|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again.
It’s hard to exaggerate how much economic trouble we’re in. The crisis began with housing, but the implosion of the Bush-era housing bubble has set economic dominoes falling not just in the United States, but around the world.
Consumers, their wealth decimated and their optimism shattered by collapsing home prices and a sliding stock market, have cut back their spending and sharply increased their saving — a good thing in the long run, but a huge blow to the economy right now. Developers of commercial real estate, watching rents fall and financing costs soar, are slashing their investment plans. Businesses are canceling plans to expand capacity, since they aren’t selling enough to use the capacity they have. And exports, which were one of the U.S. economy’s few areas of strength over the past couple of years, are now plunging as the financial crisis hits our trading partners.
Meanwhile, our main line of defense against recessions — the Federal Reserve’s usual ability to support the economy by cutting interest rates — has already been overrun. The Fed has cut the rates it controls basically to zero, yet the economy is still in free fall.
It’s no wonder, then, that most economic forecasts warn that in the absence of government action we’re headed for a deep, prolonged slump. Some private analysts predict double-digit unemployment. The Congressional Budget Office is slightly more sanguine, but its director, nonetheless, recently warned that “absent a change in fiscal policy ... the shortfall in the nation’s output relative to potential levels will be the largest — in duration and depth — since the Depression of the 1930s.”
Would the Obama economic plan, if enacted, ensure that America won’t have its own lost decade? Not necessarily: a number of economists, myself included, think the plan falls short and should be substantially bigger. But the Obama plan would certainly improve our odds. And that’s why the efforts of Republicans to make the plan smaller and less effective — to turn it into little more than another round of Bush-style tax cuts — are so destructive.
So what should Mr. Obama do? Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.
It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.
First, note that Japan made many policy mistakes that the US should and could avoid: it cut policy rates two years after the bust of its asset bubble while the US eased monetary policy aggressively after August 2007; it went into QE (quantitative easing) reversed ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) too slowly; it waited two years after the bursting of its bubbles to do a fiscal stimulus (and reversed it too early with a consumption tax) while the US did one – albeit a failed one – last year and is doing another large one now; it created a convoy system of zombie banks and corporate that were restructured too late while the US may become more aggressive in cleaning up the financial system; it had structural rigidities – like lifetime employment – that slowed down the adjustment while the US has flexible labor markets (with workers moving fast to new sectors/regions where there are jobs once they lose one).
But in many dimensions the U.S. started its financial and economic crisis in a much worse shape than Japan. Indeed, Japan was in much better macro and financial shape than the US before and during its stagnation: high household and national savings and low leverage of the household sector, large current account deficit, net foreign asset position that allowed it to finance its large fiscal deficit during the stagnation via domestic savings. The US instead has had near zero household savings and massive leverage for years, large current account deficits and is the largest net foreign debtor in the world, thus relying on the kindness of strangers or, better, on the kindness of its strategic rivals (China, Russia) or unstable petro-states to finance its twin fiscal and current account deficits.
And the US may make some of the same mistakes as Japan and suffer of similar macro policy constraints that may limit the ability to resolve the financial crisis in a more rapid manner. First, monetary policy – however aggressive – is like pushing on a string when you have a glut of capacity and credit/insolvency rather than just illiquidity problems. Second, fiscal policy has its limits in a worlds where you are already the biggest net debtor and net borrower in the world and where you need to borrow this year $2 trillion net ($2.5 trillion gross) to finance your fiscal deficit while every other country (including your traditional lenders/creditors) are now running large fiscal deficits with the risk of a sharp back-up in long-term interest rates once the tsunami of new US Treasuries hits the market (see the back-up in Treas yields in the last 10 days and the scary signal it sends about coming dislocations in the US Treasuries market). Third, the US is taking an approach to bank recap and clean-up that looks more like Japan (convoy system and delayed true clean-up as the necessary pain to shareholders and unsecured creditors of banks is avoided/delayed) than the successful Swedish outright takeover/nationalization process. Fourth, the market friendly approach case-by-case approach to the necessary debt reduction of insolvent private non-financial agents (corporate for Japan, households for the US) will be too slow as working out one household at the time the debt overhang of 15 million insolvent households will take years when a systemic debt overhang requires an across the board debt reduction (as in Mexico and Argentina) that is not politically feasible – so far – in the US.
Labels: economic death watch