Warren Buffett admitted he was wrong about deficits. Wish he had figured this out before 2009, when the Obama Administration was afraid of launching a big enough stimulus package. From his annual shareholders’ letter:
Sadly aside from Axios, I don’t seen this point getting the attention it deserves. But maybe too many heads would explode were that to happen.
And to the extent the Twitterverse has taken notice, it’s goldbugs and Bitcoin fans up in arms that Buffett has dissed a non-prodcutive, non dollar asset.
In fact, Buffett could have gone further in terms of recognizing the necessity of Federal deficits when companies are under-investing, as they have been doing chronically since the early 1980s. But his becoming an official agnostic is a big step in the right direction.
For a longer-form explanation, see this section of a post we wrote with Rob Parenteau in 2010:
A series of disappointing data releases in recent weeks, including flagging consumer confidence and meager private sector job growth, is leading more and more experts to worry that the recession in the US and abroad is coming back. At the same time, many policymakers, particularly in the Eurozone, are slashing government budgets, which they contend will lower debt levels, and thereby restore investor confidence, reduce interest rates, and promote growth.
Yet many miss the fact that fiscal deficits are a nearly inevitable result of actions by corporations and households. Failure to understand these dynamics and address root causes is sure to make a bad situation worse.
Unbeknownst to most commentators, corporations in the US and many advanced economies have been underinvesting for some time.
The normal state of affairs is for households to save for large purchases, retirement and emergencies, and for businesses to tap those savings via borrowings or equity investments to help fund the expansion of their businesses.
But many economies have abandoned that pattern. For instance, IMF and World Bank studies found a reduced reinvestment rate of profits in many Asian nations following the 1998 crisis. Similarly, a 2005 JPMorgan report noted with concern that since 2002, US corporations on average ran a net financial surplus of 1.7 percent of GDP, which contrasted with an average deficit of 1.2 percent of GDP for the preceding forty years. Companies as a whole historically ran fiscal surpluses, meaning in aggregate they saved rather than expanded, in economic downturns, not expansion phases.
The big culprit in America is that public companies are obsessed with quarterly earnings. Investing in future growth often reduces profits short term. The enterprise has to spend money, say on additional staff or extra marketing, before any new revenues come in the door. And for bolder initiatives like developing new products, the up front costs can be considerable (marketing research, product design, prototype development, legal expenses associated with patents, lining up contractors). Thus a fall in business investment short circuits a major driver of growth in capitalist economies.
Companies, while claiming they maximize shareholder value, increasingly prefer to pay their executives exorbitant bonuses, or issue special dividends to shareholders, or engage in financial speculation. They turn their backs on the traditional role of a capitalist – to find and exploit profitable opportunities to expand his activities
Some may argue that lower investment rates are the result of poor prospects, but the data does not support that view. Corporate profits have risen as a share of GDP since the early 1980s, reaching unprecedented levels right before the global financial crisis took hold. Even now, US profit margins are nearly two thirds of the way back to their prior cyclical high, despite a subpar recovery.
What happens when corporations on balance are saving, and households in aggregate try to save too? Families and individuals typically tighten their belts and bolster their bank accounts in bad times; the tendency is even more acute now, since many are trying to pay down borrowings, which is a form of saving,
If households and corporations are both saving, it must be balanced by the other two sectors of the economy, the government sector and the import/expert secto. In other words, the foreign and government sectors must spend more cash than they are taking in. In lay terms, that means running a trade surplus and having the government incur budget deficits.
Therefore, when both domestic households and the corporate sector are saving at the same time, then you need to have a VERY large trade surplus, a very large government deficit, or some combination of the two. There is no other way to square this circle – anyone who tries to tell you otherwise does not understand double entry book keeping, which the West has used for at least the last five centuries with some success.
And what if a government embarks on an austerity program in the face of private sector efforts to deleverage? Income growth will stall, and if the austerity program is large or sustained long enough, falling household wages and business profits can result.
That result might not sound bad, since lower wages and prices would make US goods more competitive abroad. But in economies suffering from a debt hangover, as incomes fall, it becomes even harder to make payments on outstanding loans. Defaults and bankruptcies cascade through the financial system, leading to even more reluctance to borrow and lend. In other words, the result of Austerian fiscal policies, is deflation – falling wages and prices – which can easily snowball into a depression.
One has to wonder if Buffett’s newfound indifference to deficits comes from the fact that he expects some big bubbles to pop soon.