Why the U.S. Debt is so Scary II. A Crisis Could be Nearer Than We Think

 

I am a candidate in the May 15 Nebraska Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate because the incumbent, Deb Fischer, is doing nothing about our enormous and out-of-control national debt. In fact, she has recently voted twice, for the new tax law and budget, to make our debt even worse than it already was. My last post quotes a reader of my blog as saying that deficit hawks need to make our soaring debt sound scary to ordinary citizens who don’t understand how it will affect their own lives.
The analyst Desmond Lachman from the American Enterprise Institute makes it sound even scarier by predicting a new 2008-2009 style crisis within the next year.  According to Mr. Lachman there are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon:

  • First, we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The housing price bubble before the 2008-2009 crisis has been replaced by a global asset price bubble, for both stocks and bonds. A second key ingredient is that the global debt-to-GDP level is significantly higher than in 2008.

  • Second, due to major mistakes by the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. With very low unemployment, the Fed has let low interest rates linger for too long. And the U.S. economy has now received a double fiscal stimulus with unfunded tax cuts and a new two-year spending boost.
  • The Federal Reserve now has two unattractive choices. It can raise interest rates quickly and burst the global asset bubble, or it can proceed at a slower pace and ignore the very serious inflation risk.

Conclusion. With a very high and rapidly growing national debt, along with unusually low interest rates which will be pushed up soon one way or another, we should prepare ourselves for another crisis in the near future.

The Economic Damage Caused by Very Low Interest Rates

 

As is well known, the Federal Reserve’s main tool in responding to the Financial Crisis in 2007 – 2009 has been quantitative easing (to lower long term interest rates) and direct reduction of the Federal Funds Rate (to lower short term interest rates). These measures definitely limited the severity of the Great Recession resulting from the Financial Crisis.  But the recession ended in June 2009, more than seven years ago.
Capture37In the meantime the continuation of such low interest rates is having many detrimental effects such as:

  • Pension funds, both public and private, have become greatly underfunded,  creating crises especially for state and local governments with defined contribution plans.
  • Retirement plans for millions of seniors have been upset by erosion of savings.
  • Inequality has increased as affluent stock owners benefit from the rapid increase of asset prices as investors reach for yield.
  • An immense misallocation of capital towards bond issuers at the expense of small business is taking place.
  • Federal debt is soaring as low interest rates make it much easier for Congress to ignore large budget deficits.
  • The next recession, when it inevitably arrives, will leave the Fed in a bind. The only tools remaining are a new round of quantitative easing (additional bond purchases) and even lower (i.e. negative) interest rates.
  • The Fed’s dual mandate of low unemployment (currently 4.9%) and price stability (low inflation) is being met but is accompanied by anemic GDP growth averaging only 2% since the end of the Great Recession. Such slow economic growth is largely responsible for the populist revolt in the 2016 presidential race.

Conclusion. Monetary policy can only accomplish so much. It is critical for the Fed to wind down its $4.5 trillion balance sheet as its bond holdings mature and to keep raising short term interest rates.  This will force Congress to step up to the plate with the changes in fiscal policy which are needed to stimulate economic growth.

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Janet Yellen vs Larry Summers

 

There is an informative article in the May 12, 2016 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, “How to Pull the World Economy out of Its Rut.”  Recall that Janet Yellen succeeded Ben Bernanke as Chair of the Federal Reserve in January 2014. The other candidate for the post was Larry Summers.
Capture6They have rather different views about the role of a central bank:

  • Janet Yellen insists that economic conditions are returning to normal, even if slowly. She is neutral about the slow growth, secular stagnation hypothesis and using fiscal stimulus to overcome it.
  • Larry Summers argues that world growth is stuck in a rut because there is a chronic shortage of demand for goods and services. Growing inequality puts a bigger share of the world’s income in the hands of rich people who spend less. The new economy is asset-lite (Uber and Airbnb prosper by exploiting existing assets) and so needs less investment. Software doesn’t require the construction of new factories. He thinks that central bankers should spend more time and effort trying to influence fiscal policy. For example, more government spending on infrastructure, global warming and improving education. Also changing the tax code to put more money in the hands of lower- and middle-income families who would spend it.

I think that they are both partly right and partly wrong.

  • Janet Yellen is correct in believing that the Fed should stick to monetary policy. But she is too cautious in raising interest rates back to more normal levels. There will be some (stock market) pain in accomplishing this but it needs to be pushed faster regardless.
  • Larry Summers is correct in calling for action on the fiscal front. But his suggestions for how to do this are mostly off base because they will lead to massive new debt which must be avoided.

So what is the proper course to get out of our economic rut? It is what I’ve been saying over and over again but I’ll repeat it for good measure in my next post!  Stay tuned!

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What the Federal Reserve Can and Can’t Do

 

I have a good impression of Ben Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve from 2006-2014. Partly because he comes across as being both competent and honest and partly because Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006-2011, and whom I greatly admire, gives him high marks in her book, “Bull by the Horns,” about the financial crisis.
CaptureMr. Bernanke has an excellent Op Ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “How the Fed Saved the Economy,” clearly describing what the Federal Reserve both can and can’t do. What it can do is:

  • Make recessions less severe. The unemployment rate has been steadily dropping and now is apparently almost back to normal at 5.1% even though the relatively low labor-force participation rate and lack of wage pressure indicate remaining weakness.
  • Keep inflation low and stable. The Fed’s expansionary monetary policy has helped bring down unemployment without igniting inflation whose underlying rate is currently only 1.5%.

Mr. Bernanke states that “the Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals – the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.” He goes on to say that “further economic growth will have to come from the supply-side, primarily from increases in productivity. … Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up” by adopting policies to:

  • Improve worker skills. (how about immigration reform, better vocational education, reforming SSDI and expanding the EITC to boost incentives to work)
  • Foster capital investment. (how about both individual and corporate tax reform and relaxing Dodd-Frank regulations on main street banks)
  • Support research and development. (how about making life easier for entrepreneurs with fewer regulations)

Mr. Bernanke has a very good handle on our current financial situation. The Federal Reserve has done and is doing its job. It’s time (long past time!) for fiscal policy makers (i.e. Congress and the President) to adopt policies, such as above, to speed up economic growth.

Solving the Student Debt Problem

 

I have devoted several posts recently, herehere, and here, to discussing the rapidly increasing costs of higher education (see chart below) and the corresponding rapid rise of student debt.
Capture7Here are the basic facts:

  • There are too few college graduates in the U.S. At least ten OECD countries have a higher percentage of college graduates than we do.
  • America is graduating inequality. College degree attainment has increased between 1970 and 2011 for all income groups; however this is happening much more quickly for higher income groups.
  • Not all college degrees are created equal. Students at private, nonprofit institutions graduate at higher rates, and with lower debt, than students from public institutions who, in turn, graduate at higher rates and with lower debt, than students from for-profit institutions.
  • The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has found a close connection between subsidized loan and Pell Grant limits and the increase in college tuition costs.
  • The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has found that “white and Asian college grads do much better than their counterparts without degrees, while college-grad Hispanics and blacks do much worse proportionately.”
  • The percentage of student borrowers at for-profit as well as community colleges who default on their loans has greatly increased since the year 2000 (see below)
    Capture1In other words, our current federal student loan program is not only driving up college costs for everyone but is also creating a huge financial burden for the very low-income students who are most in need of financial aid to succeed in college.
    The way to respond to this is to put strict lids on the amount of subsidized loans available to both undergraduate and graduate students ($30,000 and $60,000 respectively) and, at the same time, use the savings achieved in doing this to increase the size of Pell Grants available for the lowest income students who need the most help.
    Conclusion: our high-tech society needs more college trained workers and we should especially encourage capable low-income young people to go to college. We could also do a much better job of targeting Pell grants instead of loans to this group of students.

Minorities and Higher Education: a Severe Dilemma

  

 

In two recent posts, here and here, I have established that:

  • Rapid increases in federal student aid in recent years have led to tuition increases at both public and private educational institutions and for both undergraduate and graduate students.
  • American higher education is increasing the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the sense that college degree attainment is increasing much faster for those students from higher income families.
  • Furthermore, students at private, nonprofit (most prestigious) institutions have higher graduation rates and lower debt levels compared to students from public institutions who, in turn, have both higher graduation rates and lower debt levels than students at for-profit colleges (least prestigious).Capture

As if this isn’t bad enough, it gets even worse! The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has just reported, “Why Didn’t Higher Education Protect Hispanic and Black Wealth?” that “White and Asian college grads do much better than their counterparts without college, while college-grad Hispanics and blacks do much worse proportionately.” (see above chart).
In short, the federal government is spending more and more money on higher education, which, in turn, is making colleges and universities more and more expensive. Whites and Asians from higher-income families are graduating in much higher numbers and with minimal debt, while college-grad blacks and Hispanics are mired in huge levels of debt.
How should society address this severe inequality in higher education?

  • Federal student loans should be limited to $30,000 for undergraduates and $60,000 for graduate students, the average amounts borrowed today for each category of student. Beyond these limits, students could still borrow from the private market, but with no subsidies or loan guarantees provided by the government. This single action alone will help to hold down college costs.
  • All students, and especially those from low-income families, should be encouraged to avoid excessive college debt. There are many high quality, low-cost educational institutions all around the country (e.g. UNOmaha where I teach) to meet their needs. It should be strongly emphasized that an expensive, prestigious institution is not needed to obtain a good education.

Fixing the Debt: Creating a Greater Sense of Urgency II. An Example

 

My last post, ”Fixing the Debt: Creating a Greater Sense of Urgency,” expresses my dismay that our huge debt problem does not receive enough serious attention from the American people.  Yes, most Americans deplore the national debt and the deficit spending that leads to it, but it only too seldom affects how they vote for candidates for federal office, thus giving a pass to the big spenders in Congress.
CaptureHere is a good example of this refusal to take the debt seriously.  The advocacy group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) ridicules NPR for addressing this problem, “Look a Deficit: How NPR Distracts You From Issues That Will Actually Affect Your Life.”  Here is what FAIR is saying:

  • Interest on the national debt is projected to be only 2% of GDP in 2016 and 3% of GDP in 2024, which is tiny. (But this is because the interest rate for the debt is now abnormally low, approximately 1.7%).
  • If the Fed keeps interest rates low, then interest on the debt will continue to stay low indefinitely and so the debt will continue to be a trivial problem. And the President appoints 7 of the 12 voting members of the Fed Open Market Committee which sets interest rates.
  • The reason the Fed raises interest rates is to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs.  (Actually the real reason is not to keep people from getting jobs but to keep inflation under control. Once inflation takes off, it is very difficult to bring it back down as we painfully discovered in the late 70s and early 80s).
  • Anyhow, if the Fed raises interest rates to keep the labor market from tightening, as it did in the late 1990s, this would effectively be depriving workers of the 1.0 – 1.5 percentage points in real wage growth they could expect if they were getting their share of productivity growth. (A rise in interest rates need not choke off economic growth which is primarily affected by supply and demand. Fiscal policy (tax rates and spending), established by Congress, has a far greater effect on the rate of economic growth than does monetary policy).

 

If our debt is not soon placed on a sustainable downward path, we will soon have another financial crisis, much worse than the Great Recession of 2008.  This will affect everyone’s life in a substantial and very unpleasant way.