Free Markets, Free People

Economy

The economy–between a rock and a hard place

The latest reports on the economy is due out this week and it doesn’t appear they will contain much good news:

Economists have been insisting for months that the economy is poised to lift off into a self-sustaining orbit, only to be forced to scrub the launch date several times.

Thus the repeated “unexpected”. 

The way the economy works is that it takes growth higher than a 3% rate before good things, like a sustained decline in unemployment, even start to happen. Anything in the 2.5%-to-3% range is just treading water.

Growth has averaged 2.8% over the past seven quarters. And at this point, economists would welcome a 2.5% growth rate.

Economists polled by MarketWatch now expect growth to actually decelerate to a 1.6% annual rate in the second quarter from a tepid 1.9% rate in the first quarter.

Those are some pretty shocking numbers when you consider all the political hype that’s been flying around lately about the “vastly improved” economy.   I’ve put in bold type the numbers you need to know to be able to analyze the numbers thrown around as these reports come out.   As you can tell, we’ve been in the treading water stage for quite some time.

We’ve covered many of the reasons.   One is the administration’s war on carbon-based fuels – an sector that could be creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, revenue and growth if not essentially shut down by bureaucratic foot-dragging and stifling regulation.  ObamaCare is another reason we see blamed because it has thrown thousands of new regulations about health care at businesses.

Those and other factors have led to extraordinary caution on the part of business about expansion and hiring.  So where are the profits these companies are enjoying coming from? 

The sluggish pace of hiring may be hobbling the US economy, but it’s not been holding back big US companies’ profits thanks to growth overseas and cost controls at home. And that’s bad news for the more than 14 million Americans without jobs.

Big businesses would normally be desperate for surging job growth as it would feed into domestic demand but these aren’t normal times. Massive growth opportunities overseas, especially in China and other buoyant Asian economies, have some of the largest American companies on track for record profits, even if they’re businesses are mostly treading water in the US.

The message last week from the chief financial officer of one of the nation’s industrial giants couldn’t be clearer.

"We’ve driven all this cost out. Sales have come back, but people have not," said Greg Haynes, chief financial officer at United Technologies Corp. "It’s the structural cost reductions that we have done over the past few years that have allowed us to see strong bottom-line results."

The company, the world’s largest maker of air conditioners and elevators, said second-quarter profit rose 19 percent, and it is doing most of its hiring in emerging markets where demand for its products is growing fastest. It isn’t alone in seeing profits climb in the current earnings reporting season.

They’ve learned to do more with less, thus their cost cutting measures in the really bad times are now beginning to pay off.  The easiest and quickest way to cut costs, of course, is reduced headcount.  They’ve also identified new markets that aren’t as onerous or unsettled to do business in – so their hiring – what hiring they’re doing – is overseas.  And given all that, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon:

Employers added fewer jobs in June than at any time in the past nine months, and the jobless rate rose to 9.2 percent, higher than when the recession ended in early 2009.

"We’ve never seen the kind of shedding of jobs that we saw in this recession. America’s corporations have never been running so efficiently," said Ellen Zentner, senior US economist at Nomura Securities in New York.

An example of that is the car industry:

With the economy still struggling to regain momentum after the financial crisis of 2007-09 and 14 million Americans out of work, the planners at GM and a host of corporations across America are in no rush to make big new investments to ramp up output and hiring.

The world’s second-biggest carmaker has not re-opened its idled plants or built new ones as Americans rein in spending.

Like many US manufacturers, it is squeezing more from existing factories and using time-honoured efficiency boosts such as adding to overtime and eliminating plant bottlenecks.

‘Our manufacturing folks have been tremendous at squeaking out extra units through improving line rates, adding on extra shifts,’ GM’s US sales chief Don Johnson said.

That, of course, means a long recovery period for employment.   Here’s a rather startling “did you know” fact for you:

Has anyone in Washington noticed that 20% of American men are not working? That’s right. One out of five men in this country are collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paychecks of wives or girlfriends or parents. The equivalent number in 1970, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, was 7%.

That’s neither a good cultural or economic trend and certainly not a trend that we want to see continued into the future.  It has a tendency to have a negative effect that can be profound.  It also tends to see incidents of criminal activity rise. 

So what is government to do?   Follow policies that will encourage businesses to expand and hire.   Exploit those sectors that have low hanging fruit like the carbon-based energy sector.

Instead, what do we get?  Thousands of pages of new regulations and laws.   More and more government intrusion.   A further and artificial stifling of the economy.

Result?

Well read those bold numbers again and ask yourself if that’s what you’re willing to live with – because as it is going now, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, it is that with which this administration seems to be content to live.

And that is unacceptable – or should be.  

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

The Obama Administration’s war on carbon-based energy

A little reminder:

 

We are currently in the middle of a war against carbon based energy being waged by the current administration to do precisely what Obama promised as a candidate.  Raise energy prices. The method is irrelevant to him.  No “cap and trade”?   Fine.  He’ll find other ways.   And that’s exactly what is happening as we speak. 

For instance, via the EPA.  Background – apparently the EPA released its new proposed “Cross-state Rule” on July 7th – a couple of weeks ago – after previously sending it around for comment.  The rule is scheduled to go into effect on January 1st of 2012.  It is 1,323 pages long.   It seems they threw a new requirement into the mix that was not in the original proposed rule and that none of the energy generating owners knew was coming. It would require many to shut down.  The Electric Reliability Coalition of Texas picks it up from there:

ERCOT’s May11 report to the Public Utility Commission on the impact of the proposed environmental regulations did not address the impact of SO2 restrictions on coal plants in ERCOT because these restrictions on Texas were not included as part of the EPA’s earlier rule proposal.  We have not had time to fully analyze the entire 1,323-page Cross-State Rule released July 7 or to communicate with the generation owners regarding what their intentions will be.  However, initial implications are that the SO2 requirements for Texas added at the last stage of the rule development will have a significant impact on coal generation, which provided 40 percent of the electricity consumed in ERCOT in 2010.

Our concern is that the timing of the new requirements – effective Jan. 1, 2012 – is unreasonable because it does not allow enough time to implement operational responses to ensure reliability.  We fear that many of the coal plants in ERCOT will be forced to limit or shut down operations in order to maintain compliance with the new rule, possibly leading to inadequate operating reserve margins with insufficient time to reliably retrofit existing generation or build new, replacement generation.

So the EPA pushes out a new reg with drastic limits on SO2 that were not in the original draft of the regulation.   If left unchanged it will, per ERCOT, cause many coal-fired plants to shut down or limit their generation.  And with 40% of electricity generated by coal in Texas, that will be a significant loss of generating power.  Texas will then have to buy what it can’t generate itself and consumer prices will do precisely what candidate Obama hoped – and planned- for them to do.  Now think of this and its effect across the country.

Right in the middle of a recession (he’s not the only one trying his best to shut down coal). 

Brilliant.

Of course that isn’t the only facet of the war on carbon based energy being waged by this administration.  Oil and gas also have seen what has now become to be called a “permatorium” on offshore drilling enforced by the administration.    Using the Deepwater Horizon blowout as its excuse, the administration has slowed permitting to a crawl and is dragging its feet as slowly as possible to, one suspects, fulfill Obama’s desire.

Study after study have shown that opening the process back up to at least the speed in which it was previous to the accident could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue.  A real step toward jumpstarting the economy.  Just yesterday another study made that very point:

Faster permitting of offshore oil and gas projects could create nearly 230,000 new jobs in 2012 and boost the economy by $44 billion, including a surge in tax revenue, according to an industry-funded study released Thursday.

The report by IHS CERA said job growth would extend beyond the Gulf Coast states, boosting employment indirectly as far away as California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Georgia.

The study, funded by the Gulf Economic Survival Team, a group of largely Louisiana-based energy and business interests, looks at data on the pace of permitting by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement through April 30.

That’s six months after the end of a federal moratorium on offshore drilling, which the government imposed after last year’s Deepwater Horizon accident killed 11 workers and triggered a 5 million-barrel oil spill.

Permit approvals take 95 percent longer now than before the spill, the study says.

You can read the study for yourself here [pdf].  But that last number is telling.   There’s no reason for it.  The industry has stepped up and raised the bar significantly on safety.  The numbers quoted in the study projecting jobs and revenue are for 2012.  What administration concerned with jobs wouldn’t leap at such low hanging fruit?  This one.  Compared to historical trends, pending exploration plans are up by nearly 90%, approvals are down by 85% ,and the approval process has slowed from an average of 36 to 131 days.

And there’s no reason for it.

Meanwhile, what we have is tough to get to market.   Take West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil

As for WTI, inadequate pipeline infrastructure makes it difficult to get the stuff out of North America — and that depresses its price, especially when demand is also weak. Its problems could also get worse before they get better. Output from North America is growing faster than expected. Canadian producers, for example, recently said output will grow from 2.7 million barrels a day to 3.4 million by 2014 and North Dakota production is surging. Meanwhile efforts to build new pipelines are mired in political controversy.

And they’ll remain mired in political controversy as long as this administration is in power.  Slowly, but surely, a nation with huge energy resources is being strangled by a government and President who want to intentionally raise energy prices.  Inadequate pipeline infrastructure means less product makes it to market.  Less product in the market place means higher prices for what does make it there.   Who pays?   Consumers.

However, proposals and applications to build pipelines, submitted in 2008, still await action:

In September 2008 TransCanada applied to build a new pipeline — the Keystone XL — to bring diluted bitumen from the oil-rich tar sands of Alberta to thirsty American refineries on the Gulf Coast. It is hardly a radical proposal. Canadian crude has been flowing to the U.S. for decades. Another Canadian company — Enbridge — operates the Clipper pipeline across the Canadian border to Chicago. In July 2010 TransCanada began operating its Keystone pipeline from Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma, which is a major storage and pricing depot…TransCanada estimates that building the pipeline will mean more than $20 billion — $13 billion from TransCanada itself — in investment and 13,000 new American jobs in construction and related manufacturing. The company also expects more than 118,000 "spin-off" jobs during the two years of construction. TransCanada says it has signed building contracts with four major U.S. unions. It projects that construction will generate $600 million in new state and local tax revenue and that over its life the pipeline will generate another $5.2 billion in property taxes. The Energy Policy Research Foundation in Washington estimates that by linking to the XL, oil producers in North Dakota’s Bakken region will enjoy efficiency gains of between $36.5 million and $146 million annually. Lower transport costs will mean savings for Gulf Coast refiners of $473 million annually if the pipeline meets conservative expectations of shipping 400,000 barrels per day.

Jobs and revenue (in addition to those previously cited in the study), there for the taking, and this administration sits and waits.

And of course, the newest controversy to hit the energy community as to be used as an excuse not to act has to do with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”.   This is a 64 year old technology that has been used in the US on over a million wells.  Suddenly, after news of massive new findings of natural gas in shale formations, it is a problem.  And, of course, once it can be officially designated as a problem area, it must be investigated and regulated by the federal government.   Complaints of ground water contamination have derailed the exploitation of these energy assets while the politicians argue, dither and delay.  With those delays, again, go thousands upon thousands of potential jobs for Americans.

Name a reason for the sorry shape our economy is in and the government’s apparent refusal to aggressively move to help the energy industry create hundreds of thousands of jobs?  Review that video again.  It’s not long, but it plainly gives you the reason.

Is that what your government is there to do?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Blunt talk from Bernie Marcus about Obama and economy

This has been a week for CEOs speaking out against the Obama administration.   This time it’s someone I actually admire.  Bernie Marcus, co-founder and CEO of Home Depot, has given an interview to Investors Business Daily and it is a pretty frank denunciation of the policies this administration has followed since coming into power.  It’s one of the things I admire about Marcus – he pulls no punches:

IBD: What’s the single biggest impediment to job growth today?

Marcus: The U.S. government. Having built a small business into a big one, I can tell you that today the impediments that the government imposes are impossible to deal with. Home Depot would never have succeeded if we’d tried to start it today. Every day you see rules and regulations from a group of Washington bureaucrats who know nothing about running a business. And I mean every day. It’s become stifling.

If you’re a small businessman, the only way to deal with it is to work harder, put in more hours, and let people go. When you consider that something like 70% of the American people work for small businesses, you are talking about a big economic impact.

Remember that Home Depot was launched during the then worst recession in 40 years and Marcus took it public 3 years later.   He’s built a business from the ground up and created thousands of jobs.   He actually understands what it takes.  He also clearly understands what will kill it. 

Here is one of the key points one has to understand about this administration and Marcus is on it:

IBD: President Obama has promised to streamline and eliminate regulations. What’s your take?

Marcus: His speeches are wonderful. His output is absolutely, incredibly bad. As he speaks about cutting out regulations, they are now producing thousands of pages of new ones. With just ObamaCare by itself, you have a 2,000 page bill that’s probably going end up being 150,000 pages of regulations.

We’ve been warning you from the beginning  to pay no attention to the man’s words and instead scrutinize his deeds.  Often they are the opposite of what he has said he’d do.  For example:

In January, however, he issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to review their regulations, looking for rules that are inefficient or outdated. His aim, he explained on The Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page, was to "root out regulations that conflict, that are not worth the cost, or that are just plain dumb."

But there’s a catch: All those new regulations Obama put in place will not be subject to review. Just days after the president issued his order, an anonymous administration official conceded to the Journal that "new regulations will not be priorities for the look back." Meanwhile, more than a dozen federal bureaucracies—including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board—are exempt from the review because they are independent agencies.

That’s another in a long list of many examples of him saying one thing and doing something else.  His speeches are politically driven and designed to give him political cover while his actions are ideologically driven and part of an agenda.

Marcus is then asked about the debt talks:

IBD: Washington has been consumed with debt talks. Is this the right focus now?

Marcus: They are all tied together. If we don’t lower spending and if we don’t deal with paying down the debt, we are going to have to raise taxes. Even brain-dead economists understand that when you raise taxes, you cost jobs.

With all the talk about tax increases it means we have a lot of zombie politicians who haven’t a clue, unfortunately.  I mean how difficult is this?   When you raise taxes in a recession, many businesses are going to have to make a decision aren’t they?  Use the money to pay the tax or hire.   Any guess which will win out?  You can’t go to jail for not hiring.

Finally, and this one is devastating in its forthrightness, Marcus is asked what he’d tell Obama if he could sit down with him and talk about job creation.   His answer is a classic:

IBD: If you could sit down with Obama and talk to him about job creation, what would you say?

Marcus: I’m not sure Obama would understand anything that I’d say, because he’s never really worked a day outside the political or legal area. He doesn’t know how to make a payroll, he doesn’t understand the problems businesses face. I would try to explain that the plight of the businessman is very reactive to Washington. As Washington piles on regulations and mandates, the impact is tremendous. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I just think he has no knowledge of this.

One can only wish Contessa Brewer was around to ask about economic degrees.  Marcus is right about Obama’s lack of knowledge.  He’s surrounded by a lack of knowledge in this area if his policies are any indication.  As has been pointed out repeatedly, a president who was really concerned about jobs would be green lighting oil and gas exploration as fast as he could make it happen.  And he’s certainly made speeches about doing just that, but as usual, his actions betray his words.

Marcus has got a bead on this administration and this president.  As long as they are in power and continue with the course of their regulatory policies,  the economic malaise that has settled over this country will continue.  

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Why aren’t we seeing a jobs recovery? Maybe it’s ObamaCare’s fault

So you’re wondering why the “recovery” stalled?  Well we all know that correlation is not causation, but this sure looks suspicious doesn’t it?

 

Heritage-Chart

 

So looking at the chart, we see job growth starting to pick up at an average of 67,000 a month.  Not earth shattering, but much better than the average (ten times less) after the passage of ObamaCare.

Why, people wonder, would something like that happen with the passage of a bill that is supposed to improve health care and make it cheaper to boot?  Wouldn’t that encourage people to hire and expand.

Well … no.  Because we had to pass the bill to find out what was in the bill.  And what we’ve found out is none to pleasing.

As Tina Korb points out at Hot Air:

As the report states, correlation cannot prove causation — but the change in course is statistically measurable and testing reveals a structural break between April and May of 2010. Moreover, small-business owners have said Obamacare is a deterrent to hiring. Take Scott Womack, the owner of 12 IHOP restaurants in Indiana and Ohio, as just one example. Before Obamacare became law, he had development plans in Ohio. Now, he’s worried he won’t be able to carry out his original plans unless Obamacare is repealed. Those restaurants he planned to open would provide jobs not only for his future employees, but also for everyone involved in the construction of the restaurant buildings themselves.

But … and you knew there was one, this threw a wrench into everyone’s works.  Why?  The Heritage Foundation points out 3 reasons businesses are discouraged from doing so by the law:

  • Businesses with fewer than 50 workers have a strong incentive to maintain this size, which allows them to avoid the mandate to provide government-approved health coverage or face a penalty;
  • Businesses with more than 50 workers will see their costs for health coverage rise—they must purchase more expensive government-approved insurance or pay a penalty; and
  • Employers face considerable uncertainty about what constitutes qualifying health coverage and what it will cost. They also do not know what the health care market or their health care costs will look like in four years. This makes planning for the future difficult.

Korb provides the link between what that law is doing and the current debt and deficit talks going on in Congress:

The Heritage report recommends repeal — and comes as a welcome reminder that the health care law can’t be ignored as the president and Congress attempt to address the debt and deficit or as the nation attempts to right the still-struggling economy. Nor can it be ignored in the upcoming presidential election. Likely U.S. voters have said jobs and the economy are their No. 1 issue. That means the repeal of Obamacare should be a top priority, too.

Couldn’t agree more.  I’ve seen any number of people saying “yeah, repeal it” but then asking “what are you going to replace it with”?

Uh, personal responsibility?  How about we try that for a change?   It is each citizen’s job to care for themselves and do (and pay for) those things necessary to see that they aren’t a burden on the rest of the citizenry.

What a concept, huh?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Another "green jobs" success story

And yes, I’m being snarky. The only folks that got anything green was the company that folded. The taxpayers, of course and as usual, got the shaft:

A Salinas car manufacturing company that was expected to build environmentally friendly electric cars and create new jobs folded before almost any vehicles could run off the assembly line.

The city of Salinas had invested more than half a million dollars in Green Vehicles, an electric car start-up company.

The “money trail”:

The start-up company set up shop in Salinas in the summer of 2009, after the city gave Ryan a $300,000 community development grant.

When the company still ran into financial trouble last year, the city of Salinas handed Ryan an additional $240,000. Green Vehicles also received $187,000 from the California Energy Commission.

So here we have government taking taxpayer money and picking "winners". Wonder how many police and fireman all that money would have paid? Wonder who the Salinas government is going to claim it has to lay off first when budget crunch time hits? Because we all know state and local governments in California are doing fine financially, don’t we?

Yet this sort of fiscal nonsense is rampant in government today.  They seem to think it is their job, at all levels, to intrude in areas they have no business intruding and pick winners according to an agenda with little understanding, apparently, as to what it actually takes to succeed in doing so.  You know, like there has to be a market, the firm has to be adequately financed (for more than a couple of months) and it has to have a long-term and viable business plan that actually passes a sanity check. 

Instead it seems, at least based on this story, that “just words” got the Salinas government in a real “hope and change” attitude:

Last year, Salinas city officials said they were excited about Green Vehicles moving from San Jose to Salinas because they wanted to turn Salinas into a hub for alternative energy production.

City leaders wooed Green Vehicles to jump-start the sputtering local company and turn Salinas into an "electric valley." Donohue and Weir both voiced their high hopes for Green Vehicles.

The start-up company promised city leaders that it would create 70 new jobs and pay $700,000 in taxes a year to Salinas.

Green Vehicles was supposed to be up and running by March 2010 inside their 80,000-square-foot space at Firestone Business Park off of Abbot Street.

Ryan had lofty goals, listing his company’s mission as: "To make the best clean commuter vehicles in the world; To manufacture with a radical sense of responsibility; To engage in deep transparency as an inspiration for new ways of doing business."

Green Vehicles designed two vehicles, the TRIAC 2.0 and the MOOSE, which it planned to manufacture.

On July 12, Ryan wrote a blog post announcing that his company was closing.

"The truth is that not realizing the vision for this company is a huge disappointment," Ryan wrote.

So they invited a company that was obviously already underfunded with promises of money and a great mission statement? What could possibly go wrong with that?

Salinas Economic Development Director Jeff Weir said Green Vehicles flopped because of a lack of investors.

Uh, so as Economic Development Director for the city, Mr. Weir didn’t know that before they made the big offer and threw all the taxpayer money at the company?  No indication of it when the company was in San Jose?

Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the news. City officials were equally irked that Ryan notified them through an email that his company had crashed and burned.

Oh, well yeah, that’s the important part to be “irked” about – not the half mil of taxpayer money they threw down a rat-hole in an iffy company that officials obviously didn’t check out.

This is why governments should be held to doing only those functions they’re best suited to do.  If I were a Salinas resident, I’d be petitioning for recall elections for the idiots who threw taxpayer money away in a time of fiscal difficulty.  When the mayor tells the people of that city that he’s going to have to lay off cops and fire fighters first, my reaction would be, “oh, no – we think the mayor and the Econ Dev Director should be laid off first since they just cost taxpayers a half mil in a stupidity tax”.

Yes, I know, radical idea – accountability.

Oh … and by the way, who names a car the “Moose”?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Taxes won’t help

A commenter to my previous post writes: “Tax increases on the wealthiest would keep rates below Reagan era rates, and add some revenue.”

No, they won’t.  Not even close. Here’s why:

Tax Revenues as a Percentage of GDP by Year, 1933-2010

Now, this chart counts all tax revenues. Income taxes, corporate taxes, excises, tariffs, etc.  All of them. It includes the low income taxes of the 1930s, the 90% top tax brackets of the 40s and 50s, the Kennedy and Reagan rate cuts of the 60s and 80s…it’s all there.

And what do we notice about this model? Well, a couple of things. First, the highest tax receipts as a percentage of GDP was 20.9%.  That was in 1944. In 1945, the percentage was just north of 20%.  I think I have a pretty solid–and obvious–explanation of why tax receipts jumped so high in those two years. Sadly, the Nazis are gone and the Japanese seem rather less interested in the Greater Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere project than they did back then, so a global conventional war seems out of the picture at the moment. Darn our luck!

But the other thing we notice when we look at this chart is that despite top marginal tax rates varying between 28% and 90% since 1945, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP seem to be locked in at about 18%.  There is, in fact, only one explanation for the variations–minor as they are–in the revenue percentage since 1945, and that is economic expansion.  Irrespective of the statutory tax rates, the single, overriding factor in increases or decreases in the revenue percentage has been economic growth.  The percentage rises when the economy expands, and dips when it contracts.

As a practical matter, this chart shows us a very obvious, but little-understood phenomenon, namely, that 18% or thereabouts is the rate at which the electorate consents to be taxed. Think about that for a minute. Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over a system of steeply graduated tax rates with a top marginal tax rate of 90%.  He got 18% of GDP in revenue.  Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates, simplified the structure into three brackets, indexed for inflation, with a top marginal tax rate of 28%…and got 18% of GDP in revenue.

In the past couple of weeks, three different progrssive policy think tanks have released deficit reduction plans, all of which contained substantial tax increases, and which projected revenues as a percentage of GDP rising to over 23%.

Not. Gonna. Happen.

We know it won’t happen, because the American people have told us repeatedly, over the past 60 years, exactly how much revenue they’re willing to pay in taxes. You can jack around with tax rates all you want and you’ll get 18%.  Unless you grow the economy.  When the jobs are plentiful and the money is rolling in, the American people get a bit more generous. They’ll give you 19%.  Maybe, if things are really going swell, 20%.  But if the economy isn’t rolling hard, you’re gonna get your 18%–or less. Assuming you can lift 23% of GDP in tax revenues is just a fantasy.

Because here’s the thing: You can’t force people to make money. If they can make the same take-home pay working 35 hours per week under the new tax regime as they made in 40 hours per week under the old one, they’ll just work 35 hours per week. The more you penalize income, the less desirable additional income becomes.  It’s almost as if people respond to incentives!

Bonus question 1: If the government collects about 18% in GDP irrespective of the statutory tax rates, what is the electorate telling you the desired statutory tax rate is?

Bonus question 2: If the main factor in increasing tax revenues is economic growth, would economic growth likely be greater or smaller under a regime of lower taxes?

Discuss among yourselves.

~

Dale Franks
Twitter: @DaleFranks

How screwed are we?

I have to admit, I sometimes get tired of being the voice of doom. Sadly, our political class–Republicans and Democrats alike–seems determined to follow the worst policy options available. So, doom slouches closer. The proximate doom they’re fiddling with this time is the approaching debt limit. Now, I yield to no man in my hatred for ever-increasing government spending, but this debt-limit battle is pointless.  We will increase the debt limit. We have no choice.

Here’s the current situation:

OMB estimates federal revenues for 2011 will hit $2.17 trillion. Granny, our servicemen, and other such untouchables — by which I take him to mean Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and debt-service payments — will add up to $2.21 trillion, meaning that even if we cut the rest of the federal budget to $0.00 — no Medicaid, no food stamps, no Air Force One — revenues still would not cover these untouchables, according to OMB estimates…

Our deficit is about 40 percent of spending this year; continued recovery, if the estimates hold, will do some of the work for the 2013 regime, but even under current forecasts that are arguably too rosy, we’ll still be running a 26 percent deficit in 2013.

Even if we eliminate every penny of spending this year except for Social Security, Medicare, and Defense, we still can’t cover this year’s spending.  And next year’s spending projects an economic recovery will save us, and reduce the deficit to 26% of spending. Absent such a recovery, next year we’ll be back to another 40% deficit.

And the politicians of both parties are nowhere near to making the appropriate cuts in the budget in years farther out than that.  The biggest deficit reduction package currently on the table is for $4 trillion over the next 10 years. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that the actual projected budget deficit over the next 10 years is $13 trillion. So, we’re still $9 trillion short of closing the budget deficit for the next 10 years.

But, wait! It gets better!  This $13 trillion figure assumes that interest rates will remain stable where the currently are. If interest rates for treasuries go up by 1%, that wil add 1.3 trillion to the deficit over the same period.  As the moment, the Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) projections are for a stable average interest rate of 2.5%. Of course, the current 20-year average is closer to 5.5%, so a return even to normal interest rates will add up to $3.9 trillion to the deficit.

But the magic doesn’t stop yet! OMB forecasts growth rates of between 4%-4.5% from 2014 to 2014. The average trend rate of growth is between 2.5%-3% however. So, if we don’t get the strong growth the OMB is predicting over the next three years, and the following years, we’ll need to add another $3 trillion or so to the deficit over the next decade.  And, frankly, if you believe Goldman Sachs today, a return to trend rates of growth seems..unlikely, as they’ve lowered 2Q GDP growth to 1.5% from 2.5% and 3Q to 2.5% from 3.25%.  They also forecast unemployment at end of 2012 to be 8.75%.

So, the best case scenario is that we’ll add $9 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. A return to historical growth and interest rates–even if we assume the $4 trillion of budget cuts will actually happen–means a 10-year deficit of $16 trillion. Essentially, we will more than double the National Debt, pushing the debt to GDP ratio to about 160% by 2021.

And that’s the good news.

The bad news is that, in the current debate over the debt ceiling, everyone involved seems determined to play chicken with a default–even if only a selective default–of US treasury obligations.

Tim Pawlenty even suggested that a technical default might be exactly what Washington needs to send a wake-up call to the politicians about how serious the situation is. Others, like Michelle Bachmann, and a not inconsequential number of Tea Party caucus members are steadfastly against raising the debt ceiling for any reason at all.

This is insanity.

Any sort of default, even a selective default that would suspend interest payments only to securities held by the government, while paying all private bondholders in full, will have completely unpredictable results. The least predictable result, however, would be business as usual. A technical default–i.e., delaying interest payments for a few days–or selective default, or any other kind of default is…well…a default. It is a failure to make interest payments.

The most obvious possible result of any sort of default will be to eliminate the US Treasury’s AAA rating, and push interest rates up sharply. If we’re lucky, we’d be talking about a yield of 9%-10%…and an additional $5 trillion added to the deficit (running total in 2021: $21 trillion added to the national debt).

And, again, that’s a best case scenario. Because it assumes that everyone will be willing to hold their T-Notes through all of this.  If any major overseas institution or government–say, China–decides to unload their holdings, it could be the start of a flight from treasuries that will destroy the US Dollar in the FOREX, vastly increase the price of imported goods, like, say, oil, and spark uncontrollable hyperinflation in the US. The life savings of every person and institution would be wiped out.

Naturally, yields on interest-bearing instruments would then pull back on the stick and climb for the skies. Not that it’d matter much at that point, since the currency would merely be ornately engraved pieces of durable paper.  Suitable for burning in the Franklin Stoves with which we will be heating our homes, in the absence of oil.

Flirting with default is extraordinarily reckless. I don’t even have the words to begin to describe how badly any sort of default might go.

The thing is, we don’t know–we can’t know–what the results of a technical or selective default might be.  It might be the judgement of worldwide investors that there are no better alternatives to US-denominated securities, so they’ll just have to ride out a technical default, and accept their interest payments coming a few days late. It might be their judgement that unloading their US-denominated securities and losing a little money is better than the risk of losing everything through a currency collapse. It might be a lot of things, and we have no way of knowing which of those things might come to pass.

As Tim Pawlenty says, a default might be a wake up call.  From an exploding phone filled with napalm and plutonium.

Whatever political points might be at stake, is it worth this level of risk?

The safe path here is a simple $500 billion debt limit increase. That’ll give us 6 months to figure things out, and try to discover some way to get our fiscal picture under control, and avoid a default. Government spending is out of control, but a default is really not the best way to impose fiscal discipline.

~

Dale Franks
Twitter: @DaleFranks

How do you bring a run-away government under control?

Rick Perry (Governor of Texas) and Nikki Haley (Governor of South Carolina) have a piece in the Washington Post in which they offer a solution to that problem we’re now experiencing:

We oppose an increase in the federal debt limit unless three common-sense conditions are met: substantial cuts in spending; enforceable spending caps to put the country on a path to a balanced budget; and congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment should include a requirement for a congressional supermajority to approve any increases in taxes.

We can quibble about the particulars but in general I’m in agreement.  That said, I have little hope that a balanced budget amendment will ever pass or that a congressional supermajority will become a requirement for tax increases.  But the basic premise – cuts in spending, enforceable spending caps and difficulty in passing new taxes would indeed help begin to bring the national government under some semblance of control.

Here’s the crux of the problem with the Federal government:

Washington’s ability to continuously vote itself more fiscal breathing room may help Congress — at least in the short term — avoid making the kinds of tough decisions made by states, businesses and families. But ignoring economic realities will lead to even more painful choices down the road and increases the potential for a financial collapse that could permanently cost America its role as the world’s leading economic power.

Unfortunately, the system in Washington makes it easier for elected officials to bury their heads in the sand, avoid responsibility and make the easiest choice of all: borrow more, plunge our nation deeper into debt and allow this generation to punt the tough decisions to our children and grandchildren.

Such moves may be good politics, since they mean officials don’t have to say no to anyone, but as a matter of policy they are indefensible.

That “reality” and the trump of politics over statesmanship are the reason we’re in this deep hole and most of us don’t expect to see anything serious about correcting it come out of Washington.  After all, those that have to alter the reality inside the beltway are the same ones who have put us in this position in the first place (and I mean as a group going back decades).  The proverbial fox guarding the hen house situation.  That’s why it is difficult not to be cynical and skeptical about “solutions” – even this political show we see going on over the debt ceiling.

Perry and Haley are touting a pledge they’ve signed called the “Cap, Cut and Balance” pledge:

The only way to get the federal government to end this indefensible practice is to draw a line and finally hold Washington accountable. The pledge we’ve signed represents an important step in this process.

It calls for the kinds of budget cuts Washington needs now and for a hard cap on all future spending. And it finally moves us to a mandatory balanced budget that will end the era of national debt, raging deficits and failed “stimulus” programs that have negatively affected so many aspects of American life.

Americans must continue to stand up for the principles that served as the foundation for our nation’s unparalleled successes. The principles of a limited federal government and responsible fiscal leadership have sustained us during tough times, and they can lead us out of this period of sluggish economic growth.

Yeah, pledges are nice and sure it makes us feel better and focuses us on the problem.  However, we’ve heard political pledges from politicians for years which have essentially promised to fix the problem in Washington.   And here we are.

That’s not to say that Perry and Haley aren’t right.  They are.   It’s to say we’ve heard all this before, we’ve seen pledges come and go, and we’ve seen solutions offered that were perfectly reasonable that have never seen the light of legislative day.

We seem to have a class of politicians who seem to find it difficult to deal in the reality the rest of the country deals with every day – spending within our means, meeting budgets, and being responsible.  I’d like to say I knew how to fix that, but after half a century of watching these nincompoops at work and how they’re seemingly rewarded for doing exactly what we’re now lamenting, I’m not sure the system can be fixed.

My cynical take on the day.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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Obama and the debt ceiling

I was gobsmacked by this quote in a POLITICO story about Obama’s walkout from a debt ceiling negotiation:

On exiting the room, Obama said that “this confirms the totality of what the American people already believe” about Washington, according to a Democratic official familiar with the negotiations, and that officials are “too focused on positioning and political posturing” to make difficult choices.

That line could be the summary of the Obama presidency to this point.  Think Afghanistan for instance.  Remember this:

The withdrawal has created deep divisions in Washington. The defence secretary, Robert Gates, argued for a modest reduction – at one point as low as 2,000 – citing the advice of US commanders in Afghanistan that they need to protect gains made during the winter against the Taliban.

But senior White House staff, conscious that the president has an election to fight next year, argued in favour of a reduction that would send a signal to the US public that an end to the war is in sight.

The “difficult choice” would have been to keep the troops in place and reinforce the success they’ve been having.  Instead, we got the “positioning and political posturing” decision made to hopefully enhance Obama’s re-election chances.

Certainly, there is political posturing going on all over the place by both parties, but when the GOP actually sticks to its guns (no new tax increases) while playing hardball, how does that “confirms the totality of what the American people already believe?”  I don’t think he understands which side of that statement he’s actually on.

Ed Morrissey makes another point:

One of the easiest ways to identify an amateurish negotiator is the issuance of obviously empty threats.  Yesterday, Barack Obama issued one of the emptiest political threat in modern American history when he stomped out of the debt-ceiling negotiations yesterday in a fit of pique:

“Eric, don’t call my bluff. I’m going to the American people with this.”

Really?  Then Obama will be in for a very rude awakening when he finally meets the American people:

Gallup: Americans paying attention oppose debt-ceiling increase almost 2-1

CBS poll shows 69% opposed to a debt-ceiling increase

Poll: Majority support a balanced budget amendment

Poll shows more people concerned about national debt than national default

Poll shows Americans getting more pessimistic on economy, want spending cuts

Americans oppose raising debt ceiling by more than 2-1 in Gallup survey

CBS poll shows Americans oppose debt-ceiling hike 2-1

Hill poll shows 62% opposed to raising the debt ceiling

The people have been taking it to Barack Obama since the midterm elections.  Maybe he should do less stomping and a lot more listening.

But listening isn’t one of his forte’s.  Instead he likes to play games like this.  I’m sure some sycophant will soon call what he did “gutsy”.  Bottom line, the GOP has to hope he actually follows thorough on his threat because he is obviously not at all tuned into the American people who, as the links point out, have been stating their opinion for quite some time.

Obviously Obama thinks he can pull his campaign trail wool over the American public’s eyes one more time.  But my reading is that public is in no mood for his oratorical mendacity.  The swooning crowds of yore are no more.   For 2 plus years Americans have been able to watch and assess this guy based on his actions, not his words.  And if the “generic Republican” poll is any indication, they’re wanting change as badly now as they did when Obama was swept into office.

So – hang tough GOP, the polls say the American people are with you.  Don’t fall for the political theater and cave to non-existent pressure.  He’s the one the with problem.  Make sure you remember that.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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