Why Today’s Fiscal Squeeze Imposes Needless Austerity
The financial sector promises that privatizing roads and ports, water and sewer systems, bus and railroad lines (on credit, of course) is more efficient and will lower the prices charged for their services. The reality is that the new buyers put up rent-extracting tollbooths on the infrastructure being sold. Their break-even costs include the high salaries and bonuses they pay themselves, as well as interest and dividends to their creditors and backers, spending on stock buy-backs and political lobbying.
Public borrowing creates a dependency that shifts economic planning to Wall Street and other financial centers. When voters resist, it is time to replace democracy with oligarchy. “Technocratic” rule replaces that of elected officials. In Europe the IMF, ECB and EU troika insists that all debts must be paid, even at the cost of austerity, depression, unemployment, emigration and bankruptcy. This is to be done without violence where possible, but with police-state practices when grabbers find it necessary to quell popular opposition.
Financializing the economy is depicted as a natural way to gain wealth – by taking on more debt. Yet it is hard to think of a more highly politicized policy, shaped as it is by tax rules that favor bankers. It also is self-terminating, because when public debt grows to the point where investors (“the market”) no longer believe that it can be repaid, creditors mount a raid (the military analogy is appropriate) by “going on strike” and not rolling over existing bonds as they fall due. Bond prices fall, yielding higher interest rates, until governments agree to balance the budget by voluntary pre-bankruptcy privatizations.
Selling Saved-up Treasury Bonds to Fund Public Programs is Like New Deficit Borrowing
If the aim of America’s military spending around the world is to prepare for future warfare, why not aim at saving up a fund of $10 trillion or even $30 trillion in advance, as with Social Security, so that we will have the money to pay for it?
The answer is that selling saved-up Treasury bills to finance Social Security, military spending or any other program has the same monetary and price effect as issuing new Treasury bills. The impact on financial markets – and on the private sector’s holding of government debt – by paying Social Security out of past savings – that is, by selling the Treasury securities in which Social Security funds are invested – is much like borrowing by selling new securities. It makes little difference whether the Treasury sells newly printed IOUs, or sells bonds that it has been accumulating in a special fund. The effect is to increase public debt owed to the financial sector.
If the savings are to be invested in Treasury bonds (as is the case with Social Security), will this pay for tax cuts elsewhere in the budget? If so, will these cuts be for the wealthy 1% or the 99%? Or, will the savings be invested in infrastructure, or turned over to states and cities to help balance their budget shortfalls and underfunded pension plans?
Another problem concerns who should pay for this pre-saving. The taxes needed to pre-fund a savings build-up siphon off income from somewhere in the economy. How much will the economy shrink by diverting income from being spent on goods and services? And whose income will taxed? These questions illustrate how politically self-interested it is to single out taxing wages to save for Social Security in contrast to war-making and beach-house rebuilding.
Government budgets usually are designed to be in balance under normal peacetime conditions, so most public debt has been brought into being by war (prior to today’s financial war of slashing taxes on the wealthy). Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Book V) traced how each new British bond issue to raise funds for a military action had a dedicated tax to pay its interest charges. The accumulation of such war debts thus raised the cost of living and hence the break-even price of labor. To prevent this from undercutting of British competitiveness, Smith urged that wars be waged on a pay-as-you-go basis – by full taxation rather than by borrowing and entailing interest payments and taxes (as the debt itself rarely was amortized). Smith thought that populations should feel the cost of war directly and immediately, presumably leading them to be vigilant in checking grandiose projects of empire.
The United States issued fiat greenback currency to pay for much of its Civil War, but also issued bonds. In analyzing this war finance the Canadian-American astronomer and monetary theorist Simon Newcomb pointed out that all wars must be paid for in the form of tangible material and lives by the generation that fights them. Paying for the war by borrowing from bondholders, he explained, involved levying taxes to pay the interest. The effect was to transfer income from the Western states (taxpayers) to bondholders in the East.
In the case of Social Security today the beneficiary of government debt is still the financial sector. The economy must provide the housing, food, health care, transportation and clothing to enable retirees to live normal lives. This economic surplus can be paid for either out of taxation, new money creation or borrowing. But instead of “the West,” the major payers of the Social Security tax are wage earners across the nation. Taxing labor shrinks markets and forces the economy into austerity.
Quantitative Easing as Free Money Creation – To Subsidize the Big Banks
The Federal Reserve’s three waves of Quantitative Easing since 2008 show how easy it is to create free money. Yet this has been provided only to the largest banks, not to strapped homeowners or industry. An immediate $2 trillion in “cash for trash” took the form of the Fed creating new bank-reserve credit in exchange for mortgage-backed securities valued far above market prices. QE2 provided another $800 billion in 2011-12. The banks used this injection of credit for interest rate arbitrage and exchange rate speculation on the currencies of Brazil, Australia and other high-interest-rate economies. So nearly all the Fed’s new money went abroad rather than being lent out for investment or employment at home.
U.S. Government debt was run up mainly to re-inflate prices for packaged bank mortgages, and hence real estate prices. Instead of alleviating private-sector debt by writing down mortgages in line with the homeowners’ ability to pay, the Federal Reserve and Treasury created money to support property prices – to push the banking system’s balance sheets back above negative net worth. The Fed’s QE3 program in 2012-13 created money to buy mortgage-backed securities each month, to provide banks with money to lend to new property buyers.
For the economy at large, the debts were left in place. Yet commentators focused only on government debt. In a double standard, they accused budget deficits of inflating wages and consumer prices, yet the explicit aim of quantitative easing was to support asset prices. Inflating asset prices on credit is deemed to be good for the economy, despite loading it down with debt. But public spending into the “real” economy, raising employment levels and sustaining consumer spending, is deemed bad – except when this is financed by personal borrowing from the banks. So in each case, increasing bank profits is the standard by which fiscal policy is to be judged!
The result is a policy asymmetry that is opposite from what most epochs have deemed fair or helpful to economic growth. Bankers and bondholders insist that the public sector borrow from them, blocking the government’s power to self-finance its operations – with one glaring exception. That exception occurs when the banks themselves need free money creation. The Fed provided nearly free credit to the banks under QE2, and Chairman Ben Bernanke promised to continue this policy until such time as the unemployment rate drops to 6.5%. The pretense is that low interest rates spur employment, but the most pressing aim is to provide easy credit to revive borrowing and bid asset prices back up.
Fiscal Deflation on Top of Debt Deflation
The main financial problem with funding war occurs after the return to normalcy, when creditors press for budget surpluses to roll back the public debt that has been run up. This imposes fiscal austerity, reducing wages and commodity prices relative to the debts that are owed. Consumer spending shrinks and prices decline as governments spend less, while higher taxes withdraw revenue. This is what is occurring in today’s financial war, much as it has in past military postwar returns to peace.
Governments have the power to resist this deflationary policy. Like commercial banks, they can create money on their computer keyboards. Indeed, since 2008 the government has created debt to support the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector more than the “real” production and consumption economy.
In contrast to public spending for goods and services (or social programs that increase market demand), most of the bank credit that led to the 2008 financial collapse was created to finance the purchase property already in place, stocks and bonds already issued, or companies already in existence. The effect has been to load down the economy with mortgages, bonds and bank debt whose carrying charges eat into spending on current output. The $13 trillion bank subsidy since 2008 (to enable banks to earn their way out of negative equity) brings us back to the question of why taxes should be levied on the 99% to pre-save for Social Security and Medicare, but not for the bank bailout.
Current tax policy encourages financial and rent extraction that has become the major economic problem of our epoch. Industrial productivity continues to rise, but debt is growing even more inexorably. Instead of fueling economic growth, this kind of credit/debt threatens to absorb the economic surplus, plunging the economy into austerity, debt deflation and negative equity.
So despite the fact that the financial system is broken, it has gained control over public policy to sustain and even obtain tax favoritism for a dysfunctional overgrowth of bank credit. Unlike the progress of science and technology, this debt is not part of nature. It is a social construct. The financial sector has politicized it by pressing to privatize economic rent rather than collect it as the tax base. This financialization of rent-extracting opportunities does not reflect a natural or inevitable evolution of “the market.” It is a capture of market structures and fiscal policy. Bank lobbyists have campaigned to shift the economic arena to the political sphere of lawmaking and tax policy, with side battlegrounds in the mass media and universities to capture the hearts and minds of voters to believe that the quickest and most efficient way to build up wealth is by bank credit and debt leverage.
Budget Deficits as an Antidote to Austerity
Public debts everywhere are growing, as taxes only cover part of public spending. The least costly way to finance this expenditure is to issue money – the paper currency and coins we carry in our pockets. Holders of this currency technically are creditors to the government – and to society, which accepts this money in payment. Yet despite being nominally a form of public debt, this money serves as public capital inasmuch as it is not normally expected to be repaid. This government money does not bear interest, and may be thought of as “equity capital” or “equity money,” and hence part of the economy’s net worth.
If taxes did fully cover government spending, there would be no budget deficit – or new public money creation. Government budget deficits pump money into the economy. Conversely, running a budget surplus retires the public debt or currency outstanding. This deflationary effect occurred in the late 19th-century, causing monetary deflation that plunged the U.S. economy into depression. Likewise when President Bill Clinton ran a budget surplus late in his administration, the economy relied on commercial banks to supply credit to use as the means of payment, charging interest for this service. As Stephanie Kelton summarizes this historical experience:
The federal government has achieved fiscal balance (even surpluses) in just seven periods since 1776, bringing in enough revenue to cover all of its spending during 1817-21, 1823-36, 1852-57, 1867-73, 1880-93, 1920-30 and 1998-2001. We have also experienced six depressions. They began in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893 and 1929.
Do you see the correlation? The one exception to this pattern occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the dot-com and housing bubbles fueled a consumption binge that delayed the harmful effects of the Clinton surpluses until the Great Recession of 2007-09.
When taxpayers pay more to the government than the economy receives in public spending, the effect is like paying banks more than they provide in new credit. The debt volume is reduced (increasing the reported savings rate). The resulting austerity is favorable to the financial sector but harmful to the rest of the economy.
Most people think of money as a pure asset (like a coin or a $10 dollar bill), not as being simultaneously a public debt. But to an accountant, a balance sheet always balances: Assets = Liabilities + Net Worth. This liability-side ambivalence is confusing to most people. It takes some time to think in terms of offsetting assets and liabilities as mirror images of each other. Much as cosmologists assume that the universe is symmetrical – with positively charged matter having an anti-matter counterpart somewhere at the other end – so accountants view the money in our pocket as being created by the government’s deficit spending. Holders of the Federal Reserve’s paper currency technically can redeem it, but they will simply get paid in other denominations of the same currency.
The word “redeem” comes from settling debts. This was the purpose for which money first came into being. Governments redeem money by accepting it for tax payment. In addition to issuing paper currency, the Federal Reserve injects money into the economy by writing checks electronically. The recipients (usually banks selling Treasury bonds or, more recently, packages of mortgage loans) gain a deposit at the central bank. This is the kind of deposit that was created by the above-mentioned $13 trillion in new debt that the government turned over to Wall Street after the September 2008 crisis. The price impact was felt in financial asset markets, not in prices for goods and services or labor’s wages.
This Federal Reserve and Treasury credit was not counted as part of the government’s operating deficit. Yet it increased public debt, without being spent on “real” GDP. The banks used this money mainly to gamble on foreign exchange and interest-rate arbitrage as noted above, to buy smaller banks (helping make themselves Too Big To Fail), and to keep paying their managers high salaries and bonuses.
This monetization of debt shows how different government budgets are from family budgets. Individuals must save to pay for retirement or other spending. They cannot print their own money, or tax others. But governments do not need to “save” (or tax) to pay for their spending. Their ability to create money means that they do not need to save in advance to pay for wars, Social Security or other needs.
Keynesian Deficit Spending vs. Bailing out Wall Street to Keep the Debt Overhead in Place
There are two kinds of markets: hiring labor to produce goods and services in the “real” economy, and transactions in financial assets and property claims in the FIRE sector. Governments can run budget deficits by financing either of these two spheres. Since President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA programs in the 1930s, along with his public infrastructure investment in roads, dams and other construction – and military arms spending after World War II broke out – “Keynesian” spending on goods and services has been used to hire labor or pay for social programs. This pumps money into the economy via the GDP-type transactions that appear in the National Income and Product Accounts. It is not inflationary when unemployment exists.
However, the debt that characterized the Paulson-Geithner bailout of Wall Street was created not to spend on goods and services, but to buy (or take liability for) mortgages and bank loans, insurance default bets and arbitrage gambles. The aim was to subsidize financial losses while keeping the debt overhead in place, so that banks and other financial institutions could “earn their way” out of negative net worth, at the economy’s expense. The idea was that they could start lending again to prevent real estate prices from falling further, saving them from having to write down their debt claims to bring levels back down within the ability to be paid.
© 2012 Naked Capitalism