All posts by mrossol

Married, 1st generation American, Christian, conservative, GCC parent, Agribusiness manager, long-time Mac-owner, in Ohio.

How Spending Cuts—Not Higher Taxes—Saved Canada

When Jean Chretien became prime minister in 1993, Canada faced a fiscal and economic breakdown. The government’s share of the economy had climbed to 53% in 1992, from 28% in 1960. Deficits had tripled as a percentage of gross domestic product over the prior two decades. Government debt was nearly 70% of GDP and growing rapidly. Interest payments on the debt took up 35 cents of every tax dollar.

Mr. Chretien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, took decisive action. “Canadians have told us that they want the deficit brought down by reducing government spending, not by raising taxes, and we agree,” Mr. Martin said. The new administration slashed spending. Unemployment benefits were cut by nearly 40%. The ratio of spending cuts to tax increases was nearly 7-to-1. Federal employment was reduced by 14%. Canada’s national railway and air-traffic-control system were privatized.

The economy rebounded. Between 1995 and 1998, a $36.6 billion deficit turned into a $3 billion surplus. Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio was cut in half in a decade. Canada now has faster economic growth than America (3.3% in 2010, compared to 2.9% in the U.S.), a lower jobless rate (7.2% in June, when the U.S. rate was 9.2%), a deficit-to-GDP ratio that’s a quarter of ours, and a stronger dollar.

What’s most remarkable about the Canadian turnaround: It was led by liberals. Mr. Chretien and Mr. Martin were leaders of the Liberal Party. Yet they responded to the clear wishes of Canadians and, to the surprise of the political class, shifted to the right. Or to the center, the two leaders would say.

Today the United States is in a situation almost identical to Canada’s in the 1990s. Government spending is surging, a huge deficit and national debt are setting peacetime records, interest payments are soaring, the economy is stagnant, and unemployment is stuck at around 9%. Yet one thing is missing: Liberals in America refuse to lead.

Led by President Obama, liberals have held back, leaving conservatives to lead and then stymieing conservative proposals because they rely on spending cuts. Liberals have sought to protect domestic programs, including entitlements, from even small cuts.

It’s increased spending that is largely responsible for deficits exceeding $1 trillion for three consecutive years and thus for the rise in the national debt’s percentage of GDP from 40% in 2008 to 62% in 2011 and toward an estimated 72% next year. The public, in the 2010 election and in poll after poll, is insisting on spending cuts.

But the president has declined to present a specific plan of his own. The 2012 budget he sent to Congress in February is inoperative. His tack now is to comment on the debt-reduction plans of others. Just this week, the White House said Mr. Obama would veto the “cut, cap and balance” proposal approved by the House and attached to the $2.4 trillion hike in the debt limit the president has asked for.

Earlier, the president attacked the Republican budget passed by the House. And in five days of negotiations with congressional leaders last week, he backed away from some of the spending reductions that had been agreed to in talks led by Vice President Biden. Mr. Obama had already taken major spending programs, like his health-care program, the $53 billion rapid rail project, and funding for “green jobs,” off the table.

As the Aug. 2 deadline for a debt-limit increase nears, Mr. Obama has combined a very public role with an absence of upfront leadership. He’s had three press conferences in the past month without offering clear guidance. But since he has no plan, he’s less of a target for criticism, and he has tried to limit his accountability.

At his session with reporters last week he minimized the severity of the debt problem. “Here’s the good news,” he said. “It turns out we don’t have to do anything radical to solve this problem. Contrary to what some folks say, we’re not Greece. We’re not Portugal.”  [Hello?  Liberal Press – are you wake?????????????]

The fiscal trouble was caused over the past decade, Mr. Obama explained, by the Bush tax cuts, “a prescription drug program for seniors that was not paid for,” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and “a bad recession that required a Recovery Act and stimulus spending and helping states . . . and there’s interest on top of that.” In other words, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s fault.

What the president left out were the biggest drivers of spending and debt—entitlements. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care spending to jump to 9.5% of GDP over the next two decades from 5.6% in 2011. The CBO says Medicare will run out of money in 2020.

Like Mr. Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi downplays the fiscal difficulty and recommends against offering a plan. “Once you put another proposal on the table, you’re conceding that there must be some big problem,” she said in April.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is also a minimizer. He said this spring that changes in Social Security shouldn’t be considered until the program fails. “Two decades from now, I’m willing to take a look at it,” Mr. Reid said.

As America struggles over spending and debt, Canadians watch with wonderment. A new book, “The Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow,” points to a role reversal—a strong Canada and a weak America.

In the foreword, former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Allan Gottleib writes: “If we want to see what would have become of Canada had we not lived through the difficult changes, we need look no further than Washington, D.C., where unreformed entitlements and undisciplined borrowing are hobbling America’s power to be a world leader.”

Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard. An article he wrote on Canada’s resurgence appears in the Summer 2011 issue of National Affairs.
Fred Barnes: How Spending Cuts—Not Higher Taxes—Saved Canada – WSJ.com.

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The End of the Growth Consensus

By JOHN B. TAYLOR

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the official start of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession. But it’s a recovery in name only: Real gross domestic product growth has averaged only 2.8% per year compared with 7.1% after the most recent deep recession in 1981-82. The growth slowdown this year—to about 1.5% in the second quarter—is not only disappointing, it’s a reminder that the recovery has been stalled from the start. As shown in the nearby chart, the percentage of the working-age population that is actually working has declined since the start of the recovery in sharp contrast to 1983-84. With unemployment still over 9%, there is an urgent need to change course.

Some blame the weak recovery on special factors such as high personal saving rates as households repair their balance sheets. But people are consuming a larger fraction of their income now than they were in the 1983-84 recovery: The personal savings rate is 5.6% now compared with 9.4% then. Others blame certain sectors such as weak housing. But the weak housing sector is much less of a negative factor today than declining net exports were in the 1983-84 recovery, and the problem isn’t confined to any particular sector. The broad categories of investment and consumption are both contributing less to growth. Real GDP growth is 60%-70% less than in the early-’80s recovery, as is growth in consumption and investment.

In my view, the best way to understand the problems confronting the American economy is to go back to the basic principles upon which the country was founded—economic freedom and political freedom. With lessons learned from the century’s tougher decades, including the Great Depression of the ’30s and the Great Inflation of the ’70s, America entered a period of unprecedented economic stability and growth in the ’80s and ’90s. Not only was job growth amazingly strong—44 million jobs were created during those expansions—it was a more stable and sustained growth period than ever before in American history.

Economic policy in the ’80s and ’90s was decidedly noninterventionist, especially in comparison with the damaging wage and price controls of the ’70s. Attention was paid to the principles of economic and political liberty: limited government, incentives, private markets, and a predictable rule of law. Monetary policy focused on price stability. Tax reform led to lower marginal tax rates. Regulatory reform encouraged competition and innovation. Welfare reform devolved decisions to the states. And with strong economic growth and spending restraint, the federal budget moved into balance.

As the 21st century began, many hoped that applying these same limited-government and market-based policy principles to Social Security, education and health care would create greater opportunities and better lives for all Americans.

But policy veered in a different direction. Public officials from both parties apparently found the limited government approach to be a disadvantage, some simply because they wanted to do more—whether to tame the business cycle, increase homeownership, or provide the elderly with better drug coverage.

And so policy swung back in a more interventionist direction, with the federal government assuming greater powers. The result was not the intended improvement, but rather an epidemic of unintended consequences—a financial crisis, a great recession, ballooning debt and today’s nonexistent recovery.

The change in policy direction did not occur overnight. We saw increased federal intervention in the housing market beginning in the late 1990s. We saw the removal of Federal Reserve reporting and accountability requirements for money growth from the Federal Reserve Act in 2000. We saw the return of discretionary countercyclical fiscal policy in the form of tax rebate checks in 2001. We saw monetary policy moving in a more activist direction with extraordinarily low interest rates for the economic conditions in 2003-05. And, of course, interventionism reached a new peak with the massive government bailouts of Detroit and Wall Street in 2008.

Since 2009, Washington has doubled down on its interventionist policy. The Fed has engaged in a super-loose monetary policy—including two rounds of quantitative easing, QE1 in 2009 and QE2 in 2010-11. These large-scale purchases of mortgages and Treasury debt did not bring recovery but instead created uncertainty about their impact on inflation, the dollar and the economy. On the fiscal side, we’ve also seen extraordinary interventions—from the large poorly-designed 2009 stimulus package to a slew of targeted programs including “cash for clunkers” and tax credits for first-time home buyers. Again, these interventions did not lead to recovery but instead created uncertainty about the impact of high deficits and an exploding national debt.

Big government has proved to be a clumsy manager, and it did not stop with monetary and fiscal policy. Since President Obama took office, we’ve added on complex regulatory interventions in health care (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and finance (the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act). The unintended consequences of these laws are already raising health-care costs and deterring new investment and risk-taking.

If these government interventions are the economic problem, then the solution is to unwind them. Some lament that with the high debt and bloated Fed balance sheet, we have run out of monetary and fiscal ammunition, but this may be a blessing in disguise. The way forward is not more spending, greater debt and continued zero-interest rates, but spending control and a return to free-market principles.

Unfortunately, as the recent debate over the debt limit indicates, narrow political partisanship can get in the way of a solution. The historical evidence on what works and what doesn’t is not partisan. The harmful interventionist policies of the 1970s were supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. So were the less interventionist polices in the 1980s and ’90s. So was the recent interventionist revival, and so can be the restoration of less interventionist policy going forward.

Mr. Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of “Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged and Worsened the Financial Crisis” (Hoover Press, 2009).
John Taylor: The End of the Growth Consensus – WSJ.com.

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Forget About Black Swans, the One Floating Ahead is Neon

Not sure why I haven’t seen anything close to this article yet. Right on the money!

Forget About Black Swans, the One Floating Ahead is Neon – WSJ.com.

You’ve heard of black swans—events that are unthinkably rare, immensely important, and as unpredictable in advance as they are inevitable in hindsight. Now, with no one ruling out a default or downgrade of U.S. Treasury debt, investors face a new kind of threat: what we will call the neon swan, an event that is unthinkably rare, immensely important and blindingly obvious.

The politicians in Washington have a couple weeks to forestall a disaster that has begun to seem like a certainty. Investors everywhere are perfectly aware of the consequences if Congress and the Obama administration can’t strike a deal: The U.S. is likely to lose its privileged triple-A credit rating, and corporate bonds and stocks alike could plummet in response.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller “The Black Swan” made clear, the human mind is poorly equipped to prepare us for rare, important and unpredictable events. But maybe our minds—and our markets—aren’t very well equipped to protect us against neon swans, either.

Many investors seem to be coping with what seems like an obvious risk simply by closing their eyes.

Theodore Aronson, a partner at Aronson Johnson Ortiz in Philadelphia, oversees $21 billion in stock investments for 90 institutional clients. In roughly 75 conference calls with clients over the past few weeks, says Mr. Aronson, no one has asked whether a different investing approach is needed in light of the risk that a U.S. debt crisis might make the markets go haywire. [ absolutely amazing! ]

“I find it amazing,” he says, “that we have not gotten a single question or comment about it.”

Then again, Mr. Aronson adds, his firm hasn’t done anything to protect against the risk of a crisis in the Treasury market. “We’ve thought about it, but we don’t know what to do,” he says. “As best we can figure it, there isn’t anything we can do.”

Some investors are worried enough to ask questions, but not many have taken any action yet, says Paul LaRock, a principal at Treasury Strategies, a Chicago-based firm that helps large corporations manage their cash. “Companies are pulling out their investment policies and rereading them,” he says. One major firm on the East Coast, Mr. LaRock says, asked this week whether its investment-policy statement, which places “no limit” on its holdings of U.S. Treasurys in the company’s cash balances, needs to be amended to keep the company’s coffers secure.

Mr. LaRock says the client is still mulling that question. And, even with disaster seeming inevitable, many investors may be paralyzed by uncertainty. “U.S. government securities have long been the yardstick for measuring the risk of most other investments,” he says. “One of the most disturbing things that we all have to get our minds around should the unthinkable happen,” he adds, “is that the reference point for pricing securities around the globe could be lost. No one can predict what would happen worldwide.”

Not that Treasurys will necessarily get pounded. If the U.S. defaults or its credit rating is downgraded, says William Bernstein of Efficient Frontier Advisors in Eastford, Conn., Treasury prices would probably “go to 97 or 98,” losing only a few percentage points in value. “You’re not going to wake up one morning over the next couple of weeks and find they’re priced at 50 cents on the dollar,” says Mr. Bernstein.

“It is absolutely inconceivable that we would flat-out default and not pay anything,” he adds. “The worst-case scenario is a very temporary payment problem, and I think the Treasury market knows that.” [ Of course, there will be some money. Enough to pay 80% (?) of the debt holders?  Will be interesting to see if Obama pays voters (people getting SS checks), or debt holders (like China) who are expecting an interest payment. ]

But the ripple effects could be considerable. Mr. Bernstein expects corporate and municipal bonds to drop much more drastically if the Treasury market is hit by default or downgrade. And stocks, he says, could be massacred. For investors with cash and courage, a crisis in U.S. Treasurys might well pose a historic buying opportunity. If, instead, it turns out to be “like a giant asteroid hitting the earth, Mr. Bernstein says, “then there isn’t much of anything that’s likely to protect you.”

Thus, keeping a sizable balance in short-term Treasurys—the securities that suddenly feel shaky—is probably a good idea in case stocks and bonds go on sale. You can make a sudden move into gold or cash, but they carry risks of their own, especially if the debt crisis somehow gets averted.

It is important not to be complacent. If you are blindsided by bad news that was staring you in the face for weeks before it came to pass, you will feel like a fool. On the other hand, the forces that do the worst damage to markets “are never the ones that you think are going to get you,” Mr. Bernstein says. Waiting may well be the wisest course this time. You don’t want to ignore a neon swan, but you don’t want to overreact to it only to have it swim quietly away.

intelligentinvestor.com; twitter.com/jasonzweigwsj

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