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Monday, August 2, 2010

The best place in history for the deficit commission would be no place at all

Attacking the federal budget covered by the smokescreen of the economic downturn is entirely inappropriate, concludes James K. Galbraith.

8. Markets are not calling for Deficit Reduction; Now or Later.

Let me turn next to a larger economic question. Do deficit projections matter? Are they important? Was the President well-advised to frame the mandate of the Commission as he did?

What, in short, are the economic consequences of a high public deficit and a rising debt-to-GDP ratio, and what (if any) benefits are to be expected from creating an expectation that deficits will come down and that the debt-to-GDP ratio will fall?

The idea that US economic policy should aim for a path of reduced deficits in the future, is shared by liberals and conservatives, and it is, from a political standpoint, a very powerful idea. The Commission's charter takes for granted that this goal is desirable. It specifies that your objective is to achieve a balanced "primary budget" -- net of interest payments, by 2015.

Yet your charter does say why this is an appropriate goal. It cites no study to which one might refer. It does not explain why 2015 is the right target date, as opposed to (say) 2025 or even 2050. It does not spell out the economic consequences -- if any -- of failing to meet the stated objective.

Does the requirement make economic sense? I shall tackle that question in two parts. The first accepts the view most people hold of the fiscal and financial world. The second reflects, from an operational standpoint, how that world actually works in practice.

Most informed laymen believe that the Federal government must borrow in order to spend. They believe that the interest rate on Treasury securities is set in a market for government bonds. The markets impose discipline on the government. Thus their idea is that "fiscal responsibility" will produce low long-term interest rates and tolerable borrowing conditions for the federal government, while "irresponsibility" will be punished by higher, and eventually intolerable, debt service costs.

Accepting this view for the moment, what does the present level of long-term interest rates tell us? As I write, thirty year Treasury bonds are yielding just over four percent -- or just a little more than half their yield a decade back. On the argument just given, this must be an extraordinary success of virtuous policy. It seems that Wall Street has made a strong vote of confidence in the fiscal probity of our current policies. This vote is unqualified, backed by money, contingent on nothing. It therefore represents a categorical rejection, by Wall Street itself, of the CBO's doomsday scenarios and all other deficit-scare stories.

On this theory, it follows that the mandate to reduce the primary deficit to zero by 2015 is unnecessary. Such an action can hardly reduce interest rates -- neither short nor long-term -- which are already historically low.

But wait a minute, some may say. Yes interest rates are low at the moment. But bond markets are fickle, they can turn on a dime. And what then?

Yes, it is possible that interest rates could rise. But the problem with this argument is that it takes us away from the premise of rationality. If bond markets are fickle and arbitrary, who is to say what they will do in response to any particular policy? In the face of irrational markets, the sensible policy is to borrow heavily for so long as they are offering a good deal. One may say that all good things end, and perhaps they will. But if markets are irrational, then by construction you cannot prevent this by "good behavior."

The conclusion from this section is that one cannot logically argue that markets insist on deficit reduction. Either the markets are rationally unworried about deficits, or they are acting irrationally right now, in which case they can hardly "insist" on anything.

9. In Reality, the US Government Spends First & Borrows Later; Public Spending Creates a Demand for Treasuries in the Private Sector.

As noted, the above argument is based on the common belief that the government must borrow in order to spend, and thus that the government faces "funding risks" in private markets. Such risks exist, of course, for private individuals, for companies, for state and local governments, and for national governments such as Greece that have ceded monetary sovereignty to a central bank. But the situation of the United States government is quite different.

The U.S. government spends (and the Federal Reserve lends) in a very simple way. It does so by writing checks -- in fact simply by marking up numbers in a computer. Those numbers then appear in the bank accounts of the payees, who may be government employees, private contractors, or the recipients of federal transfer programs.

The effect of government check-writing is to create a deposit in the banking system. This is a "free reserve." Banks of course prefer to earn interest on their reserves. Thus they demand a US Treasury bond, which pays more interest without incurring any form of credit or default risk. (This is like moving a deposit from a checking to a savings account.) The Treasury can meet that demand, or not, at its option -- it can permit, or not permit, the stock of US Treasury bonds in circulation to increase.

So long as U.S. banks are required to accept U.S. government checks -- which is to say so long as the Republic exists -- then the government can and does spend without borrowing, if it chooses to do so. And if it chooses to issue Treasuries to meet the demand, it can do that as well. There is never a shortfall of demand for Treasury bonds; Treasury auctions do not fail.

In the real world, the government creates demand for bonds by spending above the level drained by taxation from the system. The extent to which those bonds are held locally, or abroad (another common source of worry) depends on the US current account deficit. This also has nothing to do with approval or disapproval by foreign bankers, central bankers, or their governments of American deficit policy. A foreign country cannot acquire a US Treasury bond unless someone outside the United States has acquired dollars to pay for them, which is generally done by running a trade surplus with the United States. And when foreigners do acquire those dollars, then like domestic banks they prefer to earn interest, which is why they buy Treasury bonds.

Insolvency, bankruptcy, or even higher real interest rates are not among the actual risks to this system. The actual risks in this system are (to a minor degree) inflation, and to a larger degree, depreciation of the dollar. However at the moment there is wide agreement that a lower dollar would be a good thing -- against the Chinese RMB and now also the euro. So it is difficult to believe that the goal of deficit reduction per se serves any coherent, or presently desirable, economic objective.

We can conclude that there is actually no economic justification for the target of reducing the primary deficit to zero by 2015 or any other date. The right economic objectives are to meet real problems, not those conjured from thin air by economists. Bringing about a rapid end to unemployment, caring properly for an aging population, cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, coping with our energy insecurity and with climate change are all far more important objectives than reducing a projection of future budget deficits.

10. The Best Place in History (for this Commission) Would be No Place At All.

Most people assume that "bipartisan commissions" are designed to fail: they are given thorny (or even impossible) issues and told to make recommendations which Congress is free to ignore or reject. In many cases -- yours is no exception -- the goal is to defer recognition of the difficulties for as long as possible.

You are plainly not equipped by disposition or resources to take on the true cause of deficits now and in the future: the financial crisis. Recommendations based on CBO's unrealistic budget and economic outlooks are destined to collapse in failure. Specifically, if cuts are proposed and enacted in Social Security and Medicare, they will hurt millions, weaken the economy, and the deficits will not decline. It's a lose-lose proposition, with no gainers except a few predatory funds, insurance companies and such who would profit, for some time, from a chaotic private marketplace.

Thus the interesting twist in your situation is that the Republic would be better served by advancing no proposals at all.

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