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The two-faceted American economy

November 4, 2012

Published in ‘New Europe’, 4-10 November 2012, page 7

US EconomyUS presidential elections are always a privileged moment for making assessments and expressing judgments about the status of the American economy. Only this time, it won’t be a typical assessment of a normal economic situation, but an appraisal of the handling of the second biggest financial crisis in 100 years. Four years ago, when G.W. Bush was passing the power to President Obama, we were in the middle of melting financial markets, soaring debts, collapsing banks, sinking asset prices, and a widespread feeling that the world economy was about to implode, dragging us into a new Great Depression decade.

Four years later, the situation is definitely different. After multi-trillion TARP and ARRA (i.e. federal spending), various Fed ‘quantitative easings’ (an euphemism for money printing), the difficult handling of the eurozone crisis’ implications, and an extensive and profound industrial and financial restructuring, the US economy looks at least stabilized, although at lower growth rates, high unemployment, and huge debt and public deficits. Some consider these characteristics to be the new permanent state of economic functioning, and call them the “New Normal.” Others claim that we are still at the mercy of a bigger crisis, where the debt and deficit problems will play a major role. Who’s right?

The good news is that America has completely revamped its productive machine. After a tide of mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, and closing of unproductive or high cost units, the US industry has attained a high level of productivity; stocks are low, orders are high, and in some industries such as aviation order books are full. Cash holdings are at historically high levels, as US companies sit on 1.7 trillion dollars. Even better, the financial institutions that benefited from the bailout money have returned most of it to the government. Profitability has been largely restored, something that is well reflected in stock market prices: since the lows of early 2009, the New York Stock Exchange index (S&P 500) has doubled, in one of the best rallies of its history. Also, despite the severity of the crisis, median household income remained pretty stable over the period, and in any case enough to support the demand for several new products, such as iPads and iPhones, which attracted huge queues in front of the stores (not really the Great Depression’s free-meal queues).

Let’s now look at the other facet of the economy. By US standards, unemployment remains high at around 7.8% and very resistant to all kinds of stimulus policies. Budget deficit, trade deficit, and government debt have skyrocketed. Income inequality is among the highest in the world (USA ranks 95) and widening… But above all, the major risk looming over the American economy is the trend of public spending, and the ensuing accumulation of debt (currently, around $16 trillion). Several voices have pointed out this issue, and revealed its importance.

In September 2012, George P. Shultz and four other prominent economists wrote an article in the WSJ about “The Magnitude of America’s Mess.” Some of the figures given are quite alarming: federal government spending now exceeds its 2007 level by $1 trillion; to pay for ‘quantitative easing’, the Fed saw its reserve balances going from $8 billion in September 2008 to $1.5 trillion now…

In a famous 2011 study called ‘USA, Inc.,’ financial analyst Mary Meeker looked at the US economy as if it were a corporation, with shareholders and balance sheet. Her findings are similar; in her 460-slide PowerPoint presentation, one can read: “By our rough estimate, ‘USA Inc.’ has a net worth of negative $44 trillion… If current trends continue, entitlement spending and net interest payments combined will equal all of federal revenue by 2025…  ‘USA Inc.’ has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

Finally, Bill Gross, the ‘dean’ of US bond managers, published a paper called “Damages,” last month where he included a graph in which various countries were ranked according to public sector deficit and structural fiscal gap. The countries that had the worst combination of the two factors were included in a so-called “Rim of Fire”, according to his terminology. Guess who’s inside: Greece and Spain of course; and France; but also (surprise!) the US, the UK, and Japan—the last three in a worse position than the archetype of economic disaster that Greece is. Gross explains that keeping the US economy safe means to cut spending or raise taxes by 11% of GDP in the next few years, that is a $1.6 trillion per year, or four times the amount of the failed attempt for a budget compromise between Congress and the President.

So, which conclusion can we draw—success or failure? In my opinion, the answer is quite clear: yes, the American industry is doing fine; the risk of a financial sector collapse was properly addressed; and the general handling of the current major economic crisis was efficient, given the magnitude of the issues. Only, the price to pay was a phenomenal increase in public spending, deficits, and debt; and also a persistent manipulation of interest rates, which has brought a severe distortion in the markets.

The big question is: how do we exit this situation? When and at what pace can we reverse power, that is: to start cut spending, increase taxes, and let interest rates move up, without crashing the already fragile economy. And, above all, how will politicians explain the necessity of such unpopular policies to society? As Mary Meeker, the author of “USA Inc.,” put it: “There are compelling reasons we don’t tackle these questions regularly: the answers usually involve some form of political suicide.”

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