Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Three Problems We Face: Debt, Debt, and Debt!

The focus is wrong. The focus is on the demand side of the economy. As John Maynard Keynes argued, “most practical men are indeed in thrall to the ideas of some long dead economist”…and that long dead economist is John Maynard Keynes. Niall Ferguson refers to the policy makers of today as “born again Keynesians”! And, so the focus remains on stimulating demand.

As a consequence there seems to be a disconnect between what the policy makers are producing in terms of stimulus and bailout and what others, financial markets and individual consumers and families, are experiencing. The debt overhang is stifling everything and this must be corrected before the contraction can be stopped.

This makes the problem in the economy a “supply” problem and not a problem of demand. It is a supply problem because the response to excessive amounts of debt is to save and to reduce leverage. And, this delevering is a cumulative process and either must be overcome by massive inflation…or, it must work itself out.

The explosion of credit is like a house of cards…with the underlying danger being that once the house begins to collapse…the whole house is affected. Given the incentives created by Bush43, the credit pyramid grew. The increases in government debt and the excessively low interest rates maintained by the Greenspan Fed set the standard for the day. And, the private sector followed…the private sector took on more and more risk…and financed their riskier positions with more and more leverage. The whole credit structure became shakier and shakier.

The problem with a house of cards is that once one of the cards on a lower level is removed…the whole house can come down. Experience teaches us that some portions of the house may not collapse…but, if the card removed is at the base of the house…it will likely be the case that a large amount of the house will fall…

The card that was pulled out of the house of cards this time was housing finance. As we know now the subprime market can be identified as the place where the collapse began. But, this level of finance supported a large component of the house of credit in the form of mortgage-backed securities and then other derivative securities and tools that used this base of mortgages as the foundation of the structure. And, the house began to fall.

Of course, we are waiting for other parts of the mortgage house to fall…those connected with the next wave of interest rate re-pricings connected with Alt-A mortgages and options mortgages that will be taking place over the next 18 months or so. And, this does not include other consumer debt like equity lines, credit cards, car loans and so forth. It also does not include the collapse of the banking system and other components of the finance industry.

As we have seen the collapse in the housing market has spread to other areas of the financial market. Contagion is the word to describe this spread. And, the problem has become a world wide problem with problems in financial institutions and beyond throughout the developed world and into the emerging nations.

What is the response to the existence of too much debt?

Well, there are two. The first response is to create inflation. Pour money into the system and artificially create spending so that resources are put back to work…eventually creating sufficient demand so that prices begin rising again. This is the Keynesian way…reduce the real value of the debt outstanding. And, the only way to do this is by “printing money.” If the banking system seems to be clogged up…why then let the Federal government begin to spend…finance the spending by selling Treasury securities…but sell the debt directly to the Federal Reserve where the central bank will just give the Treasury Department a demand deposit at some commercial bank. That is the demand side response.

The other response to the fact that there is too much debt is for people to pull back their expenditures…withdraw from the spending stream…and pay down debt in whatever way they can. This is what is happening now and this has been called historically a debt/deflation. It is basically the process of delevering the economy so that economic units can return to reasonable debt levels on their balance sheet.

Unless people come to believe that the government is going to create a substantial enough inflation to reduce the “real” value of their debt to reasonable levels…they will not stop their attempt to get their lives back in order with a reduced amount of debt on their balance sheets. This is why this process is a cumulative one…a process that eventually must work itself out before the economy bottoms out and a return to growth can occur.

One of solution to this overhang is to write down the debt. I dealt with this issue in my post of February 4, 2009, “Two Painful Proposals to Reduce Our Excess Debt,”, so I won’t go into it further here. A plan like this is politically difficult because writing down the debt of those that over-extended themselves looks like we are bailing out the undisciplined or the scoundrels at the expense of the prudent and honest. Such an appearance carries with it severe political risks.

However, if the debt levels have to be reduced at some time…this overhang of excessive debt is going to have to be worked out one way or another. Half-way plans are not going to work. (See my post of February 9, 2009, “Obama Stimulus Plan: Bailout or Wimp Out?”, The government in Washington, D. C. is going to have to bite-the-bullet sometime…the question is just whether they are going to do it now…or do it later when things get worse.

And, let me just re-enforce my argument of above. Ultimately, this is a supply side problem…not a demand side problem. The attempt to pull off a demand side victory hangs on the balance of when inflation can be restarted and how much inflation can be generated to significantly reduce the “real” value of the debt.

The problem with this effort, however, is that an inflationary environment is one in which the incentive is to add on more debt…just what we are trying to get away from. Hasn’t the experience of the 2000s convinced us that this is not what we want to do?

The problem with supply side solutions is that they take time and are not as showing as are demand side “stimulus plans.” Also, they tend to be directed toward those individuals and organizations that are under a dark cloud these days. For example, there is the proposal put forward by Bob Barro to eliminate the corporate income tax. (See “Government Spending is No Free Lunch,”

The stock market did not respond well to the initial showing of the Obama Bank Bailout plan presented by Tim Geithner yesterday. To me this plan is sending mixed signals…mainly because it is on the tepid side. We have a demand side plan…the Obama Stimulus Plan…and we have a plan to cushion the problem of excessive debt…the Obama Bank Bailout Plan. The two plans don’t seem to mesh and give off the signal that the administration has not yet got its act together. The question then becomes…will it get its act together?

The debt issue must be dealt with…and firmly. At this time…firmly is not a word I would use.

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