Despite, or maybe because of, the Great Recession there’s tremendous opportunity for the United States in general, and for President Obama in particular.
Without going into detail (books will be written about all this) one underlying cause of this recession was the lack of strong credit securities for investors globally. That lack still exists.
And herein lies the opportunity. The United States has a great need for infrastructure improvements in many areas. It has been estimated that just maintaining our existing infrastructure will cost well over $2 trillion the next five years. But the need goes far beyond that figure. Our energy system needs modernizing, and the demand for clean, sustainable base energy is only going to increase the next 10 years. Dramatically increase.
The automotive and mass transit industries need to be re-built. Universal health care will take huge investment to implement. Public investment in education will improve our ability to instruct our youth in the skills needed for this century.
One can only guess at how much investment all this will take, but the total is likely to be many times the $14 trillion in GDP the United States produced in 2008.
Much if not most of this investment will take the form of bonds, the lifeblood of credit markets worldwide. And unlike the derivative securities recently exploded, these will be real bonds. Secure bonds mainly issued by government. These types of AAA securities are just what credit markets need. There will be willing buyers worldwide.
But there are two hurdles to overcome. For 30 years the United States operated under the basic assumption that free markets, if left alone and essentially unregulated, would best create jobs, income and wealth for everyone. It turns out that, although free markets are powerfully creative, they tend to ignore longterm goals in favor of short term profits.
Long term goals, it turns out, is primarily a function of government. The first hurdle is to convince the nation that it’s wise to support government efforts in this regard. And this means overcoming 30 years of ideology based upon the idea that government is the last place you go to for answers. As President Reagan so powerfully argued, “Government is not the solution. It’s the problem.”
Convincing at the time 30 years ago, the nation took his words too literally and wandered down the now crumbling road believing free markets would take care of everything.
That’s hurdle one. Hurdle two is planning and explaining what the goals are and exactly how we intend to get there. The better this is done the greater is the opportunity. Well designed plans and clearly stated goals will attract investment dollars in search of the kind of projects that provide secure credit market returns.
President Obama has begun this effort, but it needs to be fleshed out and better explained. He’s called his initial efforts a “down payment” for improving the nation’s energy, social and education infrastructures.
Any good plan has specific actions, each building on the other and leading to success. There is a well understood design showing how assets will be applied to making improvements. There is detail everyone can clearly see and agree with.
One important aspect may be to design specific Treasury bonds to specific projects, rather than just a general raising of investment capital. This kind of clarity of purpose enhances a bond’s attractiveness to credit markets. During WWII, for example, the United States issued “war bonds.” Also, the Treasury investment can create the need for private bonds as industry competes for contracts.
This clarity also demands clarity of payment. It requires the government to have strong fiscal plans that back up the bonds. Income from private involvement will help, but in the end, the government has to honestly budget what it will take in tax revenue to pay off investors. Fortunately many of the required investments will generate easily identifiable tax revenues. That’s why credit markets so love utility projects, for example.
The President has shown a tendency to suggest goals and seek bipartisan support from Congress. It’s not likely this approach will work well. More than suggestions are needed. Specific plans that identify all the effort’s components, including investment sources and tax income, need to be included in the administration’s proposals to Congress.
If the detail is good, the focus strong and the opportunity well defined Congress will want to be associated with any proposed plan. Cooperation will be forthcoming because that’s how Congress gets re-elected.
And the rewards will be huge. The first reward will be a rise in public confidence, a serious victim of the Great Recession. America has always relied on a native sense of optimism. Just developing the goals and explaining the plans to reach those goals, will provide a tremendous boost.
The sooner we start, the better our rewards. Real finance. Real goals. Real returns for investors. From the Great Recession to the Great Reconstruction.