Friday, February 22, 2008

PP: Quick fix is beyond government's power

Edward Lotterman: Quick fix is beyond government's power

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Wednesday January 23, 2008 Pg 1A

Don't put too much hope in the Fed's latest cut in its target interest rate or in any eventual fiscal stimulus package on which President Bush and Congress may agree. The ability of government to offset swings in employment, output and prices is much more limited than many people think, especially when dealing with a $14 trillion economy that is highly enmeshed with the rest of the world. At least that is my humble opinion.

The economic news this week has been dramatic. Several Asian stock markets fell more than 10 percent in two days. In an unscheduled meeting, the Federal Reserve's policymakers cut its target for the federal funds interest rate an unprecedented three-fourths of a percentage point, from 4.25 to 3.5 percent. Meanwhile, the president, Congress and sundry presidential candidates are falling over each other with proposals for "fiscal stimulus."

The situation raises many questions: Just what can government do to solve growing economic problems? Should the Fed cut interest rates even further? Is the danger of inflation real? Will rebates, further tax cuts or greater government spending forestall a recession?

Unfortunately, economists have different views on these issues, depending on the degree to which they are convinced by competing economic theories. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) argued government can manipulate four variables - taxes, government spending, the money supply and interest rates - to ward off recessions or curb inflation. Monetarists, led by the University of Chicago's articulate and energetic Milton Friedman (1912-2006), saw government tromping on fiscal and monetary gas and brake pedals as not only doomed to failure but also inherently harmful. So did a later group called "rational expectationists."

Virtually all economists agree on one thing: A central bank can control inflation if it does not let the money supply grow too fast. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain and U.S. Fed Chairman Paul Volcker proved that.

What economists don't agree on is how well government policies can ward off a recession and on the relative usefulness of monetary policy (money supply and interest rates) compared to fiscal policy (government taxing and spending).

The historical record is mixed. Many argue that military spending wasa the primary factor in ending the Great Depression. Others point to the tax cuts enacted after John F. Kennedy's assassination as a success story of fiscal stimulus that worked. Some view the 2001 Bush tax cuts as having increased consumer spending, even though their stated purpose was to encourage long-term investment.

But there are many counter-arguments or examples. Rising spending on the Vietnam War was probably a bigger stimulus than the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts. And in 2001, the Fed increased the money supply, pushing short-term interest rates to historic lows at the same time the Bush tax cuts took effect.

Moreover, after most industrialized countries overtly adopted Keynesian policies in the 1950s, many experienced increases in inflation even during recessions with high unemployment. Such "stagflation" dominated the 1970s and baffled both political parties.

Richard Nixon expolicitly proposed fiscal stimulus in 1971 and 1972 even as he cynically kept the lid on inflation with wage and price controls. Both inflation and unemployment soared a year later. Neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter could settle on a coherent response for either inflation or unemployment, and the nation suffered.

The 1980s demonstrated that the Fed could tame inflation if politicians were able to tolerate a harsh recession in the short term. Moreover, a stable price environment fostered investment by households and businesses.

But human nature leads central bankers into temptation. As memories of the 1970s inflation faded in the go-go years of the 1990s, arguments for faster money growth and lower interest rates overwhelmed calls for prudence. The Fed needed to lower interest rates to help out banks wracked by bad loans on commercial property. It needed to stop contagion from Asian financial crises or from Russia or Brazil.

Then, when the U.S. economy slowed in 2000, monetary expansion seemed necessary. People agreed it was even more true after Sept. 11.

Overall, we nearly doubled the money supply since the mid-1990s, while the real economy grew by about 50 percent. Such easy money clearly created many of the problems we face today.

Some say that calls for even lower interest rates mimic Will Rogers' sarcastic query "If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?" Moreover, as the Fed increases the money supply to lower interest rates, the value of the dollar tends to slide compared to other currencies.

Fiscal stimulus packages are even more fraught with difficulty.

Politicians love to step on the gas pedal, increasing spending and cutting taxes. They are especially quick to call for fiscal largesse in election years. The unemployment rate is never low enough or growth fast enough for a congressman facing reelection.

Politicans never want to step on the brake pedal, even when inflation gets out of control as it did in the 1970s. Moreover, the time lags in getting tax and spending bills through Congress are such that the economic effects often arrive too late. In many cases, they make business cycle fluctuations more extreme instead of dampening them.

At this juncture, the impulse to try anything with some plausible chance of success is powerful. Easier money and an even looser federal budget may ameliorate a bad, and worsening, situation. But the monetary, budgetary and trade imbalances that have accumulated over the years are large and difficult to resolve. Americans should not delude themselves with the idea that there are quick and easy fixes.

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