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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.

*   *   *

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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Giving Centrism A Bad Name

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It seems as though every time some venal politician breaches a campaign promise while attempting to grab a payoff from a lobbyist, the excuse is always the same:  “I’ve decided to tack toward the center on this issue.”  “The Center” has become stigmatized as the dwelling place of those politicians who lack a moral compass.

I get particularly annoyed by those who persist in characterizing Barack Obama as a “centrist”, who is mimicking Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy.  During his campaign and throughout the early days of his Presidency, Obama successfully posed as a centrist.  Nevertheless, his track record now demonstrates a policy of what Marshall Auerback described as “gutting the Democratic Party of its core social legacy.”   I particularly enjoyed reading the comments to Auerback’s above-quoted piece about Obama entitled, “Worse Than Hoover”.  Most of the commentators expressed the opinion that Auerback went way too easy on Obama.  Here are some examples:

Sandra:

We have to stop comparing Obama to these iconic American figures. Obama is an opportunistic corporatist. There is no there there.

Rex:

I’m beginning to wonder if we are still giving Obummer too much credit.  Common view seems to be trending toward he’s a manipulative scumbag.

Wasabi:

He’s very useful to the plutocracy.  A Repub president could never persuade Dems to cut SS, Medicare, and Medicaid and all sorts of other essential programs.

Z:

He got the glory and the thrill of winning the election to become the 1st black president and I suspect that’s all the narcissio-path ever really wanted as far as the presidency is concerned.  He certainly doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself right now.  I think he’s ready to cash out and is trying to create a scenario where he becomes an untenable candidate.  He also wants to maintain his celebrity appeal so he’s going to try to posture as the adult of adults that was just too good for dc …

Steelhead23:

From a more technocratic perspective, I tend to see Obama as a consummate politician – able to inspire – but sadly lacking in intellectual curiosity and overflowing with ego, thus unable to quench his ignorance.  This leaves him extremely susceptible to “experts” whom he parrots with enthusiasm.  It was experts who helped him pick his advisers and now his expert advisers are misleading him and making him complicit in this quest toward neo-feudalism.

Keep in mind that those comments were not posted at Fox News or some right-wing website.  They were posted at Naked Capitalism, where the publisher – Yves Smith – offered a comment of her own in reaction to Marshall Auerback’s “Worse Than Hoover” posting.

Yves Smith:

Obama is an authoritarian narcissist, an ugly combination.

He also seems unaware of the limits of his knowledge.  That can render many otherwise intelligent people stupid in their decisions and actions in their blind spots.

Obama’s foremost critic from the Left is Glenn Greenwald of Salon.  Mr. Greenwald has frequently opined that “… Obama wants to be attacked by liberals because of the perception that it politically benefits him by making him look centrist, non-partisan and independent . . .   It’s not merely that he lacks a fear of liberal dissatisfaction; it’s that he affirmatively craves it.”  Greenwald emphasized the foolishness of following such a course:

But that’s a dangerous strategy.  U.S. presidential elections are very closely decided affairs, and alienating the Left even to some degree can be lethal for a national Democratic campaign; shouldn’t the 2000 election, along with 2010, have cemented that lesson forever?

I doubt that Obama is attempting to follow anything similar to Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy.  If Obama had been attempting such a plan, it has already backfired to an embarrassing degree, causing irreparable damage to the incumbent’s reelection prospects.  Barack Obama has lost his credibility – and in the eyes of the electorate, there is no greater failing.

To get an appreciation for how much damage Obama has caused to his own “brand”, consider this article written by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs for the Huffington Post:

Thus, at every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class.  He refused to tax the banks and hedge funds properly on their outlandish profits; he refused to limit in a serious way the bankers’ mega-bonuses even when the bonuses were financed by taxpayer bailouts; and he even refused to stand up against extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich last December, though 60 percent of the electorate repeatedly and consistently demanded that the Bush tax cuts at the top should be ended.  It’s not hard to understand why.  Obama and Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions the same way that the Republicans rely on oil and coal.  In America today, only the rich have political power.

*   *   *

America is more militarily engaged under Obama than even under Bush.  Amazing but true.

*   *   *

The stimulus legislation, pushed by Obama at the start of his term on the basis of antiquated economic theories, wasted the public’s money and also did something much worse.  It discredited the vital role of public spending in solving real and long-term problems.  Rather than thinking ahead and planning for long-term solutions, he simply spent money on short-term schemes.

Obama’s embrace of “shovel-ready” infrastructure, for example, left America with an economy based on shovels while China’s long-term strategy has given that country an economy based on 21st-century Maglev trains.  Now that the resort to mega-deficits has run its course, Obama is on the verge of abandoning the poor and middle class, by agreeing with the plutocrats in Congress to cut spending on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and discretionary civilian spending, while protecting the military and the low tax rates on the rich (if not lowering those top tax rates further according to the secret machinations of the Gang of Six, now endorsed by the president!)

*   *   *

America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites.  Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline.

The urgent need for a third-party movement was also the subject of this recent piece at The Economic Populist:

If the country had a legitimate third party to vote for, the Democrats and Republicans would be in serious trouble.  Of course, the political system is geared to prevent third parties from emerging, so the country flounders about, looking for leadership from pusillanimous Democrats or ideological Republicans who consider raising taxes a mortal sin.  The voters are probably a few steps away from concluding what is meant to be hidden but by now should be obvious:  American democracy doesn’t exist, and the political system in Washington is beyond repair.  What is worse: there are people and organizations who like things just the way they are and will fight any attempts at reform.

*   *   *

None of this suggests that Barack Obama is even considering abandoning his servitude to corporate interests.  He’s merrily going along from one fundraiser to the next, raising millions of dollars each week from hedge fund managers and corporate lobbyists, so that he can get reelected as a “centrist” and bipartisan deal maker.  This is based on his reading of what The People want – an end to the divisiveness in Washington – but Obama is fundamentally misreading the problem in Washington.  It isn’t the rancor, name-calling, and petulance that is constantly on display which worries the American people.  It is the backroom deals, the hidden bailouts, the tax evasions, the deregulation initiatives, the lack of prosecution for criminal behavior, that is more than frustrating Americans, because the beneficiaries of all this are wealthy people and corporations who have shifted power and money to themselves.  Voters want this system overthrown – even the Tea Party voters, who keep searching for Republicans who will finally say no to corporate money.

In the mean time, we are stuck witnessing America’s demise.  If you think that Obama’s critics from the Left are the only people voicing a dispirited attitude about our country’s future, be sure to read this essay at Counterpunch, “An Economy Destroyed”, written by Paul Craig Roberts – Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan Administration and the co-creator of Reaganomics:

Recently, the bond rating agencies that gave junk derivatives triple-A ratings threatened to downgrade US Treasury bonds if the White House and Congress did not reach a deficit reduction deal and debt ceiling increase.  The downgrade threat is not credible, and neither is the default threat.  Both are make-believe crises that are being hyped in order to force cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

*   *   *

The US economy is driven by consumer demand, but with 22.3 per cent unemployment, stagnant and declining wages and salaries, and consumer debt burdens so high that consumers cannot borrow to spend, there is nothing to drive the economy.

Washington’s response to this dilemma is to increase the austerity!  Cutting back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, forcing down wages by destroying unions and offshoring jobs (which results in a labor surplus and lower wages), and driving up the prices of food and energy by depreciating the dollar further erodes consumer purchasing power.  The Federal Reserve can print money to rescue the crooked financial institutions, but it cannot rescue the American consumer.

As a final point, confront the fact that you are even lied to about “deficit reduction.”  Even if Obama gets his $4 trillion “deficit reduction” over the next decade, it does not mean that the current national debt will be $4 trillion less than it currently is.  The “reduction” merely means that the growth in the national debt will be $4 trillion less than otherwise.  Regardless of any “deficit reduction,” the national debt ten years from now will be much higher than it presently is.

The longer you think about it – the more obvious it becomes:  We really need to sweep all of those bastards out of Washington as quickly as possible and replace them with intelligent, honest individuals who are willing to represent this country’s human inhabitants – rather than its corporations, lobbies and “special interests”.


 

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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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