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Archive for the ‘Fiscal Policy’ Category

The Congressional Budget Office just released a Monthly Budget Review showing a $782 billion deficit for the 2018 fiscal year.

My recommendation is to mostly ignore data on red ink. Yes, it is possible that a country can get in trouble because of deficits and debt, but it’s far more important to look at what’s happening with government spending.

This is for two reasons.

  • First, spending is the most accurate way of measuring the fiscal burden of government. Regardless of whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing, spending is what requires resources to be diverted from the economy’s productive sector.
  • Second, the best way of predicting red ink is to look at what’s happening to spending. If the burden of government spending is growing faster than the private sector, that’s a very worrisome trend. In the long run, it leads to fiscal crisis.

With this in mind, I dug into the CBO numbers to see what’s really happening.

Lo and behold, we find that the deficit was falling rapidly when there was a de facto spending freeze between 2009 and 2014. But ever since 2014, spending has been growing more than twice the rate of inflation and the deficit is climbing.

Does tax revenue also play a role? Of course.

I’ve already explained that the Trump plan has a front-loaded tax cut, so that has an effect on short-run deficits. But I also noted that the tax cut gradually disappears because the revenue-raising provisions from last year’s legislation become more important in the long run.

In other words, America’s long-run fiscal challenge is entirely the result of a rising burden of government spending. And that’s very clear in the Congressional Budget Office numbers.

The bottom line is that America has a spending problem, not a red ink problem. Deficits and debt are symptoms, but the underlying disease is that the federal government is too big and that spending is growing too fast.

The solution is to follow my Golden Rule with a spending cap.

P.S. To help them understand this point, Republicans need shock therapy.

P.P.S. Maybe it’s difficult to educate Republicans because they’re part of the problem?

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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund and I regularly criticize the international bureaucracy for its relentless advocacy in favor of higher taxes.

But that’s not what worries me most about the IMF.

To be sure, higher fiscal burdens undermine economic vitality, and I regularly warn that such policies will reduce an economy’s potential long-run growth rate.

That being said, tax increases generally don’t threaten macroeconomic stability.

If we’re looking at policies that can trigger short-run crises, I’m more concerned about the IMF’s bailout policies. For all intents and purposes, the IMF subsidizes “moral hazard” by reducing the perceived cost (to financial institutions) of lending money to dodgy governments and reducing the perceived costs (to governments) of incurring more debt.

Why not take more risk, after all, if you think the IMF will step in to socialize any losses? In other words, when the IMF engages in a few bailouts today, it increases the likelihood of more bailouts in the future.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the bureaucrats want a bigger figurative checkbook to enable even bigger future bailouts.

The good news is that the U.S. government can say no.

But will it? The U.K.-based Financial Times reported a few days ago that the United States might support an expansion of the IMF’s bailout capacity.

The Trump administration has left the door open for a US funding boost to the IMF, calling for a “careful evaluation” of the global lender’s finances to make sure it has enough money to rescue struggling economies. …The IMF — led by Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister — is hoping to get its members to increase the fund’s permanent reserves… This year, the Trump administration has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the IMF’s $57bn loan package to Argentina— its largest in history.

The next day, the FT augmented its coverage.

The IMF is set to embark on a major fundraising drive…the success of Ms Lagarde’s campaign is highly uncertain, with potentially profound consequences not only for the fund but for the global economy. …supporters of the fund say there are many possible scenarios in which it would be essential. If a recession and financial crisis were to hit in the coming years,central bankers may well struggle to find monetary remedies… a US Treasury spokesman left the door open to new possible contributions from America to the IMF. …Optimists point to a surprise decision by the Trump administration in April to support a $13bn boost to World Bank resources… there is still scepticism of the IMF among his top lieutenants at the Treasury department, including David Malpass, the undersecretary for international affairs. …Even if they were on board, economic and national security hawks at the White House who disdain multilateralism as a loss of sovereignty could be an additional obstacle, not to mention Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The previous IMF quota increase, pushed by the Obama administration — which raised America’s permanent commitment to the fund to about $115bn — finally scraped through Congress in 2016, after a half-decade delay.

I was very saddened a couple of years ago when the GOP Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s bailout authority, especially since a similar effort was blocked in 2014 when Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The issue today is whether the Trump Administration will repeat that mistake.

Back in 2012, I stated that the IMF issue was a “minimum test” for Republicans. Well, the issues haven’t changed. Everything I wrote then still applies today.

I hope Trump does the right thing and rejects expanded bailout authority for the IMF for the sensible reason that it’s foolish to subsidize more borrowing by badly governed nations.

But I’m not picky. I’ll also be happy if Trump says no simply because he’s miffed that the IMF attacked him (accurately but unfairly) during the 2016 campaign and dissed his tax plan earlier this year.

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I recently wrote about the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index, which is a snapshot of current competitiveness (New Jersey is in last place, which shouldn’t surprise anyone).

But what if we want to know which states are moving in the right direction or wrong direction?

If so, the best document to review is Chris Edwards’ Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.

The new edition just came out, so I immediately looked at the rankings. The nation’s best governor – by a comfortable margin – is Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

She is joined by four other governors who earned top marks.

Eight governors, including two Republicans, were in the cellar.

The report has some other data worth sharing.

Here’s a chart that shows what has happened to state spending this century. What caught my eye is the boom-bust cycle of excessive spending growth when the economy is growing (and generating lots of revenue) and cutbacks during the downturn.

Yet another argument for spending caps, such as TABOR in Colorado.

Last but not least, the report included some analysis on tax-driven migration (the topic we covered last week).

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I’ve been in Lebanon for the past few days, but not because I’m seeking a replacement for the Princess of the Levant.

Instead, I’m here because the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies arranged a briefing in the Parliament on the perilous state of the nation’s finances.

Lebanon is in trouble because policy makers have violated my Golden Rule by allowing spending to grow too fast. As such, even though the overall fiscal burden of government is relatively modest, red ink has climbed to about 150 percent of economic output. That’s higher than Italy today, and higher than Greek debt when that nation’s fiscal crisis occurred.

I’ve pointed out before that there’s not an automatic tipping point when a debt crisis occurs. It happens whenever investors decide that they no longer trust that a government will pay its debt.

I’m not going to predict exactly when Lebanon reaches that point, but I suspect sooner rather than later. Unless, of course, Lebanon changes direction.

And that’s exactly what I’m recommending. I made three points.

First, higher taxes are not a solution. Given the IMF’s awful track record of pushing tax hikes in the region, I repeated my standard joke about arresting any of those bureaucrats who enter the country.

Second, a rule requiring a balanced budget is not the ideal solution. Not because balanced budgets are a bad idea, but because such rules put fiscal policy at the mercy of the business cycle.

This chart showing Lebanon’s revenue makes my point. When there’s strong growth and revenues are increasing rapidly (between 2001-2004 and 2006-2009), big spending increases are possible. But when the economy is weak and revenues are flat (between 2004-2006 and 2009-2016), politicians are very resistant to fiscal discipline during a downturn.

Even the IMF and OECD agree with me that this is a big reason why anti-deficit rules don’t work.

Which leads me to my third point, which is that Lebanon should copy Hong Kong and Switzerland by adopting an annual limit on spending growth.

I didn’t specify a specific number for a spending cap. Instead, I emphasized that the key goal is to make sure spending – over time – grows slower than the private sector.

But I did show what would have happened if lawmakers had limited nominal annual spending increases to 6 percent starting in 1992 (that sounds far too high, but keep in mind that inflation averaged about 4 percent over the past 25 years).

I told the audience that they would have a budget surplus today, and also very little debt, if a spending cap had been in effect (same results would hold for America).

And I also pointed out that lawmakers could avoid boom-bust budgeting with a long-run spending cap. With a fixed limit on annual spending increases, they would not have to cut outlays during a recession, but they also would not be able to have a spending orgy during a boom.

That’s a good recipe for Lebanon. It’s also the right recipe for the United States.

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I explained last year that there is an inverse relationship between government efficiency and the size of government.

And Mark Steyn made the same point, using humor, back in 2012.

Interestingly, we have some unexpected allies.

In a recently released study, two economists for the World Bank decided to investigate the effectiveness of government spending.

Governments of developing countries typically spend resources equivalent to between 15 and 30 percent of GDP. Hence, small changes in the efficiency of public spending could have a significant impact on GDP and on the attainment of the government’s objectives. The first challenge faced by stakeholders is measuring efficiency. This paper attempts such quantification and verifies empirical regularities in the cross country-variation in the efficiency scores.

So they calculated how much different governments were spending and the results that were being achieved.

Using two different methodologies, here’s what they found for health spending and life expectancy.

The goal, of course, is to get good results (to be higher on the vertical axis) without having to spend a lot of money (in other words, try to be farther left on the horizontal axis).

And here are the numbers for education quality and education spending.

The economist then crunched all the numbers to determine the relationship between spending and outcomes.

The results may surprise some people.

Government expenditure (GOVEXP) is negatively associated with efficiency scores in education (Tables 14 a and b). This result is robust to changes in the output indicator selected. In the output efficiency case, the impact is ambiguous specially when the PISA Math and Science scores are the output indicators (Table 14 b). In health (Tables 15 a and b), the negative association is present in both input and output efficiency. In infrastructure, the expenditure variables (GOVEXP and PUBGFC10PC) are negative in the six output indicators that are used (Table 16a).23 There is a robust trade-off between size of expenditure and efficiency. …The share of public financing within the total (sum of public and private) is robustly associated with lower efficiency scores.

But here’s another surprise.

These World Bank results are not an outlier.

The European Central Bank has two separate studies (here and here) that conclude smaller government is more effective.

And the International Monetary Fund found that decentralized government is more efficient.

P.S. Don’t forget that this competency argument for small government is augmented by the economic argument for small government.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the newest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is my favorite annual publication.

Not far behind is the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index, which is sort of the domestic version of their equally fascinating (to a wonk) International Tax Competitiveness Index.

And what can we learn from this year’s review of state tax policy? Plenty.

…the specifics of a state’s tax structure matter greatly. The measure of total taxes paid is relevant, but other elements of a state tax system can also enhance or harm the competitiveness of a state’s business environment. The State Business Tax Climate Index distills many complex considerations to an easy-to-understand ranking.

That’s the theory, but what about the results?

Here are the best and worst states.

If you pay close attention, there’s a common thread for the best states.

The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. …there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. Wyoming, Nevada, and South Dakota have no corporate or individual income tax (though Nevada imposes gross receipts taxes); Alaska has no individual income or state-level sales tax; Florida has no individual income tax; and New Hampshire, Montana, and Oregon have no sales tax.

By the way, both Utah and Indiana are among the nine states with flat tax systems, so every top-10 state has at least one attractive feature.

But if you peruse the bottom-10 states, you’ll find that every one of them has an income tax with “progressive” rates that punish people for contributing more to the economy.

Indeed, half of the states on that unfortunate list are part of the “Class-Warfare Graduated Tax” club.

Not a desirable group, assuming the goal is faster growth and more jobs.

The Tax Foundation’s report also is worth reading because it reviews some of the academic evidence about the superiority of pro-growth tax systems.

Helms (1985) and Bartik (1985) put forth forceful arguments based on empirical research that taxes guide business decisions. Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. Bartik concluded that the conventional view that state and local taxes have little effect on business is false. Papke and Papke (1986) found that tax differentials among locations may be an important business location factor, concluding that consistently high business taxes can represent a hindrance to the location of industry. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001) examined the effects of corporate income taxes on the location of foreign direct investment in U.S. states. They determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” Therefore, they found that foreign direct investment was quite sensitive to states’ corporate tax rates. Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …Gupta and Hofmann (2003) regressed capital expenditures against a variety of factors… Their model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

None of this research should come as a surprise.

Businesses aren’t moving from California to Texas because business executives prefer heat and humidity over ocean and mountains.

The bottom line is that tax rates matter, whether we’re looking at state data, national data, or international data.

Let’s close by sharing a map from the report. Simply stated, red is bad and teal (or whatever that color is) is good.

P.S. My one complaint about this report from the Tax Foundation is that it doesn’t include the overall fiscal burden. Alaska and Wyoming score well because they have small populations and easily fund much of their (extravagant) state budgets with energy-related taxes. If data on the burden of state government spending was included, South Dakota would be the best state.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, Americans are moving from high-tax states to low-tax states.

P.P.P.S. It’s also no surprise to find New Jersey in last place.

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Last month, I revealed that even Paul Krugman agreed with the core principle of the Laffer Curve.

Today, we have another unlikely ally. Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based international bureaucracy routinely urges higher tax burdens, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

But the professional economists who work for the OECD are much better than the political appointees who push a statist agenda.

So when I saw that three of them (Oguzhan Akgun, David Bartolini, and Boris Cournède) produced a study estimating the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues, I was very curious to see the results.

They start by openly acknowledging that high tax rates can backfire.

This paper investigates the capacity of governments to raise revenue by assessing the ways in which tax receipts respond to rates… Revenue returns from tax increases can be expected to decrease with the level of tax rates, because higher rates exacerbate disincentives to produce and raise incentives to avoid taxation. These two main channels can therefore imply that tax receipts rise less than proportionately with rates and may peak at a given point.

Given the OECD’s love affair with higher tax burdens, this is a remarkable admission about an important limit on the ability of governments to grab revenue.

Their estimate of the actual revenue-maximizing burden is almost secondary. But nonetheless still noteworthy.

According to the estimated coefficients in model 5 of Table 3, an EMTR of 25% maximises CIT revenue.

Not that different from the estimates produced at the Tax Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

Here’s a chart showing the revenue-maximizing level of tax, which varies depending on the degree to which a country has close economic ties with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, the study openly admits that tax competition plays a big role.

Trade openness is found to reduce CIT revenue. The latter is consistent with…international tax competition, which is likely to increase the effects of tax rates on the location of firms or more broadly of their profit-generating activities.

Sadly, the political types at the OECD have a “BEPS” scheme that is designed to curtail tax competition.

Which is a very good argument for why tax competition should be allowed to flourish.

But let’s not digress. Here’s another remarkable admission in the study. The OECD economists point out that it is not a good idea for governments to try to maximize revenue.

Estimates of revenue-maximising rates should not be seen as policy objectives or recommendations, as they imply high levels of economic distortions or tax avoidance.

Amen. I cited a study in 2012 showing that a revenue-maximizing tax rate might destroy as much as $20 of private sector output for every $1 collected by government. Only Bernie Sanders would think that’s a good deal.

Last but not least, the study even points out a class-warfare approach is misguided when looking at personal income taxes.

More progressive broadly defined personal income taxes generally yield more revenue, but very strong progressivity is associated with lower revenue.

Another wise observation.

The bottom line is that high tax rates of any kind are not a good idea.

P.S. The International Monetary Fund inadvertently provided very strong evidence about the Laffer Curve and corporate taxes.

P.P.S. An occasional good study doesn’t change my belief that the OECD no longer should be subsidized by American taxpayers.

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