Monday, December 11, 2006

More bad news for bears, good news for Americans

Ed Prescott, the 2004 economics Nobelist, talks about five macroeconomic myths in today's WSJ (subscription required). I have excepted two of them for those readers looking at stock trends:

Myth No. 3: Americans don't save. This is a persistent misconception owing to a misunderstanding of what it means to save. To get a complete picture of savings we need to investigate economic wealth relative to income. Our traditional measures of savings and investment, the national accounts, do not include savings associated with tangible investments made by businesses and funded by retained earning, government investments (like roads and schools) and business intangible investments.

If we want to know how much people are saving, we need to look at how much wealth they have. People invest themselves in many and varied ways beyond their traditional savings accounts. Viewing the full picture -- economic wealth -- Americans save as much as they always have; otherwise, their wealth relative to income would fall. We're saving the right amount.

Myth No. 5: Government debt is a burden on our grandchildren. There's no better way to get people worked up about something than to call on their sympathies for their beloved grandkids. The last thing that I want to do is to burden my own grandchildren with the sins of profligacy. But we should stop feeling guilty -- at least about government debt -- because we are in better shape than conventional wisdom suggests.

Theory and practice tell us that the optimal amount of public debt that maximizes the welfare of new generations of entrants into the workforce is two times gross national income, or GDP. This assumes 1% population growth, 2% productivity growth, 4% real after-tax return on investments, and that people work to age 63 and live to age 85. Currently, privately held public debt is about 0.3 times GDP, and if we include our Social Security obligations, it is 1.6 times GDP. In either case, we could argue that we have too little debt.

What's going on here? There are not enough productive assets -- tangible and intangible assets alike -- to meet the investment needs of our forthcoming retirees. The problem is that the rate of return on investment -- creating more productive assets -- decreases as the stock of these assets increases. An excessive stock of these productive assets leads to inefficiencies.

Total savings by everyone is equal to the sum of productive assets and government debt, and if there is an imbalance in this equation it does not mean we have too little or too many productive assets. The fix comes from getting the proper amount of government debt. When people did not enjoy long retirements and population growth was rapid, the optimal amount of government debt was zero. However, the world has changed, and we in fact require some government debt if we care about our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

If we should worry about our grandchildren, we shouldn't about the amount of debt we are leaving them. We may even have to increase that debt a bit to ensure that we are adequately prepared for our own retirements.

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