Archive for the 'Financial markets' Category

Feb 05 2010

Economics in plain English: Understanding Argentina’s budget woes

Argentina’s reserves and its debts: Central Bank robbery | The Economist

I received the following email from an Econ teacher who wonders if I had any insight on a question posed by one of his students:

The email reads: “I have alittle query i was hoping you could help clear up for me..a year 13 student has asked a question relating to Argentina’s prime minister, Cristina Fernandezde De Kirchner’s, decision to sell the central bank’s dollar reserves to fund part of the country’s decifit against the advice of the director of the central bank who resigned.”

The student’s question is on the following passage from the Economist article above:

Fernández (Argentina’s president”) justified her raid on the reserves by saying that the Central Bank had more than it needed, because they exceeded the size of the monetary base. Economists disagree about what is an appropriate target for the reserves, but Mr Redrado’s view is that a highly dollarised emerging economy like Argentina’s needs an abundance of Treasury bonds (the form in which most reserves are held) as insurance. Even if Ms Fernández might find support from some economists for her argument, her plan to swap the dollar reserves for a non-transferable government bond would not.

The student’s question is: “I do not know what a monetary base is, nor why Argetina needs treasury bonds.”

This article really caught me off guard at first as well. One thing I love about the Economist newspaper is its use of economic jargon that requires a real understanding of the subject to be able to interpret. The first time I read the article, I will be honest I was completely confused as to what the Argentinean president was up to. But after some reflection and rough sketches of graphs on scrap paper, I think I have “translated” the article’s jargon into plain English.

Below is my reply to the teacher and his student:

Hello,

The president of Argentina wants to sell the country’s US dollar reserves, which are held in the form of US treasury bonds, and then use the US dollars she receives to buy Argentinean government bonds in order to finance her own government’s budget deficit. In essence she wants to swap Argentina’s central bank reserves of US debt (considered a very stable and safe asset due to America’s low inflation rate and relative solvency of the US government) for Argentinean government debt (less stable and safe, especially in the wake of the country’s 2002 default on its debt). Argentina’s central bank would then hold fewer transferable, stable US bonds and more “non-transferable”, Argentinean government bonds. And since the bonds represent Argentina’s government debt, the country as a whole reduces its assets and increases its liabilities.

It is important for a developing country like Argentina to keep large reserves of US dollar-denominated assets (i.e. US treasury bonds) in reserve in order to assure foreign investors that the country would be able to stabilize its currency’s value in the face of a currency crisis such as that which Argentina experienced in 2001-2002. If the value of the peso began to decline on foreign exchange markets (due, for instance, to a decline in international investor confidence in the government’s ability to pay the interest on its foreign debt or inflation fears caused by excessive monetary growth or government spending) then the central bank could use its large dollar reserves to intervene in the forex market and stabilize the value of the peso, reestablishing investor confidence and maintaining the government’s ability to attract foreign creditors in the Argentinean bond market. A collapse of the peso would have ripple effects throughout Argentina, driving up imported products and raw materials and causing spiraling inflation, forcing the government to print more money to finance its budget in the face of falling demand for its debt in domestic and international bond markets.

Argentina must be sure to keep its balance sheet (i.e. its liability to asset ratio) in check. Its assets are US government bonds, its liabilities are the Argentinean bonds it issues to finance its budget deficits. If this ratio become too heavy on the liability side, foreign investors and speculators will lose confidence in the both peso and the Argentinean government’s solvency and dump their holdings of Argentinean currency, assets, and bonds, driving interest rates through the roof and the exchange rate through the floor, grinding the economy to a halt.

The article says,

Argentina’s economy is on course to rebound this year and grow at 3-5%. But the government is spending money so fast that this growth will not finance current spending on its own, says Daniel Marx, a former finance minister. Ordinarily, a government faced with a shortfall would turn to domestic and international bond markets. But this has been difficult since Argentina defaulted in 2002.

The country cannot count on private creditors to make up its budget shortfall, so the president is planning to finance her country’s deficit by buying Argentinean bonds with the country’s own US dollar reserves. Such behavior concerns economists because it could send a message to international investors that the country is on the path towards another unsustainable build-up of debt that could culminate in another default and economic collapse. The article is a word of caution to the president that all leaders should heed: balanced budgets are a good idea, and debt is dangerous!

3 responses so far

Oct 27 2009

Homo Economicus – “Economic Man”: Guest Lesson for ZIS Theory of Knowledge classes

Homo Economicus, the “Economic Man” is the concept underlying most economic theories. It holds that all humans are purely self-interested, rational actors who have the ability to make judgments that fulfill their subjectively defined ends. In modern economic theory, the end man seeks is generally accepted to be increasing monetary well-being and material wealth.

Philosophical foundations of “homo economicus“:

Aristotle (350 BC):

Again, how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser’s love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state.

  • What does Aristotle think about the interference of government in the private property rights of man?

Adam Smith (1776):

In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer: and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

  • How does Smith believe the pursuit of individual self-interest can lead to benefits for society as a whole?

John Stuart Mill (1836)

What is now commonly understood by the term “economics” is not the science of speculative politics, but a branch of that science. It does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. It predicts only such of the phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive; except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labor, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences. These it takes, to a certain extent, into its calculations, because these do not merely, like our other desires, occasionally conflict with the pursuit of wealth, but accompany it always as a drag, or impediment, and are therefore inseparably mixed up in the consideration of it.

  • According to Mill, labor is not something humans value for its own sake, but only because it allows us to do what?

Fredrick von Hayek (1930s):

We will benefit our fellow man most if we are guided solely by the striving for gain. For this purpose we have to return to an automatic system which brings this about, a self-directing automatic system which alone can restore liberty and prosperity.

  • How would Hayek respond to those who argue that the government’s role in society and the economy is to promote fairness and equality?

Are you a “homo economicus“? – The Golden Balls Game

The prize: $1 million

How to play:

  • Find an opponent from among your classmates.
  • You and your opponent have never met before today, never spoken to one another, and will never see nor speak to one another again after the game ends.
  • Since you do not know or care about your opponent, you must play this game with your own self-interest in mind, and assume that your opponent will play it with his or her self-interest in mind.
  • You have in front of you two folded pieces of paper. One says “SPLIT” and one says “STEAL”
  • You must decide which piece of paper to select, based on the following possible outcomes

The payoffs:

  • If both players decide to “split”, each player will take home $500,000.
  • If one player chooses to “split” and the other chooses to “steal” then the one who chooses to steel will take home $1 million, and the one who chose to split will get nothing
  • If both players choose to “steel”, both players go home empty handed.

Split

Steal

Split

Player 1: $500,000

Player 2: $500,000

Player 1: $1 million

Player 2: 0

Steal

Player 1: $0

Player 2: $1 million

Player 1: $0

Player 2: $0

Let’s play!

  • You only have one chance to play this game. Remember, you care only about yourself and should do what is best for you.
  • On the teacher’s command, reveal your decision to your opponent.
  • Take note of your payoff and report it to the teacher

Discussion:

  • What was the outcome of your game?
  • Was the outcome rational? Was it predictable?
  • Did the outcome reflect the concept of “homo economicus“? Were you and your opponents’ decisions purely self-interested and coldly rational, intended to maximize your OWN payoff?
  • Are you a homo economicus? What would homo economicus have done? Why?

Videos:

Golden Balls – the real gameshow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0&feature=player_embedded

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0&feature=player_embedded[/youtube]

  • Which player was more like homo economicus? Sarah or Steve?
  • Which player acts rationally? What makes it rational?
  • Which player acts irrationally? What makes it irrational?

“The Trap”: Intro to game theory and rational self-interest in politics and economics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzNcY-gZdiA&feature=related

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzNcY-gZdiA[/youtube]

  • John Nash’s Game Theory proved that “a system driven by selfishness did not have to lead to chaos”, that “there could always be a point of equilibrium in which everyone’s self-interest is perfectly balanced against each other”? How does such a theory support the concept of homo economicus?
  • What is the Prisoner’s Dilemma? “The rational choice is always to betray the other person.” What does this say about humans in society? Is government regulation needed to prevent constant betrayal by greedy, self-interested individuals? Or are constant betrayal and self-interest themselves capable of achieving a socially optimal outcome?

Noam Chomsky on the inefficiency of markets and the threat posed by de-regulation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPl27BO7fHE&feature=related

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPl27BO7fHE[/youtube]

  • What is the “externality” of financial market failure that Chomsky identifies?
  • Why is the failure of a financial market more worrisome than the failure of a market like that for used automobiles?
  • How does Chomsky feel about the de-regulation of financial markets? Does he think markets are always rational and efficient?

Modern applications of the concept of Homo Economicus:

  • Rational Expectations Theory (RET): This economic theory assumes that humans acting generally in their own self-interest will make rational decision based on the best available information. Therefore, it assumes that people (and therefore, markets, which are made up of rational people) do not make systematic errors when predicting the future.
  • Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH): Rooted in Rational Expectations Theory, which itself is rooted in the concept of homo economicus, EMH says that prices in markets, particularly financial markets (whose collapse has caused the today’s global economic crisis) represent the best possible estimates of the risks attached to the ownership of various financial assets (stocks, shares, bonds, etc…) Asset bubbles are therefore impossible, since “bubble” implies an irrational and unsustainable increase in the value of an asset which will ultimately “burst”. Markets are “self-correcting”, and the most effective tool for assuring economic stability is free markets, rather than government regulation or oversight.

Connecting the dots – from Homo Economicus to today’s Economic downturn:


The general acceptance of theories rooted in the concept of homo economicus led to the de-regulation of financial markets, which allowed money and resources to go whichever way the “market” (rational or not) determined.

  • During the last decade, the market decided that more and more money and resources should go towards particular assets, specifically the United States mortgage market (the market for new homes in the US).
  • As money flooded the US home mortgage market, it became cheaper and easier for Americans to get loans to build a home. GREAT, RIGHT?! Well, only until it came time to pay back those loans.
  • Trillions of dollars worldwide became tangled up in the US mortgage market, representing households’ savings from around the globe.
  • When Americans suddenly found their loans coming due, they found it hard to repay them due to adjustable interest rates and falling home price (supply had grown more rapidly than demand).
  • American and many Europeans began defaulting on their mortgages, meaning all that money that had been lent to home buyers literally disappeared.
  • Banks and financial markets faced a “liquidity crisis”, meaning they had no money.
  • Lending stopped to households, firms, and other banks , meaning spending on goods and services decreased, meaning jobs were lost and economies entered recession.
  • How could any of this have happened if the concept homo economicus and the economic theories based on the concept are correct? Are humans always rational, calculating, perfectly informed, self-interested beings acting purely in their own self-interest?

Conclusion: The concept of homo economicus has formed the basis for economic theories for centuries and for major macroeconomic policies over the last 30 years. Policies of “market liberalization” (freeing the market from the guiding, regulatory hands of government) have led to great prosperity, but even greater risk and volatility as irrational exuberance over asset prices has led to inefficient market outcomes, bubbles, and financial shocks plunging the “real” economies of the world into recession.

Perhaps a more complete understanding of humans is needed as the human science of economics enters a new era. The human as a cold, rational, calculating creature interested in only his own gain is an over-simplification, and forming theories and policies on such an assumption is dangerous. The future of economics must incorporate a more complete and complex understanding of human behavior if the economic crises of the last two years are to be avoided down the road.

7 responses so far

Sep 14 2009

Jobless Growth? How could this be?

Economic Growth Yet to Hit Job Market – washingtonpost.com

In AP and IB Economics, we understand the importance of macroeconomics to policymakers, whose primary macroeconomic goal is growth. Economic Growth, defined as an increase in a nation’s total output of goods and service (and therefore the national income), is desidred not only for the sake of growth itself (producing more stuff requires more resources, and may not necessarily make the average citizen better off), rather growth is needed in order to achieve full-employment of a nation’s labor force.

Growth is good. This tenet of economics is rooted in two basic observations: 1. Growth leads to an improvement in the average standard living of a nation’s people, and 2. Growth is needed to employ the growing workforce of a nation experiencing population growth and immigration.

America’s work force is a diverse group of people of all skill levels. 150 million strong, the nation’s workforce requires a healthy national economy with strong investment and consumption to maintain enough jobs to keep unemployment low.   In the last two years, however, the prospect of employment in America has diminished as the number of people out of work has grown to nearly 15 million.

Involuntary unemployment is perhaps the most serious cost of an economic slowdown. A willing and able worker (or 15 million of them!), skilled in mind and body, unable to find prouductive work, represents a monumental failure of a nation’s economy. Policies aimed at promoting growth are in fact aimed at creating employment.

The costs of unemployment affect not only the unlucky  individuals who have have lost their job. Social costs include increased crime and poverty, psychological costs include stress, anxiety, loss of self-image and depression. The economic costs are myriad. Unemployed workers become dependent on the rest of society for support, in one way or another. Benefits for the unemployed payed by the government require greater budget deficits or increased tax burden on the employed. The large pool of jobless citizens seeking work puts downward pressure on the wages of those still working, as employers find it difficult to keep paying high wages while demand for their products has fallen and millions of job seekers are willing to work for less.

The families and friends to whom unemployed workers turn for help find their already stretched incomes spread even thinner. Without steady incomes, the unemployed consume less, putting further strain on an already depressed economy. Deflation can result from unemployment, which can lead to futher layoffs by pessimistic firms, excacerbating the situation and plunging the economy into what’s known as a deflationary spiral.

For all the reasons above, policymakers strive to promote growth. When monetary policy fails to incite spending, the government must pick up the slack, hence the stimulus package so discussed in America today. China’s stimulus of over $500 billion (twice that of the US, as a percentage of its GDP) has had a positive effect on both GDP and the job market.

Employment levels in China began to recover over the past three months in the latest evidence of the rapid rebound in the economy from the international financial crisis as a result of heavy public investment.

Yin Weimin, China’s labour minister, said there had been a modest increase in the number of jobs in the economy during June, July and August, reversing the sharp slump in employment which began last October.

America’s stimlus has also begun to restore growth, but the rise in employment has so far not occured:

Despite an emerging economic expansion, businesses were sufficiently skittish about the future that the job market continued its long, steep decline in August, according to a new government report Friday. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent, from 9.4 percent, as employers shed jobs for the 20th straight month, the Labor Department said.

“Our clients tell us they will not hire in anticipation

of a recovery, but will wait until they see it,” said Jonas Prising, an executive vice president at Manpower, the giant employment services firm. “In a normal recession, people would now start to feel more comfortable and start hiring, but nobody is doing that today. They’ll do it when they see real orders and real business.”

The “silver lining” of the latest unemployment figures is hardly encouraging. The rise in unemployment is not as sharp as over most of the last year. In other words, workers are definitely worse off, but not as badly as they could have been if things were as dismal as they were earlier this year.

While the unemployment rate, as seen on the graph to the right, has risen almost every month since August of 2008, the rate at which the rate has increased has begun to slow. In other words, the economy is probably close to “bottoming out”.

The tally of lost jobs now stands at 6.9 million since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. But the rate of job losses has been declining, if haltingly, since winter. The 216,000 jobs eliminated in August is down from 276,000 cut in July and a peak of 741,000 lost in January.

Here’s what I find most interesting from in the current data. The unemployment rate’s recent rise may actually be a sign that the economy is beginning to recover. Recovery means growth in output, which should mean less unemployment. However, if workers who have been unemployed for a long time, and have therefore stop seeking employment suddenly feel more optimistic about the prospects of getting a job and begin seeking work again, then the nation’s unemployment rate actually rises! How’s that for “silver lining”? The 216,000 additional people added to the list of unemployed may have already been out of work but since they were notactively seeking employment they were not included in last month’s data.

The tricky thing about macroeconomic policy is this:  Monetary and fiscal policies can put billions of dollars into the nation’s banks and households’ and firms’ pockets through tax breaks, government bailouts, subsidies, infrastructure spending and “troubled asset swaps”… but all the money and income in the world will not lead the nation towards full-employment unless the nation’s consumers and producers feel confident. I teach my students that national income is made up of the sum of wages, interest, rent and profit; its spending consists of consumption, investment, government spending and net exports… but without the “big C” of confidence, expansionary policies aimed at increasing employment will come to nought. Confidence, according to John Maynard Keynes, is an animal spirit, a trait of humans beyond the assumption of rational behavior. Until confidence is restored, America’s output and employment levels will remain low.

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Aug 26 2009

Inflation: a threat to fear now or a distant concern?

Fidelity Investments – Inflation: A Threat or Not? by Dirk Hofschire

I was surprised to receive an email from the company that manages my personal investments directing me to an article that I would be able to use in class. But this analysis by a vice president of Fidelity Investments offers and excellent, concise examination of the threat posed by inflation in America today. I will use excerpts from the article and present the ideas in a graphical form to help students better understand the situation faced by the US as it struggles to emerge from its deep recession.

Hofschire sets out to answer four questions about inflation:

1. Is inflation accelerating?
2. Why is higher inflation expected?
3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?
4. When will inflation return?
5. How high will inflation go?

1. Is in flation accellerating:

In short, NO.

In June, the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) declined 1.2% (on a year-over-year basis), representing the biggest fall in prices since 1950.1 Much of the decline is attributable to the steep drop in energy prices over the past year, which may reverse itself in the second half of 2009 if crude-oil prices remain near current levels. However, core CPI—which excludes food and energy—was less than 1.8% in June, demonstrating little inflationary pressure in general

A combination of weak aggregate demand and low resource costs for firms has kept price levels down.  While total spending has falling (leftward shift of AD), firms’ costs of production have fallen (rightward shift of AS). Since total output fell we can see that national income (Y) is less in 2009 than in 2008. Since price level has fallen, we can see deflation.

Diagram 1:

25 8 blog post graphs_1

2. Why is higher inflation expected?

With little evidence of economic strength or cost-push inflation today, the concern now is that the monetarist economic view of the world sees inflation clouds on the horizon. The godfather of modern monetarist economic thought, Milton Friedman, once stated, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” What Friedman meant was that money—specifically changes in the supply and use of currency—was the primary driver for changes to price levels in an economy. Friedman informally defined inflation as “too much money chasing too few goods and services.” As a result, an excessive increase in the amount or use of money relative to economic output is the textbook prescription for inflation.

The inflation described above, and feared by Friedman and today’s monetarists is not of the cost-push type, rather the demand-pull variety. As the vast quantities of money injected by the US Fed work their way through the banking system and into the pockets of consumers and the hands of firm managers, eventually demand for America’s goods and services will rise. But in the current recession, the production of those goods and services has stagnated, meaning that once all this money starts getting spent, the competition among buyers for the limited output of producers will drive prices up.

Diagram 2:

25 8 blog post graphs_2

3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?

…there remains considerable downward pressure on prices still in place, due to growing slack in the economy (i.e. underutilized resources, such as labor) and continued deleveraging by consumers and financial firms with heavy debt loads. With the unemployment rate at its highest level in 26 years and consumers saving more and spending less, there is little upward pressure on wages or prices for consumer goods.

Yes, the money supply has increased, which according to our answer to number 2 should lead to inflation. But not if the new money isn’t being spent! Banks with money from the Fed are holding onto their excess reserves instead of loaning them out, due to a prevailing lack of confidence in borrowers ability to repay loans during these hard economic times. If all the money the Central Bank is injecting in the economy is sitting idle, and resources such as labor, land and capital are under-employed, then there is little fear of cost-push nor demand-pull inflation.  Diagram 1 illustrates why inflation hasn’t occured yet.

The excess bank reserves thus represent both the potential for future inflation as well as the explanation for why rapid money growth has yet to create current inflation.

In short, money must be spent to drive inflation up. When households prefer savings to consumption and banks prefer liquidity to risk, inflation is only a distant fear.

4. When will inflation return?

Interestingly, the answer to this question can be summed up as: “hopefully sooner rather than later”. Despite popular belief, some inflation is considered a positive sign of economic growth. Just as deflation is the purveyor of doom and gloom (unemployment, uncertainty, low consumer and investor confidence, credit crunch, etc) inflation is a sign of health returning to the economy (improved confidence, rising employment, looser credit markets, expectations of future growth). Central Bankers like Bernanke will surely be showered with praise, while congressman will be quick to give credit to the fiscal stimulus package.

Whether the pick-up in money velocity leads to significantly higher inflation depends on how quickly the Fed pulls the reins back on the extraordinary credit it is currently providing. In theory, the Fed can take actions to reduce the size of its balance sheet and move back to a more appropriate level of money. In practice, due to the unprecedented expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet, this will be a challenge.

Just as it was the Fed”s and government’s job to get the party started through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, it is equally important for policymakers to calm the party down should the level of inflation begin to rise.

Diagram 3:

25 8 blog post graphs_3

5. How high will inflation go?

Given the high level of slack (i.e. underutilized resources) likely to remain in the economy during the next two years, there also could be offsetting deflationary pressures lingering in the system. For example, the unemployment rate is expected to rise above 10% and not peak until sometime in 2010. Industrial capacity utilization rates are at their lowest level on record, which means a lot of unused capacity in the manufacturing sector. This slack must tighten considerably before upward pressure is placed on wages and other prices.

As a result of this downward pressure on wages, which remain the largest expense for corporations, it would appear a 1970s-style, double-digit inflation outburst remains unlikely in the short to medium term. Average weekly earnings for U.S. workers rose more than 7% annually during the period from 1975-1981 in which consumer price inflation averaged more than 9% and peaked at 14% in 1980.5 It is hard to foresee wage gains of that magnitude reinforcing inflation pressures during the next couple of years.

The 1970’s was a period of high inflation in the US, caused primarily by higher costs for firms rather than increasing demand for output. This “cost-push” inflation is unlikely to occur in today’s climate due to the high levels of unemployment and under-employment of labor, land and capital resources. This does not mean inflation won’t happen, just that it’s unlikely to look like the cost-push variety of the 1970’s.

Diagram 4:

25 8 blog post graphs_4

2 responses so far

Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.

crowding-out_11

Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.

crowding-out_3

Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.

crowding-out_21

Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”

Ferguson:

One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:

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