Writing in today’s Washington Post, former Obama economist Larry Summers put forth the strange hypothesis that more red ink would improve the federal government’s long-run fiscal position.
This sounds like an excuse for more Keynesian spending as part of another so-called stimulus plan, but Summers claims to have a much more modest goal of prudent financial management.
And if we assume there’s no hidden agenda, what he’s proposing isn’t unreasonable.
But before floating his idea, Summers starts with some skepticism about more easy-money policy from the Fed:
Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. …However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.
This is intuitively appealing. I try to stay away from monetary policy issues, but whenever I get sucked into a discussion with an advocate of easy money/quantitative easing, I always ask for a common-sense explanation of how dumping more liquidity into the economy is going to help.
Maybe it’s possible to push interest rates even lower, but it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence showing that the economy is being held back because today’s interest rates are too high.
Moreover, what’s the point of “pushing on a string” with easy money if it just means more reserves sitting at the Fed?
After suggesting that monetary policy isn’t the answer, Summers then proposes to utilize government borrowing. But he’s proposing more debt for management purposes, not Keynesian stimulus:
Rather than focusing on lowering already epically low rates, governments that enjoy such low borrowing costs can improve their creditworthiness by borrowing more, not less, and investing in improving their future fiscal position, even assuming no positive demand stimulus effects of a kind likely to materialize with negative real rates. They should accelerate any necessary maintenance projects — issuing debt leaves the state richer not poorer, assuming that maintenance costs rise at or above the general inflation rate. …Similarly, government decisions to issue debt, and then buy space that is currently being leased, will improve the government’s financial position as long as the interest rate on debt is less than the ratio of rents to building values — a condition almost certain to be met in a world with government borrowing rates below 2 percent. These examples are the place to begin because they involve what is in effect an arbitrage, whereby the government uses its credit to deliver essentially the same bundle of services at a lower cost. …countries regarded as havens that can borrow long term at a very low cost should be rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.
Much of this seems reasonable, sort of like a homeowner taking advantage of low interest rates to refinance a mortgage.
But before embracing this idea, we have to move from the dream world of theory to the real world of politics. And to his credit, Summers offers the critical caveat that his idea only makes sense if politicians use their borrowing authority for the right reasons:
There is, of course, still the question of whether more borrowing will increase anxiety about a government’s creditworthiness. It should not, as long as the proceeds of borrowing are used either to reduce future spending or raise future incomes.
At the risk of being the wet-blanket curmudgeon who ruins the party by removing the punch bowl, I have zero faith that politicians would make sound decisions about financial management.
I wrote last month that eurobonds would be “the fiscal version of co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”
Well, giving politicians more borrowing authority in hopes they’ll do a bit of prudent refinancing is akin to giving a bunch of money to your drug-addict brother-in-law in hopes that he’ll refinance his credit card debt rather than wind up in a crack house.
Considering that we just saw big bipartisan votes to expand the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare and we’re now witnessing both parties working on a bloated farm bill, good luck with that.