In a speech this week summarizing his administration’s economic policies, President Obama grossly overstated the support these policies enjoy by claiming, “economists on the left and right agree that the last thing the government should do during a recession is cut back on spending.” There are a great many economists who were surprised to learn that, apparently, they now agree with the President.
Reading straight from the Keynesian playbook, Obama justified the creation of multi-trillion dollar deficits by asserting that the government must fill the spending void left by the contraction of consumer and business spending. As one of those mythical economists who do not agree with the President, I argue that it is precisely this type of boneheaded thinking that got us into this mess, and it’s the reason we are now headed for an inflationary depression.
Apart from the obvious financial distress that the current economic crisis has inflicted on most Americans, perhaps one of the more irksome byproducts of the meltdown has been the inescapability of clueless economic blather. It’s bad enough when so-called economists serve up the same Keynesian nonsense that has led us down the current cul-de-sac in the first place. At least those people have some incidental knowledge, however deeply flawed, of basic economic concepts. It’s far worse when political pundits, whose understanding of economics typically comes from Treasury Department talking points, hold forth as if they really know what is going on.
When elementary school kids want to escape the confines of their circumstances they pretend to be pirates, princesses, and Jedi knights. Now, with the relaxation of “mark to market” valuation rules announced yesterday by the accounting trade’s self-regulatory body, our bankrupt financial institutions can escape their own reality by pretending to be solvent. The unraveling of our fairytale economy over the last few months has not yet convinced us that the time has come to put away childish things. The applause that greeted the news yesterday on Wall Street is a clear sign that we still have some growing up to do.
The imaginative conceit that lies behind the accounting change is that the toxic assets polluting bank balance sheets are not really toxic at all. They are in fact highly valuable assets that for some irrational reason no one wants to buy.
This week, with his pronouncement that “credit is the lifeblood of a healthy economy,” President Obama reiterated what has been one of his most common themes in diagnosing our economic problem. The president has relied on this bedrock belief to propose policies that place the restoration of credit as the highest priority. However, despite his seemingly earnest intentions, the president and his economic advisors have misdiagnosed the ailment. Savings, not credit, is the lifeblood of a healthy economy. When not used properly credit can be like a cancer that sickens an otherwise healthy economy.
In his first televised speech before Congress, President Obama asserted that prosperity will return once the government restores the flow of credit in the economy. It may come as a surprise to him, but an economy cannot run on consumer loans. Furthermore, credit stopped flowing in the U.S. for a very good reason: there was no more savings left to loan. Government efforts to simply make credit available, without rebuilding productive capacity or increasing savings, are doomed to destroy what’s left of our economy.
With millions of homeowners now struggling to repay money they clearly never should have borrowed, our leaders have been righteously wagging fingers at predatory lenders who allegedly enticed innocent borrowers, and the country, into a financial snake pit. While the mortgage industry clearly deserves a good share of the blame, unindicted co-conspirators abound. The ringleaders are still at-large and are, in fact, busy hatching a plan to dwarf the earlier mistakes.
There is nearly universal agreement that the opening salvo of the Obama Administration’s campaign to restore health to the financial system, delivered this week by new Treasury Secretary Geithner, fell with a loud and ugly thud. The most common criticism is that the announcement was short on detail. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the new Administration intends to push spending back up to pre-crash levels and to fill the entire credit void that has disappeared into the black hole of the American financial system. Whether or not the prior levels of spending and lending were justified by market conditions then, or now, appears to be largely unexamined.
Barack Obama has spoken often of sacrifice. And as recently as a week ago, he said that to stave off the deepening recession Americans should be prepared to face “trillion dollar deficits for years to come.”
But apart from a stirring call for volunteerism in his inaugural address, the only specific sacrifices the president has outlined thus far include lower taxes, millions of federally funded jobs, expanded corporate bailouts, and direct stimulus checks to consumers. Could this be described as sacrificial?
This week, in a speech before the London School of Economics, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a perverse economic theory in his quest to gather support for never-ending Wall Street bailouts; “This disparate treatment, unappealing as it is, appears unavoidable. Our economic system is critically dependent on the free flow of credit, and the consequences for the broader economy of financial instability are thus powerful and quickly felt.” In other words, credit is the lifeblood of our economy, and the continued operation of credit providers is an issue of national security.
A few weeks ago when the Fed announced a strategy designed to bring down long-term interest and home mortgage rates through unlimited Treasury bond purchases, government debt staged a spectacular rally. To the unschooled market observer, the spike may be difficult to understand. After all, why would the value of Treasury bonds rise while their underlying credit quality is deteriorating faster than Bernie Madoff’s social schedule? The move is actually a perfect illustration of the tried and true Wall Street strategy of “buy the rumor and sell the fact”.If it is well known that Fed will be a big purchaser of Treasuries, those buying now will be positioned to unload their holdings when the buying spree begins. If the Fed pays higher prices in the future, traders can earn riskless speculative profits. If the traders lever up their positions, as many are likely doing, even small profits can turn unto huge windfalls.