SEMI/MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE – ELECTION DAY, WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE ECONOMY?
It is difficult to step back from the 24 hour news cycle and focus on the forest, rather than the trees. As of 9/30/2000, a mere twenty years ago when GW Bush was elected, the total US Debt amounted to $5.7 trillion. In 2008 Barack Obama bemoaned the “irresponsibly built” debt of $10.0 trillion, then took it to $19.6 trillion by 9/30/2016. Donald Trump campaigned suggesting he could balance the budget and begin to reduce the debt and the current total is now over $27 trillion. Even without the “extra” couple of trillion to cope with Covid-19, he was on pace to substantially exceed the pace of his predecessors. The deficit the next twelve months is likely to be in the $2-3 trillion range in the current fiscal year ending 9/30/2021, so the beat goes on.
Anyone who thinks our economy will resume long term real GDP growth in excess of 3% is ignoring the crushing burden of the ongoing debt buildup. The best we can hope for is “stagflation” as our dollar loses its purchasing power over the long term and the worldwide economy moves toward the “European Model”. This conclusion applies no matter which candidates, for the presidency and congress, prevail. The public (on both the political right and the left) wants health care insurance with no regard for pre-existing conditions, continuation of social security and other entitlements, increasing support for education at all levels, continued high defense spending, as well as other forms of government support. The Federal Reserve Bank has taken up the task of narrowing the wealth gap. All of this means continued major government spending, far in excess of government receipts. Larger government may be more predictable under Democratic leadership but will also be a necessary reality under the Republicans. Neither Trump, Pence, Biden or Harris created this situation. It has been created over decades, and the current players can only kick the can down the road, at best.
The worst outcome that we can envision is a deflationary depression, possibly one that could match or even exceed that of the 1930’s.
Our opinion is that the can gets kicked down the road, at least once more. These cycles take years to play out, so the timing of the ultimate “reset” is impossible to accurately predict.
For the moment: THE DISTORTIONS, AND PRESSURES ONLY INTENSIFY – YOU NEVER KNOW WHICH SNOWFLAKE WILL CAUSE THE AVALANCHE
There is lots of additional news, all of which only serves to intensify the financial distortions that we have been describing for years. With the US election upon us, there seems to be nobody that expects government (fiscal) or federal reserve bank (monetary) support to be reduced after the election. It is virtually certain to be quite the contrary. Below we will hit a few “high” or perhaps “low” points, while quoting several more well known authorities than ourselves.
We have described many times how debt issuance brings forward demand, at the expense of future consumption. We have also pointed out, as Reinhart and Rogoff described over ten years ago in “This Time is Different” (chronicling 800 years of business history) that once government debt reaches approximately 100% of GDP it is a noticeable drag on productive growth.
Lacy Hunt and Van Hoisington of Hoisington Research said recently: “Countries in a debt trap (our italics) like the US, Japan, the UK and the Euro Area have experienced a fall in short term interest rates to the zero bound, in some cases into negative rates, thus eliminating monetary policy to play a role in supporting the economy.” In other words, once at zero, below zero can’t help much.
Hunt and Hoisington described the increasing burden of the debt buildup this way: “As proof of the connection (between debt and GDP slowdown), each additional dollar of debt in 1980 generated a rise in GDP of 60 cents, up from 54 cents in 1940. The 1980s was the last decade for the productivity of debt to rise. Since then this ratio has dropped sharply, from 42 cents in 1989 to 27 cents in 2019.”
Hunt and Hoisington also said “Debt financed fiscal policy can provide a short term lift to the economy that lasts one to two quarters. This was the case with….2009, 2018 and 2019. However, the benefit of these actions…even when the amount of funds borrowed and spent were substantial, proved to be very fleeting and the deleterious effects remain. The multi-trillion dollars borrowed for pandemic relief in Q2 encouraged the beginnings of a “V” shaped recovery, but this additional debt will serve as a persistent restraint on growth going forward. When government debt as a percent of GDP rises above 65% economic growth is severely impacted and becomes very acute (our italics) at 90%.”
Keeping the above in mind, we present the following chart, provided to us within our subscription to Grant Williams’ “Things that make you go hmmm”. Shown are examples of what was going on, describing profound societal adjustments that have accompanied the debt levels of today. Fifty one out of fifty two times in the past, when debt gets to 130% of GDP, the country eventually defaulted on its financial obligations, one way or another, which is exactly where the USA is right now.
As the final footnote to this discussion, to demonstrate how dramatic the government intervention has recently been: the legendary investor, Howard Marks, pointed out recently that: “in the four months from mid-March to mid-July of this year, the Fed bought bonds and notes and other securities to the tune of more than $2.3 trillion. That was roughly 20 times what it bought in 18 months during the Global Financial Crisis (of ’08-’09).” We have it it this way: the “drug addict needs an increasingly powerful ‘hit’ to maintain the ‘high’”.
Take all of this under consideration as you position yourself financially.