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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

Treasury closed the financial books on fiscal 2014 last week. As my colleague Howard Gleckman noted, the top line figures all came in close to their 40-year averages. The $483 billion deficit was about 2.8 percent of gross domestic product, for example, slightly below the 3.2 percent average of the past four decades. Tax revenues clocked in at 17.5 percent of GDP, a smidgen above their 17.3 percent 40-year average. And spending was 20.3 percent, a bit below its 20.5 percent average.

Taxes, spending, and deficits thus appear to be back to “normal.” If anything, fiscal policy in 2014 was slightly tighter than the average of the past four decades.

That’s all true, as a matter of arithmetic. But should we use the past 40 years as a benchmark for normal budget policy?

It’s common to do so. The Congressional Budget Office often reports 40-year averages to help put budget figures in context. I’ve invoked 40-year averages as much as anyone.

But what has been the result of that “normal” policy? From 1975 to today, the federal debt swelled from less than 25 percent of GDP to more than 70 percent. I don’t think many people would view that as normal. Or maybe it is normal, but not in a good way.

Just before the Great Recession, the federal debt was only 35 percent of GDP. Over the previous four decades (1968 through 2007), the deficit had averaged 2.3 percent of GDP, almost a percentage point lower than today’s 40-year average.

That comparison illustrates the problem with mechanically using 40-year averages as a benchmark for normal. A few extreme years can skew the figures. In 2007, we would have said deficits around 2 percent of GDP were normal. Today, the post-Great Recession average tempts us to think of 3 percent as normal. The Great Recession has similarly skewed up average spending (from 19.9 percent to 20.5 percent) and skewed down average taxes (from 17.6 percent to 17.3 percent).

As recent years demonstrate, we don’t want a normal budget every year. When the economy is weak, it makes sense for taxes to fall and spending and deficits to rise. When the economy is strong, deficits should come down, perhaps even disappear, through a mix of higher revenues and lower spending.

Looking over the business cycle, however, it is useful to have some budget benchmarks. A mechanical calculation of 40-year averages won’t serve. Instead, we need more objective benchmarks. On Twitter, Brad Delong suggested one benchmark for deficits: the level that would keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant. I welcome other suggestions.

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Lending programs create special challenges for federal budgeting. So special, in fact, that the Congressional Budget Office estimates their budget effects two different ways. According to official budget rules, taxpayers will earn more than $200 billion over the next decade from new student loans, mortgage guarantees, and the Export-Import Bank. According to an alternative that CBO favors, taxpayers will lose more than $100 billion.

Those competing estimates pose a $300 billion question: Which budgeting approach is best?

As I document in a new report and policy brief, the answer is neither one. Each approach tells only part of the story. Congress would be better served by a new approach that fairly reflects all the fiscal effects of lending.

Compared with what?

If lending programs perform as CBO expects, they will bring in new money that the government can use to reduce the deficit, increase spending, or cut taxes. In that sense, taxpayers may come out more than $200 billion ahead.

But these programs do not fully compensate taxpayers for their financial risk. If the government took the same risk by making loans and guarantees at fair market rates—perhaps by investing in publicly traded bonds—taxpayers would make much more. Taxpayers are subsidizing the students, homeowners, and companies that borrow through these programs. In that sense, taxpayers come out more than $100 billion behind.

The same issue can arise in personal life. Suppose your aunt asks for a $10,000 loan to start a business. You’ve got exactly that much in a government bond fund earning 2.5 percent, and she offers to pay 5 percent. She’s got a good head for business, so the risk of default is very low; realistically you expect a 4 percent annual return.

The loan sounds like a winner, right? Her 4 percent beats the bond fund’s 2.5 percent, if you can handle the risk. But there’s one other thing: your brother-in-law, equally good at business, would like a similar loan, and he’s willing to pay 6 percent, with an expected net of 5 percent.

Now the loan to your aunt sounds like a loser. Your brother-in-law’s 5 percent beats her 4 percent. You might still prefer to lend to her, but you would come out behind in financial terms.

The competing CBO estimates reflect this dichotomy. One approach compares the financial returns of lending with doing nothing (the $200 billion gain in CBO’s case, 4 percent versus 2.5 percent in yours). The other compares the returns with taking similar risks and being fully compensated (the $100 billion loss in CBO’s case, 4 percent versus 5 percent in yours).

Both comparisons provide useful information. If you want to predict the government’s future fiscal condition, you should compare the financial returns of lending with doing nothing. If you want to measure the subsidies given to borrowers, you should compare returns with the fair market alternative.

When you discuss your aunt’s proposal with your spouse, you would be wise to mention not only the potential financial gain (“4 percent is better than 2.5 percent”) but the subsidy to your aunt (“4 percent is less than the 5 percent your brother would pay”). Only then can you have an open discussion of your family’s financial priorities.

Today’s approaches

The same information is necessary for an open discussion of federal budgeting. But official budget rules, created by the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 (FCRA), require CBO to use just the first approach in its budget analyses. Official estimates thus measure the fiscal effects of lending, not the subsidies provided to borrowers. CBO rightly believes, however, that policy deliberations are incomplete without measuring the subsidies, which CBO calculates separately using an approach known as fair value.

Policy analysts have vigorously debated the pros and cons of FCRA and fair value for years. Neither side has scored a decisive win for a simple reason: both approaches are incomplete. Fair value measures subsidies well, but tells us nothing about fiscal effects; this is its missing-money problem. FCRA measures lifetime fiscal effects well, but tells us nothing about subsidies.

By recording expected fiscal gains the moment a loan is made, moreover, FCRA makes lending appear to be a magic money machine. Lending may pay off over time, but the gains do not happen the moment the loan’s ink is dry. Like any lender, the government must be patient to earn those returns. It must hold the loan, perhaps for many years, and bear the associated financial risk.

A better approach

For those reasons, I believe we should replace both approaches with a more accurate budgeting method, which I call expected returns. As the report and brief describe, the expected-returns approach forecasts the fiscal effects of a loan by projecting the government’s expected returns year by year, rather than collapsing them into a single value at the time the loan is made, as both FCRA and fair value do.

Expected returns accurately tracks the fiscal effects of lending over time, thus avoiding both fair value’s missing-money problem and FCRA’s magic-money-machine problem. It also provides a natural framework for reporting the fiscal effects of lending and the subsidies to borrowers. Expected returns would give policymakers and the public a more accurate assessment of federal lending than either of the approaches we use now.

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Suppose your aunt decides to start a business making pizza ovens. She will design and build the ovens, and her daughter will manage operations. A bank is ready to lend her $100,000 to get started, but it wants someone to co-sign and be on the hook if she misses any payments. She offers to pay you $6,000 to do so.

A business-savvy friend tells you that missed payments on such a loan average $2,000, usually less, occasionally much more. He also reports that $7,000 is the going rate for co-signing.

Those insights spark lively family debate. Your aunt believes her proposal is a no-brainer. She would get to start her business, your niece would get a better job, and you would come out $4,000 ahead on average. It’s a win-win-win for the family.

Your spouse disagrees. Yes you’d net $4,000, on average, but you would get $5,000 by co-signing a similar loan in the marketplace. Your aunt is asking you to bear the financial risk of her loan without fully compensating you. In a worst case scenario, you might end up owing the bank $100,000. You deserve to be fairly compensated for taking that risk. Co-signing would help her and your niece and may be best for the family. But the deal is not a win all around. You would be bearing real financial risk, effectively giving your aunt $1,000, and everyone in the family should acknowledge that.

Co-signing the loan would thus make you $4,000, according to your aunt, or cost you $1,000, according to your spouse. But which is it? And should you co-sign the loan?

Those questions are at center stage as Congress debates the fate of the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expires September 30. The details are more complex—imagine the Bank co-signing a loan to a restaurant in Ethiopia that wants to buy an oven from your aunt—but the issues are the same.

Like your aunt, Bank proponents argue that guaranteeing loans is a win-win-win. American exporters will sell more abroad, a win for shareholders and a win for their workers. Bank fees more than cover expected losses, so taxpayers win as well. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the Bank will net $14 billion from new guarantees over the next decade.

Like your spouse, however, others reject the idea that the Bank is really a win for taxpayers. While it might generate $14 billion over the next decade, the Bank would gain even more—$16 billion—if taxpayers were fairly compensated for the risks they would be taking. By offering loan guarantees at below-market rates, the Bank will effectively lose $2 billion over the next decade, again according to CBO.

Your view of the Bank’s profitability thus depends on what you measure it against. Official budget accounting, which shows the gain, compares the Bank’s performance to a scenario in which it doesn’t exist. CBO’s alternative, which shows the loss, compares the Bank’s performance to a scenario in which it does exist but charges fair market rates.

Both comparisons are important. The $14 billion represents the expected fiscal gain if the Bank is reauthorized for another decade, while the $2 billion represents the subsidy that exporters get from taxpayers who aren’t fully compensated for bearing new financial risks. The Bank’s specific activities are costing taxpayers, but in purely monetary terms that is more than offset by the gains from being a commercial lender.

If the Bank’s purpose were solely to make money, we’d do better to replace it with a commercial venture that operates on market terms. But making money is not the Bank’s mission. Instead, its goal is to support American exporters, particularly in competition with foreign firms that also receive government backing.

Policymakers thus confront the same tradeoffs that arise for almost any policy. The Bank creates winners and losers. Just as you need to balance the personal cost of co-signing your aunt’s loan at below-market rates against the potential benefits to your family, so must Congress balance the costs and benefits of the Export-Import Bank. It might still be worthwhile, but it’s not a win-win-win.

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Today I had the chance to testify before the House Small Business Committee on the many tax issues facing small business. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

America’s tax system is needlessly complex, economically harmful, and often unfair. Despite recent revenue gains, it likely will not raise enough money to pay the government’s future bills. The time is thus ripe for wholesale tax reform. Such reform could have far-reaching effects, including on small business. To help you evaluate those effects, I’d like to make seven points about the tax issues facing small business.

1. Tax compliance places a large burden on small businesses, both in the aggregate and relative to large businesses.

The Internal Revenue Service estimates that businesses with less than $1 million in revenue bear almost two-thirds of business compliance costs. Those costs are much larger, relative to revenues or assets, for small firms than for big ones.

2. Small businesses are more likely to underpay their taxes.

Because they often deal in cash and engage in transactions that are not reported to the IRS, small businesses can understate their revenues and overstate their expenses and thus underpay their taxes. Some underpayment is inadvertent, reflecting the difficulty of complying with our complex tax code, and some is intentional. High compliance costs disadvantage responsible small businesses, while the greater opportunity to underpay taxes advantages less responsible ones.

3. The current tax code offers small businesses several advantages over larger ones.

Provisions such as Section 179 expensing, cash accounting, graduated corporate tax rates, and special capital gains taxes benefit businesses that are small in terms of investment, income, or assets.

4. Several of those advantages expired at the end of last year and thus are part of the current “tax extenders” debate.

These provisions include expanded eligibility for Section 179 expensing and larger capital gains exclusions for investments in qualifying small businesses. Allowing these provisions to expire and then retroactively resuscitating them is a terrible way to make tax policy. If Congress believes these provisions are beneficial, they should be in place well before the start of the year, so businesses can make investment and funding decisions without needless uncertainty.

5. Many small businesses also benefit from the opportunity to organize as pass-through entities such as S corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships, and sole proprietorships.

These structures all avoid the double taxation that applies to income earned by C corporations. Some large businesses adopt these forms as well, and account for a substantial fraction of pass-through economic activity. Policymakers should take care not to assume that all pass-throughs are small businesses.

6. Tax reform could recalibrate the tradeoff between structuring as a pass-through or as a C corporation.

Many policymakers and analysts have proposed revenue-neutral business reforms that would lower the corporate tax rate while reducing tax breaks. Such reforms would likely favor C corporations over pass-throughs, since all companies could lose tax benefits while only C corporations would benefit from lower corporate tax rates.

7. Tax reform could shift the relative tax burdens on small and large businesses.

Some tax reforms would reduce or eliminate tax benefits aimed at small businesses, such as graduated corporate rates. Other reforms—e.g., lengthening depreciation and amortization schedules for investments or advertising but allowing safe harbors for small amounts—would increase the relative advantage that small businesses enjoy. The net effect of tax reform will thus depend on the details and may vary among businesses of different sizes, industries, and organizational forms. It also depends on the degree to which lawmakers use reform as an opportunity to reduce compliance burdens on small businesses.

 

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Congressional negotiators are trying to craft a budget deal by mid-December. Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square asked twelve experts what they hoped that deal would include. My suggestion: it’s time to fix the budget process:

Odds are slim that the budget conference will deliver anything big on substance. No grand bargain, no sweeping tax reform, no big stimulus paired with long-term budget restraint. At best, conferees might replace the next round of sequester cuts with more selective spending reductions spread over the next decade.

Those dim substantive prospects create a perfect opportunity for conferees to pivot to process. In principle, Congress ought to make prudent, considered decisions about taxes and spending programs. In reality, we’ve lurched from the fiscal cliff to a government shutdown to threats of default. We make policy in the shadow of self-imposed crises without addressing our long-run budget imbalances or near-term economic challenges. Short-term spending bills keep the government open – usually –  but make it difficult for agencies to pursue multiyear goals and do little to distinguish among more and less worthy programs. And every few years, we openly discuss default as part of the political theater surrounding the debt limit.

The budget conferees should thus publicly affirm what everyone already knows: America’s budget process is broken. They should identify the myriad flaws and commit themselves to fixing them. Everything should be on the table, including repealing or replacing the debt limit, redesigning the structure of congressional committees, and rethinking the ban on earmarks.

Conferees won’t be able to resolve those issues by their December 13 deadline. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The budget conferees should use their moment in the spotlight to do so.

P.S. Other suggestions include investing in basic research, reforming the tax system, and slashing farm programs. For all twelve, see here.

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You’ve probably heard that Treasury will hit the debt limit on October 17 and soon thereafter it won’t be able to pay all of America’s bills. That second part is true: Congress needs to act soon—preferably before the 17th—so Treasury doesn’t miss any payments. But the first part isn’t: Treasury actually hit the debt limit way back on May 19.

So how did Treasury keep paying our bills? Extraordinary measures.

When money gets tight, Treasury uses several accounting gimmicks and cash flow sleights of hand—the extraordinary measures—for extra financing. The easiest to explain involves the G-Fund, which is offered to federal employees through their equivalent of a 401(k) plan. As its name implies, that fund invests in government bonds. But the Treasury Secretary has a special power: he can replace those bonds with IOUs. I kid you not. One day the G-Fund has Treasury bonds, and the next it has IOUs. Those IOUs don’t count against the debt limit, but they will eventually be repaid with interest once the debt limit gets increased. Employees don’t lose anything, and Treasury gets some extra financing room.

Such budget gimmickry used to inspire outrage. In 1995, pundits accused Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin of violating his fiduciary duty and robbing federal employees when he did this. Today, the same action generates nary a peep; stuffing the G-fund with IOUs is standard operating protocol.

So it is with the other extraordinary measures (for a full list, see here). Once extraordinary, they are now merely ordinary. No one takes the debt limit seriously until the extraordinary measures are running on fumes, as they are today.

That’s what makes a new proposal from House Republicans intriguing. News reports indicate that they want to permanently eliminate some extraordinary measures as part of a debt limit deal.

At first glance, you might worry that killing off those measures would undermine the financing buffer Treasury relies on in times of fiscal discord. But here’s the thing: Our leaders already take that buffer for granted. They know the gas gauge is flashing empty, but they don’t pull into the next station. Instead, they ask the fuel engineers at Treasury how much further we can make it. When the engineers say 30 miles, we drive another 29 ½.

Eliminating the extraordinary measures wouldn’t change the unpleasant brinksmanship of the debt limit. It would merely shift the focus from the day extraordinary measures are exhausted to the day we first hit the debt limit. In return, it would increase the transparency of our goofy budget process and would rid us of the embarrassingly casual use of fiscal gimmicks.

That’s a trade worth considering. But the gains must be balanced against some caveats.

First, the extraordinary measures might be providing some fiscal buffer that remains unused, even now. For example, the Bipartisan Policy Center recently noted that an aggressive reading of the law might allow the Treasury Secretary to squeeze a bit more money out of one measure, known as the debt issuance suspension period. As BPC explains, that would be a dubious maneuver, but it would be better than default. So perhaps we could be giving up a bit of flexibility.

Second, eliminating the extraordinary measures would reduce the time the next debt limit increase will last. Early this year, Congress raised the debt limit through May 18, but the extraordinary measures got us well into October. Without those measures, a similar increase now, perhaps to November 22, would come with no extra buffer. That’s a plus for transparency, but a minus if you want to avoid the debt limit as long as possible.

Third, for the same reason, eliminating the extraordinary measures would make it easier for Congress to time when the debt limit comes to a head. That could be a plus or a minus depending on your view of congressional intentions.

Finally, our political system might need several months of a blinking “empty” light to get people ready to act. My sense is that most people are now inured to the flashing and don’t even realize we hit the debt limit months ago. But maybe the flashing still serves some purpose.

In short, the idea of eliminating the extraordinary measures is an interesting addition to the debt limit debate. Those measures provide much less flexibility than they used to. As with star ballplayers, there is some logic to retiring extraordinary measures once they’ve become merely ordinary. But the idea requires more tire-kicking to determine how any costs stack up against the benefits of a clearer, less gimmicky budget process.

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