Now that’s a presumptuous title if I ever saw one. Well, maybe not. The policies being followed by the governments and central banks of the U.S. and Europe clearly aren’t solving the economic crisis. The anemic economic recoveries on both sides of the Atlantic have run out of steam and the world’s stock, credit and commodity markets have plunged in anticipation of worse to come. The markets are telling us that time may be running out to preempt another Lehman moment and a further slump in economic activity that would turn recession into depression. Despite rising investor angst and an ever-growing avalanche of weakening economic indicators, there’s no evidence that the individuals in positions to alter the course of economic events are starting to have second thoughts about current fiscal and monetary policies.
How have the advanced industrial countries of the West arrived at what increasingly appears to be a tipping point?
Immediately after Lehman’s failure, fiscal and monetary policies were loosened in true Keynesian fashion. The West didn’t fall into the financial abyss and the recession didn’t turn into a depression. Asset values recovered and the recession officially ended in June 2009. The economy ended its 18-month stay in intensive care. As it became evident that the world economy would soon be discharged from the hospital, governments, central bankers, economists and the public refocused their attention to the aftereffect of its stay in intensive care: ballooning public debt. Preventing financial and economic collapse resulted in the shifting of trillions of dollars of debt from the private sector’s to the public sector’s balance sheet. Rapidly rising unemployment reduced government tax revenue and increased government spending. Government debt-to-GDP ratios rose to unprecedented peacetime levels. With economic recovery underway, concern about the future solvency of government rose to the top of the worry list.
Fiscal Policy: Tightened
With fear of public sector insolvency having overtaken fear of depression, economic policy was ripe for change. The change has taken the form of calls for and the implementation of increasingly austere fiscal policies. Austerity, its advocates argue, is the path to economic salvation. In every country, those who would rely primarily on reduced spending and those who would rely primarily on higher taxes on the wealthy have something in common: both assume that heightened fiscal rectitude will reduce their government’s debt-to-GDP ratio. By lowering the perceived risk of future insolvency, they aver, the private sector’s confidence will improve. Facing the future more confidently, consumers will buy more and business will invest more. This positive feedback loop involving consumers and business will create a self-sustaining, accelerating economic recovery. That recovery will create more jobs, leading to reduced government spending on unemployment insurance and related items and increased government tax revenues. The budget deficit will contract, borrowing requirements will diminish, the debt-to-GDP ratio will fall, and the real –as well as the perceived — risk of insolvency will vanish.
The ramifications of faith in fiscal austerity as the exit strategy from hard times extend beyond the economic to include the political sphere. Intrinsic to this exit strategy are political disagreements over the mix of spending reductions and tax increases. The issue of the distribution of austerity’s pain came to the fore during this summer’s debate — I use the word advisedly — in the U.S., which heavily contributed to the downgrading of the credit rating of America’s sovereign debt. More significant than that downgrade was the public’s disgust with the spectacle in the House of Representatives. It can’t be doubted that the extreme partisanship so vividly on display further undermined consumer and business confidence in the ability of the government to come to grips with a sputtering economy. This feedback from the political to the economic realm revealed itself in the aforementioned steep market declines, which can best be interpreted as a discounting of further economic weakness.
It’s as simple as that, or is it? Spending decreases and tax increases have something in common: if everything else remains constant, they both drain purchasing power from the private sector. The “everything else” is the effect of fiscal austerity on confidence. For austerity to boost consumption, the positive impact on the propensity to consume of a reduction in the perceived risk of insolvency in the long-term must exceed the negative impact of the reduction of purchasing power in the short-term. Said another way, for austerity to have its intended effect, it must result in a decline in the propensity to save. Only if this requirement is met will business have an incentive to accelerate hiring and capital investment.
If, as I anticipate, fiscal austerity has the opposite of its intended effect, the circle will be vicious rather than virtuous. Budget deficits, borrowing requirements, debt-to-capital ratios and insolvency risks (both perceived and real) will increase. Confidence will erode. The evidence, as highlighted by the unfolding Greek tragedy, indicates that the adverse outcome is the likely outcome. But this conclusion doesn’t rest upon Greece, which might be considered an exceptional case. More significantly, as fiscal impetus has turned into fiscal drag, the economies of both the U.S. and Europe have slowed and are now either on the verge of, or already in, a contraction phase. If governments react to this development by further tightening fiscal policies, they will assuredly produce a second worldwide recession. Should this occur, the 2010s will be remembered by future generations as the decade of the Second Great Depression. As noted earlier, there is at present no reason for optimism that governments and a broad swath of the public understand the predicament we now face. Absent such an understanding, the likelihood of further contractionary fiscal actions is disturbingly high.
Monetary Policy: Loosened
Three weeks after Lehman’s bankruptcy, the Fed lowered the Fed funds rate (the interest rate banks charge each other for overnight loans) to 1.5 percent from 2 percent. Two more reductions were announced by the end of 2008. At year’s end, the rate had been reduced to zero percent (more accurately, for technical reasons, the rate was 0.00 to 0.25 percent). For the first time ever, banks in the U.S. with insufficient liquidity could borrow from banks having more liquidity than they needed without incurring interest expense. One need not look further than this to appreciate the seriousness of the financial situation as seen by those closest to it. The Fed funds rate is still zero percent.
The European Central Bank (ECB) is the equivalent of the Federal Reserve for the 17 countries that employ the euro as their currency. In the eurozone, the “deposit facility” interest rate has the same role as the Fed funds rate. As shown in the following table, the ECB’s monetary policy has been somewhat less accomodative. Most importantly, it has twice raised the deposit facility rate during 2011. Inflation fears were the stated reason for the interest rate increases. Still, at 0.75 percent, the interest rate is far below the inflation rate.
Overnight Interest Rates, 2008-2011
European Central Bank
|Before Lehman bankruptcy||
|Oct 8, 2008||
Oct 29, 2008
|Nov 12, 2008||
|Dec 10, 2008||
|Dec 16, 2008||
|Jan 21, 2009||
|Mar 11, 2009||
|Apr 8, 2009||
|Apr 13, 2011||
|Jul 13, 2011||
During the 12 months following the end of the recession, real (inflation-adjusted) U.S. GDP grew at a disappointingly slow 3.3 percent — far below the norm for the first year of a recovery. What made this sub-par performance particularly worrisome was that it happened while short-term borrowing costs in the private sector, reflecting the zero percent Fed funds rate, were at historically low levels. During the summer of 2010, Fed Chairman Bernanke telegraphed the Fed’s intention to implement a policy — subsequently dubbed “quantitative easing” — aimed at stimulating the economy by driving down long-term interest rates. In a speech delivered on August 26, 2010, he said that one of the options for providing additional monetary accommodation was “to expand the Federal Reserve’s holdings of longer-term securities,” and added that he believed “that additional purchases of longer-term securities . . . would be effective in further easing financial conditions.” By the time this policy was implemented in late 2010, market participants had fully discounted its intended effect by driving down yields on longer-term fixed-income securities.
Still, the economy refused to cooperate. Real GDP growth fell to 3.1 percent during calendar 2010, two-tenths of a percentage point lower than it had been during the 12 months ending in June, 2010. Growth continued to decelerate during the first half of 2011. The Fed’s reaction to the persistent and growing weakness in the economy was to announce “operation twist” on September 21. In a press release titled “What is the Federal Reserve’s maturity extension program (referred to by some as “operation twist”) and what is its purpose?,” the Fed explained:
Under the maturity extension program, the Federal Reserve intends to sell $400 billion of shorter-term Treasury securities by the end of June 2012 and use the proceeds to buy longer-term Treasury securities. This will extend the average maturity of the securities in the Federal Reserve’s portfolio.
By reducing the supply of longer-term Treasury securities in the market, this action should put downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, including rates on financial assets that investors consider to be close substitutes for longer-term Treasury securities. The reduction in longer-term interest rates, in turn, will contribute to a broad easing in financial market conditions that will provide additional stimulus to support the economic recovery.
For three years, the Fed’s policy has been to deflate interest rates. What began as the deflation of short-term rates has been extended all the way out the maturity spectrum to include 30-year Treasury bonds. This latest interest rate deflation, while helping borrowers — in particular, home owners with variable rate mortgages and first-time home buyers — entails noteworthy risks. The most significant of these risks is its impact on bank profitability. Banks, of course, borrow short and lend long. Accordingly, the outlook for bank profits is at its best when the yield differential between short- and long-term fixed-income securities is large. Operation twist narrows the differential; it “flattens” the yield curve. This new headwind facing the banks comes at a time when another headwind — the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis — is intensifying, with no end in sight. U.S. banks have an exposure of $650 billion to the debt of Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish governments. With the housing market still in the doldrums and the mounting possibility of having to write-down the value of their holdings of eurozone public debt, the flattening of the yield curve could not have come at a less propitious moment. The Fed is betting that operation twist won’t increase systemic risk in the U.S. financial system. It’s a bet that the Fed had better win.
The Problem — And the Solution
The U.S. and Europe are suffering from the same underlying disease: economies that never really recovered from the financial crisis and which will continue to stumble along or soon experience the long-feared double-dip. The European situation is worse, and far more complex. The American states are married; they have one monetary policy and one fiscal policy. The eurozone countries are engaged; they have one monetary policy and 17 fiscal policies. Adding to their problems is the fact that their engagement documents don’t allow them to voluntarily break their engagement or to have other members of their extended family force them to call off their engagement. This is reason enough to conclude that, if a way out of the worldwide economic crisis is to be found, it will start in the U.S.
By now, it should be obvious that credit cost deflation — reducing interest rates — isn’t going to revive the American economy. It should be equally obvious that budget deflation — reducing government spending and/or increasing taxes — isn’t going to revive the American economy, either. If the U.S. is going to lead the industrialized West out of the economic wilderness, it must fundamentally change its fiscal and monetary policies.
We should reverse both of these policies. Fiscal policy should become expansionary. Monetary policy should become restrictive. The eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis provides us with a window of opportunity to do both.
The arguments against fiscal stimulus and my counter-arguments are as follows:
- Fiscal stimulus doesn’t work — Those who support this argument point to the anemic economic recovery that began four months after the February, 2009, passage of the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package. Top advisers within the administration wanted a larger stimulus, but political realities prevailed. In particular, Christine Romer, who was then the chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers argued for a stimulus package of at least $1.2 trillion. As reported in the New Yorker,
The most important question facing Obama that day [in December 2008] was how large the stimulus should be. Since the election, as the economy continued to worsen, the consensus among economists kept rising. A hundred-billion-dollar stimulus had seemed prudent earlier in the year. Congress now appeared receptive to something on the order of five hundred billion. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, was calling for a trillion. Romer had run simulations of the effects of stimulus packages of varying sizes: six hundred billion dollars, eight hundred billion dollars, and $1.2 trillion. The best estimate for the output gap was some two trillion dollars over 2009 and 2010. Because of the multiplier effect, filling that gap didn’t require two trillion dollars of government spending, but Romer’s analysis, deeply informed by her work on the Depression, suggested that the package should probably be more than $1.2 trillion.
Would a $1.2 trillion plus stimulus have launched the economy onto a faster growth trajectory? There’s no way to know for sure; the best I can do is to provide an analogy. The economy is frequently referred to as an engine. An immobilized car needs to be jump-started. If the external power source that’s connected to the car’s battery isn’t powerful enough, the engine won’t start. A more powerful external source will succeed where the less powerful one failed. Returning to the economy, it’s a fallacy to assert that, because a stimulus program of a certain size produced a disappointing result, any stimulus package, regardless of its size, will be unsuccessful.
- Fiscal stimulus is inflationary — In some circumstances, this is true. But not in the current circumstances. Chart 3 shows that the velocity of money — the rate at which money changes hands in the economy — is now falling after a brief, mild acceleration following the implementation of the stimulus program. With a stagnant or contracting economy ahead, it’s more likely that money velocity will decline further than to reverse direction. Another analogy will drive home this point. The Fed has been pouring billions of gallons of gasoline (money) into the gas tank (the economy), but fewer miles (purchases) are being driven (made).
- The dollar will weaken — Perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it would improve our export competitiveness. In fact, as shown in Chart 4, the dollar has significantly strengthened against the euro in recent days. Since the last day depicted in the chart, the value of the dollar has climbed further.
At the beginning of this section, I said that the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis provides us with a window of opportunity to reverse the directions of our fiscal and monetary policies. Now it’s time to explain why.
To safeguard their wealth from the effects of the crisis, Europeans are selling euros, buying dollars, and using their dollars to buy U.S. sovereign debt — Treasury notes and bonds. Notwithstanding occasional glimmers of hope, the eurozone’s crisis admits to no simple solution and will continue for an extended period of time. Accordingly, our interest rates will remain at or near their current historical lows. This means that federal government interest expense as a percent of GDP will not become a budget-buster. Simply stated, for as long as the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis continues, the U.S. will not have a sovereign debt crisis. This provides us with an opportunity to implement a very sizable fiscal stimulus program without risking the deleterious side-effects that such a program would normally entail.
Changing our fiscal policy is only a part of the solution. A sizable stimulus program will put more money into more people’s pockets, but will they, in this age of deleveraging, spend it or save it (paying down credit card debt counts as saving)?
This is where reversing our monetary policy enters the picture. The price of credit has been declining for three years. Consciously or not, this trend has undoubtedly seeped into the minds of American consumers. This credit price deflation provides an incentive to defer major purchases. The best example, of course, is housing. If, in addition to expecting a further erosion of home prices, a family also anticipates that mortgage rates will continue to decline, it has an added incentive to wait.
With the stimulus program boosting economic activity, the Fed should announce that, starting on a certain date and every three or six months thereafter, it will increase the Fed funds rate by a quarter percentage point and reduce its holdings of long-term government securities by a specified amount. Replacing credit price deflation with credit price inflation will provide the incentive to purchase now rather than in the future.
There you have it. My solution to the economic crisis is to implement policies that are the exact opposite of those currently in place. Replacing one without replacing the other won’t suffice. Fiscal stimulus without credit price inflation would put more money into more pockets without providing an incentive to spend. Credit price inflation without fiscal stimulus would further weaken the economy.
I haven’t been looking forward to writing these final words. Setting forth a solution to the economic crisis is one thing; expecting that for now and the foreseeable future it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted is another. The current momentum favoring fiscal rectitude is irresistible. Public opinion being what it is, opposing it amounts to political suicide. We will continue down the current path until it has been completely discredited. What will it take for public opinion to reverse direction? One way or another and by the end of this year, we will have started to walk down the path, instead of just talking about it. If my analysis is on the money, it won’t be a pleasant walk. Stagflation without the “flation” is the most optimistic scenario I’m willing to countenance. If, as seems more likely, the unemployment rate rises into the double digits as the effects of fiscal stringency accumulate, it will be interesting to see whether either of our political parties changes its mind as election day approaches. The ideological rigidity of the Republicans makes it next to impossible for them to undertake an about-face. So, if either of the parties is to change its mind, it will be the Democrats. For now, all we can do is to wait and see.