Interest now eats up nearly half the US government's income tax receipts - Ellen Brown
(1) Tax Cuts for the Rich? US is more unequal than Banana Republics
(2) QE2 funds loaned to Speculators at 0.25% interest to buy foreign assets (appreciating as $ falls; then they'll sell) - Michael Hudson
(3) Interest now eats up nearly half the US government's income tax receipts - Ellen Brown
(4) Interest on US government debt soon will amount to $1 trillion annually - Michael Hudson
(1) Tax Cuts for the Rich? US is more unequal than Banana Republics
From: IHR News <email@example.com> Date: 26.11.2010 02:00 PM
A Hedge Fund Republic?
Nicholas D. Kristof
A Hedge Fund Republic?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: November 17, 2010
Earlier this month, I offended a number of readers with a column suggesting that if you want to see rapacious income inequality, you no longer need to visit a banana republic. You can just look around.
My point was that the wealthiest plutocrats now actually control a greater share of the pie in the United States than in historically unstable countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. But readers protested that this was glib and unfair, and after reviewing the evidence I regretfully confess that they have a point.
That’s right: I may have wronged the banana republics.
You see, some Latin Americans were indignant at what they saw as an invidious and hurtful comparison. The truth is that Latin America has matured and become more equal in recent decades, even as the distribution in the United States has become steadily more unequal.
The best data series I could find is for Argentina. In the 1940s, the top 1 percent there controlled more than 20 percent of incomes. That was roughly double the share at that time in the United States.
Since then, we’ve reversed places. The share controlled by the top 1 percent in Argentina has fallen to a bit more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, inequality in the United States has soared to levels comparable to those in Argentina six decades ago — with 1 percent controlling 24 percent of American income in 2007.
At a time of such stunning inequality, should Congress put priority on spending $700 billion on extending the Bush tax cuts to those with incomes above $250,000 a year? Or should it extend unemployment benefits for Americans who otherwise will lose them beginning next month?
One way to examine that decision is to put aside all ethical considerations and simply look at where tax dollars will do more to stimulate the economy. There the conclusion is clear: You get much more bang for the buck putting money in the hands of unemployed people because they will promptly spend it.
In contrast, tax cuts for the wealthy are partly saved — that’s both basic economic theory and recent history — so they are much less effective in creating jobs. For example, Republicans would give the richest 0.1 percent of Americans an average tax cut of $370,000. Does anybody really think that those taxpayers are going to rush out and buy Porsches and yachts, start new businesses, and hire more groundskeepers and chauffeurs?
In contrast, a study commissioned by the Labor Department during the Bush administration makes clear the job-creation power of unemployment benefits because that money is immediately spent. The study suggested that the current recession would have been 18 percent worse without unemployment insurance and that this spending preserved 1.6 million jobs in each quarter.
But there is also a larger question: What kind of a country do we aspire to be? Would we really want to be the kind of plutocracy where the richest 1 percent possesses more net worth than the bottom 90 percent?
Oops! That’s already us. The top 1 percent of Americans owns 34 percent of America’s private net worth, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The bottom 90 percent owns just 29 percent.
That also means that the top 10 percent controls more than 70 percent of Americans’ total net worth.
Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who is one of the world’s leading experts on inequality, notes that for most of American history, income distribution was significantly more equal than today. And other capitalist countries do not suffer disparities as great as ours.
“There has been an increase in inequality in most industrialized countries, but not as extreme as in the U.S.,” Professor Saez said.
One of America’s greatest features has been its economic mobility, in contrast to Europe’s class system. This mobility may explain why many working-class Americans oppose inheritance taxes and high marginal tax rates. But researchers find that today this rags-to-riches intergenerational mobility is no more common in America than in Europe — and possibly less common.
I’m appalled by our growing wealth gaps because in my travels I see what happens in dysfunctional countries where the rich just don’t care about those below the decks. The result is nations without a social fabric or sense of national unity. Huge concentrations of wealth corrode the soul of any nation.
And then I see members of Congress in my own country who argue that it would be financially reckless to extend unemployment benefits during a terrible recession, yet they insist on granting $370,000 tax breaks to the richest Americans. I don’t know if that makes us a banana republic or a hedge fund republic, but it’s not healthy in any republic.
(2) QE2 funds loaned to Speculators at 0.25% interest to buy foreign assets (appreciating as $ falls; then they'll sell) - Michael Hudson
Krugman, China and the role of finance
November 22, 2010
By Michael Hudson
Here's the quandary that the U.S. economy is in: The Fed's quantitative easing policy– creating more liquidity so that banks can lend more – aims at helping the economy "borrow its way out of debt." But banks are not lending more, for the simple reason that a third of U.S. real estate already is in negative equity, while small and medium-sized businesses (which have created most of the new jobs in America for the past few decades) have seen their preferred collateral (real estate and sales orders) shrink. How can banks be expected to lend more to re-inflate the economy's asset prices while wages and consumer prices continue to drift down? The "real" economy as a whole therefore must shrink.
What has made the argument over Fed policy so important over the past week is a series of exchanges between Republicans and Democrats. The deteriorating situation prompted a group of Republican economists and political strategists to publish an open letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke criticizing the Fed's policy of Quantitative Easing (QE2), flooding the economy with liquidity spilling over into foreign exchange markets to push the dollar's exchange rate down. True enough, as far as this criticism goes. But it only scratches the surface.
Enter Paul Krugman, one of the most progressive defenders of Democratic Party policy. His New York Times op-eds usually rebut Republican advocacy for Wall Street and corporate interests. But he also indulges in China bashing. To "blame the foreigner" rather than the system is normally a right-wing response, yet Krugman blames China simply for trying to save itself from being victimized by the Wall Street policies he normally criticizes when labor is the prey. By blaming China, he not only lets the Federal Reserve Board and its Wall Street constituency off the hook, he blames virtually the entire world that confronted Obama's financial nationalism with a united front in Seoul two weeks ago when he and his entourage received an almost unanimous slap in the face at the Group of 20 meetings.
Sadly, Krugman's "Axis of Depression" column on Friday, November 19, showed the extent to which his preferred solutions do not go beyond merely marginalist tinkering. His op-ed endorsed the Fed's attempt at quantitative easing to re-inflate the real estate bubble by flooding the markets with enough credit to lower interest rates. He credits the Fed with seeking to "create jobs," not mainly to bail out banks that hold mortgages on properties in negative equity.
The reality is that re-inflating real estate prices will not make it easier for wage earners and homebuyers to make ends meet. Lowering interest rates will re-inflate real estate prices ("wealth creation" Alan-Greenspan style), raising the degree to which new homebuyers must go into debt to obtain housing. And the more debt service that is paid, the less is available to spend on goods and services (the "real" economy). Employment will shrink in a financial spiral of economic austerity.
Unfortunately, most economists are brainwashed with the trivializing formula MV=PT. The idea is that more money (M) increases "prices" (P) – presumably consumer prices and wages. (One can ignore velocity, "V," which is merely a tautological residual.) "T" is "transactions," for GDP, sometimes called "O" for Output.
Some 99.9 per cent of money and credit is not spent on consumer goods (the "T" in MV = PT). Every day more than an entire year's GDP passes through the New York Clearing House and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for bank loans, stocks and bonds, packaged mortgages, derivatives and other financial assets and bets. So the effect of the Fed's Quantitative Easing (monetary inflation) is to inflate asset prices, not consumer prices and other commodity prices.
This is the key dynamic of today's finance capitalism. It loads down economies with debt – and when debt service exceeds the surplus out of which to pay it, the central bank tries to "inflate its way out of debt" by creating enough new credit ("money") to make real estate, stocks and bonds worth more – enough for debtors to borrow the interest due. This is the deus ex machina, the external influx of credit enabling financialized economies to operate as Ponzi schemes. The dynamic is encouraged by taxing speculative ("capital") gains at a lower rate than wages and profits. So why should investors finance tangible capital investment when they can ride the wave of asset-price inflation? The Bubble Economy turns into speculative "wealth creation."
Can it work? How long will gullible investors bet on a pyramid scheme growing at an impossibly exponential rate, enjoying fictitious "wealth creation" as bankers load the economy down with debt? How long will people think that the economy is really growing when banks lend to an economy overseen by regulatory agencies staffed by ideological deregulators?
The bankers' ideal is for the entire surplus over and above bare subsistence to be paid in the form of interest and fees – all disposable personal income, corporate cash flow and real estate rent. So when the Fed's QE lowers mortgage interest rates, will this enable homeowners to pay less – or will it simply increase the capitalization rate of the existing rental value?
The Fed's cover story is that QE benefits homebuyers by reducing the debt they must take on. But if this were true, their gain would be the banks' loss – and the bankers are the Fed's main constituency. To the Federal Reserve, the economic "problem" is that falling (that is, more affordable) housing prices are killing the balance sheets of banks. So the Fed's real goal is to re-inflate the real estate bubble (while spurring a stock market bubble as well, if it can).
A Wall Street Journal op-ed by Andy Kessler (also published on Friday, Nov. 19, the date of Krugman's op-ed in The New York Times) pointed this out – but also recognized that the Fed would create a public relations disaster if it came right out and explained that its motivation in QE2 was to reverse the fall in property prices. " Bernanke would create a panic if he stated publicly that, if not for his magic dollar dust, real estate would fall off a cliff," and admitted that bank balance sheets still suffer from "toxic real estate loans and derivatives." But the degree to which reported bank solvency is largely fictitious is reflected in the fact that the stock market value for the Bank of America (which brought Countrywide Finance) is only half its reported book value, while that of Citibank is off by 20 per cent.
Foreclosure is of course bad for homeowners, but it is even worse for banks, because of the financial pyramid of credit erected on the past decade's worth of junk mortgages. The problem with Krugman's analysis is his assumption that QE – intended to re-inflate the real estate bubble – is good for employment and indeed even for a renewal of U.S. competitiveness, not its antithesis. By focusing on trade and labor, he implies that the dollar is weakening only because of the trade deficit, not because of military spending and capital flight. And he assumes that re-inflating the real estate bubble – the Fed's explicit aim – will make U.S. exports more competitive rather than less so! Most seriously, he asserts in his November 19 column, "the core reason for the attack on the Fed is self-interest, pure and simple. China and Germany want America to stay uncompetitive."
This is not what I have been told in China and Germany. They simply want to avoid having instability disrupt their trade and domestic production, and to avoid having to take a loss on their international reserves held (mainly from inertia stemming from World Wars I and II when the United States increased its share of the world's gold to 80 per cent by 1950). The U.S. Treasury would like U.S. banks and speculators to make an easy $500 billion at the expense of China's central bank on slick speculative currency trading.
The Fed would like to see the U.S. economy revive by looting other economies.
It's not going to happen. The plunging-dollar standard of international finance is being wound down as fast as other countries are able to replace the dollar with currency swaps among themselves, led by the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). South Africa has just joined these countries as a fifth member, and oil exporters from Nigeria to Venezuela and Iran are associating themselves in the attempt to make the international monetary system less unfair and less exploitative. Krugman's fellow Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz has provided (seemingly ironically, also in a Wall Street Journal op-ed): "That money is supposed to reignite the American economy but instead goes around the world looking for economies that actually seem to be functioning well and wreaking havoc there."
The Fed and Congress have told China to revalue its currency, the renminbi, upward by 20 per cent. This would oblige the Chinese government and its central bank to absorb a loss of half a trillion dollars – over $500 billion – on the $2.6 trillion of foreign reserves it has built up. These reserves are not merely from exports, much less exports to the United States. They are capital flight by U.S. money managers, Wall Street arbitragers, international speculators and others seeking to buy up Chinese assets. And they are the result of U.S. military spending in its bases in Asia and elsewhere – dollars that recipient countries turn around and spend in China.
Chinese authorities have tried to make it clear that what they object to is the U.S. policy of creating "electronic keyboard credit" at one quarter of a percent (0.25 per cent) to buy up higher yielding assets abroad (and nearly every foreign asset is higher yielding). The Group of 20 in Seoul Korea last week accused the United States of competitive currency depreciation and financial aggression, and countries stepped up attempts to shun the dollar and indeed, to avoid running trade and payments surpluses as such.
The bottom line is that there is no way that the United States can defend depreciation of the dollar on terms that oblige other countries to take a loss on their holdings. Investors throughout the world have lost faith in the dollar and other paper currencies, and are moving into gold or simply closing off their economies. Over the past year – ever since the BRIC meetings in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in summer 2009 – their response has been to avoid using the dollar, to protect themselves from aggressive U.S. capital flight seeking to raid their central banks, buy out their companies, raw materials and assets with "paper credit" and indeed to step up military spending.
Instead of supporting this attempt – a drive that has the positive consequence for world peace that it will limit U.S. military adventurism (much as the Vietnam War finally forced the dollar off gold in 1971), Krugman is using the crisis to attack China – as if its success is what is harming U.S. labor. Rather, it is U.S. post-industrial pro-financial policies that have inflated the real estate bubble, privatized health care without a public option (without even a bulk discount for U.S. Government drug purchases), let alone the failure to write down mortgages and other bank debts to the ability to pay.
Today's China-bashing is much like the earlier attacks on Japan and other Asian countries in the late 1980s, demonizing successful economies for avoiding the predatory practices that have corroded American industry, "financializing" and post-industrializing the economy. The U.S. debt pyramiding that has occurred since 1980 has turned into a class war that has little economic justification. So blaming foreigners – for getting rich in the very same way that the United States has done ever since the North won the Civil War in 1865 – simply offers political cover for a status quo that is not working.
The two U.S. parties and their spokesmen find it easier to demonize policies that go beyond the merely marginal than to set about solving structural problems. So political discussion ends up by highlighting fairly insignificant policy differences. One would hardly realize that the problem facing U.S. industrial employment is that wage earners must earn enough to pay for the most expensive housing in the world (the FDIC is trying to limit mortgages to absorb just 32 per cent of the borrower's budget), the most expensive medical care and Social Security in the world (12.4 per cent FICA withholding), high personal debt levels owed to banks and rapacious credit-card companies (about 15 per cent) and a tax shift off property and the higher wealth brackets onto labor income and consumer goods (another 15 per cent or so). The aim of bankers is to calculate just how much their customers can pay to the FIRE sector, defined as everything they make over and above basic subsistence costs and "non-discretionary" spending.
This is post-industrial suicide – and it is the road to debt peonage for American wage earners and consumers. China has created an economy that has managed – so far – to avoid financializing its firms. The government owns over half the equity in its commercial banks. According to its Ministry of Finance, assets of all state enterprises in 2008 totaled about $6 trillion (equal to 133 per cent of annual economic output.) The effect is that when loans are made to domestic enterprises – especially to partially or wholly owned by the government – the interest and financial returns accrues to the public sector, making it unnecessary to tax labor.
China understandably is trying to defend this system. Yet the Obama administration (echoed by Republican free marketers) has criticized it, especially for its public subsidy of solar energy investment to slow domestic pollution and global warming. Wednesday's Wall Street Journal provided an almost comically hypocritical attack earlier last week, (Jason Dean, Andrew Browne and Shai Oster, "China's 'State Capitalism' Sparks a Global Backlash,") decrying China's accelerated investment in solar power to free its economy (and its air quality) from oil imports and carbon emissions. "It leverages state control of the financial system to channel low-cost capital to domestic industries—and to resource-rich foreign nations whose oil and minerals China needs to maintain rapid growth."
This policy prompted Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. trade representative under President Bill Clinton (who helped negotiate China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization) to complain that "powerful state-led economies like China and Russia … decide that 'entire new industries should be created by the government,' … it tilts the playing field against the private sector." This is just what Japan did to promote its industrialization – by providing government credit intended to promote tangible capital investment, not extract financial rake-offs. "Vast swaths of industry still controlled by state companies and tightly restricted for foreigners," complain the Wall Street Journal authors. "The government owns almost all major banks in China, its three major oil companies, its three telecom carriers and its major media firms."
We are dealing with two quite different ideas of what the proper role of a financial system should be. Commercial banks in the West have created most credit for speculation and asset-price inflation over the last thirty years, not to fund capital formation and industry. The guiding idea of a public-sector bank is to promote long-term investment to raise productivity, output and employment. This is what has enabled China to succeed so rapidly while Western economies have let themselves be financialized. The Baltics, Iceland and now Ireland are examples of the disaster that financial neoliberals cause when given a free hand.
The moral is that China's bank success – and its attempt to avert U.S. currency raiding and arbitrage speculation seeking to loot its foreign reserves – should be emulated, not accused as an act of economic warfare. This emulation is what the BRIC+ countries have announced as their goal. The Obama administration and European politicians certainly are making an obvious point in urging China to focus more on its own domestic market and accelerate the rise in its living standards. It is clear that markets in the United States and Europe are shrinking as debt deflation sets in.
China is not as economically self-sufficient in natural resources and water as the United States. This means that a sustained rise in its living standards will require spending much of the international savings it has built up. But at least it is on the right path. Can the same be said of America? Does it help to denounce China, or should we rather ask why its productivity, capital investment and living standards are rising while ours are declining?
Asking this question suggests the answer: China's financial system is designed to promote a growing surplus, not siphon it off. A byproduct is to increase real estate and stock market prices – but this is a reflection of capital investment and progress, not a diversion of investment to fuel financial asset stripping as has occurred in the United States with increasingly arrogant greed over the past 30 years.
What Krugman and other economists advocating for wage earners and the economy at large should be concerned with is the danger of the Fed undertaking yet another back-door bailout for its Wall Street constituency. Kessler suggests that the Fed should do just this – to "move the toxic debt onto the balance sheets of the FDIC and the Fed, and re-float the banks with fresh capital to open on Monday morning."
You can't blame China for this!
(3) Interest now eats up nearly half the US government's income tax receipts - Ellen Brown
From: Ellen Brown <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 22.11.2010 12:18 PM
What's Really Behind QE2?
November 19, 2010
The deficit hawks are circling, hovering over QE2, calling it just another inflationary bank bailout. But unlike QE1, QE2 is not about saving the banks. It's about funding the federal deficit without increasing the interest tab, something that may be necessary in this gridlocked political climate just to keep the government functioning.
On November 15, the Wall Street Journal published an open letter to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke from 23 noted economists, professors and fund managers, urging him to abandon his new "quantitative easing" policy called QE2. The letter said:
We believe the Federal Reserve's large-scale asset purchase plan (so-called "quantitative easing") should be reconsidered and discontinued. . . . The planned asset purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed's objective of promoting employment.
The Pragmatic Capitalist (Cullen Roche) remarked:
Many of the people on this list have been warning about bond vigilantes while also comparing the USA to Greece for several years now. Of course, they've been terribly wrong and it is entirely due to the fact that they do not understand how the US monetary system works. . . . What's unfortunate is that these are many of our best minds. These are the people driving the economic bus.
The deficit hawks say QE is massively inflationary; that it is responsible for soaring commodity prices here and abroad; that QE2 won't work any better than an earlier scheme called QE1, which was less about stimulating the economy than about saving the banks; and that QE has caused the devaluation of the dollar, which is hurting foreign currencies and driving up prices abroad.
None of these contentions is true, as will be shown. They arise from a failure either to understand modern monetary mechanics (see links at The Pragmatic Capitalist and here) or to understand QE2, which is a different animal from QE1. QE2 is not about saving the banks, or devaluing the dollar, or saving the housing market. It is about saving the government from having to raise taxes or cut programs, and saving Americans from the austerity measures crippling the Irish and the Greeks; and for that, it may well be the most effective tool currently available. QE2 promotes employment by keeping the government in business. The government can then work on adding jobs.
The Looming Threat of a Crippling Debt Service
The federal debt has increased by more than 50% since 2006, due to a collapsed economy and the highly controversial decision to bail out the banks. By the end of 2009, the debt was up to $12.3 trillion; but the interest paid on it ($383 billion) was actually less than in 2006 ($406 billion), because interest rates had been pushed to extremely low levels. Interest now eats up nearly half the government's income tax receipts, which are estimated at $899 billion for FY 2010. Of this, $414 billion will go to interest on the federal debt. If interest rates were to rise just a couple of percentage points, servicing the federal debt would consume over 100% of current income tax receipts, and taxes might have to be doubled.
As for the surging commodity and currency prices abroad, they are not the result of QE. They are largely the result of the U.S. dollar carry trade, which is the result of pressure to keep interest rates artificially low. Banks that can borrow at the very low fed funds rate (now 0.2%) can turn around and speculate abroad, reaping much higher returns.
Interest rates cannot be raised again to reasonable levels until the cost of servicing the federal debt is reduced; and today that can be done most expeditiously through QE2 -- "monetizing" the debt through the Federal Reserve, essentially interest-free. Alone among the government's creditors, the Fed rebates the interest to the government after deducting its costs. In 2008, the Fed reported that it rebated 85% of its profits to the government. The interest rate on the 10-year government bonds the Fed is planning to buy is now 2.66%. Fifteen percent of 2.66% is the equivalent of a 0.4% interest rate, the best deal in town on long-term bonds.
A Reluctant Fed Steps Up to the Plate
The Fed was strong-armed into rebating its profits to the government in the 1960s, when Wright Patman, Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, pushed to have the Fed nationalized. According to Congressman Jerry Voorhis in The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon (1973):
As a direct result of logical and relentless agitation by members of Congress, led by Congressman Wright Patman as well as by other competent monetary experts, the Federal Reserve began to pay to the U.S. Treasury a considerable part of its earnings from interest on government securities. This was done without public notice and few people, even today, know that it is being done. It was done, quite obviously, as acknowledgment that the Federal Reserve Banks were acting on the one hand as a national bank of issue, creating the nation's money, but on the other hand charging the nation interest on its own credit – which no true national bank of issue could conceivably, or with any show of justice, dare to do.
Voorhis went on, "But this is only part of the story. And the less discouraging part, at that. For where the commercial banks are concerned, there is no such repayment of the people's money." Commercial banks do not rebate the interest, said Voorhis, although they also "'buy' the bonds with newly created demand deposit entries on their books – nothing more."
After the 1960s, the policy was to fund government bonds through commercial banks (which could collect interest) rather than through the central bank (which could not). This was true not just in the U.S. but in other countries, after a quadrupling of oil prices combined with abandonment of the gold standard produced "stagflation" that was erroneously blamed on governments "printing money."
Consistent with that longstanding policy, Chairman Bernanke initially resisted funding the federal deficit. In January 2010, he admonished Congress:
We're not going to monetize the debt. It is very, very important for Congress and administration to come to some kind of program, some kind of plan that will credibly show how the United States government is going to bring itself back to a sustainable position.
His concern, according to The Washington Times, was that "the impasse in Congress over tough spending cuts and tax increases needed to bring down deficits will eventually force the Fed to accommodate deficits by printing money and buying Treasury bonds."
That impasse crystallized on November 3, 2010, when Republicans swept the House. There would be no raising of taxes on the rich, and the gridlock in Congress meant there would be no budget cuts either. Compounding the problem was that over the last six months, China has stopped buying U.S. debt, reducing inflows by about $50 billion per month.
QE2 Is Not QE1
In QE1, the Fed bought $1.2 trillion in toxic mortgage-backed securities off the books of the banks. QE1 mirrored TARP, the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, except that TARP was funded by the government with $700 billion in taxpayer money. QE1 was funded by the Federal Reserve with computer keystrokes, simply by crediting the banks' reserve accounts at the Fed.
Pundits were predicting that QE2 would be more of the same, but it turned out to be something quite different. Immediately after the election, Bernanke announced that the Fed would be using its power to purchase assets to buy federal securities on the secondary market -- from banks, bond investors and hedge funds. (In the EU, the European Central Bank began a similar policy when it bought Greek bonds on the secondary market.) The bond dealers would then be likely to use the money to buy more Treasuries, increasing overall Treasury sales.
The bankers who applauded QE1 were generally critical of QE2, probably because they would get nothing out of it. They would have to give up their interest-bearing bonds for additional cash reserves, something they already have more of than they can use. Unlike QE1, QE2 was designed, not to help the banks, but to relieve the pressure on the federal budget.
Bernanke said the Fed would buy $600 billion in long-term government bonds at the rate of $75 billion per month, filling the hole left by China. An estimated $275 billion would also be rolled over into Treasuries from the mortgage-backed securities the Fed bought during QE1, which are now reaching maturity. More QE was possible, he said, if unemployment stayed high and inflation stayed low (measured by the core Consumer Price Index).
Addison Wiggin noted in his November 4 Five Minute Forecast that this essentially meant the Fed planned to monetize the whole deficit for the next eight months. He quoted Agora Financial's Bill Bonner:
If this were Greece or Ireland, the government would be forced to cut back. With quantitative easing ready, there is no need to face the music.
That was meant as a criticism, but you could also see it as a very good deal. Why pay interest to foreign central banks when you can get the money nearly interest-free from your own central bank? In eight months, the Fed will own more Treasuries than China and Japan combined, making it the largest holder of government securities outside the government itself.
The Overrated Hazard of Inflation
The objection of the deficit hawks, of course, is that this will be massively inflationary, diluting the value of the dollar; but a close look at the data indicates that these fears are unfounded.
Adding money to the money supply is obviously not hazardous when the money supply is shrinking, and it is shrinking now. Financial commentator Charles Hugh Smith estimates that the economy faces $15 trillion in writedowns in collateral and credit, based on projections from the latest Fed Flow of Funds. The Fed's $2 trillion in new credit/liquidity is therefore insufficient to trigger either inflation or another speculative bubble.
In any case, Chairman Bernanke maintains that QE involves no printing of new money. It is just an asset swap on the balance sheets of the bondholders. The bondholders are no richer than before and have no more money to spend than before.
Professor Warren Mosler explains that the bondholders hold the bonds in accounts at the Fed. He says, "U.S. Treasury securities are accounted much like savings accounts at a normal commercial bank." They pay interest and are considered part of the federal debt. When the debt is "paid" by repurchasing the bonds, all that happens is that the sums are moved from the bondholder's savings account into its checking account at the Fed, where the entries are no longer considered part of the national debt. The chief difference is that one account bears interest and the other doesn't.
What About the Inflation in Commodities?
Despite surging commodity prices, the overall inflation rate remains very low, because housing has to be factored in. The housing market is recovering in some areas, but housing prices overall have dropped 28% from their peak. Main Street hasn't been flooded with money; the money has just shifted around. Businesses are still having trouble getting reasonable loans, and so are prospective homeowners.
As for the obvious price inflation in commodities -- notably gold, silver, oil and food -- what is driving these prices up cannot be an inflated U.S. money supply, since the money supply is actually shrinking. Rather, it is a combination of factors including (a) heavy competition for these scarce goods from developing countries, whose economies are growing much faster than ours; (b) the flight of "hot money" from the real estate market, which has nowhere else to go; (c) in the case of soaring food prices, disastrous weather patterns; and (d) speculation, which is fanning the flames.
Feeding it all are the extremely low interest rates maintained by the Fed, allowing banks and their investor clients to borrow very cheaply and invest where they can get a much better return than on risky domestic loans. This carry trade will continue until something is done about the interest tab on the federal debt.
The ideal alternative would be for a transparent and accountable government to issue the money it needs outright, a function the Constitution reserves to Congress; but an interest-free loan from the Federal Reserve rolled over indefinitely is the next best thing.
A Bold Precedent
QE2 is not a "helicopter drop" of money on the banks or on Main Street. It is the Fed funding the government virtually interest-free, allowing the government to do what it needs to do without driving up the interest bill on the federal debt – an interest bill that need not have existed in the first place. As Thomas Edison said, "If our nation can issue a dollar bond, it can issue a dollar bill. The element that makes the bond good, makes the bill good, also."
The Fed failed to revive the economy with QE1, but it could redeem itself with QE2, a bold precedent that might inspire other countries to break the chains of debt peonage in the same way. QE2 is the functional equivalent of what many countries did very successfully before the 1970s, when they funded their governments with interest-free loans from their own central banks.
Countries everywhere are now suffering from debt deflation. They could all use a good dose of their own interest-free national credit, beginning with Ireland and Greece.
(4) Interest on US government debt soon will amount to $1 trillion annually - Michael Hudson
From: John Cameron <email@example.com> Date: 17.11.2010 06:03 PM
Ruling on Behalf of Wall Street's "Super Rich": The Financial End Time has Arrived
by Prof. Michael Hudson
Global Research, November 16, 2010
Now that President Obama is almost celebrating his bipartisan willingness to renew the tax cuts for the super-rich enacted under George Bush ten years ago, it is time for Democrats to ask themselves how strongly they are willing to oppose an administration that looks like Bush-Cheney III. Is this what they expected by Mr. Obama's promise to rise above partisan politics – by ruling on behalf of Wall Street, now that it is the major campaign backer of both parties?
It is a reflection of how one-sided today's class war has become that Warren Buffet has quipped that "his" side is winning without a real fight being waged. No gauntlet has been thrown down over the trial balloon that the president and his advisor David Axelrod have sent up over the past two weeks to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% for "just" two more years. For all practical purposes the euphemism "two years" means forever – at least, long enough to let the super-rich siphon off enough more money to bankroll enough more Republicans to be elected to make the tax cuts permanent.
Mr. Obama seems to be campaigning for his own defeat! Thanks largely to the $13 trillion Wall Street bailout – while keeping the debt overhead in place for America's "bottom 98%" – this happy 2% of the population now receives an estimated three quarters (~75%) of the returns to wealth (interest, dividends, rent and capital gains). This is nearly double what it received a generation ago. The rest of the population is being squeezed, and foreclosures are rising.
Charles Baudelaire quipped that the devil wins at the point where he manages to convince the world that he doesn't exist. Today's financial elites will win the class war at the point where voters believe it doesn't exist – and believe that Mr. Obama is trying to help them rather than shepherd them into debt peonage as the economy settles into debt deflation.
We are dealing with shameless demagogy. The financial End Time has arrived, but Mr. Obama's happy-talk pretends that "two years" will get us through the current debt-induced depression. The Republican plan is to make more Congressional and Senate gains in 2012 as Mr. Obama's former supporters "vote with their backsides" and stay home, as they did earlier this month. So "two years" means forever in politician-talk. Why vote for a politician who promises "change" but is merely an exclamation mark for the Bush-Cheney policies from Afghanistan and Iraq to Wall Street's Democratic Leadership Council on the party's right wing? One of its leaders, after all, was Mr. Obama's Senate mentor, Joe Lieberman.
The second pretense is that cutting taxes for the super-rich is necessary to win Republican support for including the middle class in the tax cuts. It is as if the Democrats never won a plurality in Congress. (One remembers George W. Bush with his mere 50+%, pushing forward his extremist policies on the logic that: "I've got capital, and I'm using it." What he had, of course, was Democratic Leadership Committee support.) The pretense is "to create jobs," evidently to be headed by employment of shipyard workers to build yachts for the nouveau riches and sheriff's deputies to foreclose on the ten million Americans whose mortgage payments have fallen into arrears. It sounds Keynesian, but is more reminiscent of Thomas Robert Malthus's lugubrious claim (speaking for Britain's landed aristocracy) that landlords would keep the economy going by using their rental income (to be protected by high agricultural tariffs) to hire footmen and butlers, tailors and carriage-makers.
It gets worse. Mr. Obama's "Bush" tax cut is only Part I of a one-two punch to shift taxes onto wage earners. Congressional economists estimate that extending the tax cuts to the top 2% will cost $700 to $750 billion over the next decade or so. "How are we going to go out and borrow $700 billion?" Mr. Obama asked Steve Croft on his Sixty Minutes interview on CBS last week.
It was a rhetorical question. The President has appointed a bipartisan commission (right-wingers on both sides of the aisle) to "cure" the federal budget deficit by cutting back social spending – to pay yet more bailouts to the economy's financial wreckers. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform might better be called the New Class War Commission to Scale Back Social Security and Medicare Payments to Labor in Order to Leave more Tax Revenue Available to Give Away to the Super-Rich. A longer title than the Deficit-Reduction Commission used by media friendlies, but sometimes it takes more words to get to the heart of matters.
The political axiom at work is "Big fish eat little fish." There's not enough tax money to continue swelling the fortunes of the super-rich pretending to save enough to pay the pensions and related social support that North American and European employees have been promised. Something must give – and the rich have shown themselves sufficiently foresighted to seize the initiative. For a preview of what's in line for the United States, watch neoliberal Europe's fight against the middle and working class in Greece, Ireland and Latvia; or better yet, Pinochet's Chile, whose privatized Social Security accounts were quickly wiped out in the late 1970s by the kleptocracy advised by the Chicago Boys, to whose monetarist double-think Mr. Obama's appointee Ben Bernanke has just re-pledged his loyalty.
What is needed to put Mr. Obama's sell-out in perspective is the pro-Wall Street advisors he has chosen – not only Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke (who last week reaffirmed his loyalty to Milton Friedman's Chicago School monetarism), but by stacking his Deficit Reduction Commission with outspoken advocates of cutting back Social Security, Medicare and other social spending. Their ploy is to frighten the public with a nightmare of $1 trillion deficit to pay retirement income over the next half century – as if the Treasury and Fed have not just given Wall Street $13 trillion in bailouts without blinking an eye. President Obama's $750 billion tax giveaway to the wealthiest 2% is mere icing on the cake that the rich will be eating when the bread lines get too long.
To put matters in perspective, bear in mind that interest on the public debt (that Reagan-Bush quadrupled and Bush-Obama redoubled) soon will amount to $1 trillion annually. This is tribute levied on labor – increasing the economy's cost of living and doing business – paid for losing the fight for economic reform and replacing progressive taxation with regressive neoliberal tax policy. As for military spending in the Near East, Asia and other regions responsible for much of the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit, Congress will always rise to the occasion and defer to whatever foreign threat is conjured up requiring new armed force.
It's all junk economics. Running a budget deficit is how modern governments inject the credit and purchasing power needed by economies to grow. When governments run surpluses, as they did under Bill Clinton (1993-2000), credit must be created by banks. And the problem with bank credit is that most is lent, at interest, against collateral already in place. The effect is to inflate real estate and stock market prices. This creates capital gains – which the "original" 1913 U.S. income tax treated as normal income, but which today are taxed at only 15% (when they are collected at all, which is rarely in the case of commercial real estate). So today's tax system subsidizes the inflation of debt-leveraged financial and real estate bubbles.
The giveaway: the Commission's position on tax deductibility for mortgage interest
The Obama "Regressive Tax" commission spills the beans with its proposal to remove the tax subsidy for high housing prices financed by mortgage debt. The proposal moves only against homeowners – "the middle class" – not absentee owners, commercial real estate investors, corporate raiders or other prime bank customers.
The IRS permits mortgage interest to be tax-deductible on the pretense that it is a necessary cost of doing business. In reality it is a subsidy for debt leveraging. This tax bias for debt rather than equity investment (using one's own money) is largely responsible for loading down the U.S. economy with debt. It encourages corporate raiding with junk bonds, thereby adding interest to the cost of doing business. This subsidy for debt leveraging also is the government's largest giveaway to the banks, while causing the debt deflation that is locking the economy into depression – violating every precept of the classical drive for "free markets" in the 19th-century. (A "free market" meant freedom from extractive rentier income, leading toward what Keynes gently called "euthanasia of the rentier." The Obama Commission endows rentiers atop the economy with a tax system to bolster their power, not check it – while shrinking the economy below them.)
Table 7.11 of the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) reports that total monetary interest paid in the U.S. economy amounted to $3,240 billion in 2009. Homeowners paid just under a sixth of this amount ($572 billion) on the homes they occupied. Mr. Obama's commission estimates that removing the tax credit on this interest would yield the Treasury $131 billion in 2012.
There is in fact a good logic for stopping this tax credit. The mortgage-interest tax deduction does not really save homeowners money. It is a shortsighted illusion. What the government gives to "the homeowner" on one hand is passed on to the mortgage banker by "the market" process that leads bidders for property to pledge the net available rental value to the banks in order to obtain a loan to buy the home (or an office building, or an entire industrial company, for that matter.) "Equilibrium" is achieved at the point where whatever rental value the tax collector relinquishes becomes available to be capitalized into bank loans.
This means that what appears at first as "helping homeowner" afford to pay mortgages turns out merely to enable them to afford to pay more interest to their bankers. The tax giveaway uses homebuyers as "throughputs" to transfer tax favoritism to the banks.
It gets worse. By removing the traditional tax on real estate, state, local and federal governments need to tax labor and industry more, by transforming the property tax onto income and sales taxes. For banks, this is transmuting tax revenue into gold – into interest. And as for the home-owning middle class, it now has to pay the former property tax to the banker as interest, and also to pay the new taxes on income and sales that are levied to make up for the tax shift.
I support removing the tax favoritism for debt leveraging. The problem with the Deficit Commission is that it does not extend this reform to the rest of the economy – to the commercial real estate sector, and to the corporate sector.
The argument is made that "The rich create jobs." After all, somebody has to build the yachts. What is missing is the more general principle: Wealth and income inequality destroy job creation. This is because beyond the wealthy soon reach a limit on how much they can consume. They spend their money buying financial securities – mainly bonds, which end up indebting the economy. And the debt overhead is what is pushing today's economy into deepening depression.
Since the 1980s, corporate raiders have borrowed high-interest "junk bond" credit to take over companies and make money by stripping assets, cutting back long-term investment, research and development, and paying out depreciation credit to their financiers. Financially parasitized companies use corporate income to buy back their stock to support its price – and hence, the value of stock options that financial managers give themselves – and borrow yet more money for stock buybacks or simply to pay out as dividends. When the process has run its course, they threaten their work force with bankruptcy that will wipe out its pension benefits if employees do not agree to "downsize" their claims and replace defined-benefit plans with defined-contribution plans (in which all that employees know is how much they pay in each month, not what they will get in the end). By the time this point has been reached, the financial managers have paid themselves outsized salaries and bonuses, and cashed in their stock options – all subsidized by the government's favorable tax treatment of debt leveraging.
The attempted raids on McDonalds and other companies in recent years provide object lessons in this destructive financial policy of "shareholder activists." Yet Mr. Obama's Deficit Reduction Commission is restricting its removal of tax favoritism for debt leveraging only for middle class homeowners, not for the financial sector across the board. What makes this particularly absurd is that two thirds of homeowners do not even itemize their deductions. The fiscal loss resulting from tax deductibility of interest stems mainly from commercial investors.
If the argument is correct (and I think it is) that permitting interest to be tax deductible merely "frees" more revenue to pay interest to banks – to capitalize into yet higher loans – then why isn't this principle even more applicable to the Donald Trumps and other absentee owners who seek always to use "other peoples' money" rather than their own? In practice, the "money" turns out to be bank credit whose cost to the banks is now under 1%. The financial-fiscal system is siphoning off rental value from commercial real estate investment, increasing the price of rental properties, commercial real estate, and indeed, industry and agriculture.
Alas, the Obama administration has backed the Geithner-Bernanke policy that "the economy" cannot recover without saving the debt overhead. The reality is that it is the debt overhead that is destroying the economy. So we are dealing with the irreconcilable fact that the Obama position threatens to lower living standards from 10% to 20% over the coming few years – making the United States look more like Greece, Ireland and Latvia than what was promised in the last presidential election.
Something has to give politically if the economy is to change course. More to the point, what has to give is favoritism for Wall Street at the expense of the economy at large. What has made the U.S. economy uncompetitive is primarily the degree to which debt service has been built into the cost of living and doing business. Post-classical "junk economics" treats interest and fees as payment for the "service" for providing credit. But interest (like economic rent and monopoly price extraction) is a transfer payment to bankers with the privilege of credit creation. The beneficiaries of providing tax favoritism for debt are the super-rich at the top of the economic pyramid – the 2% whom Mr. Obama's tax giveaway will benefit by over $700 billion.
If the present direction of tax "reform" is not reversed, Mr. Obama will shed crocodile tears for the middle class as he sponsors the Deficit Reduction Commission's program of cutting back Social Security and revenue sharing to save states and cities from defaulting on their pensions. One third of U.S. real estate already is reported to have sunk into negative equity, squeezing state and local tax collection, forcing a choice to be made between bankruptcy, debt default, or shifting the losses onto the shoulders of labor, off those of the wealthy creditor layer of the economy responsible for loading it down with debt.
Critics of the Obama-Bush agenda recall how America's Gilded Age of the late 19th century was an era of economic polarization and class war. At that time the Democratic leader William Jennings Bryan accused Wall Street and Eastern creditors of crucifying the American economy on a cross of gold. Restoration of gold at its pre-Civil War price led to a financial war in the form of debt deflation as falling prices and incomes received by farmers and wage labor made the burden of paying their mortgage debts heavier. The Income Tax law of 1913 sought to rectify this by only falling on the wealthiest 1% of the population – the only ones obliged to file tax returns. Capital gains were taxed at normal rates. Most of the tax burden therefore fell on finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) sector.
The vested interests have spent a century fighting back. They now see victory within reach, by perpetuating the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%, phasing out of the estate tax on wealth, the tax shift off property onto labor income and consumer sales, and slashing public spending on anything except more bailouts and subsidies for the emerging financial oligarchy that has become Mr. Obama's "bipartisan" constituency.
What we need is a Futures Commission to forecast just what will the rich do with the victory they have won. As administered by President Obama and his designated appointees Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke, their policy is financially and fiscally unsustainable. Providing tax incentives for debt leveraging – for most of the population to go into debt to the rich, whose taxes are all but abolished – is shrinking the economy. This will lead to even deeper financial crises, employer defaults and fiscal insolvency at the state, local and federal levels. Future presidents will call for new bailouts, using a strategy much like going to military war. A financial war requires an emergency to rush through Congress, as occurred in 2008-09. Mr. Obama's appointees are turning the U.S. economy into a Permanent Emergency, a Perpetual Ponzi Scheme requiring injections of more and more Quantitative Easing to to rescue "the economy" (Mr. Obama's euphemism for creditors at the top of the economic pyramid) from being pushed into insolvency. Mr. Bernanke's helicopter flies only over Wall Street. It does not drop monetary relief on the population at large.
"The Wurst of Obama: He's Carving the Middle Class into Sausage Filler as a Super-Meal for the Rich."