I believe in balance. In yin and yang. I believe in cycles. In symmetry. I believe big wild parties end with big, nasty hangovers. I believe that what goes up, must come down.
Unfortunately, our government does not agree.
I have railed time and time again on this blog about the scattershot and shortsighted nature of our economic response so far to the current financial crisis. In short, and with few exceptions, said strategy has consisted of spending as much money as possible to bailout and stimulate every sick, depressed segment of our economy, with a particular focus on those segments that cater to the rich and connected.
The policies of the incoming Obama team will only accelerate this process, albeit with a more tilted and welcomed focus on some of the not-as-rich-or-connected folks. There is talk of a new $1 trillion stimulus package being created early in the Obama presidency.
The Fed is fully aboard the stimulus party as well, yesterday slashing the fed funds target rate to basically zero and committing to buying mortgage assets to ensure long-term borrowing rates move lower in an attempt to stabilize and boost the housing market. There is even talk that the government will FIX interest rates at a certain level to ensure they accomplish that goal, though for now it appears the mortgage market is responding to the unprecedented stimuli.
Look, no one likes to see suffering. People out of work, going bankrupt. Home prices falling. Factories closing. Cities failing. It’s nasty, nasty stuff. For politicians, it tends to lead their own unemployment. And for economists, it’s a scary scenario as well, because it almost always results in deflation, a pernicious problem that tends to have long, strong roots once it sets in.
But did the Fed or government do anything when times were so good, when the price of housing was soaring to the moon and consumers were levering up to the hilt and taking on dangerous levels of debt???? Aside from nominal increases in interest rates, I don’t remember any concerted effort, and certainly nothing approaching the desperation we’ve seen recently, to try and tame the animal spirits and gently guide the economy into a soft landing.
In my opinion, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have bubbles without crash landings. We have stemmed the worst of the credit crunch and liquidity crisis – interest rates have fallen, banks are lending a bit again (at least to each other). It is now time to let the market work its way through this mess and find its equilibrium level. Yes, it will likely overshoot on the downside, just like it did on the way up. Yes, it may take longer to find that equilibrium level than we’d like. But you gotta take the yin with the yang.
I’m not saying we should sit on our hands and watch helplessly as the economy craters. By all means, spend money to reinvest in our roads and infrastructure; on new technologies, including alternative energy; on education, including the retraining of displaced workers; on strengthening the country’s safety net to ensure that those hit hardest from the economic collateral damage don’t suffer unduly.
But realize that all this profligacy will have consequences down the road. We are already staring down the barrel of the worst demographic situation in decades – as the baby boomer generation is getting ready to retire en masse, placing a huge burden on this country’s resources as they move from being net producers to net consumers.
When times were better and tax revenues were flush, our government did nothing to reduce our budget deficit in any meaningful way or address long-term systemic issues threatening the economic health of our nation, like Social Security and Medicare. Yet it now has no problem dramatically increasing our country’s burdens and obligations in order to try and avoid the bad end of the business cycle.
The only thing all this spending will do is take away the oomph from any subsequent recovery. We’ll see a weaker dollar, higher inflation, bigger deficits, and higher taxes down the road. At least some, and maybe a lot of this money will be misplaced, leading to bubbles and wasted investments in other unforeseen areas.
But frankly, the prospect that most of this stimulus will be wasted, a misguided attempt to set an artificial floor on the economy, is actually not the worst-case scenario (though it is the most likely). My biggest concern is that the stimulus works too well and our animal spirits are revived before they’ve had a sufficient chance to reset. If that happens, we’d only be setting ourselves up for a bigger, more painful crash down the road.