Friday, November 28, 2008
New economic stats on consumer spending and business durable-goods investment show an economy that’s sinking fast across-the-board. Wall Street economist John Ryding expects a 4 percent drop in fourth-quarter real GDP.
Of course, the Fed is pouring in new cash hand-over-fist. And plunging retail gas prices to about $1.85 per gallon nationally amounts to a huge consumer tax cut of perhaps $320 billion, according to Mark Perry of the University of Michigan. So we’ve moved from tight money and an energy tax hike a year ago, to easy money and an energy tax cut today. The former mix has generated a nasty credit crunch and a recession. But the new monetary/energy mix will generate recovery next year. I hope.
At a wonderful dinner last night I had a chance to talk to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Mundell about all things economic. What is to be done? I asked him.
Mundell, you may remember, was a leading supply-sider in the Reagan revolution. He argued for low marginal tax rates to spur the economy and a stable dollar to eliminate inflation. Bob Mundell also is the father of the euro. He is plainly an incredibly brilliant and distinguished man.
The dinner was put together by the indefatigable hard-money analyst Judy Shelton, a pretty smart gal herself. Our spouses were there along with some friends.
So here’s Mundell’s latest take on a pro-recovery, fiscal-monetary, growth mix. First, he’d like to see a complete corporate tax holiday for one year. He then favors corporate tax reform that would drop the current top rate from 35 percent to 15 or 20 percent. He believes this would generate badly needed business investment and job-creation to fight recession.
Incidentally, in today’s durable-goods business-investment report for October, capital-goods shipments are falling at a 12 percent annual rate versus their third-quarter average. Orders are down 35 percent. (By the way, that third-quarter average was a negative number.)
So Mundell is clearly on to something. Business needs help. Without healthy business, there will be no significant new job creation or consumer spending power.
On money, Mundell had two interesting thoughts: First, the U.S. dollar and the Chinese yuan should basically be re-linked at roughly today’s exchange rate (about 6.8 yuan to the dollar). There should be no more Chinese currency appreciation. Incidentally, Mundell thinks the Chinese economy is actually in some trouble. And he’d know. Mundell travels to China about once every other month as a key advisor to the Bank of China.
Also on the currency front, Mundell would prefer a floor under the euro at roughly $1.25. That’s about where it is today. It’s also roughly the same as the original $1.18 euro initial public offering in 2000. So Mundell is pressing for dollar stability relative to Europe and China. And he believes that would be consistent with domestic price stability here at home.
Unfortunately, Fed head Ben Bernanke simply doesn’t think in these global currency terms. Mundell has no real problem with the Fed’s huge balance-sheet expansion to push new cash into the credit-crunched recessionary economy. He believes there is a huge demand for dollars at home and overseas, and that the Fed should be accommodating this.
But Mundell frets that Bernanke is too much of a Phillips-curve unemployment-rate targeter, and that he doesn’t understand the powerful influence of a sound currency policy.
Putting it all together, Mundell’s anti-recession program is a reduction of the high marginal tax rate on business to reignite growth along with a stable dollar to contain inflation.
We also got around to talking about Paul Volcker, who is a friend of Mundell’s. He’s also my former boss from 1975, back when I was a young staffer at the New York Fed and Paul Volcker was the bank’s new president.
Volcker, of course, has been counseling Barack Obama during the financial crunch. And today, the president-elect appointed Volcker, the former Fed chair, to be the head of a new White House advisory board on the economy. This advisory board takes a page from Ronald Reagan, who set up PEPAB, the President’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, back in 1981. Members of that group included Milton Friedman, Art Laffer, Alan Greenspan, Arthur Burns, Herb Stein, and others. George Schultz was the first chairman. This group helped sustain Reagan’s supply-side policies during some difficult times in 1981-82.
Now, no one really knows what Paul Volcker really thinks about the myriad TARP financial-rescue packages being run by the Treasury, the Fed, and the FDIC. Nor do we know what Volcker thinks about the Fed’s ballooning balance sheet, or U.S. dollar policy for that matter. A lifelong Democrat, Volcker is properly credited with slaying inflation in the 1980s. But he is no supply-sider.
Presumably, however, the conservative-Keynesian Volcker, along with Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Christina Romer, will advise Obama not to hike taxes in the next two years.
But that’s a presumption. We don’t know who else will be on this Obama economic advisory board. Might they consider a stable dollar and a big corporate tax cut? Well, if Volcker listens to his friend Mundell, he’ll gain some important advice to be passed along to the new president-elect.
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