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Posts Tagged ‘Debt’

Every year, the Social Security Administration issues a “Trustees Report” that summarizes the program’s financing. So every year (see 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, etc) I cut through all the verbiage and focus the numbers that really matter.

First, here’s the data from Table VI.G9 showing annual spending and annual revenue, and the numbers are adjusted for inflation. Everything to the left of the vertical red line is historical data. Everything to the right is an estimate based on “intermediate” economic and demographic projections.

The bad news is that there’s a never-ending increase in the program’s fiscal burden.

The only good news is that country presumably will be much richer in the future, so we’ll have more income to pay all those taxes and finance all that spending.

That being said, the fiscal burden is projected to increase faster than our income, so the economic burden of Social Security will increase over time.

But there’s also a wild card to consider. Simply stated, we have more data from Table VI.G9 that shows the program has a giant, ever-expanding deficit.

Here are the grim numbers (though not quite as grim as last year when the cumulative shortfall was $43.7 trillion). Once again, everything to the left of the line is historical data and everything to the right is a projection.

The obvious takeaway is that the program is bankrupt.

Indeed, a private pension fund with these numbers would have been shut down a long time ago. And its executives would be in prison for running a Ponzi Scheme.

Politicians won’t put themselves in prison, of course, but they eventually will be forced to address Social Security’s huge shortfall. If nothing else, the so-called Trust Fund (which isn’t a real Trust Fund since it is filled with IOUs) runs out of money in 2035.

The interesting question is what sort of “solution” they choose when the crisis occurs.

Sadly, many politicians are gravitating to a plan to impose ever-higher taxes to prop up the system.

A far better approach is personal retirement accounts. I’ve written favorably about the Australian system, the Chilean system, the Hong Kong system, the Swiss system, the Dutch system, the Swedish system. Heck, I even like the system in the Faroe Islands.

The bottom line is that there’s been a worldwide revolution in favor of private savings and the United States is falling behind.

P.S. If you have some statist friends and family who get confused by numbers, here’s a set of cartoons that shows the need for Social Security reform.

P.P.S. As I explain in this video, reform does not mean reducing benefits for current retirees, or even older workers.

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Iceland is a tiny little country with just 338,000 people (about the population of Santa Ana, CA), but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us lessons about public policy.

I wrote about the nation’s approach to fisheries in 2016, and explained that the property rights-based system is the best way of protecting fish stocks from over-harvesting.

And in 2013, I wrote about how modest spending restraint was helping to solve fiscal problems created by the financial crisis.

Today, I want to further explore Iceland’s fiscal policy, largely because of this remarkable chart that accompanied a Bloomberg report on the country’s budget strategy.

As you can see, debt skyrocketed during the financial crisis and has since plummeted at a very rapid rate.

This shows debt reduction is possible. Indeed, there can be huge reductions in a very short period of time.

So there may be hope for nations that are in the midst of fiscal crisis (such as Greece), nations that are about to suffer fiscal crisis (Italy is a prime candidate), and nations that will suffer a crisis if there isn’t reform (most developed nations, including the United States).

But what are the specific policy lessons?

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article, which basically tells us that the government is focused on spending restraint.

Iceland will continue to reduce public debt and sustain a budget surplus even as it lowers taxes in the next five years, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson said. The plan is part of a financial road map… The balancing act between austerity and the proposed fiscal concessions means less room for the government to…step up other spending… “We will need to impose certain measures of restriction,” Benediktsson said. The government may have to seek cost savings of as much as 5 billion kronur ($42 million), he said. …The financial plan projects a decrease in taxes as well as the Treasury’s debt levels and interest burden. It also expects the bank tax to be lowered in four steps.

But the article didn’t tell us why Iceland’s debt fell so quickly.

So I dug into the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database and crunched some numbers. I specifically wanted to find out why debt fell, both before and after the 2008 crisis.

And I focused on three sets of numbers.

  • Annual inflation rate
  • Annual growth of government spending burden
  • Annual increase in nominal gross domestic product

Here are those numbers, both for the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, as well as what happened starting in 2009.

For both the 2001-07 period and 2009-19 period, Iceland followed my Golden Rule. Government spending (the orange bars) grew slower than the economy (the grey bars).

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt fell during both eras.

But debt fell much faster starting in 2009 for the simple reason that the gap between spending growth and GDP growth was very significant over the past 10 years. This is the reason for the big reduction in debt.

And this spending restraint also generated some data that’s even more important – the burden of government spending has dropped from more than 48 percent of economic output in 2009 to less than 41 percent of GDP this year.

During the 2001-2007 period, by contrast, Iceland only barely satisfied the Golden Rule. Indeed, one could argue that spending was growing much too fast since the economy was in an unsustainable boom (Ireland was similarly profligate during the same period).

P.S. I recently shared an excellent IMF study showing three examples of big debt reductions in the pre-World War I era.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes in Iceland.

P.P.P.S. If you want to read about all of Iceland’s pro-market economic, Prof. Hannes Gissurarson has a must-read article in Econ Journal Watch.

P.P.P.P.S. Voters in Iceland had an opportunity to vote on bank bailouts and 93 percent said no.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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The long-run fiscal outlook for most developed nations is very grim thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

For all intents and purposes, we’re all destined to become Greece according to long-run projections from the International Monetary Fund, Bank for International Settlements, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Are there any solutions to this “most predictable crisis“?

Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders would like us to believe the answer involves never-ending tax increases. But such an approach is a recipe for more debt because the economy will weaken and governments will spend more money (look at what’s been happening in Europe, for instance).

A more sensible approach is a spending cap. I’ve pointed out, for instance, how Swiss government debt has plummeted ever since voters imposed annual limits on budgetary growth.

We also can learn lessons from history according to new research from the International Monetary Fund.

The report contains some very interesting economic history and the evolution of government finance, including the Bank of England being created and given a monopoly so the government would have a vehicle for borrowing money (as I observed in my video on central banking).

But it mostly tells the story of how governments and public finance simultaneously evolved.

Although the written record points to instances of public borrowing as long as two thousand years ago, recent scholarship points to 1000-1400 A.D. as when borrowing agreements with states were concluded with regularity and debt contracts entered into by sovereigns were standardized. …The supply of loans from city-states and territorial monarchies was driven by the need to finance military campaigns and secure borders. …From the 16th century, Europe’s political geography coalesced into the nation states recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In parallel, many European states evolved from absolutist regimes to more limited government. …Fiscal states thus evolved in response to the efforts of rulers to secure borders, expand territory and survive. After 1650, larger, more centralized states increasingly possessed the fiscal machinery to raise revenue in uniform ways and had a veto player, such as a parliament, to monitor and discipline public expenditure.

There’s also lots of information in the report about how some governments, primarily outside of Europe, began to borrow money.

In many cases, this produced bad results, with defaults and economic crisis. As the authors wrote, “Debasement and restructuring also have a long history.”

But the part of the report that caught my eye was the description of how three advanced nations – the United Kingdom, the United States, and France – successfully dealt with large debt burdens before World War I.

…we describe three notable debt consolidation episodes before World War I: Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, the United States in the last third of the 19th century, and France in the decades leading up to 1913. While the colorful debt crises and defaults of the first era of globalization have been much discussed, less attention has been paid to these successful consolidation episodes. We focus on these three cases because they involved three of the largest economies of the period, but also because their debt burdens were among the heaviest. British public debt as a share of GDP was higher in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, than Greek public debt in 2018. But in all three cases, high public debts were successfully reduced relative to GDP.

In each case, war-time spending was the cause of the debt buildup.

The Napoleonic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and U.S. Civil War were the three most expensive conflicts of the 19th century. …debt accounted for the single largest share of wartime financing.

Here’s a table showing that these nations dramatically reduced their debt burdens.

To be sure, there were differences in the three nations.

The reduction in the British debt-GDP ratio was by far the largest and longest: the debt ratio fell from 194 percent in 1822 to 28 percent nine decades later. …The French public-debt-GDP ratio fell from 96 percent in 1896 to 51 percent in 1913… This case ranks second in size but first in pace. U.S. (federal or union) government debt was not as high at the end of the Civil War, and the subsequent consolidation was more leisurely; however, the process is notable for having reduced the debt-GDP ratio to virtually zero by World War I.

When the authors investigated how these nations reduced their debt burdens, they found that limited government was a common answer.

This was true in the United Kingdom.

Britain achieved the impressive feat of maintaining an average primary surplus of 1.6 percent of GDP for nearly a century (the only deficit in Figure 2 is at the time of the Boer War). One of the political legacies of Peel and Gladstone was a fiscal theory or philosophy of “sound finance” emphasizing budget surpluses, low taxes and minimal government expenditure. …demands for spending on welfare relief from the disenfranchised masses were kept in check. In exchange, the self-taxing class of income-tax-paying electors relieved the non-electors from the burden of direct taxation… Budget surpluses then made feasible further reductions in tariffs and taxes, which reduced the cost of living for the working class

It was true in the United States.

In the U.S., primary surpluses were consistently achieved… Southern states opposed an expansive role for the federal government, while entitlements limited to Civil War pensions contained pressure for public spending.

And it was true even in France.

In France, debt reduction was entirely accounted for by primary surpluses. Those surpluses exceeded British levels, reaching 2.5 percent of GDP on average, albeit over a shorter period.

Remember, this was a period when total government spending only consumed about 10 percent of economic output.

And this was a period when there was no welfare state. Redistribution was virtually nonexistent. Not even in France.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt quickly fell in all three countries.

The common thread was small government.

…in all three of these large-scale debt consolidations, governments and societies went to great lengths to service and repay heavy debts. …it reflected prevailing conceptions of the limited functions of government, and limited popular pressure for public programs, entitlements and transfers.

What’s equally important is to note what didn’t happen.

No default. No inflation. No indirect confiscation.

…there was no restructuring or renegotiation of official or privately-held debts in these cases. Nor was there financial repression, i.e., measures artificially depressing interest rates. …Governments for their part did little to bottle up savings at home or to otherwise use regulation and legislation to artificially depress yields. …None of these three governments undertook involuntary restructurings despite the inheritance of heavy debt.

Now let’s shift from the past to the future

The authors point out how debt is rising today because of the welfare state rather than war.

The end of the last century also saw, for the first time, a secular increase in public-debt-to-GDP ratios in a variety of countries in conjunction not with wars and crises but in response to popular demands on governments for pensions, health care, and other often unfunded social services.

Given the demographic changes I mentioned at the beginning of the column, this does not bode well.

So what are the likely implications? As the authors note, there are two ways of dealing with high debt levels.

Countries have pursued two broad approaches to debt reduction. The orthodox approach relies on growth, primary surpluses, and the privatization of government assets. In turn this encourages long debt duration and non-resident holdings. Heterodox approaches, in contrast, include restructuring debt contracts, generating inflation, taxing wealth and repressing private finance.

At the risk of understatement, I fear Robert Higgs is right and that today’s politicians (and today’s voters!) will choose the latter approach.

Given that those policies will make a bad situation even worse, I’m not overflowing with confidence about the future.

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Back in January, I wrote about the $42 trillion price tag of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

To pay for this massive expansion in the burden of government spending, some advocates have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory,” which basically assumes the Federal Reserve can finance new boondoggles by printing money.

I debated this issue yesterday on CNBC. Here’s a clip from that interview.

Wow, this Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reminds me of the old joke about “I can’t be out of money. I still have checks in my checkbook.”

I don’t know how far Ms. Kelton would go with this approach. I know from previous encounters that she’s a genuine Keynesian and thus willing to borrow lots of money to finance a larger public sector. But her answer at 2:45 of the interview also suggests she’s okay with using the Federal Reserve to finance bigger government.

In either case, our debate is really about the size of government.

And anybody who wants a bigger burden of government is at least semi-obliged to say how it would be financed. The MMT crowd stands out because they basically say the Federal Reserve can print money.

To help understand the various options, I’ve created a helpful flowchart.

It’s possible, of course, for my statist friends to say “all of the above,” so these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Though the MMT people who select “Print money!” are probably the craziest.

And I hope that they are not successful. After all, nations that have used the printing press to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

I noted in the interview that MMT is so radical that it is opposed by conventional economists on the right and left.

For instance, Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute opines that the theory is preposterous and nonsensical.

…modern monetary theory…freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke favorably about it earlier this month. …MMT is…sometimes a theory of money. MMT is also being discussed in the context of a political program to justify huge increases in social spending. Finally, there is its role as a prescription for macroeconomic policy. …The bedrock observation of MMT is correct: Any government that issues its own currency can always pay its bills. …this is about all that can be said favorably regarding modern monetary theory. …it is in its ideas about macroeconomic policy that MMT fully earns its place on the fringe. …what does MMT have to say about inflation when it does materialize? …it falls to the institution with authority over tax and budget policy — the U.S. Congress — to make sure prices are stable by raising taxes… MMT seems to call for tax increases in order to restrain inflation. …Modern monetary theory…if enacted it could cause great harm to the U.S. economy.

From the left side of the spectrum, here’s some of what Joseph Minarik wrote on the topic.

MMT rests on simplistic observations that have just enough truth to take in those who need to believe. Believers in MMT see crying societal needs… By common reckoning, government lacks the resources to address all of those needs immediately. MMT solves that problem with a simple and (literally) true observation: The federal government can just print the money. …And that is what willing policymakers choose to hear: Anything. Without limit. It is so convenient —  “too good to check.” …to MMT adherents, the Federal Reserve and all other inflation “Chicken Littles” are and forever have been totally wrong. There has not been rapid inflation for 20 years or so. Therefore, there never will be inflation again. …Yes, inflation is low. But it always is before it rises. And once inflation begins, slowing it is hard and painful. MMT is the perfect theory for the video game generation, which never saw the 1960s economic miscalculations so much like what MMT advocates today, and apparently believes that such mistakes can be reversed painlessly by just hitting the reset button. …the consequences could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic indeed.

Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle is not a good idea. And the policies of the MMT crowd presumably would lead to something far worse than what America experienced in the 1970s.

Rescuing the economy from that inflation was painful, so it’s not pleasant to imagine what would be needed to salvage the country if the MMT people ever got their hands on the levers of power.

Let’s wrap this up. Earlier this week, I presented a guide to fiscal policy based on six core principles.

If Modern Monetary Theory gains more traction, I may have to add a postscript.

P.S. If ever imposed, I suspect MMT would be very good news for people with a lot of gold and/or a lot of Bitcoin.

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When I’m asked for a basic tutorial on fiscal policy, I normally share my four videos on the economics of government spending and my primer on fundamental tax reform.

But this six-minute interview may be a quicker introduction to spending issues since I had the opportunity to touch on almost every key principle.

Culled from the discussion, here is what everyone should understand about the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Principle #1 – America’s fiscal problem is a government that is too big and growing too fast. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy, regardless of how it is financed. There is real-world evidence that large public sectors sap the private sector’s vitality, augmented by lots of academic research on the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

Principle #2 – Entitlements programs are the main drivers of excessive spending. All the long-run forecasts show that the burden of spending is rising because of the so-called mandatory spending programs. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were not designed to keep pace with demographic changes (falling birthrates, increasing longevity), so spending for these program will consume ever-larger shares of economic output.

Principle #3 – Deficits and debt are symptoms of the underlying problem. Government borrowing is not a good idea, but it’s primarily bad because it is a way of financing a larger burden of spending. The appropriate analogy is that, just as a person with a brain tumor shouldn’t fixate on the accompanying headache, taxpayers paying for a bloated government should pay excessive attention to the portion financed by red ink.

Principle #4 – Existing red ink is small compared to the federal government’s unfunded liabilities. People fixate on current levels of deficits and debt, which are a measure of all the additional spending financed by red ink. But today’s amount of red ink is relatively small compared to unfunded liabilities (i.e., measures of how much future spending will exceed projected revenues).

Principle #5 – A spending cap is the best way to solve America’s fiscal problems. Balanced budget rules are better than nothing, but they have a don’t control the size and growth of government. Spending caps are the only fiscal rules that have a strong track record, even confirmed by research from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Here’s one final principle, though I didn’t mention it in the interview.

Principle #6 – Increasing taxes will make a bad situation worse. Since government spending is the real fiscal problem, higher taxes, at best, replace debt-financed spending with tax-financed spending. In reality, higher taxes loosen political constraints on policy makers and “feed the beast,” so the most likely outcome – as seen in Europe – is that overall spending levels increase and long-term debt actually increases.

In an ideal world, these six principles would be put in a frame and nailed above the desk of every politician, government official, and bureaucrat who deals with fiscal policy.

Not that it would make much difference since their decisions are guided by “public choice” no matter what principles they see at their desk, but it’s nice to fantasize.

Here are a few other observations from the interview.

P.S. Needless to say, I wish limits on enumerated powers were still a guiding principle for fiscal policy. Sadly, the days of Madisonian constitutionalism are long gone.

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I don’t like writing about deficits and debt because I don’t want to deflect attention from the more important underlying problem of excessive government spending.

Indeed, I constantly explain that spending is what diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy, regardless of whether outlays are financed by taxes or borrowing. This is why a spending cap is far and away the best rule for fiscal policy.

That being said, red ink does matter when politicians incur so much debt that investors (i.e., the folks in the private sector who buy government debt) decide that a government no longer is trustworthy. And when that happens, interest rates climb because investors insist on getting a higher return to compensate for the risk of default.

And if things really deteriorate, a government may default (i.e., no longer make promised payments) and investors obviously will refuse to lend any more money. That’s basically what happened in Greece.

Sadly, most governments have not learned from Greece’s mistakes. Indeed, government debt in Europe is now significantly higher than it was before the 2008 recession.

This suggests that there will be another fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. Italy presumably will be the big domino to fall, though there are many other nations in Europe that could get in trouble.

But the problems of excessive spending and excessive debt are not limited to Europe. Or Japan.

The World Bank has a new report that shows that red ink is a growing problem in the rest of the world. More specifically, the report is about “fiscal space,” which some see as a measure of budgetary flexibility but I interpret as an indicator of budgetary vulnerability. Here’s how it is defined in the report.

…fiscal space is simply defined as the availability of budgetary resources to conduct effective fiscal policy. …some studies define it as the budgetary room to create and allocate funding for a certain purpose without threatening a sovereign’s financial position. …Debt service capacity is a critical component of fiscal space. It has multiple dimensions, including financing needs that are related to budget positions and debt rollover, access to liquid markets, resilience to changes in market valuations of debt, and the coverage of contingent liabilities. …Market participants’ perceptions of sovereign risk reflect and, in turn, influence an economy’s ability to tap markets and service its obligations. Thus, fiscal space can function as an essential instrument of macroeconomic risk management.

And what is “effective fiscal policy”?

From the World Bank’s misguided perspective, it’s the ability to engage in Keynesian spending.

Countries with ample fiscal space can use stimulus measures more extensively.

But let’s set aside that anti-empirical assertion.

I found the report useful (though depressing) because it had data showing how debt levels have increased, especially in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs).

Fiscal space improved during 2000−07, but has shrunk around the world since the global financial crisis. …debt sustainability indicators, including government debt and fiscal sustainability gaps, have deteriorated in at least three-quarters of countries in the world. …and perceptions of market participants on sovereign credit risks have worsened. …Since 2011, fiscal space has shrunk in EMDEs. …fiscal deficits widened to 3 to 5 percent of GDP in 2016, on average… Government debt has risen to 54 percent of GDP, on average, in 2017. …EMDEs need to shore up fiscal positions to prevent sudden spikes in financing costs… Fiscal space has been shrinking in EMDEs since the global financial crisis. It needs to be strengthened.

Here is a set of charts from the report, showing both developed nations (red lines) and developing nations (yellow lines). The top-left chart shows debt climbing for EMDEs and the bottom-right chart shows debt ratings dropping for EMDEs.

The EMDEs have lower debt levels, but their debt is rated as more risky because poorer nations don’t have a very good track record of dealing with recessions and fiscal crises (would you lend money to Argentina?).

In any event, the yellow lines in the top-left chart and bottom-right chart are both headed in the wrong directions.

The bottom line? It won’t just be European welfare states that get in trouble when there’s another recession.

By the way, the report from the World Bank offers some policy advice. Some of it potentially good.

Pension reforms could…support fiscal credibility and generate long-term fiscal gains… credible and well-designed institutional mechanisms can help support fiscal discipline and strengthen fiscal space. …Fiscal rules impose numerical constraints on budgetary aggregates—debt, overall balance, expenditures.

But most of it bad.

Fiscal sustainability could be improved by increasing the efficiency of revenue collection… Measures to strengthen revenue collection could include broadening tax bases to remove loopholes for higher-income households or profitable corporates. In countries with high levels of informality, taxing the informal sector—for example, by promoting a change in payment methods to non-cash transaction and facilitating collective action by informal sector associations—could help raise revenues directly, as well as indirectly… In EMDEs, reforms to broaden revenue bases and strengthen tax administration can generate revenue gains.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the problem in developing nations is bad government policy, not insufficient revenue in the hands of politicians.

P.S. I included the caveat that some of the recommendations were “potentially good” since the report didn’t specify the type of pension reform or the type of fiscal rule. I like to think the authors were referring to personal retirement accounts and spending caps, but it’s not clear.

P.P.S. The IMF subsidizes and encourages bad fiscal policy with bailouts. Fortunately, there is a much more sensible approach.

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