June 25, 2024

Economix: Debt Crises, Real and Fake

There are real debt crises — Greece is going through one — and there are fake ones, created by politicians playing chicken with the nation’s credit.

I expressed that sentiment in a column last week that ran in the Asian editions of The International Herald Tribune on Friday. The new Greek rescue caused me to write a different column for The Times, and the I.H.T. column never made it onto the Web. It follows.



Notions on high and low finance.

In the world of government bond markets, never have the haves been treated so much better than the have-nots. The haves can borrow for virtually nothing. The have-nots, if they can borrow at all, must pay exorbitant rates.

Yet politicians, even in the countries that investors seem to trust completely, talk of impending budget disaster if spending is not cut immediately.

This summer, as the markets offered a ‘‘no confidence’’ vote on Europe’s effort to rescue Greece — and grew notably more worried about Italy and Spain — they appeared to be highly confident about the debt of the United States government.

The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury securities fell back below 3 percent this month, even as the Washington rhetoric about the debt ceiling heated up.

That was a sign that investors were not alarmed about a potential United States default, whether in the next few weeks or the next 10 years. If they were, rates would be soaring.

For much of the spring and summer, the proportion of people who believed that Congress would raise the debt ceiling seemed to vary based on the distance from Washington. The closer to Capitol Hill, the more doubt there was that rationality would prevail.

In politics, it appears, familiarity breeds contempt.

If rationality does prevail, the debt ceiling will be raised. For that matter, there is no good reason to have a debt ceiling other than to give politicians a chance to grandstand. The important decisions for Congress and the White House concern spending and taxing. Borrowing, or paying back debt as happened for a couple of years before the Bush tax cuts, is a result of the interplay of those decisions and the state of the economy.

Trying to control the result by putting limits on borrowing is a bit like trying to balance a household budget by waiting until the money has been spent and then deciding not to pay the bills.

To analyze the fiscal problems confronting the United States now, it is necessary not to confuse short-term and long-term problems. And it is crucial to pay attention to the state of the economy.

A weak economy will inevitably worsen the fiscal balance. Tax receipts fall because profits and incomes decline. Government spending increases on automatic stabilizers, like unemployment insurance payments.

To the extent high deficits are a result of a weak economy, a decision to react by cutting spending or raising taxes can lead to a vicious cycle. The solution, if possible, is to revive the economy even if that makes deficits temporarily worse.

One of the most important failures to analyze what was happening in the economy came in the late 1990s, when the United States government, to the surprise of almost everyone, began to run budget surpluses. Some of that was a result of tax increases and spending restraint, but a lot of it was caused by a completely unexpected and misunderstood surge in tax receipts.

That surge was the result of the bull market in stocks, and of the peculiar nature of it. Individual income tax payments soared both because of high capital gains and because profits from stock options are taxed at ordinary income rates, not the reduced rate charged on capital gains.

Most analyses ignored that. The conventional assumption was that the taxes on option profits were balanced by reduced taxes paid by companies. That would have been accurate if the companies were paying taxes and could use the additional deductions. But many of those companies — the heroes of the dot-com bubble — paid no taxes because they had no profits. So the extra deductions did them no good.

A proper analysis would have seen that the inevitable end of the bull market would reduce tax receipts, and a slowdown would increase government spending. In that sense, it is wrong to blame the Bush tax cuts for ending the surpluses of the Clinton years. They would have ended anyway. The deep tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made the deficits that much larger.

There is a risk that many analysts now are making the opposite mistake. Deficits have skyrocketed in recent years for reasons that are clearly temporary, or that will be temporary if the economy recovers.
In some of the debate, the short-term problems are mixed up with longer-term demographic concerns caused by the aging and retirement of the baby boomers and the rising costs of Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans over the age of 65.

It is worth looking at what has happened to financial markets around the world since the financial crisis exploded. A mild slowdown turned into something much worse after the collapse of Bear Stearns in March 2008 showed the vulnerability of the financial system. Stock markets plunged around the world, credit dried up for many borrowers and there was a flight to safety. Central banks intervened with unprecedented measures and banks were bailed out. Deficits soared.

Now, more than two years later, the American stock market is about where it was in February 2008, just before the crisis hit. That may not sound impressive, but markets in nearly every other country are down sharply. The dollar has lost ground against the Swiss franc and the yen, but is up versus the euro and the pound.

The yields on government bonds — the price investors demand to lend money to the government — are down in countries with solid foundations, including the United States. They have soared in markets where default seems a real possibility, and are up in some European countries where investors are getting more nervous, including Italy and Spain.

That is a vote of confidence in Uncle Sam, at least relative to the alternatives.

Markets can be wrong, of course. But Europe is in far worse shape. Greece is insolvent. It must have its debt reduced, but a default could cause bank failures and substantial losses for the European Central Bank. Europe’s battles reflect the fact that there are no good alternatives. There is a crisis in Europe, where lenders now fear to tread. Would there be one in the United States if the politicians produced an unnecessary default? Let’s hope we will not find out.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3c2d03e44c894fdd0b088fea8ed232e1

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