Week in Review
As the U.S. fiscal year draws to a close the Republicans and Democrats are digging in their heels over the upcoming debt ceiling debate. The Republicans want to cut spending and taxes to rein in out-of-control spending. So they don’t have to keep borrowing money. Running up the national debt. The Democrats, on the other hand, say, “Who cares about the debt? We’ll be dead and buried when the nation collapses under the weight of this mammoth debt load. As long as we get what we want why should we care about future generations?” At least, that’s what their actions say.
A lot of leading economists on the left, Keynesians economists, see no problem in running up the debt. Print that money, they say. Keep that expansion growing. What could possibly go wrong? Especially when the federal government has the power to print money? Just look at what the Japanese did in the Eighties. And what the Chinese are doing now (see As the West Faltered, China’s Growth Was Fueled by Debt by Christina Larson posted 9/12/2013 on Bloomberg Businessweek).
As demand for Chinese exports diminished in the wake of the financial meltdown, the Chinese economy kept humming at more than 9 percent annual gross domestic product growth each year from 2008 to 2011. The trick? “A huge monetary expansion and lending boom,” says Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management and a former professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing. With bank lending restrictions loosened in late 2008, “Total debt accelerated from 148 percent to 205 percent of GDP over 2008-12,” according to a May 2013 report from research firm CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. When Beijing tried to rein in the banks beginning in late 2010, shadow banking—lending outside the formal sector—exploded. Today “China is addicted to debt to fuel growth,” according to the CLSA report, with the economy hampered by “high debt and huge excess capacity with only 60 percent utilization.”
The Beijing-based firm J. Capital Research dubbed 2012 the “Year of the (White) Elephant” in a report detailing some of China’s questionable infrastructure build-out. To take one example, 70 percent of the country’s airports lose money, yet more are being built in small and remote cities. At the shiny new Karamay Airport in far western Xinjiang province, there are four check-in counters serving two flights daily. Local governments have splurged on “new towns” and “special zones,” many of which have already fallen into disrepair. The $5 million Changchun Zhenzhuxi Park, intended as a scenic area, is now a large public garbage dump, as the local landscaping bureau never agreed to provide maintenance. Near the southern city of Hangzhou, a forlorn replica of the Eiffel Tower overlooks a faux Paris—the ersatz arrondissement attracted hardly any residents, and local media have dubbed it a ghost town.
“In China, you often hear people say they’re building for the future,” explains Chovanec. “But if you build something and it’s empty for 20 years, does that make any sense? By that point, it may already be falling apart.”
The classic Keynesian argument for economic stimulus is the one about paying people to dig a ditch. Then paying them to fill in the ditch they just dug. The ditch itself having no economic value. But the people digging it and filling it in do. For they will take their earnings and spend it in the economy. But the fallacy of this argument is that money given to the ditch-diggers and the fillers-in could have been spent on something else that does have economic value. Money that was pulled out of the private sector economy via taxation. Or money that was borrowed adding to the national debt. And increasing the interest expense of the nation. Which negates any stimulus.
If that money was invested to expand a business that was struggling to keep up with demand that money would have created a return on investment. That would last long after the people who built the expansion spent their wages. This is why Keynesian stimulus doesn’t work. It is at best temporary. While the long-term costs are not. It’s like getting a 30-year loan to by a new car. If you finance $35,000 over 5 years at a 4.5% annual interest rate your car payment will be $652.51 and the total interest you’ll pay will be $4,018.95. That’s $39,018.95 ($35,000 + 4,018.95) of other stuff you won’t be able to buy because of buying this car. If you extend that loan to 30 years your car payment will fall to $177.34. But you will be paying that for 30 years. Perhaps 20-25 years longer than you will actually use that car. Worse, the total interest expense will be $23,620.24 over those 30 years. That’s $58,620.24 ($35,000 + 23,620.24) of stuff you won’t be able to buy because of buying this car. Increasing the total cost of that car by 50.2%.
This is why Keynesian stimulus does not work. Building stuff just to build stuff even when that stuff isn’t needed will have long-term costs beyond any stimulus it provides. And when you have a “high debt and huge excess capacity with only 60 percent utilization” bad things will be coming (see IMF WARNS: China Is Taking Ever Greater Risks And Putting The Financial System In Danger by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph, posted 9/13/2013 on Business Insider).
The International Monetary Fund has warned that China is taking ever greater risks as surging credit endangers the financial system, and called for far-reaching reforms to wean the economy off excess investment…
The country has relied on loan growth to keep the economy firing on all cylinders but the law of diminishing returns has set in, with the each yuan of extra debt yielding just 0.20 yuan of economic growth, compared with 0.85 five years ago. Credit of all types has risen from $9 trillion to $23 trillion in five years, pushing the total to 200pc of GDP, much higher than in emerging market peers…
China’s investment rate is the world’s highest at almost 50pc of GDP, an effect largely caused by the structure of the state behemoths that gobble up credit. This has led to massive over-capacity and wastage.
“Existing distortions direct the flow of credit toward local governments and state-owned enterprises rather to households, perpetuating high investment, misallocation of resources, and low private consumption. A broad package of reforms is needed,” said the IMF.
Just like the miracle of Japan Inc. couldn’t last neither will China Inc. last. Japan Inc. put Japan into a deflationary spiral in the Nineties that hasn’t quite yet ended. Chances are that China’s deflationary spiral will be worse. Which is what happens after every Keynesian credit expansion. And the greater the credit expansion the more painful the contraction. And with half of all Chinese spending being government spending financed by printing money the Chinese contraction promises to be a spectacular one. And with them being a primary holder of US treasury debt their problems will ricochet through the world economy. Hence the IMF warning.
Bad things are coming thanks to Keynesian economics. Governments should have learned by now. As Keynesian economics turned a recession into the Great Depression. It gave us stagflation and misery in the Seventies. It gave the Japanese their Lost Decade (though that decade actually was closer 2-3 decades). It caused Greece’s economic collapse. The Eurozone crisis. And gave the U.S. record deficits and debt under President Obama.
The history is replete with examples of Keynesian failures. But governments refuse to learn these lessons of history. Why? Because Keynesian economics empowers the growth of Big Government. Something free market capitalism just won’t do. Which is why communists (China), socialists (the European social democracies) and liberal Democrats (in the United States) all embrace Keynesian economics and relentlessly attack free market capitalism as corrupt and unfair. Despite people enjoying the greatest liberty and economic prosperity under free market capitalism (Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.). While suffering the most oppression and poverty under communism and socialism (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the communist countries behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the People’s Republic of China under Mao, North Korea, Cuba, etc.).