Financial FAQs

The European debt crisis has re-triggered the debate over budget deficits, and even whether Europe’s problems could trigger a ‘double-dip’ return to recession in our own economy. The contention is that Europe will be burdened with debt for years to come, which slows their economic growth.

What has Europe to do with our own economy? It is mainly the relationship between currencies. When the euro is high, then our exports are cheaper, helping manufacturing employment in particular. So the reverse case boosts European exports and reduces ours. And the euro’s value has plunged as investors fled to dollar denominated investments.

But a more general debate is whether governments should incur additional debts to cure such financial crises as we are now weathering. So-called Keynesian economists say that government stimulus spending is crucial to any recovery, since it boosts demand for new products and services. But that only happens if it is directed to consumers—who account for up to 70 percent of economic activity.

So-called supply-side policies boost the producers by giving tax cuts directly to investors and businesses, in the hopes that it will induce businesses to expand and create more jobs. However that didn’t happen during the last recovery. The 5 million jobs created from 2000-08 was the lowest total since WWII.

Nobelist and columnist Paul Krugman came up with an interesting conclusion on just that subject. Were we better off under the supply-side policies of President Reagan in the 1980s who wanted to funnel more money to the supply-side, or of Clinton in the 1990s who wanted it to go to consumers, was his question.

“Here’s what I think,” said Krugman, “inflation did have to be brought down — and Paul Volcker, not Reagan, did what was necessary. But the rest — slashing taxes on the rich, breaking the unions, letting inflation erode the minimum wage — wasn’t necessary at all. We could have gone on with a more progressive tax system, a stronger labor movement, and so on.”

The stimulus spending is definitely working. The Congressional Budget Office reported the latest results of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) under this headline:

New CBO Report Finds ARRA has Preserved or Created up to 2.8 Million Jobs

While the report focuses primarily on the first quarter of 2010, CBO also includes new projections of the Recovery Act’s jobs impact through 2012. It finds that in the current quarter (the second quarter of 2010), there are 1.4 million to 3.4 million more jobs in the economy because of ARRA, and it predicts that ARRA’s jobs impact will peak this fall, when there will be 1.4 million to 3.7 million more jobs because of the legislation.

This is in line with the latest unemployment report, which showed 290,000 payroll jobs created in April, following a revised 230,000 advance in March, and 39,000 rise in February. April’s boost topped the market estimate for a 200,000 gain. Net combined revisions for March and February were up a 121,000-including turning February from negative to positive. But the key number is private payrolls as Census hiring added 66,000 to April’s jobs, compared to adding 48,000 the prior month. Private nonfarm employment increased 231,000, following a 174,000 rise in March.

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The real key to refuting the ‘debt fallacy’ is the benefit government stimulus does for consumers’ pocketbooks, and that is also looking better. Consumers are getting healthier— at least financially, as income gains enable them to spend and save more, with inflation almost non-existent. The headline PCE price index was unchanged in April-easing from up 0.1 percent in March. The core rate also was soft, gaining only 0.1 percent and matching both March and the consensus forecast.

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Personal income posted a solid 0.4 percent increase for April, matching the gain the month before. The April figure came in slightly lower than the market forecast for a 0.5 percent boost. Importantly, the latest increase is in what really counts as the wages & salaries component advanced 0.4 percent after rising 0.3 percent in March.

The good news is that consumers are finding more greenbacks in their wallets and this should support additional spending and the recovery. The consumer on average is now pulling its weight in the recovery, while inflation remains benign.

What about paying back the $11 trillion in public debt? We can follow the post-WW II scenario, when it was 120 percent of GDP. That debt was paid down quickly in the post-war recovery. Today it is approaching 90 percent, because this was the worst downturn since the Great Depression. So once again the key to a recovery is keeping consumers healthy with more jobs and higher incomes.

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Among ARRA’s most effective provisions for saving and creating jobs, according to CBO’s estimates, are direct purchases of goods and services by the federal government, transfer payments to states (such as extra Medicaid funding), and transfer payments to individuals (such as increased food stamp benefits and additional weeks of unemployment benefits). CBO’s estimates indicate that tax cuts are less effective job producers, and tax cuts for higher-income people and corporations have very low bang for the buck.

Harlan Green © 2010