Posts tagged ‘debt’

The Plan For Universities to Raise Tuition to Infinity

Via the WSJ, President Obama is proposing debt forgiveness for student borrowers

The White House proposes that the government forgive billions of dollars in student debt over the next decade, a plan that cheers student advocates, but critics say it would expand a program that already encourages students to borrow too much and stick taxpayers with the bill.

The proposal, included in President Barack Obama's budget for next year, would increase the number of borrowers eligible for a program known casually as income-based repayment, which aims to help low-income workers stay current on federal student debt.

Borrowers in the program make monthly payments equivalent to 10% of their income after taxes and basic living expenses, regardless of how much they owe. After 20 years of on-time payments—10 years for those who work in public or nonprofit jobs—the balance is forgiven.

Already, it's pretty clear that many students pay little attention to size of the debt they run up.  Easy loans for students have essentially made them less price sensitive, however irrational this may seem (did you make good short - long term trade-offs at the age of 18?)  As a result, tuition has soared, much like home prices did as a result of easy mortgage credit a decade ago.  The irony is that easier student debt is not increasing access to college for the average kid (since tuition is essentially staying abreast of increases in debt availability), but is shifting student's future dollars to university endowments and bloated administrations.  Take any industry that has in the past been accused of preying on the financially unsophisticated by driving them into debt for profit, and universities are fifty times worse.

So of course, the Progressives in the White House and Congress (unsurprisingly Elizabeth Warren has a debt subsidy plan as well) are set to further enable this predatory behavior by universities.  By effectively capping most students' future financial obligations from student debt, this plan would remove the last vestiges of price sensitivity from the college tuition market.  Colleges can now raise tuition to infinity, knowing that the bulk of it will get paid by the taxpayer some time in the future.  Just as the college price bubble looks ready to burst, this is the one thing that could re-inflate it.

Postscript:  By the way, let's look at the numbers.  Let's suppose Mary went to a top college and ran up $225,000 in debt.  She went to work for the government, averaging $50,000 a year (much of her compensation in government is in various benefits that don't count in this calculation).  She has to live in DC, so that's expensive, and pay taxes.  Let's say that she has numbers to prove she only has $20,000 left after essential living expenses.  10% of that for 10 years is $20,000 (or about $13,500 present value at 8%).  So Mary pays less than $20,000 for her education, and the taxpayer pays $205,000.  The university makes a handsome profit - in fact they might have given her financial aid or a lower tuition, but why bother?  Mary doesn't care what her tuition is any more, because she is capped at around $20,000.  The taxpayer is paying the rest and is not involved in the least in choosing the university or setting prices, so why not charge the taxpayer as much as they can?

Postscript #2:  It is hard to figure out exactly what Elizabeth Warren is proposing, as most of her proposal is worded so as to take a potshot at banks rather than actually lay out a student loan plan.  But it appears that she wants to reduce student loan interest rates for one year.  If so, how is this different from teaser rates on credit cards, where folks -- like Elizabeth Warren -- accuse credit card companies of tricking borrowers into debt with low initial, temporary rates.  I  find it  a simply astounding sign of the bizarre times we live in that a leading anti-bank progressive is working on legislative strategies to get 18-year-olds further into debt.

A Couple of Thoughts About Reinhart & Rogoff

As quick background, R&R had a study that found that higher government debt levels correlated to lower, even negative, economic growth.  More recently, others have found computational errors that exaggerated this result, and have criticized their methodology, particularly their approach to weighting data from different countries and years.

A few thoughts:

  1. A major reasons the errors were found is that R&R actually made their data available for replication.  This is apparently rare - certainly it is rare in the climate world.  I am glad they are getting kudos for this and hope the academic world can find a way to incentivize / force more data sharing
  2. I would not have expected a direct relationship between country debt levels and economic growth.  What I would expect is that growth can still be good at higher debt levels, but the risk of hitting a tipping point starts to rise dangerously with debt levels.  Eventually levels get so high that an interest rate shock or liquidity shock is almost inevitable
  3. More than a relation between GDP growth and absolute debt levels, I would have expected a relationship between GDP growth and changes in debt level.  Absolute government debt levels may represent resources removed from the productive economy years and decades earlier.  Increases in government debt represent recent decreases in capital available for productive use.

Bitcoin, Short Sales, and Volatility

I am fascinated by Bitcoin and would love to see it be a success.  But Tyler Cowen has a quote that reflects some of my concerns about it:

…bitcoins are an uncomfortable combination of commodity and currency. The commodity value of bitcoins is rooted in their currency value, but the more of a commodity they become, the less useful they are as a currency.

Bitcoin is in the midst of an enormous price bubble, with increases in value of as much as 50% over just a few days.  This is astounding volatility for even a commodity, much less a currency.

Cowen said something at the end of the post, almost as a throw-away, that got my attention:  "There is, by the way, no current way to short Bitcoin."  The reason this caught my eye is that I have argued a long time that short selling is an important mechanism to reduce market volatility.

Every time we get to a market bubble or problem, insiders always start arguing against short selling saying it makes volatility worse and undermines markets.  But what they are really saying is that they like volatility so long as it is up. They had no problem with the bubble that propelled their securities up, they just don't want them to come back down to Earth.

In certain bubbles, when interest in a certain asset class gets really frothy, anyone who is skeptical of the asset and its new high values will sell and get out.  This means that as the bubble grows, all the skeptics are long gone from the market.  No longer owning the asset, these skeptics have no further "vote" or influence on the price.  Short selling is a way for skeptics to continue to influence the price and asset values.  To this extent, I think it tends to limit the peak of bubbles, just as bottom-fishers limit the debt of troughs.

Bitcoin would likely benefit from skeptics having some sort of influence on bitcoin values.  But without a way to short, Bitcoin values are driven solely by wacky anarcho-capitalists (e.g. people like me) and people fearful of Cyprus style depositor losses.  Essentially all the true believers are bidding against themselves.

Re-Inflating the Bubble

We all know from progressive and Democratic writers the the Community Reinvestment Act and other efforts to offer cheap home loans to people without good credit had nothing to do with the mortgage industry offering too many loans to people without good credit.

So we should not be in the least bit worried that the Obama Administration is calling for more mortgages to be given to people with weaker credit, while sub-prime auto loans are simply booming.  Because we have learned from Iceland and Greece and Cyprus that the best way to deal with a debt crisis is by encouraging consumers to take on more debt, and the best way to respond to an asset bubble is to try to re inflate the bubble.

All of this, of course, is simply crazy talk.  The people who are involved HAVE to know this won't end well, because the most recent example of this leading to disaster is only 4 years old.  Hell, the people doing this were in office when this same approach fell apart last time.  But politicians refuse to face some pain now to avoid huge pain in the future - for politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.

Krugman Dead Wrong on Capital Controls

I am a bit late to the game in addressing Krugman's comments several days ago when he said:

But the truth, hard as it may be for ideologues to accept, is that unrestricted movement of capital is looking more and more like a failed experiment.

This was in response to the implosion of Cyprus banks, which was exacerbated (but not necessarily caused) by the banks being a home for a lot of international hot money - deposits so large they actually dwarfed the country's GDP.

I generally rely on Bastiat's definition of the role of the economist, which I will quote from Wikipedia (being too lazy on this Friday morning to find a better source):

One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can be made only by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences – that is, benefits or liabilities – of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term second and third consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candlemaking), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it, an economist must take into account both "What is Seen and What is Not Seen."

By this definition, Krugman has become the world's leading anti-economist.  Rather than reject the immediate and obvious (in favor of the larger picture and the unseen), he panders to it.  He increasingly spends his time giving intellectual justification to the political predilection for addressing symptoms rather than root causes.  He has become the patron saint of the candle-makers petition.

I am not naive to the fact that there are pools of international hot money that seem to be some of the dumbest money out there.  Over the last few years it has piled into one market or another, creating local asset bubbles as it goes.

But to suggest that international capital flows need to be greatly curtailed merely to slow down this dumb money, without even considering the costs, is tantamount to economic malpractice.

You want to know what much of the world outside of Western Europe and the US would look like without free capital flows?  It would look like Africa.  In fact, for the younger folks out there, when I grew up, countries like China and India and Taiwan and Vietnam and Thailand looked just like Africa.  They were poor and economically backwards.  Capital flows from developed nations seeking new markets and lower cost labor has changed all of that.  Over the last decade, more people have escaped grinding subsistence poverty in these nations than at any other time in history.

So we have the seen:  A million people in Cyprus face years of economic turmoil

And the unseen:  A billion people exiting poverty

By pandering to those who want to expand politicians' power based on a trivial understanding of the seen and a blindness to the unseen, Krugman has failed the most important role of an economist.

Other thoughts:  I would offer a few other random, related thoughts on Cyprus

  • Capital controls are like gun and narcotics controls:  They stop honest people and do little to deter the dishonest.  In the case of Cyprus, Krugman obviously would have wanted capital controls to avoid the enormous influx of Russian money the overwhelmed the government's effort to stabilize the banks.  But over the last several weeks, the Cyprus banks have had absolute capital controls in place - supposedly no withdrawals were allowed.  And yet when the banks reopened, it become increasingly clear that many of the Russians had gotten their money out.  Capital controls don't work as a deterrence to money that is already corrupt and being hidden.
  • No matter what anyone says, the huge capital inflows into Cyprus had nothing to do with the banking collapse.  The banks had the ability to invest the money in a range of international securities, and the money was tiny compared to the size of those security pools.  So this is not like, say, a housing market where in influx of money might cause a bubble.   The only harm caused by the size of the Russian investments is that once the bank went bad, the huge size of the problem meant that the Cyprus government did not have the resources to bail out the bank and protect depositors from losses.
  • Capital controls are as likely to make bubbles worse as they are to make them better.  Certainly a lot of international money piling into a small market can cause a bubble.  But do capital controls really create fewer bubbles?  One could easily argue that the Japanese asset bubble of the late 80's would have been worse if all the money were bottled up in the country. When the Japanese went around the world buying up American movie studios and landmark real estate, that was in some sense a safety valve reducing the inflationary pressure in Japan.
  • Capital controls are the worst sort of government expropriation.  You hear on the news that the "haircut" taken by depositors in Cyprus might be 20% or 80% or whatever.  But in my mind it does not matter.   Because once the government put strict capital controls in place, the haircut effectively became 100%, at least for honest people that don't have the criminal ability or crony connections to beat the system.  Cyprus basically produces nothing.  Since money is only useful to the extent that it can buy or invest in something, then bottling up one's money in Cyprus basically makes it worthless.
  • Capital controls are a prelude to protectionism.   First, international trade is impossible without free flow of capital.   No way Apple is going to sell ipods in Cyprus if they cannot at some point repatriate their profits.  Capital controls can also lead to export controls.  If I can't export money, I might instead buy jets, fly them out of the country, and then sell the jets.
  • Let's not forget that the core of this entire problem is a government, not a private, failure.  Banks and investors treated sovereign euro-denominated debt as a risk-free investment, and banking law (e.g. Basil II) and pension law in most countries built this assumption into law.  Cyprus banks went belly-up because the Greeks, in whom they had (unwisely) invested most of their funds, can't exercise any fiscal responsibility in their government.  If European countries could exercise fiscal responsibility in their government borrowing, 80% of the banking crisis would not exist (housing bubbles and bad mortgage securities have contributed in some countries like Spain).  There is a circle here:  Politicians like to deficit spend.  They write regulations to encourage banks to preferentially invest in this government paper.  When the government debt gets iffy, and the banks face collapse, the governments have to bail them out because otherwise there is no home for their future debt.  The bailouts get paid for with more debt, which gets crammed back into increasingly over-leveraged banks.    What a mess.
  • All of this creates an interesting business school problem for the future:  What happens when there are no longer risk-free investments?  Throughout finance one talks about risk free rates and all other risks and risk premiums and discussed in reference to this risk-free benchmark.  In regulation, much of banking capital regulation and pension regulation is based on there being a core of risk free, liquid investments.  But what if these do not exist any more?
  • I have thought a lot about a banking model where the bank accepts deposits and provides basic services but does no lending - a pure deposit bank with absolute transparency on its balance sheet and investments.  I think about a web site depositors can check every day to see exactly where depositors money is invested and its real time values.  Only listed, liquid securities with daily mark to market.   Open source investing, as it were.  In the past, deposit insurance has basically killed this business model, but I think public confidence in deposit insurance just took a big-ass hit this week.

Postscript:  I don't want to fall into a Godwin's law trap here, but I am currently reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and it is impossible for me to ignore the role strict capital controls played in Nazi Germany's trapping and liquidation of the Jews.

PS#2:  Oops, Hayek beat me by about 70 years to the postscript above

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Why Europe Won't Let Banks Fail

Dan Mitchell describes three possible government responses to an impending bank failure:

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

I would argue that in fact Cyprus has gone off the board and chosen a fourth option:  In addition to bailing out shareholder and bondholders with taxpayer money, it will protect them  by giving depositors a haircut as well.

The Cyprus solution is so disturbing because, hearkening back to Obama's auto bailout, it completely upends seniority and distribution of risk on a company balance sheet.  Whereas depositors should be the most senior creditors and equity holders the least (so that equity holders take the first loss and depositors take the last), Cyprus has completely reversed this.

One reason that should never be discounted for such behavior is cronyism.  In the US auto industry, for example, Steven Rattner and President Obama engineered a screwing of secured creditors in favor of the UAW, which directly supported Obama's election. In Cyprus, I have no doubt that the large banks have deep tendrils into the ruling government.

But it is doubtful that the Cyprus banks have strong influence over, say, Germany, and that is where the bailout and its terms originate.  So why is Germany bailing out Cyprus bank owners?  Well, there are two reasons, at least.

First, they are worried about a chain reaction that might hurt Germany's banks, which most definitely do have influence over German and EU policy.  There is cronyism here, but perhaps once removed.

But even if you were to entirely remove cronyism, Germany and the EU have a second problem:  They absolutely rely on the banks to consume their new government debt and continue to finance their deficit spending.  Far more than in the US, the EU countries rely on their major banks continuing to leverage up their balance sheets to buy more government debt.  The implicit deal here is:  You banks expand your balance sheets and buy our debt, and we will shelter you and prevent external shocks from toppling you in your increasingly precarious, over-leveraged position.

Update:  Apparently, there is very little equity and bondholder debt on the balance sheets -- its depositor money or nothing.  My thoughts:  First, the equity and bondholders better be wiped out.  If not, this is a travesty.  Two, the bank management should be gone -- it is as bad or worse to bail out to protect salaried manager jobs as to protect equity holders.  And three, if depositor losses have to be taken, its insane to take insured depositor money ahead of or even in parallel with uninsured deposits.

Statists Write History

In today's history lesson, we have something called the "Addled Parliament."  Surely that cannot be a good name to have, and in fact the name was given as a term of derision, very like how the Left describes the current Congress as obstructionist and ineffectual.

So why did it gain the name "addled"?  It turns out, for about the same reasons the current Congress comes under derision from Obama:  It did not give the King all the money he wanted.  Via Wikipedia:

The Addled Parliament was the second Parliament of England of the reign of James I of England (following his 1604-11 Parliament), which sat between 5 April and 7 June 1614. Its name alludes to its ineffectiveness: it lasted no more than eight weeks and failed to resolve the conflict between the king, who wished to raise money in the form of a 'Benevolence', a grant of £65,000 and the House of Commons (who were resisting further taxation). It was dissolved by the king.

Parliament also saw no reason for a further grant. They had agreed to raise £200,000 per annum as part of the Great Contract and as the war with Spain had reached its resolution with the 1604 Treaty of London, they saw the King's continued financial deficit as a result of his extravagance (especially on Scottish favourites such as Robert Carr) and saw no justification for continued high spending.

Moreover there remained the continuing hostility as a result of the kings move of setting impositions without consulting Parliament.

Wow, none of that sounds familiar, huh?  In fact, James was an awful spendthrift.  Henry the VII was fiscally prudent.  Henry the VIII was a train wreck.  Elizabeth was a cheapskate but got into expensive wars, particularly in her declining years, and handed out too many government monopolies to court favorites.  But James came in and bested the whole lot, tripling Elizabeth's war time spending in peace time, mainly to lavish wealth on family and court favorites, and running up debt over 3x annual government receipts.   History, I think, pretty clearly tells us that Parliament was absolutely correct to challenge James on spending and taxes, and given that it took another century, a civil war, a Glorious Revolution, a regal head removal, and a lot of other light and noise to finally sort this issue out, it should not be surprising that this pioneering Parliament failed.  Yet we call it "addled".

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Non-Precautionary Principle: Debt Denialists

Kevin Drum begins this post by making a point I have made forever -- that selling debt to Chinese investors does not somehow put the US in China's power.  In fact, one can argue just the opposite, that Chinese policy options vis a vis the US are circumscribed to some extent by the desire to get paid back on all this lending some day.

However, he goes on to make this incredible statement:

Rising U.S. debt hasn't caused inflation. It hasn't sent interest rates skyrocketing. It hasn't reduced Chinese demand for American bonds. It hasn't reduced demand for long-dated bonds. Really, it hasn't done any of the things that conservatives have been predicting with apocalyptic fervor for the past four years.

I am left agog at the incredible blindness of this position, and find it intriguing how it contrasts with Drum's position on rising atmospheric CO2 levels.  In the latter case, he constantly argues that lack of warming today is not an excuse for inaction, that CO2 is dangerous and its production must be greatly curtailed.  He takes this position despite any real historic evidence of harm from CO2 levels -- ie future harm is hypothetical and without precedent.  But still he wants action now.

On the other side, there is plenty of historical evidence for what rising deficit spending and government debt will do to a country and an economy.  Heck, you don't even have to look at history -- it is being pushed in our face every day by Greece and Spain and Italy.  And yet he councils full steam ahead.

Even most climate skeptics (including myself) would not make a statement about CO2 as denialist as Kevin Drum makes about debt.  We acknowledge CO2 is rising, believe it has some impact on rising temperatures, but differ from the most alarmist in the amount of future temperature increases expected.  We expect more modest anthropogenic temperature increases that make more sense to deal with by adaption -- but we don't generally deny its effect altogether (crazy talk show host and a few prominent bloggers notwithstanding).

 Postscript:  The Weimar Republic went from relative normalcy to hyperinflation in less than three months, the time between two quarterly meetings of the Fed.  In Europe, one day there was no problem in Greece and Spain and Italy and a day or a week later, boom, the crisis is upon them.

Forgetting the Fed -- Why a Recovery May Actually Increase Public Debt

Note:  I am not an expert on the Fed or the operation of the money supply.  Let me know if I am missing something fundamental below

Kevin Drum dredges up this chart from somewhere to supposedly demonstrate that only a little bit of spending cuts are needed to achieve fiscal stability.

Likely the numbers in this chart are a total crock - spending cuts over 10 years are never as large as the government forecasts and tax increases, particularly on the rich, seldom yield as much revenue as expected.

But leave those concerns aside.  What about the Fed?  The debt as a percent of GDP shown for 2012 in this chart is around 72%.  Though it is not labelled as such, this means that this chart is showing public, rather than total, government debt.  The difference is the amount of debt held by federal agencies.  Of late, this amount has been increasing rapidly as the Fed buys Federal debt with printed money.  Currently the total debt as a percent of GDP is something like 101%.

The Left likes to use the public debt number, both because it is lower and because it has been rising more slowly than total debt (due to the unprecedented growth of the Fed's balance sheet the last several years).  But if one insists on making 10-year forecasts of public debt rather than total debt, then one must also forecast Fed actions as part of the mix.

Specifically, the Fed almost certainly will have to start selling some of the debt on its books to the public when the economy starts to recover.  That, at least, is the theory as I understand it: when interest rates can't be lowered further, the Fed can apply further stimulus via quantitative easing, the expansion of the money supply achieved by buying US debt with printed money.  But the flip side of that theory is that when the economy starts to heat up, that debt has to be sold again, sopping up the excess money supply to avoid inflation.  In effect, this will increase the public debt relative to the total debt.

It is pretty clear that the authors of this chart have not assumed any selling of debt from the Fed balance sheet.  The Fed holds about $2 trillion in assets more than it held before the financial crisis, so that selling these into a recovery would increase the public debt as a percent of GDP by 12 points.  In fact, I don't know how they get the red line dropping like it does unless they assume the current QE goes on forever, ie that the FED continues to sop up a half trillion dollars or so of debt every year and takes it out of public hands.

This is incredibly unrealistic.  While a recovery will likely be the one thing that tends to slow the rise of total debt, it may well force the Fed to dump a lot of its balance sheet (and certainly end QE), leading to a rise in public debt.

Here is my prediction:  This is the last year that the Left will insist that public debt is the right number to look at (as opposed to total debt).  With a reversal in QE, as well as the reversal in Social Security cash flow, public debt will soon be rising faster than total debt, and the Left will begin to assure us that total debt rather than public debt is the right number to look at.

Office Space, University Edition

The movie peters out a bit at the end, but the first 30 minutes or so of Office Space are a classic, and if you have not seen it, go find it somewhere.  If you have seen the movie, you will likely recognize this job description from an article on university administrative staff bloat:

 One $172,000 per year associate vice provost had been hired to oversee the work of committees charged with considering a change in the academic calendar-a change that had not yet even been approved.  Since the average Purdue graduate leaves school with about $27,000 in debt, the salary of this functionary is equivalent to the education loans of six students.
This new administrator blithely told the Bloomberg reporter, "My job is to make sure these seven or eight committees are aware of what's going on in the other committees."

 

The entire article is excellent.  For example:

A recent paper by two respected economists, Robert Martin and R. Carter Hill, shows that the fiscally optimal ratio of administrators to faculty at research universities is one full-time administrator for every three faculty.    Deviations from this ratio produced significantly higher costs per student.  The unfortunate reality as Martin and Hill found is that the ratio has almost been reversed--2 administrators to one faculty.  Martin and Hill's findings suggest, moreover, that about two-thirds of the growth in higher education costs between 1987 and 2008 can be attributed to the rise of administrative power during this period.

My Tax Proposal

1.  Eliminate all deductions in the individual income tax code

2.  Eliminate the corporate income tax.

3.  Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income.

4.  Eliminate the death tax as well as the write-up of asset values at death

 

I don't have any idea if this revenue positive or negative (I suspect it would be short-term positive, and long-term very positive), but I don't care.  This would:

  1. Substantially reduce the government's ability to play preference games and give crony special help in the tax code.
  2. Completely eliminate the huge unproductive drag of corporate tax law expenses and substantially reduce the cost of individual tax preparation.
  3. Eliminate the enormous unproductive drag of estate tax planning
  4. Eliminate forced sales of family farms and businesses at death in order to pay the taxes (taxes are paid instead on capital gains when sold).
  5. Substantially reduce government-induced distortions on flows of capital  (e.g. current promotion of home ownership over renting, of corporate debt over equity financing, of capital gains over income, etc).
  6. Eliminate most double taxations in the code, since there is now only the individual income tax.

I would be happy to make this revenue neutral (even if it required an individual income tax rate hike) and sell this to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as a plan to reduce waste, corporatism, and crony meddling.  The OWS might be upset about 2 & 4, but corporate profits eventually show up as either capital gains or dividends, so they will eventually get taxed on the individual income tax return.  Ditto death taxes - currently they are largely offset by the ability to write-up asset basis at death and aggressive tax planning.  And anyway, the death tax is a trivial sources of government revenues.

 

Postscript:  I know there is all sorts of literature that supposedly promotes a lower capital gains tax as an economic positive.  Frankly, I don't trust it any more than any other literature genned up to promote special tax breaks to any group because that group is supposedly economically more important.  In my mind, a lower capital gains tax rate (which means a higher regular income tax rate) is just another way of government expressing an artificial preference for one economic activity over another.  Specifically, a lower capital gains rate creates a preference for real estate and stock investors over business owners.   Currently, I invest in a second home and flip it for a profit and I get a tax break on the capital gains.  But if I invest in a business instead that pays off with regular income, I get no tax break.  Why?  Why is one type of investing better than another?  The answer is that it is not, but the people who buy and sell equities and real estate in large quantities have more political clout than small business owners.

Postscript #2:  And Medicare taxes have to go up, at least until the program is restructured. 

Postscript #3:  This is a great example of what I want to make go away.  I consider it far more destructive in the long run than a percentage point rate change.  In case it is behind a paywall, here is a bit of it (these giveaways to the rich were in the very same bill that was supposed to be to soak the rich):

Thus Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow was able to retain an accelerated tax write-off for owners of Nascar tracks (cost: $78 million) to benefit the paupers who control the Michigan International Speedway. New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman saved a tax credit for companies operating in American Samoa ($62 million), including a StarKist factory.

Distillers are able to drink to a $222 million rum tax rebate. Perhaps this will help to finance more of those fabulous Bacardi TV ads with all those beautiful rich people. Businesses located on Indian reservations will receive $222 million in accelerated depreciation. And there are breaks for railroads, "New York Liberty Zone" bonds and so much more.

But a special award goes to Chris Dodd, the former Senator who now roams Gucci Gulch lobbying for Hollywood's movie studios. The Senate summary of his tax victory is worth quoting in full: "The bill extends for two years, through 2013, the provision that allows film and television producers to expense the first $15 million of production costs incurred in the United States ($20 million if the costs are incurred in economically depressed areas in the United States)."

You gotta love that "depressed areas" bit. The impoverished impresarios of Brentwood get an extra writeoff if they take their film crews into, say, deepest Flatbush. Is that because they have to pay extra to the caterers from Dean & DeLuca to make the trip? It sure can't be because they hire the jobless locals for the production crew. Those are union jobs, mate, and don't you forget it.

The Joint Tax Committee says this Hollywood special will cost the Treasury a mere $248 million over 10 years, but over fiscal years 2013 and 2014 the cost is really $430 million because it is supposed to expire at the end of this year. In reality Mr. Dodd will wrangle another extension next year, and the year after that, and . . . . Investing a couple million in Mr. Dodd in return for $430 million in tax breaks sure beats trying to make better movies.

Then there are the green-energy giveaways that are also quickly becoming entitlements. The wind production tax credit got another one-year reprieve, thanks to Mr. Obama and GOP Senators John Thune (South Dakota) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa). This freebie for the likes of the neediest at General Electric GE -0.82% andSiemens SIE.XE +0.20% —which benefit indirectly by making wind turbine gear—is now 20 years old. Cost to taxpayers: $12 billion.

Cellulosic biofuels—the great white whale of renewable energy—also had their tax credit continued, and the definition of what qualifies was expanded to include producers of "algae-based fuel" ($59 million.) Speaking of sludge, biodiesel and "renewable diesel" will continue receiving their $1 per gallon tax credit ($2.2 billion). The U.S. is experiencing a natural gas and oil drilling boom, but Congress still thinks algae and wind will power the future.

Meanwhile, consumers will get tax credits for buying plug-in motorcycles ($7 million), while the manufacturers of energy-efficient appliances ($650 million) and builders of energy-efficient homes ($154 million) also retain tax credits. Manufacturers like Whirlpool love these subsidies, and they are one reason that company paid no net taxes in recent years.

Some Predictions I Made in 2007

Blogging has been light during the holidays, but here are some predictions I made back in 2007 I feel pretty good about (note these were made a year before Obama was elected)

What I will say is that folks who have enthusiastically supported the war should understand that the war is going to have the following consequences:

  1. In 2009 we will have a Democratic Congress and President for the first time since 1994.
  2. The next President will use the deficits from the $1.3 trillion in Iraq war spending to justify a lot of new taxes
  3. These new taxes, once the war spending is over, will not be used for deficit reduction but for new programs that, once established, will be nearly impossible to eliminate
  4. No matter what the next president promises to the electorate, they are not going to reverse precedents for presidential power and secrecy that GWB has established.  Politicians never give up power voluntarily.  [if the next president is Hillary, she is likely to push the envelope even further].  Republicans are not going to like these things as much when someone of the other party is using them.

1.  The prediction was 100% correct, and in fact even went further as the donkeys gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, at least for a year.  Though the war likely had little to do with the outcome, which was driven more by the economy

2.  Dead-on.  Five years later Obama still blames the deficit on Bush.  This is no longer true -- Obama has contributed far, far more than Bush to the deficit -- but the Republicans' fiscal irresponsibility during their tenure have robbed them of any credibility in criticizing Obama

3.  Mostly true (and usually a safe bet with government).   Tax increases were deferred for four years due to an economy I had not foreseen would be so bad, but they are coming.  At the time, it seemed logical to blame a lot of the deficit issues on war spending.  Today, though, 1.3 trillion is barely 8% of the debt and is almost trivial to more recent money wasting activities.

4.  Absolutely true.  In spades.  The only thing I missed was I thought Obama might be less likely to go overboard with the whole executive authority and secrecy thing than Hillary, but boy was I wrong.  Obama has absolutely embraced the imperial presidency in a way that might have made Dick Cheney blush.  Accelerated drone war, constant ducking of FOIA and transparency, increased use of treason laws to prosecute whistle blowers, claiming of power to assassinate Americans on the President's say-so, accelerated warrant-less wiretapping, using executive orders to end-run Congress, etc. etc.  And I never guessed how much the media which so frequently criticized  Bush for any expansions in these areas would roll over and accept such activity from a President of their party.

Capital Controls

I am not sure I understand Kevin Drum's argument for capital controls.  He seems to be arguing that these controls are a sort of financial speed limit and making an awkward analogy to highway speed limits to justify them.

In a world where I as a taxpayer have to bail out banks, I don't have a huge problem with capital requirements for banks, though this seemingly simply topic is rife with unintended consequences -- I have seen it argued persuasively that the pre-2008 Basil capital requirements helped fuel the housing bubble by giving special preference to MBS in computing capital.  In fact, one might argue the same for the sovereign debt crisis, that by creating a huge demand for sovereign debt for bank balance sheets it fueled an unsustainable expansion in such debt.

Anyway, the point of this post was capital controls.  Drum quotes this from an IMF report:

19. Indeed, as the recent global financial crisis has shown, large and volatile capital flows can pose risks even for countries that have long been open and drawn benefits from capital flows and that have highly developed financial markets. For example, in several advanced economies, financial supervision and regulation failed to prevent unsustainable asset bubbles and booms in domestic demand from developing that were partly fueled by cheap external financing. Rather than favoring closed capital accounts, these experiences highlight the need for policymakers to remain vigilant to the risks. In particular, there is a constant need for sound prudential frameworks to manage the risks that capital inflows can give rise to, which may be exacerbated by financial innovation.

The logic, then, is that bubbles are exacerbated by inflows of foreign capital so capital controls can keep bubbles from getting worse.  I have very little knowledge of international finance, but let me test three thoughts I have on this:

  1. Doesn't this cut both ways?  If bubbles can be inflated by capital inflows, can't they also be deflated by capital outflows?  Presumably, if people domestically see the bubble, they would logically look for other places to invest their money.  International investments outside of the overheated domestic market are a logical alternative, and such capital flows would act a s a safety valve to reduce pressure on the bubble.  So wouldn't capital controls just as likely make bubbles worse, by confining capital within the bubble, as make them better by preventing new capital from outside the country flowing in?
  2. The implication here is that the controls would be dynamic.  In other words, some smart person in government would close the gates when a bubble starts to build and open them at other times.  But does that not presupposed the ability to see the bubble when one is in it?  Certainly there were a few who pointed out the housing bubble before 2008, but few in power did so.  And even if they had seen it, what is the likelihood that they would have pointed it out or taken action?  Who wants to be the politician who pops the bubble?  Remember the grief Greenspan got for pointing to an earlier bubble?
  3. Controls on capital inflows tend to be anti-consumer.  Yeah, I know, no one in government ever seems to care when they pass protectionist laws that protect 100 tire workers at the cost of higher tires for 100 million drivers.  But limiting capital inflows would reduce the value of the dollar, and make anything imported (or made from imported parts or materials) more expensive.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

You Ungrateful Slobs Should Be Thankful That The Federal Government Is Running Up Huge Debt

I know what you are thinking -- in this post title Coyote has engaged in some exaggeration to get our attention.  But I haven't!  Felix Salmon actually says this, in reaction to a group of CEO's who wrote an open letter to the feds seeking less deficit spending.

MW-AR995_debt_f_20120607165649_ME.jpgThere are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up.

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government. And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money.

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

I seldom do this, but let's take this apart paragraph by paragraph:

There are lots of serious threats out there to the economic well-being and security of the United States, and the national debt is simply not one of them.  Nor is it growing. The chart on the right, from Rex Nutting, shows what’s actually going on: total US debt to GDP was rising alarmingly until the crisis, but it has been falling impressively since then. In fact, this is the first time in over half a century that US debt to GDP has been going down rather than up. 

So when the CEOs talk about “our growing debt”, what they mean is just the debt owed by the Federal government.

Duh.  Of course they are talking about the government deficit and not total deficit.   But he is setting up the game he is going to play throughout the piece, switching back and forth between government debt and total debt like a magician moving a pea between two thimbles.  We can already see the game.  "Look folks debt is not a threat, it is going down", but it is going down only at this total public and private debt number.  The letter from the CEO's made the specific argument that rising government debt creates current and future issues (see: Europe).  Just because all debt may be going down does not mean that the rise of one subset of debt is not an issue.

Here are two analogies.  First, consider a neighborhood where most all the residents are paying down their credit card debt except for Fred, who is maxing out his credit cards and has just taken out a third mortgage.  The total debt for your whole neighborhood is going down, but that does not mean that Fred is not in serious trouble.

Or on a larger scale, take consumer debt.  Most categories of consumer debt are falling in the US.  But student debt is rising alarmingly.  Just because total consumer debt may be falling doesn't change the fact that rising student debt is a serious threat to the well-being of a subset of Americans.

And when the Federal government borrows money, that doesn’t even come close to making up for the fact that the CEOs themselves are not borrowing money

What??  Whoever said that the role of the Federal government is to offset changes in corporate borrowing?  In his first paragraph, he already called the rise in total debt "alarming", and I get the sense that both CEO's and consumers agree and so they have been trying to reduce their debts.  So why should the Feds be standing athwart the private unwinding of an "alarming" problem?    And how does he know CEO's and their corporations are part of this deleveraging?  I see no evidence presented.  Corporate debt is but a small part of total US debt.  Corporations may be a part of this, or not.

In fact, they are not.  Corporate borrowing in the securities market has increased almost every quarter since 2008, such that total corporate bond debt is about 10-15% higher than in 2008 (see third chart here).  And here is total debt to GDP broken down by component  (this is for non-financial sectors) source.

Government debt is basically offsetting the consumer deleveraging.  Since consumers have to eventually pay this government debt off, as they are taxpayers too, then the government is basically flipping consumers the bird, forcing them to take on debt they are trying to get rid of.  Hard working consumers think they are making progress paying off debt, but the joke is on them - the feds have taken the debt on for them, and the bill will be coming in future taxes for them and their kids.

He might argue, "this is Keynesianism."  But is it?  If corporations are actually deleveraging, we still don't know how.  Is it through diverting capital investment to debt repayment (as I think Salmon is assuming) or are they raising capital from other sources and rejiggering the right side of their balance sheets?  And even if this deleveraging is coming at the expense of corporate investment, I thought Keynesians virtually ignored investment or "I" in their calculations  (you remember, don't you, from macro: C+I+G+X-M?).  In fact, if I remember right, "I" is treated as an exogenous variable in the famous multiplier "proof".

Money is cheaper now than it has been in living memory: the markets are telling corporate America that they are more than willing to fund investments at unbelievably low rates. And yet the CEOs are saying no. That’s a serious threat to the economic well-being of the United States: it’s companies are refusing to invest for the future, even when the markets are begging them to.

This is the real howler -- that "markets" are sending a low-interest signal.  Markets are doing nothing of the sort.  The Federal Government, via the Fed, is sending this signal with near-zero overnight borrowing rates and $30-$40 billion a month in money printing that is used to buy up government debt from the market.  If any signal is being sent at all, it is that the Federal Government is main economic priority is continuing to prop up the balance sheet and profitability of major US banks.

Investment is also not solely driven by the price of funds.  There must be opportunities where businesses see returns that justify the spending.  Unlike the Federal government, which is A-OK blowing billions on companies like Solyndra, businesses don't invest for the sake of spending, they invest for returns.  A soft economy combined with enormous government driven uncertainties (e.g. what will be our costs to comply with Obamacare) are more likely to affect investment levels than changes in interest rates.

 Instead, the CEOs come out and start criticizing the Federal government for stepping in and filling the gap. If it wasn’t for the Federal deficit, the debt-to-GDP chart would be declining even more precipitously, and the economy would be a disaster. Deleveraging is a painful process, and the Federal government is — rightly — easing that pain right now. And this is the gratitude it gets in return!

This is where economic thinking has ended up in 2012:  To Salmon, it does not matter where the Federal government spends this money, so long as it is spent.  He never even tries to justify that the government is running up debt in a good cause, because what it spends money on does not matter to him.  For him, the worst possible thing for the economy is for people to spend their money paying down debt.  Spend it on more drone strikes or more Solyndras or more squirrel research -- it does not matter to Salmon as long as the money is used for anything other than to pay down debt.

Here is the bottom line:  Businesses and individuals are trying to reduce their debt.  And many hard-working people think they are being successful at this.  But the joke is on them.  The government is running up trillions in debt in their name, thwarting American's desire to de-leverage.  Mr. Salmon wants us to thank the government for this.  Hah.

All-in-all, this is an awful argument to try to justify Congressional and Presidential fecklessness vis a vis  the budget.

Undercharging for Medicare

For a while now I have argued that if people really are attached to Medicare as it is today, then premiums need to triple.

Along comes this analysis from Robert Dittmar via Hit and Run.  He argues almost all the current federal deficit is created almost entirely by the difference between the cost of government medical services and the premiums it charges.

As a thought experiment, let’s suppose that medical expenditures had been self-financed since the inception of government health care in the 1960s. What would our debt and deficit look like today? To answer this question, I simply added the medical care expenditure deficit back into the total government deficit. The result is depicted in [the figure below[ and is astounding (at least to me). Outside of medical expenditures and revenues, the Federal government sometimes ran a surplus and sometimes ran a deficit from 1966 until 1980. Starting in 1980, and lasting until 1994, the government consistently ran a deficit outside of medical spending, but from 1995 until 2010, it consistently ran a surplus. In 1994, the cumulative excess spending would have reached a bit over $1 trillion. But by 1999, debt due to sources other than medical spending would have been completely eliminated by surpluses! The government wouldn’t have needed to borrow again until 2011.

Of course, this is not entirely a Medicare issue.  Almost by definition, Medicaid and VA benefits are always going to be in deficit, since there are no premiums associated with these.

My normal response would be that the government not do this stuff.  But that is clearly a political impossibility.  We libertarians like to ignore realities like that, but it is true.  As such, I think two things will both be necesary

  • Substantial hikes in Medicare premiums
  • Some sort of system-wide cost reduction

To his credit, I suppose, Obama recognizes the need for the latter.  Unfortunately, he goes about it in exactly the wrong way.  His approach is to federalize the entire health care system and impose the same type of government-set rates on the rest of the health care system that obtain in Medicare.   But this does nothing to solve the government's cost problem.  In fact, it is likely to do the opposite.  To the extent that Medicare gets rates today that are subsidized by higher rates on non-Medicare customers, then forcing the entire health care system onto Medicare reimbursement rates will force an increase in Medicare rates, or a vast exit of health care capacity, or both.

If Medicare is going to continue to be a government program, we need to shift to a system that encourages price discovery and price shopping by medical consumers in the market end of the system.  We should be encouraging high-deductible health insurance plans rather than effectively banning them.

Public Pension Liabilities in Arizona

From Byron Schlomach at Goldwater:

For this calculation, actuaries assume a rate of return on all the money invested. The assumed rate of return, or “discount rate”, makes a big difference in how big current liabilities might be. For example, if you invested enough now to pay back a $100 debt in 10 years and you expected a rate of return of 5 percent each year, you would need to invest $61.39. But, if you expected an 8 percent return each year, you would only need to invest $46.32 today.

Arizona’s government pension funds use a discount rate of either 8 or 8.25 percent, considerably higher than the 5 percent they have actually earned over the last decade. Consequently, while Arizona’s unfunded pension liabilities are officially $16 billion, a huge sum, the unfunded liabilities using the actual rate of return of 5 percent are more like $37 billion. That’s $5,800 for every man, woman, and child in the state.

The Coming State Government Budget Implosion

State debt and unfunded liabilities have risen to an estimate $4.2 trillion, much of it in unfunded pension obligations.  That is nearly six times total state tax collections of all sorts (license fees, property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, etc) putting the states close to Greek territory.  And I cannot tell from the methodology here, but $4.2 trillion likely underestimates unfunded obligations because many states have unrealistically high return expectations for their pension investment portfolios.

A Good Reason To Get Obama Out of Office

OK, there are lots of reasons to get Obama out of office.  The problem is, that for most of them, I have no reasonable hope that Romney will be any better.  Corporatism?  CEO as Venture-Capitalist-in-Chief?  Indefinite detentions?  Lack of Transparency?  The Drug War?   Obamacare, which was modeled on Romneycare?  What are the odds that any of these improve under Romney, and at least under Obama they are not being done by someone who wraps himself in the mantle of small government and free markets, helping to corrupt the public understanding of those terms.

But here is one issue Obama is almost certainly going to be worse:  Bail outs of states.  States will start seeking Federal bailouts, probably initially in the form of Federal guarantees of their pension obligations, in the next 4 years.  I had thought that Obama would be particularly susceptible if California is the first to come begging.  But imagine how fast he will whip out our money if it is Illinois at the trough first?

Now that Chicago's children have returned to not learning in school, we can all move on to the next crisis in Illinois public finance: unfunded public pensions. Readers who live in the other 49 states will be pleased to learn that Governor Pat Quinn's 2012 budget proposal already floated the idea of a federal guarantee of its pension debt. Think Germany and eurobonds for Greece, Italy and Spain.

Thank you for sharing, Governor.

Sooner or later, we knew it would come to this since the Democrats who are running Illinois into the ground can't bring themselves to oppose union demands. Illinois now has some $8 billion in current debts outstanding and taxpayers are on the hook for more than $200 billion in unfunded retirement costs for government workers. By some estimates, the system could be the first in the nation to go broke, as early as 2018....

For years, states have engaged in elaborate accounting tricks to improve appearances, including using an unrealistically high 8% "discount" rate to account for future liabilities. To make that fairy tale come true, state pension funds would have to average returns of 8% a year, which even the toothless Government Accounting Standards Board and Moody's have said are unrealistic....

Look no further than the recent Chicago teachers strike. The city is already facing upwards of a $1 billion deficit next year with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual pension costs for retired teachers coming due. But despite the fiscal imperatives, the negotiation didn't even discuss pensions. The final deal gave unions a more than 17% raise over four years, while they keep benefits and pensions that workers in the wealth-creating private economy can only imagine.

As a political matter, public unions are pursuing a version of the GM strategy: Never make a concession at the state level, figuring that if things get really bad the federal government will have no political choice but to bail out the pensions if not the entire state. Mr. Quinn made that official by pointing out in his budget proposal that "significant long-term improvements" in the state pension debt will come from "seeking a federal guarantee of the debt."

I had not paid much attention to the Chicago teacher's strike, except to note that the City basically caved to the unions.  The average teacher salary in Chicago, even without benefits, will soon rise to nearly $100,000 a year for just 9 months work.  But I am amazed at the statement that no one even bothered to challenge the union on pensions despite the fact that the system is essentially bankrupt.  Illinois really seems to be banking on their favorite son bailing them out with our money.

The Medicare Problem -- A Reminder

There is no free lunch.

As I have written before, the problem with Social Security is not a mismatch of taxes and benefits - it's simply that 40 years of Congresses have spent the premiums, and now they no longer exist to pay benefits.

The problem with Medicare is actually more difficult.  By these numbers, Medicare taxes are not even a third of what they need to be to pay for actual benefits.  There are only two solutions that don't involve running up Federal debt:  1)  Triple Medicare taxes.  or 2) Cut back benefits and/or eligibility by 2/3.

Interestingly, neither party is suggesting either of these solutions, which makes all the light and noise from the Conventions totally meaningless on this issue.  The Left's notion that cost control will close the gap is sheer fantasy -- already Medicare is getting an effective cross-subsidy from non-Medicare customers and price controls have gone about as far as they can.  In fact, the cost mismatch above is understated as many Medicare costs (e.g. buildings, revenue collection) are actually not charged to the program but to other agencies.  The Right's pitch that small cuts around the edges that Grandma won't notice at all will balance the budget are equally a fantasy.

Believe it or not, I have come around to the solution that we need to raise the Medicare tax.  I would like to privatize the whole thing, and in particular see a reintroduction of individual shopping and out-of-pocket expenditure to the system.  But in the interim we have to acknowledge that there is no way substantial changes to Medicare benefits or delivery is going to happen.  The program remains incredibly popular, though one reason for this is that it is priced wrong.  I am sure Aston-Martin sports cars would be staggeringly popular if sold for a third of their true cost.  In my mind, there is nothing more dangerous to an economy than an artificially incorrect price, and Medicare prices are WAY off.  We need to raise taxes to match the current benefits package, and THEN let's talk about reforming the program.

Risks of QE

So far, I have mainly been concerned about inflationary risks from quantitative easing, which is effectively a fancy term for substituting printed money for government debt (I know there are folks out there that swear up and down that QE does not involve printing (electronically of course) money, but it simply has to.  Operation Twist, the more recent Fed action, is different, and does not involve printing money but essentially involves the Fed taking on longer-term debt in exchange for putting more shorter term debt on the market.

Scott Minder in the Financial Times highlights another potential problem:

In 2008, just before the first of two rounds of quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve had $41bn in capital and roughly $872bn in liabilities, resulting in a debt to equity ratio of roughly 21-to-one. The Federal Reserve’s portfolio had $480bn in Treasury securities with an asset duration of about 2.5 years. Therefore, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would have caused the value of its portfolio to fall by 2.5 per cent, or $12bn. A loss of that magnitude would have been severe but not devastating.

By 2011, the Fed’s portfolio consisted of more than $2.6tn in Treasury and agency securities, mortgage bonds and other fixed income assets, and its debt-to-equity ratio had dramatically increased to 51-to-one. Under Operation Twist, the Fed swapped its short-term securities holdings for longer-term ones, thereby extending the duration of its portfolio to more than eight years. Now, a 100 basis point increase in interest rates would cause the market value of the Federal Reserve’s assets to fall by about 8 per cent, or $200bn, leaving it insolvent, with a capital deficit of about $150bn. Hypothetically, a 5 per cent rise in interest rates could cause a trillion dollar decline in the value of the Federal Reserve’s assets.

As the economy continues to expand, the Federal Reserve will eventually seek to normalise monetary policy, resulting in higher interest rates. In this scenario, the central bank could find that the market value of its portfolio has declined to the point where it no longer has enough sellable assets to adequately reduce the money supply and maintain the purchasing power of the dollar. Given US dependence on foreign capital flows, if the stability of the dollar is drawn into question, the ability of the US to finance its deficits may falter. The Federal Reserve could then find itself the buyer of last resort for Treasury securities. In doing so, the government would become hostage to its printing press, and a currency crisis or runaway inflation could take hold.

George Dorgan observes, on the pages of Zero Hedge, that European countries are taking even large balance sheet risks.  The most surprising is the Swiss.

A Terrible Chart

OK, to go along with the bad study in the last chart, I will offer up a terrible chart.  From Kevin Drum:

Drum uses this chart to hammer home the point that the current deficit is Bush's, rather than Obama's fault.  I have absolutely no problem with blaming Bush for all variety of stupid spending and handing him a share of the blame for the Federal debt.   Even using this bad chart (more in a moment), I think Obama gets a lot of the blame, though.  The highlighted bars don't really substantially move the debt until 2009 and after, on Obama's watch.   His complete lack of any effort to take on the rising debt, to pare back past spending programs (or wars, or whatever) has been unparalleled.  In fact, I think it is his absolute indifference to deficit spending and the debt levels that saddles him with a lot of the blame.

Anyway, back to the chart.  Notice that these are just a few of the many components of Federal spending, all of which are increasing in this period.  Picking out which ones "caused the debt" is not a neutral procedure.  Money is fungible.  One could just as easily substitute rising Medicare and Social Security costs (or education funding or transportation funding or government employee salaries) for any of the bars above and be just as correct.  Even if one wanted to just look at Bush actions, one would reasonably need to include the debt associated with the costs of Medicare part D, something left off this chart presumably because Drum supports that particular spending.    All this chart does is demonstrate the biases or preferences of the author, showing us which categories of spending the author most opposes (or which the author feels Obama can't be blamed for, like the down economy).

By the way, the chart's construction actually worse than this, because the chart is only "public debt" rather than total debt (for example debt bought in QE is no longer public debt).  If one looks at public debt, the total number should have crossed 100% some time in the last year, rather than the 70% or so in the chart.   So there are a lot of other things, presumably that the author likes, that are also causing total debt to rise.  But these are hidden, because presumably the Fed only buys debt created by the good spending, and the public buys all the debt created by the bad spending.

Finally, my suspicion is that some of these numbers are just plain wrong.  The chart implies Fannie, Freddie, and Tarp are only going to cause a total of 1% of GDP in debt, or about $160 billion.  That is WAY below the loss numbers that Fannie and Freddie have already acknowledged, with more to come.

Obama Bravely Fighting Against Deleveraging

I found this chart interesting, but am not entirely sure what conclusion to draw (via Zero Hedge)

In 2009, I think most everyone understood that the economy would have to reduce debt and that this process would be painful in terms of creating years of slow growth.  The good news from this chart is that the financial and consumer deleveraging has indeed been occurring, so at least our pain is not for naught.  The debate that will likely go on for years after this recession is whether the rapidly increasing Federal debt helped or hurt:  did it help offset the cost of the private deleveraging, or did it drag out the recession by keeping total debt levels from dropping?  Is it private debt that matters, or total debt?  Of course this makes the analysis more complicated.

 

Attention Lawyers, We need a Hand, Not a Brain: A Licensing Parable

Several sites have reposted this Craigslist ad, gasping in shock at it as evidence of massive foreclosure fraud

We are a collection agency/debt buyer. What we are looking for is a part time attorney to work for us as our corporate counsel, on our payroll, about 5 to 6 hours a week. This is a short term employment arrangement, no longer than 90 to 120 days.

Your job will be to sign pleadings, praecipe for entry of appearances, praecipe for writ of execution, and garnishment orders. Our paralegal will prepare all paperwork for your signature. This is very standard stuff for us.

If you are an attorney looking for challenging legal work, this is not for you. WE DO NOT NEED F LEE BAILEY- we are fee shopping. If you passed your boards with a D+, and you can sign your name, you possess all the credentials required for this job. If this opportunity interests you, please feel free to reply to this email with a brief description of who you are, when you got your law license, and what you will be needing from us in the way of compensation.

I would instead offer it as a lesson in the stupidity of state-enforced professional licensing arrangements.  Let me rewrite it:

We have all the legal knowlege we need.  We know exactly what the forms look like and mean.  We have written all the documents and tested them over time during our long presence in this business and we know them to meet our legal needs.   We have no need, in other words, for legal help.

However, attorneys have gotten together and created an attorneys guild, and, what's more, have convinced the government to pass laws that require membership in the guild to perform certain gate-keeping functions.  In our case, we need a member of the guild to sign some forms to make them legal, both because the guild has strong influence and because certain folks have convinced everyone that all mortgage pain in this country came from having a machine perform this signature function rather than a flesh and blood hand.  So we need a flesh and blood hand rather than a machine to sign foreclosure documents.  Unfortunately, that hand has to be attached to a brain that has passed the bar exam, and because the guild is pretty good at limiting its membership, we expect to have to pay an absurd amount of money for this trivial function that could be duplicated by a six-year-old (and used to be performed by a simple $100 machine).

Don't get us wrong -- if we were on trial for our lives or facing a nasty, complicated lawsuit or wanted to draft a custom contract to protect our interests, we would be very happy to consider the opinion of third party licensing groups as to the merit of a particular attorney.  Ironically, though, even then current licensing would be absurd, for in this case it would not greatly exceed our quality requirements (as it does for signing our foreclosure paperwork) but it would vastly undershoot our need due diligence needs.   Perhaps there is some legal function for which attending an ABA-accredited school and passing the bar exam is the perfect level of quality assurance, but we have not found it yet.