Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bad Day on TV

I have blogged before about television. It's a bad gig. Don't like it, and clearly not good at it.

But, got the call from FOX: come on the show, and talk about Greece. So I gave my thoughts on the situation in Greece. (Okay, these are likely Angus's thoughts, but I may have gotten them right. I tried to listen carefully.)

1. People are fleeing the Euro, which makes the fall self-perpetuating. But Euro seemed stable just last summer, as recently as September, in fact rose against dollar all summer. Does instability matter, within such a large area? After all, within EU everything is in Euros. That's the advantage of a currency union. (Answer: Yes, it matters. EU depends on imports of most raw materials, especially petroleum. If the Euro falls, it will actually help German economy, and France to lesser extent. But the problem is not a decline in the Euro, but rather break-up of the currency union. The main problem is POLITICAL, not ECONOMIC. The only way to save the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) is to take actual money away from the larger nations and prop up the financial systems. Technically possible, but what is in it for the big players, France, Germany, not clear why they would pay for bad policies in PIGS. Greece is small, and could be propped up. A welfare state to pay for poor folks is one thing. But paying for the lies and fake accounting of the Greek government, in the aftermath of the Olympic fiasco, is quite another.)

2. Could this kind of meltdown happen in US? (Answer: Strangely, less likely now, though US is sucking pretty hard. The only main rivals for international currency of choice are the dollar and euro. Dollar is in trouble, because of huge deficits, accumulated debt. US may lose its credit rating, as threat of default becomes real. Problem is that the debt, denominated in dollars, can really only be exchanged for euros, or euro-denominated assets of some kind, if you want to sell dollars, or dollar-denominated assets, on secondary markets. Amazingly, it is STILL better to park your funds in dollars, and US government bonds, than in most other places, especially (post-Greece) in Euros. Problem is that there are huge, truly huge, amounts of cash on the sidelines. People are looking for a safe haven, and also for some kind of return. US rates are so low that investors are getting no return. But the Euro collapse on markets, and political instability in Europe, actually mean that US is somewhat protected in the short run. BUT IT WON'T LAST. Level of US debt is not a problem, but the rate of increase IS a problem. If Asian countries sitting on cash mountain get out of dollars, the effects would be catastrophic. We could see large inflation, and high real interest rates, within three years. In the best case scenario, by 2020 80% of US federal budget will be spent on entitlements and debt service. We have given up all our room for maneuver. One more crisis, and the US might default on its debt. Combined with EU problems, could actually cause worldwide financial meltdown. We are looking at 1932, not 2009, as the worst case scenario.)

Anyway, I hear back from the producer. Neil Cavuto, host at FOX, is interested in hearing how the US might turn out like Greece, not how Greece going down saves the US bacon in the short run. (Here's Neil, in action on Fox)
Sure, I can do that. There are parallels, absolutely, and the fact that US has an independent monetary authority could make things more dangerous. After all, Greece can't devalue the drachma, because they use euros. Their "sovereign" (as if you can call the Greek government anything but a kleptocracy) debt would normally be devalued by one of the two big economic oxidizers, currency devaluation or inflation (one is an exchange rate change, the other is increase in money supply, but their effects are identical). Greece can't do either, and so the pressure builds.... Anyway, the parallel is an easy story to tell.

1. US is on path to fundamental change in the size and role of government. It has ALREADY HAPPENED. By 2020, under the best circumstances, 80% of federal budget will be service on debt and entitlement payments. We have built a fiscal straitjacket. Let me emphasize: it's true NOW, already. (This is more or less straight Angus, plagiarized, or as we say when we look at my c.v., "coauthored.")

2. There are two options available to the US that is not available to PIGS: Monetary inflation, and currency devaluation. PIGS are members of EU, and so have no independent monetary policy. Problem is that if US inflates, that is de facto default on debt. Catastrophic for world economy. We could bankrupt ourselves, ending ability to borrow, by inflating. Result would be double digit interest rates for years, with real rates on the order of three percent, in order to service new debt. We can't inflate our way out of all of it. But given that our annual deficits are now 10% of GDP, inflation may start to seem attractive.

3. Alternative: Look at Greece, because that is our future.
Explosion in euro-denominated debt, strikes, high unemployment, and government increasingly controlling financial and investment decisions of private firms. We think it can't happen, but we are on the steep part of a slippery slope. US debt/GDP ratio will approach 1. Our bonds have shaky ratings. And our taxes are going to go mostly to finance pensions, bailouts, and deficits. Instead of investing in the young, and the talented, we are going to invest in the old, and the bankrupt. Don't be smug, because not only could the Greek nightmare happen here--unless something changes, it will, within the next decade. Look at it this way: The EU limit for annual deficit as a percent of GDP? 3%, no more. Current level in Greece, so large that people are going nuts? 11% What about the US? Last year 9%, this year and for the next five years: 10%+.

Anyway, I do the interview. We go in order: Donald Trump, John Sununu, Mike Munger (one of these things is not like the other song) Neil is kind enough to let me answer the question, at length, drawing out the parallels between Greece and US deficits, and consequences. I do get to use my one prepared zinger: We used to make cars, and other things people wanted to buy. But right now, the only export keeping the US alive is.... debt! Our number one export is debt. If people stop buying that, we are hammered.

So, Neil asks, "But isn't the fact that Greece is pulling down the Euro actually HELPING the US? I mean, the only choices for currencies are euros or dollars, right?"

Since this had been my original claim, the one the producer had said not to make, I was somewhat stumped. Neil went on to ask about where to put money, where to invest, if my claims were true. The one thing I know for certain is that I am not qualified to give investment advice. So I filibustered, Neil got pissed, interrupted, and repeated his question: "Professor, professor, you didn't understand my question. I said, where should we invest? If you know so much, what is the solution?" That's pretty much where things ended.

I am going to go hide in the bathtub. I hate television.


Melanie B. said...

I actually think that went really well (your content, ability to convey messages well, etc) - kudos! Those of us who know better knew his question RE investment was irrelevant. It's annoying when, after finding out someone's an econ guru, people ask for investment advice. It just goes to show how short-sighted they are wrt intra-economics disciplines.

Need a pillow?

LoneSnark said...

Is this video available online anywhere?

Anonymous said...

Did you give him the limo driver nod?

John S said...

Whenever anyone asks "where should we invest?" Just say "whatever scam Goldman Sachs is currently pimping."

monika said...

I watch the show in Dish TV . I love the country Greece. The ancient civilization of the world. This history of Greece is common chapter in history book of all countries. That's why people like to know the present condition of Greece. I like the people and culture of this country.

Brian Irving said...

An addendum to your advice about not answering the question the reporter asks:

Don't listen to the producers advice.

Speedmaster said...

I never cease to be amazed by the number of people who confuse finance and/or investing w/ economics.

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