Sunday, July 31, 2011

Smoking Some Bad Debt Dope?

All week, I've been watching the circus and clowns in Washington make fools out of themselves. The "debt ceiling drama" is annoying me. More smoke & mirrors to scare retail investors away while the big guns load up on risk assets. Let me go over a few key points to convince you to keep buying the dips hard and ignore the debt boogeyman which permeates our mass media every day.

First, take the time to read Peter Coy's article which appears on yahoo Finance (provided by Bloomberg Businessweek), Why the Debt Crisis Is Even Worse Than You Think. I quote the following:

The language we use is part of the problem. Every would-be budget balancer in Washington should read "On the General Relativity of Fiscal Language," a brilliant 2006 paper by economists Laurence J. Kotlikoff of Boston University and Jerry Green of Harvard University (available online from the National Bureau of Economic Research). The authors write that accountants and economists have something to learn from Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, about how measured quantities depend on one's frame of reference. Terms such as "deficit" and "tax," they write, "represent numbers in search of concepts that provide the illusion of meaning where none exists."

The national debt itself is one such Einsteinian (that is, squishy) concept. The Treasury Dept.'s punctilious daily accounting of it -- $14,342,841,083,049.67 as of July 25, of which just under $14.3 trillion is subject to the ceiling and about $10 trillion is held by the public -- gives the impression that it's as real and tangible as the Washington Monument. But what to include in that sum is ultimately a political choice. For instance, the national debt held by the public doesn't include America's obligation to make Social Security payments to future generations of the elderly. Why not?

Suppose that instead of paying Social Security payroll taxes, working people used that amount of money to buy bonds from the Social Security Administration, which they would redeem in their retirement years. In such an arrangement, the current and future cash flows would be identical, but because of a simple labeling change the reported debt held by the public would skyrocket. That example alone should generate a certain queasiness about the reliability of the numbers that are taken for granted by budget combatants on both sides of the aisle.

A more revealing calculation is the CBO's measurement of what's called the fiscal gap. That figure is conceptually cleaner than the national debt -- and consequently more alarming. Boston University's Kotlikoff has extended the agency's analysis from 2085 out to the infinite horizon, which he says is the only method that's invulnerable to the frame-of-reference problem. It's an approach used by actuaries to make sure that a pension system doesn't contain an instability that will manifest itself just past the last year studied. Years far in the future carry very little weight, converging toward zero, because they are discounted by the time value of money. Even so, Kotlikoff concluded that the fiscal gap -- i.e., the net present value of all future expenses minus all future revenue -- amounts to $211 trillion.

Yikes! Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the CBO from 2003 to 2005, says he doesn't favor the infinite-horizon calculation because the result you get depends too heavily on arbitrary assumptions, such as exactly when health-care cost growth slows. But directionally, he says, Kotlikoff is "exactly right."

Which means we've been heading the wrong way for years. Even in the late 1990s, when official Washington was jubilant because the national debt briefly shrank, fiscal-gap calculations showed that the government was quietly getting into deeper trouble. It was paying out generous benefits to the elderly while incurring big obligations to boomers, whose leading edge was then 15 years from retirement. Now the gray deluge is upon us. As Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, a self-described center-right policy institute, says: "We're just in a world of hurt."

The U.S. is in danger of reaching a generational tipping point at which older Americans have the clout to vote themselves benefits that sap the strength of the younger generation -- benefits that can never be repeated. Kotlikoff argues that we may have reached that point already. He worries that the U.S. could become Argentina, which went from one of the world's richest to lower-middle income in a century of chronic mismanagement.

Senior citizens are being told by their own lobbyists, repeatedly, that any attempt to rein in the cost of Social Security and Medicare is an unjust attack on earned benefits. "Stop the liberals from raiding the Social Security Trust Fund once and for all!" says a recent mailing from the National Retirement Security Task Force. Similar messages aimed at Democratic voters make the same charge against Republicans. No wonder Obama and Boehner were rebuffed by their own parties for putting entitlements on the table. In the end neither the House nor the Senate debt-ceiling proposals touched Social Security or Medicare. Not pretty.

So is the US at risk of becoming the next Argentina or worse still, Greece? Of course not!!! This is all nonsense doctored up by the power elite to scare the masses into believing that the US economy is heading down a "path of fiscal destruction" so they can abdicate their duty to pay their fair share of taxes. I watch all these debates on television and think to myself "what a bunch of bullshit!"

On Friday, I spoke to my favorite fixed income senior portfolio manager/analyst at the Caisse -- a guy that PIMCO only wishes would be working for them. As far as brains go, he can take on Bill Gross and any other 'top gun' at PIMCO but he's too nice of a guy to work with sharks there or on Wall Street. He should be working for an elite global macro hedge fund but he's content where he's at and they value him (even though he's probably grossly underpaid relative to his peers at other large Canadian pension funds).

Anyways, this person confirmed a lot of my thinking on the US debt drama, namely, that most people don't have a clue of what they're talking about when it comes to public economics:

  • On the 'balanced budget' proposal we both agreed that this is a stupid and dangerous proposal and President Obama would be nuts to accept it. Running government finances is not the same thing as running a family budget (thank God!). By law, states have to balance their budgets. When states need money, they go to the federal government. Why in the world would the US federal government -- the lender of last resort -- accept an economic straightjacket? "That's just stupid and would effectively mean the end of counter-cyclical fiscal policy and the end of the welfare state." I would go a step further and state that a balanced budget at the federal level would effectively kill the US economy for long time by posing serious economic, social and health risks. Only lunatics would accept such a proposal, ignoring the serious risks it actually entails.
  • We both agreed that this "US debt crisis" is a political crisis, not an economic crisis. The lack of leadership in Washington is disconcerting. It's actually disturbing to see Tea Party representatives sticking to "their principles" with little or no concern as to the harm that a US default will cause not only in the US, but throughout the world. Already billions have been wiped off the stock market this past week, making a lot of investors poorer, but these politicians have no concern. Like religious zealots who think they will end up in heaven if they carry out their god's work, these lunatics are holding the US economy hostage. The only good thing from this entire messy debt debate is that it will set the Tea Party back years. On that front, Obama and his advisors are brilliant.
  • As far as austerity goes, my friend and I are in full agreement. It's a disaster in Greece, it's a disaster in England, and it's pretty much going to be a total disaster everywhere else. My friend told me that the only place austerity worked was in Canada during the 90's but "that's because the economy was growing." Those of you who still cling to this silly notion that austerity works should take the time to listen to Michael Hudson at the end of my comment on the rottenness of the world.
  • We both agree that the debt crisis is way overblown. The August 2nd deadline is not set in stone. "The cost of capital extending it by a week is zero but the stock market will likely slide further on uncertainty. In theory, the Fed could mint a trillion dollar 'platinum' coin and the US government will pay all its obligations." More importantly, we both agree that the real long-term issue for the US and other developed economies remains the jobs crisis. And the real unemployment scandal is how it's impacting certain minorities much harsher than others. Importantly, if you don't tackle the jobs crisis, the debt and deficit will only get worse.
  • As far as Bill Gross and PIMCO, my friend chuckled at his advice to "short Treasuries" when yields were at 3.75%. "Anyone following his advice would have gotten killed, but to be fair to him, he has a fiduciary responsibility to his clients and won't reveal his true positions beforehand." Yields continue to fall as the US economy slows and flight to quality reigns as global investors remain jittery.
  • In Europe, my friend sees this as a long, drawn out mess where yields will gyrate widely over the next year. He joked: "the way spreads are moving, BCA Research should start a new publication call the European Fixed Income Weekly."
  • Finally, my friend thinks universities across the world should "burn standard economics textbooks." Having graduated from McGill University with an M.A. in Economics, I'm somewhat in agreement but also recognize that some of the greatest social thinkers of the 20th century were brilliant economists like Keynes, Hicks, Hayek, Fisher, Friedman, etc. The problem isn't economics, it's what they're teaching students, ignoring a rich history of economic thought (too much mathematics and programming, not enough economics and history!)
I leave you with an excellent roundtable discussion from ABC's This Week (entire show is worth watching online; watch both parts of roundtable discussion below). Pay close attention to what Paul Kruman and Mohamed El-Erian are saying. Cutting spending now will only exacerbate the jobs crisis and will make things much worse. In my opinion, Krugman is wrong about targeted cuts to the federal government, but he's absolutely right that the Obama administration has basically pandered to the Republicans and caved into every one of their demands.

As I stated before, the world is sinking into a hellhole. We have incompetent fools running our governments, major corporations, banks and yes, alas, our public pension funds (with a few exceptions). It's a total disaster but remember this: the power elite need to continue making profits. These sociopaths will stop at nothing to extend and pretend, which is why I'm not worried about this entire "debt crisis debacle" and keep buying the dips on risk assets. And lo and behold, as I wind down my comment, Bloomberg reports that a deal framework has been reached on raising the debt ceiling. Relax, it should be a great week in the stock market. :)

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