Opinion

The Great Debate

Why are we making Uncle Sam a trillion-dollar lender?

By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
The opinions expressed are his own.

America is on a path to fiscal disaster.  The skyrocketing national debt will continue to force the Nation to make fundamental decisions about what the government will and will not do, and how to share budget resources across competing programs.  Too bad Congressional budget rules give misleading signals on the best path forward.

In spite of the impending crisis, in just the past two years Congress and the President have committed the United States government to lend directly more than a trillion dollars of student, home and other loans.  That is over a trillion dollars of new borrowing at a time when debt threatens the foundations of the U.S. economy.  More startling, the borrowing was done in the name of deficit reduction.

How could this be?

Budget law requires the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to assume that loans made directly by the government earn huge profits, with virtually no risk that such estimates could be wrong.  As a former CBO Director, it is easy for me to point out that most of the governments financial transactions are fraught with risk – the support of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac being the prime examples that came back to haunt the taxpayer.  So it is a paper fantasy that the federal government will surely recoup more money than it lends out.  If a bank were to use the same accounting, the Securities and Exchange Commission would charge them with overstating their earnings and throw the book at them.  Congress gets to call these phantom profits “savings.”

CBO understands the pitfalls ,and has told Congress that in the two largest federal lending programs – federal direct student lending and housing loans made by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) – the estimates ignore real-world risks and put taxpayers on the hook for huge inevitable future shortfalls. Worse yet, Congress spends the fictional “savings” the day legislation is passed, while leaving unsuspecting taxpayers to pick up the tab down the road.

The rules – specifically the Federal Credit Reform Act – need to be changed so that the budget reflects the risks associated with federal lending.  If those rules were in place, Congress would not have an incentive to explode the federal balance sheet and would have an incentive to pare back taxpayer burdens.

Should Obama mimic David Cameron’s austerity?

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

In medieval times, a key member of a monarch’s retinue was the food taster, a hapless fellow who ate what his master was about to eat. If the taster survived, the food was deemed safe for the king’s consumption. President Obama has a taster of sorts in David Cameron, the British prime minister, who has embarked upon an economic experiment that echoes the recipe of wholesale public spending cuts and tax hikes needed if both sides in Congress are to agree to raising the federal government debt ceiling. How the British economy is faring offers Obama an idea of what a similarly radical policy of cutting and taxing here would mean to the American economy.

Cameron’s election in May 2010 coincided with the start of the Greek debt crisis. The Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned him that the public debt in the UK was so large that Britain, too, might see its lending become impossibly expensive, so Cameron decided that there was no time to lose in putting the fiscal books in order. He decided to slash public spending by 25 per cent over four years and immediately raise value added tax on goods and services from 17.5 to 20 per cent. Such a radical remedy found favor with the rump of British Conservatives who felt that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, small government, “sound money” policies of the Eighties had not been pressed to their limit. In turn, Thatcher’s prescription to reduce the size of the state derived from her favorite thinker Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” who believed like many Tea Party supporters that government intervention inevitably leads to tyranny.

Cameron’s experiment in applying a radical cure to the British economy caught the attention of a number of conservatives here, among them George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cameron’s approach works — dramatically cutting deficits without stalling economic growth — it will be an obvious, powerful example for America.” “If only the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress had been so courageous. Instead, they are choosing to put off these big decisions,” moaned Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of the Economist, in a piece co-authored with Michael Green in the Wall Street Journal. Even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner thought the British experiment worth trying. “I am very impressed, as one man’s view looking from a distance, at the basic strategy [Cameron] has adopted,” Geithner told the BBC.

from Reuters Money:

Budget wars: The middle class loses big time

President Barack Obama talks about the budget in the White House press briefing room in Washington, April 5, 2011.   REUTERS/Larry Downing Now that federal government shutdown has been averted, it's a good time to examine what's at stake for most of America in the crucial next round of budget talks.

Not doing anything to reduce the size of government debt will be catastrophic. Not much quibble there. But acting hastily and cutting the wrong things can be even more costly to social and economic welfare.

Neither the Republican nor the Democrat's budget plans for 2012 will meet the major challenge of sustaining social programs while cutting the most egregious waste.

from Reuters Money:

Deficit cutting need not be cruel

SPAIN-ECONOMY/Congress needn't be cruel to be kind in cutting the U.S. budget deficit while saving popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.

That's not to say that taxes don't need to rise, deductions pared and giveaways to corporations eliminated. That all needs to be considered, although the recent deficit commission report doesn't do the dirty work in an equitable manner. It places far too much emphasis on paring Social Security benefits, a system that works and won't be in deficit mode for several decades.

There's plenty of pain to go around in the deficit commission's proposal. The most compelling trade-off is based on the idea that lowering personal income-tax rates will achieve some long-term economic stimulus. That thinking hasn't worked in the past and won't work now.

from The Great Debate UK:

Banks, borrowing, bonds and Britain’s budget

BRITAIN/

-Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. Join Reuters for a live discussion with guests as UK Chancellor George Osborne makes  an emergency budget statement at 12:30 p.m. British time on Tuesday, June 22, 2010.-

George Osborne must be thankful to Don Fabio and his boys for ensuring that Wednesday’s tabloids will have other things to think about than the Budget, because it is going to be one of the toughest ever.

There is every indication the advance billing is more than just news management. The pain is going to be frontloaded for two reasons.

from The Great Debate UK:

A year of austerity looms in 2010

david-kuo_motley-foolthumbnail-David Kuo is director at the Motley Fool. The opinions expressed are his own.-

If you thought 2009 was as bad as things will get, then think again: 2010 could be worse. It is likely to be a year of enforced austerity with both the government and households making obligatory cuts to their budgets.

High on the government’s agenda will be reducing the Budget deficit, if the UK is to avoid the embarrassment of having its sovereign debt rating cut by rating agencies. This will have a knock-on effect on households, which could see their disposable incomes slashed by hikes in both direct and indirect taxes.

There are two possible ways for the government to reduce the Budget deficit. The first is to increase tax revenues and the second will be to slash expenditure – both of which will have an adverse impact on the economy. There is a third, which is to raise revenue through the sale of state assets. These may include the Royal Mint, the nations stake in part-nationalised banks, and anything else the Chancellor might find lurking at the back of the wardrobe.

Get ready for the IOU market

agnes1– Agnes T. Crane is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are her own –

Let the trading begin.

California will be mailing out its first batch of IOUs today after the state’s stalemate over how to close the more than $24 billion hole in the budget leaves it with insufficient funds.

The IOU market could swell to $3.36 billion by the end of the month if lawmakers and the governor still can’t find a middle ground.

Big banks, which stepped into the breach 17 years ago when the state last issued IOUs, appear to be reluctant to do the same this time around. Wells Fargo & Co, Chase and Bank of America have so far said they will accept the IOUs from their customers as they would any other check, but only for a very limited period of time. All three banks say they’ll stop accepting them after a week.

from Commentaries:

California faces its moment of truth

agnes1The California budget impasse comes to a head one way or the other this week, with state lawmakers needing to make nice by June 30 to close a $24 billion budget gap. If they don't, rating agencies have threatened to downgrade the state's credit ratings.

California's Comptroller said he would begin handing out IOUs on July 2 and the Treasurer said the state will draw on reserves to service the debt of all economic recovery bonds on July 1. (These bonds were created in 2004, when voters gave the state government the authority to raise $15 billion through bond issuance to plug another budget deficit.)

While a slump in real estate and tax revenue are very real factors behind California's disastrous finances, the San Francisco Chronicle also bullet-points more entrenched problems that have made it difficult if not impossible for the state to surmount extreme dysfunction.

from The Great Debate UK:

Darling gambles with Britain’s credit

REUTERS-- Neil Collins is a Reuters columnist. Christopher Fildes is a guest columnist. The opinions expressed are their own --

LONDON, April 22 (Reuters) - The Treasury is the UK government's finance ministry. There are many other government departments, but in the years since 1997, all have been turned into subsidiaries of the Treasury, the power base of Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he was chancellor.
His ambition was to micro-manage in every one of them. Today we saw the true cost of this disastrous experiment. All major countries have serious problems with their government deficits, but the most entrenched of Britain's are home-made.
Britain's public finances, which had been deteriorating for years, are wrecked. Even on his successor's rose-tinted projections, they will not return to a balanced Budget for at least the next nine years.
Given that no Treasury projection for more than three or four years out bears any resemblance to reality, and given the there will have been at least two elections between now and then, this is a post-dated cheque drawn on the Bank of Fantasy.
Alistair Darling has learned at the feet of the master of obfuscation, double counting and footling detail. So we heard all about the green recovery, from a government that sees no contradiction between raising the cost of fuel and granting tax concessions to North Sea explorers. There may be more oil there, but for the state, this is now a dry well.
The Chancellor did not dare say what he and his advisers really think about the green-tinted scheme wished on them by Peter Mandelson, the Trade Secretary, to scrap your old banger for 2,000 pounds towards a new one.
At least they managed to limit the damage to a single year. If your car is not 10 years old by next March, it will be junked in the ordinary way.
Junk is what the last Treasury forecast has now become. It's barely five months since Darling's last emergency package. It looked like a work of fiction then, and now there's no doubt. In his Budget a year ago, he was expecting to borrow 43 billion pounds in 2008/09, crowing that the previous peak was much higher, at 7.8 percent of gross national product. The sum would come down after that.
By November, there was no crowing. The projected borrowing requirement was 78 billion pounds, and was going up, to 118 billion in the following year, not down. Even those horrible figures have now been left far behind. Last year he needed 90 billion pounds, and in 2009/10, he says, it will be 175 billion pounds, or 12.4 percent of GNP.
The forecast is then for a fall, although not by much. In 2010/11 he - or his successor - will still be 173 billion pounds short of balancing the books.
So in three years the government will have borrowed 5,600 pounds for every man, woman and child in the country. That's over 20,000 pounds for what the prime minister routinely calls the average hard-working family.
In any business, from a corner shop to a multi-national, this arithmetic would be immediately fatal to those who had put it forward. Their credit would be ruined, and the business's credit could not be restored while they were still in charge.
Britain's credit is ultimately expressed in the external value of sterling, as Brown himself has said. The pound has already been devalued informally by a greater amount than the two previous formal devaluations in 1967 and 1992.
The short-term effects have been mostly benign, but the possibility of a flight from the currency is always there. This Budget makes it a little more likely.
In this context, everything else is detail. The biggest detail is the attack on what Darling describes as "those who gained the most". This is a sop to his fractious party in parliament.
From next April anyone earning over 150,000 pounds a year will be paying 51.5 percent on every extra pound earned, the highest rate in Britain for 21 years. They will also lose their tax-free allowances and half the tax relief on their pension contributions.
The small print betrays that the government is relying on these measures to bring in 7 billion a year, sometime in the middle distance. This looks as unconvincing a forecast as any in Darling's portfolio. Well-paid labour is highly mobile nowadays, and will go where the prospects are high and the taxes low.
Nothing else in the 250 pages of the Budget Report is worth a row of green beans. Even the Treasury can't put a price on the measure to reduce VAT on children's car seat bases.
Despite its name, "enhanced capital allowances" will actually raise more money -- 10 million pounds, or enough to run the government machine for about eight minutes.
Thrashing around for something cheerful to say, Darling kept telling us how much worse off other people were. To assert that "we and other countries have been battling against a succession of shocks which have hit the world economy" suggests that our luckless planet had crossed orbits with a large economic meteorite.
The former chancellor, now prime minister, assumed the sun would shine forever, and that he had somehow managed to suspend the usual rules of economics -- or as he himself put it, "no more boom and bust." In recent years, he produced growth by borrowing, pouring the money into the public services for ever-decreasing returns.
Each time he borrowed more than he had forecast. Now the bill has arrived, and it's plain that neither he nor his successor has the slightest idea of what to do. Marc Ostwald of Monument Securities summed it up within minutes: "a Budget of tinkering with the public sector financial sector meltdown, with no substance or obvious strategy whatsoever."
One day the Treasury will remember how to mind its own business, under a chancellor who grasps that until the public finances are put in order, nothing else will go right. The longer the wait, the worse will be the reckoning.

Trillion-dollar deficits are not the answer

– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. —

On Tuesday, President Obama suggested that his new proposed spending, if adopted by Congress, would be an investment that will pay for itself.

Mr. Obama declared: “We invest in reform that will bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses, and our government.” Such investments, he argued, will in the long run make the economy operate more efficiently.

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