Friday, November 4, 2016

Professor Summers, fixing potholes using 0% public debt will not fix America. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

Professor Larry Summers, and many others with him, promote the idea that the government in America (and other governments too) should take advantage of the extraordinarily low interest rates on public debt, in order to finance new infrastructure and the maintenance of old.

Briefly their calculation is as follows: If government takes on debt at 0% and invest it in infrastructure projects that renders a 5% economic return, then the government, with a 30% tax on that, will have earned a net 1.5%... and we can all live happily ever-after.

NO! First, even if the government nominally pays 0% on its debt, that does not mean that debt has a zero cost. To begin with we should have to add the cost of all those giving up (cheated out of) some long term decent earnings on their saving, in order to finance the government for free. But, even more importantly, those zero or low rates are not free and clear market rates, but rates that are non-transparently subsidized by regulations.

In 1988, with the Basel Accord, Basel I; for the purpose of calculating the risk weighted capital requirements for banks, the regulators decided that the risk-weight for the sovereign was 0%, while that of We the People was 100%. And those risk-weights are still in full force.

I cannot say how much of the low interest rates on public debts are explained by this regulatory distortion, but it sure has to be quite a lot.

I have lately seen Professor Summers, and Lord Adair Turner, showing these rates trending down for the last 30 years. Unfortunately for reasons that are beyond my grasp, they have not been able to see a connection between this and 1988’s bank regulations.

But I do know that piece of egregious regulation, introduced such distortions in the allocation of bank credit that, worldwide, millions of SMEs and entrepreneurs have been negated the opportunities   provided by access to bank credit. That is a real huge cost that should be added to the nominal 0% rate. In other words the rates on public debt are the nominal rates, plus the economic and human costs of the distortions.

Since because of this regulatory risk aversion (even in the Home of the Brave) the economies are stalling and falling. So in this respect one could argue that in reality, never ever before have the interest rates on public debt been as high.

Which also leads me to my second objection, that of “infrastructure projects rendering a 5% economic return”. The final real return of any infrastructure project is a function of how it meets the needs of the economy, and of the state of the economy. If regulatory distortions impede the growth of the economy, those infrastructure projects, even if perfectly carried out, even if financed at 0%, might really turn out to provide a negative return.

Professor Summer, let us, very carefully, get rid of those regulatory distortions so that the banks of America, and those of the world, can return to the normality that was so rudely interrupted by regulatory hubris and statism in 1988. That would allow infrastructure to be financed by governments out of real economic growth, something that would then certainly even justify having to pay much higher nominal interest rates than now.

Please don’t put the cart before the horse! Don’t refuse “the risky” the opportunities to access bank credit only because they are risky. Our economies were all built on risk-taking, even when some of it was not adequately reasoned.

To lay on regulatory risk aversion on top of bankers natural risk-aversion, is an insult to intelligence and human wisdom.