In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale discuss the state of the economy, and the Obama Administration’s childlike foreign policy. The direct link to the podcast can be found here.
The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.
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Despite all the happy talk from the administration and the lap-dog press eagerly parroting the “good news” that the recession is over, the numbers just don’t support the talking point. Liam Halligan delivers the news:
So I was pleased last week when I heard that, after four successive quarters of contraction, America’s economy grew by an impressive 3.5pc between July and September, compared to the quarter before. “The US is out of recession” numerous newspaper headlines screamed. No wonder share prices surged.
As ever, the numbers warrant a closer look. For one thing, this is annualised data. So the US economy actually expanded by only 0.9pc during the third quarter – a fact most newspaper reports ignored. What growth we did see resulted from a 3.4pc annualised rise in US consumption between July and September, which was in turn caused by a 22.3pc spike in spending on consumer durables.
As mentioned here that “spike” was driven by “cash for clunkers” and the $8,000 first time homeowners tax exemption. Halligan agrees. It wasn’t a trend, it was exactly what Halligan reported – a spike. So digging into it, what are the real numbers?
In other words, this latest US growth spasm stemmed from one-off government “giveaways” – with the public only able to take advantage of such gimmicks by going deeper into debt. The rise in US consumption coincided with a 3.4pc fall in household disposable income and a plunging savings rate too. With government and household debt spiralling anew, America’s so-called “return to growth” is nothing but a return to higher leverage. [emphasis mine]
Not quite what the administration cracked it up to be, is it? And Halligan reminds us:
Over the last 40 years, all US slumps have been interrupted by at least one quarter of positive growth, followed by a renewed downturn.
Of course, with an administration desperate for any good news, ignoring history is to be expected. After all, they’re quite the masters at ignoring the laws of economics and expecting results which run counter to them, aren’t they? Why shouldn’t they believe that one quarter of government give-aways equals pulling out of the recession? Can’t wait to hear the excuses when we’re back in the negative GDP growth trend next quarter. And you can also expect to hear the inevitable cries for a second stimulus (Porkulus II) crescendo.
My guess is you’re looking at GDP numbers that are about as accurate as the stimulus saved and created job numbers the administration put out recently. Or perhaps a better way of saying it is they’re as deceptive as those job numbers.
The GDP is the combination of consumer, investor and government spending. We know pure consumer spending is down. We know that investor spending is down. And we also know that government spending is way up. That spending has spending has urges some consumers to spend – cash for clunkers and the $8, 000 incentive for first time home buyers. But a spurt of government spending which encouraged a spurt of consumer spending does not a recovery make:
The nation’s gross domestic product expanded at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the three months ending in September, matching the economy’s average annual growth rate from the last 80 years. But the end of government programs to encourage spending on things like cars and houses, alongside employers’ continued reluctance to hire more workers, means the recovery may not last, economists say.
The recovery will happen when investors invest, businesses hire and finally, consumers buy – not for a quarter, but in a constant and increasing manner. Until that happens, until we see the job numbers begin to lessen considerably, this is just a lot of hoopla over a quarterly blip driven by government spending.
Bruce Bartlett gives you a different way of looking at the mess your political leaders, over a number of generations, have gotten us into and what it will cost, at a minimum, to fulfill the promises they’ve made over the decades.
To summarize, we see that taxpayers are on the hook for Social Security and Medicare by these amounts: Social Security, 1.3% of GDP; Medicare part A, 2.8% of GDP; Medicare part B, 2.8% of GDP; and Medicare part D, 1.2% of GDP. This adds up to 8.1% of GDP. Thus federal income taxes for every taxpayer would have to rise by roughly 81% to pay all of the benefits promised by these programs under current law over and above the payroll tax.
Since many taxpayers have just paid their income taxes for 2008 they may have their federal returns close at hand. They all should look up the total amount they paid and multiply that figure by 1.81 to find out what they should be paying right now to finance Social Security and Medicare.
To put it another way, the total unfunded indebtedness of Social Security and Medicare comes to $106.4 trillion. That is how much larger the nation’s capital stock would have to be today, all of it owned by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, to generate enough income to pay all the benefits that have been promised over and above future payroll taxes. But the nation’s total private net worth is only $51.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. In effect, we have promised the elderly benefits equal to more than twice the nation’s total wealth on top of the payroll tax.
We again have a new crop of political leaders making similar promises about a range of things, from energy to the environment to health care. Look at what they’ve done with the portion of health care they were given previously?
Someone – anyone – tell me how, given the performance of government to this point with Medicare and Medicaid, it is going to provide lower cost health care when it is obvious that it has been instrumental in doing just the opposite?
For some reason, I just can’t get past that negative and inconvenient truth enough to suspend disbelief and decide that once government is running the whole show, everything will fall in line and we’ll have world-class health care at a much lower price – all managed by government.
And one other point Bartlett makes – this mess was made by politicians and, as our laws are written, can only be fixed by politicians. But politicians rarely, if ever like to make decisions which will be unpopular and cause them to have to find new employment. No one likes to be the bad guy. So don’t expect much in the way of “fixing” this mess. You’re more likely to see the whole house of cards collapse because it is unsustainable and the administration in charge at the time blame the previous one (kind of like what you’re seeing now on just about everything else) than to see any political leader actually make the hard decisions necessary (and then win over the Congress) to actually take care of these looming problems.
Enjoy your Sunday.
In addition to Bruce’s post below, chartng the rise in debt since Pres. Obama took office, I think it’s important to look at whether we can find historical parallels, and try to identify how closely such parallels may apply to the current economic situation in the US. Fortunately, a historic parallel–and a very close on at that–comes easily to hand.
The chart on the right is a comparison of how Japan’s increase in debt since 1989 compares with the performance of the Nikkei stock index.
As the authors of the chart point out:
[I]f large increases in government debt were the key to economic prosperity, Japan would be in the greatest boom of all time. Instead, their economy is in shambles. After two decades of repeated disappointments, Japan is in the midst of its worst recession since the end of World War II. In the fourth quarter, their GDP declined almost twice as fast as that of the U.S. or the EU. The huge increase in Japanese government debt was created when it provided funds to salvage failing banks, insurance and other companies, plus transitory tax relief and make-work projects.
In 2008, after two decades of massive debt increases, the Nikkei 225 average was 77% lower than in 1989, and the yield on long Japanese Government Bonds was less than 1.5% (Chart 6). As the Government Debt to GDP ratio surged, interest rates and stock prices fell, reflecting the negative consequences of the transfer of financial resources from the private to the public sector (Chart 7). Thus, the fiscal largesse did not restore Japan to prosperity. The deprivation of private sector funds suggested that these policy actions served to impede, rather than facilitate, economic activity.
They say that insanity can be defined of repeating past actions with the expectation of a different outcome. If so, how do we characterize the current government activity in response to the economic situation?
Happily–if that is the appropriate word–we may be able to put to rest fears of hyperinflation.
The bottom line, however, is that it is totally incorrect to assume that the massive expansion in reserves created by the Fed is inflationary. Economic activity cannot move forward unless credit expansion follows reserves expansion. That is not happening. Too much and poorly financed debt has rendered monetary policy ineffective.
So, we’ve got that going for us.
Senator Tom Coburn’s office provides a few facts about the budget the Obama administration has submitted to Congress. Budget buster would most likely be a better description:
Total spending under this budget is $3.9 trillion in 2009, or 28% of GDP, the highest level as a share of GDP since World War II.
This budget provides $1.2 trillion in discretionary budget authority for FY 2010 and increases discretionary spending by $490 billion over 5 years. Total spending in 2009 is 28 percent of GDP.
The Democrat budget includes $2.2 trillion in mandatory spending for FY 2010, which includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending.
So there are the basics. And remember the pledge that by 2012 the deficit will be cut in half. Well, with this budget, that doesn’t mean a whole bunch in terms of what’s left in the deficit. It will still most certainly be higher than any deficit prior to this one.
Deficit is one thing, debt is another. Politicians like to use smoke and mirrors with deficit and debt, preferring to ignore debt and talk about how they’re dealing with debt. Well let’s get serious about this – the debt is what we owe, the deficit is just how much more we’re piling up.
Total National Debt Today:
Under the Democrat Budget:
FY 2010: $12.2 trillion
FY 2011: $14.3 trillion
FY 2012: $15.3 trillion
FY 2013: $16.1 trillion
FY 2014: $17.0 trillion
So now we see the bottom line. In FY 2011, we will have more debt than GDP (the US GDP is 13.84 Trillion). And, in all honesty, we don’t have to be – unless we pass this budget. You cannot spend yourself out of debt. And you cannot cure a credit problem by extending more credit.
This budget adds $4.96 trillion to the public debt by 2014. Debt will be about two-thirds of GDP for the entire budget window, and deficits will be at least $500 billion in each year of the budget window.
The Democrat Budget sets total outlays in FY 2010 at $3.53 trillion and total revenues at $2.29 trillion, for a deficit of $1.24 trillion.
This is truly the beginning of the end. And without cap and trade involved, without universal health care is factored in, just to pay for this mess, taxes are going to go up. The question is how high. And as you’ll see, it’ll be higher than the spin is spinning:
Against a baseline that assumes current law tax policy is extended, S. Con. Res. 13 raises taxes by $361 billion and allows for $1.3 trillion in additional tax increases. In addition their budget paves the way for additional tax increases from a proposed cap-and-trade tax in reconciliation.
If you’re wondering where the additional $1.3 trillion in taxation might (will?) come from, Coburn provides a little behind the scenes look at how the Democrats procedurally set up phantom funds that they can initiate through a majority vote anytime they wish to fund favored initiatives:
Deficit Neutral Reserve Funds:
The Democrat budget includes 15 “reserve funds,” which essentially “phantom spending” policy statements that allow the majority to say that they would like to fund a certain initiative. The deficit neutral requirement associated with the reserve funds typically require that taxes be raised in order to pay for the new policy initiative. If all reserve funds were to be fully enacted, total spending would increase by $1.3 trillion, financed by tax increases or spending decreases.
Welcome to “hope and change”. More debt, more spending, bigger deficit, and no end in sight.
Someone will end up paying for all of this mess, and my guess is it will be all of us – for generations.
I can’t say with any certainty what this forebodes, but this is a staggering amount of debt to pile onto any country, especially within just a few months (my emphasis):
The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or guaranteed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.
New pledges from the Fed, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. include $1 trillion for the Public-Private Investment Program, designed to help investors buy distressed loans and other assets from U.S. banks. The money works out to $42,105 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and 14 times the $899.8 billion of currency in circulation. The nation’s gross domestic product was $14.2 trillion in 2008.
The really scary thing is, the government is not even close to being done spending money. Yet we’ve already committed about 90% of GDP. Where is all that money going to come from?
As we’ve said before, there’s only a few options: (1) taxes; (2) borrowing; and (3) printing press.
Taxes will only raise so much, even when the government starts raising rates on lower income quintiles, and certainly not enough to keep up with the ballooning debt-service payments.
Borrowing just isn’t going to happen because there isn’t anybody else who either wants to or is capable of lending us more money. To wit, here’s some of Peter Murphy’s analysis on our borrowing problems:
The biggest buyers of US Government (and Agency) debt, for the past several years, have been China, Japan, and the Oil States.
However, the supply of loanable funds among these entities from which the US can borrow is drying up.
China’s current-account surplus, the source of the funds for its Treasury purchases, has dropped precipitously as the global economy has contracted over the past several months.
Japan, another major buyer of Treasuries over recent years, is now posting trade deficits for the first time since the early 1970′s. This current account deficit, combined with a significant fiscal shortfall and planned issuance of $33 Trillion Yen ($340 Billion USD) in government debt this year, means that Japan will be, in effect, competing with the US for funds, rather than lending to us.
And, the oil-exporters are in no shape to be buying anything right now, as oil prices have collapsed since last summers $147/barrel peak. Russia is busy selling foreign exchange to prop up its currency.
Brad Sester of the Council of Foreign Relations reports that foreign demand for long-term treasuries has faded, and notes, ominously, that “global reserves aren’t growing”.
Accordingly, borrowing does not look like an option. Which leaves really just one choice.
Printing money in a down economy, which will have to be done, increases inflation and saps purchasing power (potentially leading to hyper-inflation). We may be able to pay off our debts this way, but we’ll wipe out the wealth of the nation doing so. Think post-Franco-Prussian War where France drove its economy into the ground in order to pay off about 22% of its yearly GDP in war reparations to Germany … over three years. That strife led to the Paris Commune uprisings among other things. Or worse, consider post-WWI Germany, with inflation rising so fast that workers had to be paid twice a day and cart around wheelbarrows full of money just to buy a loaf of bread.
Is that what we’re headed for? I sure hope not, but the signs aren’t very encouraging if history is any guide. It is true that a much more dynamic and nimble economy exists today as compared to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the world tendency right now seems to be to shackle that economy, making it much less dynamic and nimble. The end result must be less wealth produced, and less money to pay these debts. In short, our government is currently cashing checks that our economy can’t pay.