Wednesday, September 17, 2008

US Economy: Rudderless and Reeling From Direct Hits

A raid on private pensions?

By Paul Craig Roberts

16/09/08 "ICH" -- - We were promised a “New Economy” of high-tech tradable services to take the place of the offshore manufacturing economy. Wondering what had become of the “New Economy,” Duke University’s Offshoring Research Network searched for it and located it offshore. Yes, the activities of the “New Economy” are also outsourced offshore.

Call centers, IT operations, back-office operations, and manufacturing have long been moved offshore. Now high-value-added proprietary activities such as research and development, engineering, product development, and analytical services are being sent offshore. All that’s left is finance, and it is crumbling before our eyes.

Independent broker-dealers are disappearing: Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers. These venerable institutions were too thinly capitalized for the risks that they took. Merrill Lynch is now part of the Bank of America, and Lehman Brothers is history.

Ill-advised financial deregulation led to financial concentration and not to more efficient markets. Independent local banks, which focused on financing local businesses, and Saving and Loan Associations, which knew the local housing market, have been replaced with large institutions that package un-analyzed risks and sell them worldwide.

Regulation over-reached. The pendulum swung. Deregulation became an ideology and a facilitator of greed.

Deregulating electric power gave us Enron.

Deregulating the airlines destroyed famous American brand names such as Pan Am, shrank the number of companies, and caused a decline in service. When airlines were regulated, they could afford standby equipment, and cancelled flights were rare. Today, the bottom line prohibits standby equipment, and mechanical problems result in canceled flights. When economists calculated the benefits of deregulation, they left out many of its costs.

There are no longer any blue chip companies, which means that investing for retirement has become a crap-shoot. People realize this; thus, the privatization of Social Security has no support.

If we look realistically at the US economy, we see that what is not moved offshore is being bailed out. Last year, the US Department of Energy was authorized to make $25 billion in loans to auto manufacturing firms and suppliers of automotive parts. Last week the Secretary of the Treasury took $5 trillion dollars in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac home mortgages under its wing.
The Congressional Budget Office says this action by the Treasury means “that the operations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be directly incorporated into the federal budget.” Their revenues would be treated as federal revenues, and their expenditures as federal expenditures. If the former were greater than the latter, there would be no reason for the takeover.

The open question is: what do these new liabilities do to the Treasury’s own credit standing?

For now, this question is submerged. The traditional practice of fleeing to the US dollar and US Treasury bonds during periods of financial stress and uncertainty has boosted the dollar and kept interest rates low. But sooner or later the large US budget deficit, worsened by recession and bailouts, and the large trade deficit, which requires constant recycling of dollars held by foreigners into US financial and real assets, will result in renewed effort on the part of foreigners to lighten their dollar holdings.

When this time arrives, US interest rates will have to rise in order for the government to be able to continue to rely on foreigners to recycle the dollars acquired in trade to finance the US government’s annual budget deficit.

The current financial problems have pushed into the background the larger problems of the US budget and trade deficits. Goods and services for American markets that US corporations outsource offshore return as imports, which widen the US trade deficit. Moving production offshore reduces US GDP and employment and increases foreign GDP and employment. Moving production offshore reduces the export capacity of the US economy while raising the import bill.

Therefore, how is the trade deficit to be closed? One way is through the dollar’s loss in exchange value, which would reduce American consumers’ real incomes and leave them too poor to purchase the offshore goods and services.

How is the budget deficit to be closed when jobs are disappearing and GDP (tax base) is being relocated offshore?

Not by higher taxes. Higher taxes are problematic for a recessionary economy in which unemployment, properly measured, is already in double digits. ( ).

Some people have speculated that the budget deficit will be closed by dismantling entitlement programs such as Medicare. However, considering the cost of medical insurance, this would be catastrophic for tens of millions of older Americans.

The more likely avenue will be a raid on private pensions. The Clinton administration’s appointee, Alicia Munnell, as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy argued that private pensions should face a capital levy to make up for the fact that their accumulation was tax free. I expect that the federal government, faced with its own bankruptcy, will resurrect this argument, as it will be preferable to printing money like a banana republic or Weimar Germany.

In the 21st century, the US economy has been kept going by debt expansion, not by real income growth. Economists have hyped US productivity growth, but there is no sign that increased productivity has raised family incomes, an indication that there is a problem with the productivity statistics. With consumers overloaded with debt and the value of their most important asset--housing--falling, the American consumer will not be leading a recovery.

A country that had intelligent leaders would recognize its dire straits, stop its gratuitous wars, and slash its massive military budget, which exceeds that of the rest of the world combined. But a country whose foreign policy goal is world hegemony will continue on the path to destruction until the rest of the world ceases to finance its existence.

Most Americans, including the presidential candidates and the media, are unaware that the US government today, now at this minute, is unable to finance its day to operations and must rely on foreigners to purchase its bonds. The government pays the interest to foreigners by selling more bonds, and when the bonds come due, the government redeems the bonds by selling new bonds. The day the foreigners do not buy is the day the American people and their government are brought to reality.

This is not the financial position of a superpower.

Will what happened to Lehman Brothers today be America’s fate tomorrow?

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. I.U. has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is I.U endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.


Pete Murphy said...

Our enormous trade deficit is rightly of growing concern to Americans. Since leading the global drive toward trade liberalization by signing the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, America has been transformed from the weathiest nation on earth - its preeminent industrial power - into a skid row bum, literally begging the rest of the world for cash to keep us afloat. It's a disgusting spectacle. Our cumulative trade deficit since 1976, financed by a sell-off of American assets, is now approaching $9 trillion. What will happen when those assets are depleted? Today's recession may be just a preview of what's to come.

Why? The American work force is the most productive on earth. Our product quality, though it may have fallen short at one time, is now on a par with the Japanese. Our workers have labored tirelessly to improve our competitiveness. Yet our deficit continues to grow. Our median wages and net worth have declined for decades. Our debt has soared.

Clearly, there is something amiss with "free trade." The concept of free trade is rooted in Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage. In 1817 Ricardo hypothesized that every nation benefits when it trades what it makes best for products made best by other nations. On the surface, it seems to make sense. But is it possible that this theory is flawed in some way? Is there something that Ricardo didn't consider?

At this point, I should introduce myself. I am author of a book titled "Five Short Blasts: A New Economic Theory Exposes The Fatal Flaw in Globalization and Its Consequences for America." My theory is that, as population density rises beyond some optimum level, per capita consumption begins to decline. This occurs because, as people are forced to crowd together and conserve space, it becomes ever more impractical to own many products. Falling per capita consumption, in the face of rising productivity (per capita output, which always rises), inevitably yields rising unemployment and poverty.

This theory has huge ramifications for U.S. policy toward population management (especially immigration policy) and trade. The implications for population policy may be obvious, but why trade? It's because these effects of an excessive population density - rising unemployment and poverty - are actually imported when we attempt to engage in free trade in manufactured goods with a nation that is much more densely populated. Our economies combine. The work of manufacturing is spread evenly across the combined labor force. But, while the more densely populated nation gets free access to a healthy market, all we get in return is access to a market emaciated by over-crowding and low per capita consumption. The result is an automatic, irreversible trade deficit and loss of jobs, tantamount to economic suicide.

One need look no further than the U.S.'s trade data for proof of this effect. Using 2006 data, an in-depth analysis reveals that, of our top twenty per capita trade deficits in manufactured goods (the trade deficit divided by the population of the country in question), eighteen are with nations much more densely populated than our own. Even more revealing, if the nations of the world are divided equally around the median population density, the U.S. had a trade surplus in manufactured goods of $17 billion with the half of nations below the median population density. With the half above the median, we had a $480 billion deficit!

Our trade deficit with China is getting all of the attention these days. But, when expressed in per capita terms, our deficit with China in manufactured goods is rather unremarkable - nineteenth on the list. Our per capita deficit with other nations such as Japan, Germany, Mexico, Korea and others (all much more densely populated than the U.S.) is worse. In fact, our largest per capita trade deficit in manufactured goods is with Ireland, a nation twice as densely populated as the U.S. Our per capita deficit with Ireland is twenty-five times worse than China's. My point is not that our deficit with China isn't a problem, but rather that it's exactly what we should have expected when we suddenly applied a trade policy that was a proven failure around the world to a country with one sixth of the world's population.

Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage is overly simplistic and flawed because it does not take into consideration this population density effect and what happens when two nations grossly disparate in population density attempt to trade freely in manufactured goods. While free trade in natural resources and free trade in manufactured goods between nations of roughly equal population density is indeed beneficial, just as Ricardo predicts, it’s a sure-fire loser when attempting to trade freely in manufactured goods with a nation with an excessive population density.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at where you can read the preface for free, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like. (It's also available at

Please forgive me for the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about trade without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Pelican693 said...

No apologies needed, Pete. I would like to personally thank you for taking the time to give our readers something to think about and we all need to be thinking.

As we look around, these days, everything is in such a mess, it's difficult to know where to start. One thing should be obvious to all by now. A totally unregulated market, meaning "self-regulated" is a dangerous suicidal market.

Any economic system that does not take into consideration greed, among other traits of the human ego/personality, is bound to collapse.