Two Major Issues Facing the U.S. Economy Today

by: John M. Mason

It is still too early to think that we are near or past the bottom of this economic downturn. However, in my mind, we are in the “working out” stage of the downturn, especially in the current economic restructuring we are going through, and we cannot expect this stage to be a short one.

The problem with many analysts and policy makers is that they continue to see our economic problems in Keynesian terms and think of the difficulties being experienced in banking and financial markets as a liquidity issue. Hence the search for evidence pointing to “green shoots” and for an “easing of credit.” Every day we hear when new statistics are released that the numbers just presented are “less bad” than before and this indicates that the economy is getting worse at a slower pace. An obvious sign that we are near the bottom!

In my mind, the two major issues facing the United States (and the world) are the structural problems in industry and finance and the debt problem. I have said all along that the basic cause of the financial collapse and the following economic dislocations comes more from the supply side of the economy than from the demand side as assumed by the Keynesians. And, because our problems are primarily supply side problems, governmental stimulus plans and deficit financing are not the incentives needed for restructuring the economy and putting people back to work.

In fact, demand side stimulus can even exacerbate the problems and slow down the changes that need to be made. Furthermore, treating the debt problem as a liquidity problem, as the Federal Reserve and the Treasury seem to be doing, can do the very same thing.

The “good news” is that most organizations and institutions have identified the major problems they will be facing in the near future. However, the “bad news” is that no one knows the depth or breadth of the problems. The difficulty facing these organizations and institutions going forward is that these problems must be “worked through” and “worked out”. This “working through” and “working out” will take time and, since the problems are related and interconnected, the outcomes will be dependent on just how systemic and cumulative they are.

For example, greater unemployment due to structural reductions in the workforce employed making cars, producing parts, or selling cars will lead to more foreclosures on “prime” loans. (See “Job Losses Force Safer Mortgages to Foreclosure” in the New York Times.) This will have further ramifications for the financial sector, housing construction and so on. The repercussions will continue on throughout the economy.

In the area of foreign trade, declining incomes lead to reductions in imports, but these imports are the exports of other countries. Countries that have built their economic growth and prosperity on their export trade face worsening times because of the decline in their exports. And, with the slowdown in these countries, world trade declines. (See “Trade and Hard Times” in the New York Times.) There are more and more calls to prevent, if possible, further reductions in foreign trade in the world, especially related to tariffs and other means of protectionism.

These are just two examples of situations where problems exist but where there is no real understanding of how far the cumulative interactions will take us. Many more situations like these exist at the present time. They are not problems that will be resolved through fiscal stimulus and the creation of government debt. There are three major problems with this response.

First, fiscal stimulus does not eliminate structural dislocations in the economy. The government (or anyone else for that matter) does not know what the future structure of the economy will look like. Existing organizations, including financial institutions, can “re-tool” themselves, but this takes time and the exploration of different models for companies to find what works best. In terms of innovation, governmental funds can be made available for the next generation of energy sources and transportation systems and so forth, but no one knows exactly how these sources and systems should be put together. Restructuring and creative innovation take time and experimentation. One cannot “will” the right structure or the best innovation.

Furthermore, who wants to invest in something in which the government is the driving force? Current events attest to emerging problems related to governance, decision making, and “the rule of law” when the government gets involved with a company or an industry.

Second, when the solvency problem is treated as a liquidity problem, the issue of solvency does not go away. The “toxic asset” program (P-PIP) developed by the Treasury and the efforts by the Federal Reserve to shore up various segments of the financial markets is just a “round-about” way of allowing the federal government to pay for the bad debts that are on the balance sheets of financial institutions. That is, the programs just allow the financial system to transfer financial losses to the government so that the taxpayer will eventually end up with the bill for any insolvency that exists. Still, the question of the solvency does not go away.

Third, the government assumption that both problems, those related to economic restructuring and the amount of debt outstanding, can be solved by creating more and more debt is laughable if it were not so potentially tragic. International financial markets understand that in one way or another and at some time in the future, excessive amounts of government debt will end up being monetized. How this monetization works out in each particular case cannot be foretold. History has shown, over and over again, that at some time this connection between large amounts of debt and money creation becomes a reality. It cannot be avoided; it is just the timing that is uncertain.

The conclusions that can be drawn from this analysis are very straightforward. First, economic growth, even when it becomes positive again, will stay low for an extended period of time. My reading of the 1930s has lead me to believe that this decade was a time of industrial and financial restructuring (not helped very much by the government) and technological change. It was not a time that demand-side stimulus could help very much. The restructuring had to take place, and World War II did not contribute to the recovery because of the added spending, but because of the re-focus and restructuring of industry it forced on the nation. I believe that, like the 1930s, we may be facing an extended period of time in which we need to re-focus and restructure industry. One hopes that we do not need a world war in order to finally achieve this re-structuring.

Second, the continued creation of debt is not going to help. The government debt is going to be monetized at some time. The realization of this, I believe, has become a reality to the bond markets and the foreign exchange markets. To me, the yield on long term U. S. Treasury securities will continue to trend upwards in the foreseeable future and the value of the U. S. dollar will continue to trend downwards. The trends will continue unless some financial “miracle” takes place that eliminates the projected upcoming deficits in the government budget—perhaps an amazing recovering in tax receipts or massive savings discovered in the health care industry.

Third, whereas paper assets from the United States will not be that desirable internationally, physical assets will. For much of the two years or so ending in August 2008, the weak dollar allowed foreign countries and investors to buy U. S. companies at a record pace. With the rising strength of China, India, and Brazil, I believe that with the continued slide in the United States dollar, more and more U.S. companies and their physical assets will come into foreign hands. That is, until the U. S. Congress bans such transactions.