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Friday, January 7, 2011

Big Ben: "The Federal Government Is On An Unsustainable Fiscal Path"

"Big" Ben Bernanke spoke before the Senate Budget Committee, and he didn't really pull any punches. The full text of his prepared remarks are available on the Federal Reserve's web site. Here's some excepts, with comments, grouped more by category than by chronological order:
"The economic recovery that began a year and a half ago is continuing, although, to date, at a pace that has been insufficient to reduce the rate of unemployment significantly."
The economy is finally showing signs that things are recovering:
"More recently, however, we have seen increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold. In particular, real consumer spending rose at an annual rate of 2-1/2 percent in the third quarter of 2010, and the available indicators suggest that it likely expanded at a somewhat faster pace in the fourth quarter. Business investment in new equipment and software has grown robustly in recent quarters, albeit from a fairly low level, as firms replaced aging equipment and made investments that had been delayed during the downturn. However, the housing sector remains depressed, as the overhang of vacant houses continues to weigh heavily on both home prices and construction, and nonresidential construction is also quite weak. Overall, the pace of economic recovery seems likely to be moderately stronger in 2011 than it was in 2010."
Except for employment. That recovery hasn't really spread to employment, which could be a threat to the recovery:
"Although recent indicators of spending and production have generally been encouraging, conditions in the labor market have improved only modestly at best. After the loss of nearly 8-1/2 million jobs in 2008 and 2009, private payrolls expanded at an average of only about 100,000 per month in 2010--a pace barely enough to accommodate the normal increase in the labor force and, therefore, insufficient to materially reduce the unemployment rate.... Persistently high unemployment, by damping household income and confidence, could threaten the strength and sustainability of the recovery. Moreover, roughly 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or more. Long-term unemployment not only imposes exceptional hardships on the jobless and their families, but it also erodes the skills of those workers and may inflict lasting damage on their employment and earnings prospects."
Unfortunately, we're not really expecting employment to recover really soon:
"Although it is likely that economic growth will pick up this year and that the unemployment rate will decline somewhat, progress toward the Federal Reserve's statutory objectives of maximum employment and stable prices is expected to remain slow. The projections submitted by Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) participants in November showed that, notwithstanding forecasts of increased growth in 2011 and 2012, most participants expected the unemployment rate to be close to 8 percent two years from now. At this rate of improvement, it could take four to five more years for the job market to normalize fully."
Changing to a different subject, inflation really isn't a problem. Stop thinking it is:
"Recent data show consumer price inflation continuing to trend downward. For the 12 months ending in November, prices for personal consumption expenditures rose 1.0 percent, and inflation excluding the relatively volatile food and energy components--which tends to be a better gauge of underlying inflation trends--was only 0.8 percent, down from 1.7 percent a year earlier and from about 2-1/2 percent in 2007, the year before the recession began."
In fact, inflation probably will remain stable for a while:
"Despite the decline in inflation, long-run inflation expectations have remained stable; for example, the rate of inflation that households expect over the next 5 to 10 years, as measured by the Thompson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, has remained in a narrow range over the past few years. With inflation expectations stable, and with levels of resource utilization expected to remain low, inflation is likely to be subdued for some time."
But, (returning to a previous topic) part of what's keeping inflation down is unemployment. And we're kind of concerned about that:
"The downward trend in inflation over the past few years is no surprise, given the low rates of resource utilization that have prevailed over that time. Indeed, as a result of the weak job market, wage growth has slowed along with inflation; over the 12 months ending in November, average hourly earnings have risen only 1.6 percent."
Also, did we mention that the simple fact that inflation is low could also be a serious problem? Because maybe we should mention that:
"FOMC participants also projected inflation to be at historically low levels for some time. Very low rates of inflation raise several concerns: First, very low inflation increases the risk that new adverse shocks could push the economy into deflation, that is, a situation involving ongoing declines in prices. Experience shows that deflation induced by economic slack can lead to extended periods of poor economic performance; indeed, even a significant perceived risk of deflation may lead firms to be more cautious about investment and hiring. Second, with short-term nominal interest rates already close to zero, declines in actual and expected inflation increase, respectively, both the real cost of servicing existing debt and the expected real cost of new borrowing. By raising effective debt burdens and by inhibiting new household spending and business investment, higher real borrowing costs create a further drag on growth. Finally, it is important to recognize that periods of very low inflation generally involve very slow growth in nominal wages and incomes as well as in prices. (I have already alluded to the recent deceleration in average hourly earnings.) Thus, in circumstances like those we face now, very low inflation or deflation does not necessarily imply any increase in household purchasing power. Rather, because of the associated deterioration in economic performance, very low inflation or deflation arising from economic slack is generally linked with reductions rather than gains in living standards."
Now, in terms of dealing with inflation and unemployment, we're kind of tapped out on resources:
"In a situation in which unemployment is high and expected to remain so and inflation is unusually low, the FOMC would normally respond by reducing its target for the federal funds rate. However, the Federal Reserve's target for the federal funds rate has been close to zero since December 2008, leaving essentially no scope for further reductions."
Changing gears, let's talk about this laughable collection of numbers you lot pass every year that you claim is an operating budget. A real budget balances income and outflows. What you pass just assumes that ever-increasing deficits are a mandatory part of the budgeting process. As a result, if you are under 40, by the time you retire this nation's "budget" will make the PIIGS nations look fiscally responsible.
"However, an important part of the federal budget deficit appears to be structural rather than cyclical; that is, the deficit is expected to remain unsustainably elevated even after economic conditions have returned to normal. For example, under the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) so-called alternative fiscal scenario, which assumes that most of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 are made permanent and that discretionary spending rises at the same rate as the gross domestic product (GDP), the deficit is projected to fall from its current level of about 9 percent of GDP to 5 percent of GDP by 2015, but then to rise to about 6-1/2 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. In subsequent years, the budget outlook is projected to deteriorate even more rapidly, as the aging of the population and continued growth in health spending boost federal outlays on entitlement programs. Under this scenario, federal debt held by the public is projected to reach 185 percent of the GDP by 2035, up from about 60 percent at the end of fiscal year 2010."
There has not yet been a serious attempt to fix this:
"It is widely understood that the federal government is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Yet, as a nation, we have done little to address this critical threat to our economy. Doing nothing will not be an option indefinitely; the longer we wait to act, the greater the risks and the more wrenching the inevitable changes to the budget will be."
We still have a chance not to be a third world country:
"By contrast, the prompt adoption of a credible program to reduce future deficits would not only enhance economic growth and stability in the long run, but could also yield substantial near-term benefits in terms of lower long-term interest rates and increased consumer and business confidence. Plans recently put forward by the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and other prominent groups provide useful starting points for a much-needed national conversation about our medium- and long-term fiscal situation."
Please, as our elected officials, act like grown-ups and govern. Make a hard choice or two.
" I hope that, in addressing our long-term fiscal challenges, the Congress will seek reforms to the government's tax policies and spending priorities that serve not only to reduce the deficit but also to enhance the long-term growth potential of our economy--for example, by encouraging investment in physical and human capital, by promoting research and development, by providing necessary public infrastructure, and by reducing disincentives to work and to save. We cannot grow out of our fiscal imbalances, but a more productive economy would ease the tradeoffs that we face."
Please note that, while my "explanatory comments" may be a little.. sarcastic, they really aren't inaccurate. If you don't believe me, read the transcript and see if I've taken anything out of context.

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