Last Chance for the U.S. Economy!

by John Brian Shannon

This blog examines Canada‘s debt and deficit-cutting success of the 1990’s and early 2000’s which improved Canada’s credit rating, lowered borrowing costs for the government and when combined with a new 7% nation-wide Goods and Services tax (1990) allowed many job-creation projects to be funded which lessened the blow of the government’s (then) austerity program.

Read “How Canada Cut Its Deficits and Debt” — by former Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin (prior to that he was Finance Minister) who famously took Canada from second-worst among the G-7 countries to the most stable economic performer in only a few short years. The above link takes you to a downloadable PDF document. It is a must-read for students of macroeconomics.

Paul Martin, 21st Prime Minister of Canada
Paul Martin, 21st Prime Minister of Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Fiscal Turnaround

“When the Liberal Party took office, Canada’s deficit and debt were by far the worst among the G-7 but for one, and our level of foreign debt was the highest of the industrial world. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal had publicly dubbed Canada all but bankrupt. Four years later, our debt-to-GDP ratio was dropping like a stone. Our financial record was second to none and Canada’s deficit was no more.” — Paul Martin quote in The Magazine of International Economic Policy — The International Economy.

Many American friends of mine, are asking how the U.S. can solve its massive U.S. deficit and debt problems — problems which seem almost as insurmountable as going to the Moon was viewed in the early 1960’s.

The fact is, these problems have been solved in Canada and they can be solved in the United States. What has been lacking up until now, has been the will to act. Once elected, leaders who are empowered by their electorate to slay the twin dragons of debt and deficit could do so relatively quickly.

Some final advice from the Right Honourable Paul Martin former Prime Minister of Canada, the man most directly responsible for solving Canada’s historic debt and toxic deficit problem.

“The final lesson I would draw is that if deficit reduction is to be a priority, then it has to be a “national” priority.

When Canada’s debt ratio hit 70 percent, it was assumed by most economists that we had crossed the tipping point. The United States is there now, and the IMF projects that within eight years it will hit 115 percent. [!]

These are serious numbers, and yet the so-called deficit debate in the United States is not about the deficit at all. It’s about winners and losers.

One thing to remember from the Canadian experience it is that for deficit cleansing to succeed, there can be no winners while most people are losing. If deficit reduction is to gain public support, it requires a united effort—in other words, it must be a truly national exercise.” — Paul Martin quote in The Magazine of International Economic Policy — The International Economy.

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JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

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Stimulus or Austerity: Can Either Succeed?

by John Brian Shannon

In the age-old debate between stimulus and austerity, many commentators fail to realize both schools of thought could be correct — and in fact, both are.

For one, look at the uncountable billions of stimulus added to the American economy during President Reagan‘s two terms. Unprecedented billions were directed towards defense, R&D, infrastructure — and even to Chrysler — although, strictly speaking, those were loan guarantees.

Do loan guarantees count as stimulus? Almost. And those guarantees tied up billions of U.S. Government dollars until they were no longer required — and served to establish and add gravitas to a new momentum in the U.S. economy. Courtesy of President Reagan’s leadership, I hasten to add.

When we look at historic stimulus, it works. When the stimulus is added at the first sign of recession it is most effective. Once all those factories are shuttered, trying to add stimulus to improve the economy is an uphill battle, every day.

The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe at the end of WWII is a classic stimulus success story. Anyone who visited 1945 Europe and then visited again in 1960 can attest to that! About $40 billion dollars were used to stimulate the European economy — a lot of money in those days, even by United States’ standards.

Think of stimulus spending as emergency funding to keep the economy functioning. It really only works when applied immediately and at the first sign of recession.

For two, austerity does work. Although, it must be said, removing obscene debt and irresponsible deficits from a large economy constitute a major structural change. It is no band-aid solution — although as I said above, band-aids do work.

Austerity fixes the underlying structural problem — while stimulus fixes the symptoms, if you will.

There is no doubt about the Baltic austerity success story and there are others. You need only look as far as Canada in the 1990’s. Canada’s credit rating was on the rocks, the economy was in the tank and economic vital signs were heading in the wrong direction.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his astute Finance Minister Paul Martin, decided to adopt aggressive Canadian-style austerity and it worked (short-term pain for long-term gain) better than anyone had imagined. It just took some political leadership, unusually good communications with voters and some serious brainstorming.

A final word on economist’s everywhere. European economists work for Europe’s well-being, Chinese economists work for China, er, directly! While American economists work to arrange things to America’s advantage — you can’t begrudge any side for ‘playing for the home team’.

If the New York Times, Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Paul Krugman believes that it is in America’s best interests to float the economy with stimulus money, then he is right. Of course while agreeing with him, I always point out that stimulus is a merely a temporary fix and that additional deficit-financing (and accumulated debt) should be ‘pared down’ during the boom times.

Just as John Maynard Keynes suggested.

When this is not done, decade after decade, or should I say, recession after recession, it adds to the unbalanced economy and the entire economic structure is thereby weakened.

For now, stimulus — although it is almost too late for band-aids. Then, during the next boom, adroit movement towards zero-deficit financing — then, once that is achieved, regular scheduled debt paydowns after that.

Stimulus will stop the worst of the present economic malaise from taking an even higher toll — and later, austerity will begin to improve the entire structure of the U.S. economy.

John Brian Shannon

The Prescription for America’s Economy

by John Brian Shannon

As much as I’d like to simply jot down the prescription to cure what ails the American economy, I won’t.  Not before discussing it with you first.

Any doctor will tell you it is better to question, test, diagnose — and then prescribe. So, on that doctorly note let us commit to what ails the U.S. economy before I go off writing prescriptions.

It seems that America is not feeling too well, although she is still plenty powerful. Just sort of an uneasy feeling, a lack of confidence and somewhat limited flexibility. Underneath it all, she is sitting on top of a mountain of debt which just feels wrong.

Ed Hall’s excellent website has numerous links for visitors who may be interested in America’s debt and deficit information.

Here is a snapshot of what it said today:

The Outstanding Public Debt as of 28 Jul 2012 is:
$ 1 5 , 8 8 3 , 9 7 2 , 7 6 5 , 4 7 2 . 1 6

The estimated population of the United States is 313,211,460 so each citizen’s share of this debt is $50,713.26.

The National Debt has continued to increase an average of $3.90 billion per day since September 28, 2007!

If we add to that debt, the total unfunded liabilities and expenses of the United States, the total  liability of the U.S. federal government rises to an estimated 130-140 trillion dollars when all entitlement spending obligations are factored in. Ouch.

Not quite a ‘Code Blue’ condition, but a little too close for comfort. Time to call a doctor – and a good one!

Economist and former senior federal economic policymaker, J. Antonio “Tony” Villamil, the dean of the business school at St. Thomas University, who served as U.S. undersecretary of Commerce for economic affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration, commented in the Miami Herald on America’s debt situation.

The federal debt/GDP ratio is on an unsustainable path, with the federal debt held by the public surpassing 100 percent of GDP in a few short years, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). If we desire stronger economic and employment growth, we need a market-credible, long-term fiscal plan that places the federal debt/GDP ratio on a declining scale. Read the entire article here…

Dean Villamil has labeled the present era as “The New Normal” with cyclical (short-term) and fundamental (long-term) factors at play “that suggest a continued period of sluggish economic activity and slow employment growth…”

He expects the cyclical problems — such as the burst real estate bubble and a huge build-up of private debt, both of which conspired to create the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression — will diminish over the next 12 months leaving America with (only!) some fundamental economic challenges to solve.

[Fundamentally]… at this stage of an economic cycle, the economy should be expanding at a 3-percent to 4-percent annual rate, not at the tepid 2 percent or less, as is the case today. – Prof. Tony Villamil

Professor Villamil believes as I do, that growth-based policy is the better way to solve the economic juggernaut squarely ahead of us. When GDP grows faster than the federal debt, the debt-to-GDP level falls correspondingly, which is a happy side-effect of more and better-paying jobs for citizens, higher revenues for governments and a better educated workforce on account of all those parents who can now afford to send junior to university.

Canada took the ultimate shortcut towards these goals some time ago and it was hailed as a spectacular success. The Canadian government instituted a 7% Goods and Services tax on practically everything sold in Canada, from bubble-gum to skyscrapers and everything in between. This raked in uncountable billions of dollars for the government which allowed it to eliminate the huge deficit, make significant paydowns on the accumulated debt, finance massive job creation programs and restructure it’s financial obligations. It’s an outstanding and well-documented success by any measure.

This success story illustrates a major economic leap for Canada and one easily tailored to the U.S. situation. It should be carefully considered by U.S. policy-makers.

One problem Canada wasn’t required to face, was an economy awash in trillions of dollars of ‘easy money’  which led millions of American consumers towards insolvency when the economy began changing in response to economic events occurring outside the U.S.A. in 2008.

For example, the monetary base, due to Fed action, has exploded to $2.6 trillion as of May 2012. This could create an inflationary spiral in the longer term, causing another great recession. Read Dean Villamil here…

For those who support a massive injection of cash into the economy by the government, this is a fine short-term way to stimulate the economy, provide employment, increase taxation revenue for governments and to temporarily stabilize the economy. It is a fine idea and worthy of serious consideration by American policy-makers.

But while stimulus spending would help the economy short-term, it does not address the core issue of the non-growth government policies which caused America’s economic woes in the first place.

I promised you a prescription America, and here it is;

  • A federal 7% Goods and Services Tax on everything sold inside the country beginning in 2013. Some amount of revenue-sharing should occur. If 50 billion dollars of GST are collected in the state of California by the federal government by Jan 1, 2014, for example, California should receive half that amount back from the feds — which the state can then use to spend on it’s own infrastructure and debt-reduction program.
  • Of the federal government’s portion of the GST — half of it should go to paydown the federal deficit until there is no deficit.
  • The other half of the federal government’s portion of the GST should be used for ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects designed to cut unemployment levels in every state.
  • The planned budget cuts to U.S. military spending and other federal spending cuts should still occur as they are necessary and overdue, but could benefit from a relaxed implementation schedule.
  • A comprehensive, results-oriented, duplication of services and waste reduction study by all federal departments with the emphasis on cost-reduction and streamlining of services.
  • Which easily-treatable illnesses could increase American productivity if that cost was covered by government? We need a list! Spending mere pennies per worker here, can save the country many billions of dollars of lost productivity.

Short-term stimulus, combined with a national sales tax – the proceeds of which to be evenly split with the states, eventual elimination of the federal deficit, massive spending on national infrastructure projects, continued cuts to military spending on a slightly-relaxed schedule, national waste/duplication elimination, along with increases to productivity courtesy of free (minor disease) health care – will have America feeling back to her old-self within ten years — and after that, feeling ever better!

In fact you’re looking better now America — just reading your prescription!

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About John Brian Shannon

I write about green energy, sustainable development and economics. My blogs appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint, EnergyBoom, Huffington Post, United Nations Development Programme, WACSI — and other quality publications.

It is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Green Energy blog: http://johnbrianshannon.com
Economics blog: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/#!/JBSCanada

The Canadian Austerity Success Story

The Canadian Austerity Success Story | 12/07/12
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

The Canadian success story on deficit elimination, debt reduction and significantly, strengthening the economy by adding jobs and improved economic performance during troubled economic times has been well-documented.

The Canadian icon known as MacLeans Magazine featured an outstanding piece by LEAH McLAREN in the October 10, 2011 edition entitled I told you so – which covered Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron‘s speech to a joint session of the Canadian Parliament (both the Senate and the House of Commons) where PM David Cameron made a number of positive comments regarding Canada’s economic success.

Cameron commented:

“Canada got every major decision right” in the past few years of global market turmoil. He lauded the strength of both the Canadian banking system and our economic leaders, who, he said, “got to grips with its deficit” and were “running surpluses and paying down debt before the recession, fixing the roof while the sun was shining.”

Cameron’s admiration for Canada’s relatively peachy fiscal position stands in stark contrast to his dim view of his Eurozone neighbours. On the topic of Europe and the U.S. getting their own houses in order, Cameron said; “This is not a traditional, cyclical recession – it’s a debt crisis…”

He went on to say;

“When the fundamental problem of the level of debt and the fear of those levels, then the usual economic prescriptions cannot be applied.” – MacLean’s Magazine.

Read the entire article here…

MacLean’s is not the only publisher to write on this topic. Canada’s Globe & Mail have also published articles discussing the Canadian economic success story of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

A seminal article by LOUISE EGAN and RANDALL PALMER ran in the Nov 21, 2011 edition of the G&M entitled The lesson from Canada on cutting deficits — a short excerpt of which appears below. Please take the time to read and save the entire article.

“Finance officials bit their nails and nervously watched the clock. There were 30 minutes left in a bond auction aimed at funding the deficit and there was not a single bid.

Sounds like today’s Italy or Greece?

No, this was Canada in 1994.

Bids eventually came in, but that close call, along with downgrades and The Wall Street Journal calling Canada “an honorary member of the Third World,” helped the nation’s people and politicians understand how scary its budget problem was.

“There would have been a day when we would have been the Greece of today,” recalled then prime minister Jean Chrétien, a Liberal who ended up chopping cherished social programs in one of the most dramatic fiscal turnarounds ever.

“I knew we were in a bind and we had to do something,” Mr. Chrétien, 77, told Reuters in a rare interview.

Canada’s shift from pariah to fiscal darling provides lessons for Washington as lawmakers find few easy answers to the huge U.S. deficit and debt burden, and for European countries staggering under their own massive budget problems.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990’s.

But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth.

It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after the Second World War. The big cuts, and relatively small tax increases, brought a budget surplus within four years.

Canadian debt shrank to 29 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008-09 from a peak of 68 per cent in 1995-96, and the budget was in the black for 11 consecutive years until the 2008-09 recession.

For Canada, the vicious debt circle turned into a virtuous cycle that rescued a currency that had been dubbed the “northern peso.” Canada went from having the second worst fiscal position in the Group of Seven industrialized countries, behind only Italy, to easily the best.

It is far from a coincidence that the recent recession was shorter and shallower in Canada than in the United States. Indeed, by January, Canada had recovered all the jobs lost in the downturn, while the U.S. has hardly been able to dent its high unemployment.

“We used to thank God that Italy was there because we were the second worst in the G7,” said Scott Clark, associate deputy finance minister in the 1990’s.

Canada’s experience turned on its head the prevailing wisdom that spending promises were the easiest way to win elections. Politicians of all kinds and at all levels of government learned that austerity could win.”  read more…

For those unfamiliar with examples of successful austerity, Canada holds great promise. There are others to discuss in the coming days – which will illustrate austerity can actually lessen the unfavourable effects of decades of excessive spending by governments and improve the economic position of a nation.

The Case For Austerity

by John Brian Shannon

Finally, finally, finally.

After decades of running endless deficits which, when left unpaid at the end of each year are added to the government debt — increasing the overall debt-to-GDP ratio numbers of nations, many governments around the world have begun to rein-in their spending.

Why is that important? Because those are the same debt-to-GDP ratios that the worlds major credit rating agencies cite when they lower the credit rating of nations which have managed to spend more than they take in year after year – through the good times and the bad times.

Decade after decade, deficits pile up, until one day your national credit rating has sunk from AAA+ to only B+ or worse! This brings about a number of unwanted consequences for those countries.

One, the cost of borrowing multi-billions of dollars to cover government debt is increased at each and every downgrade.

A small change to the interest rate doesn’t hurt much when the amount financed is a small amount, but it really hurts when the amount financed is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. For example, the U.S. is presently financing 15 Trillion dollars of debt (accumulated deficits) and will add another 1.4 Trillion dollars of deficit to the government debt at the end of this fiscal year – September of 2012.

Imagine the borrowing costs on 16.4 Trillion dollars. Now, imagine the borrowing costs on 16.4 Trillion dollars and add another 1% to that interest rate – which is the hypothetical equivalent of a one-point reduction in the credit rating, let’s say from AAA to AA for example. Forget about the B+ rating – you don’t want to know.

Year in and year out, in good times and in bad times, huge chunks of national treasure in the form of interest payments on federal debt and deficits are paid by the taxpayers to foreign lenders to cover the cost of government overspending. It is an automatic drain on a country’s wealth.

Credit rating agencies become empowered at times like these and begin making suggestions to governments in order for them to receive a better credit rating – and thereby lower their overall cost of borrowing.

One suggestion is to impose austerity measures to lower government spending – in an attempt to stem the economic bleeding of the economy in question.

Cutting the number of government workers to decrease government spending is one way to accomplish that – as is reducing the number, or quality, of services that a government performs. In fact, there are thousands of ways to raise revenue and lower spending to eventually produce a zero deficit condition. Levelization of government finances becomes the priority.

Which is a relatively easy thing to do during the good times when the economy is expanding, jobs are plentiful and the government is raking in boatloads of income tax, sales tax and other government revenue-generating schemes — although, even then it is rarely attempted.

Some excellent examples of exceptions to this paradigm do exist.

Austerity during the bad times has no redeeming value at all – except for one important point, which I will cover shortly.

Politicians have traditionally shunned austerity during the good times because in all but a very few cases it gets them voted out of office.

At the worst possible moment, we are now beginning to do the right thing — returning to balanced budgets and paying down government debt.

Everyone is beginning to ‘get it’ governments simply cannot run huge deficits decade after decade and not face a downgrade of their credit rating, which drives up the cost of financing that accumulated debt load. Which, in turn, slows the economy – code words for increased unemployment, higher taxation, stagflation and a lowering of services provided by the government.

So, what is the important point? Voter acceptance – which may be putting it too strongly – but at the very least an understanding is now forming in the consciousness of voters, that governments cannot continue spending at unsustainable levels for decades at a time. Tentatively at first, but now with increasing resolve, politicians have begun to feel empowered to speak out about lowering government deficits and cutting national debt loads.

Now that the process has started (very unfortunately, during the bad times) I would expect it to continue during the coming good times – which, according to the legendary words of economist John Maynard Keynes – is the proper time for deficit-cutting and debt paydown.

It has worked before. In the early 1990’s, Canada was facing high deficits, a toxic government debt load and a lowering of it’s credit rating — at a bad time economically speaking. The then-government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his astute Minister of Finance Paul Martin, jumped at the opportunity during a time of nominal growth and higher taxation to cut the deficit to zero and dramatically paydown the accumulated Canadian federal debt.

In short, a win for austerity. A wildly successful effort by those two gentlemen who made it look easy and who never, ever, once complained once about the task fate appointed them.

In fact, there is no doubt at all about it in Canada – austerity won and it won handily.

In the case of Canada, there was no option but to win, there were no better choices available and no big brother like some nations in the EU have available to them to bail us out. The government of the day decided to pare down spending, increase revenues and they were so successful at doing so their plan worked better than even they themselves had envisioned.

The reason Canada was so successful?

Theirs was anything but a clumsy attempt to balance the budget and paydown the debt and both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister went around to meet the Premiers of each Canadian Province to sell the austerity package to Canada’s Premiers before attempting to take their plan further afield.

Then, and only then, they went to Wall Street to sell the world’s leading economy on the Canadian plan to eliminate Canadian deficits and lower the country’s total debt load.

Once all of that had successfully taken place, Canada’s Prime Minister and its Minister of Finance approached the credit rating agencies with a fait-accompli plan.

By ensuring the full support of every relevant player well-beforehand, Canada won over the credit rating agencies in a moment.

John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Check out his personal blog at: http://johnbrianshannon.com

Check out his economics blog at: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com

Follow John on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/#!/JBSCanada

SEE ALSO:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/the-lesson-from-canada-on-cutting-deficits/article4252006/?page=all

A short excerpt of this excellent article appears below. Please click on the link above to read the entire article.

The lesson from Canada on cutting deficits
LOUISE EGAN, RANDALL PALMER
OTTAWA— Reuters
Published Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 2:32 PM EST

“Finance officials bit their nails and nervously watched the clock. There were 30 minutes left in a bond auction aimed at funding the deficit and there was not a single bid.

Sounds like today’s Italy or Greece?

No, this was Canada in 1994.

Bids eventually came in, but that close call, along with downgrades and The Wall Street Journal calling Canada “an honorary member of the Third World,” helped the nation’s people and politicians understand how scary its budget problem was.

“There would have been a day when we would have been the Greece of today,” recalled then prime minister Jean Chrétien, a Liberal who ended up chopping cherished social programs in one of the most dramatic fiscal turnarounds ever.

“I knew we were in a bind and we had to do something,” Mr. Chrétien, 77, told Reuters in a rare interview.

Canada’s shift from pariah to fiscal darling provides lessons for Washington as lawmakers find few easy answers to the huge U.S. deficit and debt burden, and for European countries staggering under their own massive budget problems.

“Everyone wants to know how we did it,” said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based think tank, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s.

But to win its budget wars, Canada first had to realize how dire its situation was and then dramatically shrink the size of government rather than just limit the pace of spending growth.

It would eventually oversee the biggest reduction in Canadian government spending since demobilization after the Second World War. The big cuts, and relatively small tax increases, brought a budget surplus within four years.

Canadian debt shrank to 29 per cent of gross domestic product in 2008-09 from a peak of 68 per cent in 1995-96, and the budget was in the black for 11 consecutive years until the 2008-09 recession.

For Canada, the vicious debt circle turned into a virtuous cycle that rescued a currency that had been dubbed the “northern peso.” Canada went from having the second worst fiscal position in the Group of Seven industrialized countries, behind only Italy, to easily the best.

It is far from a coincidence that the recent recession was shorter and shallower in Canada than in the United States. Indeed, by January, Canada had recovered all the jobs lost in the downturn, while the U.S. has hardly been able to dent its high unemployment.

“We used to thank God that Italy was there because we were the second worst in the G7,” said Scott Clark, associate deputy finance minister in the 1990s.

Canada’s experience turned on its head the prevailing wisdom that spending promises were the easiest way to win elections. Politicians of all kinds and at all levels of government learned that austerity could win.”  read more…