicit taxes do. That doesn’t mean there is no point in trying to help those in need, but it does require being mindful of the downsides of doing so.

Yes, we must reconcile the trade-off, but I would also characterize it as freedom and liberty to pursue one’s personal happiness versus the promise of individual economic security promised by the collective. The fulfillment of that promise is often costlier than anticipated and the benefits disappointing.

Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom.

Economists disagree about why European nations are less prosperous than the United States. But a leading hypothesis, advanced by Edward Prescott, a Nobel laureate, in 2003, is that Europeans work less than Americans because they face higher taxes to finance a more generous social safety net.

In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones. Americans should be careful to avoid that fate.

The point of course, is not that leisure time is undesirable but that people can choose how they invest their time and energy, rather than have state policy reward or penalize that choice arbitrarily. In a free and just society, this choice should be left to the individual. Liberty and security are not mutually exclusive goals.

Compassion is a virtue, but so is respect for those who are talented, hardworking and successful. Most Americans descended from immigrants, who left their homelands to find freedom and forge their own destinies. Because of this history, we are more individualistic than Europeans, and our policies rightly reflect that cultural difference.

That is not to say that the United States has already struck the right balance between compassion and prosperity. It is a continuing tragedy that children are more likely to live in poverty than the overall population. That’s why my favorite provision in the Biden plan is the expanded child credit, which would reduce childhood poverty. (I am also sympathetic to policies aimed at climate change, which is an entirely different problem. Sadly, the Biden plan misses the opportunity to embrace the best solution — a carbon tax.)

But the entire $3.5 trillion package is too big and too risky. The wiser course is to take more incremental steps rather than to try to remake the economy in one fell swoop.

Actually, I would suggest that the choice between liberty and security is a false one and the assumption that security can only be secured for the individual by the state to also be false. The leftist assumption is that the state has to intervene to redistribute wealth after the fact when instead we can design policies that empower citizens to join in the distribution of that wealth by participating in the risk-taking venture before the fact. Then the distribution of resources in society will mostly take care of itself. As it is now, and with this social welfare expansion, we prevent most individuals who need to participate from participating, forcing them to depend on the largesse of the state or the dictates of the market. This is hardly optimal in the search for liberty and justice. In light of my preference to preserve my liberty and take care of my own security, my answer to Prof. Mankiw’s question would be NO.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005.

QE4Ever

A bit like love, eh?

This article offers some good insights into monetary manipulation. The one thing I see missing is the recapitalization of assets based on depressed long-term interest rates, which is a result of Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP). So we have massive asset bubbles across many real asset classes as a result. No one seems to have any idea how this unwinds, but unwind it must.

‘Quantitative Easing’ Isn’t Stimulus, and Never Has Been

By Ken Fisher, RealClearMarkets

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Upside down and backwards! Nearly 13 years since the Fed launched “quantitative easing” (aka “QE”), it is still misunderstood, both upside down and backwards. One major camp believes it is inflation rocket fuel. The other deems it essential for economic growth—how could the Fed even consider tapering its asset purchases amid Delta variant surges and slowing employment growth, they shriek! But both groups’ fears hinge on a fatal fallacy: presuming QE is stimulus. It isn’t, never has been and, in reality, is anti-stimulus. Don’t fear tapering—welcome it.

Banking’s core business is sooooooo simple: taking in short-term deposits to finance long-term loans. The spread between short- and long-term interest rates approximates new loans’ gross profit margins (effectively cost versus revenue). Bigger spreads mean bigger loan profits—so banks more eagerly lend more.

Overwhelmingly, people think central banks “print money” under QE. Wrong. Very wrong. Super wrong! Under QE, central banks create non-circulating “reserves” they use to buy bonds banks own. This extra demand boosts bond prices relative to what they would be otherwise. Prices and yields move inversely, so long-term interest rates fall.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell and the two preceding him wrongheadedly label QE stimulus, thinking lower rates spur borrowing—pure demand-side thinking. Few pundits question it, amazingly. But economics hinges on demand … and supply. Central bankers almost completely forget the latter—which is much more powerful in monetary matters. These “bankers” ignore banking’s core business! When short-term rates are pinned near zero, lowering long rates shrinks spreads (“flattening” the infamous yield curve). Lending grows less profitable. So guess what banks do? They lend less! Increase demand all you want—if banks lack incentive to actually dish out new loans, it means zilch.  Stimulus? In any developed world, central bank-based system, so-called “money creation” stems from the total banking system increasing net outstanding loans. QE motivates exactly the opposite.

Doubt it? Consider recent history. The Fed deployed three huge QE rounds after 2008’s financial crisis. Lending and official money supply growth shriveled. In the five pre-2008 US expansions, loan growth averaged 8.2% y/y. But from the Fed’s first long-term Treasury purchases in March 2009 to December 2013’s initial taper, loan growth averaged just 0.8% y/y. After tapering nixed the nonsense, it accelerated, averaging 5.8% until COVID lockdowns truncated the expansion. While broad money supply measures are flawed, it is telling that US official quantity of money grew at the slowest clip of any expansion in history during QE.

Now? After a brief pop tied to COVID aid, US lending has declined in 12 of the last 14 months. In July it was 4.7% above February 2020’s pre-pandemic level—far from gangbusters growth over a 17-month span.

Inflation? As I noted in June, it comes from too much money chasing too few goods and services worldwide. By discouraging lending, QE creates less money and decreases inflation pressure. You read that right: QE is disinflationary. Always has been. Wherever it has been tried and applied inflation has been fried. Like Japan for close to …ah…ah…ah….forever. Demand-side-obsessed “experts” can’t see that. But you can! Witness US prices’ measly 1.6% y/y average growth last expansion. Weak lending equals weak real money growth and low inflation—simple! The higher rates we have seen in recent months are all about distortions from lockdowns and reopenings—temporary.

The 2008 – 2009 recession was credit-related, so it was at least conceivable some kind of central bank action might—maybe kinda sorta—actually help. Maybe! But 2020? There was zero logic behind the Fed and other central banks using QE to combat COVID. How would lowering long rates stoke demand when lockdowns halted commerce?

It didn’t. So fearing QE’s wind-down makes absolutely no sense. Tapering, other things equal, would lift long-term rates relative to short rates—juicing loans’ profitability. Banks would lend more. Growth would accelerate. Stocks would zoom! Almost always when central banks try to get clever they wield a cleaver relative to what they desire.  A lack of FED action is what would otherwis be called normalcy.

Fine, but might a QE cutback still trigger a psychological freak-out, roiling markets? Maybe—briefly. Short-term volatility is always possible, for any or no reason. But it wouldn’t last. Tapering is among the most watched financial stories—has been for months. Pundits over-worry about it for you. Their fretting largely pre-prices QE’s end, so you need not sweat it. This is why Powell’s late-August Jackson Hole commentary—as clear a statement that tapering is near as Fed heads can make—didn’t stoke market swings. The ECB’s September 9 “don’t call it a taper” taper similarly did little. Remember: Surprises move markets materially. Neither fundamentals nor sentiment suggest tapering is bear market fuel.

Not buying it? Look, again, at history. The entrenched mythological mindset paints 2013’s “Taper Tantrum” as a game-changer for markets. Untrue! After then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first hinted at tapering back in May 2013, long-term Treasury bond prices did sink—10-year yields jumped from 1.94% to 3.04% by that yearend. But for US stocks, the “tantrum” amounted to a -5.6% decline from May 21 through late June—insignificant volatility. After that, stocks shined. By yearend, the S&P 500 was up 12.2% from pre-taper-talk levels. Stocks kept rising in 2014 after tapering began. 10-year yields slid back to 2.17%. My sense is even tapering’s teensy impact then is smaller this time because, whether people consciously acknowledge it or not, we all saw this movie before.

Taper terror may well worsen ahead of each coming Fed meeting until tapering actually arrives. Any disappointing economic data will spark cries of “too soon!” Tune them down. History and simple logic show QE fears lack the power to sway stocks for long.

Ken Fisher, the founder, Executive Chairman and co-CIO of Fisher Investments, authored 11 books and is a widely published global investment columnist.

Modern Monetary Fantasies 2

The Myth of Big Government Deficits – A TED Talk

This is quite the tale. I’m sure Ms. Kelton studied her economics but here with MMT she takes a few basic truths and spins an elaborate fantasy. Essentially her argument is that debt is no obstacle to economic policy and economic outcomes. You want a Ferrari? No problem, the Fed can write a check and it’s yours, no taxes, no worries. Advocates will hate this simplification but that’s essentially what Ms. Kelton is selling. (You can substitute free healthcare, free college, whatever you want, but I’d go with the Ferrari 365GT.)

MMT is utopian economics. Yes, in theory it can make sense, just don’t go too far down that rabbit hole. Govt debt is not like private debt because it never has to be paid back, only serviced and rolled over. So the debt in $ terms doesn’t matter, but the productivity of that debt matters a lot (the debt to GDP ratio is a good indicator – it looks worse every day).

She lauds the pandemic stimulus because that essentially was an MMT experiment. Look, no recession! But recessions are measured in monetary terms (not value), and if the Fed keeps pumping out money, voila! No recession. But value creation matters and in value terms, we are suffering an extreme recession and stagflation. How many small businesses have closed in the past 2 years? How much price inflation are we experiencing? 5-9%? Have you tried to buy a house lately? 20% price increases. Tried to get a plumber or electrician?

Yes, when the government spends $28 trillion, that money goes somewhere in the private sector. And yes, we’ve seen it skimmed off by the banking industry, the asset-rich who have merely leveraged 3% debt, and the securities markets that have bubbled up even as production has declined. This is what is driving inequality to new heights as the global elites suck up this cheap credit courtesy of the central banks. Check out the number of mega yachts plying the oceans.

Yes, we’ve seen the fantasy of MMT in action and that’s why we’re having a political revolution. Kelton and the handful of economists selling MMT are assuming a utopian political world where everybody always does the right thing. Ultimately, intellectual dishonesty like this is extremely damaging.

Read her book, there’s nothing there that will address these false assumptions. Credit and debt are tools that the market uses to restrain profligacy. Without those restraints, the party will eventually implode.

Modern Monetary Fantasies

I read this comment to an article on cultural conflict and politics (the article was a UK perspective and not that insightful – see link below). I was struck by this reader’s comment because it hits the nail on the head, despite its rudimentary tone and language. I could write an empirical and theoretical analysis that would bore readers to tears but it would all support this view.

It’s US$ monetary policy that is driving the distributional consequences of deficit spending along with globalization and technology into the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in. Think about it: when the government borrows and spends $28 trillion, where do we think it goes? Into private pockets controlled by those at the top. (All those real estate assets we own are merely keeping pace – it’s still the same four walls and roof.)

There’s probably not more than a handful of politicians in Washington DC that could explain this well or understand it, but they’re all setting the policies in ignorance.

Money Printing, the ability to spend more than is taken in has had a vast set of consequences – and almost all the problems can be laid at its feet. Really Nixon in 1971 taking US off the ‘Gold Standard’ to fund Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ and the Vietnam War. Both these make the rich richer. The Military-Industrial Complex goes directly to the wealthy, and the increased Social Spending $ always trickle-up while paying the poor to be poor traps them in poverty.

And so it has progressed till the National debt is 28$ Trillion! About equal to 8 years of all USA’s tax revenues. At the current ZERO percent interest rate it takes 1.5$ Trillion to service the debt! About half of all the Fed Tax revenues! Biden wants to add 4.5$ Trillion on human infrastructure (waste, pork, corruption, and free money to minorities, to trickle to the super-rich (and China, via Amazon and Walmart)). This on top of the monthly 120$ BILLION purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities the Fed buys – and the 1-3$ Trillion budget deficit! (If, when, interest rises to 5% it will take all the gov tax revenue just to service the national debt – )

Anyway, the printed $ all rise to the super wealthy, they get all of it. The poor just get addicted to the drug of the Welfare Trap, and become multi-generational poor. The working class and middle class have all their savings and pensions harvested by the stealth Tax called Inflation (now officially 5%, but really 9) because interest must be kept at Zero for the debt to be serviced. So all workers’ savings get eaten up by inflation Tax of 5% – (minus the bank and bond interest of 1% = MINUS 4% savings growth). Their pensions and savings melting like snow as the printing inflates the money supply….

But the above just scratches the surface of the harm. USA will eventually lose ‘Reserve Currency Status’ over this. The foreign trade deficit is a Trillion – how can that continue – the hard assets and Equities so inflated – and the wealthy own them. The rich have hard assets which appreciate, they carry HUGE debt at 3% interest while inflation eats the debt basis away – and Dividends, so make money while everyone goes broke.

This is what Lefty/Liberal MMT is doing – the death of America. The Left economics is always same – all the money to the elites, and the rest go broke.

Why Does America Hate Itself?

Bretton Woods – #2 of Series

Second of a Series of articles on the international monetary regime reprinted from the NY Sun.

Not sure I would agree with all of this. Net exports is different than manufacturing exports and manufacturing employment, especially in the global information economy. I believe the problem here is that the reserve currency allows the US central bank to issue too much US$ credit liabilities without paying the direct consequence. Our trading partners are not exactly happy about this either since they surrender control of their currencies to the dominance of the US Federal Reserve and US politics. I think we need to rein in political discretion over the value of money.

Time To Reverse the Curse Over the Dollar

nysun.com/national/beyond-bretton-woods-the-road-from-genoa/91606/

By JOHN MUELLER

Journalism thrives on simple narratives and round numbers. So I must note that what President Nixon ended 50 years ago was not the international gold standard, which persisted despite interruptions for more than two millennia to 1914, but its complicated parody: the gold-exchange standard, established 99, not 50, years ago by a 1922 agreement at Genoa.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George convened the Genoa Conference in an effort to restore the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, modify the schedule of German reparations owed to France, and begin the re-integration of Soviet Russia into the European economy. Lacking any American support, the conference was a failure on all those counts.

The gold-exchange standard, John Maynard Keynes’ idea, was Genoa’s one tangible result. Keynes had proposed in 1913 that the monetary system of British colonial India be adopted world-wide. The British pound would remain convertible into gold, but India’s and other countries’ domestic payments would be backed by ostensibly gold-convertible claims on London. Following Genoa, the pound could be exchanged for gold, and other national currencies could be exchanged for pounds.

But there was a complication: unlike most currencies, the Indian rupee actually was based on silver, not gold, and British officials, including Keynes, overvalued the silver rupee, hoping to reduce heavy demands for British gold. British monetary experts inserted this scheme (without the silver wrinkle) in the 1922 Genoa accord, incidentally forestalling impecunious Britain’s repayment of its World War I debts in gold.

While working 35 years ago for Congressman Jack Kemp, I first coined the term the “reserve currency curse.” I was tutored in the subject by Lewis E, Lehrman, who in turn was influenced by the French economist Jacques Rueff (1896-1978). Keynes had claimed that what matters is only the value, not kind, of monetary reserves. It was Rueff who countered in 1932 that foreign exchange is qualitatively different from an equal value of precious metal.

With the creation of, say, dollar reserves, purchasing power “has simply been duplicated, and thus the American market is in a position to buy in Europe, and in the United States, at the same time.” This credit duplication causes prices to rise faster in the reserve-currency country than its trading partners, precipitating the reserve-currency country’s deindustrialization. That fate soon befell Great Britain, then the United States after the dollar replaced the pound under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement.

Other countries backing their currencies with dollar-denominated securities led to a dilemma for America. The United States is the only major country with negative net monetary reserves (foreign official assets minus liabilities). All others — even those whose currencies are used by foreign central banks — have positive net reserves (i.e., those countries’ foreign official assets exceed their foreign official liabilities).

There is a correlation of more than 90% between America’s net reserves and its manufacturing employment. American net reserves had been positive before but turned negative by 1960, and manufacturing jobs have since disappeared in direct proportion to the decline in our net reserves. Focusing on one bilateral trade balance or other — say, the US and China — is a mug’s game. What matters is the total balance, not bilateral subsets.

How could an American president reverse the reserve-currency curse? By making honesty the best policy: negotiating and starting repayment of all outstanding dollar reserves over several decades. Since international payments must be settled in real goods — not IOUs — the necessary production of American goods for export is the surest way to revive America’s manufacturing employment.

To increase our manufacturing jobs back to the peak of 17 million from today’s 12 million, it would be necessary to repay most outstanding official dollar reserves. If President Biden is as ineffectual as most of his recent predecessors in responding to the “reserve-currency curse,” he, too, will have to get used to the title “ex-President.”

________

Mr. Mueller is the Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and author of “Redeeming Economics.” Image: Conferees at the Genoa Conference, with Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain front and center. Detail of a British Government photo, via Wikipedia Commons.

What is Money?

This looks to be an excellent series of articles concerning the most important policy issue of the past 50 years. The global monetary regime that uses the US$ as the reserve currency and gives the world’s central banks discretion and control over the supply of fiat currency drives current global events, for better and worse. The effects range from economic crises and financial meltdowns to inequality, political conflict, and environmental degradation. Given the importance of money, I print the following article from the NY Sun in full…

God and Money: ‘A Perfect and Just Measure Shalt Thou Have’

nysun.com/national/god-and-money-a-perfect-and-just-measure-shalt/91597/

By JUDY SHELTON

Following begins a new series of columns marking the 50th anniversary of the collapse of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard established in the closing months of World War II. A related editorial appears nearby.

* * *

The 50th anniversary of the collapse, on August 15, 1971, of the Bretton Woods monetary system is a momentous moment in the history of money. It should provide an occasion for thoughtful discussion focused on the road to reform, our priceless constitutional foundation, and the restoration of honest money.

Let us avoid an academic food fight among economists over prior international monetary systems. We should not be arguing about the classical gold standard versus the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system, as these are just variations on the more significant theme of gold convertibility and the role of government in regulating money.

We can’t even usefully revert to debating the old fixed-versus-flexible arguments that were part of Milton Friedman’s justification for freely floating rates in the 1960s; the theoretical models for both positions have been mugged by reality.

Instead, we should be talking about money itself — what is its basic purpose, its relationship with productive economic growth — and whether today’s dysfunctional international monetary regime deserves to be designated any kind of system at all.

As the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, Jacques de Larosiere, noted at a conference in February 2014 at Vienna, today’s central bank-dominated monetary arrangements foster “volatility, persistent imbalances, disorderly capital movements, currency misalignments.”

These, he warned, were all major factors in the explosion of credit and leverage that precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis. Such an unanchored approach, he said, does not amount to a “non-system” but something considerably worse: an “anti-system.”

It is time to think creatively about money. We need to remind ourselves what it means as a measure, how it facilitates voluntary commerce and opportunity — how it can lead to greater shared prosperity while remaining compatible with liberty, individualism, and free enterprise. We’re at a moment when everything is on the table. For the wisdom of central bank mechanisms for conducting monetary policy is being called into question just as private alternative monies are making ever more credible bids for legitimacy.

Looking back and looking ahead, we can see that the most relevant and stimulating views emphasize the importance of productive economic activity and an open global marketplace. Money’s crucial role is to provide clear price signals to optimize the rewards of entrepreneurial endeavor and increased human knowledge.

Adam Smith wrote his treatise “The Wealth of Nations” during an age when nations forged a global monetary system by defining their currencies in terms of precise weights of gold and silver. A level monetary playing field arising from a system inherently disciplined by forces outside the control of government — wherein the economic decisions of private individuals are not held hostage to the ambitions of politicians—served profoundly liberal goals such as rule of law, private property, and the equal protection of human rights.

Modern-day visionaries likewise focus on the integrity of market signals conveyed through money. When Elon Musk says, “I think about money as an information system,” he goes to the heart of money’s unit-of-account function and underscores the importance of price signal clarity. When he tweets that “goods and services are the real economy, any form of money is simply the accounting thereof,” he illuminates the same reasoning that caused our constitutional Framers to include the power to coin money and regulate the value of American money, and of foreign coin, in the same sentence of our Constitution that grants Congress the power to fix our standard of weights and measures.

Money is meant to be a reliable measure, a meaningful unit of account, and a dependable store of value. When those qualities are undermined — especially by government — for purposes of redirecting economic outcomes at the risk of global financial instability, the dynamism and productive potential of free-market forces is diminished.

Political arguments in favor of maintaining government control over the issuance of money tend to invoke short-term objectives couched in words such as “stimulus” and the need for central bank “support” for an economy. Such calls are met with somber warnings about long-term “unsustainability” from the monetary authorities who nevertheless indulge them.

“But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have,” goes the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (25:15), “that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” The biblical injunction against dishonest measures can be interpreted as alluding to sustainability not only in economic terms but also in the moral realm.

As noted by Robert Bartley, editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal for more than 30 years, economist Robert Mundell was correct in his assessment that the only closed economy is the world economy. It’s time to start building an ethical international monetary system.

________

Judy Shelton, an economist, is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of “Money Meltdown.” Image: The conference room at the Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where, in 1944, the Bretton Woods Treaty was crafted. Via Wikipedia Commons.SupportAboutTerms

Debt Follies

The New Monetary Regime: An Expert Panel Discusses Debt and Inflation

Written remarks from our three panelists follow below:

U.S. Fiscal Profligacy and the Impending Crisis

by David P. Goldman

The Rise and Rise of Deficit Government

by Christopher DeMuth

The Costs of Our Debt

by Veronique de Rugy

These remarks from the symposium offer a revealing analysis of US financial and fiscal policy. I include in this post the essay by David Goldman, as I believe it offers a foundation for understanding the predicament we have created with poorly conceived financial policies that are now being accelerated and amplified. I have highlighted sections in RED.

May 5, 2021

Massive demand-side stimulus combined with constraints on the supply-side in the form of higher taxes is a sure recipe for inflation and eventual recession. The Fiscal Year 2021 US budget deficit will amount to 15% of US GDP after the passage of an additional $1.9 trillion in demand stimulus, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a proportion that the United States has not seen since World War II.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Biden Administration’s fiscal irresponsibility arises from a cynical political calculation. It evidently proposes to employ the federal budget as a slush fund to distribute benefits to various political constituencies, gambling that the avalanche of new debt will not cause a financial crisis before the 2022 Congressional elections. The additional $2.3 trillion in so-called infrastructure spending that the Administration has proposed consists mainly of handouts to Democratic constituencies.

Where is Foreign Money Going?

During the 12 months ending in March, the deficit stood at 19% of GDP. Even worse, the Federal Reserve absorbed virtually all the increase in outstanding debt on its balance sheet. In the aftermath of the 2009 recession, when the deficit briefly rose to 10% of GDP, foreigners bought about half the total new issuance of Treasury debt. During the past 12 months, foreigners have been net sellers of US government debt. (See Figure 1.) The US dollar’s role as the world’s principal reserve currency is eroding fast, and fiscal irresponsibility of this order threatens to accelerate the dollar’s decline.

The Federal Reserve has kept short-term interest rates low by monetizing debt, but long-term Treasury yields have risen by more than a percentage point since July. Markets know that what can’t go on forever, won’t. At some point, private holders of Treasury debt will liquidate their holdings—as foreigners have begun to do—and rates will rise sharply. (See Figure 2.) For every percentage point increase in the cost of financing federal debt, the US Treasury will have to pay an additional quarter-trillion dollars in interest. The United States well may find itself in the position of Italy in 2018, but without the rich members of the European Union to bail it out.

The flood of federal spending has had a number of dangerous effects already:

  1. The US trade deficit in goods as of February 2021 reached an annualized rate of more than $1 trillion a year, an all-time record. China’s exports to the US over the 12 months ending in February also reached an all-time record. Federal stimulus created demand that US productive facilities could not meet, and produced a massive import boom.
  2. Input prices to US manufacturers in February rose at the fastest rate since 1973, according to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s survey. And the gap between input prices and finished goods prices rose at the fastest rate since 2009. (See Figure 3.)
  3. The Producer Price Index for final demand rose at an annualized 11% rate during the first quarter. The Consumer Price Index shows year-on-year growth of only 1.7%, but that reflects dodgy measurements (for example, the price shelter, which comprises a third of the index, supposedly rose just 1.5% over the year, although home prices rose by 10%).

If foreigners are net sellers of US Treasury securities, how is the United States financing an external deficit in the range of $1 trillion a year? The US has two deficits to finance, the internal budget deficit, and the balance of payments deficit, and here we refer to the second. The answer is: By selling stocks to foreigners, according to Treasury data. (See Figure 4.) Foreign investors have been dumping low-yielding US Treasuries and corporate bonds during the past year, according to the Treasury International Capital (TIC) system. Foreign investors bought $400 billion of US equities and nearly $500 billion of US agency securities (backed by home mortgages) during the 12 months through January, but sold $600 billion of Treasuries and $100 billion of corporate bonds.

This is a bubble on top of a bubble. [Double Bubble = Trouble.] The Federal Reserve buys $4 trillion of Treasury securities and pushes the after-inflation yield below zero. That pushes investors into stocks. Foreigners don’t want US Treasuries at negative real yields, but they buy into the stock market which keeps rising, because the Fed is pushing down bond yields, and so forth.

At some point, foreigners will have a bellyful of overpriced US stocks and will stop buying them. When this happens, the Treasury will have to sell more bonds to foreigners, but that means allowing interest rates to rise, because foreigners won’t buy US bonds at extremely low yields. Rising bond yields will push stock prices down further, which means that foreigners will sell more stocks, and the Treasury will have to sell more bonds to foreigners, and so forth.

The 2009 crisis came from the demand side. When the housing bubble collapsed, trillions of dollars of derivative securities backed by home loans collapsed with it, wiping out the equity of homeowners and the capital base of the banking system. The 2021 stagflation—the unhappy combination of rising prices and falling output—is a supply-side phenomenon. [Back to the Future of That 70s Show] That’s what happens when governments throw trillions of dollars of money out of a helicopter, while infrastructure and plant capacity deteriorate.

The present situation is unprecedented in another way: Not in the past century has the United States faced a competitor with an economy as big as ours, growing much faster than ours, with ambitions to displace us as the world’s leading power.

The source of the 2008 crisis was overextension of leverage to homeowners and corporations. I was one of a small minority of economists who predicted that crisis.

Federal debt in 2008 was 60% of GDP, not counting the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and the Social Security System. As of the end of 2020, Federal debt had more than doubled as a percentage of GDP, to 130%. The Federal Reserve in 2008 owned only $1 trillion of securities. US government debt remained a safe harbor asset; after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, the 30-year US Treasury yield fell from 4.7% to 2.64%, as private investors bought Treasuries as a refuge.

The Treasury: Not a Refuge from, but a Cause of Crisis

Today the US Treasury market is the weak link in the financial system, supported only by the central bank’s monetization of debt. If the extreme fiscal profligacy of the Biden Administration prompts private investors to exit the Treasury market, there will be no safe assets left in dollar financial markets. The knock-on effects would be extremely hard to control

The overwhelming majority of over-the-counter (privately traded) derivatives contracts serve as interest-rate hedges. Market participants typically pledge Treasury securities as collateral for these contracts. The notional value of such contracts now exceeds $600 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Derivatives contracts entail a certain amount of market risk, and banks will enter into them with customers who want to hedge interest-rate positions only if the customers put up collateral (like the cash margin on a stock bought on credit) (See Figure 5) The market value (after netting for matching contracts that cancel each other out) is about $15 trillion. If the prices of Treasury securities fall sharply, the result will be a global margin call in the derivatives market, forcing the liquidation of vast amounts of positions.

Something like this occurred between March 6 and March 18, 2020, when the yield on inflation-protected US Treasury securities (TIPS) jumped from about negative 0.6% to positive 0.6% in two weeks. The COVID-19 crash prompted a run on cash at American banks, as US corporate borrowers drew down their credit lines. US banks in turn cut credit lines to European and Japanese banks, who were forced to withdraw funding to their customers for currency hedges on holdings of US Treasury securities. The customers in turn liquidated US Treasury securities, and the Treasury market crashed. That was the first time that a Treasury market crash coincided with a stock market crash: Instead of acting as a crisis refuge, the US Treasury market became the epicenter of the crisis.

The Federal Reserve quickly stabilized the market through massive purchases of Treasury securities, and through the extension of dollar swap lines to European central banks, which in return restored dollar liquidity to their customers. These emergency actions were justified by the extraordinary circumstances of March 2020: An external shock, namely the COVID-19 pandemic, upended financial markets, and the central bank acted responsibility in extending liquidity to the market. But the Federal Reserve and the Biden Administration now propose to extend these emergency measures into a continuing flood of demand. The consequences will be dire.

The present situation is unprecedented in another way: Not in the past century has the United States faced a competitor with an economy as big as ours, growing much faster than ours, with ambitions to displace us as the world’s leading power. China believes that America’s fiscal irresponsibility will undermine the dollar’s status as world reserve currency.

Here is what Fudan University Professor Bai Gang told the Observer, a news site close to China’s State Council:

Simply put, this year the United States has issued a massive amount of currency, which has given the US economy, which has been severely or partially shut down due to the COVID-19 epidemic, a certain kind of survival power. On the one hand, it must be recognized that this method . . . is highly effective. . . . The US stock market once again hit a record high.

But what I want to emphasize is that this approach comes at the cost of the future effectiveness of the dollar lending system. You do not get the benefit without having to bear its necessary costs.

A hegemonic country can maintain its currency hegemony for a period of time even after the national hegemony has been lost. After Britain lost its global hegemony, at least in the 1920s and 1930s, the pound sterling still maintained the function of the world’s most important currency payment method. To a certain extent, the hegemony of the US dollar is stronger than any currency before it. . . .

We see that the US dollar, as the most important national currency in the international payment system, may still persist for a long time even after US hegemony ends. Since this year, the US has continued to issue more currency to ease the internal situation. The pressure will eventually seriously damage the status of the US dollar as the core currency in the international payment system.

America has enormous power, but the Biden Administration and the Federal Reserve are abusing it. And China is waiting for the next crisis to assert its primacy in the world economy.

The Global Debt Bubble

I reprint this Bloomberg article in full because it lays out all the ways global policymakers have increased the risks of a global debt-driven correction, sometimes called a depression.

These policymakers have decided that since there is no shortage of global labor, there is little chance of cost-push inflation. But this ignores the very real effect of excess credit, which is the relative price changes reflected in real assets, such as land, real estate, and the control of Big Data. These assets are being more and more concentrated in fewer hands – it’s like a return to feudalism where a few lords owned all the productive assets and the laboring peasants were forced to work for subsistence living.

So, the real question is which comes first: a global financial collapse or a political revolution? Neither are smart risks for public policy and democratic governance.

My comments in bold red.

The Way Out for a World Economy Hooked On Debt? More Debt

By Enda Curran

December 1, 2019, 4:00 AM PST Updated on December 2, 2019, 12:12 AM PST

    • Cheap borrowing costs have sent global debt to another record
    • Options to revive economic growth require even more borrowing
    • Zombie companies in China. Crippling student bills in America. Sky-high mortgages in Australia. Another default scare in Argentina.

A decade of easy money has left the world with a record $250 trillion of government, corporate and household debt. That’s almost three times global economic output and equates to about $32,500 for every man, woman, and child on earth.

Global Debt

Much of that legacy stems from policymakers’ deliberate efforts to use borrowing to keep the global economy afloat in the wake of the financial crisis. Rock bottom interest rates in the years since has kept the burden manageable for most, allowing the debt mountain to keep growing.

Now, as policymakers grapple with the slowest growth since that era, a suite of options on how to revive their economies share a common denominator: yet more debt. From Green New Deals to Modern Monetary Theory, proponents of deficit spending argue central banks are exhausted and that massive fiscal spending is needed to yank companies and households out of their funk. [But we can’t ignore the fact that central banks are largely funding this deficit spending by buying bonds. If they can no longer expand their balance sheets, the private sector would have to buy this excess debt at much higher yields.]

Fiscal hawks argue such proposals will merely sow the seeds for more trouble. But the needle seems to be shifting on how much debt an economy can safely carry.

More than a decade after the financial crisis, the amount of combined global government, corporate and household debt has reached $250 trillion.

One solution proposed by policymakers? More debt pic.twitter.com/KVrv3CdlW1

[Debt growth is an exponential function – thus as we increase debt, we have to increase it at an ever greater rate just to keep the game going.]

Central bankers and policymakers from European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde to the International Monetary Fund have been urging governments to do more, arguing it’s a good time to borrow for projects that will reap economic dividends.

“Previous conventional wisdom about advanced economy speed limits regarding debt to GDP ratios may be changing,” said Mark Sobel, a former U.S. Treasury and International Monetary Fund official. “Given lower interest bills and markets’ pent-up demand for safe assets, major advanced economies may well be able to sustain higher debt loads.”

Rising expectations of fiscal stimulus measures across the globe have contributed to a pick-up in bond yields, spurred by signs of a bottoming in the world’s economic slowdown. Ten-year Treasury yields climbed back above 1.80% Monday, while their Japanese counterparts edged up closer to zero.

A constraint for policymakers, though, is the legacy of past spending as pockets of credit stress litter the globe.

At the sovereign level, Argentina’s newly elected government has promised to renegotiate a record $56 billion credit line with the IMF, stoking memories of the nation’s economic collapse and debt default in 2001. Turkey, South Africa, and others have also had scares.

Debt:GDP

[The trend of total debt/GDP tells us whether are deficit spending is paying off. When it gets too high, most of our GDP will need to service existing debt loads. The more likely scenario is widespread defaults that ricochet through the global economy.]

As for corporate debt, American companies alone account for around 70% of this year’s total corporate defaults even amid a record economic expansion. And in China, companies defaulting in the onshore market are likely to hit a record next year, according to S&P Global Ratings.

So-called zombie companies — firms that are unable to cover debt servicing costs from operating profits over an extended period and have muted growth prospects — have risen to around 6% of non-financial listed shares in advanced economies, a multi-decade high, according to the Bank for International Settlements. That hurts both healthier competitors and productivity.

As for households, Australia and South Korea rank among the most indebted.

The debt drag is hanging over the next generation of workers too. In the U.S., students now owe $1.5 trillion and are struggling to pay it off.

Even if debt is cheap, it can be tough to escape once the load gets too heavy. While solid economic growth is the easiest way out, that isn’t always forthcoming. Instead, policymakers have to navigate balances and tradeoffs between austerity, financial repression where savers subsidize borrowers, or default and debt forgiveness.

“The best is to grow out of it gradually and consistently, and it is the solution to many but not all episodes of current indebtedness,” said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz SE.

Gunning for Growth

Policymakers are plowing on in the hope of such an outcome. [Hope for the best? In the meantime, elites’ ability to manage a crisis of their own making is more secure.]

To shore up the U.S. recovery, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates three times this year even as a tax cut funded fiscal stimulus sends the nation’s deficit toward 5% of GDP. Japan is mulling fresh spending while monetary policy remains ultra easy. And in what’s described as Britain’s most consequential election in decades, both major parties have promised a return to public spending levels last seen in the 1970s.

China is holding the line for now as it tries to keep a lid on debt, with a drip-feed of liquidity injections rather than all-out monetary easing. On the fiscal front, it has cut taxes and brought forward bond sale quotas, rather than resort to the spending binges seen in past cycles.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say…

“When a slump does come, as surely it will, monetary policy won’t have all the answers — fiscal policy will contribute, but with limitations.”

— Bloomberg Economics Chief Economist Tom Orlik

As global investors get accustomed to a world deep in the red, they have repriced risk — which some argue is only inflating a bubble. Around $12 trillion of bonds have negative yields.

Anne Richards, CEO of Fidelity International, says negative bond yields are now of systemic concern.

“With central bank rates at their lowest levels and U.S. Treasuries at their richest valuations in 100 years, we appear to be close to bubble territory, but we don’t know how or when this bubble will burst.”

The IMF in October said lower yields are spurring investors such as insurance companies and pension funds “to invest in riskier and less liquid securities,” as they seek higher returns.

“Debt is not a problem as long as it is sustainable,” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Natixis SA in Hong Kong, who previously worked for the European Central Bank and Bank of Spain. “The issue is whether the massive generation of debt since the global financial crisis is going to turn out to be profitable.”


 

Okay, so we know that public debt never gets paid back, just rolled over with new debt. The question, as Ms. Herrero says, is whether this debt leverage is productive or not; does it make our lives better in material and non-material terms; will it help us tackle non-monetary challenges like climate change?

Credit constraints are those that penalize unproductive investments in favor of productive ones before we know which is which. The elimination of credit constraints means we are just throwing money at the wall to see what sticks, and whoever gets those credits is largely arbitrary. The whole strategy is driving global inequality, so the question again is which comes first: financial collapse or political revolution?

Oh yeah, Merry Christmas!

Money?

Good historical narrative of what really determines our economic fates, published in The New Yorker. The most relevant lesson:
 
“…the oldest and simplest reason of bankruptcy in finance: lending money to people who can’t pay it back.”
 
Those enthralled by Modern Monetary Theory should give this a bit of thought, especially our starry-eyed politicians.
 

The Asset Divide

Below is a recent article explaining the growing wealth inequality based on asset ownership and control. This shouldn’t even be phrased as a question as our easy credit policies, massive RE debt leverage, and favored housing policy has created an almost insurmountable wealth divide between the asset-rich and the asset-poor. Who and what policies do we think those left behind are going to be voting for? Non-gender bathrooms? See also Thomas Edsall’s article in the NYT.

Is Housing Inequality the Main Driver of Economic Inequality?

Richard Florida

A growing body of research suggests that inequality in the value of Americans’ homes is a major factor—perhaps the key factor—in the country’s economic divides.

Economic inequality is one of the most significant issues facing cities and entire nations today. But a mounting body of research suggests that housing inequality may well be the biggest contributor to our economic divides.

Thomas Piketty’s influential book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, put economic inequality—and specifically, wealth inequality—front and center in the global conversation. But research by Matthew Rognlie found that housing inequality (that is, how much more expensive some houses are than others) is the key factor in rising wealth.

Rognlie’s research documented that the share of wealth or capital income derived from housing has grown significantly since around 1950, and substantially more than for other forms of capital. In other words, those uber-expensive penthouses, luxury townhomes, and other real estate holdings in superstar cities like London and New York amount to a “physical manifestation” of Piketty’s insights into wealth inequality, as Felix Salmon so aptly puts it.

More recent research on this topic by urban economists David Albouy and Mike Zabek documents the surge in housing inequality in the United States. Their study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, charts the rise in housing inequality across the U.S. from the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 through the great suburban boom of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, to the more recent back-to-the-city movement, the 2008 economic crash, and the subsequent recovery, up to 2012. They use data from the U.S. Census on both homeowners and renters.

Over the period studied, the share of owner-occupied housing rose from less than half (45 percent) to nearly two-thirds (65 percent), although it has leveled off somewhat since then. The median cost of a home tripled in real dollar terms, according to their analysis. Housing now represents a huge share of America’s total consumption, comprising roughly 40 percent of the U.S. total capital stock, and two-thirds of the wealth held by the middle class.

What Albouy and Zabek find is a clear U-shaped pattern in housing inequality (measured in terms of housing values) over this 80-year period. Housing inequality was high in 1930 at the onset of the Depression. It then declined, alongside income inequality, during the Great Compression and suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s. It started to creep back up again after the 1970s. There was a huge spike by the 1990s, followed by a leveling off in 2000, and then another significant spike by 2012, in the wake of the recovery from the economic crisis of 2008 and the accelerating back-to-the-city movement.

By 2012, the level of housing inequality in the U.S. looked much the same as it did in the ’30s. Now as then, the most expensive 20 percent of owner-occupied homes account for more than half of total U.S. housing value.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Rents show a different pattern. Rent inequality—or the gap between the cost of rent for some relative than others—was high in the 1930s, then declined dramatically until around 1960. Starting in about 1980, it began to increase gradually, but much less than housing inequality (based on owner-occupied homes) or income inequality. And much of this small rise in rental inequality seems to stem from expensive rental units in very expensive cities.

The study suggests this less severe pattern of rent inequality may be the result of measures like rent control and other affordable housing programs to assist lower-income renters, especially in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco.

That said, there also is an additional and potentially large wealth gap between owners and renters. Homeowners are able to basically lock in their housing costs after purchasing their home, and benefit from the appreciation of their properties thereafter. Renters, on the other hand, see rents increase in line with the market, and sometimes faster. This threatens their ability to maintain shelter, while they accumulate no equity in the place where they live.

***

But what lies behind this surge in housing inequality? Does it stem from the large housing-price differences between superstar cities and the rest, or does it stem from inequality within cities and metro areas—for instance, high-priced urban areas and suburban areas compared to less advantaged neighborhoods?

The Albouy and Zabek study considers three possible explanations: The change over time from smaller to larger housing units; geographic or spatial inequality between cities and metro areas; and economic segregation between rich and poor within metro areas.

Even as houses have grown bigger and bigger, with McMansions replacing bungalows and Cape Cods in many cities and suburbs since the 1930s (as the size of households shrunk), the study says that, at best, 30 percent of the rise in housing inequality can be pegged to changes in the size of houses themselves.

Ultimately, the study concludes that the rise in both housing wealth and housing inequality stems mainly from the increase in the value of land. In other research, Albouy found that the value of America’s urban land was $25 trillion in 2010, roughly double the nation’s 2016 GDP.

But here’s the kicker: The main catalyst of housing inequality, according to the study, comes from the growing gap within cities and metro areas, not between them. The graph below shows the differences in housing inequality between “commuting zones”—geographic areas that share a labor market—over time. In it, you can see that inequality varies sharply within commuting zones (marked “CZ”) while it remains more or less constant between them.

In other words, the spatial inequality within metros is what drives housing inequality. Factors like safety, schools, and access to employment and local amenities lead individual actors to value one neighborhood over the next.

Data by Albouy et al. Design by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

All this forms a fundamental contradiction in the housing market. Housing is at once a basic mode of shelter and a form of investment. As this basic necessity has been transformed over time into a financial instrument and source of wealth, not only has housing inequality increased, but housing inequality has become a major contributor to—if not the major overall factor in—wealth inequality. When you consider the fact that what is a necessity for everyone has been turned into a financial instrument for a select few, this is no surprise.

The rise in housing inequality brings us face to face with a central paradox of today’s increasingly urbanized form of capitalism. The clustering of talent, industry, investment, and other economic assets in small parts of cities and metropolitan areas is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers.

 86_main