Saturday, October 12, 2013

Is Washington Burning?

For those who want more than The Onion’s take on the debt ceiling and who are slightly skeptical of James Grant’s wish for a return to the gold standard, Harvard professor and economic historian Niall Ferguson has offered his analysis on the current Washington distractions:

 In his vain attempt to stop the Senate striking out the defunding of ObamaCare from the last version of the continuing resolution, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz managed to quote Doctor Seuss while re-enacting a scene from the classic movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Meanwhile, President Obama has become the Hamlet of the West Wing: One minute he's for bombing Syria, the next he's not; one minute Larry Summers will succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, the next he won't; one minute the president is jetting off to Asia, the next he's not. To be in charge, or not to be in charge: that is indeed the question.

Political drama is highly entertaining. It has mesmerized the nation for weeks now. Unfortunately, Ferguson notes, the theater is burning:

Yet, entertaining as all this political drama may seem, the theater itself is indeed burning. For the fiscal position of the federal government is in fact much worse today than is commonly realized. As anyone can see who reads the most recent long-term budget outlook—published last month by the Congressional Budget Office, and almost entirely ignored by the media—the question is not if the United States will default but when and on which of its rapidly spiraling liabilities.

As the CBO noted last month in its 2013 "Long-Term Budget Outlook," echoing the work of Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff: "The increase in debt relative to the size of the economy, combined with an increase in marginal tax rates (the rates that would apply to an additional dollar of income), would reduce output and raise interest rates relative to the benchmark economic projections that CBO used in producing the extended baseline. Those economic differences would lead to lower federal revenues and higher interest payments. . . .

"At some point, investors would begin to doubt the government's willingness or ability to pay U.S. debt obligations, making it more difficult or more expensive for the government to borrow money. Moreover, even before that point was reached, the high and rising amount of debt that CBO projects under the extended baseline would have significant negative consequences for both the economy and the federal budget."

As James Grant wrote (and as I quoted yesterday), the question is not whether the government will default but when and how. Ferguson offers this sobering assessment:

It should now be clear that what we are watching in Washington is not a comedy but a game of Russian roulette with the federal government's creditworthiness. So long as the Federal Reserve continues with the policies of near-zero interest rates and quantitative easing, the gun will likely continue to fire blanks. After all, Fed purchases of Treasurys, if continued at their current level until the end of the year, will account for three quarters of new government borrowing.

But the mere prospect of a taper, beginning in late May, was already enough to raise long-term interest rates by more than 100 basis points. Fact (according to data in the latest "Economic Report of the President"): More than half the federal debt in public hands is held by foreigners. Fact: Just under a third of the debt has a maturity of less than a year.

Hey, does anyone else smell something burning?

Makes you want to go back to The Onion….

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