Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Follow Up 2: Less is More

The lead story in the August 6, 2011 Economist minces no words in their opinion of US politicians' "current uselessness" which the paper fears will be responsible for a double-dip recession. They specifically highlight the negative impact of the growing US governmental unpredictability:
Any hard decisionshave been given to a commission--a cop-out that condemns workers and firms to more crippling uncertainty about how the country's fiscal mess will be tackled. Would you build a factory today if you knew that taxes had to rise eventually, but had no idea which ones?
Worse, the poisonous politics of the past few weeks have created new sorts of uncertainty.
This was precisely my message in a January 2010, blog post:
Risk is equivalent to unpredictability. The more able one is to predict the future, the lower the risk and the more confidently one can make moves today which create a nice return tomorrow. Conversely, when the rules of the game may significantly change tomorrow or next year, risk is dramatically increased. This raises the risk-vs-reward bar such that fewer investment options are viable.
Its no wonder that corporations and banks are choosing to sit on "piles of cash" instead of launching big, strategic, long-term investments which would support long-term and largely high-skilled job creation ... and hopefully long-term profitability for the investors.

No, US federal policy currently discourages that type of thing. More precisely, it forces such investment offshore. When US businesses choose to NOT use their cash for investment in their own commercial projects, they must find something else to do with the cash. People say that Apple has umpteen-hundred-billion dollars "in the bank" but more accurately, Apple has this cash invested in non-apple projects in that Apple owns shares, CDs, bonds, and IOUs from other banks and companies who are not subject to the unpredictability and caprice of the US government.

As my blog post continued:
Governments can increase or decrease this risk. Those with the discipline to stick to a stable, sensible, transparent industrial policy over a long period build tremendous "trust equity" with investors ... Ideas become businesses become economic value ...Unfortunately, being based entirely on intangibles (consensus expectations), this trust equity is a very fragile thing. Governments can quickly sabotage themselves, their economies, and thus their citizens by giving off even the whiff of erratic or ill-advised behavior.
 The current lot in Washington reek of it. Like Renaissance French nobility, they slather themselves in ever-increasing amounts of perfume to cover it up, but the flies still swarm. Here's David Brooks:

"If you ask people, 'why aren't you investing? Why aren't you lending?' it all comes down to uncertainty ... If bankers and entrepreneurs don't have any sense of certainty, they're just not going to invest ... We've not only got this economic problem, but its compounded by a psychological problem, magnified by the fact that distrust of institutions is at its highest level in history." - David Brooks, Meet the Press 1/31/2010
The answer? Of course, it's complicated but a good start is in the title of this blog. The Economist is concerned that immediate fiscal austerity would thrust the economy deeper into trouble. They suggest that we wait a bit. They're half right. I'd listen to Greenspan, who has been a long proponent of using the economic power of "signalling." Without changing a single regulation or appropriation today, the government can clearly communicate what changes are coming when. If the message is credible, people will respond as though the change had happened today. Markets will rapidly price in the new information, and the trajectory of the whole economy will shift.

IF the government's message is credible. This is the rub, given the extent to which Washington has squandered that intangible "trust equity." Given this situation, I'd suggest Obama and Congress see a psychologist ... to better understand how to psychologically build trust in a population.

I'd suggest follow-though is key.

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