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The Curiously Missing Debate on the US Economy

President Trump focuses on immigration and tariffs and only occasionally cites strong US economic performance. Democratic presidential candidates are trying to win over primary voters by discussing issues such as universal health care, college debt and social justice. The result is a missing debate on the state and future of the US economy, which polls show is the top priority of a majority of voters.

President Trump focuses on immigration and tariffs and only occasionally cites strong US economic performance. Democratic presidential candidates are trying to win over primary voters by discussing issues such as universal health care, college debt and social justice. The result is a missing debate on the state and future of the US economy, which polls show is the top priority of a majority of voters.

A surging stock market, continued job creation and historically low unemployment have led to rising levels of public approval of Donald Trump in the polls. 

On the flip side, soaring federal budget deficits, protracted trade wars affecting industrial and agricultural sectors and tariffs threatening higher consumer prices are posting warning signs of an impending downward economic cycle, perhaps just before the 2020 election. 

Despite the stakes, bread-and-butter economic policy has taken a decidedly back seat in political debates, even as polling shows the economy remains the top priority of voters. 

Skillfully or impulsively, President Trump focuses on immigration, ‘creeping socialism’ and denigrating Democrats, while only occasionally praising the economy he’s overseen for 2½ years. Democratic presidential candidates, many seeking to curry favor with the increasingly restive progressive wing of the party, talk about health care, immigration reform, college debt, wealth taxes, climate change, social justice and Trump. 

Democrats also campaign in the shadow of the Mueller report and growing calls to impeach Trump. At times it seems as if Trump and his media allies egg on articles of impeachment, which face an uncertain fate in the Democratic House, but certain death in the Republican Senate. 

Absent in most Democratic stumping is any serious, sustained criticism of Trump economic policy. If criticism was to occur, this is what it might look like: 

Budget Deficit: According to the Treasury Department, the federal budget deficit ballooned 77 percent in the first four months of 2019 to $310 billion, up from $176 billion during the same period a year earlier. That period included the largest single month deficit. One reason for the larger deficits was a sharp drop in tax revenue, attributed to the Trump tax cuts. Meanwhile, federal spending has increased 9 percent, including a 12 percent hike in military spending and a 16 percent rise in Medicare outlays.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected a $900 billion deficit this fiscal year. The Office of Management and Budget, which is overseen by the Trump administration, projects the deficit will reach nearly $1.1 trillion – and keep rising through the 2020 fiscal year.

The Trump administration has not pushed very hard for federal spending reductions, settling instead for sending Congress a budget with cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which are political non-starters.

Trump has seemingly walked away from his promise of a major infrastructure investment plan. His own advisers have warned he cannot boost military spending and build new roads and bridges at the same time, especially when congressional Republicans appear unwilling to vote for the taxes to pay for upgraded infrastructure.

The political punch: The economy is cruising along, but only because it is fueled by the equivalent of credit card debt on steroids. The tax cuts and spending spree have effectively ruled out long-term investments in roads and bridges. 

Trade Wars: True to his campaign promise, Trump has upset the trade apple cart by imposing tariffs, first on steel and aluminum, then more generally, with a special gusto for Chinese imports. Trump also has selectively imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. His trade team succeeded last year in negotiating an updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it still hasn’t been approved by Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office shares its data about federal deficits, budget and revenue projections and marginal tax rates, as well as statistical information about many specific federal programs. If you want to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to the economy, check this out:  https://www.cbo.gov/publication/54918 .

The Congressional Budget Office shares its data about federal deficits, budget and revenue projections and marginal tax rates, as well as statistical information about many specific federal programs. If you want to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to the economy, check this out: https://www.cbo.gov/publication/54918.

Trump claims his tariffs have revived the US steel and aluminum industries and produced substantial revenue. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation confirms tariff revenue reached $70 billion by the end of May 2019, while reducing the US Gross Domestic Product by $50 billion, lowering wages by .13 percent and resulting in a loss of nearly 156,000 American jobs. 

The Tax Foundation also computed the impact of tariffs Trump threatened to impose against China, automobiles and Mexican products. Estimated revenues would exceed $154 billion at a cost of $112 billion in lost GDP, .3 percent decline in wages and loss of nearly 350,000 US jobs.

Then there are retaliatory tariffs by the European Union, India, Turkey, Mexico, Canada and Russia. The US treasury receives no revenue from these tariffs, but lost GDP from them tops $21 billion, wages decline .05 percent and some 67,000 jobs disappear. 

“If all tariffs announced thus far were fully imposed, US GDP would fall by 0.74 percent ($184.07 billion) in the long run, effectively offsetting about 44 percent of the long-run impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Wages would fall by 0.48 percent and employment would fall 570,591,” according to the Tax Foundation. 

The tariffs have worked a particular hardship on American farmers who have seen foreign markets evaporate, income nosedive and price increases for new equipment. The Trump administration conceded the impact on farmers, won approval for a $12 billion bailout and is seeking another $16 billion to aid farmers. Adding injury to insult, the major beneficiaries of the first bailout flowed to larger corporate farms, not family farms and “patriot farmers.”

The political punch: Tariffs are taxing Americans, raising prices, lowering wages, hurting farmers, losing jobs and posing a threat to continued economic growth. And, they haven’t resulted, at least so far, in great trade deals either.

Looming Downturn: Signs are emerging that an economic downturn may be on the horizon. Economists warn an escalating trade war combined with slowing growth in China and internationally could tip the economy into recession.

There also are troubling indicators.

  • Historically and ironically, recessions occur just when retail sales, industrial production and employment peak, as they have. Household wealth and income also peak just before a downturn.

  • Another historical indicator of recession is when interest rates on long-term bonds are lower than interest rates for short-term bonds for three continuous months, as just happened. This isn’t just a US phenomenon; it is occurring in bond markets around the world. 

Sensing the possibility of a declining US economy heading into an election, Trump has been hectoring Jerome Powell, the man he chose to head the Federal Reserve Board, to cut interest rates. After resisting such action, Powell in congressional testimony last week hinted an interest rate cut may be in the offing as early as this month. 

Powell told Congress, “Based on incoming data and other developments, it appears that uncertainties around trade tensions and concerns about the strength of the global economy continue to weigh on the US economic outlook.”

The stock market was ecstatic and hit new record highs. Critics warned an interest rate cut now will limit the Fed’s ability to combat a recession when it inevitably occurs.

The political punch: With increased deficit spending, continuing tariffs and a demand for lower interest rates, the administration is playing with fire, dousing a fire and trying to light a fire all at once.

You heard it here, even if you won’t hear anywhere else.

 

The Federal Fiscal Sudoku Game

Keeping up with a pending federal budget, a growing federal deficit, a looming massive federal tax cut and a surging stock market is a lot like playing fiscal Sudoku.

Keeping up with a pending federal budget, a growing federal deficit, a looming massive federal tax cut and a surging stock market is a lot like playing fiscal Sudoku.

For fiscal junkies, these are the best of times. The GOP-controlled House and Senate passed versions of a $4 trillion Fiscal Year 2018 budget, the United States logged last year the sixth largest budget deficit in history and the stock market reached record highs last week in anticipation of a major corporate tax cut, which the budget makes easier to pass.

In many ways, the fiscal news is like a jig-saw puzzle with pieces that don’t exactly fit together:

  • The Senate-passed FY 2018 budget measure leaves federal spending at current levels and provides for a major tax cut, which Republicans concede will increase the federal deficit in the short-term.
  • US Treasury announced the federal government finished FY 2017 with a $666 billion budget deficit, $80 billion more than the previous year, as spending grew by 3 percent, but revenues only increased by 1 percent.
  • Even though tax legislation hasn’t been finalized, Wall Street became giddy over a congressional budget with a reconciliation process that makes it politically easier to pass a tax cut without any Democratic support. The Dow Jones industrial average on Friday surged more than 165 points to a record 23,328. Shares of JP Morgan Chase hit an all-time high.

Republicans have campaigned for decades on fiscal discipline and shrinking the federal government. The recent news about tax cuts and budget deficits run contrary to that ideology, though House Speaker Paul Ryan assured in a media interview that deficits were still concerning to his political party.

Not concerning enough to blunt the drive to enact a tax cut by the end of the year that no one denies will increase the federal deficit. GOP supporters say tax cuts will stimulate the economy and eventually economic growth will erase the red ink. Democrats disagree, claiming supply-side, trickle-down economics hasn’t produced the bonanza of benefits promised by its supporters, just widened income inequality at the expense of the US middle class.

The FY 2018 budget, which retiring GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee called a “hoax,” seems designed to enact a tax cut, not implement a spending strategy. The tax cut is viewed by GOP leaders – and their wealthier supporters – as must-pass legislation to overshadow congressional failure to repeal Obamacare before the 2018 mid-term elections.

In addition to the impact of a tax cut, there will be pressure on the federal budget over the next year as Congress approves substantial funding to pay for severe hurricane and wildfire relief. Trump administration efforts to undermine Obamacare may have unpredictable negative economic consequences. The prospect of military conflict with North Korea along with accelerated modernization of the US nuclear arsenal also could dramatically push up spending levels.

To counter higher deficits, the FY 2018 budget points to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts on Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade. Higher outlays for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and payments on the national debt were blamed for pushing up the deficit last year, which now equals 3.5 percent of US gross domestic product. The national debt now exceeds $20 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the national debt will rise to 91 percent of the US economy as early as 2027 absent any fiscal policy changes.

Keeping up with all this US fiscal activity is a little like playing a 3D Sudoku puzzle:

  • The House and Senate still need to agree on a final budget, which might come as early as this week if the House decides to accept the Senate version and skip a conference committee to iron out differences.
  • President Trump has dangled some tantalizing numbers about his dream tax-cut legislation, but there isn’t an official tax bill to review.
  • The budget reconciliation process might make it theoretically easier to pass tax legislation, but only three Senate Republican defections could doom the plan, a la Obamacare repeal. Given Trump’s testy relationships with a number of senators, a political roadblock isn’t inconceivable.
  • The budget reconciliation process isn’t a free ride. There are limits on how much the tax cut can raise the deficit, which could stoke a ferocious intra-GOP debate over what taxes cut.
  • While Democrats haven’t been consulted so far, they have been courted to support the tax cut. There are a lot of side issues that could come into play in the attempt to earn some level of bipartisan support.
  • Ryan has threatened to keep House members in session through Christmas to pass a tax bill. It may not be an idle threat.