Following the huge gains made by Republicans in the midterm elections, it was widely expected that President Obama would use the State of the Union address to signal a major policy shift toward the center of the political spectrum. On the surface, at least, he appeared to do just that, hinting that he took budget management very seriously and that Americans should be prepared for shared sacrifice. However, as the final applause still echoed in the House chamber, many astute pundits were left trying to make sense of the many contradictory policy prescriptions the President proffered.
Classical political maneuvering dictates that when clouds are grey, politicians must offer good news, tell jokes, and remind us warmly of our childhood (or in Obama's version, America's triumph over Russia in the Space Race). Disclosure of specific measures should be avoided at all costs. President Obama followed these tactics closely.
While he did address plans to cut non-defence, discretionary federal spending – a small fraction of the overall budget – the President also announced his intention to increase spending on several existing and new initiatives. The scope of the new initiatives will surely eclipse the modest cuts pledged.
The President was careful to refer to all his spending plans as “investments.” The word is used in order to illicit a pleasant feeling among voters who instinctively favor capitalism over socialism, not because any thinking person expects these resources to be better allocated than they would have been by the market. Governments don't make investments because they aren't subject to profit-and-loss feedback. Governments provide public goods for which no profit can be measured or expected – or else we would just have the private sector take care of it. This disingenuous use of the word investment disguises the fact that the President simply intends to borrow even more money to spend on public-sector jobs.
The essential point is that while jobs in the private sector create wealth, public sector jobs actually consume wealth. When I was a Member of the British Parliament, I represented a county that spent the least amount per pupil on education of anywhere in the entire country. Yet, the achievement level of the students was by far the highest. It was vivid proof that it is not the amount of money that is crucial to success, but the quality of the spending. If the President were to lower taxation, cut the number of government regulations, and replace a political atmosphere of uncertainty with one of certainty, he might stand a chance of reviving wealth creation.
More seriously, the President made no mention of the massive debt problems facing US state governments, such as California and Illinois. The potential eruption of these debt and currency problems could well dominate investment strategies for 2011.
Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office issued a highly embarrassing assessment that the federal deficit for 2011 would rise from the previously projected $1.1 trillion to $1.48 trillion. At a stroke, this nullified the President's debt reduction plans. The CBO also pointed out that Social Security posted a $45 billion deficit in 2010 and will bleed more than $600 billion over the next ten years. I assume these estimates to be conservative. It is clear that the President, and the rest of Congress for that matter (with the possible exception of Congressman Paul Ryan whose austere recommendations have been ignored by most of his fellow Republicans), are dancing around the bonfire of our sovereign credit and hoping that their twirls will distract us from the conflagration.
Also yesterday, the Federal Reserve's policy statement claimed that its massive stimulus plans are working, and that it will maintain both QE II and near-zero rates well into 2011. If the economy were indeed improving, as Messrs. Bernanke and Obama claim, why would the Fed and the Treasury need to keep administering life support? Clearly the White House and the Fed have little confidence in their own assertions; so, how should average investors react to more promises which are highly unlikely to be kept?
Rather than buying into Washington's scripted recovery propaganda, investors should focus on the bottom line. Low interest rates are distorting the value of money and the key investment relationship between risk and reward. One side effect is that investors are being incentivized to favor equities over fixed income. A lack of viable alternatives has likely played an unsung role in supporting the current stock market rally.
Investors would be well-advised to retain a jaundiced view of all political statements, especially those of central bankers and politicians positioning themselves for the next election. In 2011, investors should focus their eyes not on the sky, but at the brick wall our Union is fast approaching.