Since I’ve never liked recycling my own material, I’ve rarely written here on specific arguments I make on Twitter. (And I make a lot of them!) But since these times are so exceptional, and have just generated such an exceptional response from the Federal Reserve, an exception here seems more than justified. So here are three longer-than-a-tweet expressions of concern about the broadest impacts of the massive support for the everyday economy (as opposed to the financial system) just announced by the central bank in response to the CCP Virus.
The first has to do with the perils of super-easy money. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has just again made clear in remarks this morning that there’s “no limit” to the amount of credit the central bank can pump into the economy to create a “bridge” over which imperiled businesses large and small, and now state and local governments, can cross in order to return intact to “the other side” of the pandemic.
Yes there are conditions – mainly, the borrowers need to be creditworthy (though the definition of “creditworthy” has been expanded). So at least in principle, previous individual or business “bad behavior” won’t be rewarded and thereby enabled going forward – a practice economists call incurring “moral hazard.” That’s (again, in principle) different from the previous financial crisis-related bailouts, when lots of bad or incompetent behavior, especially by Wall Street and the automobile industry, was generously rewarded.
(More encouragingly, other, impressive conditions have been placed on beneficiaries of previously announced fiscal economic aid – the type provided with taxpayer money by the Executive Branch and Congress – including temporary bans on stock buybacks.)
But moral hazard doesn’t necessarily result from the behavior of apples that are already bad. The concept is so powerful (and has long been so convincing) in part because it holds that showering borrowers with easy (and now free money) tends to turn good apples bad. That’s because a credit glut greatly reduces the penalties created for poor decisions by the normal relative scarcity of capital and the price (interest rates) that lenders normally demand in order to impose some degree of discipline.
The lack of adequate discipline on borrowers is surely one big reason why the post-financial crisis economic recovery had been so historically sluggish: Capital wasn’t being used very efficiently, and therefore wasn’t creating as much output and employment as usual. Maybe, therefore, all these new stimulus programs, whether desperately needed now or not, are also setting the stage for a dreary repeat performance?
Which brings up the second issue raised by the latest Fed and other federal rescue operations: Their sheer scale, and the Powell’s “no limits” declaration strongly undercuts the most basic assumption behind the very discipline of economics: that resources will be relatively scarce. That is, there will never be enough wealth in particular to satisfy everyone’s needs, much less wants.
Think about it. If all the wealth needed or wanted could somehow be automatically summoned into existence, why would anyone have to think seriously about economic subjects at all? What would be the point of trying to figure out how to use resources most productively, or even how to distribute them most equitably?
I remain deeply skeptical about the idea that money literally “grows on trees” (as most of our ancestors would have put it). But Powell’s statement sure seems to lend it credence. Moreover, I’m among the many who have been astonished that the United States hasn’t so far had to pay the proverbial piper for all the debt that’s been created especially since financial crisis hit. So it’s entirely possible that I – and others who have fretted about the spending and lending spree the economy had already been on before the pandemic struck – have had it completely wrong.
It would still, however, seem important for economists and national leaders to make this point at least more explicitly going forward. For if it’s true, why even lend out money? Why have banks and financial markets themselves? Why shouldn’t the government just print money and distribute it – including to government agencies? Why for that matter tax anyone, rich or poor?
Just as important, if “on trees” thinking remains wrong – and possibly dangerous – folks who know what they’re talking about had better make the possible costs clear, too. Because if enough Americans become persuaded that there is indeed this kind of massive free lunch, what would stop them from demanding it? Why wouldn’t it be crazy not to? And how could elected leaders resist?
In fact, I’m also concerned about the emergence of a shorter term, more humdrum version of this situation. (This is my third worry for today.) Specifically, Powell clearly views the new Fed programs as emergency measures, which will be dialed back once the emergency is over. Similarly, at least some of the nation’s supposed fiscal conservatives are claiming that they’ve supported the sweeping anti-CCP Virus because it amounts “restitution” for all those individuals and businesses whose “property and economic rights” have been taken from them by the government decision to shut down the economy.
Nonetheless, let’s keep in mind that as former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was rolling out his New Deal programs to fight the Great Depression of the 1930s, he continually justified them as emergency measures. The President himself tried returning to his previous backing for budget balancing once some signs of recovery appeared.
His optimism, as it turned out, was premature, and helped bring on a second slump. Nonetheless, even had this about-face not failed, is it remotely likely that many other New Deal programs, ranging from Social Security to the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to federal mortgage support agencies wouldn’t be alive and kicking, to put it mildly. Obviously that’s because however much most Americans may talk a small government game, they understandably like big government when it delivers tangible benefits.
As a result, when Powell, and others, promise that “When the economy is well on its way back to recovery…we will put these emergency tools away,” you’re free to smirk. The first clause in this sentence alone is grounds for caution, stating that the aid won’t be withdrawn once the worst is over, or when a rebound starts, but when normality is a certainty. If the national experience following the last financial crisis is any guide, when the Fed, for example, even pre-CCP Virus kept interest rates super low for many years after some growth had returned, “the other side” is going to be a place whose location will keep receding for the foreseeable future.
So the specter of the economy remaining hooked on massive government stimulus both for economic and these political reasons could be another reason for bearishness about a robust near-term rebound. (And no, I’m not trying to give out any investment advice here.)
I’m not necessarily being critical here of the stimulus packages. Just trying to spotlight the safest bets to make, and the need to examine the future with eyes wide open. Is there any viable alternative?