Last week in an interview on CBS Network News, Economist Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody's, unwittingly revealed a central error of the global economic establishment. Zandi has made a career out of finding the middle ground between republican and democrat economic talking points. As a result of this skill, he has been rewarded with large quantities of airtime from media outlets that want to appear non-partisan, despite the fact that his supposedly neutral analysis often leaves listeners frustrated. When asked about the recent deterioration in the global economy, Zandi said that "the worst possible scenario" at present would occur if Greece were to leave the Eurozone. He claimed that the economic gyrations and liquidations of bad debt that would result from such an exit would be sufficient to create a vicious cycle that could drag the global economy back into recession. As a result, he urged policy makers to take whatever steps necessary to maintain the current integrity of the 17 nation Eurozone. Given what most economists now know, few would actively argue that Greece's entrance into the Eurozone back in 2001 was a good idea. In fact most concede it was a terrible idea based on bad forecasting and outright fraud. There is little disagreement over the fact that Greece grossly misrepresented its financial position in order to gain initial entry into the monetary union. It is also widely agreed upon that in the ensuing decade Greece exploited its monetary advantages to borrow irresponsibly. Much has been written about how the fundamental misfit between Greece's economy and currency gave birth to a deeply flawed system that was destined to run off the rails. Most also agree that the countries like Greece and Germany are too economically and culturally disparate to exist under the same monetary umbrella. But despite all this, Zandi wants to maintain the status quo. In his opinion, it is so imperative to prevent the deflationary consequences of an economic restructuring that it is preferable to prop up a failed system, perhaps indefinitely, rather than allow a newer, healthier system to replace it. In the process, the moral hazard created not only assures that Greece will become an even greater burden on Europe, but so too will other nations whose leaders will be emboldened in their profligacy by the anticipation of similar help. From Zandi's perspective (and he is certainly in the majority on this point) the goal of economic policy is to keep GDP growing. It follows then that he will oppose large-scale debt liquidations which drag down GDP in the short term. But sometimes debt needs to be liquidated. Bad ideas need to be abandoned. Once economies stop throwing good money after bad, capital is freed up to flow into more economically viable purposes. But economists and politicians never look at the long term. Their job seems to be to manage the economy for the next election. The same "damn the torpedoes" mentality dominates economic thinking with respect to the U.S. economy as well. Years of artificially low interest rates, and government subsidies that direct capital towards certain sectors and away from others, has created an economy with too little savings and production, and too much borrowing and consumption. The ultra-low interest rates currently supplied by the Fed serve to perpetuate this unsustainable artificial economy. Higher rates would work quickly to redirect capital to the more productive sectors. But high rates could bring deflation and liquidation, which few economists are prepared to risk. We have too many shopping malls selling stuff, but not enough factories making stuff. We have too many kids in college studying liberal arts, and not enough in the workforce acquiring skills that will actually increase their productivity. Banks are loaning too much money to individuals to buy houses, and not enough money to entrepreneurs to buy equipment. We have too many tax-takers riding in the wagon, and not enough taxpayers pulling it. The list is long, but the solutions are short. We need to let interest rates rise to market levels, and allow the economy to restructure without government interference. We need to stop beating a dead horse and hitch our wagon to an animal that can really pull. The process will be painful for many, but like ripping off a band-aid, the pain will be over relatively quickly. However, since a painful restructuring means recession, politicians resist the cure with every fiber of their beings. So instead of a genuine recovery, one that will provide productive jobs and rising living standards, we get a phony recovery that produces neither. Preserving a broken system merely to avoid the pain necessary to fix it only makes the situation worse. Propping up sectors that should be contracting prevents resources from flowing to other sectors that should be expanding. Keeping workers employed in nonproductive jobs prevents them from gaining productive employment elsewhere. Encouraging activity or behavior the market would otherwise punish discourages alternatives that it would otherwise reward. Unfortunately, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic put politics above economics, and economists like Mark Zandi provide the cover they need to get away with it. For in-depth analysis of this and other investment topics, subscribe to Peter Schiff's Global Investor newsletter. CLICK HERE for your free subscription.
As this fall's presidential election takes shape as a contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the rhetoric out of both camps is becoming sharper and more ideological. Looking to exploit Governor Romney's increasingly close association with Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan (who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee), the President dedicated a lengthy address earlier this week to specifically heap scorn on Ryan's budget plan (Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget Committee). The attack lines used by the President not only reveal a preview of the fall campaign but also offer a glimpse of Obama's skewed views of the social and economic history of the United States.
The President laid bare his beliefs that America's source of economic strength has been her historical embrace of collective action, wealth redistribution, and government policies that have protected workers from the ravages of the wealthy. To reiterate, he was talking about the United States, not Soviet Russia. He asserted that prosperity "grows outward from the middle class" and that it "never trickles down from the success of the wealthy." Accordingly, he concludes that our recent struggles stem from the Republican-led abandonment of these successful policies.
In reaching these conclusions Obama relies on classic "wet sidewalks cause rain" reasoning, and assumes that an effect can be the father of the cause. But as we debate how to move the American economy out of the rut in which it is trapped, it's important to know where to put the cart and where the horse.
To illustrate his point, Obama singled out auto pioneer Henry Ford, who famously paid among the highest wages in the world at that time his company began churning out Model T's. By paying such high wages Obama believes Ford created consumers who could afford to purchase his cars, thereby giving business the ability to grow. Based on this understanding, any program that puts money into the pockets of the average American consumer will be successful in creating growth, especially if those funds can be taxed from the wealthy, who are less likely to spend. Obama argues that Republican proposals that reign in government spending, and cut benefits to the middle or low incomes, are antithetical to this goal.
While it is true that the American middle class rose in tandem with her economic might, it was the success of the country's industrialists that allowed the middle class to arise. Capitalism unleashed the productive capacity of entrepreneurs and workers, which brought down the cost of goods to the point that high levels of consumption were possible for a wider cross section of individuals. While Henry Ford, as Obama noted, paid his workers well enough to buy Ford cars, those high wages would never have been possible, or his products affordable, if not for the personal innovation he, and other American industrialists, brought to the table in the first place.
The economists that Obama follows believe that business will only create jobs once they know consumers have the money to buy their products. But just as wet sidewalks don't cause rain, consumption does not lead to production. Rather, production leads to consumption. Something must be produced before it can be consumed.
Human demand is endless and does not need to be stimulated into existence. Suppose you want a new car, but then you lose your job and you decide to forgo the purchase. Has your desire (or demand) for the car lessened as a result of your diminished employment circumstances? If you are like most people, you still desire the car just as much, but you may decide not to buy it because of your reduced income. It's not that you no longer want the car (if someone offered it to you at 90% below the sticker price, you might still buy it). It's that you have lost the ability to afford it given its price and your income. The best way to transform demand into consumption is to lower prices to the point where things become affordable. Efficiently operating industries increase supply and bring down prices. This is what Ford did 100 years ago and Steve Jobs did much more recently.
But by introducing revolutionary manufacturing processes for the mass production of low-end vehicles, Ford was able to drastically lower the price of a product (cars) that were previously available only to the wealthy. Ford didn't create desire to buy cars, that existed independently. But he greatly expanded the quantity of inexpensive cars which allowed that demand to be fulfilled through consumption. In the process he created wealth for himself and his workers (his efficient techniques meant that workers could demand high wages) and higher living standards for society as a whole.
Obama believes that prosperity came only in the 20th century after the government began redistributing wealth from rich people like Henry Ford to the middle and lower classes. He ignores the fact that America's greatest growth streak occurred in the 19th rather than the 20th century, and that America had become by far the world's richest nation before any serious wealth redistribution even began.
The unfortunate part for the President is that wealth must first be produced before it can be redistributed. But redistribution always creates disincentives that result in less wealth being created. All societies that have attempted to create wealth through redistribution have failed miserably. This should be obvious to anyone who spends more than a few minutes studying world economic history. But the President is on a mission to get reelected and his ace in the hole is to fan the flames of class warfare. It's a tried and true political strategy, and he looks ready to ride that hobby horse until it breaks.
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Earlier this month the Labor Department reported that 227,000 new jobs were added to the economy in February, marking the third consecutive month of positive jobs growth. Many observers took the news as evidence that the recovery has taken hold in earnest, helping send the S&P 500 index to the highest level in nearly five years. However the very same day the Commerce Department reported that, after surging for much of the last year, the U.S. trade deficit increased to $52.6 billion for January, the largest monthly trade gap since October 2008. This second data set should dampen enthusiasm for the first.
Before the financial crisis banished the data to the back pages, America's growing trade imbalances used to be a hot topic. From 2005 through mid-2008 those monthly figures almost always topped $50 or $60 billion, setting a monthly record of $67.3 billion in August 2006. But when the housing and credit markets imploded, attention was focused elsewhere. In any event, the faltering economy took a huge bite out of imports, pushing the trade deficit down 45% in 2009. Even those people who were still paying attention to trade assumed that the problem was solving itself.
However, after reaching a monthly low of $35.7 billion in May of 2009, the trade deficit began to grow again, expanding 31% in 2010 and 12% in 2011. While the $52.6 billion deficit in January is still about 10% below the monthly average seen in 2006-2008, if GDP continues to nominally expand, as many assume it will, we may soon find ourselves in the exact same place in terms of trade that we were in before the financial crisis began. That's not a good place to be.
If the jobs that we have created over the last few years had been productive, our trade deficit would now be shrinking, not growing. But the opposite is happening. These jobs are being created by the expenditure of borrowed money, and are not helping to forge a newer more competitive economy. In the years before the real estate crash, our economy created millions of jobs in construction, mortgage finance and real estate sales. But as soon as the bubble burst, those jobs disappeared. Today's jobs are similarly being built as a consequence of another bubble, this time in government debt. And, likewise, when this bubble bursts they too will vanish.
Throughout much of the last decade I had continuously warned that the growing trade deficit was an unmistakable sign that the U.S. was on an unsustainable path. To me, monthly gaps of $60 billion simply meant that Americans were going deeper into debt (to the tune of $2,400 per year, per citizen) in order to buy products that we were no longer productive enough to make ourselves. I pointed out that America had become an economic juggernaut in the 19th and 20th centuries on the back of our enormous trade surpluses, which allowed for growing wealth, a stronger currency, and greater economic power abroad. This is exactly what China is doing today. Deficits reverse these benefits. (To learn how China is spending its surplus, see the article in our latest newsletter.)
My critics almost universally dismissed these concerns, typically saying that our trade deficits resulted from our economic strength and that they were a natural consequence of our status at the top of the global food chain. I pointed out that even highly developed, technologically advanced economies still need to pay for their imports with exports of equal value. Instead all that we were, and are, exporting was debt and inflation.
The financial crisis initiated a painful, but needed, process whereby Americans spent less on imported products while manufacturing more products to send abroad. But the countless government fiscal and monetary stimuli stopped this healing process dead in its tracks. Government borrowing and spending redirected capital back into the unproductive portions of our economy. Health care, education, government, and retail have all expanded in the last few years. But manufacturing has not grown at the pace needed to solve the trade problem. Job creation at home has been like vegetation sprouting along the banks of rivers of stimulus. These artificial channels may help temporarily, but they prevent trees from taking root where they are needed most. Our economy has yet to restructure itself in a healthy manner. The recession should have forced us to address the problem of persistent and enormous trade deficits. We have utterly failed to do this. So while the job numbers look good for now, the pattern is ultimately unsustainable.
The last time the monthly trade deficit was north of $50 billion, the official unemployment rate was under 6% and our labor force was considerably larger. Should this artificial recovery actually return millions of unemployed to service sector employment, our monthly trade deficits could go much higher, perhaps eclipsing the previous records of 2006. It is possible that the annual deficits could top the $1 trillion mark, thereby joining the federal budget deficit in 13-digit territory.
Also last week, we got news that our fourth quarter current account deficit widened 15% to just over $124 billion. The five hundred billion of annual red ink is actually reduced by a $50 billion surplus in investment income (resulting primarily from foreign holdings of low-yielding U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities -- however, when interest rates eventually rise, this surplus will quickly turn into a huge deficit). At anything close to a historic average in employment and interest rates, today's structural imbalances could produce annual current account deficits well north of $1 trillion. As higher interest rates would also swell the federal budget deficit, it is worth asking ourselves how long the world will be willing to finance our multi-trillion dollar deficits?
Back in the late 1980s, when annual trade and budget deficits were but a small fraction of today's levels, the markets were rightly concerned about America's ability to sustain its twin deficits. This anxiety helped lead to the stock market crash of 1987. More recently, large and persistent trade deficits were a significant factor in building the imbalances that caused the U.S. economy to implode in 2008. But in recent years, most Americans have lost their concern with gaping trade deficits. I believe it will soon come back with a vengeance.
Offered to the House Sub-Committee on Government Reform and Stimulus Oversight
September 13, 2011
Mr. Chairman, Mr. Ranking member, and all distinguished members of this panel. Thank you for inviting me here today to offer my opinions as to how the government can help the American economy recover from the worst crisis in living memory.
Despite the understandable human tendency to help others, government spending cannot be a net creator of jobs. Indeed many efforts currently under consideration by the Administration and Congress will actively destroy jobs. These initiatives must stop. While it is easy to see how a deficit-financed government program can lead to the creation of a specific job, it is much harder to see how other jobs are destroyed by the diversion of capital and resources. It is also difficult to see how the bigger budget deficits sap the economy of vitality, destroying jobs in the process.
In a free market jobs are created by profit seeking businesses with access to capital. Unfortunately Government taxes and regulation diminish profits, and deficit spending and artificially low interest rates inhibit capital formation. As a result unemployment remains high, and will likely continue to rise until policies are reversed.
It is my belief that a dollar of deficit spending does more damage to job creation than a dollar of taxes. That is because taxes (particularly those targeting the middle or lower income groups) have their greatest impact on spending, while deficits more directly impact savings and investment. Contrary to the beliefs held by many professional economists spending does not make an economy grow. Savings and investment are far more determinative. Any program that diverts capital into consumption and away from savings and investment will diminish future economic growth and job creation.
Creating jobs is easy for government, but all jobs are not equal. Paying people to dig ditches and fill them up does society no good. On balance these “jobs” diminish the economy by wasting scarce land, labor and capital. We do not want jobs for the sake of work, but for the goods and services they produce. As it has a printing press, the government could mandate employment for all, as did the Soviet Union. But if these jobs are not productive, and government jobs rarely are, society is no better for it.
This is also true of the much vaunted “infrastructure spending.” Any funds directed toward infrastructure deprive the economy of resources that might otherwise have funded projects that the market determines have greater economic value. Infrastructure can improve an economy in the log-run, but only if the investments succeeds in raising productivity more than the cost of the project itself. In the interim, infrastructure costs are burdens that an economy must bear, not a means in themselves.
Unfortunately our economy is so weak and indebted that we simply cannot currently afford many of these projects. The labor and other resources that would be diverted to finance them are badly needed elsewhere.
Although it was labeled and hyped as a “jobs plan,” the new $447 billion initiative announced last night by President Obama is merely another government stimulus program in disguise. Like all previous stimuli that have been injected into the economy over the past three years, this round of borrowing and spending will act as an economic sedative rather than a stimulant. I am convinced that a year from now there will be even more unemployed Americans than there are today, likely resulting in additional deficit financed stimulus that will again make the situation worse.
The President asserted that the spending in the plan will be “paid for” and will not add to the deficit. Conveniently, he offered no details about how this will be achieved. Most likely he will make non-binding suggestions that future congresses “pay” for this spending by cutting budgets five to ten years in the future. In the meantime money to fund the stimulus has to come from someplace. Either the government will borrow it legitimately from private sources, or the Federal Reserve will print. Either way, the adverse consequences will damage economic growth and job creation, and lower the living standards of Americans.
There can be no doubt that some jobs will in fact be created by this plan. However, it is much more difficult to identify the jobs that it destroys or prevents from coming into existence. Here’s a case in point: the $4,000 tax credit for hiring new workers who have been unemployed for six months or more. The subsidy may make little difference in effecting the high end of the job market, but it really could make an impact on minimum wage jobs where rather than expanding employment it will merely increase turnover.
Since an employer need only hire a worker for 6 months to get the credit, for a full time employee, the credit effectively reduces the $7.25 minimum wage (from the employer’s perspective) to only $3.40 per hour for a six-month hire. While minimum wage jobs would certainly offer no enticement to those collecting unemployment benefits, the lower effective rate may create some opportunities for teenagers and some low skilled individuals whose unemployment benefits have expired. However, most of these jobs will end after six months so employers can replace those workers with others to get an additional tax credit.
Of course the numbers get even more compelling for employers to provide returning veterans with temporary minimum wage jobs, as the higher $5,600 tax credit effectively reduces the minimum wage to only $1.87 per hour. If an employer hires a “wounded warrior”, the tax credit is $9,600 which effectively reduces the six-month minimum wage by $9.23 to negative $1.98 per hour. This will encourage employers to hire a “wounded warrior” even if there is nothing for the employee to do. Such an incentive may encourage such individuals to acquire multiple no-show jobs form numerous employers. As absurd as this sounds, history has shown that when government created incentives, the public will twist themselves into pretzels to qualify for the benefit.
The plan creates incentives for employers to replace current minimum wage workers with new workers just to get the tax credit. Low skill workers are the easiest to replace as training costs are minimal. The laid off workers can collect unemployment for six months and then be hired back in a manner that allows the employer to claim the credit. The only problem is that the former worker may prefer collecting extended unemployment benefits to working for the minimum wage!
The $4,000 credit for hiring the unemployed as well as the explicit penalties for discriminating against the long-term unemployed will result in a situation where employers will be far more likely to interview and hire applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. Under the law, employers would be wise to refuse to interview anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months, as any subsequent decision not to hire could be met with a lawsuit. However, to get the tax credit they would be incentivized to interview applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. If they are never hired there can be no risk of a lawsuit, but if they are hired, the start date can be planned to qualify for the credit.
The result will simply create classes of winners (those unemployed for four or five months) and losers (the newly unemployed and the long term unemployed). Ironically, the law banning discrimination against long-term unemployed will make it much harder for such individuals to find jobs.
At present, I am beginning to feel that over regulation of business and employment, and an overly complex and punitive tax code is currently a bigger impediment to job growth than is our horrific fiscal and monetary policies. As a business owner I know that reckless government policy can cause no end of unintended consequences.
As I see it, here are the biggest obstacles preventing job growth:
Interest rates are much too low. Cheap money produced both the stock market and real estate bubbles, and is currently facilitating a bubble in government debt. When this bubble bursts the repercussions will dwarf the shock produced by the financial crisis of 2008. Interest rates must be raised to bring on a badly needed restructuring of our economy. No doubt an environment of higher rates will cause short-term pain. But we need to move from a “borrow and spend” economy to a “save and produce” economy. This cannot be done with ultra-low interest rates. In the short-term GNP will need to contract. There will be a pickup in transitory unemployment. Real estate and stock prices will fall. Many banks will fail. There will be more foreclosures. Government spending will have to be slashed. Entitlements will have to be cut. Many voters will be angry. But such an environment will lay the foundation upon which a real recovery can be built.
The government must allow our bubble economy to fully deflate. Asset prices, wages, and spending must fall, interest rates, production, and savings must rise. Resources, including labor, must be reallocated away from certain sectors, such as government, services, finance, health care, and educations, and be allowed to into manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, agriculture, and other goods producing fields. We will never borrow and spend our way out of a crisis caused by too much borrowing and spending. The only way out is to reverse course.
To create conditions that foster growth, the government should balance the budget with major cuts in government spending, severely reform and simplify the tax code. It would be preferable if all corporate and personal taxes could be replaces by a national sales tax. Our current tax system discourages the activities that we need most: hard work, production, savings, investment, and risk taking. Instead it incentivizes consumption and debt. We should tax people when they spend their wealth, not when they create it. High marginal income tax rates inflict major damage to job creation, as the tax is generally paid out of money that otherwise would have been used to finance capital investment and job creation.
Regulations have substantially increased the costs and risks associated with job creation. Employers are subjected to all sorts of onerous regulations, taxes, and legal liability. The act of becoming an employer should be made as easy as possible. Instead we have made it more difficult. In fact, among small business owners, limiting the number of employees is generally a goal. This is not a consequence of the market, but of a rational desire on the part of business owners to limit their cost and legal liabilities. They would prefer to hire workers, but these added burdens make it preferable to seek out alternatives.
In my own business, securities regulations have prohibited me from hiring brokers for more than three years. I was even fined fifteen thousand dollar expressly for hiring too many brokers in 2008. In the process I incurred more than $500,000 in legal bills to mitigate a more severe regulatory outcome as a result of hiring too many workers. I have also been prohibited from opening up additional offices. I had a major expansion plan that would have resulted in my creating hundreds of additional jobs. Regulations have forced me to put those jobs on hold.
In addition, the added cost of security regulations have forced me to create an offshore brokerage firm to handle foreign accounts that are now too expensive to handle from the United States. Revenue and jobs that would have been created in the U.S. are now being created abroad instead. In addition, I am moving several asset management jobs from Newport Beach, California to Singapore.
As Congress turns up the heat, more of my capital will continue to be diverted to my foreign companies, creating jobs and tax revenues abroad rather than in the United States.
To encourage real and lasting job growth the best thing the government can do is to make it as easy as possible for business to hire and employ people. This means cutting down on workplace regulations. It also means eliminating the punitive aspects of employment law that cause employers to think twice about hiring. To be blunt, the easier employees are to fire, the higher the likelihood they will be hired. Some steps Congress could take now include:
a. Abolish the Federal Minimum Wage
Minimum wages have never raised the wages of anyone and simply draw an arbitrary line that separates the employable from the unemployable. Just like prices, wages are determined by supply and demand. The demand for workers is a function of how much productivity a worker can produce. Setting the wage at $7.25 simply means that only those workers who can produce goods and services that create more than $7.25 (plus all additional payroll associated costs) per hour are eligible for jobs. Those who can’t, become permanently unemployable. The artificial limits encourage employers to look to minimize hires and to automate wherever possible.
By putting many low skill workers (such as teenagers) below the line, the minimum wage prevents crucial on the job training, which could provide workers with the experience and skills needed to earn higher wages.
b. Repeal all Federal workplace anti-discrimination Laws
One of the reasons unemployment is so high among minorities is that business owners (particularly small business) are wary of legal liability associated with various categories of protected minorities. The fear of litigation, and the costly judgments that can ensue, are real. Given that it is nearly impossible for an employer to control all the aspects of the workplace environment, litigation risk is a tangible consideration. Given all the legal avenues afforded by legislation, minority employees are much more likely to sue employers. To avoid this, some employers simply look to avoid this outcome by sticking with less risky employee categories. It is not racism that causes this discrimination, but a rational desire to mitigate liability. The reality is that a true free market would punish employers that discriminate based on race or other criteria irrelevant to job performance. That is because businesses that hire based strictly on merit would have a competitive advantage. Anti-discrimination laws titled the advantage to those who discriminate.
c. Repeal all laws mandating employment terms such as work place conditions, over-time, benefits, leave, medical benefits, etc.
Employment is a voluntary relationship between two parties. The more room the parties have to negotiate and agree on their own terms, the more likely a job will be created. Rules imposed from the top create inefficiencies that limit employment opportunities. Employee benefits are a cost of employment, and high value employees have all the bargaining power they need to extract benefits from employers. They are free to search for the best benefits they can get just as they search for the best wages.
Companies that do not offer benefits will lose employees to companies that do. Just as employees are free to leave companies at will, so too should employers be free to terminate an employee without fear of costly repercussions. Individuals should not gain rights because they are employees, and individuals should not lose rights because they become employers.
d. Abolish extended unemployment benefits
In addition to being a source of emergency funds, unemployment benefits over time become more of a disincentive to employment than anything else (although the disincentive diminishes with the worker’s skill level -- i.e. high wage workers are unlikely to forego a high wage job opportunity to preserve unemployment benefits). For marginally skilled workers unemployment insurance is a major factor in determining if a job should be taken or not.
Even if unemployment pays a significant fraction of the wage a worker would get with a full time job, the money may be enough to convince the worker to stay home. After all, there are costs associated with having a job. Not only does a worker pay payroll and income taxes on any wages he earns, the loss of unemployment benefits itself acts as a tax. Plus workers must pay for such job related expenses as transportation, clothing, restaurant meals, dry cleaning and childcare, and they must forgo other work that they could do in their free time (providing care for loved ones, home improvement, etc.).
Understandably, most people also find leisure time preferable to work. As a result, any job that does not offer a major monetary advantage to unemployment benefits will likely be turned down. This entrenches unemployment insurance recipients into a class of permanently unemployed workers.
It is no accident that employment increases immediately after unemployment insurance expires for many categories of workers. In fact, many individual will seek to max out their benefits, and remain unemployed until those benefits expire. If they work at all, it will be for cash under-the-table, so as not to leave any money on the table.
Although it was labeled and hyped as a "jobs plan," the new $447 billion initiative announced last night by President Obama is merely another government stimulus program in disguise. But semantics are of supreme importance in American politics...some could argue that word choice is the only thing that matters. As a result, despite the fact that this plan bears no substantive difference from previous stimulus bills, the President never once mentioned the word "stimulus" in his hour-long speech. But a rotten banana by any other name still stinks.
Like all previous stimuli, this round of borrowing and spending will act as an economic sedative rather than a stimulant. Running up the deficit in the short-run will not grow the economy, but will merely dig it into a deeper hole. A year from now there will be even more unemployed Americans than there are today, likely resulting in additional deficit financed stimulus that will again make the situation worse.
The President asserted that the spending in the plan will be "paid for" and will not add to the deficit. Conveniently, he offered no details about how this will be achieved. Most likely he will make non-binding suggestions to future congresses to "pay" for this spending by cutting budgets five to ten years in the future. History is absolutely clear on one point: politicians never pass cuts promised by prior politicians. In other words...the check is in the mail. So I will make the fairly riskless assumption that the plan will be financed by deficit spending. If so, the negatives associated with greater deficits will overwhelm any perceived benefit the spending will generate.
President Obama claims he wants to put money into the pockets of American consumers. The problem is the government's own pockets are empty. In order to put money in the pocket of one American, it must first pick the pocket of another. The problem is that it takes more from the pockets it picks than it puts into the pockets it fills.
In the meantime money to fund the stimulus has to come from somewhere. Either the government will borrow it legitimately, or the Federal Reserve will print. Either way, the adverse consequences will damage economic growth and job creation, and lower the living standards of Americans.
There can be no doubt that some jobs will in fact be created by this plan. However, it is much more difficult to identify the jobs that it destroys or prevents from coming into existence. Here's a case in point: the $4,000 tax credit for hiring new workers who have been unemployed for six months or more.
The subsidy may make little difference in effecting the high end of the job market. An employer will not pay a worker $50,000 per year simply to qualify for a one-time $4,000 credit. But the effects will be felt on minimum wage jobs where rather than expanding employment it will merely increase turnover.
Since an employer need only hire a worker for 6 months to get the credit, for a full time employee, the credit effectively reduces the $7.25 minimum wage (from the employer's perspective) to only $3.40 per hour for a six month hire. While minimum wage jobs would certainly offer no enticement to those collecting unemployment benefits, the lower effective rate may create some opportunities for teenagers and some low skilled individuals whose unemployment benefits have expired. However, most of these jobs will end after six months so employers can replace those workers with others to get an additional tax credit.
Of course the numbers get even more compelling for employers to provide returning veterans with temporary minimum wage jobs, as the higher $5,600 tax credit effectively reduces the minimum wage to only $1.87 per hour. If an employer hires a "wounded warrior" the tax credit is $9,600 which effectively reduces the six month minimum wage by $9.23 to negative $1.98 per hour. This will encourage employers to hire a "wounded warrior" even if there is nothing for the employee to do. Such an incentive may even encourage such individuals to acquire multiple no-show jobs from numerous employers. History has shown that when government creates incentives, the public will twist themselves into pretzels to qualify for the benefits.
The plan creates incentives for employers to replace current minimum wage workers with new workers just to get the tax credit. Low skill workers are the easiest to replace as training costs are minimal. The laid off workers can collect unemployment for six months and then be hired back in a manner that allows the employer to claim the credit. The only problem is that the former worker may prefer collecting extended unemployment benefits to working for the minimum wage!
The $4,000 credit for hiring the unemployed as well as the explicit penalties for discriminating against the long term unemployed will result in a situation where employers will be far more likely to interview and hire applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. Under the law, employers would be wise to decline interviews with anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months, as any subsequent decision not to hire could be met with a lawsuit. However, to get the tax credit they would be incentivized to interview applicants who have been unemployed for just under six months. If they are never hired there can be no risk of a lawsuit, but if they are hired, the start date can be planned to qualify for the credit.
The result will simply create classes of winners (those unemployed for four or five months) and losers (the newly unemployed and the long term unemployed). Ironically, the law banning discrimination against long-term unemployed will make it much harder for those people to find jobs.
Another problem is the President's intention to help under-water homeowners refinance their mortgages with lower rates. While this will certainly be good for the borrowers, it will be horrific for the banks holding the loans. The borrower's gain is simultaneously offset by the bank's loss. This will further impair the solvency of our banking sector, exacerbating the losses and failures when rates rise, thereby increase the costs to taxpayers of the next round of bailouts.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the President claims his payroll tax cuts will not endanger the Social Security Trust Fund, as the government will replace the lost "contributions" with transfers from general revenue. In other words, the government will borrow money, put it in a phony trust fund, then borrow the same money back from the trust funds and spend it on the stimulus. It is amazing the theatrics the government will go through to maintain the illusion that trust funds actually exist. The tragedy is that Americans continue to buy the charade and even heap scorn on those, like Rick Perry, who has the temerity to point out that the emperor is naked.
The truth of course is that no real economic growth or job creation is going to occur until the failed policies of both Obama and Bush are reversed. In his speech the President mourned the death of the American dream. Obama should stop killing it. To revive that dream we need to revive the American spirit that produced it in the first place. That means returning to our traditional values of limited government and sound money. Unfortunately we are still headed in the wrong direction.
This morning many on Wall Street were stunned by the big fat zero put up by the August jobs report, the worst showing in 11 months. The data convinced many previously optimistic economists that the United States will slip back into recession. I believe that we have been in one giant recession all along that was only temporarily interrupted by trillions of useless and destructive deficit and stimulus spending. Unfortunately, the August numbers will increase the talk of government efforts to stimulate the economy.
But while President Obama prepares to unveil a new plan for the Federal Government to create jobs, evidence is rapidly piling up on how his Administration is actively destroying jobs with stunning efficiency. Recent examples of this trend are enough to make anyone with even a casual respect for America's former economic prowess hang their head in disgust.
The assault on private sector employment began in April when the democrat controlled National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint seeking to force Boeing aircraft to move Boeing's newly opened non-union production facilities in South Carolina back to its union controlled plants in Washington State. Although Boeing simply says that it is looking to open a cost effective domestic manufacturing facility (an endangered species) to employ American workers, the NLRB alleges that the company was punishing union workers in Washington for past strikes. Despite a lack of any direct evidence that Boeing was being punitive, and the fact that the company was not laying off any union workers, the NLRB has not backed down. Against little public support and nearly universal revulsion among business leaders, the NLRB is continuing its campaign to keep Boeing from exercising its freedoms and to employ people in a manner that makes sense for its business.
The Boeing move served notice that the Obama's loyalties were firmly tied to the Union interests that were so critical to his election in 2008. This week, the anti-business tendencies of the administration came into even sharper focus.
In the telecommunications industry, service provider AT&T made the seemingly essential move in its attempt to acquire wireless specialist T-Mobile. But the Justice Department sued to block the $39 billion deal on antitrust grounds, saying that the merger between the second and fourth largest cell phone providers would unfairly restrict competition and raise prices.
In so doing, the DOJ seems to be operating under the assumption, without any direct evidence, that at least four companies are needed to provide healthy choice in the marketplace, and that three providers simply won't cut it. More broadly, competition may increasingly come from outside the telecommunications sector (in particular from cable and satellite industries). Plus, with the speed of technological change, who knows what types of competitors will arise in the years to come. The situation reminds me of the broken merger in 2004 and 2005 between Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video. Based on antitrust concerns emanating from the Justice Department, Blockbuster backed off from the deal. Of course, just a few years later the whole sector was made obsolete by Netflix, and any advantage Blockbuster would have gained would have only been temporary.
In light of the current and future competition that is sure to change the way consumers talk with one another over great distances, AT&T and T-Mobile are much better positioned to survive as a combined entity. In any event if AT&T can't buy T-Mobile, someone else will. The company's parent, Deutsche Telecom, has stated its intention to divest itself of its American subsidiary.
So why not help American business survive in an increasingly competitive market? Most likely antitrust lawyers at the DOJ have been otherwise bored with the lack of merger deals to scrutinize (another downside to a weak economy), and this transaction just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the legal activism will certainly cost jobs. Even the unions recognize this and have supported the merger.
But the absurdity of the current environment reached a peak when the DOJ, and agents from, get this, the U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service, raided the Nashville factory of the legendary Gibson Guitar company. The raid resulted in agents carting off more than a half million dollars of supplies and essentially shutting the company down. The take down of one of America's commercial icons apparently resulted from Gibson's purchase of partially finished ebony and rosewood guitar fingerboards (these endangered trees are carefully managed) from an Indian supplier.
Now here's the interesting part. The Indian government had issued no complaint about the transactions and there was no evidence that the company had violated U.S. law. The DOJ acted simply on suspicion that Gibson had violated Indian law. Since when do U.S. companies have to make sure that they comply with laws of every country in the world before they produce a product?
After speaking to him, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the stunning economic incompetence of our government officials, who in the cause of arbitrary regulatory nitpicking, seem willing to sacrifice the reputation and prospects of one of the few remaining American manufacturers. God help us all.
On the other side of the coin, the government's own efforts to create jobs in the private sector have met with little success. It was announced yesterday that Solyndra LLC of Fremont California, a manufacturer of solar panel has filed for bankruptcy protection and has laid off its remaining 1,100 workers. The development is notable because the company was a veritable poster child of the Obama Administration. The president himself visited their facilities in May of 2010 and touted the company as the template for America's "green technology" future. As a result of its politically advantageous profile the company was able to secure $535 million in loans guaranteed by the government.
But apparently government blessing does not guarantee market success. Unfortunately, Solyndra could not sell its products profitably despite the government support and cheerleading. Instead $535 million in investment capital was diverted from potentially money making enterprises to a money losing enterprise. This is what happens when government calls the shots.
When it comes to the financial sector, the government can't seem to decide whether it wants to preserve jobs or destroy them. After bailing out the banks three years ago (and making some of them too big to fail), it was reported today that the government is preparing to launch a multi-billion dollar lawsuit to recoup losses that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac suffered on mortgage backed bonds (loans that the government itself encouraged the banks to make). If the government were to prevail, job losses would surely emerge in the sector, and the government may need to bail out the banks once again!
So as we wait with eager anticipation as to what the President may reveal in his jobs speech next week, you can be sure that it's not going to help America regain its competitive edge. The sooner we regard the government as a job killer rather than a job creator, the sooner we can all get back to work.
This past Sunday on the CBS program “60 Minutes”, Americans received a massive dose of mendacity from our Fed Chairman. Mr. Bernanke’s shaky delivery, and even shakier logic may cause faith in America’s economic leadership to evaporate faster than the value of our dollar. In particular, Bernanke delivered two massive distortions:
Lie #1 - The Fed isn’t printing money. Bernanke stated: “The amount of currency in circulation is not changing…the money supply is not changing in any significant way. What we’re doing is lowering interest rates by buying Treasury securities.” Given that it is the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, not the Fed, that actually prints paper money, his statement is technically correct while substantively false. However, Bernanke is buying bank assets with Fed credit. With such an arrangement, printing becomes unnecessary.
According to gentle Ben, credit created to buy something should not be considered money and has no affect on asset prices? But if that’s true, why is he concentrating his buying in the middle of the Treasury yield curve. His stated purpose is to boost bond prices and lower yields in order to stimulate borrowing and aggregate demand. So pushing up bond prices is an act of inflation. Bernanke similarly contradicts himself by saying that he isn’t creating inflation, while at the same time claiming that his easing campaign is designed to boost asset prices to combat the phantom of deflation.
And by the way, the Fed is causing money supply to increase significantly. The compounded annual growth rate of M2 is over 7% in the last quarter. Apparently in the eyes of the Chairman, a 7% annualized increase in the broad money supply isn’t considered significant.
Lie #2- Bernanke is “100 % confident” that, when necessary, the Fed can control inflation and reverse its accommodative monetary policy. He stated, “We’ve been very, very clear that we will not allow inflation to rise above 2 percent. We could raise interest rates in 15 minutes if we have to. So, there really is no problem with raising rates, tightening monetary policy, slowing the economy, reducing inflation, at the appropriate time.” He failed to mention that the Fed doesn’t have thewill to drain money from the system, without which all tools are useless. The Fed has consistently demonstrated its unwillingness to take the appropriate actions when necessary. In claiming he is 100% confident in his ability to control inflation, Mr. Bernanke ignores the record that during his tenure he has misdiagnosed the economy.
In June of 2006, Bernanke culminated his inflation fighting efforts by raising the Fed Funds target rate to 5.25%, after CPI inflation reached 4.2%. But that interest rate was enough to help burst the housing bubble and to spark an international credit crisis. Bernanke was completely unaware that the Fed actions had created an economy that had become completely addicted to artificially-produced low interest rates and inflation.
Shortly after the collapse of the real estate market and the ensuing truncated deflationary-depression, Bernanke took interest rates to near zero percent. But if the Fed was ever really serious about unwinding excessive leverage, the time had clearly arrived. Instead, the U.S. economy has become more addicted to free money than at any other time in our history.
Commodity prices are soaring once again and the real estate market, banking sector, and the overall economy cling precariously on the arm of government induced bailouts and low interest rates. Even worse, our government has massively increased its level of debt, which now stands at just below $14 trillion. Once the rate of inflation eclipses the Fed’s 2% target rate, which appears likely, how then will the Fed raise rates to contain it? Could the economy then withstand an increase in the cost of home ownership? Most importantly, when will Mr. Bernanke find it politically tenable to dramatically increase debt service payments for the Federal government? In truth, there is never a convenient time to have a severe recession or a depression. Unfortunately, reality can be extremely inconvenient.
Bernanke was accurate in saying that the economy is not expanding at a sustainable pace. Of course, his prescription was the same as it always is; print more money in the misguided belief that inflation will lead to growth. As such, he indicated that it’s possible that the Fed may actually expand bond purchases beyond the $600 billion announced last month. (Remember that the $600 billion comes after the $1.7 trillion that has already been printed, which failed to produce anything much beyond a weaker dollar). Therefore, the country can look forward to yet more inflation, continued anemic GDP growth, a poorer citizenry, and a vastly lower standard of living.
On the bright side, the next segment on 60 Minutes outlined some of the new social networking capabilities being created by Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. In other words, although our economic misery will likely increase, it should become much easier to share the bad news with friends.
Today’s payroll report severely disappointed on the downside and left economists scratching their heads to explain the weakness. The explanation, however, is plain as day. As I have been saying for years, the US economy will not create jobs as long as the Fed keeps interest rates artificially low, and Congress keeps stimulating spending and consumer debt, punishing employers with mandates, regulations, and taxes, crowding out private investment with massive government borrowing, and preventing market forces from restructuring our out-of-balance economy.
As new data comes in that continues to bolster my hypothesis, the politicians in Washington continue to follow the wrong diagnosis, while ignoring evidence that their policy prescription has failed. Rather than reassessing the effectiveness of their remedy, they are merely prescribing more of the same.
No doubt the 9.8% unemployment rate (17% when counting the under-employed or discouraged workers) will spark another extension of unemployment benefits, which will provide yet additional incentives for the unemployed not to work. In addition, we will likely get another round of stimulus – paid for with higher budget deficits – that will further hinder the capital investment and business formation necessary to produce sustainable jobs. Then, the inflation created by the Fed to finance those deficits will send consumer prices higher, making life that much harder for all Americans, regardless of their employment status.
All the talk in Washington that demand must be stimulated to create jobs is farcical. The news reports of mobs of shoppers trampling over each other to fill their carts shows there is plenty of demand. What is truly lacking in our economy is supply. Those mobs are still filling their carts almost exclusively with imported products. If it were true that demand creates jobs, we would be at full employment right now, but the truth is that demand is meaningless without the productive means to supply the goods.
It’s ironic that extending unemployment benefits, one of the reasons unemployment remains so high in the first place, is actually being touted as a jobs bill. Keynesian proponents argue that giving money to unemployed people will create jobs wherever they spend their government cheese. This is utter nonsense.
If printing money and dolling it out to the unemployed could create growth and jobs, why hasn’t it already worked? After all, we have already extended benefits to 99 weeks. Where are all the jobs? Also, if every dollar of unemployment benefits generates two dollars of growth, as our legislators claim, why not double or triple the benefits? In fact, why limit them to the unemployed? Just give the benefits to everyone – then we will really get this economy going.
Politicians cannot create economic growth at will simply by doling out money. If it could, the Soviets would have won the Cold War. Handing out cash does not create additional production, it merely changes who benefits from existing production. Transferring purchasing power from producers to consumers undermines economic growth and destroys jobs.
For now, production is being supplied from abroad. But this dynamic merely worsens our trade imbalance, putting our nation deeper into debt. As the dollar losses purchasing power, foreign goods will become more expensive and American living standards will plummet.
What will it take for our leaders to realize that their solution is exacerbating the problem they are trying to solve? Unfortunately, I doubt they will learn until the situation becomes intolerable for the majority of voters. These jobs numbers bring us one step closer to that critical mass.
Unless politicians can be roused from their stupor, we will soon confront an imminent sovereign debt and currency crisis that will make the credit crisis of 2008 look like a happy interlude. Hopefully, when the first major shock strikes in the US, as is currently happening in Ireland and Portugal, it will finally provoke a 180-degree change of policy in Washington. Hopefully, it won't be too late to spare millions from a life of subsistence, or worse. These are my hopes, but my fear is that we are on the cusp on the largest economic downfall in modern history.
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