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.
Last month the Congressional Budget Office issued the report “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024”, giving an updated prediction on economic performance. It predicts continued slow growth of GDP leveling off in the next few years at a rate of about 2.2% per year. The public debt (on which we pay interest) will be 74% of GDP this year and increase to 79% of GDP by 2024. Federal revenues will grow this year to 17.5% of GDP while federal spending will be 20.5% of GDP. The problem is that the gap between revenue and spending will get worse as indicated by the chart below. CBO estimates that interest rates on three month Treasury bills will rise from 0.1% today to 3.7% in 2018, and higher in subsequent years, which means that interest payments on our public debt will increase dramatically as shown in the chart below. Inflation is predicted to average about 2% over this time period. Unemployment will slowly drop to 5.8% in 2017 and not reach 5.5% until 2024. In an article two days ago, an economics reporter for the New York Times, Floyd Norris, writes that this is “A Dire Economic Forecast Based on New Assumptions”. Mr. Floyd argues that it is unlikely that we will continue to have both anemic growth and high interest rates at the same time. Of course, if the economy does grow more quickly, then government revenues will also grow faster which will slow down the growth of the debt. But CBO predicts that our recovery from the Great Recession will continue to be tortuously slow.
The problem is that when interest rates do go up, as they will sooner or later, interest payment on the national debt will rise quickly, as shown in the CBO chart. This is going to happen and will be unpleasant to deal with. Are we going to have slow growth in the meantime, with high unemployment along with it, and then also have expensive debt payment later? This is indeed a pessimistic prospect!
We have a continuum of choices:
Do nothing until the big crunch hits in a few years (like Greece)
Cut spending dramatically, including for entitlements (politically infeasible)
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!
David Malpass, president of Encima Global LLC, has an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The Economy Is Showing Signs of Life”, pointing out that business loans, auto sales and hourly earnings are up. Mr. Malpass says that “The sequester is a bad way to set spending priorities, but it reduces the risk of future tax increases, contributing to the upturn in consumer and business confidence. … The good news is that an end to the latest version of the Fed’s quantitative easing would create space for more growth in private credit and a shift back toward market, not government allocation of credit. …Because America’s private economy is the world’s biggest net creditor and capital allocator, the United States will be the biggest beneficiary of a return to market based interest rates, with vast potential in efficiency, intellectual property and the capacity to innovate.”
Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is given much credit for the fact that the Great Recession did not turn into another depression. But now, four years after the end of the recession, we have the twin problems of a slow growth economy, which keeps the unemployment rate much too high, and the potential for huge inflation caused by the vast increase in the money supply. Mr. Malpass makes an excellent argument that the economy has recovered enough so that further quantitative easing will now retard future growth. It clearly also increases the chance of runaway inflation.
Current artificially low interest rates also disguise the future damage now being created by huge federal deficit spending. When interest rates go back up, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our rapidly increasing national debt will also increase dramatically, and force far greater cuts in federal spending than are currently being caused by the sequester.
In other words, to speed up economic growth, curtail the risk of future inflation and to put more pressure on Congress to control federal spending, the Federal Reserve should begin to exit from quantitative easing in the very near future!
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!