Saturday, January 1, 2011

Economic Policy in the Decade of the Twenty-Tens: More of the Same

Happy New Year!

I have spent a good portion of the last week and a half reviewing my perception of the foundational philosophy undergirding the economic and financial policies of governments in the United States and Europe and I come to the same conclusion over and over again.

Governments in the United States and Europe and the people working in and for them have learned little or nothing over the past fifty years.
These governments are still united in their belief that continuing credit inflation is what their economies need. It is the policy that they plan on delivering. And, if troubles develop, then they just bail troubled institutions out and continue on their merry way. Europe, in the first quarter of 2011, seems to be headed for another round of this bail and run behavior.

The underlying rationale for this is that the leaders of these governments believe that every effort must be made to keep unemployment as low as possible for as long as possible by aggregate governmental actions.

These leaders are unwilling to accept the fact that their policies only make it harder for them to achieve their goal over time and just applying more and more stimulus to the economy will just make things worse.

It is not enough to see that, in the United States alone, underemployment has gone from around ten percent in the 1960s to about twenty-five percent now and that over these past fifty years the income distribution has become more and more skewed toward the higher income end of the spectrum.
The reasons for these results? First, you cannot keep putting people back in their legacy jobs by means of fiscal and monetary stimulus and expect them to maintain their productivity and job competitiveness in a fast changing world. Second, credit inflation can only be taken advantage of by the wealthier people in the country; the less wealthy in such an environment, even though they might be benefitted by it in the short run, lose out to the wealthier over the longer run.
Stock markets, of course, like this environment of credit inflation. Note the following measures of stock market performance. Here we have charted Bob Shiller’s CAPE measure (Cyclically Adjusted P/E Ratio) and Jim Tobin’s q ratio. These statistics, obviously, roughly measure
the exact same thing, whether or not the capital stock in the United States is over- or under-valued. In the 1960s and early 1970s equities seem to be overvalued as the period of credit inflation gets underway. In the late 1970s, of course, we get the period of extremely tight monetary policy aimed at thwarting the rapid acceleration taking place at the time. However, the 1980s revived the bias toward credit inflation, and, as can be seen, the stock markets seemed to take advantage of this policy stance as both measures never dropped below their long-term averages even through the “Great Recession” up to the present time.
This fifty year period was, of course, the time in which the financial sectors of the economy grew to become such a large proportion of the economy and it was the heyday of financial innovation.
It was not the less-wealthy part of the country that benefitted from this policy stance over this period of time.
If the current foundational policy stance of the government remains one of credit inflation similar to the one in place for the last fifty years then all we can expect is more of the same.
And, in my mind, there is no separating out Republicans or Democrats on this issue. Both have proven equally committed to the same policy stance (just using different words to justify it) and both seem to remain oblivious to the facts.

Also, in my mind, the amount of debt people carry matters, but many of our policymakers seem to believe that the existence of debt carries with it no consequences. In fact, the belief seems to be that the solution to the problem of too much debt outstanding is the creation of even more debt. And, if the amount of debt outstanding seems to be troublesome, well, then just let a central bank buy it.

I see nothing on the horizon to change my mind concerning the economic philosophy that serves as the foundation for policy making in the United States and Europe. Credit inflation remains the underlying stance of the economic policies of these governments for future.

Thus, we can expect, over the next decade, a continuation of the economic and financial environment of the last fifty years.

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