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Post Shutdown, Economy Needs Restart

Oct 21, 2013
Originally published on October 21, 2013 2:00 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, one blogger wants black women to be more welcome in the world of comic books, videogames and science fiction. We'll talk about her efforts to change geek culture in just a few minutes.

But first, the shutdown is over - huzzah - and the federal government has restarted its engines. But the domestic economy is still sluggish, and some of America's trading partners say political drama in D.C. makes them less confident about the U.S. in the future. So the shutdown may cost more in the months ahead. Joining us now is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Also with us is Bloomberg BusinessWeek contributor Roben Farzad. Welcome to both of you.


ROBEN FARZAD: Happy autumn.

HEADLEE: And to you, too. Marilyn, let's start with you because there's two different costs here. There's the actual cost of the shutdown itself, and there is what it may cost us in the future. So let's talk about those two. What did the shutdown itself cost?

GEEWAX: Well, this is a bit of irony for you. To have the measures of the economy, you kind of need the government to measure it. So you need the Labor Department, the Commerce Department, USDA, that kind of thing to tell you just how bad the damage is, and we haven't had that. They haven't been at work, so we're little bit in the dark. But private economists have done their best to come up with some estimates, and the figure you hear a lot is - there was a Standard & Poor's estimate...


GEEWAX: ...And they came up with 24 billion that it cost the economy. Now everybody is looking at, what does that do going forward in terms of our growth rate? A lot of people had thought that the economy was growing at about 3 percent towards the end of the year, and that's pretty good. You know, that's a nice rate. You'd like to have 3 percent. But now, because of the shutdown, it's probably falling back to about 2 percent, and some people are even more gloomy than that. The IHS Global Insight, which is a, you know, very respected forecasting firm, is saying it's maybe more like 1.6 percent. You know, when you take into account the cost of inflation...


GEEWAX: ...Basically, you're at a stall speed. And it's a lot like riding a bicycle, really, just you have to have that forward momentum to keep going or you...

HEADLEE: It's much harder to stay balanced...

GEEWAX: Right...

HEADLEE: ...When you're still.

GEEWAX: You might start to fall when you hit that stall speed. So have we really slowed the economy enough to put it at that point where it could tip towards recession? That's something we'll have to see in the future, but it certainly was not a good thing to have happen.

HEADLEE: And, Roben, I think it's universally accepted at this point - and you can correct me if I'm wrong - that these constant crises, especially over fiscal policy, are not only not good for the economy, but are costing jobs outside of just the government, right? Even in private businesses, it can cost money and cost jobs.

FARZAD: Well, it's good for me personally because I can go on the air and use the Kabuki word like I know what it means - or budgetary beud, as I've tried to drop before. But let's not forget, Uncle Sam is a major player in the economy, especially in these years of deficit and pump priming and spending money that we intend to pay off later, and that has a whole ripple effect. It's no different. I mean, that's why, for example, General Motors was saved, not just because of General Motors, but because of all of the different suppliers and subsidiaries up and down the Rust Belt.

The government is multiple times as influential and as important, and we're not going to see the full after on effect after a couple of months. But to go back to whether we're growing at 2 percent or 3 percent, I think most economists and observers will agree right now that it's still way below what the economy needs to put a true dent - a true, true dent into the unemployment rate, which even though it's at its lowest since 2008, we still have about 2 million jobs to recover.

HEADLEE: And you say the whole fiasco with both the shutdown and the argument over the debt ceiling should have been checked by bond vigilantes. What does that mean?

FARZAD: Yes. I mean, back in the day, if you were acting profligate, if you were trying to be pretty fiscally, if people didn't get along on Capitol Hill, you'd get punished by the people that Uncle Sam needs - bondholders out there, bond investors. The world is so different right now that there aren't just the handful of investors unlike, you know, 1994 or the late '70s and early '80s, who can come out and send our borrowing costs higher for punish us for hanky-panky in D.C. or short-mindedness. You saw this - maybe the vigilantes of most recently visited places like Portugal, Spain and Italy, when they had their fiscal crises.


FARZAD: They immediately felt it in terms of higher borrowing costs. But right now, you have constituencies such as the Chinese owning a ton of our debt. You have the Federal Reserve out there buying $85 billion a month of mortgage and treasury security. So the vigilantes have been neutered.

HEADLEE: Marilyn, who got hit the hardest? I mean, obviously, other than government workers, who ended up paying the price for the shutdown? Was it tourism?

GEEWAX: The U.S. Travel Association might want to make an argument that they were the hardest hit because, you know, those scenes on TV of the national parks being closed, that hurt a lot of travel. People canceled plans. And there are also lots of government workers and contractors who go to conferences. They get together to talk about whatever contract is coming up, and those trips were all canceled. So, you know, if you were a small restaurant outside of, let's say, Skyline Drive in Virginia, October is the peak time when the leaves are changing. Everybody wants to go to Shenandoah National Park to look around, and you have a little restaurant, a shop, maybe you sell apples at your little, you know, farm outlet there or whatever.

A lot of people didn't do that because they couldn't get into those parks. So people who were sort of feeding off of the travel industry - the parks, the conferences - that all got hurt. And the U.S. Travel Association put the cost at about 152 million a day total loss to the travel industry. And of course there's retail, too. A lot of people didn't get paid. All of those federal workers who, even if they're going to be reimbursed, weren't getting those regular paychecks during the shutdown. October's actually a pretty big month for retail. You've got Halloween shopping, people buying warmer clothes for the kids for preparing for winter.


GEEWAX: So it actually put a dent in retail.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about resetting the nation's economy and government after the shutdown. Our guests are, as you just heard, NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax and Bloomberg BusinessWeek contributor Roben Farzad. And, Roben, there has been talk about how this shutdown and using fiscal policy in a sort of crisis-to-crisis way hurts the United States internationally. I wonder what some of our biggest trading partners - or, say, China, since they hold more than a trillion dollars in U.S. debt - how they feel about this and whether this has hurt our credibility in, say, the IMF?

FARZAD: I think more than anything, they're envious. Imagine Iranian state TV broadcasting this man-made, fiscal debt ceiling showdown - the Tea Party and this guy and we're good for the money and the way we're - I'd say they're envious because the United States is unique in that it does something like this, and if the world freaks out, its borrowing costs fall ever lower because the readout of safety is the U.S. Treasury market.

So I think you would be checked by this in the past if you're talking about bond vigilantes. You saw it happen with the U.S. getting its credit rating slashed in 2011. If anything, its borrowing costs plummeted. You look at the stock market here in the United States, it didn't buy the melodramatics out of Washington. It's at an all-time high. And other countries are looking at us and saying, gosh, these guys, can you believe it? That this is something that's entirely created from political exigencies and partisanship, and they're good for the money, and everybody wants to buy their debt. And it's held all over the world, and yet they get to kick the can down the road. And how many metaphors did I just mix there?


FARZAD: You know what I'm saying. Right.

HEADLEE: A lot. You could have thrown Kabuki in, if you'd wanted to. Marilyn...

FARZAD: I love the Kabuki.

HEADLEE: Marilyn, what do you think? I mean, does this hurt our economic credibility?

GEEWAX: The thing that the United States always has going for it is, as he says, is we're still stronger than other places. You look at what happens in Europe, and there are lots of concerns about China going forward. So even when there's problems, we still end up being the strongest place that people want to invest their money. But at some point, it does aggravate people, and that can change. Confidence really matters. It's like banks are really strong until everybody decides to have a bank run. And if everybody suddenly changes their mind and decides, oh, maybe this isn't safe, you can end up with terrible consequences. So earlier this month, I went over to the IMF - the International Monetary Fund...

HEADLEE: Monetary Fund.

GEEWAX: ...Meetings and the World Bank. So I had an opportunity to listen to a lot of central bankers and leaders from around the world, and they were all just aghast. They could not believe this, and how many more times can you freak them out before they start to come up with another way to go? Maybe that's coming up with some sort of a global reserve currency or whatever, but they're very horrified that they have to be held hostage by this constant uncertainty.

But also, the other thing that I think really came through was it hurts American soft power - that is, our reputation in the world. We like to say to people that democracy is a good system. It brings stability to the world. We're supposed to be the example to everyone else, but if you're a Chinese leader and you're looking at the consequences of democracy, maybe that doesn't look so great for your economy. So the long-term consequences of not having trading partners who share our values, who share our love of democracy, that, you know, long-term, as you go forward, that could be damaging.

FARZAD: But on that subject, Marilyn, aren't you surprised that the Chinese didn't exert more moral suasion? After all, I mean, they're such a huge creditor...


FARZAD: ...And they were deafeningly silent because I think, in the end, we're all connected. Their economy right now is more fragile than it's been in recent years, and they don't want to freak out the American consumer or send bond rates...


FARZAD: ...You know, in another taper tantrum. So, again, we have it uniquely good, for better or for worse.

GEEWAX: It's good to be big...


GEEWAX: The United States is just so huge that we get away with things that no other country could get away with.

FARZAD: Call it too big to care.

GEEWAX: But if you want to argue that democracy makes sense and that it brings stability and economic growth, which is really the argument we've been making for...


GEEWAX: ...You know, a couple of centuries, no? It does hurt our reputation with smaller countries that look around. Let's say, for example, also, recently the president was supposed to have been at the Asia Pacific Conference. And he wasn't able to go because of the government shutdown.


GEEWAX: So, you know, again, you're in a situation where all these Asian countries are looking for leadership, and the Chinese ended up being the star of the show, not the U.S. president.


GEEWAX: So does that make a good case for democracy or doesn't it?

FARZAD: Well, maybe he can appoint Ted Cruz ambassador to someone.

HEADLEE: Oh, come on now. We're going to end on that because we're not going to go into it.

FARZAD: Put it on me. Put it on me.

HEADLEE: Roben Farzad, making that cheap shot, contributor for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He joined us from Richmond, Virginia. And Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor here at NPR. She joined us at the Washington, D.C. studios. Having a little fun there. Thanks to both of you.

GEEWAX: You're welcome.

FARZAD: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.