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Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

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There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

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That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

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Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.