Thursday, February 12

The Tragedy of Consensus Economics

It's pretty clear that Obama's current economic approach is "all hands on deck".  Exhibit 1 is the financial stability plan passed by Congress that splits the economic stimulus baby down the middle:  1/2 spend, 1/2 tax relief.  There isn't really anything wrong with that per se, but I think that a strong view one way or the other would actually be more helpful.  While Obama seeks to build consensus by keeping both camps happy, he is giving up greating a stronger foundation that the entire country can rely on.
I'm not a believer in Reaganomics, but the positive side of Reaganomics was that everyone knew what the underlying philosophy for the country was for the next 20-30 years.  Everyone understood that the key to success was to be a strong capitalist in the face of laizze faire regulation. You knew the rules of the game.  Even if you didn't like the rules, at least you knew why they were unfair.
The markets appear to be reacting to the fact that they don't know what the rules of the game are. While strong capitalism seems on its way out, it's not clear what is replacing it.  Liberals and long-suppressed Democrats hope we are dawning a new day of Strong Liberalism.  But I don't see it that way.  Based on everything I have seen from Obama, he seems to be walking the middle and will venture far into historically "conservative" efforts.  The amount of tax relief in the stimulus bill is a good indication of that.
The problem with this approach is that if Obama were clearly biased towards a single approach, everyone would know what to do.  Government regulations clearly going to increase?  If you're unemployed, then apply at the government.  If you're a business, investing in your government contracting business is a clear investment.  As a CEO, I would be building plans on how to manage and leverage the coming government tidal wave.  It was clear when Reagan said "government is the problem" that it was time to lessen spending on regulatory compliance.
Clearly Obama is changing the balance towards regulation, but I wouldn't call it a strong form of regulation.  And I shouldn't lay this all on Obama, it's clear that voters provided a mandate with a Democratic majority in Congress that they wanted change.  And Congress is delivering it.  So much so, that Obama's challenge is reining in the strongest liberal horses.
But that being said, Obama needs to set the rules of the game for businesses and entrepreneurship very clearly.  The more clarity on which philosophy (or even a new philosophy) drives our economy will allow people to invest.  Right now the rules are not clear at all.

Sunday, February 8

Stimulus Package: ANY spending is good spending...

Consider the truth of this quote:
Even if the entire sum were to be stolen by federal employees and spent entirely on fast cars, fancy homes, gambling junkets and fancy clothes, it would still be an $800 billion increase in the demand for goods and services -- a pretty good working definition for economic stimulus.

It comes from an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein that makes an excellent point:  our Congressmen in Washington do not have any financial literacy.  To say that the Stimulus Package that is being worked through Congress is a spending plan but not a stimulus plan is to say that ceasing to live is not dying.  And, as expected, this type of Orweillian "black=white" dialogue is coming from the Republican party.  How do they do this and look themselves in the mirror late at night?  It's clear that they would rather delay or destroy any chance of resolving the economic crisis quickly by standing on flawed principles.
The creation and evaluation of the Stimulus Plan should focus on three things:
  1. What will have a quick impact?  The quicker we get the money into the market, the better.
  2. What will have the largest "multiplier"?  Who will spend this money?  Clearly, the rich in our country are very effective at hoarding assets.  If you give someone with a high net worth an extra dollar these days, it will likely go back into their bank account in order to regain the investment funds they lost over the last year or so as they hunker down for an economic winter.  However, if you give someone who makes less than $50K/yr an extra dollar, the probability that it will be spent and spent quickly is much higher.
  3. Spending should largely go towards either:  Fixing large problems in our current society (see education and healthcare) or creating national strategic assets (see broadband, education or refreshing our civil infrastructure).  Spending the extra money on both of these things will create assets that all businesses and citizens will be able to leverage for years to come in the future.  The highway system is an excellent example of government spending that has probably resulted in a tremendous amount of wealth creation for every person and business in the U.S.A.
The stimulus package should not go to preventing the necessary Darwinian pressures that are being exerted on our Financial System.  We are simply overbanked in the U.S.  However, we should definitely enable the Treasury Department to mitigate this creative destruction so that it plays out over time and not all at once.  To allow the mistakes of their credit derivate positions to manifest at market speed right now would create too much financial pressure for our economic system, which is what we're experiencing at this time.  Again, we should not be trying to "save the banks", but rather allowing them to "fail gracefully" or in a manner that doesn't cause our citizens and our businesses to become more fearful and contract their spending.  If it becomes clear that the Treasury Department has a command of the situation and will be able to protect deposits, then people will stop worrying about the safety of their current balances and can start thinking about how to grow them again.
Investing for the future is the DNA of American progress.  The question isn't whether it should be private or public capital, the question is how to do it well in either forum.