Niall Ferguson Gets It Backwards, The Budget Deficit 'Threat' Is An Opportunity
Back in 2008 in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections, John Stewart's Comedy Channel show did a feature on John McCain going back to 1980. Each year offered a video clip of the Arizona Senator warning of a looming fiscal crisis related to the nation's budget deficit.
Though one would be foolish to use The Daily Show as an economics lesson, the underlying point of the McCain segment was valid. Politicians, economists and mere members of the U.S. citizenry have been predicting deficit doom for as long as this writer's been sentient, and probably even as long McCain's been kicking.
All of which brings us to a recent Wall Street Journal Op-ed by British historian extraordinaire, Niall Ferguson. Though he seems to admit to joining an echo chamber that's rather long in the tooth, Ferguson is the latest, and surely not the last to, in his own words, yell that the fiscal "theater is indeed burning." At this point we could fill several Rose Bowls with prominent individuals who've made the same argument. As Ferguson wrote last Saturday:
"For the fiscal position of the federal government is in fact much worse today than is commonly realized. As anyone can see who reads the most recent long-term budget outlook-published last month by the Congressional Budget Office, and almost entirely ignored by the media-the question is not if the United States will default but when and on which of its rapidly spiraling liabilities."
This is in no way meant to dismiss Ferguson's basic point. Maybe the horrid deficit tomorrow that never seems to come is on our doorstep, but at least for now it should be said that the television version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf made for modern consumption would star an angry adult male predicting deficit doom. Or maybe this is much ado about nothing. Better yet, maybe the proper way to look at the deficit question is to cease all the doom and gloom, and view the deficit as an opportunity.
For one, assuming we reach the point that all the deficit worriers talk about whereby the U.S. budget is consumed by interest payments, let's look at the positives. Figure if Congressional appropriations are reduced to interest payments, it will be much more difficult for the fiscally incontinent members of both political parties to dream up new ways to waste our money.
Taking the debt discussion local for a moment, California has long been fingered by the same deficit-fearing crowd as a likely default prospect, but if so, does anyone think Apple, Google, and Intel will suffer higher rates for debt finance alongside the profligate State of California if the latter defaults?
Applied nationally, assuming Treasury goes explicit in its default in the way it's long been implicit (the dollar that Treasuries pay out bought 1/35th of an ounce of gold in 1971, yet today it buys roughly 1/1300th) in its stiffing of creditors, is it really a certainty that Armageddon awaits as Ferguson presumes? Or is it more likely that investors, burned by Treasury, will migrate away from U.S. debt, along with government debt more broadly?
If so, never explained by the doomsayers is why this would be so bad. Creditors and investors won't just sit on their money, rather they'll find better, more hospitable places to put their capital to work. Assuming they charge Treasury 10% for 30-year debt, does anyone think Coca-Cola will see its debt finance costs rise to a similar level?
If readers assume yes, that market panic would drive interest rates well beyond 10%, that too wouldn't be a forever concept. High prices by virtue of being high naturally beget lower prices down the line as the high rates of interest lure profit-focused investors into the arena. Needless to say, whether investors simply tire of lending to Treasury such that they jack up rates, or if they raise rates in response to an actual default, financial capital won't sit idle forever. Eventually investors will find new, and infinitely more productive places to deploy their funds. At risk of sounding too ‘tea party-ish' given Ferguson's not-so-veiled contempt for the movement, it's not a reach to suggest that Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, FedEx's Fred Smith, and Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffett are much better allocators of capital than are John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.
Of course to highly influential people like Ferguson, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Fed Chairman Bernanke, default is the unthinkable, and would surely lead to the ‘Mother of All Great Depressions' as interest rates skyrocket amid panic in the markets, and also in the street. Fair enough, but also wholly unproven. Lest we forget, it was the same crowd, or a reasonable facsimile (Bernanke at least), who told us that a failure to save Citigroup (bailed out five times in 22 years by the Fed) would lead to a decades-long recession. Yes, in Bernanke's world the capitalist system can only sustain itself if we run away from capitalist with ligtning speec in order to prop up that which the markets don't want. Oh well, at the very least consider where all of this default/crisis talk is coming from.
Importantly, there's another option that's not talked of enough as a path out of a deficit ‘crisis' that they regularly warn us about. How about economic growth? It's really that simple, and if the political class had a clue about how economies grow (they don't, but too many of us blindly accept their warnings about bank failures, default, global contraction as though they do), they might turn all the deficit worrying to their advantage.
Simply put, economic growth is easy. Taxes are a penalty placed on work and investment, so reduce the penalty on both to get more of both. Regulations don't work (see the banks overseen by the Fed, SEC and the rest), but they do inhibit the profit motive for distracting executives who should be focused on the shareholder, and by extension, the customer. Trade is why we get up for work each day so that we can exchange our surplus for that of others, so when barriers to trade are put up, we foster inefficiency all the while taxing the purpose of work. Money is how we measure the value of the goods we exchange, and the investments we enter into, so stabilize its value. Notable with money is that in his masterful book, The Cash Nexus, Ferguson wrote of ‘forever' British debt instruments that forever paid out low rates of interest precisely because the Pound had a stable definition in terms of gold.
To make basic what already is, growing countries never have to worry about deficits simply because their debt is so attractive. Greece isn't suffering a debt crisis because it owes too much money, rather it's in trouble because its even more hapless political class doesn't understand that its debt problems would disappear if it adopted growth policies like the ones listed above. As Forbes contributor Louis Woodhill has pointed out regularly, interest rates on Greek debt became even more onerous once its politicians raised taxes to ‘fix' the problem. What they missed is that the deficit problem was one of too little growth. It's much the same here.
In short, rather than worry about a debt ‘threat' that never seems to materialize, we should view the deficit as an opportunity to implement policies that always work, and that may even turn people like John McCain into optimists. If so, we can then get serious about the real economic problem which is the size of government itself. The raging fire in the theater of the latter is largely smoke free, but it represents all the future Microsofts and Intels, cancer and heart disease cures, and transportation innovations that have never revealed themselves thanks to our wasteful political class consuming so much of our capital. Government spending is what Ferguson et al might focus on if they weren't so blinded by the 'horrific' deficit problems of tomorrow that never seem to come, and that wouldn't matter much even if they did.