Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gross Govt Impact

The idea that we should make huge govt budget cuts is premised on the notion that our economy would be better off that way, wouldn't be hurt by it, or at least would soldier on about the same. Sometimes the best insight into that notion comes from people who weren' even discussing budget cuts directly. Daniel Gross's recent article about whether to buy bonds or not didn't touch on the idea of budget cuts at all. It's one and only focus was on whether US govt bonds are still a safe-haven investment compared to stocks. To explain that, he covers the impact on stocks if the US runs up against the debt ceiling and stops spending to not default on bonds.
"The U.S. government occupies a pretty large footprint in the economy. It employs 2.85 million people directly. Next, think of all the businesses, many of them publicly held, that rely on the government  for a big chunk of their business. For-profit education companies, defense contractors, the entire health care industry, Wal-Mart and other retailers that cater to people who depend on federal benefits to help pay their grocery bills. Every large consulting firm, every large tech firm (from Microsoft to IBM) has a large unit that provides services and products to the federal government.

Should the U.S. bump up against the debt limit without resolution, it's possible the Pentagon would delay indefinitely the signing of new contracts for fighter jets. Or agencies would cancel or slowdown payment on IT projects. Or Congressmen and their staffers would see their wages reduced. Or fewer people would get food stamps. The cumulative impact would be less demand, less economic activity, more uncertainty."
In pointing this out, Mr. Gross was ostensibly more concerned with explaining why bonds seem a relatively safe investment at this point. He says, "government reliance on debt to fund of operations and investments is so great that they'd rather alienate workers and citizens and taxpayers than anger the bond market." So all the explanation of what they'd have to do to avoid angering the bond market just explains why stocks are the more risky bet despite debt ceiling fears.

Yet there's a far more important take away than Mr. Gross's surface question of whether it makes more sense to invest in bonds versus stocks. Those payments we'd have to avoid making? They're a lot like the cuts the GOP wants to make. If the Republicans got their way -- the whole thing for which they're playing chicken with the debt ceiling -- we'd see most of those cuts. No wonder they don't care about the debt ceiling, if what they figure we'd avoid paying to avoid default are the things they don't want to fund anyway. And "Of course, all these moves would be contractionary — they'd help slow economic growth."

Contraction, by the way, is more or less a general term for things like recessions and depressions. Mr. Gross didn't speculate on whether those non-payments (or cuts, if de-funded in a relatively orderly manner) would cause a mere recession or a full-fledged depression. But that's really the remaining question for anyone who might be paying attention to where the Republicans goals would shove us. If the Republicans get their massive budget cuts, the question isn't whether it'll hammer the economy, the question is only how hard ... and whether we've ever seen it hammered that hard before.

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