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“It’s the economy, stupid” was a popular phrase during President Bill Clinton’s first run for the White House when he challenged President George H. W. Bush in 1992. Fast forward to 2009 and Congress has passed a $787 billion “stimulus” package that is supposed to create jobs and invest in America’s future.

Government has this nasty habit of passing “temporary” legislation. In Canada our 1917 Income War Tax Act is a classic example. This was a temporary national general tax on personal and corporate income (the first in Canada) meant to help fund Canada’s costs associated with World War I. Last time I checked this temporary tax is still imposed – every two weeks for most people.

Last week the US Congress passed a 1,073 page “bi-partisan” (243 House Democrats, 57 Senate Democrats and 3 Senate Republicans) stimulus bill as a one-time jolt to the US economy. If we are to believe one of President Obama’s chief advisors, David Axelrod, this bill is the answer to all of America’s woes. It will create jobs. It will invest in infrastructure. It will save the US from the brink of depression. It will prove that President Obama is the world’s saviour.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece this weekend which detailed each category and associated amounts of spending under this bill. After printing the 38 page article, (I read better off of paper than the computer screen. I do re-use paper where it is possible), I spent some time sifting the data to determine how much of the $787 billion is actually meant for investing in America’s future and how much is going to “temporarily” expand the size of government.

These are important distinctions. I’m not generally a supporter of government intrusion or bail outs, but if it is accepted that government is going to provide stimulus (and it is) then the stimulus should be in the form of capital investments and not ongoing program expenditures.

Capital investments in roads, railways, telecommunications infrastructure, satellite communications, hospitals etc. will provide long term benefits. Ongoing programs will do nothing more than permanently expand the size of America’s government.

In broad strokes, I’ve defined:

  1. Investment as capital expenditures that invest in plant and infrastructure.
  2. Programs as spending that will either need to be cut once the tap is turned off or be maintained by the government in perpetuity (remember Canada’s temporary 1917 Income War Tax) with increased taxes.
  3. Tax adjustments as anything that provides a deferral of tax (not actually a reduction), acceleration of write downs (not really a tax deduction), tax credits (refundable and non-refundable) and tax reductions.

Here’s a summary of how this bill spends taxpayers’ money:

stimulus-bill-02162009

 

Aside from the concept of a government stimulus, the thing that concerns me the most about this huge government stimulus is that 43% of the money (almost $332 billion) is allocated to programs that will be anything but temporary. Once the stimulus runs out, the US government will either need to keep funding these programs or the people they employ will be out of work.

Only 19% of the stimlus is marked for investing in America’s future. If this were truly a “job creation” program and not a “government expansion” program, I propose that none of this misplaced stimulus would be for programs and all of it would be alocated to rebuilding US plant and equipment.

I haven’t performed the same analysis on Canada’s recent budget, but am interested in seeing any research that you may have done.

My good friend Aaron Cruikshank posted to his blog today a note on the role of the free markets and government regulation in the current economic fiasco.  My post is in response to his (which can be seen at http://friuch.com/wordpress/when-the-going-gets-tough-leaders-point-fingers).

The seeds were sowed for this fiasco in 1938, reinforced in 1968, 1977, 1999 and again after 2000 by Greenspan’s low interest rate policy.  Yes, business people got drunk on the sub-prime and ABCP markets and I never excuse egregious business practices.  But the fact of the matter is that this crisis was created by government, reinforced by government and encouraged by government.  Those calling for more regulation are asking for more trouble…eventually.

1938

Fannie Mae was created in 1938 to “support the national commitment to housing” and, more importantly, to backstop “the inability or unwillingness of private lenders to ensure a reliable supply of mortgage credit throughout the country.”  Read: sub-prime loans.

1968 to 1970

In 1968 the US government converted Fannie Mae into a private shareholder owned company and in 1970 created what is now know Freddie Mac.  Freddie Mac’s purpose is to compete with Fannie Mae (yes, a government owned institution competing with a shareholder owned company) and specifically to purchase mortgages, package them up into securities and sell them.  The thinking was that if lenders knew they could sell mortgages onto Freddie Mac that this market would remain liquid. 

1977

Jimmy Carter created the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which was established to “encourage” private banks to end their “discriminatory” lending practices.  The CRA was created to ensure all Americans, regardless of their ability to repay loan obligations, were able to pursue the American dream of home ownership.  The CRA audited books of chartered banks and would consider a bank’s loans to sub-prime borrowers when authorizing additional branches or mergers and acquisitions.  

So you’re a bank that’s forced to lend to people who can’t afford mortgages.  But there are these convenient behemoths that will purchase these toxic obligations from you, thereby eliminating your exposure.  And if you don’t make these loans then you can’t add branches or merge with or acquire other banks.  Management has a responsibility to shareholders to grow their wealth, so what would they be forced to do in order to grow?  Adhere to the CRA.

1999

In his infinite wisdom, Bill Clinton exacerbated an already distorted lending environment by putting pressure on Fannie Mae to expand its loans to sup-prime borrowers.  I can’t find a reference, but my understanding is that his administration actually set minimum sub-prime quotas for Fannie and Freddie.  adding fuel to the fire!

Final thoughts

No doubt there was malfeasance in the private sector and I want to reiterate that I don’t obfuscate this commercial greed with pious business practices.  But I’ve read too much from too many periodicals and newspapers blaming the free markets.  Make no mistake about it, this recession was brought on by Democrat and Republican administrations dating as far as back FDR’s New Deal.  

It’s dumbfounding to me the fervent support governments are getting for the tremendous “investments” they are making in their economies.  My greatest fear is that, because Joe Q. Public is so afraid, governments around the world have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity to grow, grow, grow and to reach much deeper into our pockets.  

Governments drink their own kool-aid and really believe in their destinies as the solution to all society’s ills.  Giving them a blank cheque to bail us out of this mess will only perpetuate what was has been created by FDR and encouraged by Carter, Clinton, Bush and Greenspan.  

Isn’t it time to let the market purge the irresponsible players (it will be painful, I know) and let a sensible market take over?