Posts tagged ‘IOU’

Some More Thoughts on Greece -- When European Charity Runs Out, All That is Left is Inflation

People keep talking about reducing Greek debt to a sustainable level, but part of the problem is that there is not such level.  Even at zero.  The problem is that Greece is running a government deficit even before any debt service, so if creditors were to waive all of its debt, it would still need to be borrowing new money tomorrow.  Debt forgiveness is not enough -- what the Greeks need is for Europe to write off all its debt, and then (having lost all their money on the old debt) start lending new money immediately.  Note also that any bailout agreement reached this month will just put everyone back in the exact same place a few months from now.

This situation cannot be expected to change any time soon, for a variety of reasons from demographics (Greece has the oldest population in Europe, and a relatively rich pension system) to ideology (the current pseudo-Marxist government will never implement the reforms needed to turn the economy around, even if they promise to do so under duress).

With structural solutions unlikely, Greece has only the options of charity and inflation. Greece still seems to be hoping for charity, which they make harder by spewing derision at the same folks whom they are begging for alms.  Europe, certainly Germany, is in no mood to be charitable any longer, but may still do so depending on their calculation about which action -- bailout or exit -- has the worse long-term consequences for keeping Portugal, Spain, and Italy both in the Euro and continuing to pay their debts.

Lacking charity, the only thing left is inflation.  Some folks think I am advocating that option.  I am not.  The best possible hope for Greece is to slash its economic regulation, privatize business, and cut back on the public sector -- but that is not going to happen with the current government.  Or maybe any government.

I say inflation is the only option because that is what balances the budget and "solves" debt problems when politicians are unable or unwilling to make any hard choices.  It is sort of the default.  If they can't balance the budget or figure out how to pay off debt, then inflation does it for them by reducing the value of pensions and outstanding debts**.  This is what will happen with a Grexit -- a massive bout of devaluation and inflation what will greatly reduce the value of any IOU, whether it be a pension or a bank deposit.

Eventually, the one good thing that comes from inflation and devaluation is that the country becomes really cheap to outsiders.  Tourists will flock in and olive oil will sell well internationally as the new drachma loses its value, creating value for people holding stronger currencies and potentially forming the basis for some sort of economic revival.  My wife and I decided a few months back to postpone the Greek vacation we wanted this year -- too much turmoil is still possible -- and wait for it to be a bargain in 2016 or 2017.

 

**Postscript:  This is exactly why the Euro is both immensely seductive and a dangerous trap for countries like Greece.  Seductive, because it could pursue any sort of destructive banana republic fiscal policy it wished and still have a strong currency.  A trap because it can no longer print money and inflate away its debt problems.

That Wonderful, Magical Social Security Trust Fund

Several blogs have pointed out this February editorial in the USA Today by Jacob Lew, head of Obama's OMB.  In February he told us, no, in true Obama Administration fashion, he lectured us like little kids that:

Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers. These taxes are placed in a trust fund dedicated to paying benefits owed to current and future beneficiaries.

When more taxes are collected than are needed to pay benefits, funds are converted to Treasury bonds — backed with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government — and are held in reserve for when revenue collected is not enough to pay the benefits due. We have just as much obligation to pay back those bonds with interest as we do to any other bondholders. The trust fund is the backbone of an important compact: that a lifetime of work will ensure dignity in retirement.

According to the most recent report of the independent Social Security Trustees, the trust fund is currently in surplus and growing. Even though Social Security began collecting less in taxes than it paid in benefits in 2010, the trust fund will continue to accrue interest and grow until 2025, and will have adequate resources to pay full benefits for the next 26 years.

As many have pointed out this week, if this is the case, why does the debt limit even affect the ability to pay or not pay Social Security to grandma?  Because Lew was spouting complete BS.  Social Security has generated surpluses in the past, but these have been spent and replaced with IOU's.  And we are finding out right now how much those IOU's are worth - zero.

 

Why Is Anyone Surprised?

From Fox Business

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress he would start tapping into federal pension funds on Monday to free up borrowing capacity as the nation hits the $14.294 trillion legal limit on its debt.

The U.S. Treasury will issue $72 billion in bonds and notes on Monday, pushing the nation right up against its borrowing cap at some point during the day, according to a Treasury official.

Geithner said he would suspend investments in two government retirement funds, which will give the U.S. Treasury $147 billion in additional borrowing capacity.

"I will be unable to invest fully" in the civil service retirement and disability fund and the government securities investment fund, he said in a letter to congressional leaders

Why does this surprise anyone?  Up to this point, government workers have enjoyed a special privilege.  All other Americans have had their retirement accounts in the Social Security system raided and replaced with IOU's, such that $0 actually still exists in these accounts.  All this does is subject government worker's pensions to the same treatment.  It is in fact telling that government employees have been a protected class on this dimension for so long.

I am sure these funds will be quickly replaced.  No such luck for folks counting on Social Security for their retirement.

Huh?

Kevin Drum observes that the Post Office is more efficient and effective than we give it credit because ... it fully accrues for future pension and medical costs.

Over at Jon Cohn's place, Alexander Hart explains why the post office is better run than you think. Go read it. I don't have any big axe to grind in favor of the USPS "” in fact, I'm pretty annoyed at how complicated it is to calculate postage these days on supposedly "odd" size envelopes "” but the fact is that they're actually pretty efficient and pretty cost effective. I'd welcome private competition for first class mail, but just go ahead breathe the words "universal service" and see how many private sector companies are still eager to compete with the post office for 46 cents an ounce.

Wow, I have been so unfair to the post office.  I commented:

Great - the post office is really efficient because ... it fully accrues for benefits plans that are way beyond anything paid in the private sector, and reliably pays these benefits to huge, bloated work forces.  I am confused Kevin.  I read the article you linked.  What the heck did you find in the linked article that had anything to do with "efficient" or "cost effective."  Postal rates have grown at something like twice the rate of inflation.  Even industries you demagogue against, like oil, have raised prices less than the post office.

I don't know much about Alexander Hart, but my suspicion is that this is somehow a broadside in the public-private battle.  If so, then his focus is awfully narrow.  The feds may have accrued for their pension and health benefits, but they sure have not socked away any assets besides government IOU's to pay for them.  At the end of the day, most private company health and retirement plans are actually backed with real, 3rd party assets.  If you want to talk about pension law, private companies are not allowed to invest but a small percent of pension funds in their own stocks and bonds.  Not so the Feds -- the Post Office is running the equivalent of the Enron 401K invested 100% in Enron bonds.

And oh by the way, if we turn our attention to the states or local governments, the situation is entirely reversed.  In fact, many US public entities have ZERO percent funding of health plans and ZERO accrual of future costs, taking retiree benefits entirely out of current cash flow.

Forced Loans

Every year, the government forced nearly every working American to give it an interest-free loan.   Each person pays his taxes (via legally required withholding) as much as 16 months early, with not a cent of interest from the government for this loan of funds.  Several states have been toying of late  (and California actually implemented) schemes in which the required withholding rates are jacked far above any conceivable level of tax liability.  These are desperate financing approaches from entities who are no longer able to borrow (or afford the interest of) money at arms length, and so much use the coercive power of the government to force its citizens to fork over interest free loans.

Apparently, the Obama administration is looking at such a scheme, but on steriods:

The U.S. Treasury and Labor Departments will ask for public comment as soon as next week on ways to promote the conversion of 401(k) savings and Individual Retirement Accounts into annuities or other steady payment streams, according to Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi and Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Mark Iwry, who are spearheading the effort.

Whatever their stated justification (I am sure it is somehow for the children), I think Dale Franks gets at the actual motivation:

There literally isn't enough money in the world to float the T-notes the Treasury must issue in order to prop up our unsustainable spending path.  There are, however, about $3.6 trillion in funds just sitting in 401(k) accounts.  If the government can urge"“or force"“you to convert your 401(k) into T-note funded annuities, the Treasury can continue to issue those notes to float the government's deficit.  Essentially, you'll be converting your retirement funds into an IOU from the government"¦just like your social security account has already done.

This will allow the Treasury to keep borrowing money"“from your retirement"“in order to keep issuing more debt that they may or may not be able to pay back to you

The Long Drain

The long drain begins:

When Kathleen Casey-Kirschling signs up for
Social Security benefits Monday, it will represent one small step for
her, one giant leap for her baby boom generation "” and a symbolic jump
toward the retirement system's looming bankruptcy.

Casey-Kirschling "” generally recognized as the
nation's first boomer (born in Philadelphia on Jan. 1, 1946, at
12:00:01 a.m.) "” won't bankrupt the Social Security system by taking
early retirement at 62. But after her, the deluge: 80 million Americans
born from 1946 to 1964 who could qualify for Social Security and
Medicare during the next 22 years.

The first wave of 3.2 million baby boomers turns
62 next year "” 365 an hour. About 49% of the men and 53% of the women
are projected to choose early retirement and begin drawing monthly
Social Security checks representing 75% of the benefit they'd be
entitled to receive if they waited four more years to retire.

If Social Security were a well-managed private insurance program, this would be a non-event.  The returns on investments over the last 40 years have been tremendous, such that a private fund could easily start paying out benefits based on boomers' premiums.

Unfortunately, as a government program, the funds in the program are subject to the whims of politicians.  And it turns out that boomers have elected politicians who have spent all the money that has been contributed to Social Security (despite USA Today in their graphics trying to continue the myth that a meaningful "trust fund" actually exists as anything but a bunch of government IOU's to itself.)  So, because Congress has spent all the past contributions, an action that would have had any private manager jailed decades ago, Social Security must now run itself as a Ponzi scheme, where current contributions pay off retiree benefits.  This game runs out somewhere in the 2020's.  And this all despite the fact that Social Security pays out a negative rate of return.

Perhaps the Best Reason for Private Accounts

Frequent readers will know that I have little patience with the argument against private Social Security accounts that goes something like "Americans are too dumb to be trusted with their own retirement funds".  Today, however, I am going to put that aside for perhaps a better question:

Can the government be trusted with our retirement funds?

This is the argument made by Brad DeLong and quoted in Marginal Revolution:

We need to raise our national savings rate. But if we just raise Social Security
taxes, Congress will treat these taxes as general revenue and spend them. Only
by funneling Social Security contributions into some vehicle that Congressional
representatives cannot interpret as a resource available to fund current
spending can we raise the national savings rate. And private accounts are the
best vehicle we can find to (a) accumulate contributions without (b) allowing
Congressional representatives to seize them as resources available to fund
current federal spending.

Congress has taken all the savings surpluses built up by Social Security over the past decades and it has spent them.  Republicans have spent the money.  Democrats have spent the money.  It is gone, spent on cruise missiles and welfare moms and ethanol subsidies and PBS broadcasts and snail darter studies.  No matter what verbal acrobatics people try to engage in to argue that there is a real "trust fund", the fact of the matter is that all that is in the Social Security till are IOU's that can only be redeemed by raising taxes. 

The situation with Social Security is entirely equivalent to having invested your money in a mutual fund and only later finding the directors of the fund spent your money on themeselves rather than investing it in redeemable securities.  The only differences are that:

  • The proprietors of that bogus mutual fund may go to jail, but Congress won't
  • Congress can raise taxes to get the money to bail themselves out of their malfeasance

Think of it this way: 

  • There were more real assets of value remaining in Enron in its bankruptcy to divide up among investors and creditors than remain in the Social Security "trust fund" to divide up among program contributors.
  • There were more real assets of value remaining in the Teamsters retirement fund after years of being raped by organized crime than remain in the Social Security "trust fund"

Stop handing over our savings to such unsavory racketeers (ie. Congress).  We certainly can't do a worse job for ourselves.

Social Security Crisis?

I don't know whether it warrants the "crisis" moniker (to me, government is always in a disastrous state), but Social Security is indeed facing an enormous cash flow shortfall in just a few years.  Those who use bogus government accounting to say that there is no problem until 2042 are either disingenuous or delusional.  People making this argument are saying that yes, cash flow will be negative, but those negative cash flows will come out of the huge Social Security trust fund, which won't be depleted until 2042.

Um, the only problem with this is that... there is no Social Security trust fund.  I mean yes, there is such a thing on paper with a large number next to it, but there is no actual pool of cash or investments to draw on.  The "trust fund" is full of government IOU's to itself - the actual cash was spent for general budget needs over the years.  As a result, in just a few years, Social Security will require:

  • Massive new taxes
  • Large benefits cuts
  • A complete restructuring of all parts of the program
  • More government borrowing

Good post at Assymetrical Information goes into it in more depth.