Since the financial crisis of 2008, a recurring theme in our national debate over the role of government spending has been the imminence of currency devaluation and inflation due to chronic budget deficits.
Suddenly, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to work with Congress to cut taxes and dramatically increase the federal budget deficit these same voices are muted.
Shouldn’t we be hearing those same shrill voices now?
They warned us that inflation was unavoidable if government spent money to reinforce an economy that was on the ropes after a financial calamity. They predicted that inflation was inevitable if we invested in infrastructure. They portrayed the Obama Administration as profligate.
The cudgel used to support their message was that financial markets would punish the United States through higher interest rates and a lessening of investment activity. That message clearly carried weight. The federal budget deficit fell consistently during the Obama Administration. Federal employment grew at rates below any Republican administration in modern times.
Through it all, inflation stayed muted and interest rates rested at historically low levels. Statistics proving these assertions are there for all to see; the inflationary crisis simply didn’t occur.
Those who had loudly lobbied for fiscal restraint claimed credit.
But there is a counter argument. The global economy is in a deflationary state — not inflationary. Subdued economic conditions around the world provided a ready buffer against any inflationary pressure that might have been created by a larger federal budget deficit. These conditions exist to this day.
Even skeptics agree that free markets don’t lie. Financial markets — buyers and sellers of the lifeblood of commerce — provide a real-time dispassionate view of expectations for inflation and future growth. In this, the deficit scolds are correct.
The punishment of the financial markets that has been threatened for the last eight years may now be closer than ever. Interest rates on mortgages for homeowners, bank loans for small businesses and personal revolving debt are increasing. Nothing suggests this is a short-term phenomenon.
Meanwhile, the stock market has gotten a boost of adrenaline, as regulated industries such as financial services appear likely to benefit from a period of lower government oversight. However, interestingly, technology companies — the source of substantially all our net economic gains over the last eight years — have lagged.
Financial markets are telling us to expect more inflation and less economic growth.
Where are those voices that so loudly reminded us to limit our federal spending? Some remain, but many have changed their tune.
Now these voices state that a growing federal budget deficit will not be a problem. They make a distinction between deficits due to higher government spending and deficits resulting from tax cuts. They argue that tax cuts will pay for themselves in growth and subsequent deficit reduction. This is not an assertion supported by historical economic data; neither the Reagan nor Bush tax cuts paid for themselves. More importantly, the financial markets don’t appear to agree.
As someone who works with small businesses, I can attest that rising interest rates and inflation would be a big problem for business owners. They are also the enemy of those on a fixed income or with minimum wage jobs.
The markets just might be telling us that the incoming administration is creating conditions for an economy that will harm ordinary Americans. Markets don’t lie. Shame on us if we don’t pay attention.
This column was originally posted at WashingtonPost.com.