The economy

Cheer up

Political gridlock may be bad for America’s economy, says Edward McBride, but the underlying growth prospects are much brighter than they seem

Mar 16th 2013

IT IS 2030, and a Chinese university lecturer is explaining how a decadent America went the way of the British and Roman empires. Ruinous economic policies led to crippling debt, much of it owned by China. “Now they work for us,” he says with a smirk, to prolonged sniggers from his students.

This depiction of the future comes from a television advertisement attacking Barack Obama’s policies during America’s election campaign last year. Mr Obama himself seems haunted by similar fears. He often gives warning that China and other developing countries are beating America in the race for “the jobs of the future”. He ran for president, he once said, to stop Americabecoming less competitive internationally”.
The belief that America is losing its economic edge is pervasive. Americans are more pessimistic about their country’s prospects than at any point since Gallup, a polling firm, first started asking them in 1959. The grandees of Washington, DC, share their concern. Almost any weekday morning at one of the city’s many think-tanks a packed audience of academics, journalists and government officials can be found, paper cups of coffee in hand and muffins balanced on knees, agonising over the country’s waning competitiveness. The recession may gradually be receding, the worry goes, but long-ignored impediments to growth will hobble the recovery and prevent future generations from achieving the American dream.

Outsiders are anxious too. The World Economic Forum, which draws up international rankings on competitiveness, considers the United States only the world’s seventh-fittest economy, a big slide from first place just four years ago. It faults America’s infrastructure (14th out of the 144 countries it assesses), its primary education and health care (34th), its institutions (41st) and above all its macroeconomic environment (111th, mainly because of the ballooning public debt). The only category in which the country still ranks first is market size, a slot it is destined to lose to China sooner or later.

The misgivings are easy to understand. Growth is sluggish, unemployment is high and investors are wary. America’s public debt is approaching $17 trillion, more than 100% of GDP, and it has been growing fast. Much of this stems from the transitory effects of the recession, but it will get worse rather than better. On the current trajectory, the soaring costs of Medicare and Medicaid, the government’s health-care schemes for the old and the poor respectively, along with Social Security, the state pension scheme, will consume all federal revenues within a generation, leaving nothing for anything else.

America’s politicians have been feckless in the face of this impending disaster. All the bickering over budgets of the past two years has done little to diminish this soon-to-be-crushing burden. Whenever either party suggests trimmingentitlements”, the other immediately accuses it of betraying the poor or the elderly. Republicans and Democrats are so much at odds that decisions are only ever made at the 11th hour, or the 13th, and in an ill-considered and piecemeal fashion. Words like “shutdown” and “default” have become part of Washington’s everyday language.

The combination of dysfunctional politics and empty coffers, in turn, is preventing Congress from dealing with the economy’s other obvious shortcomings. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s infrastructure a grade D. America’s schoolchildren earn equally dismal marks. In the OECD’s most recent PISA rankings, which compare educational attainment in 65 countries, they came 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in maths, behind places like Macau and Slovakia.

Poor schooling feeds into concerns about America’s capacity to innovate. American firms’ research and development (R&D) budgets have grown much faster abroad than at home. A misconceived immigration system is turning away the very people who could help remedy that, by denying visas to talented foreigners. Proliferating red tape is causing tangles everywhere, from the 400 subsidiary regulations of the Dodd-Frank law on the financial sector to the 140,000 codes the federal government requires hospitals to use for the ailments they treat, including one for injuries from being hit by a turtle.

 Explore our interactive map and guide to the stats of America

“Is this a country that can still get big things done?” asked the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby, in January. This special report will argue that the answer is yes—but only if you look beyond the paralysis in Washington. To prove it, it will examine the factors which are the source of the most hand-wringing: innovation, energy, education, immigration, infrastructure and regulation.
These help determine the number and productivity of America’s workers, and thus how quickly the economy will grow in the long run—the most basic measure of competitiveness. On every count, despite glaring problems, the outlook is less bleak than the pessimists maintain.

Bottom up
That is partly because they overstate their case. For instance, rumours of the death of American innovation are exaggerated: the country is spending as much of its output on R&D as it ever has, and continues to come up with dramatic breakthroughs, such as “fracking” for oil and gas. It still towers over emerging giants like China in crucial matters such as the quality of its research universities and respect for intellectual-property rights.
However, the main reason for cheer is that beyond the Beltway no one is waiting for the federal government to fix the economy. At the regional and local level America is already reforming and innovating vigorously.

Local officials are competing viciously to lure migrants and investment. They are using every imaginable enticement, from scrapping income tax to building more bike paths. But they are also embarking on far-reaching reforms.
Education, for example, is being turned upside down in the most comprehensive overhaul in living memory. On infrastructure, mayors and governors are grasping the nettle Congress will not, by coming up with new funding mechanisms.

Washington is not completely absent from these changes (Mr Obama has made things easier for immigrants; Congress had a hand in the school reforms). But the overall picture is of revolution from the bottom up, rather than the top down. This has its advantages: the states yet again are proving themselves laboratories for experimentation.
Yet its also means that America’s economic fightback is patchy and inconsistent. The United States could become far more competitive far more quickly if Congress punched its weight.

This is a hugely important condition. The political feud in Washington, and the fiscal shenanigans that come with it, constitute the biggest threat to the nation’s prosperity, and the main caveat to the otherwise optimistic assessment outlined in this report. At the start of this month the two sides subjected the country to arbitrary and ill-timed budget cuts, which both admit are foolhardy and which are bound to weigh on the already feeble economy. Moreover, all efforts to boost America’s competitiveness are for naught if the galloping costs of Medicare and Medicaid are not reined insomething only the federal government can do.

So America’s competitive recovery is not as strong as it should be, and it will remain overshadowed by its shaky public finances. But it is real. What is unfolding around the country offers a template for reform at the national level. And for all the histrionic talk of cliffs, brinks and shutdowns, the politicians in Washington have not inflicted any crippling damage yet. Those who like to lecture smugly about America’s impending decline should take a closer look.

Insights from Former Fed Chairmen

by Doug Noland

March 15, 2013

CNBC’s Andrew Ross-Sorkin, March 15, 2013: “The question of the morning: Do you want to break out the phrase again, ‘irrational exuberance’?”

Alan Greenspan: No, I don’t think it’s quite appropriate in this type of environment. In fact, a basic way of looking at this degree of exuberance or non-exuberance is to take a look at what we call the equity premium. As you know, it’s the extent of the measure of whether stocks are overvalued or undervalued. And right now, by historical calculation, we are significantly undervalued. The reason why the stock market has not been significantly higher is there are other factors compressing it lower. But irrational exuberance is the last term I would use to characterize what’s going on at the moment.”

Ross-Sorkin: “Is this a Fed-fueled rally?”

Greenspan: “I think you can fully explain the rally in terms of basically the issue of the removal of what economists call 'tail risk.' That is, what has been sitting out there virtually most of this year – and part of last as well – has been the European problems which have every characteristic of caving in the economies of the world as a whole, and that has been temporarily removed. The result is removing of that key factor has allowed the markets to move up. It’s not because earnings are moving all that well, as you know, earningsexpectations at least – have been either been flat or down for awhile. What’s basically been doing – the valuation structure and it still’s got a way to go as far as I can see.”

Paul Volcker, March 4, 2013, upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for Economic Policy from the National Association of Business Economics (NABE):

“I have two other things on my mind, at least one of them may strike you as a bit unusual. But I think it is a too much neglected subject despite the fact that it seems to me to have been a major underlying ingredient in the financial and economic crisis we have. And what I’m talking about is the international monetary system. Of course you know it’s hard to call it a system. A system concerns itself with some interrelated parts and a mechanism that are working together to produce some stability and progress. That’s hardly a description of the international monetary system. And as many people have said, “international non-system.” The reason I say it – I’m not going to elaborate on it right nowjust look at one characteristic of that system: in the first seven or eight years of this century, where the biggest characteristic of this system was a big surplus on the part of China, a huge accumulation and employing those surpluses into U.S. dollars. And, looking at the other side, the United States running the biggest deficits that it had run – in my memory anyway. The biggest economy in the world running current account deficits some years 5% or 6% of GDP, financing most of the large federal deficit by foreign purchasesso happy to lend at very low interest rates in a seemingly prosperous world. Now would anybody really design a system that would permit the Chinese to run cumulative surpluses – and Japan on top of it – in Trillions of dollars cumulatively over a few years? And we ran deficits of that size for a period of time without suspecting that something is going to happen in a serious way to upset the system. It’s all very nice to be able to finance your external deficits very easily while it happens. But sooner or later the world is giving you a lot of rope for this exorbitant privilege of the reserve currency. But at what point does the rope get to the point where it strangles you? And we’ve tried to avoid that. I’m not sure that’s true yet. But the lack of discipline in this system – which is replicated within Europe where deficits can go along more or less indefinitely in the euro zone until finally, finally something happens to interrupt the parade and we find ourselves with a degree of international indebtedness that is not easy to manage.”

From the NABE Q&A session moderated by CNBC’s Steve Liesman: “Let’s get to the subject you like talking about most in public: Monetary policyWhen you were Fed Chairman – in that time period could you have imagined…”

Volcker: No

Liesman: “…purchasing…”


Liesman: “…the amount of assets…”

Volcker: No

Liesman: “…the Federal Reserve has purchased today and ballooning the balance sheet to almost three Trillion dollars and buying $85bn of assets in a month.”

Volcker: “The answer to that question is clearly 'no…' When I first got involved with the Federal Reserve in the 1950s, the big issue in central banking was something called the ‘bills only doctrine.’ And the bills only doctrine was the central bank should only intervene in the money market in short-term securities, namely Treasury bills. Thou shall never touch a Treasury bond – or a mortgage bond. There was a big fight about it and the ‘bills only doctrine won. We’re a long ways away.”

Liesman: “You’ve talked about various areas of potential instability from accounting to the banking system. When you look at the financial landscape here, do you see the Fed’s balance sheet and its monetary policy as a potential source of financial instability?”

Volcker: “It’s obviously a potential problem. The way I look at this, rightly or wrongly, I hope not too optimistically: they are obviously doing things that were beyond my imagination some years ago in response to their perception of a very unusual situation that I did not envisage some years ago. But they have a very large balance sheet - very large amount of excess reserves… It’s OK for the moment. We have no inflationary problem at the moment. They want to support growth in the economy and so forth. The crucial question for a central bank anytime – but it is going to come in spades this time: OK, have easy money when we have a recession or when there’s a lot of unemployment. But at some point when the worm turns and the party is getting under way – to use that old analogy – at what point do you begin retreating and you retreat decisively enough? You can make a mistake and go too quick. But the much more frequent mistake, in my judgment, it’s been that you go too slow. Because it’s never popular to take the so-calledpunchbowlaway – or to weaken the liquor. And there’s a lot of liquor out there now. Mechanically, sure it can be done. They can put it in; they can pull it out. Will it be done at the crucial time in a delicate kind of way that can be done without creating expectations in the other direction that will be harmful? It’s going to be a big challenge.”

Below are some of Paul Volcker’s comments from a March 13, 2013 economic conference sponsored by the Atlantic magazine:

Obviously, the Federal Reserve has come to play an extraordinary role in maintaining the economic recovery. In doing so, it stepped out of the long-established but more limited institutional role of a central bank. Instead of confining its operations to intervention in the money markets and control of bank reserves, attention is today directed toward massive support directly and indirectly of capital markets – and most particularly the market for residential mortgages. What it amounts to is that the Fed has become the principal intermediator in American financial markets. It’s acquiring several Trillion dollars of securities of varying maturities on the basis of short-term monetary liabilities that it itself has created. In the common vernacular, that is termedprinting money.’ Those efforts are not unique in today’s world. In Europe and Japan, where recovery is weak and the possibility of renewed recession is evident, sweeping commitments have been made to do whatever it takes’ to hold the euro together and to speed expansion. And, in Japan, even by explicitly seeking inflation. All of us in the United States and Europe and Japan – and indeed the entire world economy – have a large stake in the success of those really unprecedented steps toward monetary expansion. Clearly, there are obstacles and risks - those obstacles notably in the underlying imbalances within and among developed economies and the inevitably slow progress in dealing with the overhang of excessive indebtedness and the remaining dislocations in the financial system and the pervasive fiscal deficits. Those are matters, unfortunately, that are not easily corrected or corrected at all by monetary policy, however aggressively that policy may be managed. Indeed, extreme monetary easing and the suggestion that the approach will continue indefinitely could encourage elements of speculative activity undermining the very process of restoring sustainable growth and financial stability. And I make that point because I believe the Federal Reserve – or any central bank - must not minimize or neglect its responsibilities for oversight in the financial system as it devotes attention to the conduct of monetary policy. In retrospect, a heavy cost has been paid for failure to recognize the implications of behavior patterns and speculative excesses in the financial markets that culminated in the crisis. The complexities and opacity imposed by rapid innovation and financial engineering requires skills and depth of personnel beyond previous experience and the regulators have to be equipped to attain them…”

“Let me say a word about the independence of central banks, which I obviously think is important. When central banks depart from their more traditional role as they’ve felt forced to do during these difficult problemsif that was maintained over a period of time and then you really raise the question of the independence of the bank because they’re getting into the allocation of resources and the dominance of the markets in a way that isn’t really as intended when associated with independent central banks.”

Q&A with an astute question from iconoclast economist and author (“Debunking Economics”) Dr. Steve Keen: “To what extent should the mandate of price stability extend to the stability of asset prices when compared to consumer prices?”

Volcker: When people talk about stability and when I talk about stability – I’m often thinking of price stability by some measure. But the word stability in my mind encompasses financial stability something more than price stability. The stability of financial relationships, institutional relationships and all the rest. And when you use the wordstability’ in that context, which I do, then I get worried about the excesses that might arise - and the Federal Reserve should worry about them. It doesn’t mean it’s easier to deal with them. It’s a big matter of judgment. First of all, when you identify some unsustainable boom in some sector of the economy, even if you identify it what do you do about it? They are both difficult questions and they are both questions I don’t think can be ignored. And I think the Federal Reserve now realizes it…”

“I do see a risk of what I consider a strange theory that these all-powerful central banks can play a little game. And when you want to expandlet’s have a little inflation that peps it up. But, of course, as soon as it gets a little big we’ll shut it off and then we’ll bring it down again. There is no central bank that I know of that has ever exhibited the capacity for that kind of fine-tuning. And if they lose sight of the basic role of a central bank is to maintain price stability, stability generally – the game will sooner or later be lost. That doesn’t mean you’re going to off in the next few years on some great inflationary boom – an inflationary process. But this hubris that somehow we have the tools that can manage in a very defined way little increases or decreases in the inflation rate to manage the real economy is nonsense. Did I say that strongly enough?”

Good stuff! A few years back when he began assuming a higher political profile, an inside-politics analyst suggested that Mr. Volcker was becomingsenile.” This saddened me, as I’ve been a long-time admirer of the former Fed Chairman. He was not only a tough and disciplined central banker demonstrating outstanding leadership in an unusually challenging environment. I respected him as a true statesman – in an era where statesmanship has, sadly, been in short supply. He is a man of impressive intellect and with a brilliant understanding of finance, qualities I value in individuals irrespective of their “left” or “rightpolitical leanings. After listening keenly to his most recent speeches and Q&A sessions, I can state unequivocally that Mr. Volcker is as sharp – and deeply insightful - as ever. I hope very much that he takes an active role in the unfolding monetary policy debate.

And while Mr. Volcker raises the critical but somehowtoo much neglectedissues of a dysfunctional global financialsystem,” destabilizing market speculation and waning central bank independence, his successor talks about an equities valuation model and today’s significantly undervalued equities market. Demonstrating uncharacteristic restraint, I will only repeat my view that history will not be kind.

For me, there so much these days that’s pretty much déjà vu all over again. As stock markets again turn highly speculative and the latest and greatest Bubble enters a more euphoric (dangerous) phase, it’s increasingly back to New Age, New Era and New Paradigm-like news and analysis. There is this week’s cover story – and special report - from The Economist, “The America That WorksLuckily, dysfunction in Washington is only one side of the story.” The article notes recent encouraging data from the jobs and housing markets. “The stock market has just hit a record high. Beyond the District of Columbia, the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems.”

I dearly hope – we all do – that this is in fact an “America that Works.” Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that no one knows at this point how the current economic structure is going to work out. After all, the underlying finance driving the U.S. economy is extraordinarily distorted and unstable. What are the future consequences from unparalleled deficits, monetization and market manipulation? And as Mr. Volcker noted, the global financialsystem” is dysfunctional, hence inevitably unsustainable. The U.S. economy recorded a Q4 2012 Current Account Deficit of $110bn, the 86th consecutive quarterly shortfall. There’s no historical precedent for such massive and protracted deficits in a country’s external account. There is no precedent for such a consumption and services-dominated economic structure. And there’s no precedent for anything remotely comparable to the current fiscal and monetary policy regime.

Decades of unfettered global finance have, not unpredictably, fostered progressive financial and economic fragilities. These policy-induced deficiencies have incited increasingly desperate policy measures - and attendant market exuberance. Indeed, it’s all evolved into one epic experiment in unanchored international finance, unchecked speculation and financial leveraging, new paradigm economic structures, ballooning global imbalances and ever expanding monetary inflation. So I especially appreciate Mr. Volcker’s pertinent insights. And to see Greenspan on CNBC touting an equities valuation model and market undervaluation – well, it was just more of the ridiculous.

March 17, 2013 8:25 pm
Europe is risking a bank run
Sir Mervyn King once said it was not rational to start a bank run but rational to participate in one once it has started. The governor of the Bank of England was right, of course. On Saturday morning, the finance ministers of the eurozone may well have started a bank run.

With the agreement on a depositor haircut for Cyprusin all but name – the eurozone has effectively defaulted on a deposit insurance guarantee for bank deposits. That guarantee was given in 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It consisted of a series of nationally co-ordinated guarantees. They wanted to make the political point that all savings are safe.

I am using the expressions “in all but name” and “effectively” because legally, Cyprus is not defaulting or imposing losses on depositors. The country is levying a tax of 6.75 per cent on deposits of up to €100,000, and a tax of 9.9 per cent above that threshold. Legally, this is a wealth tax. Economically, it is a haircut.

I myself had favoured a haircut, or tax, on deposits of more than €100,000 – the portion not covered by the deposit insurance guarantee. There is no moral or economic reason to protect foreigners who have decided to park large sums in a Cypriot bank account for whatever reason. Such a haircut would also have been in line with the philosophy of deposit insurance. Its purpose is not to provide absolute certainty, but to prevent bank runs, which is what happens when you go after small depositors. Well-designed deposit insurance schemes thus impose ceilings.

I just could not believe it when I heard that eurozone finance ministers went after the small depositors in Cyprus. I understand the purely technical reason why they did it. The eurozone could not agree a full bailout, which would have cost €17bn.

The Germans rejected a loan which they were certain Cyprus would invariably default on. So the sum was cut to €10bn. A depositor haircut was the only way to co-finance this. When they did the maths, they found the big deposits would not have sufficed.

So they opted for a wealth tax with hardly any progression. There is not even an exemption for people with only very small savings.

If one wanted to feed the political mood of insurrection in southern Europe, this was the way to do it. The long-term political damage of this agreement is going to be huge. In the short term, the danger consists of a generalised bank run, not just in Cyprus.

As in the case of Greece, the finance ministers said: “Don’t worry, this is a unique situation”. This is true only in a very narrow legal sense. The bond haircut in Greece is indeed different to the depositor haircut in Cyprus. And when they repeat this elsewhere, it will be unique once more.

Unless there is a last-minute reprieve for small savers, most Cypriot savers would act rationally if they withdrew the rest of their money simply to protect them from further haircuts or taxes. It would be equally rational for savers elsewhere in southern Europe to join them. The experience of Cyprus tells them that the solvency of a deposit insurance scheme is only as good as that of the state. In view of Italy’s public sector debt ratio, or the combined public and private sector indebtedness of Spain and Portugal, there is no way that these governments can insure all banks’ deposits on their own.

The Cyprus rescue has shown that the creditor nations will insist from now that any bank rescue must be co-funded by depositors.

The really puzzling thing is why did people not withdraw their money before? Did they not read the newspapers? Maybe they trusted the new president of Cyprus, who had promised them that he would never accept this? And why has there been so little deposit flight elsewhere in southern Europe? Did they, too, trust their governments? More importantly, will they continue to do so now?

There are some institutional impediments against bank runs within the eurozone. Some countries impose daily withdrawal limits, ostensibly as a measure against money laundering. Nor is it easy to open a bank account in a foreign country. In many cases, you need to have residency. You may need to travel there in person, and you need to speak the local language – or at least English.

But I would not take too much comfort from those impediments. Once fear reaches a critical mass, people will act, and then a bank run becomes a self-perpetuating process. There has been a lot of complacency about the eurozone crisis in the past eight months.

Many people even thought the crisis was over because Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, gave a lender-of-last-resort guarantee. Bank depositors now understand that if the crisis was over, then that was only because the eurozone had found a new source of funding: their savings.

I have no idea whether or not there will be a bank run in the next few weeks. But surely it would be rational.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.