Why Obama’s Stimulus Package Is Doomed to Failure – The Marginal Productivity of Debt
- I am an avid reader of professor Antal E. Fekete articles on economics. In this article he explains the problem of stimulating the economy using debt. Can a government perpetually borrow money and spend its way out of economic depression? Will there be a point in time when an additional dollar of debt to stimulate the economy will result in no growth or even negative growth? It appears to be so.
- I am not in agreement with him regarding the final conclusion: deflation. I still think America is heading towards a hyper-inflationary depression. At the moment, assets that need debt financing to purchase will fall into deflation. That is: assets that requires consumers to borrow money from a bank to buy will fall into deflation. But goods that are purchased by cash will tend to fall into inflation. For example: House, car… deflation, food – inflation . However, with the astronomical increase in the money supply by the FedRes – we will eventually see inflation throughout the economy much like Zimbabwe.
- Professor Antal Fekete writes :
In this article……..I shall show that new money created on the strength of a flood of new debt, is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire, making prices fall and the economy contract even more. The Obama administration has missed its historic opportunity to stop the deflation and depression inherited from the Bush administration because it entrusted the same people with the task of damage-control who had caused the disaster in the first place: the Keynesian and Friedmanite money doctors in the Fed and the Treasury.
Watching the wrong ratio
The key to understanding the problem is the marginal productivity of debt , a concept curiously missing from the vocabulary of mainstream economics. Keynesians take comfort in the fact that total debt as a percentage of total GDP is safely below 100 in the United States while it is 100 and perhaps even more in some other countries. However, the significant ratio to watch is additional debt to additional GDP , or the amount of GDP contributed by the creation of $1 in new debt. It is this ratio that determines the quality of debt . Indeed, the higher the ratio, the more successful entrepreneurs are in increasing productivity, which is the only valid justification for going into debt in the first place.
Conversely, a serious fall in that ratio is a danger sign that the quality of debt is deteriorating, and contracting additional debt has no economic justification. The volume of debt is rising faster than national income, and capital supporting production is eroding fast. If, as in the worst-case scenario, the ratio falls into negative territory, the message is that the economy is on a collision course and crash in imminent. Not only does more debt add nothing to the GDP, in fact, it causes economic contraction, including greater unemployment. The country is eating the seed corn with the result that accumulated capital may be gone before you know it. Immediate action is absolutely necessary to stop the hemorrhage, or the patient will bleed to death.
Keynesians are watching the wrong ratio, that of debt-to-GDP. No wonder they constantly go astray as they miss one danger signal after another. They are sailing in the dark with the aid of the wrong navigational equipment. They are administering the wrong medicine. Their ambulance is unable to diagnose internal hemorrhage that must be stopped lest the patient be dead upon arrival.
Melchior Palyi’s early warning
In the 1950’s when the dollar was still redeemable in the sense that foreign governments and central banks could convert their short-term dollar balances into gold at the fixed statutory rate of $35 per ounce, the marginal productivity of debt was 3 or higher, meaning that the addition of $1 in new debt caused the GDP to increase by at least $3. By August, 1971, when Nixon defaulted on the international gold obligations of the United States (following in the footsteps of F.D. Roosevelt who had defaulted on its domestic gold obligations 35 years earlier) the marginal productivity of debt has fallen below the crucial level 1. When marginal productivity fell below $1 but was still positive, it meant that total debt (always ‘net’) was rising faster than GDP. For example, if the marginal productivity of debt was ½, then $2 in debt had to be incurred in order to increase the nation’s output of goods and services by $1. An increase in total debt by $1 could no longer reproduce its cost in the form of an equivalent increase in the GDP. Debt lost whatever economic justification it may have once had.
The decline in the marginal productivity of debt has continued without interruption thereafter. Nobody took action, in fact, the Keynesian managers of the monetary system and the economy stone-walled this information, keeping the public in the dark. Nor did Keynesian and Friedmanite economists at the universities pay attention to the danger sign. Cheerleaders kept chanting: “Gimme more credit!”
I learned about the importance of the marginal productivity of debt from the privately circulated Bulletin of Hungarian-born Chicago economist Melchior Palyi in 1969. (There were altogether 640 issues of the Bulletin; they are available in the University of Chicago Library). Palyi warned that the tendency of this most important indicator was down and something should be done about it before the debt-behemoth devoured the economy. Palyi died a few years later and did not live to see the devastation that he so astutely predicted.
Others have come to the same conclusion in other ways. Peter Warburton in his book Debt and Delusion: Central Bank Follies ThatThreaten Economic Disaster (see references below) envisages the same outcome, although without the benefit of the concept of the marginal productivity of debt.
The watershed year of 2006
As long debt was constrained by the centripetal force of gold in the system, tenuous though this constraint may have been, deterioration in the quality of debt was relatively slow. Quality caved in, and quantity took a flight to the stratosphere, when the centripetal force was cut and gold, the only ultimate extinguisher of debtthere is, was exiled from the monetary system. Still, it took 35 years before the capital of society was eroded and consumed through a steadily deteriorating marginal productivity of debt.
The year 2006 was the watershed. Late in that year the marginal productivity of debt dropped to zero and went negative for the first time ever, switching on the red alert sign to warn of an imminent economic catastrophe. Indeed, in February, 2007, the risk of debt default as measured by the skyrocketing cost of CDS (credit default swaps) exploded and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Negative marginal productivity
Why is a negative marginal productivity of debt a sign of an imminent economic catastrophe? Because it indicates that any further increase in indebtedness would necessarily cause economic contraction. Capital is gone; further production is no longer supported by the prerequisite quantity and quality of tools and equipment. The economy is literally devouring itself through debt. The message, namely that unbridled breeding of debt through the serial cutting of the rate of interest to zero was destroying society’s capital, has been ignored. The budding financial crisis was explained away through ad hoc reasoning, such as blaming it on loose credit standards, subprime mortgages, and the like. Nothing was done to stop the real cause of the disaster, the fast-breeder of debt. On the contrary, debt-breeding was further accelerated through bailouts and stimulus packages.
In view of the fact that the marginal productivity of debt is now negative we can see that the damage-control measures of the Obama administration, which are financed through creating unprecedented amounts of new debt, are counter-productive. Nay, they are the direct cause of further economic contraction of an already prostrate economy, including unemployment.
The head of the European Union and Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek has publicly characterized president Obama’s plan to spend nearly $2 trillion to push the U.S. economy out of recession as “road to hell”. There is absolutely no reason to castigate Mr. Topolanek for this characterization. True, it would have been more polite and diplomatic if he had couched his comments in words to the effect that “the Obama plan was made in blissful ignorance of the marginal productivity of debt which was now negative and falling. In consequence more spending on stimulus packages would only stimulate deflation and economic contraction.”
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