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Malpass: Bigger Battle Behind the Shutdown

Posted by Larry Doyle on October 17, 2013 9:55 AM |

Recent polls regarding confidence in our public officials in Washington are at historic lows and with the can having been kicked down the road for only 3 to 4 months, I do not see those polling figures improving anytime soon.

If those in Washington on both sides of the aisle actually care about the public interest and the need for an adult dialogue, they may want to start by addressing the points raised by David Malpass. His recent commentary is overflowing with a host of basic principles of real sense on cents.

At its core, the shutdown is part of a much bigger battle to restrain the federal government. It is spending $3.6 trillion per year without a budget, and its expenditures are expected to increase rapidly in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, the government has piled up $17 trillion in debt and $60 trillion more in unfunded spending promises. The Federal Reserve will borrow $1.1 trillion in 2013 alone to buy bonds—and it reserves the right to borrow unlimited amounts for future bond purchases without congressional or presidential permission.

These are crisis-level problems. Whether the government is open or closed, they are surely grounds for immediate talks between the president and Congress on ways to pare ineffective federal programs, restrain spending and reduce borrowing.

Ducking governance decisions year after year will leave the U.S. too weak to face global challenges. Big government has meant slow growth, painfully high youth and minority unemployment and falling median incomes—except in the Washington, D.C., area, which recent census data show is growing ever richer.

Under current law, the federal government and Federal Reserve are in a sharp upward trajectory in their power and the riskiness of their policies. Federal domination of the economy and financial markets is only increasing. The government shutdown reflects a Republican demand for permanent new checks and balances—to restrain a government that spends wildly without a budget, buys $1 trillion per year in overpriced bonds from an already-rich Wall Street, and micromanages federal medical care but exempts unions and Congress from the sting of regulations that affect others.

Washington’s panic prior to the budget sequester that took effect earlier this year gave a glimpse of the truth: Much federal spending can’t be justified. The government shutdown is giving more insight into the problem—a staggering $250 billion per month, 80% of spending, runs on autopilot without any congressional involvement or control. So much for the Constitution’s bedrock principle that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.

To break the impasse, and to address the government’s disastrous finances, the president must lead the way. Mr. Obama has made clear that he will not change ObamaCare, but given the challenges the country faces, a blanket insistence on keeping the whole government unchanged isn’t defensible.

One good starting point for presidential leadership is the fraud-plagued federal disability programs that cost taxpayers $200 billion annually. There are innumerable other such programs, as well as roughly 200 independent federal agencies, many with little purpose and certainly not enough purpose to justify more debt.

To avoid future stalemates like the current one, making a legislative change is clearly imperative: The current debt-limit law, despite its name, operates to make the debt larger, not smaller. The law should be rewritten to mandate continuous spending restraint when debt exceeds the ceiling.

Fortunately, an actual default is a red herring. The president has sweeping powers through Treasury to continue paying the national debt. Mr. Obama alluded to this on Tuesday by listing the non-debt obligations that might be paid late, including government contractors, veterans and Social Security recipients (whose checks are due Nov. 1). In effect, the government would choose to pay them late and use newly arrived tax revenues to maintain debt payments.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s weekend appearances on four major networks made the same point. He complained about Republicans extorting the president—then defined default as “choosing not to pay bills on time.

The administration is frustrated that Wall Street is largely ignoring its talk of default, hence the president’s cautioning the stock and bond markets—on Tuesday afternoon, in the heart of the trading day—about the potential for catastrophe.

Democrats are hoping that the political consequences of a broader shutdown of government payments, what the president is calling an economic shutdown, will force House Republicans to allow a vote on a short-term extension of the debt limit.

Maybe so, but the president might have a tough time convincing House Democrats to vote for more debt with no reforms. The better course would be to agree on reforms now—there’s ample common ground—and put an end to the downward spiral in rhetoric.

Rather than discuss restraint, the administration has increasingly turned to the Federal Reserve as a crutch. The Fed is borrowing and spending $85 billion per month on bonds, and it claims the legal authority to increase its debt at will. Wall Street is intensely focused on supporting this profligacy and profiting from it. The Fed’s debt will reach $4 trillion at year-end, with at least $200 billion of it not counted properly in the national debt.

The Fed is choosing to buy long-term bonds with short-term debt. The result is a rapid shortening in the effective maturity of the national debt that benefits current politicians but puts taxpayers at risk. Like an adjustable-rate mortgage, the borrower, in this case the government, gets a lower interest rate now but will have to refinance at higher rates later.

Compounding the taxpayer risk, Treasury has scheduled a November launch of a new class of floating-rate debt that will compete with the Fed’s debt when interest rates begin to normalize. This leaves a huge portion of the national debt exposed to higher interest rates. And as Europe’s weak southern flank demonstrated in their 2010-12 crisis, financial markets treat floating-rate and short-term debt like blood in the water.

The president keeps telling the public that Republicans would, in effect, “burn down your house” if he doesn’t negotiate. Republicans should ignore the outrageous charges of extortion and blackmail coming from the other side and continue to seek positive change. The upside is clear: Growth, jobs, the dollar and financial markets would surge if the shutdown leads to restraint.

Mr. Malpass is president of Encima Global LLC. He served as deputy assistant Treasury secretary in the Reagan administration.

I thank the regular reader who shared this commentary with me.

Navigate accordingly.

Larry Doyle

Please pre-order a copy of my book, In Bed with Wall Street: The Conspiracy Crippling Our Global Economy, that will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on January 7, 2014.

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I have no business interest with any entity referenced in this commentary. The opinions expressed are my own. I am a proponent of real transparency within our markets so that investor confidence and investor protection can be achieved.

 

  • Van

    LARRY

    ARE YOU ACTUALLY TRYING LOGIC ON THESE CRIMINALS ???

  • GMA

    Sounds like a plan! Unfortunately, Congress seems incapable of stepping back and taking such a comprehensive look at where we are, how we got here, future trajectories and how to make the necessary adjustments going forward. Seems there was even at least one good glob of “pork” in the agreement they finally crafted last night according to the newscast I heard this morning. Term Limits!

  • Ray

    Good explanation of the debt situation in this video.

    Also seems like congressional perks are critical and exempt from the shutdown – Exclusive Gyms For Members Of Congress Deemed ‘Essential,’ Remain Open During Shutdown

    Constituents are not important.

    • LD

      Ray,

      Thanks for sharing that video. Very, very well done.

      Noted investor James Grant writes,

      The U.S. government defaulted after the Revolutionary War, and it defaulted at intervals thereafter. Moreover, on the authority of the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the government means to keep right on shirking, dodging or trimming, if not legally defaulting.

      Default means to not pay as promised, and politics may interrupt the timely service of the government’s debts. The consequences of such a disruption could — as everyone knows by now — set Wall Street on its ear. But after the various branches of government resume talking and investors have collected themselves, the Treasury will have no trouble finding the necessary billions with which to pay its bills. The Federal Reserve can materialize the scrip on a computer screen.

      America’s Default Is Inevitable

  • Steve

    I read this a while back and had to re-read it a few times because I generally like David and think he is a very bright guy. Simply stated, however, I am amazed that a guy as smart as Mr. Malpass can claim that the Federal Reserve borrows anything. The Fed, while one might cynically consider it a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Treasury Department, doesn’t borrow a dime. Treasury does all of the borrowing. How he can claim that the Fed can “increase its debt at will” is wrong. Where on the Fed’s balance sheet do you see any debt? There is none. When the Fed trades bank reserves or cash for outstanding government debt the overall balance sheet of the U.S. Government does not change.

    If, in fact, these are crisis level problems as he so claims, how exactly does that square with a 10yr UST rate of 2.59% which is clearly not a crisis-level rate? Is he claiming that the market is ignorant of the risk?

    It is a bad faux pas and makes the piece come off as an uninformed rant. Add to that his comment comparing our debt situation to Europe (“And as Europe’s weak southern flank demonstrated in their 2010-12 crisis, financial markets treat floating-rate and short-term debt like blood in the water.”) and the rant is simply out-of-hand. We are not Europe.

    What made me re-read it over and over is the claim that, “Republicans should ignore the outrageous charges of extortion and blackmail coming from the other side and continue to seek positive change. The upside is clear: Growth, jobs, the dollar and financial markets would surge if the shutdown leads to restraint.”

    Someone still needs to explain to me how removing a few hundred billion of government spending from the economy magically produces a surge in economic activity by the private sector in excess of the amount of government austerity. I’ve seen this claim in a number of conservative places and it does not square with economic reality.

    I honestly don’t see this post as in line with some of the positive economic ideas we’ve traded in the past, which is a shame because David is a smart guy. Personally I feel that it reads more like a campaign piece for Mr. Malpass than anything constructive.

    • LD

      I should have caught this error on Malpass’ part and highlighted it. Good catch.

      If, in fact, these are crisis level problems as he so claims, how exactly does that square with a 10yr UST rate of 2.59% which is clearly not a crisis-level rate? Is he claiming that the market is ignorant of the risk?

      A blank check provided by the Federal Reserve.

      It is a bad faux pas and makes the piece come off as an uninformed rant. Add to that his comment comparing our debt situation to Europe (“And as Europe’s weak southern flank demonstrated in their 2010-12 crisis, financial markets treat floating-rate and short-term debt like blood in the water.”) and the rant is simply out-of-hand. We are not Europe.

      We are not Europe but here are some similarities in certain regards.

      What made me re-read it over and over is the claim that, “Republicans should ignore the outrageous charges of extortion and blackmail coming from the other side and continue to seek positive change. The upside is clear: Growth, jobs, the dollar and financial markets would surge if the shutdown leads to restraint.”

      Someone still needs to explain to me how removing a few hundred billion of government spending from the economy magically produces a surge in economic activity by the private sector in excess of the amount of government austerity. I’ve seen this claim in a number of conservative places and it does not square with economic reality.

      The economic principle of crowding out seems to have lost any credibility over the last 5 years. I do not discount the need for governmental support in a deleveraging economy but the support can be augmented by providing mechanisms to support the formation of private capital. I do not see a lot of that currently.

      • Steve

        LD, once again, sincere thanks for the well-though-out response.

        Personally I see major differences between the United States and Europe. I see the U.S. as a true sovereign borrower (i.e. one that funds itself in its own sovereign currency which it requires for tax payments and which is not mandatorily convertible into anything else) and I see the EU as a currency union lacking a true lender-of-last-resort central bank and questionable economic ties among its member states including the absence of a “federal” European government running anti-cyclical fiscal policy.

        The current state of private capital formation is a direct result of the collapse of a multi-decade credit bubble. Note that recoveries from episodes like this are measured in decades.

        You will find little disagreement from me regarding your opinions of Washington’s handling of both the pre-crash and post-crash fiscal and monetary issues, and I am looking forward to reading your book for further insight.

        Finally, regarding “crowding out”, I think it’s pretty clear that “expansionary austerity” is a delusion. I do not see Mr. Malpass’ “upside” as all that clear in the wake of deficient demand from a devastated household sector.

        Thanks for continuing to challenge your readers.






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