Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

The budget deal and Washington’s new politics of compromise

Anatole Kaletsky
Dec 12, 2013 15:16 UTC

The muted market reaction to this week’s budget deal in Washington may initially seem like a disappointment. After all, uncertainty over government spending, debt and taxes has consistently emerged in business sentiment surveys as the biggest single factor holding back corporate investment and damaging financial confidence. Why then did Wall Street celebrate this breakthrough with its biggest daily fall in two months?

The standard explanation is that the budget deal will accelerate the tapering of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve Board, and that is probably a valid expectation. The main reason for the seemingly perverse response, however, is simply that this budget deal was predictable to the point of inevitability, even if most Washington pundits committed to the standard narrative of U.S. political dysfunction and gridlock did not see it coming until this week. Viewed from outside the Beltway, the inevitability of eventual bipartisan cooperation on the budget has been obvious since the 2012 election, which essentially settled all the important U.S. fiscal debates.

Having argued this position all year and having suggested back in October that a deal by this week was very likely, I could hardly be surprised that the markets greeted this event with a yawn. Short-term players on Wall Street have simply followed the time-honored formula of “buy on the rumor, sell on the news.” Business leaders and long-term investors, by contrast, are likely to be relieved and even enthused by this agreement, but their responses will have to be assessed over weeks, months and even years, not just a few days.

There are, however, several important lessons that can be drawn already from the U.S. budget agreement, several with implications for politics and economic policy in other countries. Here, briefly, are five:

1. Political analysts, lobbyists and media pundits whose professional reputations or business models depend on emphasizing or dramatizing political battles often present a misleading picture of economic policies. They naturally tend to exaggerate confrontations and underestimate the possibilities of compromise, even in situations where the interests of all the main political players point towards cooperation, rather than conflict. This principle is as true of monetary policy as of fiscal policy and it applies around the world. For example, European political analysts often exaggerate the confrontations between Germany and other countries or the risks to the euro posed by the German constitutional court or the Bundesbank.

With hostage taking over, a Washington deal beckons

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 24, 2013 15:37 UTC

Nobody should be surprised that Wall Street hit new records this week. After all, the U.S. has just witnessed the end of a sensational hostage crisis that was threatening national security and undermining economic confidence — and even more sensationally, this was the second such crisis in two months.

John Boehner was held hostage by Republican hardliners until last Thursday, when the U.S. Congress voted to continue pumping money into the U.S. government. The fiscal militants forced Boehner to endanger the U.S. economy with threats of a Treasury default. Boehner reluctantly paid this rhetorical ransom in order to preserve the appearance of party unity and therefore his own credibility as a political leader.

Now consider events a month earlier on the other side of Washington. Until September 18, when the Federal Reserve voted to continue pumping money into the U.S. bond market, Ben Bernanke was arguably held hostage by the Fed’s hardliners. The monetary militants forced Bernanke to endanger the U.S. economic recovery with threats of a premature end to quantitative easing. Bernanke reluctantly paid this rhetorical ransom in order to preserve the appearance of institutional unity and therefore his own credibility as an economic leader.

The positive side of the budget debacle

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 17, 2013 15:07 UTC

The U.S. budget battle was always likely to end in a Republican defeat and a rout for Tea Party firebrands; but the outcome has turned out to be even more dramatic: an unconditional surrender, instead of the negotiated ceasefire suggested here two weeks ago. Trying to spot historic turning points in real time is always risky, but the scale of this debacle suggests that U.S. politics and economic policy really will be transformed in at least four important ways.

Firstly, the shift in the balance of power between Obama and the Republicans since last November, described here, has been spectacularly confirmed. It is too early to guess whether the GOP’s slumping popularity will give the Democrats a chance to regain control of the House of Representatives next November. The Democrats would be very likely to achieve this if they could hold on to their present lead of 5.5 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of Congressional vote polling, since this would represent a swing in favor of the Democrats of 4 percent, which should suffice to win the extra 17 seats they would need to win control.

Conventional wisdom in Washington contends that a Democratic win next year is almost impossible because of a historic tendency of presidential parties to lose votes in midterm elections, but this history has little statistical significance, and is counterbalanced by the voting figures from the three occasions since 1945 when parties that lost the popular vote kept control of the House. In all these cases the majority party in the House only lost the popular vote by tiny margins — in 1952, by 0.5 percent, in 1996 by 0.7 percent and in 2012 by 1.2 percent. So an election in which the Republicans lost the popular vote by 5.5 percent, as indicated by recent polling, but kept control would create a totally unprecedented situation. In any case, speculation about next year’s election is pointless since the polls are likely to shift abruptly — one way or the other and for reasons we cannot even imagine today. What is clear, however, is that the Republicans face deep unpopularity in the short-term and this will transform the outlook for economic policy in the next few months.

Game theory and America’s budget battle

Anatole Kaletsky
Oct 3, 2013 14:17 UTC

So far, the battle of the budget in Washington is playing out roughly as expected. While a government shutdown has theoretically been ordered, nothing much has really happened, all the functions of government deemed essential have continued and financial markets have simply yawned. The only real difference between the tragicomedy now unfolding on Capitol Hill and the scenario outlined here last week has been in timing. I had suggested that the House Republicans would give way almost immediately on the budget, if only to keep some of their powder dry for a second, though equally hopeless, battle over the Treasury debt limit. Instead, it now looks like President Obama may succeed in rolling the two issues into one and forcing the Republicans to capitulate on both simultaneously.

The ultimate outcome of these battles is now clearer than ever. As explained here last week, the Tea Party’s campaign either to defund Obamacare or to sabotage the U.S. economy was doomed by the transformation in political dynamics that resulted from November’s election — above all by the fact that the president never again has to face the voters, while nearly every member of Congress must. This shift in the balance of power made the Republicans’ decision to mount a last stand on Obamacare, instead of attacking the White House on genuine budgetary issues, politically suicidal as well as quixotic. But while the outcome now looks inevitable, the timing of the decisive battle is important. Financial markets and businesses have responded with a tolerance bordering on complacency to the shenanigans in Washington, but this attitude could change abruptly if the House Republicans’ capitulation is delayed too long. As they say in the theater, the only difference between comedy and tragedy is timing.

The risk, as everyone now realizes, is that the battle of the budget — which turns out really to be just a minor tussle over the funding of a limited range of worthy but nonessential government services — remains in a stalemate right up to October 17, when U.S. Treasury is expected to hit its debt limit. At that point, an immediate settlement will be needed or all hell could break loose. The key question for businesses and investors around the world, therefore, is whether the Republicans’ impossible demands to defund Obamacare are removed from the budgetary bills comfortably before the October 17 deadline, or whether this capitulation is triggered by a financial crisis once the deadline draws too close.

Why markets don’t fear a government shutdown

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 26, 2013 14:44 UTC

Now that the worldwide panic over U.S. monetary policy has subsided, Washington is brewing another storm in a teacup: the budget and Obamacare battle that reaches a climax next Monday, followed by the debt limit vote required to prevent a mid-October Treasury default. The ultimate outcome of these crises is a foregone conclusion. As Senator John McCain told the press this week: “We will end up not shutting down the government and not de-funding Obamacare.” He could surely have added that a Treasury default is also out of the question.

But how exactly will Washington manage to dodge these bullets? As McCain added, “I don’t know what all the scenes are, [although] I’ve seen how this movie ends.” Markets understandably fear that all the plot twists leading up to a seemingly satisfactory resolution could produce an economic horror film, crushing business and consumer confidence, damaging economic growth and triggering a major sell-off in global stock markets. That, after all, is exactly what happened when the U.S. Treasury almost defaulted in July 2011.

What, then, are the chances of similar disruption in the weeks ahead? The risks this time are much smaller than in 2011 because of four events that have transformed the dynamics of U.S. budget battles.

Renewed optimism can be a double-edged sword

Anatole Kaletsky
May 2, 2013 15:22 UTC

This is a critical week for the world economy and financial markets, especially in the United States. Friday’s U.S. employment report will signal either a renewal of the economic recovery or, much more likely, will confirm that the economy is sinking into another seasonal “soft patch” for the fourth time in four years. Despite this risk, stock prices on Wall Street are at record highs, suggesting that equity investors see this slowdown as nothing more than a temporary obstruction on the way to a sustained recovery, just as in the summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012. So should we prepare for more anxiety about a double-dip recession, or can we feel confident that this summer will be followed by an autumn of strong recovery, as in the past four years?

I had an excellent vantage point this week from which to assess this question: the global conference of the Milken Institute in California, which brings together 1,000 business executives, politicians and financiers in a U.S. equivalent of the Davos economic forum, transplanted to the warmer and even plusher surroundings of Beverly Hills. Clearly, there was anxiety about the flagging recovery and the self-inflected damage caused by January’s payroll tax hike and the unplanned cuts to public spending caused by the sequestration process. But there was also a palpable resurgence of optimism about America’s long term prospects: the opportunities created by 3 billion new global consumers; the U.S. track record of innovation and enterprise; the magnetism of U.S. universities for global talent; the promise of energy independence; the transformational opportunities from “big data” and robotics; the prospect of liberalized immigration policies; and, encompassing many of these issues, a sense that the hyperpartisan warfare in Washington over healthcare, taxes and public spending had reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides, it seems, might be ready for a ceasefire, if not yet a lasting peace.

A surprising highlight of the conference was an amiable hour-long discussion between two of the most partisan antagonists in Washington’s political dramas ‑ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the ultra-conservative leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This ended with both politicians agreeing that there might be scope for a deal on the U.S. budget and thanking the Milken Institute for bringing them to California so they could talk to each other constructively in a way that simply isn’t possible in Washington. Similar sentiments came from leaders of both parties, ranging from Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker’s appreciation that “President Obama has put himself to the right of the House Republicans on entitlement reform” to Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, saying that “so many people have become intolerant of hyperpartisanship – this is an even bigger issue for voters now than unemployment.”

The fiscal cliff deal proves Congress is working

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 2, 2013 22:42 UTC

The U.S. fiscal cliff was dodged in pretty much the way that seemed most likely after November’s election: a bipartisan deal in which pragmatic Republicans, no longer focused on ending the presidency of Barack Obama, joined moderate Democrats to prevent economic sabotage by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum. On Wall Street, the immediate reaction was euphoria. But among mainstream economists and political commentators in Washington, it was cynicism.

While stock markets around the world approached their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis, media headlines emphasized grim forebodings: Fresh stand-off looms after US cliff deal (Financial Times); Budget deal passes, debt ceiling looms (Wall Street Journal); Deal done but threats remain (Washington Post); Bigger showdowns loom after fiscal cliff deal (Reuters); House backs tax deal as next fight looms (Bloomberg).

Investors’ initial reactions are often misguided, especially to complex political events, but this time the markets will probably be proved right, and the pundits wrong. This week’s deal marked a genuine, and most likely sustainable, breakthrough for reasons of both politics and economics.

Don’t panic about the fiscal cliff

Anatole Kaletsky
Sep 27, 2012 15:38 UTC

Who’s afraid of the fiscal cliff? Even as protests in Spain and Greece revive jitters in the euro zone, global businesses and investors have discovered a new political horror, this time in the U.S. The fear now in world markets is not so much about November’s election, but about the automatic tax hikes and public spending cuts that Ben Bernanke has dubbed the “fiscal cliff.” These fiscal changes, which come into force on Dec. 31 unless Congress passes new legislation, will tighten fiscal policy by some 4 percent of GDP, comparable to the austerity programs in Spain, Italy and Britain.

Given what fiscal austerity has done to Europe, the worries are understandable, but everyone should calm down. A drastic fiscal tightening is almost inconceivable after the election, because politics, economics and markets interact in Europe and America in opposite ways.

Let’s start with economic policy. The warnings from the Federal Reserve to U.S. politicians as the fiscal deadline approaches are all against allowing the legislated tax increases and spending cuts to take effect. Thus the Fed is giving politicians advice that is opposite that of the European Central Bank and the Bank of England.

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