Opinion

The Great Debate

Why public debt is not like credit card debt

One big part of the well-financed campaign for economic austerity is the contention that the public debt is like a national credit card. If we keep charging on it, the argument goes, we’ll get overwhelmed with interest costs, suffer a reduced standard of living and, pretty soon, go bankrupt.

As David Walker, a prominent budget hawk and the former head of the billion-dollar Peter G. Peterson Foundation, has contended, “Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have charged everything to the nation’s credit card, including tax cuts and spending increases, without paying for them.”

The Peterson Foundation is the leading sponsor of this brand of bogus economics. It is a spurious metaphor on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Most important, this credit-card metaphor is a totally false analogy because, unlike a consumer on a spending spree who later has to pay the piper, government’s borrowing strategy directly affects economic growth. When deficit spending helps increase growth, that, in turn, makes the debt less burdensome. The Federal Reserve also has the power to buy public debt ‑ a prerogative not available to consumers.

The U.S. economy has vast productive potential that remains idle in a deep recession. When everyone who wants a job has one, and people use their purchasing power to buy goods and services, the economy is maximizing that potential.

from David Cay Johnston:

The hidden dangers of low interest rates

The Fed's campaign to hold short-term interest rates near zero is a loser for taxpayers. A rise in rates would also burden taxpayers, but it would come with a benefit for those who save.

Low rates keep alive the banks that the government considers too big to fail and reduce the cost of servicing the burgeoning federal debt. Low rates also come at a cost, cutting income to older Americans and to pension funds. This forces retirees to eat into principal, may put more pressure on welfare programs for the elderly, and will probably require the government to spend money to fulfill pension guarantees.

Raising interest rates shifts the costs and benefits, increasing the risks that mismanaged banks will collapse and diverting more taxpayers' money to service federal debt. On the other hand, higher interest rates mean that savers, both individual and in pension funds, enjoy the fruits of their prudence.

Fed up with Bernanke

By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.

There is one thing every Republican candidate agrees on. Once in the White House, the first thing they’d do is fire Ben Bernanke. His crime is to follow the legal brief of the Federal Reserve to maximize jobs and keep prices stable. To this end he has been printing money to keep interest rates low to boost business confidence to invest and thereby create more American jobs. For many conservatives and libertarians, who dominate the early GOP caucuses and primaries, Bernanke’s cheap money policy has dangerously devalued the dollar’s worth.

Guaranteeing cheap money is a Keynesian way of restoring health to an economy in recession, though Keynes himself was aware that low interest rates do not automatically lead to jobs. However cheap money is, you can’t force people to invest. Or, as he put it, “You can’t push on a string.” He compared it to buying a bigger belt to gain weight. The fact that Keynes backed easy credit is enough to make the policy treacherous in the eyes of many con-libs. (They are far more tolerant of another Keynesian remedy–slashing taxes.)

Bernanke, however, owes his allegiance not to Keynes but to Milton Friedman. To encourage growth without hyper-inflation, Friedman prescribed gradually increasing the money supply. That way, prices would rise slowly and predictably. Bernanke is also an expert on the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, catastrophes he, like Friedman, attribute to the 1920′s Fed keeping money too tight for too long. As Bernanke told Friedman on the father of monetarism’s 90th birthday, “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But, thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

How Citi sank itself on the Fed’s watch

By Nicholas Dunbar
The opinions expressed are his own.

Much of the financial crisis can be blamed on bankers who created complex products that allowed them to exploit and monetize less sophisticated investors, borrowers and bank shareholders. However, no account of the financial crisis is complete without an account of the inept regulators who permitted these activities to flourish, causing the crisis to become much worse than it might have been. Among these regulators, most surprising is the story of the New York Fed, supposedly the most sophisticated in its approach to risk. As I recount in this excerpt from my book, The Devil’s Derivatives and as staff at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC discovered, the New York Fed was in thrall to what in 2007 was the largest US bank – Citigroup – with disastrous results. -Nicholas Dunbar

The Federal Reserve may have been at the top of the U.S. regulatory pecking order, but within the Fed itself, the New York branch was top dog when it came to regulating banks. This was hardly surprising given the dual importance of Wall Street as the engine room of the bond markets and as the base for the largest multinational U.S. banks. It was only natural that industry risk-management innovations like VAR were first identified by staff in the New York Fed’s markets divi- sion, such as Peter Fisher, who transmitted the ideas to the rest of the regulatory community.

Ever since the regulatory blessing of VAR in the mid-1990s, the New York–based multinational banks had been growing rapidly. By 2003, when William McDonough retired as New York Fed president and was replaced by Timothy Geithner, an ambitious former Treasury and International Monetary Fund bureaucrat, bank supervision was equally important to markets.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Twisted Sister and the Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve's "Operation Twist" has set the literary- and musical-allusion juices flowing.  It is all about the Fed selling or not rolling over short-term debt and buying long-term bonds instead in order to keep borrowing costs low.

But that is frightfully dull for economists, analysts and reporters trying to get attention for their work. So, so far we have heard:

-- "Let's Twist Again", a reference to the 1960's Chubby Checker record about the dance craze . Problem is that the second line is "Like we did last summer", and the Fed did nothing of the sort, launching plain old quantative easing instead.

The Fed must print money to head off a global crash

By Adam Posen
The opinions expressed are his own

It is past time for monetary policy to be doing more to support recovery. The Jackson Hole conference has come and gone, and no shortage of excuses was provided for central banks to hold their fire — even though most economists acknowledged the grim outlook for the advanced economies.

Too much attention has been paid, however, to the failings of fiscal policies and to the shortfall from effects of earlier quantitative easing. Further asset purchases by the G7 central banks are needed to check not just a downturn, but the lasting erosion of productive capacity and of debt sustainability — especially when even justified fiscal and financial consolidation is undercutting short-term recovery. Easier monetary policy will increase the odds of other policies improving, and those policies’ effectiveness when they do.

It is also past time to stop fearing inflationary ghosts. There is no credible threat of sustained higher inflation in the advanced economies that should restrain central bank action. The rate of wage growth is tepid and compatible with price stability, at most, even in Germany; the inability of wages to keep up with recent real price shocks underscores the ongoing downward pressure from labour market slack. Consumption was driven down by fiscal tightening and household retrenchment as much as oil prices, and those forces will be ongoing. Had consumer confidence not been weakly footed to begin with, the oil shock would not have had such an impact.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

The unsyncopated rhythm of central banks

The European Central Bank is off and running with its tightening cycle -- raising by 25 basis points last week and talking in tongues enough to persuade markets that another hike is coming by July.  At the same time, the Fed -- despite some hawkish comments recently about QE -- isn't seen actually tightening for some time. Next year, actually.

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch is now wondering whether there is something wrong with this. " Surely one of these central banks is heading to a painful policy mistake? " it says.

Key to the question is the fact that U.S. and euro zone economics are not as far apart normally as one might think. Take growth, where there is a 0.6 positive correlation between the two across business cycles. Or inflation. The correlation there is even greater at a positive 0.75 over a whole economic cycle.

Bernanke’s high stakes poker game at the G-20

By Peter Navarro
The opinions expressed are his own.

Ben Bernanke is about to play the biggest poker hand in global monetary policy history: The Federal Reserve chairman is trying to force China to fold on its fixed dollar-yuan currency peg. This is high-stakes poker.

Although Bernanke will not be sitting at the table to play his quantitative easing card when all the members of the G-20, including China, meet this week in South Korea. Every G-20 country is suffering from an already grossly under-valued yuan pegged to a dollar now falling rapidly under the weight of Bernanke’s QE2. In fact, breaking the highly corrosive dollar-yuan peg is the most important step the G-20 can take for both robust global economic recovery and financial market stability.

Regrettably, China continues to believe — mistakenly — that the costs of a stronger yuan in terms of reduced export-led growth outweigh three major benefits: increased purchasing power to spur domestic-driven growth, significantly lower costs for raw materials and energy, and a dramatic reduction in speculative hot flows rapidly pushing up inflation.

Institutional failure week

-The opinions are the author’s own-

By the end of this week, the U.S. will face a government that is unable to act to aid the economy and a Federal Reserve that is unable to stop.

The stock market may well rise on this dysfunctional combination, only serving to prove that the economy and market are becoming fundamentally disconnected.

Tuesday’s election may well deliver a split Congress with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and the Democrats clinging to a narrow majority in the Senate. This means that there is no chance of further meaningful stimulus and that Democratic timidity will likely harden into an intransigence to match that of the Republicans.

from MacroScope:

Did France cause The Great Depression?

Economist Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College has stirred up a bit of a fuss by concluding in some academic research that it was France, not the United States, that was most to blame for The Great Depression.

Irwin's theory, in a paper posted here by the National Bureau of Economic Research, is that France created an artificial shortage of gold reserves when it increased its share from 7 percent to 27 percent between 1927 and 1932.  Because major currencies at the time were backed by gold under the Gold Standard, this put other countries under enormous deflationary pressure.

To prove his point, Irwin ran a model looking at what would have happened without the French move. The results:

  •