Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ask Not What Your Country Can Spend For You

Ask what you can spend for your country.  At least, some folks might like it if you did.  The Federal Reserve is in trouble.  The economy is meandering.  Unemployment levels have reached full employment, but labor force participation levels are low.  The Fed accentuates the negative and projects gloom about employment.  Wages stagnate, and, net of inflation, are lower than a generation ago.  The dollar is strong, which encourages imports while discouraging inflation. The Consumer Price Index is dropping, leading some to conclude that we have deflation.  This conclusion is a classic example of how statistics mislead.  Prices are higher if you take out energy costs.  If the price of everything except energy is going up, and energy is dropping a lot, do we really have deflation?  Or a misleading statistic?

But we digress. The Fed has greatly reduced its quantitative easing measures, since they didn't seem to be doing much good any more.  It's holding short term interest rates lower than a snake's belly.  But it can't do more.  The Fed is now low on ammo and can't expend what it has left; it has to hold something in reserve in case the economy belly flops.

There's no possibility of fiscal stimulus.  The federal government tied its budget into knots with the sequestration law, which requires automatic spending cuts each year through 2021.  Congress and the White House can get around the cuts by passing specific legislation providing for something other than sequestration.  But, given how the daily love fest between Congress and the White House consists of brickbats, but not bouquets, the chance for fiscal stimulus is lower than short term interest rates.

That leaves you, dear consumer.  The U.S. economy is about 70% consumption, and if consumers don't consume, the economy reaches for one of those little airline bags.  So spend, spend, spend.

Right?  Come on, right?

Or maybe not.  Consumers learned the hard way after the 2008 financial crisis that lavish spending and debt accumulation are shortcuts to financial ruin, and that saving improves the quality of your sleep.  Just because the Fed made it cheap to borrow doesn't mean borrowing is a good idea--soda is inexpensive but drinking a lot of it is a very bad idea.  If the Fed can't move short term interest rates above a complete goose egg, you have to suspect that maybe the Fed knows that the economy is a complete goose egg.  In which case, the last thing you want to do is spend freely.

We live with a contradiction:  our individual financial health requires acting in a way that is unhelpful to near term economic growth.  But those who are prudent can get through hard economic times, and it makes sense to put self and family first.  This leaves policy makers with controversial choices--negative interest rates, easing immigration restrictions to bring in educated, ambitious foreigners, and even more hotly debated measures (can you say Ex-Im Bank?).  How likely are these?

The truth is government policy is largely played out.  The economy will have to rise or fall based mostly on its own.  The next surge of growth, whenever that is, will probably come in a rush of technological innovation that may be hard to foresee.  Until then, the economy will likely meander.  If you're building up your savings and preparing for a tough slog, you'll probably be okay.  Ask not what you can spend for your country.  Ask what you can save for yourself and your family.

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