James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The next big political issue? The U.S. dollar

Oct 12, 2009 18:22 UTC

The state of the dollar probably hasn’t been a first-tier political issue in the United States since, say, the presidential election of 1896. Back then, it manifested as whether or not America would stay on the gold standard or switch to a bimetallic one. (The William Jennings Bryan “cross of gold” speech and all that.)

The aftershocks of the global financial crisis may now be propelling the dollar back to the political forefront. The greenback’s continuing slide makes it a handy metric that neatly encapsulates America’s current economic troubles and possible long-term decline. House Republicans for instance, have been using the weaker dollar as a weapon in their attacks on the Bernanke-led Federal Reserve.

For more evidence of the dollar’s return to political salience, look no further than the Facebook page of Sarah Palin. The 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee — and possible 2012 presidential candidate — has shown a knack for identifying hot-button political issues, such as the purported “death panels” she claims to have found in Democratic healthcare reform plans. In a recent Facebook posting, Palin expressed deep concern over the dollar’s “continued viability as an international reserve currency” in light of huge U.S. budget deficits.

She might be onto something here, politically and economically. A recent Rasmussen poll, for instance, found that 88 percent of Americans say the dollar should remain the dominant global currency. Now, the average voter may not fully understand the subtleties of international finance nor appreciate exactly how a dominant dollar has benefited the U.S economy. But they sure think a weaker dollar is a sign of a weaker America.

And that’s the political problem for the Obama administration. Its benign neglect of the dollar is another example of an economic policy — along with TARP and the $787 billion stimulus — that the White House thinks is helping the economy, but many Americans find wrongheaded.

In his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman makes the usual case for a weaker dollar: It helps U.S. exporters and is a necessary part of a global economic rebalancing. And there is some truth in that, particularly the idea that Rising Asia will result in a less-dominant dollar. Then again, a devalued currency hasn’t exactly been a proven path to prosperity. (Ask Jimmy Carter.)

But Krugman too easily dismisses the idea that the dollar’s decline could tumble out of control. Former Clinton economic officials such as Robert Rubin and Roger Altman have been making the case that investor concern about budget deficits could lead them to abandon the dollar. As Altman argued in a Financial Times op-ed piece today: “The dismal deficit outlook poses a huge longer-term threat. Indeed, it is just a matter of time before global financial markets reject this fiscal trajectory. That could lead to a punishing dollar crisis.”

Now many Democrats and liberals, like Krugman, don’t want to hear such talk, fearing a rerun of the Clinton era when the progressive policy agenda was sacrificed on the altar of budgetary rectitude.

But that is a tremendous political and economic gamble, one that may result in taunting Republican cries of “Who lost the dollar?”

COMMENT

Unfunded public employee pension benefits is the next big political issue.

Posted by EconRob | Report as abusive

A $150 billion a year financial Tobin tax? Really?

Oct 12, 2009 14:15 UTC

The idea of a Tobin tax, a tax on financial transactions, is gaing some mo’ in Congress (via WSJ):

With federal budget deficits soaring, policy makers and other advocates are eyeing the huge sums that could be raised as a way to cover the costs of new initiatives.

Labor unions, in particular the AFL-CIO, have proposed a financial-transactions tax as a way to defray costs of a health-care overhaul. Lawmakers have discussed a similar fee as a way to cover the cost of future financial oversight. Liberal advocates are pushing the tax to pay for new stimulus spending.

Taxing Wall Street’s financial transactions is back on the table. … The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute floated the idea of a national transaction tax that would raise $100 billion to $150 billion a year. The tax, at a rate of 0.1% to 0.25% of the value of the trade, would be levied on all financial transactions such as stock trades, but not on consumer transactions such as with credit cards.

As I wrote last month:

1)  Even a 0.10 percent tax would double the cost of US stock trading where the average commission cost is just under a dime. Welcome back to the pre-Internet early 1990s.

2) It would reduce market volumes and make the equity market less attractive. Kind of dumb thing to do in a time of constrained credit markets where it is tough to raise money.

3) That supposed $100 billion-$150 billion in revenue wouldn’t appear out of thin air. It would come from investment firms who would pass along costs to customers.

4) It would drive trading activity to less costly trading centers, such as the Toronto Stock Exchange (at least if we are talking about the US). Goodbye US jobs.

COMMENT

Some proponents say the purpose of the tax is to shrink the financial sector back to the size of the 1980′s. They admit it will cost investors a “bit” more just like in the 80′s. A researcher found that the average spread in 1986 was $0.53, so that alone will cost the average investor around 2% up front. I would hate to see 90% of financial activity leave the US as it did when Sweden had a transaction tax for only 6 years.

Posted by TripleTaxThePoor | Report as abusive

The story of the $1.4 trillion budget deficit for 2009

Oct 12, 2009 14:05 UTC

My pal Don Marron breaks it down:

A few days ago, CBO released its latest snapshot on the federal budget, documenting the remarkable challenges of fiscal 2009, which ended on September 30. The key phrase in the report is “in over 50 years” as in:

1) At $1.4 trillion, the budget deficit was 9.9% of gross domestic product, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.2) At $3.5 trillion, spending was almost 25% of GDP, the largest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years.

3) At $2.1 trillion, tax revenues were about 15% of GDP, the lowest, relative to the economy, in over 50 years. (I get the sense that this point is less well-known than the other two.)

101209marron

Study: Democratic healthcare reform could increase costs

Oct 12, 2009 13:56 UTC

America’s Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry trade group, paid for this PricewaterhouseCoopers study that found Democratic healthcare reform would sharply raise the price of private healthcare insurance. The typical premium could rise by $4,000 by 2019. Here is the executive summary:

101209pwc1

Zandi: Unemployment headed to 10.5 percent

Oct 12, 2009 13:44 UTC

Moody’s Economy.com economist Mark Zandi likes the stimulus (via Fox News) but still thinks unemployment is headed higher. In his own words:

10.5 percent is a very reasonable expectation for the peak in unemployment, but I think it would be measurably higher if not for the stimulus package. The stimulus in my view is working. It’s just gotten overwhelmed by the magnitude of the economic crisis.

Which, of course, brings us to the idea of a second stimulus.  Marc Ambinder gives the rundown:

1) Extend the first-time home buyer credit

2) Create a new credit for companies who hire

3) Extend jobless benefits in every state, or just particularly distressed states, or every state but even more in particularly distressed states.

4) Give tax refunds to struggling companies

5) Institute a payroll tax holiday

6) Pass another stimulus but call it something like “State Rescue Plan” and send most of the money to state governments

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