Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Taming the Beast

When an economy collapses, usually with the financial sector leading the way, everyone fears that it will not soon recover.  But, history tells us otherwise.  The numerous financial and economic collapses from the end of the civil war in the US up to the start of World War I took place during the fastest spurt of economic growth in US history.  The US economy had no central bank during this period and the government was so tiny that fiscal policy was largely non-existent.  Absent modern policy tools, what happened?

What happens, when government is not around to step in, is that economies recover on their own.  That's what the period from 1865 to 1914 teaches us.  It was during that period that the US overtook other economic power houses to become, by the end of the first World War, the most powerful economic engine in the world.  That is the outcome one can expect if the central bank is non-existent and if government fiscal policy is non-existent.

But what happens when government attempts to "tame the beast?" and "reform" the economy and the markets.  After the 2008 collapse, an unprecedented effort by central banks and governments took place throughout the Western economies.  Combined with aggressive "regulatory reform" to prevent future financial collapses, political actions by western economies have attempted to "tame the beast" of modern capitalism for the past 4 1/2 years.

And what is the outcome of all of this government action? -- economic stagnation and distress.  Economies that chugged along with 3 - 3 1/2 percent real GDP growth and 4 - 6 percent unemployment, now face zero real GDP growth and unemployment rates between 7 1/2 percent and 30 percent (Spain, Greece).

What next?  The beast has been tamed.  The furious fires of capitalism have been successfully tapped down by government policy.  Now, policy makers have abandoned any serious effort to get free markets going again and are focused on taxing rich folks.  That is the new agenda -- move more and more activities from the private to the public sector (think health care) and go after the wealth of anyone who played by the old rules.

We now have new rules.  Bond indentures (think GM, think Stockton) can be rewritten by the judiciary and by politicians.  Raiding government protected checking accounts are now policy tools for dealing with excessive sovereign debt (think IMF recommendations on Cyprus).  Nothing is safe from the wandering policy eyes of the Obama administrations and European politicans.  Even IRA accounts in the US have now become targets of the new political elite.

The beast has been tamed.  Look for the economies in Europe and the US to roll over.  In the US, the imposition of massive tax increases, major new hikes in employee costs (Obamacare), an onslaught of new EPA regulations, and blurring of the legal status of ordinary financial contracts (GM) is enough to snuff out the tepid recovery in the US.  Absurd policies designed to increase sovereign debt in heavily indebted Europe will put the nail in the coffin for Europe.  The future is not bright.

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