will inexorably lead to a breakdown of the Democratic-welfare regime which has lasted from 1932 until the present. The reasoning is very simple and direct. We already have huge debt. Rapidly increasing entitlement spending on our rapidly increasing number of retirees will keep driving our debt higher and higher. We won’t be able to grow our way out from under this debt because we have run out of industrial revolutions to spur new growth. A new study co-written by Doug Elmendorf, CBO Director from 2009-2015, makes the case that our fiscal crisis, although real, is less urgent than often believed for the following reasons:
Lower than expected health-care inflation
The persistence of low interest rates
The above chart shows, for example, that the public debt may not reach 100% of GDP until 2032 instead of the earlier CBO prediction of 2030. I believe that this Elmendorf projection should be viewed as false comfort.
Both health-care inflation and low interest rates are a direct result of very low overall inflation in the U.S. and this will not last forever. Low interest rates mean that interest payments on the debt are also very low. This is a very poor reason to increase current borrowing. When interest rates do go up, whether it is sooner or later, interest payments on the debt will increase by hundreds of billions of dollars a year over a likely relatively short time period.
This is the severe crisis, or Fourth Revolution, which Mr. Piereson is predicting. We don’t know when it will occur because we don’t know when inflation will rear its ugly head.
Wouldn’t it be much better to put our debt on a downward path, as a percentage of GDP, and avoid the otherwise very unpleasant consequences?
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. Mr. 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.
The New York Times has two recent articles about health care spending, “Good News inside the Health Spending Numbers” and “The Battle over Douglas Elmendorf – and the Inability to See Good News.” These two articles focus on the fact, clearly evident in the chart just below, that the rate of increase in overall health care spending has slowed down since 2009. In fact health care spending has been a constant 17.4% of GDP for the past four years, while it increased by 1.9% of GDP in the four years before that. More precisely, health care spending rose by 3.6% in 2013, down from 4.1% in 2012. It is, of course, very good news that increases in health care spending have dropped dramatically since the recession in 2007-2009, but is it really surprising that this has happened in the midst of so much economic pain, with a very high rate of unemployment as well as stagnant incomes for most Americans? In fact, even in these circumstances, health care spending is still growing at twice the rate of inflation, which has been under 2% during this same time period.
A more realistic view of health care spending has just been presented to the Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by Marc Goldwein, from the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington D.C. think tank focused on fiscal responsibility. Mr. Goldwein makes the following points:
Despite the recent slowdown in health care spending, it remains incredibly important that policymakers pursue reforms to reduce future projected health care costs.
Policymakers should focus first and foremost on health care “benders” that would improve incentives in order to slow the overall growth of health care spending.
Policymakers should next look to health cost “savers” which reduce federal costs by better allocating resources within the federal health programs.
Given the aging of the population, health reforms will be necessary but not sufficient to put the debt on a sustainable long-term track.
Slowing down the rate of growth of health care is going to be a huge challenge for our national leaders. I will elaborate on how to do this in forthcoming blog posts.
“I could end the deficit in 5 minutes. You just pass a law that says anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election.” Warren Buffett, 1930 –
Mr. Buffett made this quip in a recent interview with CNBC. Since the economy has historically grown at a rate of about 3%, Mr. Buffett is saying that we’ll be alright as long as economic growth exceeds deficit spending. This is generally correct but, as Mr. Buffett well knows, the situation is more complicated than this. A very good, and nontechnical, discussion of this whole subject can be found in the newly published book, “The Death of Money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system” by the financier James Rickards. Look at Chapter 7, “Debt, Deficits and the Dollar.”
Simplifying Mr. Rickards’ approach a little bit, and keeping it in Mr. Buffett’s framework, for a stable economy we need to have
G > D
where the nominal growth G = real GDP + I (I is the rate of inflation) and the deficit D = S – T (S is spending and T is tax revenue). I have included interest paid on the debt as part of total spending. As long as the left hand side is greater than the right hand side, the economy is growing faster than the deficit and the accumulated debt will shrink as a percentage of GDP. Notice that the rate of inflation affects the left hand side of the inequality while the interest rate is part of the right hand side.
Negative inflation is deflation which is clearly undesirable. The Federal Reserve’s current target for inflation is 2%. The challenge for the Fed is 1) to keep inflation high enough and interest rates low enough so that G > D, while at the same time, 2) to make sure that inflation does not grow so high as to destabilize the markets.
Given our underperforming economy with low real GDP growth, and huge deficits, Mr. Rickards is pessimistic that the Fed can continue successfully “in the position of a tightrope walker with no net … exuding confidence while having no idea whether its policies will work or when they might end.”
Thus the gloomy title for his book.
The financial crisis of 2008 was the biggest shock to our financial system since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It caused a deep recession from which we are still recovering. To aid the recovery the Federal Reserve launched an unprecedented expansion of the money supply, referred to as quantitative easing, as well as keeping short term interest rates near zero. As explained by James Rickards, a portfolio manager at West Shore Group, in his new book, “The Death of Money, the coming collapse of the international monetary system,” such a severe recession would normally have caused a corrective period of deflation. Quantitative easing has warded off deflation and, so far, without igniting inflation. We are now in a catch-22 situation. Congress could and should adopt several policy changes to speed up the recovery as I described several days ago in “The Federal Reserve Cannot Revive the Economy by Itself.” But, if and when the economy does start growing faster, it will require great skill by the Fed to exit from its current policies without harm. If it contracts the money supply too quickly, it risks a sharp rise in interest rates. If it contracts the money supply too slowly, it risks a sharp rise in inflation. Mr. Rickards doubts that the Fed will be able to accomplish this fine tuning without another major crisis. Here are his Seven Signs of what to look for:
The price of gold ($1300 per ounce today). A rapid rise to $2500 will anticipate inflation. A rapid decrease to $800 signals severe deflation.
Gold’s continued acquisition by Central Banks. Large purchases by China, for example, will announce inflation.
IMF governance reforms, e.g. towards more voting power for China, will be an inflation warning.
The failure of regulatory reform, i.e. reinstatement of Glass-Steagall in addition to the Volcker Rule, will increase the chances of systemic failure.
System crashes, resulting from high-speed, highly automated, high volume trading. An increasing tempo of such events will cause disequilibrium which could close markets.
The end of QE, could give deflation a second wind and lead to a new round of QE.
A Chinese collapse (predicted by Rickards), will lead first to deflation and then inflation.
We all hope that the Federal Reserve can steer clear of a new, and much deeper, financial crisis. But it doesn’t hurt to have guideposts and Mr. Rickards knows what he’s talking about.
The New York Times has a story today, “A Dirty Secret Lurks in the Struggle Over a Fiscal ‘Grand Bargain’”, suggesting that there are really two reasons why the House-Senate Budget Conference Committee, chaired by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, is unlikely to accomplish very much. The simple reason is that the Republicans will not support tax increases, on which the Democrats insist, and the Democrats will not support major changes to entitlement programs, on which the Republicans insist.
But the “dirty secret” (according to the NYT) is that Republicans don’t really want to trim either Social Security or Medicare, which many Tea Partiers receive, and Democrats don’t really want to raise taxes on the upper income individuals who support them. Furthermore, the deficit for 2013 was “only” $680 billion, and is expected to drop further in the next few years, while interest rates are so low that borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars each year is not expensive. In other words, just kick the can down the road. Let somebody else worry about the problem in the future.
My previous post “Nowhere to Cut”, based on the report from the Congressional Budget Office, “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 – 2023”, picks 14 possible budget cuts or revenue enhancements out of a total of 103 such items listed. Just these 14 items alone amount to a savings of $566 billion over ten years, more than enough to offset half of the entire sequester amount.
For example, raising the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 would save $23 billion (over 10 years), using the ‘chained’ CPI to measure inflation for all mandatory programs would save $162 billion, tightening eligibility for food stamps would save $50 billion, taxing carried interest as ordinary income would save $17 billion, limiting highway funding to expected highway revenues would save $65 billion, reducing the size of the federal workforce through attrition would save $43 billion, limiting medical malpractice torts would save $57 billion, and modifying Tricare fees for working-age military retirees would save $71 billion. Just these eight savings total $456 billion and would offset almost half of the entire sequester.
What is so difficult about making a tradeoff deal like this? Isn’t this what we send people to Washington to do?
The lead story in this week’s Economist, “The Perils of Falling Inflation” and a recent article in the New York Times, “In Fed and Out, Many Now Think Inflation Helps“, both make the case that the U.S. core inflation rate of 1.2%, excluding food and energy prices, is dangerously low, risking deflation. “Rising prices help companies increase profits; rising wages help borrowers repay debts. Inflation also encourages people and businesses to borrow money and spend it more quickly.”
But there is another distinctly different point of view. In a Barron’s column last week “Deflating the Inflation Myth”, Gene Epstein points out that “business activity is motivated by profit, not prices.” He shows with a chart that profits decreased during the highly inflationary 1970’s and 1980’s but they have been increasing since the end of the recession in 2009, even with very low inflation. The key to boosting the economy is more business investment and risk taking but a higher rate of inflation is not the way to accomplish this.
In a speech at the Economic Club of New York in June of this year, former Fed Chair Paul Volcker said that “the implicit assumption behind that siren call (to let inflation increase) must be that the inflation rate can be manipulated to reach economic objectives – up today, maybe a little bit more tomorrow, and then pulled back on command. All experience amply demonstrates that inflation, when fairly and deliberately started, is hard to control and reverse.”
As soon as interest rates go up as they surely will in the not too distant future, interest payments on our now enormous national debt will skyrocket and become a huge drag on the economy. If and when inflation goes up, it will pull interest rates up along with it. Let’s not push inflation, and therefore interest rates, up any faster or higher than necessary!
Today’s New York Times reports that “Health Care Costs Climb Moderately, Survey Says”. The average annual insurance premium for a family rose 4% in 2013 compared with a 1.1% overall rate of inflation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation which conducted the survey. Since 1999 health insurance premiums have increased by almost 300% while consumer prices have increased by 40%. As insurance premiums rise, deductibles are also getting bigger. About 38% of all covered workers now face an annual deductible of $1000 or greater. Dr. Drew Altman, CEO of the Kaiser Foundation, refers to this “quiet revolution” as an attempt by consumers to keep the cost of health insurance from rising even more quickly.
A 4% increase in insurance costs may seem moderate, but at almost four times the rate of inflation, it is really very large. Obama Care is unlikely to have any impact in holding down such a rapid increase and, in fact, is likely to make matters worse because of massive new health care regulations which are coming. The basic problem is that America spends 18% of GDP overall on health care, almost twice as much as any other country.
What can we do about this? One major step would go a long way. We need to remove the tax exemption from employer provided health insurance. Employers could still provide health insurance for their employees, but the cost would be added to an employee’s salary for tax purposes. This can be offset with a lower tax rate, of course. But it would make employees, i.e. all consumers, far more conscious of the cost of healthcare and therefore to have a direct incentive to hold down these costs. For example, Dr. Altman’s “quiet revolution” would pick up steam as employees raise deductibles even higher in order to lower overall costs.
How can we get going in this direction? The Employer Mandate of Obama Care should be repealed, and not just postponed for a year. Ideally, removing the tax exemption for employer provided health insurance would become part of the broad based tax reform which is so badly needed to stimulate the economy.
Our fiscal and economic problems can be addressed with smart leadership. We should insist that our national leaders get going on such badly needed reforms!
The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter has a column in yesterday’s paper “Making the Case for a Rise in Inflation”, arguing that a 4% inflation rate, for example, would be a better target rate for the Federal Reserve than its present 2% target rate. The idea is that higher inflation would lessen the value of a dollar, thereby eating away at our $12 trillion in public debt (on which we pay interest). A lower value of the dollar would also boost the economy by making exports less expensive. Higher inflation would likewise encourage consumers to spend more because the value of the dollar is decreasing more rapidly.
Mr. Porter does point out that there would be opposition to any policy of purposely letting inflation go up. The best known Fed Chair in recent years, Paul Volcker, says that “All experience amply demonstrates that inflation, when fairly and deliberately started, is hard to control and reverse”.
The biggest problem, though, is the risky procedure of trying to boost the economy with monetary policy (quantitative easing, QE1, QE2 and QE3) rather than using fiscal policy (tax reform and deregulation). The creation of an enormous amount of new money in a slow recovery creates huge upward pressure on inflation. The economy is slowly improving on its own accord. Very soon (in the next few years) the Fed will have to perform the difficult function of withdrawing money from the system fast enough to avoid inflation and, at the same time, slow enough, to keep interest rates from skyrocketing. So the question is, will the Fed be able to simultaneously keep both inflation and interest rates under some kind of control?
For sure we don’t want to make its job more difficult by pushing inflation any higher than necessary at the present time!