They took the best growth picture in a decade and put us in danger of recession.
Why are so many key global leaders pursuing so many stupid economic policies?
As recently as January 2018, the International Monetary Fund issued one of its most upbeat economic forecasts in recent years, extolling “broad based” growth, with “notable upside surprises.”
By last month, the fund had sliced its forecast for expansion this year to 3.2 percent — a significant falloff from the 3.9 percent projection reiterated just six months earlier — and had pronounced the economic picture “sluggish.” American investors are more concerned; the bond market is sounding its loudest recessionary alarm since April 2007.
The deterioration in the economic picture is not the consequence of irresponsible behavior by banks or a natural disaster or an unanticipated economic shock; it’s completely self-inflicted by major world leaders who have delivered almost universally poor economic stewardship.
The trade war initiated by President Trump sits firmly atop the list of bad policies. But Brexit has tipped Britain into economic contraction. With European governments unwilling to pursue structural reforms, the continent is barely growing. President Xi Jinping of China has focused on standing up to Mr. Trump and solidifying his own power. After a promising start reforming the economy, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has turned instead to oppressing his country’s Muslim minority.
None of this was necessary. As the January 2018 I.M.F. report indicated, the world economy was firing on all cylinders — “the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010” — as jobs were being added and inflation remained subdued.
Yes, Mr. Trump’s trade war and Brexit loomed, but amid hope that the former would prove empty and the latter would be softened.
Not so today.
Often against the recommendations of his more sensible advisers, Mr. Trump has implemented the country’s most protectionist actions since the 1930s. As a result, world trade has begun to fall for the first time in a decade, with noticeable economic impact. Last week, Goldman Sachs cut its already modest projections for fourth-quarter growth to 1.8 percent from 2 percent.
That’s a far cry from the “4, 5, 6” percent that Mr. Trump talked about just before his tax cut passed.Nor has that been Mr. Trump’s only misstep in economic policy. Instead of nurturing growth with important investments like a robust infrastructure program, Mr. Trump deployed his political capital to secure tax cuts that disproportionately favored business and the wealthy.
The “sugar high” they produced quickly wore off. And now, instead of developing better policies, the president has chosen to attack the Federal Reserve, whose independence is cherished by investors, business people and economists.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, abandoned his predecessor’s notion of a “soft Brexit” that would have maintained some ties with the European Union. Instead, he reaffirmed his promise that his country would leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 with or without a deal. The pound quickly fell to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. (It has since recovered slightly.)
Then there’s China. By virtue of both its remarkably fast industrialization and its protectionist policies, the nation has long been a trade threat. But four years ago, the government issued its “Made in China 2025” economic manifesto, which put in writing China’s plans to attain a leadership position in key new sectors, including robotics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
The notion of China using its state power to take on important American and European industries instead of pursuing market reforms set off alarm bells across the political spectrum and provided a concrete underpinning for Mr. Trump’s trade confrontation.
Mr. Xi, rather than acknowledging China’s protectionist practices, has proved unwilling to accept a new trade agreement with effective enforcement provisions. That has raised doubts about whether China is seriously interested in reforming its unfair trade practices — keeping key markets fully or partially closed, using state subsidies to favor its companies, forcing American companies to transfer technology to China and the like.
Of course, at least in the world’s democracies, voters bear substantial responsibility for electing these inadequate leaders. The rise of populism as a reaction to disaffection about economic and social conditions has been well documented as a principal driving force.
Occasionally, good choices have been made, such as the election of President Emmanuel Macron of France. But even that has not led to progress; public support for Mr. Macron turned to opposition when he instituted the much needed policy changes that he promised.
Any chief executive officer who botched his or her job as badly as most of these leaders have would be fired. Let’s hope that voters come to that realization when given the chance.
NEW HAVEN – Blinded by a surging stock market and a 50-year low in the unemployment rate, few dare to challenge the wisdom of US economic policy. Instant gratification has compromised the rigor of objective and disciplined analysis. Big mistake. The toxic combination of ill-timed fiscal stimulus, aggressive imposition of tariffs, and unprecedented attacks on the Federal Reserve demands a far more critical assessment of Trumponomics.
Politicians and pundits can always be counted on to spin the policy debate. For US President Donald Trump and his supporters, the art of the spin has been taken to a new level. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that federal deficits have been enlarged by an estimated $1.5 trillion over the next decade, or that government debt will reach a post-World War II record of 92% of GDP by 2029. The tax cuts driving these worrying trends are rationalized as what it takes to “Make America Great Again.”
Nor are tariffs viewed as taxes on consumers or impediments to global supply-chain efficiencies; instead, they are portrayed as “weaponized” negotiating levers to force trading partners to change their treatment of the United States. And attacks on the Fed’s independence are seen not as threats to the central bank’s dual mandate to maximize employment and ensure price stability, but rather as the president’s exercise of his prerogative to use the bully pulpit as he – and he alone – sees fit.
There are three basic flaws with Trump’s approach to economic policy.
- First, there is the disconnect between intent and impact. The political spin maintains that large corporate tax cuts boost US competitiveness. But that doesn’t mean deficits and debt don’t matter. Notwithstanding the hollow promises of supply-side economics, revenue-neutral fiscal initiatives that shifted the tax burden from one segment of the economy to another would have come much closer to real reform than the reduction of the overall revenue trajectory has. Moreover, the enactment of fiscal stimulus in late 2017, when the unemployment rate was then at a cyclical low of 4.1% (headed toward the current 3.6%), added froth to markets and the economy when it was least needed and foreclosed the option of additional stimulus should growth falter.
Similarly, Trump’s tariffs fly in the face of one of the twentieth century’s greatest policy blunders – the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which sparked a 60% plunge in global trade by 1932. With foreign trade currently accounting for 28% of GDP, versus 11% in 1929, the US, as a debtor country today, is far more vulnerable to trade-related disruptions than it was as a net creditor back then.
Ignoring the cascading stream of direct and retaliatory taxes on consumers and businesses that stem from a tariff war, Trump extols the virtues of tariffs as “a beautiful thing.” That is painfully reminiscent of the 1928 Republican Party platform, which couched tariffs as “a fundamental and essential principle of the economic life of this nation … and essential for the continued prosperity of the country.” Trump ignores the lessons of the 1930s at great peril.
The same can be said of Trump’s recent Fed bashing. The political independence of central banking is widely regarded as the singular breakthrough needed to achieve price stability following the Great Inflation of the 1970s. In the US, passage of the so-called Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978 gave then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker the political cover to squeeze double-digit inflation out of the system through a wrenching monetary tightening. Had Volcker lacked the freedom to act, he would have been constrained by elected leaders’ political calculus – precisely what Trump is doing in trying to dictate policy to current Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
2) The second critical flaw in Trump’s economic-policy package is its failure to appreciate the links between budget deficits, tariffs, and monetary policy. As the late Martin Feldstein long stressed, to the extent that budget deficits put downward pressure on already depressed domestic saving, larger trade deficits become the means to fill the void with surplus foreign saving. Denial of these linkages conveniently allows the US to blame China for self-inflicted trade deficits.
But with tariffs likely to divert trade and supply chains from low-cost Chinese producers to higher-cost alternatives, US consumers will be hit with the functional equivalent of tax hikes, raising the risk of higher inflation. The latter possibility, though seemingly remote today, could have important consequences for US monetary policy – provided, of course, the Fed has the political independence to act.
Finally, there are always the lags to keep in mind in assessing the impact of policy. While low interest rates temper short-term pressures on debt-service costs as budget deficits rise, there is no guarantee that such a trend will persist over the longer term, especially with the already-elevated federal debt overhang projected to increase by about 14 percentage points of GDP over the next ten years. Similarly, the disruptive effects of tariffs and shifts in monetary policy take about 12-18 months to be fully evident. So, rather than bask in today’s financial-market euphoria, politicians and investors should be thinking more about the state of the economy in late 2020 – a timeframe that happens to coincide with the upcoming presidential election cycle – in assessing how current policies are likely to play out.
There is nothing remarkable about a US president’s penchant for political spin. What is glaringly different this time is the lack of any pushback from those who know better. The National Economic Council, established in the early 1990s as an “honest broker” in the executive branch to convene and coordinate debate on key policy issues, is now basically dysfunctional. The NEC’s current head, Larry Kudlow, a long-standing advocate of free trade, is squirming to defend Trump’s tariffs and Fed bashing. The Republican Party, long a champion of trade liberalization, is equally complicit. Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences.
The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insightsIn 2014, Donald Trump sued to have his name taken off a pair of Atlantic City casinos he built three decades earlier that had gone bankrupt.
“It’s really indicative of how we all know he thinks so in-the-moment and so off-the-cuff that it winds up being dangerous,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, one of the properties from which Trump removed his name.
.. “The whole idea of once things are going wrong, he takes no ownership — that’s just Trump,” O’Donnell added. “He does not own anything that goes wrong. The problem is, he’ll blame anybody. Obviously, it’s the Democrats in this situation.”
.. He alternated between insisting that Mexico would pay for the wall through a convoluted, and false, interpretation of a new trade deal and suggesting that the U.S. military and other agencies would find money in their existing budgets to build the barrier if lawmakers failed to deliver — despite restrictions on federal agencies reprogramming funding.
.. And the president even began rebranding “the wall,” parrying Democratic denunciations of a concrete monolith at the U.S.-Mexico border by announcing that his administration would build “artistically designed steel slats.” That quickly prompted widespread derision.
.. He even appeared to be conspiring with prominent conservative talk show hosts to help guide him. Rush Limbaugh boasted that Trump had “gotten word to me” that he would shut down the government if he failed to win the wall funding.
By Friday, a desperate Trump had seized on the “nuclear option” proposed by congressional border hawks to discard the Senate’s long-standing filibuster rules and approve with a majority vote a House-passed spending plan that included the $5 billion.
.. Aides announced that he had indefinitely postponed his winter vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida, which was scheduled to begin Friday evening.
.. In the case of his casinos, Trump had divested himself of control of the properties five years before he sued the new owners, having retained a 10 percent stake for the continued use of his moniker.
In his lawsuit to remove his name, Trump asserted that the properties, which twice under his management had faced bankruptcy, had fallen into disrepair and tarnished a Trump brand that “has become synonymous with the highest levels of quality, luxury, prestige and success.”
.. To O’Donnell, the episode was “classic Trump.” The president, he said, had taken ownership of the shutdown in the televised showdown with Schumer and Pelosi to demonstrate his toughness to his base — without a plan to deal with the aftermath.
“That’s really what this was: ‘I’m a tough guy. Don’t think I can’t handle the heat,’ ” O’Donnell said. “The fact is, he can’t handle it.”
Yes, Machiavelli did say it was better to be feared than loved. But the great Florentine also said, “a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.”
Much of this is self-inflicted. Trump didn’t need to start his presidency by
- infuriating the president of Mexico on the eve of a planned visit to Washington, or by
- comparing the American intelligence community to Nazi Germany,
- or by throwing a tantrum with the prime minister of Australia.
- He didn’t need to demand that Seoul pay for missile defenses that would protect American troops in the event of war with North Korea,
- or toy with our NATO allies as he mulled whether to reaffirm our mutual-defense obligations.
Trump could have avoided all of this. He didn’t, either because his personality is defective or because he thinks humiliation is an appropriate tool of presidential power. Character is destiny, conservatives used to think. We are living this destiny.
.. In Hamburg this month, Trump again showed how eager he was to oblige his man-crush in the Kremlin, this time at the expense of Israel.
But the deeper flaw of Trump’s foreign policy isn’t psychological. It’s philosophical
.. “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” McMaster and Gary Cohn
.. Mark this as the shift from internationalism to transactionalism; from a values-based foreign policy rooted in Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of “self-interest, rightly understood” to an approach that might be called neo-Maguirism, after “Jerry Maguire.” To wit: “Show me the money!”
It’s not that the administration has done everything wrong, at least by conservative lights: It’s always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
.. But if serious conservatives believe in anything, it’s that we really are, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope of earth,” and that our foreign policy should be equal to that hope.