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Posts Tagged ‘Budget’

The Department of Energy snookered the media last week with a report that seems to show that its clean energy lending programs are profitable. “Remember Solyndra? Those loans are making money,” went a typical headline.

Unfortunately, that’s not true. Taxpayers are losing money on DOE lending. Less than originally expected, and less than you would expect given media coverage of Solyndra, Fisker, and a few other failed loans. But smaller losses are still losses, not profits.

To understand DOE’s spin, consider a simple example. Suppose your spouse borrows $10,000 from a bank at 5 percent interest over 10 years so that you can lend it to your friend Bob on the same terms.

Everything goes well in the first year. Bob pays you, and your spouse pays the bank.

If your aunt asks how the deal is going, what would you say? A good answer would be, “We are breaking even; let’s hope Bob keeps paying us back.” You and your spouse are in this together, the loans from the bank and to Bob offset one another, and your best hope is for that to continue.

If DOE were asked, however, it apparently would say, “Things are great; Bob paid me $500 in interest, and I am on track to earn $5,000.” DOE takes credit for the interest that companies pay on their loans, but it doesn’t subtract—or even report—the interest costs that taxpayers pay to finance those loans. That’s like claiming profits on your loan to Bob, while ignoring the interest your spouse pays the bank.

ELO Report

DOE’s report does not address this issue, except in a footnote in a table (cut and pasted above) revealing that its $810 million of “interest earned” was “calculated without respect to Treasury’s borrowing cost.” In other words, DOE reports gross interest received, not the net interest taxpayers have earned after subtracting Treasury borrowing costs. The incomplete figures in the table seem to suggest that DOE has eked out a $30 million profit on its lending ($810 million in interest less $780 million in loan losses). But when we account for Treasury borrowing costs, taxpayers are actually well behind.

The report does not allow us to say just how far behind. We do know, however, that DOE loans are typically made at small, sometimes zero, spreads above Treasury rates. So a large portion of DOE’s “interest earned” must have been offset by borrowing costs. That puts taxpayer losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The same concern applies to DOE’s statement that interest payments on these loans will eventually top $5 billion. Some media outlets are reporting that as $5 billion of profit. It’s not. That $5 billion does not include the cost of Treasury financing or of any defaults. DOE’s $5 billion figure is like claiming your loan to Bob is scheduled to bring in $5,000 in interest; it’s technically true, but tells you nothing about profits. Indeed, the Obama administration still predicts that DOE’s loans will lose money over their lifetimes.

DOE’s lending programs should not be evaluated solely or even primarily based on their profitability or lack thereof. What matters is their overall social impact. How much are they advancing new technologies? How much are they reducing future pollution? Have they created jobs and economic growth? And are any gains worth the taxpayer subsidies? Those are the questions we should be trying to answer.

If DOE wants to play the profitability card, however, it should do so in an accurate and transparent way. Last week’s report falls woefully short. DOE owes taxpayers an honest accounting of the financial performance of its lending programs.

P.S. In recent work, I raised concerns about how the government budgets for lending programs. One issue is whether we should measure profitability against Treasury borrowing rates (as currently done) or against market rates (which the government could earn by unsubsidized lending). I expected that issue to arise in DOE’s accounting. Instead, the agency ignored the cost of capital entirely. Budget policymakers eliminated that ploy more than two decades ago, so it is stunning DOE would resurrect it.

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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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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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Today I had the chance to testify before the Joint Economic Committee about a perennial challenge, the looming debt limit. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

I’d like to make six points about the debt limit today.

First, Congress must increase the debt limit.

Failure to do so will result in severe economic harm. Treasury would have to delay billions, then tens of billions, then hundreds of billions of dollars of payments. Through no fault of their own, federal employees, contractors, program beneficiaries, and state and local governments would find themselves suddenly short of expected cash, creating a ripple effect through the economy. A prolonged delay would be a powerful “anti-stimulus” that could easily push our economy back into recession.

In addition, there’s a risk that we might default on the federal debt. I expect that Treasury will do everything it can to make debt-service payments on time, but there is a risk that it won’t succeed. Indeed, we have precedent for this. In 1979, Treasury accidentally defaulted on a small sliver of debt in the wake of a debt limit showdown. That default was narrow in scope, but financial markets reacted badly, and interest rates spiked. If a debt limit impasse forced Treasury to default today, the results would be more severe. Interest rates would spike, credit would tighten, financial institutions would scramble for cash, and savers might desert money market funds. Anyone who remembers the financial crisis should shudder at the prospect of reliving such disruptions.

Second, Treasury doesn’t have any “super-extraordinary” measures if the debt limit isn’t raised in time.

Pundits have suggested that Treasury might sidestep the debt limit by invoking the 14th Amendment, minting extremely large platinum coins, or selling gold and other federal assets. But Administration officials have said that none of those strategies would actually work.

Third, debt limit brinksmanship is costly, even if Congress raises the limit at the last minute.

As we saw in 2011, brinksmanship increases interest rates and federal borrowing costs. The Bipartisan Policy Center—building on work by the Government Accountability Office—estimates that crisis will cost taxpayers almost $19 billion in extra interest costs.

Brinksmanship also increases uncertainty, reduces confidence, and thus undermines the economy. In 2011, for example, consumer confidence and the stock market both plummeted, while measures of financial risk skyrocketed.

Finally, brinksmanship weakens America’s global image. The United States is the only major nation whose leaders talk openly about self-inflicted default. At the risk of sounding like Vladimir Putin, such exceptionalism is not healthy.

Fourth, as this Committee knows well, our economy remains fragile.

Now is not the time to hit it with unnecessary shocks.

Fifth, as the CBO confirmed yesterday, the long-run budget outlook remains challenging.

Deficits have fallen sharply in the past few years. But current budget policies would still create an unsustainable trajectory of debt in coming decades. Congress should address that problem. But the near-term fiscal priorities are funding the government and increasing the debt limit.

Finally, Congress should rethink the debt limit and the entire budget process.

Borrowing decisions cannot be made in a vacuum, separate from other fiscal choices. America borrows today because this and previous Congresses chose to spend more than we take in, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not. If Congress is concerned about debt, it needs to act when it makes those spending and revenue decisions, not months or years later when financial obligations are already in place. When the dust settles on our immediate challenges, Congress should re-examine the entire budget process, seeking ways to make it more effective and less susceptible to dangerous, after-the-fact brinksmanship.

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