BEN CASSELMAN and CONOR DOUGHERTY: Recent economic data show that long before the fiscal cliff hits, federal spending already is falling — and taking a toll on the recovery…….State and local governments are projected to receive $20.8 billion in federal stimulus funds in the 2012 fiscal year, ending in September, down from a combined $180.7 billion in fiscal 2010 and 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office……At the same time, military spending has fallen for three straight quarters as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down and as the Pentagon prepares for further budget cuts.
Zarathustra: We have just discovered that China’s M2 money supply has doubled once more since the collapse of Lehman brothers. M2 money supply currently stands at around RMB90 trillion, and it was at about RMB45 trillion the month before Lehman collapsed. Thus the so-called RMB4 trillion stimulus after Lehman’s collapse (which is more like a RMB8 trillion fiscal stimulus in reality) has translated into a RMB45 trillion increase in M2 money supply.
Hat tip to macrobusiness.com.au
Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter:
There really is no politically feasible route back to sustained economic growth through monetary and/or demand stimulating policies for the EA, the UK, the US and Japan, for many years to come. As regards demand stimulus, expansionary fiscal policy will not be punished by the markets to the point of being self-defeating for all EA member states except for Germany (which will not do it on any significant scale for domestic political reasons). The US also may be technically able to use fiscal expansion to stimulate demand, but even if markets continue to be tolerant, political gridlock makes it impossible. Expansionary monetary policy is at the end of its rope in the US and Japan. The UK could cut the official policy rate by 50 bps and the ECB by 125 bps, and then they too are restricted to quantitative easing (QE), which I consider to be ineffective.
[Treasury chief George Osborne] will also announce an extra £30 billion in new money to be spent on infrastructure such as railways, roads, classrooms and broadband connections, said a person familiar with the matter. Of this, £20 billion will be provided by pension funds. The Treasury has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Association of Pension Funds to provide this cash. Another £5 billion will come out of savings in other government departments and be spent over the next four years. The other £5 billion will be spent after 2015, but plans will be set out now.
[St. Louis Fed President James Bullard] notes Keynes’ axiom that governments should borrow to stimulate demand when the private sector falters is being proved false by the way markets are reacting to ballooning deficit spending in Europe.
The [lesson of the] European crisis is “you do not want your country to be reliant on international financial markets to a large degree.”
In fact “normal” for the last half century has been an unsustainable growth in debt, which has finally reached an apogee from which it will fall. As it falls–by an unwillingness to lend by bankers and to borrow by businesses and households, by deliberate debt reductions, by default and bankruptcy–aggregate demand will be reduced well below aggregate supply. The economy will therefore falter–and only regular government stimuli will revive it.
This however will be a Zombie Capitalism: the private sector’s reductions in debt will counter the public sector’s attempts to stimulate the economy via debt-financed spending. Growth, if it occurs, will not be sufficiently high to prevent growing unemployment, and growth is likely to evaporate as soon as stimulus packages are removed.
The only sensible course is to reduce the debt levels. As Michael Hudson argues, a simple dynamic is now being played out: debts that cannot be repaid, won’t be repaid. The only thing we have to do is work out how that should occur.
Nothing seems to have changed since Steve Keen wrote this in December 2009. Almost two years later and any private sector deleveraging has been compensated by increases in public debt to finance stimulus spending. Greece’s “default” may be the first step in a long journey — and the jury is still out as to whether recapitalization of European banks (after their “haircut”) will be funded out of debt or new equity.
Richard Koo explains how cutting government deficits too early in Japan prolonged the de-leveraging cycle by almost 10 years.
Prof. James Galbraith on fiscal stimulus and public debt:
- Fiscal stimulus should not be a short-term program that will run out. The term should be 10 to 20 years so that business can make long-term plans.
- Stimulus spending should focus on investment that creates assets — to be offset against the accompanying liabilities.
- Austerity cuts are foolhardy. ~ Austerity cuts should free up money for investment in infrastructure projects.
- “There is no long-term debt problem here. We’re clearly in a sustainable situation otherwise the markets would not give the US government the (low) rates they are.” ~ Keep telling yourself that!
Ever since John Maynard Keynes popularized the Paradox of Thrift, economists, central bankers and politicians have labored under the misapprehension that high levels of savings are bad for the economy and inhibit growth. The Paradox of Thrift:
- Increased savings means there are less buyers for goods produced, so the nation as a whole will tend to produce less.
- If an individual saves they increase their wealth;
- But if an entire nation saves, this causes a shortfall in consumption; and
- The shortfall in consumption will cause national income to fall.
Keynes was correct in his observation that high level of savings caused a shortfall in national income, but we need to remember that he was writing in the 1930s — in the middle of the Great Depression. His General Theory was published in 1936. What Keynes observed was an anomaly caused by the financial crisis. Falling asset prices threatened the solvency of both individuals and corporations, forcing them to increase their level of savings and — most importantly — use their savings to repay debt.
Not only will national income fall when savings are used to repay debt, but it falls rapidly. The shortfall between saving and new investment (or spending and income) may be small but, like a punctured car tire, the result is disastrous. At each point in the supply chain the leakage is repeated: A receives an income of $1.00 and use 5 cents to repay debt, only spending $0.95. B will receive $0.95 from A, where previously they received $1.00, and will use 5% to repay debt, only spending $0.9025. C will only receive $0.9025 from B but still uses 5% to repay debt, only spending $0.857……… The pattern continues until incomes shrink to the point that parties are forced to consume all of their income and can no longer afford to repay debt. The impact on national income — as evident from the 1930s — can be devastating.
Keynes pointed out that government can break the cycle and make up the shortfall, by spending more than it collects by way of taxes — so that the aggregate level of spending is unchanged. But fiscal stimulus is fraught with dangers, not least of which is the massive public debt hangover faced by the US, Japan and many European economies. I will cover these dangers in more depth in a later post.
Under normal conditions, however, the paradox of thrift does not apply:
- If an individual saves they will increase their wealth;
- If the entire nation saves, there is no effect on national income provided savings are channeled through the financial system into new capital investment.
- All that then happens is less consumer goods are produced but more capital goods — spending as a whole does not fall.
- Production, as a result, will also not fall.
National income is, in fact, likely to rise. New capital investment will boost productivity and accelerate growth.
Consider the simple example of a farmer who saves and buys a tractor. His overall spending is unaffected. He merely consumes less and spends the proceeds on something else — in this case a tractor. The income of the store that supplies him with consumer goods will decrease, but the income of the dealer that sells him the tractor will rise; the net effect on national income is so far zero. But the farmer now produces more food with his new tractor; so his income — and the national income — increases.
This misconception that the paradox of thrift applies in normal markets has done immense harm to the economy and eroded the savings of the middle-class and retirees. For three generations, central bankers attacked savers by artificially reducing interest rates — in the belief that lower savings would boost demand and stimulate the economy. Low interest rates simply forced savers to assume more risk, in order to earn a return on their investment, and encouraged speculation. The traditional work hard and save ethic that is the backbone of the capitalist system has been supplanted by the consume, borrow and speculate profligacy that got us into such a mess. High levels of public and private debt, inflation, volatile investment returns and rising income inequality are all consequences of the low-interest policy pursued by the Fed. Today’s giant casino is a far cry from the cautious, prudent investment outlook of our grandparents’ generation.
I will conclude by reminding you that savings channeled into new capital investment actually boost growth.
- Savings are only harmful when used to repay debt or for other non-productive purposes.
- Low interest rates encourage speculation and the formation of bubbles;
- Bubbles cause financial crises; and
- Financial crises force consumers to repay debt.
….the never-ending circle of life.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that economists realized that a balanced-budget stimulus could be effective, too. As I’ve discussed in earlier columns, economists starting with Walter S. Salant and Paul A. Samuelson realized that during a depression or in near-depression conditions, any government expenditure fully funded by taxes will increase national income approximately one for one, without raising national debt. This is known as the balanced-budget multiplier.
The public improvements suggested in the president’s proposal would have been fully paid for by the bill’s tax surcharge. And any new legislation we now consider could also pay for such improvements with tax increases, so as not to raise the national debt even temporarily. This idea should still have common-sense appeal to Americans in this time of high unemployment, just as the idea of winter work does on the farm.
American economists, central bankers and fiscal policy makers have reinterpreted British economist John Maynard Keynes’s clever idea that government spending is the best way to counteract a serious economic downturn — and have turned it into a permanent prescription. In their version of the Keynesian theory, declining growth or tumbling stock prices should prompt central banks to lower interest rates and governments to come to the rescue with economic stimulus programs. US economists call this “kick-starting” the economy.
….The only problem is that this method of encouraging growth has not stimulated the US economy in recent years, but in fact has put it on a crash course. From the Asian economic crisis to the Internet and subprime mortgage bubbles, economic stimulus programs by monetary and fiscal policy makers have regularly laid the groundwork for the next crash instead of encouraging sustainable growth. In the last decade, the volume of lending in the United States grew five times as fast as the real economy.
With thanks to Barry Ritholz