“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.