Trump’s Greatest Challenge

…will be restoring the American economic machine to its former glory. To the extent he is able to achieve this, a lot of ills that may crop up elsewhere may be forgiven. Trump’s economic progress will be especially important from a political sense given the fact that Trump is the ‘change’ candidate. He ran, and was elected on a promise to shift away from the status quo in all aspects. Should the Trump economic doctrine fail, it will poison the anti-status quo rhetoric which won him the presidency for decades to come. It will potentially open the door for a complete and total return to power for the ‘establishment’ forces in a way that may be more damaging than if Hillary Clinton had won instead. That underscores how important it is for Trump to get the economics right.

As I write this, we are in the midst of a post-election victory haze which has seen the stock market make new highs virtually on a daily basis. Stock in commodities and manufacturing have risen by upwards of 50%. Trump himself has lauded the reaction in stocks since November 8 as a validation of his election.

In some ways he is correct. Should he enact his policies, especially the cutting of corporate taxes and reducing regulations, the business environment in this country will improve, which will lead to greater profitability and thus higher stock valuations.

The issue is that the market correctly assigning higher stock valuations to publicly traded companies is happening in an environment in which these valuations were already in the realm of the absurd. Indeed, Trump himself lamented the fact that the stock market was in a giant bubble on the campaign trail, calling it a ‘false’ stock market. Now that he has won, and stock prices have rocketed even higher, Trump is being inconsistent in his praise for what can only be described as the bubble getting even more absurd.

What has driven this bubble to its current heights has been the torrent of debt unleashed on the economy over the last 7+ years. This debt, in turn was facilitated by the depressing of interest rates to levels not seen in the history of the developed world, for nearly a decade, without interruption. Sticking with the United States, the Federal Reserve quintupled the size of its balance sheet, which enabled the totality of credit outstanding to continue to expand, in the manner it has done for the better part of four decades.

The result has been the restoration of the 2008 bubble, the popping of which led to so much destruction. What is important to note is that this bubble, like all bubbles, will pop. The only question is the needle which pricks it. It very well might be the Federal Reserve, which is set to raise interest rates at its meeting next week. It might be the plunging of the economy into a full blown recession, which is a natural part of economic cycles, but truly devastating when a bubble has been the foundation of the preceding period of growth.

Regardless of how it starts, the fact is that one peach of a smash is inevitable. This is because of the fact that as it currently stands, the US economy employs a debt driven consumer spending model as its method for achieving economic growth. This sort of model relies on constantly expanding debt, and constantly rising prices. These are two facets which are unable to endure indefinitely, much in the same way it is impossible for a human being to naturally propel oneself through the air indefinitely without gravity asserting itself at some point. From an earlier piece I wrote on the subject:

At some point, markets can’t support prices at the high levels producers need to set, which in turn leads to prices falling, profits falling, trouble servicing debts, liquidations, and layoffs. Yet, the solution presented by mainstream economics is to guide prices higher again.

All actors in the economy, from the government, to households to business are currently over-indebted.

As a result we are getting closer to the point when there will be no one left to take on the new debt required to push prices ever higher, in order to keep the ‘growth’ going. As this become more and more apparent, prices will start to fall, loans will become bad, bankruptcies will rise, and all the rest of it. Then the political game truly begins.

The economic carnage will be universally blamed on Trump, and it will not be a difficult story to sell. The surface level thinking will show that the economy was ‘fine’ under Obama, with rising stock prices, rising GDP, home prices and employment levels, a reduction in the deficit and so on. The fact that these metrics are superficial, and easily gamed by the cheap money which will have evaporated in the downturn will be overlooked.

It is at this point that the most pivotal moment in Trump’s presidency will arrive. He will have to choose between attempts at reflating the burst bubble, and allowing market forces to play out, and then rebuilding on the new landscape that forms thereafter.

The standard politician has always taken the former route. It is the route of political expedience, the route of slavish devotion to abstract metrics such as GDP. The last two administrations have done exactly that. In the wake of burst Internet and Housing bubbles, the Bush and Obama administrations respectively, in conjunction with the Greenspan and Bernanke Federal Reserves ‘stimulated’ the economy via a lowering of interest rates and dramatic increases of debt. The debt taken on under the Bush administration equaled that of the cumulative debt of every president prior to him. Eight years on, President Obama matched that dubious achievement.

The consequence of allowing market forces to run their course would have been catastrophic, in fairness. This is largely because the multi decade advance of asset prices was also the savings vehicle for many in the Baby Boom generation. For decades, they had not had to build real, legitimate savings because asset prices were always rising. When the time came to retire, conventional wisdom held, it was simply a matter of selling the assets and living happily ever after. That all changed when the bubbles burst, particularly in 2008. For many Boomers, their retirement nest egg had been wiped away, or at least severely diminished, just at the very moment they needed it.

The actions of world governments and central banks in attempt to reflate the bubble was in some sense a refusal by the Boomer generation to accept their mistake, demanding that economic gravity be defied indefinitely until they were made whole again.

These actions were able to ‘fix’ the problem in the short run, but are fundamentally inadequate for the long term. Indeed there has been positive talk about home prices which are nominally flirting with 2008 bubble levels. At some point there will again be ‘too much debt,’ and the whole system will be under pressure once more. The fact that asset prices have been engineered higher for the benefit of Boomers means that these very assets will be increasingly out of reach for a younger generation which itself is overburdened by student debt the Boomers never dealt with when they were young.

This will necessitate still further debt and money printing to enable the younger generation to purchase assets from Boomers at these stratospheric levels, in order for them to retire.

This paradigm is the equivalent of fixing the negative symptoms of a drug withdrawal with a higher dose of the drug. I sets in motion a cycle in which the only conclusion is either an overdose or the mother of all withdrawals.

The correct solution is to endure the withdrawals, no matter how bad they are, because they will still be better than a certain overdose. In the context of the current economic situation, that means allowing the gaggle of bad debt which hangs around the neck of the economy like an albatross, to be purged from the system.

Trump should understand this scenario well – for it mirrors the situation he was in personally during the early 1990s. Having overextended himself in the late 80s, he was in a fair bit of trouble, to put it mildly, when the market turned. This is all well documented, but Trump’s Comeback would not have been possible without a renegotiation with his creditors. This allowed Trump to survive without having to sell the assets which he had accumulated to that point, and set the stage for him to grow his empire not only to far greater heights, but with a far greater foundation which offered a substantial margin of safety.

The United States as a whole is need of something similar happening. I suspect, on some level, Trump is aware of the nastiness which might be involved. Back in May, he revealed as much when he suggested that the United States could simply renegotiate its debt to alleviate its problems. This set off a firestorm in the media, which posited that Trump would be threatening the pristine credit history of the US government, which had always honored its debts.

That is patently untrue, but the real cause for alarm comes from the fact that the bond market, and in turn all markets, rest on the fundamental idea that it is true. That is, US government debt is a 100% certainty to be paid on time and in full. As such, for Trump to suggest that the debt could be ‘renegotiated’ would upend world markets.

The premise from which this potential turmoil originates from is faulty however. The US does pay its debts on time, but owing to money printing exercises, it has not necessarily been paying them in full. Paying debts with printed money is to pay in a currency that is worth less than when it was borrowed. In theory, the interest rate should square the difference, but given that interest rates have been held artificially low by the Federal Reserve, a real case can be made that America’s creditors have already had involuntary renegotiations with America, which has been implicitly defaulting on its debt for years now.

What Trump mentioned in May was an explicit default. In that event, the tumult would be extraordinary, with interest rates rising precipitously, prices falling precipitously, and a temporary state of near depression ensuing, perhaps worldwide. Yet it would be the right thing to do.

The current game of kicking the can down the road and hoping for economic miracles has not worked. Consider that in the last two presidencies, each has had to double the national debt and keep interest rates at historic lows merely to maintain a period of growth with had nothing to show for it but stratospheric asset prices and a war torn planet. In the meantime wages have stagnated, home ownership has dropped, labor force participation has dropped, high paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low paying service sector jobs, and only those over the age of 55 have seen a net increase in employment.

This is the paradigm which the Keynesian academics, global central bankers and short term-ist politicians believe justifies the doubling the debt every 8 years to preserve.

In rejecting that prescription, Trump would put America in the position he himself was in in those early 1990s days, when he would tell himself repeatedly, ‘survive til 95. Survive til 95.’ It was at that point he figured that he would be able to have a proper foundation to work from, and that sustainable growth could begin.

The short term carnage which would result would no doubt be pounced on by a leftist media which will have been constantly begging for him to fail. There would be no end of horror stories describing the bankruptcies, foreclosures, layoffs, business closings and so on that would descend upon an a economy ridding itself of bad debts. These unfortunate occurrences would then be used to bolster the leftist line that Trumpism generally, with its America Fist, anti-globalist bent is a proven failure, with a view to then restoring the globalist, politically correct politics it was after all along.

Trump’s messaging  in the face of such an onslaught will have to involve the explicit illustration of our bubble-crash-new bubble cycle, and the framing of our choices as I’ve outlined.

It will be a truly Herculean task, merely because the size of the bubble is such that even the most modest worker will be involved owing to the fact he or she probably has a 401K. It will be difficult for the truism that all long term gains require short term sacrifice to gain traction when that sacrifice comes in the shape of a declining 401K or home price.

Indeed, we live in a culture which has been conditioned to crave instant gratification. The idea of saving and investing, and not seeing the fruits of that saving until years in the future is increasingly an alien concept. To impose a necessary, but painful economic downturn will be potentially suicidal to Trump’s political career, but a necessary component to a sustainable, longer term recovery.

It is because of this that there will be a strong temptation for Trump to do as his predecessors did, and to try and restart the bubble machine. However, as I’ve made clear here, it is the wrong answer. As I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that Trump does know the right answer. Indeed, his campaign was centered on having the ‘right answers’ in other areas such as immigration and foreign policy.

In these arenas his anti-status quo approach is correct. The same is true of the economy, and more specifically the debt driven consumer spending model of growth that currently drives it. That is the status quo. That has led to failure. That needs to go. Trump’s task, if he really is to go down as a great president, will be to destroy the bubble-crash-bubble paradigm and free an US economic machine, now running on savings and investment instead of cheap credit, to start once again, all the while holding the hand of a skittish public through the transition.