Tag Archives: Government debt

Can We Afford a Tax Cut?

 

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Our favorite economist, Brian Wesbury of First Trust says “yes.”:

Congress took a big step last week toward enacting some sort of tax cuts and tax reform.

That big step was the US Senate passing a budget resolution creating the room for ten years of tax cuts totaling $1.5 trillion with a simple majority vote. This procedure means there is no need to break a filibuster by getting to 60 votes.

So right about now is when self-styled “deficit hawks” will start to squawk. They will claim the federal government simply can’t afford to boost the federal debt, which already exceeds $20 trillion, with no end in sight.

Let’s put aside the issue that between 2009-12 many of these deficit hawks were supporting new spending, when annual federal deficits were $1 trillion plus. Let’s just take them at their word that they don’t think any policy that increases the deficit can be good for the economy.

One problem with their argument is that the $1.5 trillion is an increase in projected deficits over a span of ten years, not a definite increase in the debt. If tax reform focuses on cutting marginal tax rates, particularly on overtaxed corporate capital and personal incomes, and can thereby generate faster economic growth, the actual loss of revenue could be substantially less than $1.5 trillion or maybe nothing at all.

The estimate of a $1.5 trillion revenue loss is based on “static” scoring, which means the budget scorekeepers on Capitol Hill make the ridiculous assumption that changes in tax policy can’t affect the growth rate of the overall economy. Just a 1 percentage point increase in the average economic growth rate over the next ten years would reduce the deficit by $2.7 trillion, easily offsetting the supposed cost of the tax cut.

Another problem for the deficit hawks is that despite a record high federal debt, the servicing cost of the debt is still low relative to both the size of the economy and federal revenue.

Late last week, we got final numbers for Fiscal Year 2017 and net interest on the national debt was $263 billion – that’s just 1.4% of fiscal year GDP. To put that in perspective, that’s lower than it ever was from 1974 to 2002. The peak during that era was 3.2% of GDP in 1991. The lowest point since 1974 was 1.2% in 2015, not far from where we are today.

The same is true for interest relative to federal revenue, which was 7.9% in Fiscal Year 2017, lower than any year from 1974 to 2013. The high point during that era was 18.4% in 1991 and the recent low was 6.9% in 2015. Again, we’re still pretty close to the recent low.

Yes, interest rates should move up in the years to come, but it will take several years to rollover the debt at higher interest-rate levels. Even if interest rates went to 4% across the entire yield curve, the interest burden would remain below historical peak levels relative to GDP and tax revenue.

The US certainly has serious long-term fiscal challenges. The US government has over-promised future generations of retirees and should ratchet back these spending promises to encourage work, saving, and investment. Meanwhile, we need the US Treasury Department to issue longer-dated maturities like 50-year and 100-year debt to lock-in low interest rates for longer.

However, the absence of these changes should not be an obstacle to boosting economic growth by cutting tax rates and reforming the tax code. Plow Horse economic growth is certainly better than no growth at all, but turning the economy into a thoroughbred would make it easier to handle our long-term budget challenges, not harder.

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Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 is widely misunderstood.  Part of this is due to the fact that financial issues are complicated.  How many people, after all, know what “mark to market accounting” is?  Part of it is due to politics.  Government policies encouraged home ownership by lowering lending standards, leading to NINA (“No Income No Assets”) loans.  At one time home prices were rising so fast that people believed that no matter what they paid for a house they could always sell it for more.

A thought-provoking article by Brian Wesbury of First Trust expands on this issue.

 Time To Drain The Fed Swamp

The Panic of 2008 was damaging in more ways than people think. Yes, there were dramatic losses for investors and homeowners, but these markets have recovered. What hasn’t gone back to normal is the size and scope of Washington DC, especially the Federal Reserve. It’s time for that to change.

D.C. institutions got away with blaming the crisis on the private sector, and used this narrative to grow their influence, budgets, and size. They also created the narrative that government saved the US economy, but that is highly questionable.

Without going too much in depth, one thing no one talks about is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at the direction of HUD, were forced to buy subprime loans in order to meet politically-driven, social policy objectives. In 2007, they owned 76% of all subprime paper (See Peter Wallison: Hidden in Plain Sight).

At the same time, the real reason the crisis spread so rapidly and expanded so greatly was not derivatives, but mark-to-market accounting.

It wasn’t government that saved the economy. Quantitative Easing was started in September 2008. TARP was passed on October 3, 2008. Yet, for the next five months markets continued to implode, the economy plummeted and private money did not flow to private banks.

On March 9, 2009, with the announcement that insanely rigid mark-to-market accounting rules would be changed, the markets stopped falling, the economy turned toward growth and private investors started investing in banks. All this happened immediately when the accounting rule was changed. No longer could these crazy rules wipe out bank capital by marking down asset values despite little to no change in cash flows. Changing this rule was the key to recovery, not QE, TARP or “stress tests.”

The Fed, and supporters of government intervention, ignore all these facts. They never address them. Why? First, institutions protect themselves even if it’s at the expense of the truth. Second, human nature doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Third, Washington DC always uses crises to grow. Admitting that their policies haven’t worked would lead to a smaller government with less power.

The Fed has become massive. Its balance sheet is nearly 25% of GDP. Never before has it been this large. And yet, the economy has grown relatively slowly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, with a much smaller Fed balance sheet, the economy grew far more rapidly.

So how do you drain the Fed? By not appointing anyone that is already waiting in D.C.’s revolving door of career elites. We need someone willing to challenge Fed and D.C. orthodoxy. If we had our pick to fill the chair and vice chair positions (with Stanley Fischer announcing his departure) we would be focused on the likes of John Taylor, Peter Wallison, or Bill Isaac.

They would bring new blood to the Fed and hold it to account for its mistakes. It’s time for the Fed to own up and stop defending the nonsensical story that government, and not entrepreneurs, saved the US economy. Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have never fracked a well or written an App. We need a government that is willing to support the private sector and stop acting as if the “swamp” itself creates wealth.

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Our Government Needs to Start Doing its Job

It’s probably not news to anyone that our country faces some serious problems.  However, members of Congress don’t seem to care enough to do anything but grandstand and argue.  The U.S. government is running a $700 billion deficit this year, but the last time Congress sent a real budget to the President’s desk was 2002.  That was 15 years ago!  Since that time Federal spending has largely been on autopilot via a mechanism called a Continuing Resolution (“CR” in Washington-speak).

The role of Congress is to make laws and decide how tax revenues should be spent.  Instead, they act as if they think their role is pretending to act as detectives.  This is not a commentary solely on the current kerfluffle in Washington.  As we noted, Congress has been abdicating its responsibility for 15 years.  Our elected officials would rather posture in front of the cameras than actually do the jobs we sent them to Washington to do.

 Brian S. Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust, commented:

 

At eight years, the current economic recovery is the third longest on record. Personal income, consumer spending, household assets, and net worth, are all at record highs. Stock markets are at record highs. Corporate profits are within striking distance of their all-time highs. Federal tax receipts are at record highs.

So, how is it possible that the federal budget, along with some state and local budgets, still look like they’re in the middle of a nasty recession?

The answer: Government fiscal management is completely out of control. Politicians find time to fret about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and won’t stop bashing banks, but they’ve lost their ability to deal with their own fiscal reality.

… Illinois and the City of Chicago are running chronic deficits, while New Jersey and New York are fiscal basket cases.
Businesses and entrepreneurs create new things and build wealth. Politicians redistribute that wealth. And while some of what government does can help the economy, like providing defense or supporting property rights, the U.S. government has expanded well beyond that point. Politicians have never been this reckless or fiscally irresponsible.

Whenever we say this, people ask; “what would you cut from the budget?” And then, if you are actually brave enough to answer, you get attacked for “not caring.”

This needs to stop. Illinois is in a death spiral. Tax rate increases will chase more productive people out of the state, while ratchetting spending higher. And just like Detroit and Puerto Rico, the state will go bankrupt.

The U.S. government is on this path, but, because it has the ability to fund itself with the best debt in the world, a true fiscal day of reckoning is still 15-20 years away.

Government spending needs to be peeled back everywhere. It’s no longer a case of picking and choosing. And until that happens, the fiscal irresponsibility of the government is the number one threat to not only America, but the world.

No matter what politicians tell us, any pain caused by private sector greed will pale in comparison to the mayhem that collapsing governments can create. Just look at Venezuela or Greece! It’s time to reset America’s fiscal reality. And if that means debt ceiling brinksmanship, shutting down the government, or moving to a simple majority on spending decisions, so be it. It’s time to get serious!

 

We agree.  We should all tell Congress that it’s time to get serious.

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Fixing the Public Employees’ pension crisis

Public employee pensions are time bombs set to explode.  The State of Illinois finances are in such a state of crisis that its comptroller, Susana Mendoza, has told the legislature that over 90% of its monthly revenue is now being commandeered for court-ordered payments, primarily to pay current pensioners.  If Illinois does not pass a new budget within a few days there will be a financial crisis.

According to Forbes:

Public employee pension plans around the country are facing a shortfall of at least $1 trillion, and some of the largest plans are beginning to radically cut promised benefits because they have not stashed away enough to meet their obligations.

There is only so much money to go around.  Promises that can’t be kept won’t be kept … and that includes pensions.

One sign of things to come is a bill signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.  It reforms the state pension system that makes it more sustainable.

 “Let’s be clear: This plan addresses our liability in the only real and responsible way possible, by changing the structure of pension benefits,” said Mr. Wolf. “The fact is, we cannot accelerate the shrinking of our liability on the backs of our current employees, and this bill recognizes this in a real, concrete way.”

The bill moves new workers not in high-risk jobs such as state police and corrections officers into a hybrid retirement system.   Half of their retirement benefits will come from pensions paid for by the taxpayer and the other half will come from a 401(a) defined contribution plan.  A 401(a) is similar to a 401(k) but for public employees.  There are differences, but both transfer responsibility for retirement income to the employee and away from the employer.

The law is projected to save more than $5 billion and shield taxpayers from $20 billion or more in additional liabilities if state investments fail to meet projections, said a news release issued from the office of Republican Sen. Jake Corman, the bill’s chief sponsor.

We suspect that Pennsylvania is just the first state to adopt a system that transfers the responsibility for public employees’ retirement income away from the taxpayer and toward the employee.  It levels the playing field between public and private employees.

It will also make financial planning increasingly important for everyone.

Click HERE for questions about financial planning.

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How is the US Treasury managing the nation’s debt?

With interest rates at or near historic lows a lot of people are taking advantage of low rates to re-finance their debts.  Is the US Treasury taking this opportunity to lock in low rates?  Not really.

Here is First Trust’s commentary on the issue.

Instead of imposing strict fiduciary rules on Wall Street, banks, investment houses, and financial advisors, the government should apply similar rules to the managers of the federal debt. This is particularly true because unlike the private sector – which faces tough market competition every day – the debt managers at the Treasury Department have a monopoly.

These federal debt managers have been flagrantly violating what should be their fiduciary responsibility to manage the debt in the best long-term interests of the US taxpayer.

Despite a roughly $19 trillion federal debt, the interest cost of the debt remains low relative to fundamentals. In Fiscal Year 2015, interest was 1.2% of GDP and 6.9% of federal revenue, both the lowest since the late 1960s. To put this in perspective, in 1991 debt service hit a post-World War II peak of 3.2% of GDP and 18.4% of federal revenue.

In other words, for the time being low interest rates have kept down the servicing cost of the debt even as the debt itself has soared.

You would think that in a situation like this, with federal debt set to continue to increase rapidly in the future, that the government’s debt managers would bend over backwards to lock-in current low interest rates for as long as possible.

But you would be wrong. The average maturity of outstanding marketable Treasury debt (which doesn’t include debt held in government Trust Funds, like Social Security) is only 5 years and 9 months. That’s certainly higher than the average maturity of 4 years and 1 month at the end of the Bush Administration, but still way too low given the level of interest rates.

The government’s debt managers have a built-in bias in favor of using short-term debt: because the yield curve normally slopes upward, the government can save a little bit of money each year by issuing shorter term debt. In turn, that means politicians get to show smaller budget deficits or get to shift spending to pet programs.

But this is short-sighted. The US government should instead lock-in relatively low interest rates for multiple decades, by issuing more 30-year bonds, and perhaps by introducing bonds the mature in 50 years or even longer.

At present, we find ourselves in the fortunate situation of being able to easily pay the interest on the federal debt. But this isn’t going to last forever. If the government locks-in low rates for an extended period it would give us time to catch our breath and fix our long-term fiscal problems, like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

There’s no reason this has to be a partisan issue. The government’s debt managers should just treat the debt like it’s their own. If the government is determined to hold many others to a stricter standard, it should lead by example.

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