Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Music Has Begun Again, Start Dancing?

John Maynard Keynes is remembered for many quotes and one of the most memorable ones is his claim that “In the long run we are all dead.” Keynes wrote this remark to criticize the belief that inflation would acceptably control itself without government intervention. That is, he argued that the theoretically determined equilibrium of an economy was not a good guide to the future in a very volatile economic situation.

The statement has been used, however, as an excuse for choosing the economic policy of a government based short run outcomes. The most prominent short run outcome sought over the past fifty years has been the maintenance of high levels of employment…or, low levels of unemployment.

The problem is that fifty years of government stimulus, basically credit inflation, aimed at achieving low levels of unemployment have created a cumulative build up in debt and a general attitude toward debt that perpetuates a desire for “more-of-the-same.”

And, over this past fifty years, the purchasing power of the dollar has declined by 85%; the under-employed in the country are in excess of 20% of the working force; and the income distribution has become dramatically skewed toward higher income recipients.

Not surprisingly, the economic and financial crisis of the past few years has been met with calls for more fiscal stimulus and wide-open monetary policy. The result: yearly federal government budget deficits of over $1.5 trillion with an estimated cumulative deficit over the next ten years in excess of $15 trillion. In terms of monetary policy, excess reserves in the banking system have reached $1.2 trillion. All this, of course, to get the economy going again.

Here, however, is where moral hazard enters the picture. The behavior patterns of finance people, developed over the last fifty years, “kicks in” once people see that the same old spending habits of the government are still in place.

I call your attention to the opinion piece by John Plender in the Financial Times this morning, “Bad Habits of Credit Bubble Make Worrying Comeback.” (

Mr. Plender begins: “Here we go again. The start of the year in debt markets has been marked by record low yields on junk bonds, declining underwriting standards and a return of the more dangerous innovations of yesteryear such as payment-in-kind toggles which allow borrowers to issue more debt to pay the interest bill. Even covenant-life loans, where normal borrowing conditions are shelved, have made a comeback in the leveraged buyout market and elsewhere, at a time when hapless small and medium sized firms are hard pressed to find credit.

A surplus of savings over investment is thus building up in the system and the US is once again accommodating the savings gluttons with an ongoing commitment to loose policy…No surprise, then, that the search for yield is back in evidence. With Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke keeping policy interest rates at rock bottom, investors are being driven into riskier assets such as junk bonds and leveraged loans.”

Has the “music” started up once more so that people must start dancing again? Someone call “Chuck” Prince, former chairman of Citigroup, to get his “take” on the timing.

Fifty year policies are not just present in the economic policies of government. They exist elsewhere as well. Check out the Tom Friedman’s column “If Not Now, When?” in the New York Times this morning. (

Here Friedman discusses energy policy: “For the last 50 years, America (and Europe and Asia) have treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big gas stations: Saudi station, Iran station, Kuwait station, Bahrain station, Egypt station, Libya station, Iraq station, United Arab Emirates station, etc. Our message to the region has been very consistent: ‘Guys (it was only guys we spoke with), here’s the deal. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we’re concerned, you can do whatever you want out back. You can deprive your people of whatever civil rights you like. You can engage in however much corruption you like. You can preach whatever intolerance from your mosques that you like. You can print whatever conspiracy theories about us in your newspapers that you like. You can keep your women as illiterate as you like. You can create whatever vast welfare-state economies, without any innovative capacity, that you like. You can undereducate your youth as much as you like. Just keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t hassle the Jews too much — and you can do whatever you want out back.’”

Fifty years is a long time. The buildup of fifty years of economic policies and energy policies can result in a lot of excess baggage hanging around that must be dealt with. A fifty-year build up not only requires a major re-structuring of nations and economies, it also requires a huge shift in the mindset of many, many people.

You want the deficit to come down in the short run and monetary policy to be reversed because it is potentially inflationary? It just ain’t going to happen in the near term.
You want an energy policy that is going to immediately get us off of oil so that we can stop subsidizing dictators and autocrats in the Middle East? It just ain’t going to happen in the near term.

And, so on and so on…

What seems to be missing is the leadership to change our mindset and develop a new paradigm that will set us on a pathway to re-structure our economy and our lives. I don’t think we want to dance the same old dance we have been doing for the past fifty years. Yet, it seems as if we have no choice but to start dancing again because the bank has begun to play the music once more.

The leadership just does not seem to be here, either in America, or in Europe, or in Asia. And, no one is strong enough to want to inflict on people the consequences of ‘getting the house in order again.’ I guess one can say, in line with the earlier comments of the mayor-elect of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, that the leadership in the United States (and in Europe and in Asia) has “”let a crisis go to waste!”

The question that is still unanswered is “Has Keynes’ long-run arrived yet or do we still have to wait for it?” If it has not arrived yet, then it is still to come. Payment will be collected sometime. However, if this ‘long-run’ is still to come then my advice to those that work in financial institutions or in the financial markets is…start dancing again if you haven’t already started for the music has begun once again.

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