Over Michael’s shoulder

Posted by Michael Campbell

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MC tight headshotNote from  Mike: The following column written by five Nobel Prize winners in economics appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It reminds us that the US financial situation will dominate the headlines in the near future. Technical analysts like Martin Armstrong and David Bensimon see the coming problem for government finances playing a dominant role in the investment markets from 2014 through 2017.

Where are we now?

By George P. Shultz, Michael J. Boskin, John F. Cogan, Allan H. Meltzer and John B. Taylor

Sometimes a few facts tell important stories. The American economy now is full of facts that tell stories that you really don’t want, but need, to hear.

Did you know that annual spending by the federal government now exceeds the 2007 level by about $1 trillion? With a slow economy, revenues are little changed. The result is an unprecedented string of federal budget deficits, $1.4 trillion in 2009, $1.3 trillion in 2010, $1.3 trillion in 2011, and another $1.2 trillion on the way this year. The four-year increase in borrowing amounts to $55,000 per U.S. household.

The amount of debt is one thing. The burden of interest payments is another. The Treasury now has a preponderance of its debt issued in very short-term durations, to take advantage of low short-term interest rates. It must frequently refinance this debt which, when added to the current deficit, means Treasury must raise $4 trillion this year alone. So the debt burden will explode when interest rates go up.

The government has to get the money to finance its spending by taxing or borrowing. While it might be tempting to conclude that we can just tax upper-income people, did you know that the U.S. income tax system is already very progressive? The top 1% pay 37% of all income taxes and 50% pay none.

Did you know that, during the last fiscal year, around three-quarters of the deficit was financed by the Federal Reserve? Foreign governments accounted for most of the rest, as American citizens’ and institutions’ purchases and sales netted to about zero. The Fed now owns one in six dollars of the national debt, the largest percentage of GDP in history, larger than even at the end of World War II.

The Fed has effectively replaced the entire interbank money market and large segments of other markets with itself. It determines the interest rate by declaring what it will pay on reserve balances at the Fed without regard for the supply and demand of money. By replacing large decentralized markets with centralized control by a few government officials, the Fed is distorting incentives and interfering with price discovery with unintended economic consequences.

“Did you know that the Federal Reserve is now giving money to banks, effectively circumventing the appropriations process? To pay for quantitative easing – the purchase of government debt, mortgage-backed securities, etc. – the Fed credits banks with electronic deposits that are reserve balances at the Federal Reserve. These reserve balances have exploded to $1.5 trillion from $8 billion in September 2008.

The Fed now pays 0.25% interest on reserves it holds. So the Fed is paying the banks almost $4 billion a year. If interest rates rise to 2%, and the Federal Reserve raises the rate it pays on reserves correspondingly, the payment rises to $30 billion a year. Would Congress appropriate that kind of money to give – not lend – to banks?

… the Fed’s Operation Twist, buying long-term and selling short-term debt, is substituting for the Treasury’s traditional debt management.

This large expansion of reserves creates two-sided risks. If it is not unwound, the reserves could pour into the economy, causing inflation. In that event, the Fed will have effectively turned the government debt and mortgage-backed securities it purchased into money that will have an explosive impact. If reserves are unwound too quickly, banks may find it hard to adjust and pull back on loans. Unwinding would be hard to manage now, but will become ever harder the more the balance sheet rises.

“When businesses and households confront large-scale uncertainty, they tend to wait for more clarity to emerge before making major commitments to spend, invest and hire. Right now, they confront a mountain of regulatory uncertainty and a fiscal cliff that, if unattended, means a sharp increase in taxes and a sharp decline in spending bound to have adverse effect on the economy.

Are you surprised that so much cash is waiting on the sidelines?…

In short, we risk passing an economic, fiscal and financial point of no return. The problems are close to being unmanageable now. If we stay on the current path, they will wind up being completely unmanageable, culminating in an unwelcome explosion and crisis.

The fixes are blindingly obvious. Economic theory, empirical studies and historical experience teach that the solutions are the lowest possible tax rates on the broadest base, sufficient to fund the necessary functions of government on balance over the business cycle; sound monetary policy; trade liberalization; spending control and entitlement reform; and regulatory, litigation and education reform. The need is clear. Why wait for disaster? The future is now.

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