James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Washington’s Ponzi scheme is getting worse. Thanks, Bernanke!

Oct 27, 2010 16:15 UTC

PIMCO’s Bill Gross puts out a particularly good market letter this month. A few key obervations:

1. He is dubious about QEII.

The Fed’s second round of QE, therefore, more closely resembles an attempted hypodermic straight to the economy’s heart than its mood elevator counterpart of 2009 … The Fed, on Wednesday, however, will decide that it is better to keep the patient on life support with an adrenaline injection and a following morphine drip than to risk its demise and ultimate rebirth in another form.

2. No, he is really dubious.

We are, as even some Fed Governors now publically admit, in a “liquidity trap,” where interest rates or trillions in QEII asset purchases may not stimulate borrowing or lending because consumer demand is just not there. Escaping from a liquidity trap may be impossible, much like light trapped in a black hole. Just ask Japan.

3. Fiscal policy is what’s called for.

Ben Bernanke, however, will try – it is, to be honest, all he can do. He can’t raise or lower taxes, he can’t direct a fiscal thrust of infrastructure spending, he can’t change our educational system, he can’t force the Chinese to revalue their currency – it is all he can do, and as he proceeds, the dual questions of “will it work” and “will it create a bond market bubble” will be answered. We at PIMCO are not sure.

4. The whole deal raises inflationary risks.

Bondholders, while immediate beneficiaries, will likely eventually be delivered on a platter to more fortunate celebrants, be they financial asset classes more adaptable to inflation such as stocks or commodities, or perhaps the average American on Main Street who might benefit from a hoped-for rise in job growth or simply a boost in nominal wages, however deceptive the illusion. Check writing in the trillions is not a bondholder’s friend; it is in fact inflationary, and, if truth be told, somewhat of a Ponzi scheme.

5. The Fed is enabling Washington’s profligacy.

Public debt, actually, has always had a Ponzi-like characteristic. Granted, the U.S. has, at times, paid down its national debt, but there was always the assumption that as long as creditors could be found to roll over existing loans – and buy new ones – the game could keep going forever. Sovereign countries have always implicitly acknowledged that the existing debt would never be paid off because they would “grow” their way out of the apparent predicament, allowing future’s prosperity to continually pay for today’s finance.

Now, however, with growth in doubt, it seems that the Fed has taken Charles Ponzi one step further. Instead of simply paying for maturing debt with receipts from financial sector creditors – banks, insurance companies, surplus reserve nations and investment managers, to name the most significant – the Fed has joined the party itself. Rather than orchestrating the game from on high, it has jumped into the pond with the other swimmers. One and one-half trillion in checks were written in 2009, and trillions more lie ahead. The Fed, in effect, is telling the markets not to worry about our fiscal deficits, it will be the buyer of first and perhaps last resort. There is no need – as with Charles Ponzi – to find an increasing amount of future gullibles, they will just write the check themselves.

I ask you: Has there ever been a Ponzi scheme so brazen? There has not. This one is so unique that it requires a new name. I call it a Sammy scheme, in honor of Uncle Sam and the politicians (as well as its citizens) who have brought us to this critical moment in time. It is not a Bernanke scheme, because this is his only alternative and he shares no responsibility for its origin. It is a Sammy scheme – you and I, and the politicians that we elect every two years – deserve all the blame.

Bill Gross and America’s ‘New Normal’

Sep 3, 2009 12:23 UTC

Pimco’s Bill Gross paints a dreary future is his monthly letter:

We are heading into what we call the New Normal, which is a period of time in which economies grow very slowly as opposed to growing like weeds, the way children do; in which profits are relatively static; in which the government plays a significant role in terms of deficits and reregulation and control of the economy; in which the consumer stops shopping until he drops and begins, as they do in Japan (to be a little ghoulish), starts saving to the grave.

Me: The Counter-Reformation is hand. This is probably the economic consensus, especially if you toss in the probability of higher taxes.