Obama: Debt Could Cause a Double Dip Recession

Barack Obama has now come clean about his thinking on why his administration has decided to focus first on reducing the deficit and next on jobs. He fears a double-dip recession will occur if foreigners lose confidence in the U.S. dollar, causing interest rates to spike. 

This is nonsense and it demonstrates how much at odds Obama’s economic thinking is with reality. This is the clearest indication that the Obama Administration doesn’t understand how modern money works. In fact, by focusing on deficit reduction, he has increased the chances of a double dip instead of decreasing them.

If he wants to reduce deficits, knowing it will precipitate a double dip and would decrease malinvestment. Fine. That’s not my solution, but it is accurate view of the economics.

What Obama actually said

At issue is whether the federal government’s enormous debt burden in the U.S. could cause investors to lose confidence in the U.S. government and shun its debt.

In an interview on Fox News today, the President said the following:

I think it is important though to recognize that. If we keep on adding to the — Even in the midst of this recovery that at some point. People could lose confidence in the US economy in a way that could actually lead to a double dip recession.

Is this really true though?

How deficits really work

Think of an economy this way: the people in any economy buy goods and services from one another and from the outside. In any given time period, one person, one company or one group/sector might use credit in order to buy more goods and services than it makes in income. It’s like spending future income by using credit. This puts that individual, company or group/sector in deficit i.e. they have spent more money than they have earned. Now obviously, if one sector is in deficit in a given period (i.e. they have spent more capital than they have earned), then the other sectors are in net surplus (i.e. they have received more cash than they have earned).

Let’s give these groups/sectors of the economy names: the private sector, the public sector and the foreign sector.  Giving the groups names makes it plain that if the public sector is in deficit, the combined foreign and private sectors must be in surplus.  Simply put, if you look at all of the households and businesses that make up the private sector and aggregate them together, you can determine if the private sector has a net surplus or a net deficit in any individual time period. And if the private sector has a net surplus, the combined foreign sector and public sector must have a deficit for that time period. The sector financial balances move in concert.

What this means for today is that a government which reduces its deficit in a given time period is forcing an equal reduction in surplus in the private and foreign sectors. So that means, in aggregate, the private sector and the foreign sector will reduce the surplus cash it is taking in over what it spends.

Scott Fullwiler has a good graph depicting how the private sector surplus/deficit moves in concert with the public sector deficit/surplus, the difference being the current account deficit:

We can look historically at how these sector financial balances have moved over time. Figure 2 shows how closely the private sector surplus and the government sector deficit have moved historically, which isn’t surprising given they are nearly the opposing sides of an accounting identity. The difference between them, more visible starting in the 1980s, is the current account balance.

Figure 2: Historical Behavior of Private Sector Surplus and Government Sector Deficit as a percent of GDP



Below, I am now providing figure three from Fullwiler’s post at reader request, as it shows the current account deficit as the missing link since the 1980s.


Unless the increasing current account deficit switches direction violently, this can only mean that reducing the government’s deficit reduces the private sector’s surplus. Net-net, the government’s decreased deficit spending will decrease savings in the private sector. And no deleveraging can occur if savings in the private sector are reduced.

Is that what we want? Reduced private savings means continued high private sector leverage. In the U.S., the private sector has much greater debt burdens relative to the size of the economy than the federal government does. You would think we want the private sector to reduce leverage more than the public sector.

Long-term deficit reduction

What I have suggested is long-term deficit reduction.  If the President is concerned about deficits as far as the eye can see, he might want to look at retiree healthcare costs.  In June I said:

Yesterday, I argued that the United States faced a policy dilemma in avoiding debt deflationary forces while maintaining fiscal prudence.  The reality is that President Obama faces political constraints in Washington right now in regards to budget deficits.  He is not likely to get another stimulus package through the Congress unless he can credibly demonstrate a longer-term deficit reduction outlook.  In my view, this necessarily means changes to Social Security and/or Medicare.

But, of course, President Obama is not going to do that because this would mean cutting Medicare benefits, a political loser.

This looks like Hoover more every day

The President just doesn’t seem to understand how the economy works frankly. Reducing deficits by cutting spending or raising taxes decreases aggregate demand. And it is a decrease in aggregate demand which would induce a double-dip recession. So, the President’s logic just doesn’t work.

But what about a strike on U.S. government debt?  As you probably surmised from the above, if the U.S. private sector is increasing its savings, there is automatically a greater domestic bid for U.S. treasury securities.  So, it is a misnomer to say the U.S. is dependent on foreigners, thinking that this must continue. If the private sector saves more, a larger percentage of government bonds will be bought with domestic savings. In Japan, interest rates did not spike when the government increased deficit spending for this very reason.

The only question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to reduce debt by:

  1. The Liquidation Scenario. decreasing aggregate demand and precipitating a major depression in order to liquidate zombie companies and malinvestment. This would cause a massive wave of defaults and decrease debt burdens significantly through bankruptcy and debt repudiation. or;
  2. The Glide Path Solution. increasing aggregate demand by maintaining government spending while trying to liquidate zombie companies and malinvestment. This would allow the private sector to decrease debt burdens significantly over time through increased savings. It also has the benefit of reducing dependency on foreign sources of capital. The downside is a major increase in government debt, the spectre of big government and a long muddle through.

As I have said previously, the Obama Administration is doing neither of the above. It has opted for a third Herbert Hoover solution:

  • The Hoover Status Quo. decreasing aggregate demand and precipitating a double dip recession in order to reduce government deficits. This would cause a wave of defaults and decrease debt burdens through bankruptcy and debt repudiation. Meanwhile they will try to prop up zombie companies and maintain malinvestment. This would simultaneously prevent the private sector from decreasing debt burdens through increased savings and maintain dependency on foreign sources of capital – all without ending the spectre of big government.

I have advocated the glide path solution. But I see the liquidation scenario as much better than the present path – especially since, with the present course, we are witnessing crony capitalism on a massive scale. The problem with the liquidation scenario is a lower standard of living and the prospect of geopolitical tension, social unrest, poverty, and war.

The Herbert Hoover solution we are now using leads to a Japanese outcome at best or a Great Depression outcome at worst.

Obama: Debt Could Fuel ‘Double-Dip Recession’ – FOXNews.com

Update: I have already addressed the potential for added stimulus in a previous post, “I am now moving from multi-year recovery to a double dip baseline“. I see this as a non-starter because it would mean ‘tax and spend,’ which would jeopardize moderate Democrats who this deficit reduction policy is looking to protect.

Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

2 Responses to "Obama: Debt Could Cause a Double Dip Recession"

  1. MP   November 19, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Good piece. Put another way, the Fed and Treasury have painted themselves into a corner and they can only hope the paint will dry enough for them to tiptoe out carefully without destroying the floor. The problem is I don’t think anyone knows how feasible it may be to even “glide” out slowly as you suggest. The amount of credit deflation (paint drying) that may be required will only put additional stress on production and raise the probability of another leg(s) down. If mass opinion sees this happening, the shift in psychology could bring us back to a depressionary mess of historical proportions, and the Fed and Treasury will have shot their wad. Banks who are wary or downright incapable of lending now will be driven much further into that mindset. The smart guys over at Elliott Wave advisory have pretty much bet their farm on that “inevitability.” Leave it to say, it’s scary our there.

  2. Guest   November 20, 2009 at 8:29 am

    There is no doubt that the President has no clue about economic theory or business in general. That is not debatable and is painfully obvious when he give speeches.What really concerns me is Timmy over at the Treasury. Without hesitation or much though he emphatically shot down the idea of reinstating Glass-Steagall. Not only that he firmly stated to Congress that it had nothing to do with the current crisis. Does Timmy even understand what he said? I am starting to question that as it appears he has now been bought and paid for.If commercial banks and investment banks were separated we would NEVER had to spend billions of taxpayer money to bail them out. Goldman would be out of business and many others as well and that is what Capitalism is all about. You take risks and if they don’t work out you go out of business. There would be no billion dollar gift to them to bail them out of their bad bets with AIG. Wake up this is a fraud of monumental proportions. We should be breaking down banks not helping them further their monopolies (whith government support I should add).The entire US financial system would not have been in jeopardy if a select few did not control the fate of every US citizens money!! “Retail” banks would have had nothing to worry about if they were separate from their risk taking, subprime debt buying, incompetant investment baking divisions.