The US Economy's Bottomless Pit
Keeping track of the ever-mutating bailout debate in the United States is becoming increasingly difficult. With the US government’s money spigots now thrown wide open and with no one of influence advising restraint, the only debate is where to direct the torrent. During the past week, the talk began with Detroit and Citigroup, but by Friday had shifted to a massive "stimulus package" to bail out consumers. The early buzz includes some very large figures. But first, a bit of a recap:
On Monday, the US$300 billion Citigroup bailout took center stage. Once again Henry Paulson decided to throw taxpayer funds into a bottomless Wall Street money pit. Shockingly the Citigroup plan did not seem to demand any serious curtailment of lavish salaries and bonuses. Paulson's shameless largesse to his Wall Street friends has elevated financial industry bonuses to entitlement status.
"Remember Lehman" now seems to be the rallying cry to justify any and all financial bailouts. But Lehman's demise is in no way responsible for the US’s current problems, and the decision to let them fail is the only bright spot in otherwise consistent record of policy mistakes. We bailed out Bear Sterns and AIG, and what did that get us?
The Citi bailout greatly increases the chances for a similarly misguided auto industry bailout. After all, if US taxpayers ensure multi-million dollar bonuses for Citi executives, how can they refuse similar help for eight-figure auto executives and US$70 per hour unionized auto workers?
It was inevitable that the size of these bailouts would up the ante for an economic stimulus package aimed at consumers. Not missing a beat, President-elect Barack Obama announced a US$700 billion dollar fast-tracked package that will likely exceed US$1 trillion before passage. (Trillions are the new billions.) The plan must be sending shivers down the spines of our foreign creditors who are expected to foot the bill. Add this cost to the hundreds of billions of prior stimulus and bailout packages, and the cost to the US’s creditors is quickly heading into the multi-trillion dollar range. It can't be long before they cry uncle and repeat the words of prizefighter Roberto Duran: "No Mas."
With so many familiar faces on his new economic team, Obama signaled his intention to "hit the ground running." With the possible exception of Paul Volcker, all of his top appointees share the view of the Bush administration that the root causes of the economic problems lie in the reluctance of banks and other financial institutions to lend. As a result, the US can expect a virtual continuance of current policy.
It is no surprise therefore that both Democrats and Republicans offered healthy huzzahs to Henry Paulson's latest bazooka: $200 billion to purchase securities backed by auto, student, and credit card loans. It is hoped that with this transference of risk to taxpayers, lending institutions won't be so cautious, and the credit-fueled American economy can thrive anew. This is unalloyed insanity that can only lead to total ruin.
Paulson stated clearly that he would like the Fed to print as much money as it takes to revive the economy. Unfortunately the only industry likely to be revived by such policies is printing itself. But even this will not help the United States as the majority of its printing equipment is imported from Switzerland.
But what if the root of the financial problem is that American consumers have already taken on too much debt? By trying to force-feed even more credit down the throats of already overly indebted Americans, Paulson's plan will only weaken the economy further.
Building on the groundwork laid by Paulson, the massive stimulus that will likely be pushed through by Obama and an overly eager Democratic Congress will further impede any real recovery. By swallowing up all available capital, spending to create government jobs will destroy far more private sector jobs. Rather than expanding government and increasing the national debt, policy makers should be thinking about doing the opposite.
The brutal truth that no one in Washington dares acknowledge is that the country‘s systemic economic problems can only be solved by a reduction in consumer borrowing and an increase in savings. The US must repair its national balance sheet and a painful recession is the only path to achieve this. By interfering with the market's attempts to bring this necessary change about, all the proposals currently coming from Washington or bubbling up from think tanks and Nobel prize-winning economists, will only exacerbate the imbalances and lay the foundation for even greater losses and a larger crisis.
A short-run reduction in GDP is a sacrifice the US must be willing to accept. If it swallows this medicine now, in the long run it will have a sustainable rise in GDP as higher savings leads to increased capital investment, greater productivity, and eventually a lasting increase in consumption.
Peter D. Schiff ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Euro Pacific Capital, Inc of Darien, Connecticut, USA. He publishes the free, on-line investment newsletter http://www.europac.net/newsletter/newsletter.asp