A shift in monetary regimes?

By Warren Coats[1]

This Sunday, August 15, is the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window as part of the “Nixon Shock.” “Fifty years later Nixon’s August surprise still reverberates”  He announced on that day that the U.S. Treasury would no longer redeem its dollars for gold at $35 an ounce. Over the subsequent few years, the world moved from national currencies whose values were anchored to the market value of gold, to currency values determined by central banks’ regulation of their supply relative to the market’s demand. The value of one currency for another floated in the foreign exchange market. Central banks have deployed various approaches to determining the supplies of their currencies and most have now settled on targeting an inflation rate (often 2% per year) in one way or another.

With the rapidly increasing interest in cryptocurrencies, some have asked whether we are on the brink of another monetary paradigm shift? Specifically, might the dollar be replaced as the dominant international reserve currency. To explore that question we need to understand how the existing monetary systems work and how the widespread use of cryptocurrencies might add to or change these systems.  

In describing the existing and potential future monetary systems, we need to distinguish “money” from the “means of payment.” Money is the asset that people accept in payment of debts or for the purchase of goods and services. The U.S. dollar and the Euro are “money.” The means of payment refers to how money is delivered to the person being paid. Do you personally hand dollar bills and coins to the Starbucks cashier, write out a check (bank draft) and put it in the mail, or electronically transfer “money” from your bank account to an Amazon merchant via eWire, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or some other digital payment service? Or perhaps you purchase goods and services with borrowed money (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) that you pay back at the end of each month or over time. Or if you don’t have a bank account (a form of digital money) you might hand-deliver physical currency to a Hawala dealer or a MoneyGram or Western Union office to be electronically transferred to their office nearest to the person you are sending it to, potentially anywhere in the world. If you are paying in a currency that is different than the one the payee wishes to receive, your currency will be exchanged accordingly along the way in the foreign exchange market.

Discussions of cryptocurrencies include both the latest and evolving means of payment (digital payment technologies) as well as new, privately created moneys such as bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple.  Private currencies vary enormously with regard to how their value is determined. By private currencies I do not mean privately created assets redeemable for legal tender, such as our bank accounts. When we speak, for example, of the U.S. dollar, we invariably include dollar balances in our bank accounts, dollar payments made via our Visa card, etc. These are all privately produced assets that are ultimately redeemable for Federal Reserve currency or deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank. They are credible claims on the legal tender of the United States. Most U.S. dollars are privately created.

The value of all money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money arises from its acceptability for payment of our obligations and the quantity of such obligations (generally closely related to our incomes). Within each country, its legal tender money (e.g., the U.S. dollar in the U.S.) must be accepted by payees. In particular, it must be accepted by the government in payment of taxes.  Truly private currencies (those not redeemable for legal tender, of which there are over 11,000 at last count) have a serious challenge in this regard. Very few people or businesses will accept bitcoin, or any other such private cryptocurrency. As a result, the demand for such currencies for actual payments is very low. The demand for bitcoin, for example, is almost totally speculative–a form of gambling like the demand for lottery tickets. Such private currencies are more attractive in countries whose legal tender is rapidly inflating or has unstable value (e.g., Venezuela). 

The acceptability of a currency in cross border payments raises special challenges. My currency is not likely to be the currency in general use in other countries. Someone in Mexico paying someone in Germany will generally have Mexican pesos and the recipient in Germany will want Euros. The pesos will need to be exchange for Euro in the foreign exchange market. It would be very costly for dealers in the FX market to maintain inventories of and transact in every bilateral combination of the world’s 200 or so currencies. It has proven more economical to exchange your currency for U.S. dollars and to exchange the U.S. dollars for the currency wanted by the payee. The dollar has become what is called a vehicle currency.

The economy of a so-called vehicle currency can be illustrated with languages. Two hundred and six countries are participating in the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. To communicate with their Japanese hosts participants could all learn Japanese. It is unrealistic to expect the Japanese hosts to learn 205 foreign languages. But what about communicating with their fellow participants from the other 205 countries. For this purpose, English has become the default second language in which they all communicate. Unlike more isolated Americans, most Europeans speak several languages, but one of them is always English. English as the common language is the linguistic equivalent of the dollar as a vehicle currency.  

The rest of the value of money story focuses on its supply. Bitcoin has the virtue of having a very well defined, programmatically determined gradual growth rate until its supply reaches 21 million in about 2040. The supply today (Aug 2021) is 18.77 million. See my earlier explanation: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”  The other 11,000 plus cryptocurrencies each have their own rules for determining their supply, some explicit and some rather mysterious. The class of so called “stable coins” are linked to and often redeemable for a specific anchor, sometimes the U.S. dollar or some other currency. The credibility of these anchors varies.

The highly successful E-gold (from 1996-2006) is an example of a digital currency that had well-defined and strict backing and redemption for a commodity at a fixed price. “E-gold”  The supply of such currencies is determined by market demand for it at its fixed price–what I have elsewhere called currency board rules. I describe how currency board rules work in my book about establishing the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina:   “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”

The dominance of the U.S. dollar in cross border payments reflects far more than its use as a vehicle currency. Many globally traded commodities, such as oil, are priced in dollars and thus payments for such purchases are settled in dollars. Pricing a homogeneous commodity trading in the global market in a single currency makes that market more efficient (the same price for the same thing).  Making cross border payments in dollars (or any other single currency) also avoids the costly need to exchange one for another in the FX market. The dollar is most often chosen because its value is relatively stable, and it has deep and liquid securities markets in which to hold dollars in reserve for use in cross border payments.

So, what are the chances that current cryptocurrency developments might precipitate a shift from the dollar to some other currency and means of payment. Several factors of U.S. policy have heightened interest by many countries in finding an alternative.  Specifically, from my recent article in the Central Banking Journal on the IMF’s $650 billion SDR allocation:

Cumbersome payment technology. Existing arrangements for cross-border payments via Swift are technically crude and outmoded.

The weaponization of the dollar. The US has abused the importance of its currency for cross-border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences that are not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar.

The growing risk of the dollar’s value. The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the US fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.”  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”

Most central banks are upgrading their payment systems. But the Peoples Bank of the Republic of China (PBRC) is one of the most advanced in developing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the e-CNY. However, it has little potential for displacing the dollar for several reasons. The Federal Reserve is also modernizing its payment technology, including exploring the design of its own CBDC, and can match China’s payment technology in the near future if necessary. More importantly, China’s capital controls, less developed Yuan financial markets, and less reliable rule of law make the Yuan an unattractive alternative to the dollar. These latter impediments do not apply to the Euro, however. “What will be impact of China’s state sponsored digital currency?”

Rather than looking for another national currency to replace the dollar, there are several advantages to using an international one. These include greater ease in making cross border payments and the reduced risk of political manipulation, or a national currency’s domestic mismanagement.  Bitcoin, for example, can make payments anywhere in the world without being controlled by any one of them. The serious drawbacks of Bitcoin’s blockchain payment technology might be overcome with one or another overlaid technology. But to become a serious currency, bitcoin must be dramatically more widely accepted in payment than it is now. Widespread acceptance in payments could generate the demand to hold them for payments, which would tend to stabilize its very erratic value. This seems very unlikely. A digital gold-based currency, such as the earlier E-gold, would enjoy the advantage of an anchor that is well known and that has enjoyed a long history. However, gold’s value has been very unstable in recent years. Aluminum has enjoyed a very stable price and elastic supply and will be the anchor for Luminium Coin to be launched in the coming weeks: https://luminiumcoin.com/

But the world has already established the internationally issued and regulated currency meant to supplement if not replace the dollar, the Special Drawing Rights of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has just approved a very large increase in its supply.  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”  The SDR’s value is determined by the market value of (currently) five major currencies in its valuation basket. While all five of these currencies have a relatively stable value, the value of the basket (portfolio) of these five is more stable still. The rules for determining the SDR’s value and supply, as well as its uses, are well established and transparent and governed by the IMF’s 190 member countries. In short, the SDR is truly international. However, it can only be used by IMF member countries and ten international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Settlements.

While the SDR has played a limited useful role in augmenting central bank foreign exchange reserves, it has failed to achieve a significant role as an international currency because of the failure of the private sector to invoice internationally traded goods and financial instruments (such as bonds) in SDRs and the absence of a private digital SDR for payments. If the IMF is serious about making the SDR an important international currency it should turn its attention to encouraging these private sector uses of the unit. “Free Banking in the Digital Age”

In the long run the IMF should issue its official SDR according to currency board rules and anchor its value to the market value of a small basket of commodities rather than key currencies: “A Real SDR Currency Board”


[1] Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to the central banks of more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, South Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  He has a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago.

The New Covid-19 Support Bill

The New Covid-19 assistance bill could add an additional 1.9 trillion dollars to support the fight against Covid-19.  In discussing the 2 trillion dollar CARES Act last April I wrote that: “The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation.”  “Econ 202-CARES Act-who pays for it?”  While I referred to the shutdowns as the result of “risk averse customers or government mandates”, it seems that the “blame” lies with sensibly risk-averse customers who stayed home and/or out of public gathering places by their own choice before the government required it. “Lockdowns-job losses”  A key point was that this was not a stimulus bill as output/income fell because its supply fell, not for lack of demand to buy it by consumers.

As total and partial shutdowns will continue for a few more months (or permanently for some unlucky firms) such support (properly targeted) should be continued for a while longer. But at what level and for how long? As I stressed in my April blog, the CARES Act payments to unemployed workers did not create income but rather transferred it out of a diminished pie from those who still had incomes (and could buy the government bonds that raised the money being transferred).  As I noted then and as is increasingly important now, the increased fiscal and monetary support that accompanied these government expenditures will need to be unwound carefully as the economy recovers. Equally important, the further increases in debt and money created by the currently proposed support should not exceed what is “truly” needed. U.S. national debt is already almost 28 trillion dollars, over 130% of GDP.

While CARES Act type support was needed and helpful, it was not always appropriately targeted. It is not the kind of emergency spending that is easy to get fully right.  As time goes on more and more evidence will be collected of abusive uses of these funds. Rather than choosing specific firms and classes of individuals to receive support, implementation of a Guaranteed Basic Income for everyone irrespective of income and situation would provide a better safety net for all situations. “Our social safety net”

In December President Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill providing “a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.”

President Biden has proposed a new additional $1.9 trillion dollar package. Added to the $900 billion approved in December, this would be 13% of GDP, a VERY large amount.  Ten Republicans have proposed a narrower package of $618 trillion. They would exclude measure not directly relevant to the impact of the pandemic such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (a measure that would be damaging to inexperienced, new job entrance). The Congressional Budget Office has just “estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025 and increase the deficit by $54 billion over ten years.” “Minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2025 would result 14 million unemployed”

The Democrats’ package would provide $1,400 per person direct cash payments across the board in addition to the $600 provided by the December bill. The Republican proposal would lower the thresholds for receiving assistance to individuals making $50,000 or $100,000 for couples and would provide checks of $1,000 per person.  They were expecting to negotiate a compromise package, which now, unfortunately, seems unlikely, though as this is written discussions continue. There are many individual provisions in the proposed bill. I have not reviewed them. My focus here is on the overall financial size of the proposal.

In an interesting oped in the Washington Post, Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, gently warned that the democrats’ package was excessive and risked rekindling inflation.  He wrote that:

“A comparison of the 2009 stimulus and what is now being proposed is instructive. In 2009, the gap between actual and estimated potential output was about $80 billion a month and increasing. The 2009 stimulus measures provided an incremental $30 billion to $40 billion a month during 2009 — an amount equal to about half the output shortfall.

“In contrast, recent Congressional Budget Office estimates suggest that with the already enacted $900 billion package — but without any new stimulus — the gap between actual and potential output will decline from about $50 billion a month at the beginning of the year to $20 billion a month at its end. The proposed stimulus will total in the neighborhood of $150 billion a month, even before consideration of any follow-on measures. That is at least three times the size of the output shortfall.

“In other words, whereas the Obama stimulus was about half as large as the output shortfall, the proposed Biden stimulus is three times as large as the projected shortfall. Relative to the size of the gap being addressed, it is six times as large….  [Given] the difficulties in mobilizing congressional support for tax increases or spending cuts, there is the risk of inflation expectations rising sharply.” “Larry Summers-Biden-covid stimulus”

The U.S. national debt was $22.7 trillion at the end of 2019 and skyrocketed to $26.9 trillion at the end of 2020. On February 7 it stood at $27.88 trillion or $84,198 per person and $222,191 per taxpayer. This is 130.8% of GDP. This is a very big number. Much of this debt has been purchased by the Federal Reserve resulting in an explosion of its balance sheet and the public’s holdings of money. At the end of 2019 the Federal Reserve assets (the counterpart of which is largely base money–currency held by the public and bank deposits with the Federal Reserve) $4.17 trillion and grew to $7.36 trillion by the end of 2020. In other words, the Federal Reserve bought $3.19 trillion of the $4.2 trillion increase in the national debt. This is a bit of an overstatement because the Fed also bought a modest amount of other debt.  Much of the rest was purchased by foreigners as “the U.S. trade deficit rose 17.7% to $678.7 billion and hit the highest level since 2008.” “The US trade deficit rose in 2020 to a 12 year high”

Because the Federal Reserve now pays banks interest to keep large amounts of their deposits with the Fed in excess of required amounts (excess reserves), the money supply measured as currency in circulation and demand deposits with banks (M1) grew somewhat less than the Fed’s purchases of US debt. In 2020 M1 grew $2.5 trillion, a year in which GDP ended a bit lower than it started.` In part, the public is not spending this money at the rates they normally would because the theaters and restaurants, etc. are closed. A seriously inflated stock market and cryptocurrency values seem to be temporary beneficiaries.

According to Wells Fargo: “We estimate consumers are sitting on $1.5 trillion in excess savings compared to the saving rate’s pre-COVID trend….  After a year of limiting trips, eating at home and putting off doctor appointments, we expect consumers will be eager to engage in many of the in-person services forgone during the pandemic, and spend on gas to get there and clothes to look good doing it. The ample means and eagerness to spend could potentially set off a bout of demand-driven inflation that has not been experienced in decades.”  “Wells Fargo–Poking the Inflation Bear”

As I noted last April, unwinding these monetary and fiscal injections, as is necessary to avoid a significant increase in inflation, will be challenging. And now we are even deeper into debt. As inflation increases nominal interest rates will increase as well and the cost of our huge debt financing with it. While managing the short run impact of the pandemic, the government’s eyes should be on the longer run picture as well.

Econ 201: CARES Act–Who pays for it?

April 11, 2010

Congress has authorized over 2 trillion dollars (so far) to help those harmed by the partial shutdown of the economy undertaken to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to facilitate its rapid recovery when it is safe for people to return to work. The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation. No good economic purpose would be served, for example, by lenders foreclosing on mortgage and other loans to workers sheltered in place at home with no income with which to service them. Some of the increased spending quite rightly will go to improve our ability to deal with covid-19 directly (expanded hospital capacity, virus testing capacity, vaccine research and development, etc.)

Obviously, it will be impossible to prevent some amount of waste and corruption from such a huge increase in expenditures. Every rent seeker on the planet has been lobbying Congress to get a piece of the action. In the design of these support programs every effort should be made to carefully target them on the people and activities appropriate to the “above objectives, to remove them and their associated distortions of economic resource allocation when the crisis has passed (i.e., keep them temporary), and to provide watchdog oversight of their implementation. Unfortunately, President Trump is already undermining such oversight. “How-trump-is-sabotaging-the-coronavirus-rescue-plan”  Nonetheless, the objective of minimizing the economic damage of a temporary forced shutdown of a significant part of the economy is appropriate.

The question explored here is who will pay for it and how.  The entertainment output of the economy (restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, vacation travel) is to a large extent non-essential, at least for a few months. If those are shuttered, about 20 percent (my guess for purposes of this analysis) of our economic output and the incomes of those producing them will be lost for the duration of the shutdown. A central goal of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) is to prevent this necessary shutdown from killing that part of the economy and from spilling over into others. The goal is to enable it to restart as quickly and easily as health conditions permit. Thus, idled workers who would not be able to pay their rent/mortgage, or electric bill, or buy food without help should not be evicted for temporary nonpayment etc. The government might pay them for their lost income directly (unemployment insurance) or it might pay their employer to continue paying their wages for non-work under one program or another, thus continuing their health insurance and other benefits. These details are important but not the subject of this note.  The simplest assumption is that they all receive cash payments sufficient to see them through the shutdown (universal basic income, guaranteed minimum income or whatever you want to call it).

The starting fact/assumption is that the economy’s output and thus income is 20 percent or so lower for the next few months than it was a few months ago. Everyone on average has 20 percent less income, but that average consists of those who continue working as before and those sitting at home earning nothing.  If those unemployed are to receive income support (UBI), those still working and those clipping investment coupons must pay for it.  Paying an income subsidy to the unemployed does not create income, it redistributes it.

The $2 trillion plus authorized by Congress for these purposes will be debt financed, i.e. the government will borrow the money (adding to its deficit of $1 trillion for 2020 already budgeted).  So, to examine who pays for this program we must start by asking who will buy this additional debt?  In the past the Chinese and Germans funded an important part of our debts (via their trade surpluses with the US.  “Who-pays-uncle-sam’s-deficits”  China’s current account surplus with the U.S. is now negligible and it and most every other country in the world will have the financing of their own covid-19 expenditures to worry about. Those purchasing the additional Treasury bonds will thus be largely Americans who must shift their spending from other things (other investments or consumption) to the bonds and thus to the incomes of the unemployed these programs are supposed to be helping.  To the extent that new bond buyers are diverting their spending on other financial instruments interest rates on such instruments will tend to rise.

At this point very little money has been disbursed under CARES and no new government bonds to finance it have been issued. As individuals and firms miss rent and debt service payments, their lenders are being squeezed for the funds with which they must service those financing them (this is why we call banks financial intermediaries). Utility companies faced with nonpayments by their customers must borrow to continue paying their own employees, etc.  Scrambling for such funds would drive up interest rates in funding markets where it not for the Federal Reserve’s willingness to provide the needed liquidity. Similarly, with regard to the supply of funds to financial markets (the other side of bank’s balance sheets), normal investors are interrupting or even withdrawing funding in order to cover their own income shortfalls. This again squeezes financial sector liquidity and the flow of funds from lenders to borrowers needed to finance the remaining economic activity.

Enter the Federal Reserve.  In order to supply the missing funds–the missing rent and debt service payments–needed to keep the financial system flowing and in balance–the Fed has supplied almost $2 trillion to banks over the last 6 weeks, largely by outright purchases of treasury securities, though it has also opened a number of lending facilities. Bank reserve deposits at the Fed increased about $1 trillion over this period and M2 grew by about the same amount. On April 9, the Fed announced that it was opening or expanding facilities to support CARES Act objectives with up to another $2.3 trillion (leveraged by Treasury financial support to cover losses on any Fed loans provided in support of the CARES Act).  Federal Reserve Press Releases  This includes support for lending by the Small Business Administration (refinancing of SBA loans), the Main Street Lending Program administered by banks, Primary and Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facilities, and the Municipal Liquidity Facility. These are dramatic expansions of Fed credit operations and the details of eligibility of borrowers and of the facilities’ administration are critically important. Ensuring that this massive government intervention in the economy creates the right incentives for a quick rebound in the economy when it can reopen and that these interventions are indeed temporary will be difficult and is very important. But the question I want to address here is whether this monetary financing on such a huge scale will be inflationary.

Simplifying and reviewing, if economic output/income falls by, say 20 percent, and the loss is shared by those working with those temporarily laid off (or idle) by workers lending money to those idled, the Fed need not be involved. However, as is often the case with fiscal policy, it is simply beyond the administrative capacity of the government to launch and coordinate such a redistribution of income quickly and smoothly enough to avoid the disruptions of credit flows described above. Instead, the Fed has printed the money paid to those idled by shuttering 20 percent of the economy. As a result, the idled workers have their regular income (more or less) from newly printed money, and the rest have their regular incomes, but the economy is producing 80 less for them to buy. The “excess” income constitutes the inflationary potential. If this income is voluntarily saved (i.e. a temporary increase in the demand for money), the increased saving would be indirectly financing the spending of the unemployed. It is not unreasonable to expect this to reflect actual behavior for a shutdown of a month or two. But should it drag on for many months the extra saving held in anticipation of a reopening of restaurants and theaters, etc. will seek other consumption outlets and prices will begin to rise.

With luck, the economy will begin to return to “normal” after a few months and the Fed will begin to withdraw its monetary injection as loans and payment delinquencies are paid off from increased output/income. The artificially preserved incomes will increasingly be spent on restored output without significant inflationary consequences.

But the CARES Act provides for the forgiveness of loans by firms that kept or that rehire their workers promptly. As the Fed sells its treasuries back to the public (or allows them to mature without replacing them), the Treasury will be issuing the additional debt needed to fund the $2 trillion plus of CARES Act expenditures, including the forgiveness of debt described above. In short, to avoid the inflationary consequences that would normally flow from the Fed’s massive increase in the money supply, the monetary financing must be replaced with fiscal debt financing.  It is hard to see where the money will come from to buy such a large increase debt (some, but not much, will probably come from the foreign financing implicit in an increase in our balance of payments deficits, but the rest of the world is now being saturated with its own debt) without an increase in market interest rates, potentially a significant increase in such interest rates. To the extent that financing remains monetary and pushes up prices, the rising inflation rate will be added to nominal market interest rates compounding the pressure of expanding real debt.  The long looming US fiscal debt problem may be near.

Is Trump killing his own re-election?

The Fed (Federal Open Market Committee) is meeting this week to review and set or reset monetary policy.  I don’t know whether it should increase its policy rate, leave it the same or reduce it. https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/returning-to-currencies-with-hard-anchors  The market expects a one quarter percent reduction in the rate.  President Trump is quoted yesterday as saying it should be reduced more than that. WSJ: the confusing Fed

There are several problems with Trump’s statement. One is that if the Fed reduces the rate, its claim to be reacting to the data and its mandate is undercut by the President’s interference. Is the Fed doing what seems best or responding to political pressure?

But if the U.S. economy is heading South, as it may be, it is probably because of the damaging effects on the U.S. and world economies of Trump’s trade wars with almost everyone but especially with China. Trump’s tariffs have imposed significant costs on the American consumers who pay them with higher prices for targeted imports. More importantly, his trade wars have injected significant uncertainty into the continued viability of the global supply chains that have helped lower costs here and abroad and increased world output.  Their retrenchment is lowering world income and pushing many economies, including potentially the U.S. economy into recession. A U.S. recession a year from now will seriously damage Trump’s chances of reelection.

Trump’s wars on trade seem to be motivated by his mistaken belief that the U.S. trade deficit with China, Germany and others reflects unfair trade practices on their part. His misuse of a national security concern to impose protectionist tariffs and restrictions on foreign competitors (protecting inefficient U.S. industries we would be better off allowing competition to shrink) seems motivated by vote buying. https://wcoats.blog/2018/09/28/trade-protection-and-corruption/  The result is a reduction in our income and potentially his electoral defeat. Our trade deficits largely reflect the use of the U.S. dollar in international reserves (which require a deficit to supply them) and our large and growing fiscal deficits (much of which is being financed by China and other trade surplus countries). Trump’s abandonment of government spending restraint is the cause of those twin deficits https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

It’s not that we don’t have real issues with some of China’s trade related practices, but Trump’s approach to addressing them is not productive. Rather than working with the EU and Japan and others who share our concerns to confront China together, he is attacking all of them with threats of more tariffs. Rather than strengthening the WTO, he is weakening it. Rather than using the Trans Pacific Partnership (a significant advance in modern trade agreements) to encourage China to adopt its rules, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement– a huge mistake. The real question is how much more damage will Trump inflict on the world economy before he surrenders and declares victory or is voted out of office. https://wcoats.blog/2019/06/07/the-sources-of-prosperity/

Their Turkey and Ours

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not the remedy for it”  The Economist May 19, 2018 “How-turkey-fell-from-investment-darling-to-junk-rated-emerging-market”

During the 1990s the inflation rate in Turkey averaged around 80% per annum varying between 60% and 105%.  Over that period interest rates on its 3-month treasury bills averaged about 30% above the inflation rate reaching almost 150% in 1996.  The economy grew rapidly in real terms with real GDP growth averaging 8% per annum between 1995-7.  But growth depended heavily on borrowing abroad in foreign currencies.  Banks were poorly regulated, and heavily exposed to foreign exchange risk and to government debt.  Obviously, Turkey’s nominal exchange rate depreciated at about the same rate as its inflation rate in order to preserve a stable real exchange rate.

In the wake of the Asian and Russian debt crises in 1997 and 1998 foreign investors became more risk averse and capital inflows into Turkey were reduced sharply slowing down economic growth from 7.5% in 1997 to 2.5% in 1998.  A serious earthquake in Turkey’s industrial heartland in August 1999 further deteriorated Turkey’s economic performance.  The combined impact of the two pushed the economy into a deep recession, shrinking GDP by 3.6% in 1999.

With support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1999-2003 the Turkish government reigned in its spending and monetary growth and reduced its inflation rate to 10% by 2004. I was a member of the IMF’s Turkey team at that time and remember the long sleepless nights very well. Turkey’s interest rates followed inflation down and, in fact, its real interest rates (nominal interest rate minus its inflation rate) fell from 30% to negative rates as the economy stabilized. During this transition, a number of state owned enterprises were privatized, 18 insolvent banks were intervened, and debt and the financial sector were restructured and strengthened.  Within a few (rough) years the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation and low interest rates.  In 2017 real GDP grew 7.0% though inflation had crept back up to 11.1%.

Following Turkey’s and the rest of the world’s recession in 2009 the country reverted back to its bad old ways.  “Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree easing access to foreign-exchange loans for Turkish companies.  The new rules lifted restrictions that barred companies without revenue in hard currencies from doing such borrowing—as long as the loans exceeded $5 million.”  How Erdogan’s push for endless growth brought Turkey to the Brink

Erdogan observed the low interest rates, low inflation, and high growth and apparently concluded that low interest rates caused low inflation rather than the other way around. Every economist knows that interest rates incorporate the market’s expectation of inflation over the period of a loan in order to establish a market clearing real rate of interest.  In 1996 when a borrower was willing to pay 130% interest and a lender was not willing to accept less it was because they expected 80% to 90% inflation per annum over the life of the loan.  The very high real rate (130% – 80% = 50%) reflects the risk premium of getting it wrong.

Central banks can, if inflation expectations adjust slowly, push real rates down temporarily by lowering nominal market rates below their equilibrium rate.  Doing so, however, increases the rate at which the money supply grows eventually increasing inflation and forcing nominal interest rates higher than they would otherwise have been.

Under political pressure from Erdogan, the central bank of Turkey has kept interest rates lower (and thus money supply growth greater) than are consistent with its inflation target of 5%.  In the last few years inflation has drifted up reaching 11.1% in 2017.  Markets have grown uneasy about the economic situation in Turkey and when the Central Bank failed to increase its policy interest rate last month from 17.75% investors began selling off Turkish bonds and withdrawing funds from the country.  Its exchange rate plummeted.  From January of this year the Turkish lira depreciated from 11.7 per dollar to 16 lira/USD at the beginning of July and to 21 lira/USD on the 22ndof August. Erdogan’s wrong-headed misunderstanding of the role of interest rates is pushing Turkey over the precipice of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile here in the United States, President Trump apparently attended the same school as Erdogan. After breaking a several decades old protocol against commenting on or interfering with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy when he stated last month that he didn’t want to see the Fed increase its policy interest rate, he did it again a few days ago. “Trump-escalates-attacks-federal-reserve”  Trump’s advice is wrong. The Federal Reserve needs to continue raising its policy rate back toward normal levels (3% to 4%) before inflation momentum becomes any stronger. Real interest rates are still negative (less than the inflation rate).  The Fed should have started increasing rates several years earlier.

Feeding the Swamp

During his filibuster leading to last week’s brief government shutdown, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated that: “When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party…. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.” He was protesting the compromise two-year budget just passed by the Senate and awaiting passage in the House. This budget, now signed into law by President Trump, adds over $300 billion in additional government spending this year alone on top of the $1 trillion dollar deficit created by the recently passed tax cut. “Why-did-the-GOP-vote-for-a-budget-busting-spending-bill-because-voters-dont-seem-to-care”

A few congressmen reacted with more principle. “’I’m not only a ‘no.’ I’m a ‘hell no,’ ” quipped Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), one of many members of the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Caucus who left a closed-door meeting of Republicans saying they would vote against the deal.

“It’s a “Christmas tree on steroids,” lamented one of the Freedom Caucus leaders, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).” “Right-revolts-on-budget-deal”

Why should we worry about adding to the public debt? The “deficit” is the shortfall of tax revenue below expenditures in one year. This is now forecast to average about one trillion dollars in each of the next two years. “Bipartisan-budget-act-cements-return-trillion-dollar-deficits”. Each year these annual deficits add to the outstanding U.S. national “debt” currently at $20.6 trillion dollars. Even before the recent tax cuts and last week’s expenditure increases, the Congressional Budget Office projected Federal debt held by the public at $25.5 trillion or 91.5% of GDP by 2027. But that figure omits debt held by the Federal Reserve, Social Security “trust” fund, and other government entities, which must also be serviced and repaid. When these are included as they should be, gross federal debt is projected to be $30.7 trillion or 110% of GDP by 2027 and 150% of GDP in thirty years and climbing. And to repeat, this is before the recent tax cuts and budget increases.

As our economy grows so does the government’s capacity to carry and service (pay the interest on) the debt. But on the basis of existing laws and policies our debt will grow faster than the economy forever. But of course that is impossible. At some point taxes must be increased or expenditures cut, or the government defaults on its debt. In fact the problem is worse than these figures suggest because they fail to include the future taxes or borrowing needed to cover unfunded government liabilities. These are commitments, such as future Social Security pension payments, for which existing financing falls short. For example, Social Security payments already exceed its annual revenue from the wage taxes of current workers and the so-called trust fund will run dry in fifteen years. That will add still more to the deficit and the debt.

Indeed, there are times when deficits are ok and even helpful. When the economy goes into recession the government should allow the deficit that naturally results from falling tax revenue and increasing safety net spending. These are referred to as automatic stabilizers. However, we are currently not now in that phase of the business cycle. We are now at its peak and if the government is to achieve fiscal balance over the cycle it must run budget surpluses at the peak to pay for the deficits during the slumps. The U.S. should now have a budget surplus and not the huge deficit presently experienced and projected. The White House’s announcement today (Monday) that it is giving up on the traditional Republican goal of a balanced budget in ten years is hardly a surprise when we are starting with a large deficit at the peak of the business cycle. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/white-house-budget-proposes-increase-to-defense-spending-and-cuts-to-safety-net-but-federal-deficit-would-remain/2018/02/12/f2eb00e6-100e-11e8-8ea1-c1d91fcec3fe_story.html?utm_term=.514757e9c8de&wpisrc=al_news__alert-politics–alert-national&wpmk=1

Senator Paul was rightly angry that not only was the need to face and correct this untenable future kicked down the road yet again, but the process of doing so was corrupt. Votes were bought by sticking in special tax and spending breaks for the constituents and friends of individual congressmen—the old earmarks by another name. “Budget-deal-retroactively-extend-several-expired-tax-provisions”. While it is true that the bipartisan budget deal wouldn’t have passed without these bribes, it shouldn’t have passed. Instead of draining the swamp the Republicans have joined with the Democrats to feed it. “In-big-reversal-new-trump-budget-will-give-up-on-longtime-republican-goal-of-eliminating-deficit”. And more repulsive is the fact that these are the same Republicans who rallied against spending during the Obama years. This is the hypocrisy Senator Paul lamented.

Congress has failed yet again to prioritize it’s spending to match the resources that taxpayers are willing to pay. The moral corruption of this way of doing business was reestablished and reinforced. As another example of blatant corruption, Presidents have rewarded (paid off) large contributors with Ambassadorships to nice places like London, Paris, and Rome (to name a few) for decades. This is pure corruption for which the country pays with lower quality representation and diplomacy than would be provided by Foreign Service professionals. Unfortunately we have grown used to it and barely notice it. This is dangerous.

All individual government expenditures and programs look worthwhile to at least some people, but at the expense of what? What do taxpayers or investors or other government programs give up to finance them. These are not easy choices and decisions but it is the job of our representatives to make these judgments in the best interests of the country as a whole. That is probably expecting more than they are capable of delivering, but it is their job. Those of you of Generation X, Y and Z will have to pay for this so you are the ones with an incentive to do something about it. We need more Rand Pauls. “The-5-biggest-losers-from-the-2018-budget-deal-are…”

SALT—More press nonsense on tax reform

The elimination of State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions from the proposed tax reforms working their way through Congress has become a hot topic. Fine, but please keep the discussion honest. Sadly my local newspaper, The Washington Post, is not setting a good example: “In-towns-and-cities-nationwide-fears-of-trickle-down-effects-of-federal-tax-legislation”

First a word about tax reform vs tax reduction. We are now in the 9th year of economic recovery, one of the longest on record. It won’t go on forever. Ideally the Federal government’s budget should balance its expenditures and revenue over the business cycle. That allows for aggregate demand stimulating deficits during business downturns. These deficits result from so called automatic stabilizers—the fall in tax revenue from the fall in taxable income plus increased transfer payments to the unemployed. But a cyclically balanced budget also requires budget surpluses during the business expansion phase. The U.S. economy is now fully employed (in fact, unfilled vacancies exceed those looking for work). The Federal Reserve has finally increased inflation to its target rate of 2%. We should now have budget surpluses to make room for the deficits that will follow during the upcoming downturn.

But our fiscal situation is much worse than that. The large increase in “entitlement” expenditures for my greedy generation as we retire (greatly increasing unfunded social security and health benefits) will push our fiscal debt held by the public, now at 77% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to over 150% of GDP within 30 years if current laws remain unchanged. See the figure below.

Taxes will either need to be increased (not reduced) or entitlement expenditures reduced (which means increased less than current law provides). My point is that reducing tax revenue at this time is irresponsible without at least matching expenditure cuts. The proposed tax reforms now in congress would increase the debt by $1,500 billion dollars over the next ten years on a static forecast basis, meaning without taking into account the increased growth and thus tax revenue that might result from the tax reforms, which no one expects to wipe out all of the static forecast of $1,500 billion.

Fed debt      Congressional Budget Office forecasts

While it is irresponsible to cut tax revenue at this time, it is highly desirable to reform how that revenue is raised. The existing taxes distort the economy and thus reduce our incomes in a number of ways. They grant favors to many special interest groups via allowing them to deduct specific expenditures from their taxable incomes (i.e. from the tax base). These so called tax subsidies encourage activities over what the private economy would otherwise under take. One very damaging example is the deduction of interest payments by businesses and individuals, which has encouraged excessive borrowing and indebtedness. The most popular of these is the mortgage interest deduction by homeowners. This tax subsidy benefits homeowners relative to renters, i.e. it benefits the wealthier at the expense of the poor. How well meaning middle and upper income American’s can justify this with a straight face is beyond me.

But what about the SALT deductions? By eliminating such deductions, i.e. by broadening the tax base, the same revenue can be raised with a lower tax rate. Other things equal (such as revenue), lower tax rates are good because they influence taxpayer decisions less. For example, companies are more likely to invest in the U.S. rather than abroad if the corporate tax rate is reduced from its current 35%, virtually the highest in the world, to 20%, which is closer to the rate in most developed countries.

Reducing tax subsidies to state and local governments is also good because it reduces an artificial encouragement for larger state and local government expenditures. If Californians are willing to pay more state taxes for larger state expenditures they are welcome to do so. But there can be no justification for transferring federal tax revenue from states with lower expenditures and matching taxes to California and other high spending states. To a large extent the existing SALT deductions transfer income from poorer states to wealthier ones. Who can support that with a straight face?

How information is presented can have a significant effect on how it is understood or viewed. How did Renae Merle and Peter Jamison of The Washington Post (see link above) report the proposed elimination of the SALT deduction? They reported that, “In San Diego County, the elimination of what is commonly called the “SALT” deduction could affect about a third of households, said Greg Cox, a member of the board of supervisors. The average middle-income resident would lose a $16,000 deduction.” They failed to note that the third of households affected are the wealthiest third. According to CNBC: “More than half of taxpayers who are earning $75,000 and above claim SALT deductions on their federal income tax returns as do more than 90 percent of taxpayers who make $200,000 or more.”

share of SALT

Furthermore, the figure $16,000 is misleading in two respects. The loss of a $16,000 deduction would increase taxes for a single person earning $200,000 annually by $5,280 at the current tax rate of 33%. However, broadening the tax base by eliminating the SALT and other deductions allows raising the same revenue with a lower tax rate. To measure the actual tax impact both effects must be combined. Current congressional proposals are to reduce the rate for the above person to 25%, which would result in an increased tax of $4,000. None of this would affect the poor directly. I assume that Renae Merle and Peter Jamison were just careless rather than letting their biases get the best of them, but you can make your own judgment.

The SALT deduction cannot be justified on either economic or fairness grounds, but there is sadly a good chance congress will cave in to the pressure from the wealthier states to keep it or at least some of it.

 

 

 

Trust and False News

January 26, 2017

The quality and extent of interactions among people (neighbors, companies, governments) profoundly affect our quality of life. Trust is a critically important element of such interactions and of “The Wealth of Nations,” to quote Adam Smith. No society, beyond (perhaps) the family and relatives, enjoys total trust. The willingness to and low cost of dealing with others in such a society would surely make it the richest one on earth. The more distant our relationship with someone, however, e.g., hiring a contractor to add a room to the house, the more formal our understandings need to be. But the deeper and more reliable is trust within a society, the simpler such contracts and their enforcement can be. This goes well beyond the obvious costs (effectively taxes) of doing business of security guards and surveillance cameras at department stores. More Trust frees up resources to produce the goods and services that we really want.

As part of its attack on Europe and the United States, Russia for some time has systematically worked to undermine trust in the West. For example, it generates and distributes “false news” in a variety of ways. It has become more difficult to judge when news is true or deliberately made up. As a result, the public’s trust in public institutions and performance is eroded to some, hopefully still limited, extent. As I argued above, a decline in the level of trust in Western societies reduces their economic efficiency and output.

False news must be distinguished from biased reporting and from disputed facts, unfortunately labeled “alternative facts”, by Trump senior advisor Kelly Anne Conway. Bias, or priors as we economists put it, reflects our inner beliefs and tentative understandings about what is true and can influence what a reporter chooses to report or emphasize. It does not reflect a willingness to report or repeat knowingly false information. The strange case of the size of the viewing audience for Trump’s inauguration ceremony illustrates bias and a few other things on all sides.

Trump was angry that the press reported mediocre attendance to his inauguration. The highly respected conservative economist Tyler Cowen provided an interesting analysis of why he thinks Trump forced his poor press secretary Sean Spicer to launch an attack on the Press for its “misreporting” of this matter: Why trump’s staff is lying. During his first official press conference on January 23, Spicer stated very clearly several times that his assessment that Donald Trump had the largest audience for his inauguration in history referred to total viewers “both in person and around the globe”. After apologizing for having reported the previous Saturday incorrect numbers for subway ridership he proceeded to present his estimate of TV and Internet viewers along with mall attendants and asked the press to correct them if wrong. USA Today reported that “On that point, Spicer may be correct…. But there is no comprehensive measurement available that would prove or disprove this claim.” The attending press persisted in referring to the size of the crowd on the mall. That reflects bias by the Press to the point of blindness. That Trump felt compelled to speak out about the size of his audience is sad evidence that he has not yet properly transitioned from candidate to President (that the thin skinned, megalomaniac we watched during the campaign has not yet grown up).

Alternative facts abound and refer to a lack of consensus on what the facts are. These are the bread and butter of scientific investigation and debate. Whether global temperatures last year were higher or lower than the year before depends on the measurement instruments used (surface instruments of one type or another, satellite systems, etc.), their location (country side, urban areas, ocean, etc.), frequency of measurements (daily, hourly, etc.), etc. Meteorologists debate this “fact”.

Candidate Trump lied so frequently and so freely during his campaign that I can only assume that he did so deliberately as a part of a general disinformation campaign. His claim, for example, that President Obama was not native born was so irrefutably disproved that Trump eventually (but very late in the game) withdrew it. President Trump sadly continues the practice by following up his ludicrous claim that he won by a landslide, with the claim for which there is no factual support at all of wide spread voter fraud. Trumps-disregard-for-the-truth-threatens-his-ability-to-govern.

Poor Sean Spicer was forced to announce Trump’s voter fraud lie to the press. When asked for evidence he cited “A 2012 Pew study [that] found that about 1.8 million deceased people were still on the rolls and that 2.75 million people were registered in two states. The study called for states to clean up their voter rolls but did not draw conclusions about voter fraud.” Trumps-voter-fraud-claims-undermine-the-voting-system-and-his-presidency/2017/01/24/. In fact, Trump’s Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is registered in both New York and Florida, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is registered in New York and California, and Trump’s daughter Tiffany is registered in both Philadelphia and New York though neither voted twice. Bannon-was-registered-to-vote-in-two-states. Recidivism-watch-Spicer-uses-repeatedly-debunked-citations-for-trumps-voter-fraud-claims.

Trump’s lies, whether he believes them himself or not, along with false news perpetrated by Russia and others, are increasingly undermining public trust in the information so freely available on the Internet and elsewhere. This is bad for our democracy. It is not obvious what motivates him.

“Is Trumpism a scam? And if so, whom is Donald Trump scamming?

“Or is the country confronting something even more troubling: a president unhinged from any realities that get in the way of his impulses, unmoored from any driving philosophy and willing to make everything up as he goes along, including “alternative facts”?

“Of course, there’s another possibility: that there’s a method in all of this.” E. J. Dionne, Jr. What’s-the-method-in-trumps-madness/2017/01/25/

It is one thing to disagree with the President’s policy proposals—we can discuss and debate the reasons for our differences—and quite another when we cannot trust the integrity of the President or his administration. When the President proclaims over and over that he will insure that we “Buy American and hire American” (so much for shifting power from Washington to the people), rather than explaining why this is such a bad policy—save-trade—we turn immediately to the President’s hypocrisy rather than the substance of his policy. In Trump’s own business dealings he buys his materials where they are cheapest—steel and aluminum from China (Newsweek), furnishings for his new Hotel in Washington DC from China (The-new-Trump-hotel-in-D-C-hotel-is-filled-top-to-bottom-with-goods-made-in-China), the clothing for his signature Donald J. Trump Collection from Mexico (Trumps-hypocrisy-on-trade-he-outsources-and-invests-globally-but-doesnt-want-Ford-to-do-the-same/), and the long list goes on (Trump products).

Trump’s business career is full of shady dealings (The-myth-and-the-reality-of-Donald Trumps-business-empire). Why would we have expected him to be different as POTUS? Trump the terrible. Lying has worked for Donald Trump—so why should he stop now? Why Trump lies.

Trump is very quickly running out of time to save his administration. His tweet this morning stated: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” As a result, the Mexican President cancelled his planned visit. Our current account deficit with Germany in 2015, by the way, was $285.2 billion, about the same as with China. Putting his economic ignorance (or blatant lying) aside, his conduct of foreign policy, trade or otherwise, is simply dangerous. We must stand up and yell STOP. STOP!!!

A glimmer of hope is offered by the fact (a real one) that orders for George Orwell’s classic novel of tyranny “1984” have soared in recent weeks.

A Modest Proposal—Helicopter Money and Pension Reform

It is possible to fix the bankrupt Social Security System and the Federal Reserve’s failure to achieve its inflation target painlessly. Yes, really.

The Fed has failed to raise inflation to its 2% target because over regulated banks can’t find over regulated firms wanting to borrow and invest. As a result, the increases in the Fed’s base money from its Quantitative Easing and other efforts to stimulate the economy has piled up as bank excess reserve deposits at the Federal Reserve Banks.[1] If the Fed pushes too hard (e.g., by lowering the interest it pays on these bank reserves, potentially even to negative levels) it feeds asset price bubbles (stock and housing prices), which do great damage when they burst.[2] If the Fed just printed more money and sprinkled it around to the general public—what Milton Friedman called helicopter money—there is no doubt that the public would spend more and drive up prices.

Leaving aside whether it is really a good idea to create a steady 2% rate of inflation, there is an easy way of doing it that would also facilitate badly needed reform of the government’s retirement system. Contrary to the myth that our Social Security pensions reflect what we paid in (saved) to the system, Social Security pension payments are now fully pay as you go. This means that the revenue from payroll taxes approximately matches the outflow for current pensions, i.e. nothing is being saved for the future. As our population continues to age and the number of retired pensioners increases relative to the shrinking number of workers paying into the system, the modest amounts that have been accumulated in the Social Security “Trust Fund” will be drawn down to zero in about 15 years at which time the government will not be able to meet existing promises.[3]

The following proposal combines helicopter money sufficient to bring the inflation rate to its target with badly needed reform of our government pension system. Under this proposal all individuals will receive a minimum government guaranteed pension for life whether they paid in anything or not. This might be implemented as part of a Friedman like negative income tax and other badly needed tax reforms,[4] or stand alone. Before retirement, individuals who are working but with incomes below the poverty level (to be politically established) will not pay a wage tax as they do now. The subsequent pensions of such people will be paid with helicopter money (the Federal Reserve will print the money to buy government bonds sufficient to finance these expenditures). All workers with incomes above the poverty level will be required (as they are now) to set aside the amount of income needed to finance their minimum guaranteed pension on a fully funded basis. They are free to save more if they would like a higher pension. The funds set aside must be invested in government licensed and approved private pension funds chosen by each worker rather than in the almost fictitious Social Security Trust Fund.

This would establish the three pillars of good pension policy proposed by the World Bank in 1998: a means tested minimum pension financed by the government’s general revenue, a mandatory minimum pension paid for and privately invested by all working individuals, and additional, optional, supplemental retirement saving privately invested. Such a model was first adopted in Chile over 35 years ago with great success. Central and Eastern European countries have adopted similar models as part of their transition from centrally planned to market based economies. Financing income subsidies to the poor from general revenues (via printing money), and a user fee approach to mandatory saving (mandatory saving matched to the actuarial value of the pension received), conforms more closely to the principles of good tax policy.[5] The alternative sometimes proposed of raising the income cap on the payroll tax is closer to general revenue financing (if the government guaranteed minimum is only paid to the poor), but leaves out non-wage income and thus fails the good tax criteria.

As new workers would be truly saving for retirement, their savings would not be available to finance those currently retired, as is now the case with our pay as you go system. Thus transitional arrangements will be needed (for several decades) to deal with existing unfunded promises. If the promises remain unchanged, the money to pay for them will have to come from somewhere (higher taxes or reduced defense or other expenditures). Usually, in such cases the government spreads the burden around (burden sharing). Two simple and sensible changes to the current promises would absorb the greater part of the shortfall. The first is to adjust the pensionable retirement age to the fact that the average person lives much longer than when the current retirement ages were fixed. People are living longer and can (and most would like to and do) work longer. The other is to change the index to people’s pensions from a wage index (which generally increases pensions in real terms over time) to the cost of living (CPI), which would preserve their real value against any inflation over time.

For today, this means that the wage tax on the poor would be abolished and paid for with new Fed money that would thus be put in the hands of those who would spend it, increasing employment (though we are really at full employment now) and/or wages and prices. It would both raise inflation a bit and launch a genuine, long over due pension reform.

[1] “US Monetary Policy–QE3” Cayman Financial Review, January 2013

[2] “The D E Fs of the Financial Markets Crisis” CATO Institute, September 26, 2008.

[3] https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/saving-social-security/

[4] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2009/07/07/US-federal-tax-policy/

[5] http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2013/07/12/The-principles-of-tax-reform/