02 December 2017

Why the Republican Tax Cuts Won't Help the Economy: Understanding the Difference Between the Economies and Parties of Lincoln and Trump

Trillions in excess reserves, cash and negative interest rate bonds calls into question Republican's claim that the economy needs tax cuts to create additional capital.

Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. He was part of a visionary party who realized that the industrial economy had changed the rules in a few ways. One, it made capital even more important than land. Two, it made slavery, which was always immoral, now bad economics. Three, it made the national economy most relevant to good policy (goods now produced in growing factories were now transported across state lines by growing railroads to be sold in department stores all across the country) rather than the old state economy. When the south seceded, the largely Republican northern legislators passed a flurry of laws to accommodate this new industrial economy that was supplanting the agricultural economy.

Since the time of Lincoln, a key to understanding Republican policy and strategy is understanding that they believe that nothing is more important to economic prosperity than capital.

There is good reason for such a belief. If you are working with your bare hands you do well to create more than a few pennies - maybe a few dollars - of value a day. If you have capital equipment like a vehicle, a lathe, a computer or factory, you can potentially create thousands - even millions - of dollars in value each day.

The thinking behind the Republican tax breaks traces back to this belief that they need to encourage more investment by corporations by taxing them less. Their belief is that as more money is invested in things like lathes, computers and factories, American workers will be more productive. As it has since the time of Lincoln, more capital from more investments will make us more prosperous.

It is true that capital is essential to our economy. So is agriculture. There is a difference, though, between knowing that we'd perish without farmers and expecting agriculture to employ a growing number of people. In 1800 about 90% of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2017, about 1 or 2% do. Agriculture is essential but that is very different from saying that more farmers will make our country more prosperous. Agriculture is not the place we look in 2017 for the creation of new jobs and wealth.

Capital, too, is essential but that is different from saying that more capital will make us more prosperous. Manufacturing (admittedly just one manifestation of capital) is not the place we look in 2017 for the creation of new jobs and wealth. As farming before it, jobs in manufacturing have been in steady decline as a percentage of the workforce since about 1940.

Again, the simple justification for Republican tax cuts is the belief that they will result in more capital investment. The story of excess reserves calls that into question.

From the early 1980s through 2008, excess reserves in the US banking system mostly bounced around between $1 and $2 billion dollars. Banks are required to keep a certain level of reserves on hand, essentially money they hold in case you come in to make a withdrawal on your account. And simply because it is nearly impossible to have every dime "working" as loans, etc., banks also keep a little reserves in excess of what is required. They have an incentive to keep these reserves to a minimum because they just sit there idle, generating no interest, so it makes sense that they wouldn't hold much in excess reserves.

Then we got hit with the Great Recession. One huge risk was that the credit system would collapse. Among other things, the Fed pumped capital into the banking system to encourage economic activity. The Fed could put capital into the banking system but banks had to put it out into the economy via loans to households and businesses.

Banks are literally professionals at understanding credit risk and knowing when to loan money for a kitchen remodel or a business expansion. Bankers - like business executives, teachers, police,  and engineers - make mistakes but this matter of deciding where capital should be employed to maximize the returns on capital is quite literally their job. If they have a billion dollars, they will look for a way to invest or loan that out in order to create a return. Only as a last resort will they leave it idle and not making money.

So what happened when the Fed pumped a record amount of money into the banking system? You can see that below; the one to two BILLION became two to three TRILLION, a jump of 1,000X.

Janet Yellen has helped to engineer a draw down of these excess reserves without disrupting the economy but after peaking at $2.7 TRILLION in 2014, excess reserves are still $2.2 trillion.

Bankers - the experts on capital allocation - are letting trillions sit idle because they don't see profitable ways to employ this capital. Another way to put it is that they don't see capital as scarce.

Excess reserves are not the only bits of evidence that the economy has an abundance of capital. Last year companies in the S&P 500 spent $536.4 billion on buybacks. What does that mean? They spent half a trillion simply buying their own stock rather than investing that money into hiring, factory expansion, or advertising. Like bankers, big corporations don't see capital as scarce but instead see it as abundant, literally having more than they can use. Corporate cash is close to $2 trillion.

The Dutch have financial records that go back 500 years. Think about all that has transpired since 1517: the Protestant Revolution and religious wars that killed tens of percent of the population in certain regions of Europe, coming to an understanding that Columbus had actually discovered new continents and then settling those Americas, democratic revolutions, the industrial revolution, world wars, a Great Depression .... these 500 years have hardly been uneventful. And yet, last year was the first time that the Dutch recorded the sale of negative interest rate bonds. You give a country $100 and get back $99. The Netherlands, the EU, France, Japan .... nine countries had issued about $12 trillion in negative interest rate bonds as of last year

To sum up, US banks have $2.2 trillion in reserves, the S&P 500 has $2 trillion in cash (even while spending half a trillion a year on buybacks), and there are more than $12 trillion in negative interest rate bonds around the world.

None of this suggests that the West faces a scarcity of capital.

So let's get back to the Republican tax cut. The thinking behind it is simple: if we tax less there will be more capital and that capital can be employed to expand businesses that will generate more profit and jobs. And that, of course, assumes that capital is scarce.

Capital was scarce 150 years ago during Lincoln's presidency. At that time, nearly any policies that encouraged the growth of capital were likely to have a positive effect on the economy, helping to make us all more prosperous.

Capital is now abundant. Policies that starve public education and research to send back more capital to corporations and individuals will hurt economic growth, not help it. There is no way that someone can look at the evidence and conclude that what our economy lacks now is capital. There is no way, of course, unless you have failed to update what was once a great perspective to adjust to a new landscape. The party of Lincoln has given way to the party of Trump and mindful intelligence that carefully considers new facts has given way to mindless ideology that ignores them.

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