Don't go wobbly on us now, Ben Bernanke
Barack Obama's home state of Illinois is near the point of fiscal disintegration. "The state is in utter crisis," said Representative Suzie Bassi. "We are next to bankruptcy. We have a $13bn hole in a $28bn budget."
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Published: 8:45PM GMT 28 Feb 2010
Ben Bernanke has written about the dangers of deflation Photo: AP
The state has been paying bills with unfunded vouchers since October. A fifth of buses have stopped. Libraries, owed $400m (£263m), are closing one day a week. Schools are owed $725m. Unable to pay teachers, they are preparing mass lay-offs. "It's a catastrophe", said the Schools Superintedent.
In Alexander County, the sheriff's patrol cars have been repossessed; three-quarters of his officers are laid off; the local prison has refused to take county inmates until debts are paid.
Florida, Arizona, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York are all facing crises. California has cut teachers salaries by 5pc, and imposed a 5pc levy on pension fees.
The Economic Policy Institute says states face a shortfall of $156bn in fiscal 2010. Most are banned by law from running deficits, so they must retrench. Washington has provided $68bn in federal aid, but that depletes the Obama stimulus package.
This is not to pick on America. Belt-tightening is the oppressive fact of 2010-2012 for half the world. Hungary, Ukraine, the Baltics and the Balkans are already under the knife. Latvia's economy may contract by 30pc from peak to trough as it carries out an "internal devaluation", ie wage cuts, to hold its euro peg.
The eurozone's fiscal squeeze is well advanced in Ireland. Brussels has told Greece to cut by 10pc of GDP in three years, Spain by 8pc, Portugal by 6pc. Britain must slash soon, or face a gilts strike.
The Bank for International Settlements says Britain needs a primary surplus of 5.8pc of GDP for a decade to stabilise debt at pre-crisis levels, given the ageing crunch as well. The figure is 6.4pc for Japan, 4.3pc for the US and France. It warns of "unstable dynamics", posh talk for a debt spiral. "Action is needed now."
Indeed, though cutting too fast would tip the West back into slump and kill tax revenues, solving nothing – a risk that austerity priests rarely acknowledge. Pacing is everything.
Mervyn King, the Bank of England's Governor, seems strangely alone in facing the implications of this for central banks, and in seeing the absurdity of a recovery strategy where everybody tightens at once and surplus states keep on dumping excess capacity abroad. "I was struck by the mood at the G7, where several of the major economies around the world said quite openly that they were relying on external demand growth to generate growth. That can't be true of everybody," he said.
The West risks a slow grind into debt-deflation unless central banks offset fiscal tightening with monetary stimulus – QE, of course – to keep demand alive. Yet the Fed and the European Central Bank are letting credit contract.
Bank loans in the US have fallen at a 14pc rate this year, caused in part by Basel III rules pushing banks to raise capital ratios.
The M3 money supply has fallen at a 5.6pc rate since September. The Fed's Monetary Multiplier dropped to an all-time low of 0.809 last week.
The contraction of eurozone bank credit to firms accelerated to 2.7pc in January, while M3 fell by a further €55bn. Japan's GDP deflator has dropped to a record low of -3pc.
These are epic warning signals, with echoes of 1931. Yet the Fed has just raised the Discount Rate. It is winding up liquidity operations, and preparing to reverse QE, even though the housing market has tipped over again. New home sales fell 11pc in January to 309,000 units, the lowest since data began, and 24pc of mortgages are in negative equity.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told us in his 2002 speech "Deflation: Making Sure It Doesn't Happen Here" that: 1) Japan's slide into deflation was "entirely unexpected", and that it would be "imprudent" to rule out such a risk in America; 2) "Sustained deflation can be highly destructive to a modern economy and should be strongly resisted"; 3) that a "determined government" has the means to stop deflation, if necessary by use of the "printing press".
Yet here we are, facing exactly that risk, unless you think one good quarter of inventory rebuilding has conjured away our debt bubble. The one-off inflation blip caused by a doubling of oil prices is already fading, revealing once again the deeper forces of deflation. Core prices fell 0.1pc in January. They plummet from here.
So why has Bernanke broken ranks with King and begun to flirt with disaster by tightening too soon? Has he lost control to regional hawks, as in mid-2008? Have critics in Congress and the media got to him? Has China vetoed QE, fearing a stealth default on Treasury debt?
Don't go wobbly on us now, Ben. If the governments of America, Europe, and Japan are to retrench – as they must – their central banks must stay super-loose to cushion the blow. Otherwise we will all sink into deflationary quicksand.