Pan(dem)ic?

Financial markets endured a bout of coronavirus or suffered a third-degree Bern this week, depending upon the diagnosing doctor.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 879 points on Tuesday after plummeting 1,031 points on Monday (following lesser losses late last week). The Dow stabilized on Wednesday before ending the day down. But the largest two-day selloff in four years (mirrored in other stock exchanges) scared investors away from stocks to squirrel away money elsewhere.

The 10-year Treasury note, offering safety to spooked investors, hit a record low at 1.325 percent on Tuesday. Given an inflation rate of 2 percent, the yield effectively forces vigorish rather than returns on the money lent to the government.

Investors both short-selling the global economy and grasping the effect of actual negative rates, as well as negative rates in real, inflation-adjusted terms, continue to flock to gold. The spot price for an ounce of gold now hovers around $1,650, just off the seven-year high set last week.

With economies shrinking in Japan and Italy, Hong Kong in recession, and forecasts predicting the slowest growth in China in three decades, investors appear skittish in wagering on prolonged prosperity. The United States economy appears more resilient than many economies abroad. But Americans live in the world, not apart from it.

The global headwinds the U.S. economy currently trudges through expose the foolishness of stimulus measures taken during an expansion by both the Federal Reserve and Congress. In both instances, in word or deed, the president of the United States eagerly pushed this reckless path.

The Federal Reserve slashed its funds rate three times last year. The target rate of 1.50-1.75 now effectively serves as a negative interest rate given inflation.

World central banks have increased balance sheets from $3 trillion in 2006 to $14 trillion. The Federal Reserve went from less than $1 trillion on the eve of the Great Recession to about $4.2 trillion today. In between, the balance sheet peaked at around $4.5 trillion before aborting a selloff beginning in 2018 largely as a result of repo-market jitters late last year.

Deficits strangely reached the trillion-dollar mark last year in the midst of prosperity. The Congress looks to spend more than it receives by over a trillion dollars this fiscal year. The national debt, which exceeds $23 trillion, now eclipses the gross domestic product. The president’s budget submitted to Congress earlier this month shows that debt exceeding $30 trillion to start the 2030s.

To prepare for the next recession, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and Bank of Japan should have reduced balance sheets during the growth period. The prudential course for the U.S. Congress involved eschewing incontinence by running sustainable deficits during prosperity. Instead, the monetary and fiscal stewards acted recklessly.

How much further into debt can a government go after running an annual deficit exceeding a quarter of its annual expenditures? How much lower can a central bank push an interest rate once it sinks beneath the rate of inflation? And how many more assets can a central bank purchase when its balance sheets already near or exceed record highs?

The people in positions of responsibility acted irresponsibly. Short-term preoccupations jeopardized long-term economic health.

This leaves economies in precarious positions in the face of the coronavirus and other economic troubles. Economies took speed instead of sleeping pills. Now that they require stimulants rather than soporifics, the bottle they shake sounds empty. This dreadful day hits most addicts.

The U.S. economy appears better positioned than others facing real crises around the world. And when President Trump in India characterized the coronavirus, to much criticism on Tuesday, as “very well under control in our country,” he spoke the truth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 14 confirmed cases, all but two travel-related, within the United States since the outbreak of the disease. Not every panic makes for a pandemic.

The current problems may appear as speed bumps rather than a roadblock in the rearview mirror. But by wasting the bag of tricks before the actual show, the fiscal and monetary magicians left themselves, and the rest of us, in a vulnerable spot.

Hunt Lawrence is a New York-based investor. Daniel Flynn is the author of six books.

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Author: Hunt Lawrence and Daniel J. Flynn

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