Blog with Dr. G
Joseph Stiglitz’s new book People, Power and Profits provides an updated manifesto for the progressive-socialist agenda. His manifesto is a call to solve our nation’s problems by relying more on government and, therefore, less on individual economic freedom. Specifically, this agenda calls for higher tax rates on the rich and businesses, rapid increases in federal spending, government control over markets and a massive increase in government regulations.
What Stiglitz fails to do is provide his readers with any historical context of how this agenda has worked. Progressive-socialist policies are not new. Over the past century the US experimented with these policies on five separate occasions: 1913-1920, 1929-1940, 1965-81, 1988-95 and 2004-15. Unfortunately, these years were among the worst years in our economic history. There was no increase in the value of the average worker take-home pay over this entire 52-year period. Since 1900 all of our economic progress occurred when policymakers avoided Stiglitz’s recommendations.
Not only have Stiglitz’s policy recommendations failed in the US, they have failed whenever and wherever they have been implemented. To one extent or another progressive-socialist policies are the norm throughout much of the world. The US is the only major country that has rejected such an agenda and embraced individual economic freedom for most of its history. This is why Americans enjoy living standards higher than 99.9% of those in the rest of the world.
As with other so-called progressive economists, Stiglitz is preoccupied with equality. This preoccupation leads him to praise policies enacted during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Stiglitz isn’t the only progressive economist to extol the merits of the Great Depression. Thomas Piketty, who wrote Capital in the Twenty-First Century, does so as well. Their admiration for the worst economic debacle in US history relates to what has become their prime economic objective—income equality. They apparently believe America is better off when incomes are more equal, even if it takes a collapse in the economy to achieve such an objective.
Research from the Fraser Institute shows income inequality is fairly stable whether countries are rich or poor. The main difference is the poor are much better off in rich countries than in poor countries. This is why so many people in poor countries want to come to America.
The main weakness of Stiglitz book is its dearth of meaningful data. Without such data, the author is able to make outlandish, general statements about US history without presenting a scintilla of evidence. Had the author seriously examined the history of US economic policies and their consequences, he would have concluded that the only time the US lost its way was whenever the country followed his agenda.
In addition to dealing with economics, Stiglitz touches on climate science by repeating the progressive mantra “…excessive emissions of greenhouse gases present an existential threat to the planet....“ As with his economic statements, he fails to provide any evidence for such an existential threat. As for economics, the historical evidence is clear—the real existential threat to prosperity is the progressive-socialist agenda.
In spite of the latest kerfuffle, the odds still favor an agreement on trade. Even without an agreement, the recovery will continue and stocks will recover.
The main problem the US has in dealing with China is the country’s reputation as an unreliable partner. China has a well-earned reputation for not abiding by its agreements.
When it was admitted into the WTO it agreed to open its country to foreign financial institutions and to respect intellectual property rights. China also agreed to respect international boundaries in the South China Seas. China has consistently violated such agreements.
The Trump Administration has insisted upon certain guarantees that any agreements should have triggers that go into effect in return for violations. Among these triggers, Trump has demanded that current tariffs on China continue and should only be removed as China complies with its agreements.
Trade negotiators for both the US and China had indicated they had reached agreement on 90% of their issues. Then last week US negotiators received a revised agreement changing some of what had been agreed upon. One major change involved China refusing to change its own laws to comply the agreement. China would still agree to do certain things, but would not change its laws to make such changes legal in China.
Backing away from an agreement already reached reflects a lack of sincerity and trust. Since these were already the main issues the US faced with China, Trump was forced to call their hand. Either China was serious in complying with whatever the two countries agreed to or there would be no agreement.
The ball is now in China’s court. China has to decide whether extending the current 10% tariff on China’s exports is an acceptable temporary penalty for assuring their compliance. The alternative is an additional 15% tariff and a further disruption to trade.
As he has all along, Trump is playing a dangerous game. Tariffs are disruptive to both countries. I had assumed the current dislocations from tariffs would slow real growth to the 3% area. If Trump follows through and raises tariffs on China to 25%, growth in the US is likely to move closer to 2½%. The disruption to China’s economy would be even greater as more production moves from China to other countries.
Avoiding tariffs is clearly in the best interests of both countries. The main problem is President Xi Jinping. He cannot be seen as caving in to US demands. Any trade agreement between the two countries will have to be designed to allow Xi to save face. Trump has negotiated enough deals to know that if the US fails to allow such a concession, the disruption from tariffs will continue.
In a worst case scenario, another round of higher tariffs would be enough to slow the US recovery. But it won’t be enough to stop it. With the S&P 500 10% below its fundamental stocks remain a strong buy.
Stock prices acted appropriately in response to the Fed’s announcement. There’s no way to sugar coat what the Fed did. Having already moved 25% of my equity portfolio to cash, I’ll now move another 25% to cash.
The unanimous decision by members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee ignored all signals coming from both financial and commodity markets. Instead, of looking at financial markets, which look to the future, the Fed looked backward at the economy and concluded everything was fine. They ignored all signs suggesting the Fed was becoming overly restrictive.
While it’s possible the financial signs are all wrong, it’s also possible the Fed is wrong.
The prudent action would have been to postpone any move to make monetary policy more restrictive and wait six weeks for its next meeting. Instead, the Fed decided to “dam the torpedos” and ignore the possibility it had already become restrictive. It doubled down on any restraint by raising interest rates, continued to sell $50 billion in securities each month and laid out a plan for further restraint this coming year.
The 600 point swing in the Dow that followed the Fed’s announcement strongly suggests the Fed is on the same path today that it took in 2008. If so, stock prices will head even lower in the months ahead.
As in 2008, the Fed will eventually figure things out and make the right move. While I hope I’m wrong, the fact that today’s potentially destructive decision was unanimous and so hardheaded provides little comfort this Fed will do the responsible thing any time soon.
The latest decline in stock prices and narrowing of yield spreads are signs associated with a recession and even a developing financial crisis. The Fed’s current policies have all the signs of a policy mistake similar the one that produced a financial crisis.
In 2008 the Federal Reserve failed in its primary mission. That mission is to make sure there is sufficient money in the economy to prevent a decline in business activity.
Monetary policy was once straightforward. The Fed would buy securities to make money more available and it would sell securities to make money less available. This straightforward approach ended in 2008 when the Fed changed its operating procedures.
In 2008, as the economy entered a recession, the Fed sold $300 billion in securities. In retrospect, it should be clear that continuing to sell securities amid an economic downturn was a terrible mistake.
The Fed belatedly did the right thing in the first half of 2009. It purchased back the $300 billion in securities it had sold. Almost immediately, the stock market began to recover and by mid-year the economic began to recover.
The Fed spent the next five years purchasing an additional $3 trillion in securities. This was three times the amount it had purchased since its founding in 1913. The purchases were so excessive that banks left $2 trillion of these funds on deposit with the Fed.
No one knows how such massive purchases of securities have impacted the monetary system. Nor is apparent how the $2 trillion banks have on deposit with the Fed will impact the amount of money in the economy.
This year, as in 2008, the Fed has again sold $300 billion in securities. One difference this year from 2008 is that banks have shifted $472 billion of their deposits with the Fed into the economy.
What isn’t known is whether the Fed’s sales of securities are powerful enough to overwhelm any stimulus from banks’ shifting of funds into the economy. It’s conceivable that, as in 2008, the restraint from Fed sales of securities is the dominant force driving monetary policy.
The Fed’s ongoing experiments with monetary operations have created challenges in interpreting the impact of it monetary actions. Given the unknowns surrounding monetary policy, the Fed’s most prudent course of action is to stop selling securities and pause with any further increase in interest rates.
If the Fed pauses in its moves toward monetary restraint, it will reduce the odds of a recession and send stock prices sharply higher.
Trump’s disruptive policy statements continue to lead to wild swings in stock prices. The President now says he is considering placing tariffs on an additional $100 billion of Chinese imports.
Blog with Dr. G
A candid look at pertinent current events that play a role in our daily lives.