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Archive for the ‘Debt’ Category

When I tell journalists and politicians that the European fiscal situation is worse today than it was immediately prior to the crisis, they don’t believe me. What about all the spending cuts, they ask? What about the draconian austerity? And the Troika-imposed fiscal restraint?

I tell them it’s mostly been a mirage. It turns out that “austerity” in Europe is simply another way of saying massive tax increases. National governments have boosted tax burdens substantially, but there hasn’t been much spending restraint.

This is a topic I spoke about earlier today at a conference in Prague, which was hosted by the European Conservatives and Reformers bloc of the European Parliament.

My panel’s topic was “Current Challenges to the Transatlantic Partnership” and I focused on economic stagnation and fiscal crisis.

Regarding economic stagnation, I pointed out that there’s very little growth in Europe and substandard growth in the United States.

By itself, that’s a problem but not a crisis.

The crisis (or at least what I argue is a looming crisis) is that Europe’s fiscal situation is worse today than it was when last decade’s fiscal chaos began.

To put this in concrete terms, I crunched the data for both the “eurozone” nations (those using the common currency) and for the overall European Union.

And here are the numbers showing how the burden of government spending has increased in Europe between 2007 and 2015.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there hasn’t been any overall spending restraint on the other side of the Atlantic. This is the chart I will now share with politicians and journalists (as well as anyone else) who is under the illusion that there have been big spending cuts in Europe.

But just as slow growth is a problem rather than a crisis, the same can be said about bigger government. Yes, a larger fiscal burden saps an economy’s vitality and weakens national competitiveness, but it presumably doesn’t by itself produce a crisis.

The crisis, at least if last decade is any indication, materializes when investors decide they don’t want to buy a nation’s government debt because they fear they won’t get repaid (i.e., a default). And that happens when a nation’s debt level is perceived to have reached an unsustainable level when compared to the ability of that country’s economy to generate enough output to support that debt.

And I suspect it’s just a matter of time before Europe experiences another such crisis. Here are the numbers, both for euro-using nations as well as the entire European Union, showing that government debt is substantially higher today than it was at the dawn of last decade’s meltdown.

I should point out that there’s no reason why a crisis need occur. If European governments copied Switzerland and put in place some sort of spending cap (a good one that ensures that the burden of government expanded slower than the private sector), then red ink quickly would fall and investors would be much less fearful of a default.

Unfortunately, all the pressure is in the other direction. Indeed, to the limited degree there was any spending restraint after the last crisis, it has largely evaporated.

A story in the New York Times from two years ago illustrates why the mess in Europe is so intractable.

The reporters who authored the story were correct that there was disagreement between Germany and other nations.

…many of the largest European countries are now rebelling against the German gospel of belt-tightening and demanding more radical steps to reverse their slumping fortunes.

But they naively reported that there were genuine cutbacks and they also believed the silly Keynesian argument that smaller government somehow reduces growth.

…eurozone nations buckled under to German demands to slash budget deficits and roll back public services, and then watched in dismay as unemployment rates shot into the double digits and growth collapsed.

In any event, Europe’s self-styled elite decided on a return to the types of bad policy that led to last decade’s fiscal crisis.

Now, France, Italy and the European Central Bank have coalesced into a bloc against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and they are insisting that Berlin change course. …France, which has in modern times been Germany’s indispensable partner in European crisis management, is now in near revolt, and President François Hollande has joined forces with Mr. Renzi, who has presented an expansionary 2015 budget that will cut taxes despite pressure from Brussels to meet deficit targets. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has pressed Germany to temper its insistence on budgetary discipline and to spend more on public works to stimulate the eurozone economy. The French have cheered him on

For what it’s worth, I would have been on Merkel’s side if she was actually pushing for meaningful spending restraint.

But that was not the case. She myopically focused on fiscal balance rather than the size of government, which is bad enough since higher taxes are always the first (and second, and third, …) resort of politicians. But to make matters worse, her motives have always been suspect because of fears that she’s mostly concerned about protecting German banks that foolishly lent a lot of money to profligate governments.

Though that presumably shouldn’t be a major concern today since the European Central Bank is now buying lots of government bonds as part of 1) a foolish experiment in monetary Keynesianism, and 2) an indirect bailout of dodgy governments. Any banks with competent management will have used this opportunity to sell their holdings so the risk of sovereign defaults is borne by the general public.

But let’s set aside speculation on Merkel’s motives. All that really matters is that government in Europe is now bigger and more expensive, with lots of additional red ink. And the European Central Bank is helping to build the house of cards even higher.

This won’t end well, though I very much hope my fears are misplaced.

P.S. Anybody who wants to argue that Europe’s fiscal problems can be solved with higher taxes first needs to explain this set of charts.

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Remember Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the 1993 comedy classic about a weatherman who experiences the same day over and over again?

Well, the same thing is happening in Japan. But instead of a person waking up and reliving the same day, we get politicians pursuing the same failed Keynesian stimulus policies over and over again.

The entire country has become a parody of Keynesian economics. Yet the politicians make Obama seem like a fiscal conservative by comparison. They keep doubling down on the same approach, regardless of all previous failures.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the details of the latest Keynesian binge.

Japan’s cabinet approved a government stimulus package that includes ¥7.5 trillion ($73 billion) in new spending, in the latest effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump-start the nation’s sluggish economy. The spending program, which has a total value of ¥28 trillion over several years, represents…an attempt to breathe new life into the Japanese economy… The government will pump money into infrastructure projects… The government will provide cash handouts of ¥15,000, or about $147, each to 22 million low-income people… Other items in the package included interest-free loans for infrastructure projects…and new hotels for foreign tourists.

As already noted, this is just the latest in a long line of failed stimulus schemes.

The WSJ story includes this chart showing what’s happened just since 2008.

And if you go back farther in time, you’ll see that the Japanese version of Groundhog Day has been playing since the early 1990s.

Here’s a list, taken from a presentation at the IMF, of so-called stimulus plans adopted by various Japanese governments between 1992-2008.

And here’s my contribution to the discussion. I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and downloaded the numbers on government borrowing, government debt, and per-capita GDP growth.

I wanted to see how much deficit spending there was and what the impact was on debt and the economy. As you can see, red ink skyrocketed while the private economy stagnated.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised. Keynesian economics didn’t work for Hoover and Roosevelt, or Bush and Obama, so why expect it to work in another country.

By the way, I can’t resist making a comment on this excerpt from a CNBC report on Japan’s new stimulus scheme.

Abe ordered his government last month to craft a stimulus plan to revive an economy dogged by weak consumption, despite three years of his “Abenomics” mix of extremely accommodative monetary policy, flexible spending and structural reform promises.

In the interest of accuracy, the reporter should have replaced “despite” with “because of.”

In addition to lots of misguided Keynesian fiscal policy, there’s been a radical form of Keynesian monetary policy from the Bank of Japan.

Here are some passages from a very sobering Bloomberg report about the central bank’s burgeoning ownership of private companies.

Already a top-five owner of 81 companies in Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average, the BOJ is on course to become the No. 1 shareholder in 55 of those firms by the end of next year…. BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda almost doubled his annual ETF buying target last month, adding to an unprecedented campaign to revitalize Japan’s stagnant economy. …opponents say the central bank is artificially inflating equity valuations and undercutting efforts to make public companies more efficient. …the monetary authority’s outsized presence will make some shares harder to buy and sell, a phenomenon that led to convulsions in Japan’s government bond market this year. …the BOJ doesn’t acquire individual shares directly, it’s the ultimate buyer of stakes purchased through ETFs. …investors worry that BOJ purchases could give a free ride to poorly-run firms and crowd out shareholders who would otherwise push for better corporate governance.

Wow. I don’t pretend to be an expert on monetary economics, but I can’t image that there will be a happy ending to this story.

Just in case you’re not sufficiently depressed about Japan’s economic outlook, keep in mind that the nation also is entering a demographic crisis, as reported by the L.A. Times.

All across Japan, aging villages such as Hara-izumi have been quietly hollowing out for years… Japan’s population crested around 2010 with 128 million people and has since lost about 900,000 residents, last year’s census confirmed. Now, the country has begun a white-knuckle ride in which it will shed about one-third of its population — 40 million people — by 2060, experts predict. In 30 years, 39% of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

The effects already are being felt, and this is merely the beginning of the demographic wave.

Police and firefighters are grappling with the safety hazards of a growing number of vacant buildings. Transportation authorities are discussing which roads and bus lines are worth maintaining and cutting those they can no longer justify. …Each year, the nation is shuttering 500 schools. …In Hara-izumi, …The village’s population has become so sparse that wild bears, boars and deer are roaming the streets with increasing frequency.

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyhow), even modest-sized welfare states eventually collapse when you wind up with too few workers trying to support an ever-growing number of recipients.

Now maybe you can understand why I’ve referred to Japan as a basket case.

P.S. You hopefully won’t be surprised to learn that Japanese politicians are getting plenty of bad advice from the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. Maybe I’m just stereotyping, but I’ve always assumed the Japanese were sensible people, even if they have a bloated and wasteful government. But when you look at that nation’s contribution to the stupidest-regulation contest and the country’s entry in the government-incompetence contest, I wonder whether the Japanese have some as-yet-undiscovered genetic link to Greece?

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, since I’m a thoughtful person, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

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I wrote last year about why Puerto Rico got into fiscal trouble.

Like Greece and so many other governments, it did the opposite of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Instead of a multi-year period of spending restraint, it allowed the budget to expand faster than the private sector for almost two decades.

As the old saying goes, that’s water under the bridge. Since we can’t un-ring the bell of excessive spending in the past, what’s the best option for the future?

The House of Representatives has approved a rescue plan that is getting mixed reviews.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is supportive but not enthusiastic about the proposal.

The proposed Puerto Rican Restructuring Bill is to be welcomed as a first step towards resolving the island’s chronic debt problem… However, …the bill will be little more than a stop-gap measure to get us through the U.S. election cycle without a full blown Puerto Rican economic and financial crisis before November.

The legislation creates a board with some power to force fiscal and economic reforms.

…a seven-member oversight board…is to have exclusive control to ensure that Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans are enacted and enforced as well as to ensure that necessary reforms are undertaken to help the island regain fiscal solvency. The bill also includes a stay on debt-related litigation to create an environment for consensual negotiations with creditors. It is explicit that it will not involve taxpayer money to bail out the island.

So if there’s no taxpayer money involved, why do people say the legislation is a bailout?

Because the proposal allows Puerto Rico to defer payments on existing debt and then to restructure at least some of that debt. And “restructure” is a politically correct way of saying “partial default.”

So Puerto Rico will be bailed out to the extent that it will be able to stiff bondholders to some degree.

…it would afford the island with a temporary stay on debt principal repayments to allow more time for the voluntary restructuring of its debt mountain. That stay would forestall an otherwise disorderly Puerto Rican default as early as July 1, when some $2 billion in debt repayments come due.

Lachman views that as the least worst of the possible options, so this indirect bailout is not an argument against the legislation. At least from his perspective.

He’s more worried about the fact that much more needs to be done to restore growth on the island.

…it should be obvious that if the island’s economy were to continue to contract at its present rate of around 1 percent a year and if 2 percent of its able-bodied population were to continue to migrate to the mainland each year as is presently the case, the island would become progressively less capable of servicing its $72 billion in public debt or honoring its $45 billion in pension liabilities. A lack of restoring economic growth would also mean that the island would probably need a series of debt write-downs over time.

Writing for Forbes, Ryan Ellis has a much more optimistic assessment of the overall deal.

…the bill is a big win for limited government conservatives. It has no taxpayer bailout of Puerto Rico–not a single dime of taxpayer money is sent down there. …Puerto Rico will have to work their own way out of $72 billion in debt and defaults. They will be helped by an “oversight board”…modeled after the D.C. control board from the 1990s and 2000s, and their job is to approve fiscal plans and budgets, conduct audits, etc.

But Ryan acknowledges that “work their own way out of” is just another way of saying that there is likely going to be a partial default.

The oversight board…will first try to get the 18 classes of bondholders to agree to a voluntary debt restructuring with the Puerto Rican government and government sponsored enterprises. If that fails, the control board will recommend a debt restructuring plan to be enforced by a non-bankruptcy federal judge.

That being said, he’s confident that the legislation won’t be a template for profligate states such as Illinois and California.

Congress is exercising its Constitutional authority to provide all “needful and useful” laws to govern possessions, which is a separate power from the federal bankruptcy clause. There’s no risk of “contagion” to other states.

Though he agrees with Lachman that there’s very little hope for a growth spurt.

It lacks the necessary pro-growth reforms needed for Puerto Rico to get out of its decade-long depression, reverse migration back to the island, attract capital, and create jobs.

Which is why Ryan likes the ideas being pushed by Congressman McArthur of New Jersey. He’s especially fond of territorial taxation for American companies that do business on the island.

The solution is to enact the same type of international tax reform we want to do in the rest of the world–the U.S. companies pay tax in Puerto Rico, but don’t have to pay a second tax to the IRS just to bring the money home. That’s what the rest of the world does, and it’s called “territoriality.” It’s a basic principle of conservative tax reform to move from our outdated “worldwide” tax system to a “territorial” one. There is no better place to start than Puerto Rico.

That would be a good step, and it would be a nice bookend to the very good law Puerto Rico already has for high-income taxpayers from the mainland.

Other conservatives have a less sanguine view of the legislation. Here are excerpts from a coalition statement.

People, companies, states, and territories don’t just “go” broke. Willful prior activity is required. …Puerto Rico has a long history of financial mismanagement brought about by progressive politics and crony capitalism.

Amen. Puerto Rico got in trouble because of bad policy. And the bad policy wasn’t just excessive spending. There have also been grossly misguided interventions such as price controls.

So it’s quite understandable that signatories to this statement are not overly excited that Puerto Rico will have a route for partial default.

Progressive politicians, who are already seeking an indirect bailout – in the form of upending the existing legal structure to allow bankruptcy ‐‐ in the U.S. Congress, argue that a bailout or bankruptcy will help the people of Puerto Rico.

They correctly list several procedural reforms and also point out that there are some obvious policy reforms that should be undertaken.

Sensible economic reforms include allowing Puerto Rico (1) to set its own minimum wage law, including not having a minimum wage law; (2) to be exempt from U.S. overtime rules (which have just been greatly expanded by presidential fiat); and (3) to be exempt from the Jones Act, a protectionist measure that regulates U.S. shipping practices.

Sadly, the legislation is very tepid on these non-fiscal reforms.

So what’s the bottom line? Should the law get three cheers, as Ryan Ellis argues? Two cheers as Desmond Lachman prefers? Or only one cheer (or maybe no cheer), which seems to be the position of some conservative activists?

My answer depends on my mood. When I’m going through a fire-breathing-libertarian phase, I’m with the conservatives. Puerto Rico spent itself into a ditch so they should suffer the consequences.

But when I’m in my long-time-observer-of-Washington mode, I try to imagine the best possible (or least-worst possible) outcome, then I think Paul Ryan and the Republicans did a decent job.

In other words, this is like the fiscal cliff deal back in late 2012. Disappointing in many respects, but not as bad as I would have predicted.

The key question now is whether Republicans insist on putting good people on the oversight board.

And that’s not a trivial concern. I remember thinking the 2011 debt limit fight led to a decent outcome because we got sequester-enforced caps on discretionary spending (not as good as a comprehensive spending cap, but still a good step).

And we even got a sequester in early 2013. But then later that year, and last year as well, Republicans joined with Democrats to bust the spending caps.

That doesn’t bode well for any policy that requires long-run fiscal discipline. Though maybe GOPers will be tougher this time since the spending restraint will be imposed on people who don’t vote in congressional elections.

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I have no idea whether Donald Trump believes in bigger government or smaller government. Higher taxes or lower taxes. More intervention or less. Sometimes he says things I like. Sometimes he says things that irk me.

Politicians are infamous for being cagey, but “The Donald” is an entirely different animal. Instead of using weasel words that create wiggle room, he simply makes bold statements that are impossible to reconcile.

Consider his views on government debt.

Here’s an interview with Dana Loesch of Blaze TV from earlier this week. I was in Zurich and it was past midnight, so I was a tad bit undiplomatic about Trump’s endlessly evolving views. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to default. And it’s not a good idea to monetize debt either.

For what it’s worth, while Trump is oscillating between different position on debt, one of his top advisers is claiming that his plan will produce a multi-trillion dollar surplus.

Sigh.

The sensible approach would be for Trump to make simple points.

  1. Debt is a symptom and the real problem is too much spending.
  2. The solution is to follow the Golden Rule.
  3. Therefore, impose a Swiss-style spending cap.

But he hasn’t asked me for advice, so I’m not holding my breath waiting for him to say the right thing.

It’s also a challenge to decipher Trump’s position on tax policy.

He actually put forth a good tax proposal, but nobody takes it seriously since he doesn’t have a concomitant plan to restrain spending.

So his campaign supposedly designated Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore to modify the plan, but then said the original proposal would stay unchanged.

This does not create a sense of confidence.

Trump also is getting pressure on his personal tax situation. He said he would release his tax return(s). Now he says he won’t. I speculated on what this implies in an essay for Time, listing five reasons why he may decide to keep his returns confidential.

The first two reasons deal with a desire for privacy and a political concern that he may appear to be less wealthy than he’s led folks to believe.

First, he may resent the idea of letting the world look at his tax returns for reasons of personal privacy, which is an understandable sentiment. …Can Trump get away with stonewalling on his returns? Perhaps. President Barack Obama refused to release his college transcript and didn’t seem to suffer any political damage. …Second, Trump’s tax return will probably show a surprisingly low level of income, and he might be concerned that such a revelation would erode the super-successful-billionaire aura that he has created.

I also suspect he’s worried that his tax return will make him look like…gasp…a tax avoider.

Third, to the degree that Trump’s return shows a lower-than-expected amount of taxable income, this will probably be because his accountants and tax lawyers have carefully plumbed the 75,000-page internal revenue code for deductions, credits, exemptions, exclusions and other preferences… Since we all seek to legally minimize our tax liabilities, that shouldn’t be a political problem. …That normally would be a persuasive answer, but voters may look askance when they learn that Trump is taking advantage of mysterious provisions dealing with things they don’t understand, like depreciation, carryforwards, foreign tax credits, muni bonds and deferral. …Fourth, for very wealthy individuals and large companies, the complexity of the tax code means there’s no way of knowing if a tax return is accurate. …Given Trump’s persona, he presumably pushes the envelope.

Last but not least, I imagine Trump has “offshore” structures.

Fifth, it’s highly likely that Trump does business with so-called tax havens. For successful investors and entrepreneurs with cross-border economic activity, this is almost obligatory because jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands have ideal combinations of quality governance and tax neutrality. …But in a political environment where the left has tried to demonize “offshore” tax planning, any revelations about BVI companies, Panama law firms, Jersey trusts and Liechtenstein accounts will be fodder for Trump’s many enemies.

Needless to say, I greatly sympathize with Trump’s desire to minimize his tax burden and I applaud his use of so-called tax havens (which are routinely utilized by wealthy Democrats).

And I even sympathize with his desire for privacy even though divulging personal financial information is now a routine obligation for politicians.

The point I should have made in my essay is that Trump would be in a stronger position if he said from the start that his tax returns are nobody else’s business.

And shifting back to policy, he’ll be in a stronger position if he picks a message and sticks to it (though ideally not the same message as Hillary Clinton).

P.S. Since I mentioned Obama’s still-secret college transcript, I may as well share this very clever mock transcript that explains a lot about his misguided approach to policy.

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We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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As a general rule, I’m not overly concerned about debt, even when looking at government red ink.

I don’t like deficit and debt, to be sure, but government borrowing should be seen as the symptom. The real problem is excessive government spending.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of a balanced budget amendment, Based on the experiences of American states and European countries, I fear politicians in Washington would use any deficit-limiting requirement as an excuse to raise taxes.

I much prefer spending caps, such as those found in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Colorado. If you cure the disease of excessive government, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of too much borrowing.

That being said, the fiscal chaos plaguing European welfare states is proof that there is a point when a spending problem can also become a debt problem. Simply stated, the people and institutions that buy government bonds at some point will decide that they no longer trust a government’s ability to repay because the public sector is too big and the economy is too weak.

And even though the European fiscal crisis no longer is dominating the headlines, I fear this is just the calm before the storm.

For instance, the data in a report from Citi about the looming Social Security-style crisis are downright scary.

…the total value of unfunded or underfunded government pension liabilities for twenty OECD countries is a staggering $78 trillion, or almost double the $44 trillion published national debt number.

And the accompanying chart is rather appropriate since it portrays this giant pile of future spending promises as an iceberg.

And when you look at projections for ever-rising spending (and therefore big increases in red ink) in America, it’s easy to see why I’m such a strong advocate of genuine entitlement reform.

But it’s also important to realize that government policies also can encourage excessive debt in the private sector.

Before digging into the issue, let’s first make clear that debt is not necessarily bad. Households often borrow to buy big-ticket items like homes, cars, and education. And businesses borrow all the time to finance expansion and job creation.

But if there’s too much borrowing, particularly when encouraged by misguided government policies, then households and businesses are very vulnerable if there’s some sort of economic disruption and they no longer have enough income to finance debt payments. This is when debt becomes excessive.

Yet this is what the crowd in Washington is encouraging.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, George Melloan warns that misguided “stimulus” and “QE” policies have created a debt bubble.

…while Mr. Bernanke and Ms. Yellen were trying to prevent deflation, the federal government was engineering its cause, excessive debt. And the Fed abetted the process by purchasing trillions of dollars of government paper, aka quantitative easing. Near-zero interest rates also have encouraged consumers and business to releverage. Cars are now financed with low or no-interest five-year loans. With the 2008 housing debacle forgotten, easier mortgage terms have made a comeback. Corporations also couldn’t let cheap money go to waste, so they have piled up debts to buy back their own stock. Such “investment” produces no economic growth, but it has to be paid back nonetheless. Amid the Great Recession, many worried that the entire economy of the U.S., or even the world, would be “deleveraged.” Instead, we have a new world-wide debt bubble.

The numbers he shares are sobering.

Global debt of all types grew by $57 trillion from 2007 to 2014 to a total of $199 trillion, the McKinsey Global Institute reported in February last year. That’s 286% of global GDP compared with 269% in 2007. The current ratio is above 300%.

Professor Noah Smith writes in Bloomberg about research showing that debt-fueled bubbles are especially worrisome.

…since debt bubbles damage the financial system, they endanger the economy more than equity bubbles, which transmit their losses directly to households. Financial institutions lend people money, and if people can’t pay it back — because the value of their house has gone down — it could cause bank failures. …Economists Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor recently did a historical study of asset price crashes, and they found that, in fact, debt seems to matter a lot. …To make a long story short, they look at what happened to the economy of each country after each large drop in asset prices. …bubbles make recessions longer, and credit worsens the effect. …the message is clear: Bubbles and debt are a dangerous combination.

To elaborate, equity and bubbles aren’t a good combination, but there’s far less damage when an equity bubble pops because the only person who is directly hurt is the person who owns the asset (such as shares of a stock). But when a debt bubble pops, the person who owes the money is hurt, along with the person (or institution) to whom the money is owed.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute adds his two cents to the issue.

…the world is presently drowning in debt. Indeed, as a result of the world’s major central banks for many years having encouraged markets to take on more risk by expanding their own balance sheets in an unprecedented manner, the level of overall public and private sector indebtedness in the global economy is very much higher today than it was in 2008 at the start of the Great Economic Recession. Particularly troublesome is the very high level of corporate debt in the emerging market economies and the still very high public sector debt levels in the European economic periphery. …the Federal Reserve’s past policies of aggressive quantitative easing have set up the stage for considerable global financial market turbulence. They have done so by artificially boosting asset prices and by encouraging borrowing at artificially low interest rates that do not reflect the likelihood of the borrower eventually defaulting on the loan.

In other words, artificially low interest rates are distorting economic decisions by making something (debt) seem cheaper than it really is. Sort of financial market version of the government-caused third-party payer problem in health care and higher education.

And Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal makes the very important point that debt is encouraged by bailouts and subsidies.

Big banks aren’t automatically bad or badly managed because they are big, but it’s hard to believe big banks would exist without an explicit and implicit government safety net underneath them. …None of this has changed since Dodd-Frank, none of it is likely to change. …we know where the crisis will come from and how it will be transmitted to the financial system. The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999. …Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

The bottom line is that government spending programs directly cause debt, but we should be just as worried about the private debt that is being encouraged and subsidized by other misguided government policies.

And surely we shouldn’t forget to include the pernicious role of the tax code, which further tilts the playing field in favor or debt.

P.S. Let’s briefly divert to another issue. I wrote last Christmas that President Obama may have given the American people a present.

But the Washington Examiner reports that gift has turned into a lump of coal.

The Department of Justice announced this week that it is resuming its Equitable Sharing program…that allows state and local police to get around tough state laws that limit how much property can be taken from citizens without being charged with wrongdoing, let alone convicted of a crime. …money-hungry police departments can exploit these lax federal rules about confiscating people’s property. The feds like this because they get a cut of the loot. …there is no presumption of innocence. …civil forfeitures by the feds amounted to $4.5 billion in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that all of America’s burglars stole that year. It’s hard to imagine more compelling evidence of gross wrong.

Wow, so the government steals more money than burglars. I guess I’m not surprised.

But if you really want to get upset, check out real-world examples of asset forfeiture by clicking here, here, here, here, and here.

Thankfully, some states are seeking to curtail this evil practice.

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