Sunday, February 1, 2009

Concerns about the Obama Stimulus Plan

As the Obama Stimulus Plan becomes more and more of a reality, many different people are asking many different questions about it. To me, there are four basic issues that need to be debated very seriously before any such plan is passed by Congress. The first question is…how fast do we really need to move in passing such a plan? Second…how big does the stimulus package really need to be? Third…how is all the debt created by such a plan going to be financed? And fourth, can the stimulus really be withdrawn once the crisis is over?

In terms of speed of enactment we hear over and over again that speed is of the essence. Things are really bad…and things are going to get a lot worse. We need to get into the game and do something as quickly as possible!

We heard this argument before, not too long ago. It was reported in the Wall Street Journal, that “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reached the end of his rope on Wednesday afternoon, September 17.” Bernanke was reacting to things falling apart in the financial industry. He called Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and said that the administration had to move. Thursday September 18. Paulson responded that he was “on board”. Bernanke insisted that Congressional leaders had to be assembled…which Paulson set up for that Friday evening. Bernanke read them the riot act at that meeting and insisted that a bill…what became TARP…be enacted no later than Monday or everything would fall apart. (For more on this see my post on Seeking Alpha of November 16, 2008, “The Bailout Plan: Did Bernanke Panic?”) The bill was not enacted that Monday and the last half of the TARP money was not released until just recently.

Now we are hearing the call again. We must hurry. The Obama Stimulus Plan has been put on the fast track…and the pressure is on to get the plan enacted by Congress by President’s Day, February 16. But, does this plan really need to be enacted that quickly? Is it better to have any plan by President’s Day or is it better to have a plan that works?

It seems to me that the pressure to get something done quickly has important implications for the second question asked above. Since so little is known about how effective the plan will be…the issue becomes…MORE IS BETTER! Given the uncertainty of how the plan will work, it is important to throw as much as possible against the wall in the hopes that some of it will stick.

Wow! What a way to run a government! But that is what Bernanke/Paulson did.

And, this approach gives rise to the new justification for the program…confidence. The argument goes that “If the government shows that it is serious in ending the recession and this seriousness is reflected in the size of the stimulus package…this will spur on an increase in confidence…which is just what the economy needs right now!”

Let me get this straight. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the stimulus plan works…what is important is that the stimulus plan be very large…so that people will regain confidence.

And, if this is the underlying theory behind the stimulus plan…how is this going to raise the confidence of the world wide investment community…which relates to the third question presented above…to invest in the debt of the United States government?

Oh, well…the United States dollar is the world’s reserve currency and the United States debt is the place for world investors to go when there is a “flight to quality” in world financial markets. Given this fact, people will continue to flock to United States Treasury issues. No doubt about it!

As Alice Rivlin, economist of the Brookings Institution, former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, First Director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Director of the Office of Management and Budget (a cabinet position and appointed by President Bill Clinton a Democrat) recently testified before Congress…”We seem to be counting on the Chinese to keep investing to pay for this (the U. S. deficits) and we’re assuming that the rest of the world isn’t going to lose confidence once we use this moment to spend on a whole range of programs. And, I’m not sure that’s the right assumption.”

Rivlin also has something to say about the fourth question…the question about what happens in the long run. She states that “Because we’re doing this outside the budget process, it means that no one has to talk about what the long-term effects of any of this might be.” That is, what is going to happen beyond the short run if much of this expenditure is still going into the economy as the economy begins to grow again. No one is anticipating how this situation might be dealt with.

As Niall Ferguson, who shares his time between Harvard University and Oxford University, stated recently at Davos…and I am paraphrasing…the new administration seems to believe that by creating an impressive amount of new leverage that it can resolve a financial crisis created by an excessive amount of leverage.

So, I go back to the first question…do we really need to rush so quickly? Yes, I agree with President Obama…he won…he gets to set the table. But, does he want to do it right…or does he just want to do it?

The Congress is supposed to be a deliberative body…it is supposed to mull things over…kick them around…debate and dialogue with one another. Isn’t it better to get something right…than to not do something well…or to do something that may not work?

Projects should not just be put into a stimulus plan…just because they are a “good idea” or because “they are something we want to do and they are available.” Projects, to be included, need to have some real justification for their inclusion in such a plan…the benefit of the project (the whole flow of benefits accruing from the project) should exceed the social cost of the project. Questions should be asked about the timing of the project and when the expected benefits are expected to be received. The Congress should be very intentional about what it is going to do…how much it is going to spend. Success of execution should be the key criteria as to whether a project gets included in the plan…not just the speed of passing the bill.

If Congress were to judge the plan…the whole plan as well as the components of the plan…in this fashion, then something more specific could be said about the size of the plan. Given that every element of the plan could stand up to some form of cost-benefit analysis then the size of the plan would be less of an issue. We would have some rationale for the size of the plan…it would not be a question of hoping some of the material thrown against the wall would stick! The parts of the plan would be chosen because they work…not because they make the plan “large”.

There still will remain questions about financing a stimulus plan. A plan constructed as suggested above would still result in the creation of a lot of new debt the United States government would have to issue. But, the investment community would have more justification to “trust” the plan because the Congress has done its homework…and, if the Congress had done its homework there would be something to say about how the debt will be financed and paid down in the future. That is, the United States government would be acting like a responsible steward of its fiscal responsibilities, something world financial markets have not seen for eight years or so.

To me, this is a crucial issue the Obama administration and the United States government has to deal with…restoring confidence in the fiscal credibility of the United States…something that Bush43 fell far short of doing. Rushing into the fray with a hastily constructed, ill-conceived stimulus plan, one that relies on the Chinese and the rest-of-the-world to finance with no thought for the future is not going to resolve the financial and economic mess we are now experiencing.

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