Thursday, October 28, 2010

What Happens Next.

In truth the only window of opportunity is 2011. Here the president deserves credit for setting up a bipartisan debt commission, which is most likely to propose a sensible combination of entitlement spending cuts and increases in taxes. But sadly the chance that these recommendations will be implemented in 2011 is close to zero. Republicans will veto any tax increase, while Democrats will resist unpopular entitlement reform.

The upshot is that the current gridlock in Congress will soon get much worse. Of course, Mr Obama cannot entirely be blamed for his limited progress, when the Republicans take that Leninist approach of “the worse the better”, and offer no co-operation on any issue. That they now see Mr Obama as a one-term president will soon mean the worst open warfare inside the Beltway in 30 years.

The coming stalemate will only be made worse by the lack of a reason to act on the deficit. The bond vigilantes are asleep, while borrowing rates remain unusually low. Near zero rates will continue as long as growth and inflation are low (and getting lower) and repeated bouts of global risk aversion – as with this spring’s Greek crisis – will push more investors to safe dollars and US debt. China’s massive interventions to stop renminbi appreciation will mean purchasing yet more treasuries too. In short, kicking the can down the road will be the political path of least resistance.

The risk, however, is that something on the fiscal side will snap, and the bond vigilantes will wake up. The trigger could be a debt rollover crisis in a major US state government, or perhaps even the realisation that congressional gridlock means bipartisan solutions to our medium-term fiscal crisis is mission impossible. Only then will our politicians suddenly remember that, on top of our federal debt, the US suffers from unfunded social security and Medicare liabilities, state and local government debt, and public pension bills that add up to many multiples of US GDP.

Nouriel Roubini, in the Financial Times.