By Walter Borden
Have low interest rates formed an economic bubble? They are significantly lower than their 10 year average measured against similar conditions. Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group thinks so. He and others predict the next great fortunes will arise from precise timing of its bursting. Yet, fortunes and reputations have diminished over the past four years or so as a consequence of betting on its collapse ex ante. The markets continue to signal low, unchanging default risk for U.S. debt in both Credit Default Spreads (CDS) and the Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) which short US debt. Economist and housing market expert Robert Schiller sees a cloudy outlook for mortgage rate increases. Paul Krugman, who correctly called the housing bubble in 2005, doesn’t see any evidence for a rate rise in the short and mid-runs.
Keynes famously said that in the long run we’re all dead. And, this is not only an Apres Moi, la Deluge argument. Time scales for ending our employment crisis matter to our children and grandchildren as well. History shows that economic policy and social policy timescales are often not commensurate. In policy circles and television talking head broadcasts, conventional wisdom categorically assumes sans empirics, interest rate trajectories with a strong upward bias. Yet, this bias distracts us from the real problem: the national U.S. employment problem and the long term damage of which seriously threatens our economy, our infrastructure, and our children’s future. How to bend this curve downward?
Further, ample evidence shows that debt stabilization comes more surely from economic growth at ~4%. Unemployment will definitely come down, as will the federal debt, if we grow the economy by this 4% benchmark just as we did in the last four years of the Clinton Administration. For example, in 2000 the unemployment rate averaged 4% per month and the U.S. had a budget surplus.
Two caveats–first, a contemporary growth path must be a sustainable one focused on infrastructure investment, education investment, and clean energy. Growth need not require a trade-off between pollution and high carbon emissions. Much is made of the high growth in India and China and their resultant carbon emissions. Less oft mentioned is that both have nascent Cap and Trade programs to offset their rampant pollution of vital natural, economic resources. Financial deregulation, fossil fuel extraction subsidies, and privatization schemes — such as selling our roads to Australian speculators — need to be put on hold because we have no evidence that they create sustainable jobs. Secondly, health care costs are driving our deficit, and while the ACA, or Obamacare is already bringing healthcare inflation down, more needs to be done such as preventing rampant regulatory capture that leads to $28,000 per vial drugs to reworking Medicare Part D to allow US taxpayers to negotiate with drug makers on price just like the VA and Medicaid. An NIH study states:
Extension of existing price setting mechanisms to Medicare could save tens of billions of dollars if prices similar to those already achieved by other federal programs could be reached. Whether or not this is a political or economic possibility, the magnitude of these savings cannot be ignored.
Low unemployment and reasonable wage growth will signal the time for focusing on national debt.
Logic dictates that simply because two things can happen, their probabilities aren’t equal. And, key economic and social indicators signal little inflation and interest pressure on the horizon, even if low rates can lead to bubbles. So the government can borrow now at historically low interest rates and invest the money in an infrastructure for a clean economy with a low probability of inflating a bubble in the short to mid runs. This in one of the ways a government that controls the world’s reserve currency is significantly unlike a household budget.
Many observers point to how Federal Reserve policies have kept interest rates low since 2008. However, the Federal Reserve announced during their December meeting that it will begin reversing its easing policies when the job market improves substantially, when the unemployment rate falls to 6.5%, or when inflation exceeds 2.5% per year. Current forecasts call for ~2% growth in the US in 2013 and ~15% chance of a recession — admittedly not an immaterial probability. So here again, 2013 likely will not vindicate interest rate speculators and bond short sellers.
In 1946 the debt was 120% of the GDP. It went straight down to about 32% in 1973. We had increased spending and deficits almost every year. The debt in dollars almost doubled. Real median household income surged 74% while CEO’s earned 50 times what their workers earned; it is 500 times today. The GDP averaged 3.8% growth. The U.S. resolved a debt crisis with more debt. Interest rates will rise eventually. That is not all bad. This would likely mean the unleashing of pent-up demand. And, the resultant weak dollar would boost exports of solar panels and the produce of sustainable agriculture for which there is strong demand in Europe and Japan. So, household books balance and run surpluses while the government takes on debt as the lender, consumer, and with QE, even borrower, of last resort.
Why is spurring demand and high employment more critical than deficit
reduction in 2013?
Most Baby Boomers will be hard pressed to fund retirement either by both having saved too little and suffered poor investment advice, or perhaps simply needing to draw down funds in a prolonged down market. A cursory look at the math gives us numbers that seem to fall into place like a game of Tetris. By 2030,
- Roughly 30% of the US population will be over the age of 65.
- According to MSN Money, about a third of those who are 10 years away from their planned retirement age have saved less than $25,000 which is $875,000 short of the Employee Benefit Research Institute suggested $900,000 that a typical person would need to live out his or her retirement years.
- Currently about 10% of seniors live in poverty; this number is bound to increase as more people who have inadequate savings reach retirement age, and Social Security fails to keep up with inflation.
Taking these numbers into consideration with the fact the consistent austerian policies very likely mean the U.S. faces a multi-decadal drop in aggregate demand — the main driver of growth which is in turn the most tried and true process for debt reduction — serious policy challenges face the US. This underscores the need to create jobs first and build a strong revenue base around a clean economy so that pollution does not eat away the gains via increased healthcare costs and decreased land values. Austerity mostly leads to more lay-offs, comparatively weak job creation (with low wages and benefit packages requiring taxpayers to pick up the costs, and a environment where wages stagnate or fall. Stunted wage growth may bode in the short run for the Oligarchy, but not the well being of the the majority of U.S. citizens whose labor and tax-dollars are used to finance its mighty military and Too-Big To-Fail-or-Jail banks.