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Posts Tagged ‘Deficit’

The S&P downgrade of U.S. credit has understandably dominated headlines, but S&P was by no means the first mover. At least three other rating agencies had already downgraded the United States.

Egan-Jones was the first Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (NRSRO) to downgrade. It lowered the U.S. rating from AAA to AA+ in mid-July. NRSROs are the companies that the SEC officially recognizes as credit rating agencies. They number ten in total, with Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poors the most famous (or, in some circles, infamous).

Weiss Ratings was the first U.S.-based rating agency to rate the U.S. below AAA. It initiated official coverage in April at the equivalent of BBB and lowered to the equivalent of BBB- in mid-July, just one notch above junk. Back in May 2010, Weiss challenged the three major agencies to downgrade the United States, but hadn’t yet rated the U.S. itself. Weiss is not an NRSRO.

And then there’s Dagong, the Chinese rating agency. It initiated coverage with a AA rating in July 2010. It then cut the U.S. to A+ in November and to A last week.

So who was first?

Weiss if you count its May 2010 announcement that the U.S. ought to be downgraded. Dagong if you go by the first published rating below AAA. And Egan-Jones if you focus on the NRSROs.

Anyway you slice it, though, S&P wasn’t first.

S&P may want to make that point during the inevitable congressional hearings in September. And committee staffers should consider inviting Weiss or Egan-Jones as well.

ht: Dan D. and David M.

P.S. Apologies for the lack of links; I am writing on an iPad today, and it’s a nuisance to add them.

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In the final hours before Friday’s historic downgrade, Standard & Poors gave Treasury an advance copy of its report. Amazingly, that report contained a $2 trillion error in its calculations of U.S. deficits and debt over the next decade. Here are four things you should know about it.

1. Treasury hoped that S&P would change its decision in light of the error, but S&P shrugged it off as not material. 

In a blog post, Acting Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy John Bellows described what happened when the error was discovered:

After Treasury pointed out this error – a basic math error of significant consequence – S&P still chose to proceed with their flawed judgment by simply changing their principal rationale for their credit rating decision from an economic one to a political one.
On Saturday morning, S&P issued a clarification / rebuttal acknowledging the error, but downplaying its importance:

The primary focus [of our analysis] remained on the current level of debt, the trajectory of debt as a share of the economy, and the lack of apparent willingness of elected officials as a group to deal with the U.S. medium term fiscal outlook. None of these key factors was meaningfully affected by the assumption revisions to the assumed growth of discretionary outlays and thus had no impact on the rating decision.

2. Despite S&P’s claim, $2 trillion would “meaningfully affect” “the trajectory of debt as a share of the economy.”

It’s own revised calculations show net general government debt hitting 85% of gross domestic product in 2021 instead of 93%. That’s a big difference.

The 85% figure is still uncomfortably high and may well not deserve a AAA rating. But S&P was too dismissive in its clarification.

3. The error is understandable but remarkably sloppy for such an important analysis. 

The source of the error is painfully familiar to anyone who deals with U.S. budget projections. S&P’s analysts didn’t use the right measuring stick — i.e., the right budget baseline — when analyzing the effects of the recently-enacted Budget Control Act.

In one sense, it’s easy to see how this error happened. Budget discussions are now hopelessly confused by a profusion of different baseline projections of what spending and revenues will look like in the future. Indeed, I have devoted multiple posts to clarifying how different revenue baselines fit together (e.g., here and here). I’ve even used Johnny Depp to highlight the challenge.

A similar challenge exists with discretionary spending. Official budget baselines assume that annual appropriations (the defense and non-defense spending Congress fights over every year) grow with inflation unless subject to an explicit cap. That was the basis, for example, for the official baseline that the Congressional Budget Office used in evaluating the impacts of the Budget Control Act.

Before the BCA, there were no discretionary spending caps, so annual budget authority was assumed to grow with inflation from the most recent appropriated levels. The BCA then generated $917 billion in budget savings by setting annual spending caps below those levels.

S&P messed up because it based its analysis on another baseline. That “alternative fiscal scenario” assumes that discretionary spending grows at the same pace as the overall economy, not just with inflation. That baseline implies much more spending and debt over the next decade — $2 trillion more, in fact — than the official baseline.

So, again, it’s easy to see mechanically how this error happened. But it’s still remarkably sloppy. Budget experts are well-aware of the problem of multiple baselines. Indeed, we all pepper our conversations and analysis with the question “what baseline are you using?” It’s stunning that S&P didn’t have multiple analysts asking the same question to make sure their original numbers were right.

4. S&P’s response to the error further demonstrates that its primary concern about the United States is political not numerical. 

As S&P said in Friday’s report:

Our opinion is that elected officials remain wary of tackling the structural issues required to effectively address the rising U.S. public debt burden in a manner consistent with a ‘AAA’ rating and with ‘AAA’ rated sovereign peers. In our view, the difficulty in framing a consensus on fiscal policy weakens the government’s ability to manage public finances and diverts attention from the debate over how to achieve more balanced and dynamic economic growth in an era of fiscal stringency and private-sector deleveraging.

In short, S&P worries that America won’t get its act together in time.

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On Friday night, Standard and Poors announced that it was downgrading U.S. long-term sovereign debt from AAA to AA+, the first such downgrade in U.S. history.

Here are five things you should know about the downgrade — four important, one trivia.

1. S&P downgraded U.S. debt not only because of the deteriorating fiscal outlook, but also because of concerns about America’s ability to govern itself. It said:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year’s wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.

2. Moody’s and Fitch recently reaffirmed their AAA ratings on U.S. sovereign debt. On Tuesday, Moody’s reaffirmed its Aaa rating, but assigned a negative outlook given the risk that the U.S. might flinch from further fiscal tightening, borrowing costs might rise, and the economy might weaken. Fitch similarly reiterated its AAA rating on Tuesday, but noted that it would have a fuller reassessment by the end of August. Fitch also emphasized the need for further fiscal adjustments.

One issue (on which I haven’t seen much discussion) is how the impact of a downgrade would increase if it spreads from just one rating agency to two or three.

3. In the past thirty years, five nations — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden– have regained a AAA rating after losing it. See, for example, this nice chart from BusinessWeek:

America still has much to learn from other nations that fixed their economies and budgets after financial crises. Sweden, for example, did a remarkable job addressing the fiscal challenges that followed its financial crisis in the early 1990s.

4. This downgrade may set off a cascade of further downgrades for other U.S. debt. The federal government provides an implicit or explicit backstop for many other debt securities. For example, the federal government stands behind trillions of dollars of debt and guarantees issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, GNMA securities, and securities backed by guaranteed student loans. It implicitly stands behind systemically important financial institutions. And it provides substantial support to state and local governments. S&P did not specifically address these other credits in Friday’s report, but did say that:

On Monday, we will issue separate releases concerning affected ratings in the funds, government-related entities, financial institutions, insurance, public finance, and structured finance sectors.

S&P did reaffirm its highest, A-1+ rating on U.S. short-term debt, which should limit impacts on money market funds and other short-term lending markets.

5. S&P was not the first rating agency to downgrade U.S. sovereign debt. In the category of trivia, China’s Dagong credit rating agency downgraded U.S. credit to A with a negative outlook earlier this week. Dagong had initiated U.S. coverage with a AA rating about a year ago, which was lowered to A+ last November. Dagong apparently views the United States as a greater risk than China. Despite all of America’s problems, that seems a stretch.

Update: In addition, Egan-Jones, a U.S. rating agency, cut the U.S. to AA+ in mid-July. Egan-Jones thus wins the prize as first U.S.-based agency to downgrade. Writing in the Financial Times, Michael Mackenzie noted:

Egan-Jones was officially recognised in 2008 by the Securities and Exchange Commission and, unlike its larger rivals, generates revenue from institutional investors and not from issuers of debt. During the past decade it downgraded US carmakers and structured credit products before similar decisions by the big rating agencies.

Thanks to reader Dan Diamond for pointing out the Egan-Jones downgrade.

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Here’s a quick multiple choice quiz about the Gang of Six’s new budget proposal.

Over the next ten years, would the proposal:

a. Cut taxes by $1.5 trillion

b. Increase taxes by $2.0 trillion

c. Increase taxes by $1.2 trillion

d. All of the above.

If you answered (d), you have a fine future as a budget watcher (or you peeked at the answer from the last time we played this game).

The answer depends on the yard stick you use to measure changes in tax revenues. Unfortunately, people now use at least three different yard sticks.

The first, known as the current law baseline, assumes that Congress doesn’t change the tax laws on the books today. That means every temporary tax cut expires in the next two years, including the individual tax cuts enacted in 2001/2003 and extended in 2010, the “patch” that limits the growth of the alternative minimum tax, and the current estate tax.

The second, known as the current policy baseline, assumes those three temporary tax cuts all get permanently extended.

The third, known variously as the Fiscal Commission’s plausible baseline or the alternative fiscal scenario of 2010, assumes that those three temporary tax cuts all get extended with one big exception: the tax cuts that benefit “high-income” taxpayers expire.

With three different yard sticks, we get three different measures of the impact of the Go6 proposal.

Relative to the current law baseline, the Go6 plan would be a $1.5 trillion tax cut. In other words, the Go6 plan would raise $1.5 trillion less in revenue over the next ten years than if Congress did nothing, and all the temporary tax cuts expired. That’s an important number because the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office are required to use current law in preparing official budget scores.

Relative to the Fiscal Commission’s baseline, the Go6 plan is a $1.2 trillion tax increase. That includes three pieces: $1.0 trillion from reducing tax preferences (some of which may be the moral equivalent of cutting spending), $133 billion in new revenues for the highway trust fund (but not from higher gas taxes), and about $60 billion from using a lower measure of inflation – the chain CPI – to index the tax code.

Relative to current policy, finally, the Go6 plan is roughly a $2 trillion tax increase. In addition to the $1.2 trillion in tax increases noted above, it assumes an additional $800 billion in revenue – equivalent to what would be raised by allowing the “high-income” tax cuts to expire.* The Go6 plan would thus raise about $2 trillion more in revenue over the next ten years than if Congress simply kept in place the tax policies that apply in 2011 (except the payroll tax holiday, which everyone assumes will eventually expire).

Bottom line: You should expect to hear the plan characterized as anything from a $1.5 trillion tax cut to a $2 trillion tax hike.

P.S. For a similar discussion comparing two of the three baselines, see this nice piece by David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.

P.P.S. What really matters, of course, is the plan itself, not how it scores against some possibly arbitrary baselines. Bob Williams makes that point here.

* I revised this sentence to emphasize that the plan includes revenue equivalent to letting the “high-income” tax cuts expire; it doesn’t actually let the rates expire – instead, it includes a wholesale reform that includes lowering the top rate to no more than 29 percent. 

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Senate Republicans made a striking error in the balanced budget amendment they introduced last week. As written, the amendment would limit federal spending far more than those senators realize or, I suspect, desire.

The Republicans want the budget to be balanced by keeping spending down rather than by raising tax revenues. They thus propose limiting spending to no more than 18% of gross domestic product (GDP). That’s in line with average tax revenues over the past four decades, but well below average spending, which has been just short of 21% of GDP.

So what’s the problem? The way the amendment would implement the spending limit:

Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote.

The amendment compares spending in one period (the upcoming fiscal year) to the size of the economy in an earlier period (the last complete calendar year). If the amendment were in force today, for example, spending in fiscal 2012, which starts in October, would be limited to 18 percent of GDP in calendar 2010. That’s a gap of 21 months.

As Bruce Bartlett pointed out in analyzing an earlier version of this amendment, that time lag can add up to big money. Why? Because both real economic growth and inflation will expand the economy during those 21 months.

The Congressional Budget Office projects, for example, that nominal GDP will grow about 4.5% annually in the latter part of this decade (the earliest the amendment could go into effect). Over 21 months, that works out to roughly 8% growth. The amendment would thus limit federal spending in those years to about 16.7% of each year’s GDP (16.7% = 18% / 1.08) not the advertised 18%. In 2020 alone that amounts to a difference of more than $300 billion in spending.

That’s a big error.

I doubt that Senate Republicans really want to limit spending to only 18% of GDP. Even the House Republican budget calls for spending of more than 20% of GDP for at least two decades. But if the Senate Republicans are serious, their first step should be to fix the drafting error in their amendment.

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In October 2013, a slightly updated version of this post appeared here.

Since the day of Alexander Hamilton, the United States has never defaulted on the federal debt.

That’s what we budget-watchers always say. It’s a great talking point. One that helps bolster the argument that default should not be an option in Washington’s ongoing debt limit slowdown.

There’s just one teensy problem: it isn’t true. As Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the United States defaulted on some Treasury bills in 1979. And it paid a steep price for stiffing bondholders.

Terry Zivney and Richard Marcus describe the default in The Financial Review (sorry, I can’t find an ungated version):

Investors in T-bills maturing April 26, 1979 were told that the U.S. Treasury could not make its payments on maturing securities to individual investors. The Treasury was also late in redeeming T-bills which become due on May 3 and May 10, 1979. The Treasury blamed this delay on an unprecedented volume of participation by small investors, on failure of Congress to act in a timely fashion on the debt ceiling legislation in April, and on an unanticipated failure of word processing equipment used to prepare check schedules.

The United States thus defaulted because Treasury’s back office was on the fritz.

This default was, of course, temporary. Treasury did pay these T-bills after a short delay. But it balked at paying additional interest to cover the period of delay. According to Zivney and Marcus, it required both legal arm twisting and new legislation before Treasury made all investors whole for that additional interest.

Some may quibble about whether this constitutes default. After all, the United States did eventually make its payments. And the disruption applied to only a sliver of its debt – certain T-bills owned by individual investors.

But I think it’s unambiguous. A debt default occurs anytime a creditor fails to make a timely interest or principal payment. By that standard, the United States did default. It was small. It was unintentional. But it was indeed a default.

And the nation still stands. But that hardly means we should run the experiment again and at larger scale. Zivney and Marcus examined what happened to T-bill interest rates as a result of this small, temporary default. They find a surprisingly large effect. As best they can tell, T-bill interest rates increased about 60 basis points after the first default and remained elevated for at least several months thereafter. A simple way to see that is to look at daily changes in T-bill yields:

T-bill rates spiked upwards four times in the months around the default. In November 1978, Henry “Dr. Doom” Kaufman predicted that interest rates would rise. They did. Turn-of-the-year cash management caused rates to fall and then rise as 1978 became 1979. And rates spiked and fell in October 1979 when Paul Volcker announced that the Fed would target monetary aggregates rather than interest rates (the “Saturday night special”).

The fourth big move was the day of the first default, when T-bill rates rose almost 0.6 percentage points (i.e., 60 basis points).There’s no indication this increase reversed in the days that followed (the vertical line on the chart is just a marker for the day of default). Indeed, using more sophisticated means, including comparing T-bill rates to interest on commercial paper, the authors conclude that default led to a persistent increase in T-bill rates and, therefore, higher borrowing costs for the federal government.

The financial world has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. T-bill rates hover near zero compared to the 9-10 percent range of the late 1970s; that means a temporary delay in payments would be less costly for creditors. Treasury’s IT systems are, one hopes, more reliable that 1970s vintage word processors. And one should take care not to make too much of a single data point.

But it’s the only data point we have on a U.S. default. Not surprisingly it shows that even temporary default is a bad idea.

P.S. Some observers believe the United States also defaulted in 1933 when it abrogated the gold clause. The United States made its payments on time in dollars, but eliminated the option to take payment in gold. For a quick overview of this and related issues, see this blog post by Catherine Rampell at the New York Times and the associated comments.

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Cut Spending by Raising Taxes

My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor argues that we can cut spending by raising taxes:

Here’s a shocker: America can cut government spending by eliminating tax breaks.

I know that sounds crazy. Everyone usually talks as if spending and tax breaks are distinct. Spending is what the government gives out or uses for purchases; tax breaks reduce how much revenue it collects.

Reality, however, is a lot blurrier. Hundreds of billions of dollars of spending are disguised as tax cuts.

It’s not hard to see why. Voters like tax cuts more than spending increases. Politicians understand that, so they convert spending into tax breaks.

The ethanol tax credit is a perfect example. Fuel producers qualify for a 45-cent tax credit for each gallon of ethanol they blend into gasoline. Blenders calculate their income taxes like other businesses, then deduct the value of the credit before they send their check to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The ethanol subsidy thus looks like a tax cut, but it’s really government spending in disguise. The Department of Energy could accomplish the same thing by sending out subsidy checks. The same is true for dozens of other tax provisions, such as the business credit for research and development and personal tax breaks for mortgage interest, health insurance, and charitable giving.

Politicians act as if those provisions are tax cuts. That seems plausible. Businesses and families send less money to the IRS because of them.

But think about it. These tax breaks don’t let you keep your money. They pay you for doing what government wants, whether that’s taking out a mortgage, giving to charity, or investing in R&D. What you pay the IRS equals the taxes you owe minus the payments for which you’ve qualified. Those payments are no different from spending; they just happen to be netted against your tax bill.

That doesn’t mean all tax preferences are bad policy. Some support important goals, and the tax system is sometimes the best way to administer a program. The income tax, for example, provides a natural structure for benefits like the earned income tax credit that should vary with income.

It does mean, however, that these provisions should get the same scrutiny as traditional spending programs. Social Security, health care, defense, and domestic spending must all go under the budget knife if we want to avoid unsustainable debts. The middle-class entitlements, business incentives, and social programs embedded in the tax code shouldn’t escape that surgery just because they’re designed as tax breaks.

That’s why many budget hawks believe that cutting these preferences is essential to deficit reduction. The president’s fiscal commission, for example, proposed dramatic cuts to “spending-like” tax preferences as a way to reduce future deficits while lowering – not raising – income tax rates.

That approach has great merit, but has not yet been universally embraced. When Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican and budget hawk from Oklahoma, recently introduced legislation to eliminate the ethanol tax credit, he drew fierce opposition from some advocacy groups that favor lower taxes. Both Senator Coburn and the advocates favor smaller government. Where they differ is that Coburn recognizes that spending can hide in the tax code.

Trimming tax preferences won’t be painless – many businesses and families would send more to the IRS. But the result would be a fairer, more honest tax code and a broader, more solid base of revenue to pay for government services.

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