In his first televised speech before Congress, President Obama asserted that prosperity will return once the government restores the flow of credit in the economy. It may come as a surprise to him, but an economy cannot run on consumer loans. Furthermore, credit stopped flowing in the U.S. for a very good reason: there was no more savings left to loan. Government efforts to simply make credit available, without rebuilding productive capacity or increasing savings, are doomed to destroy whats left of our economy.
The central tenets of Obamanomics appear to be that access to credit will enable people to borrow money to buy stuff, the spending will spur production and employment, and thus the economy will grow. Its a neat and simple picture, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with how an economy works. The President does not understand that consumption is made possible by production and that credit is made possible by savings. The size and complexity of modern economies has obscured these simple concepts, but reducing the picture to a small scale can help clear away the fog.
Suppose there is a very small barter-based economy consisting of only three individuals, a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. If the candlestick maker wants bread or steak, he makes candles and trades. The candlestick maker always wants food, but his demand can only be satisfied if he makes candles, without which he goes hungry. The mere fact that he desires bread and steak is meaningless.
Enter the magic wand of credit, which many now assume can take the place of production. Suppose the butcher has managed to produce an excess amount of steak and has more than he needs on a daily basis. Knowing this, the candlestick maker asks to borrow a steak from the butcher to trade to the baker for bread. For this transaction to take place the butcher must first have produced steaks which he did not consume (savings). He then loans his savings to the candlestick maker, who issues the butcher a note promising to repay his debt in candlesticks.
In this instance, it was the butchers production of steak that enabled the candlestick maker to buy bread, which also had to be produced. The fact that the candlestick maker had access to credit did not increase demand or bolster the economy. In fact, by using credit to buy instead of candles, the economy now has fewer candles, and the butcher now has fewer steaks with which to buy bread himself. What has happened is that through savings, the butcher has loaned his purchasing power, created by his production, to the candlestick maker, who used it to buy bread.
Similarly, the candlestick maker could have offered IOU candlesticks directly to the baker. Again, the transaction could only be successful if the baker actually baked bread that he did not consume himself and was therefore able to loan his savings to the candlestick maker. Since he loaned his bread to the candlestick maker, he no longer has that bread himself to trade for steak.
The existence of credit in no way increases aggregate consumption within this community, it merely temporarily alters the way consumption is distributed. The only way for aggregate consumption to increase is for the production of candlesticks, steak, and bread to increase.
One way credit could be used to grow this economy would be for the candlestick maker to borrow bread and steak for sustenance while he improves the productive capacity of his candlestick-making equipment. If successful, he could repay his loans with interest out of his increased production, and all would benefit from greater productivity. In this case the under-consumption of the butcher and baker led to the accumulation of savings, which were then loaned to the candlestick maker to finance capital investments. Had the butcher and baker consumed all their production, no savings would have been accumulated, and no credit would have been available to the candlestick maker, depriving society of the increased productivity that would have followed.
On the other hand, had the candlestick maker merely borrowed bread and steak to sustain himself while taking a vacation from candlestick making, society would gain nothing, and there would be a good chance the candlestick maker would default on the loan. In this case, the extension of consumer credit squanders savings which are now no longer available to finance other capital investments.
What would happen if a natural disaster destroyed all the equipment used to make candlesticks, bread and steak? Confronted with dangerous shortages of food and lighting, Barack Obama would offer to stimulate the economy by handing out pieces of paper called money and guaranteeing loans to whomever wants to consume. What good would the money do? Would these pieces of paper or loans make goods magically appear?
The mere introduction of paper money into this economy only increases the ability of the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker to bid up prices (measured in money, not trade goods) once goods are actually produced again. The only way to restore actual prosperity is to repair the destroyed equipment and start producing again.
The sad truth is that the productive capacity of the American economy is now largely in tatters. Our industrial economy has been replaced by a reliance on health care, financial services and government spending. Introducing freer-flowing credit and more printed money into such a system will do nothing except spark inflation. We need to get back to the basics of production. It wont be easy, but it will work.
President Obama would have us believe that we can all spend the day relaxing in a tub while his printing press does all the work for us. The problem comes when you get out of the tub to go to dinner and the only thing on your plate is an IOU for steak.
February 28, 2009
Peter Schiff is president of Euro Pacific Capital and author of The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets and Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse.