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The foundation of the Obama stimulus plan is easy to understand, and to Chris and lots of smart people, it appears to make sense. Once again, its goal is all about raising growth right now by shifting money around, without durable incentives for expansion -- what we call "Static Impact." It seeks to shift hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. and foreign savings to government and consumer spending. The Treasury is borrowing $862 billion in funds that families and governments don't need to use now, and hence are saving. The federal government is then spending part of it quickly and returning the rest, through programs like the "Making Work Pay" tax rebates, to consumers most likely to spend it. The rationale is that all the extra outlays in these two categories will raise GDP far more than if all of that money had flowed to places where savings go, into corporate bonds, stock offerings, CDs, or bank deposits.
But the plan contains a gaping hole. The rub is that savings, just like the dollars government channels into salaries and auto fleets -- and that consumers lavish on restaurants, tourism and computers -- are all spent. They're simply spent on different things, namely corporate investment for research, robots and software. Hence, a dollar transferred from savings to consumption doesn't add to total spending, or to GDP, at all.
So let's answer Chris' question directly. Let's assume that the government never borrowed that $862 billion and that the money stayed in the hands of American families and foreign governments. Remember, all of that $862 billion is being spent under the stimulus by our government or consumers. If the savers simply kept the money, all of it would remain as savings. So those dollars would flow into the banks in savings accounts and CDs. That money would then be available for the banks to lend, chiefly to large and small businesses.
Chris' point is well-taken: In this sluggish economy, would companies actually borrow those extra savings, and then spend the money on such investments as R&D or computer systems?
The answer is that banks are in the business of collecting interest, and would indeed lend the extra deposits. "Money never sleeps," says J.D. Foster, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, borrowing a line from the title of the new movie "Wall Street II." How would that money make its way to private investments in a market where demand for capital is extremely weak?
It would happen in two ways. First, the supply of savings would surge, and government borrowing would be far lower. So the pool of funds available for companies would increase, and the competition for those funds would fall. As a result, interest rates would drop even below today's bargain levels. Lower rates would reduce financing costs for companies, making it more attractive to buy everything from forklifts to new systems for logistics.