December 5, 2016

Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan economic policies

A surprising amount of spontaneous optimism has spread over the markets following the Trump election victory. Specifically, interest rates have climbed swiftly and economic and profit forecasts have been lifted based on the expectation of successful pro-growth policies to be implemented by the Trump administration.

However, one of the most pressing headwinds will be those higher interest rates. It is a headwind that will be compounded by the size of the federal government's debt, which will be close to $20 trillion in January 2017. And that does not include another $3.5 trillion of local and state debt.

Back in the Reagan administration, tax cuts increased the deficit, but when combined with the Clinton/Gingrich budget controls, debt was falling and economic growth accelerated. Debt as a percentage of GDP fell. But the abandonment of budgetary controls (tax cuts rose at the same time spending programs grew) in the Bush administration put us back into deficits The Great Recession led to an explosion in the deficit, growing by nearly $10 trillion in eight years.

The total federal debt has risen by more than $1.3 trillion in the last year (+7%); this includes off-budget debt.

The larger our debt, the harder it is to grow--just look at Japan and Europe. 

The U.S. debt to GDP ratio is more than 120% (it was only about 30% when Reagan was elected). Today, total U.S. debt--which includes private and business debt--totals $68 trillion, or under 400% of GDP. But nearly 95 million individuals are not in the labor force. As my pal John Mauldin writes, there are 43 million living in poverty, 2 million prison inmates, 43 million on food stamps, 57 million Medicare recipients and 73 million Medicaid recipients.

There also are more than $100 trillion of unfunded municipal liabilities that ultimately must be paid off.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the U.S. economy has been growing at about 2% in real terms. More recently the rate of growth has slowed to only 1.5%. Add in inflation and nominal GDP growth is approximately 3.25%, compared to 7% growth in total debt.

The Heavy Lifting Lies Ahead

The Republicans' economic growth policy is founded on the notion that their initiatives will produce enough GDP growth to negate the growing deficit.

However, history indicates over the last 110 years that the U.S. economy has entered recession within one year of the end of every two-term presidency. If this occurs again, the lifting will be next to impossible.

Practically speaking, the implementation of Trump policy will take time and will require much more than just eliminating waste. Moreover, despite the stated goal of reducing health care costs, demographics (the aging Baby Boomers) will cause ever-more spending of a Social Security kind.

Finally, with a stated objective of reducing individual and corporate taxes, revenues and growth will occur with a lag, producing a rise in the deficit and worsening debt problems, particularly if interest rates rise.

I fear the gap between lower taxes and offsetting revenue increases will be wider than many now believe.

Bottom Line

Conditions today are materially different than they were 50 years ago, or even 35 years ago when Ronald Reagan became president.

When Reagan assumed the presidency, stocks were inexpensive. Back then, the stock market's capitalization as a percent of GDP was 40%; it's close to 200% now. Arguably, stocks are now expensive.

When Reagan became president, interest rates were falling; now they are rising. When Reagan won election, there was large pent-up demand. In 2016, zero interest rates for seven years have borrowed from future growth. When Reagan entered office, baby boomers were entering the work force; today they are retiring.

The heavy lifting of coherent tax and spending policies aimed at producing a smooth path of economic growth will be a meaningful challenge to the Trump administration, especially considering the length of the current expansion and with the historic precedent of recessions soon following two-term presidents.

Balancing the U.S. budget with an already swollen deficit in order to create a clear path to growth is easier said in a campaign promise than executed over the next few years.