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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 latest debt limit showdown.

There’s just one teensy problem: it isn’t exactly true. The United States defaulted on some Treasury bills in 1979 (ht: Jason Zweig). 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 in the wake of a debt limit showdown.

This default was 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.

The United States thus did default once. 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:

1979 Treasury Default

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 disrupted rates 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 small, temporary default is a bad idea. Our leaders shouldn’t come close to risking it.

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 and the associated comments.

P.P.S. This post originally appeared in May 2011. This version has been slightly edited.

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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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Remember the 47%? Well, my colleagues at the Tax Policy Center just updated the numbers. For 2013, they estimate that the fraction of Americans not paying any federal income tax is down to 43%. Why? Because the economy is recovering and tax cut stimulus has ebbed. A decade from now, they predict, it will be 34%.

Bob Williams, the Sol Price Fellow at the Urban Institute, explains the number in this video. Key point: the 43% may not pay any federal income tax, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pay taxes:

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It’s debt limit season again. Treasury will soon exhaust all the “extraordinary” (if familiar) measures it’s using to stay within the limit. By mid-October, Treasury will have just $50 billion on hand. Once that’s gone–maybe at Halloween, maybe a bit later–Uncle Sam won’t be able to pay all his bills or will be forced into doing something desperate like breaching the debt limit or minting platinum coins (kidding, mostly).

We seen this movie before. Sometimes it ends with major policy changes, such as the 2011 deal that spawned the sequester. Other times it leads to minor tweaks, such as the January 2013 deal that linked congressional pay to passing separate budgets through the House and Senate.

These showdowns feel like a modern phenomenon. But over at Tax Analysts, tax historian Joe Thorndike reminds us that a similar showdown happened in 1953 under President Eisenhower:

Soon after President Dwight Eisenhower took office, his administration began signaling the need for additional borrowing authority. But conservatives were not convinced. “For the Administration, this would be the easy way out of hard decisions,” warned the Wall Street Journal. “[T]o lift the debt ceiling for this ‘emergency’ need will make the whole idea of a debt ceiling meaningless. To impose a limit on the government’s debt and then to change it the moment it begins to squeeze makes of the whole thing a trick for fooling people.”

In fact, the Journal suggested that a debt ceiling crisis might be useful. “The government would not be able to carry out all of its spending plans,” the editors predicted. “Some things would have to be cut back a little further. Up against the hard ceiling, government officials would be compelled to make hard decisions, to choose between this dollar and that one.” Staying under the existing cap would be difficult, but that was the point. “Under such a compulsion,” the paper suggested, “many needed economies would be made that would otherwise be thought impossible.”

Eisenhower didn’t believe that spending cuts would be sufficient to keep federal debt under the cap. “Despite our joint vigorous efforts to reduce expenditures,” he told Congress, “it is inevitable that the public debt will undergo some further increase.” On July 30, Eisenhower asked Congress for an increase in the debt ceiling from $275 billion to $290 billion.

Treasury Secretary George M. Humphrey stressed the urgency of the situation. “We will just run out of money and we can’t pay our bills,” he told lawmakers. “It’s just that simple.” Failing to raise the borrowing limit, he warned ominously, might produce “a near panic.”

The House of Representatives swallowed hard and approved Eisenhower’s request. But the Senate had other ideas.

History, as they say, sometimes repeats. Swap the House and Senate and boost the dollar amounts and you’ve got rhetoric that could almost be plucked from today.

Read Joe’s piece to find out how it all turned out. One tidbit (which I don’t think we should repeat): Treasury was forced to sell gold bullion to cover $500 million in debt.

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Max Baucus and Dave Camp, leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees, are on the road promoting tax simplification. One goal: cleaning out the mess of deductions, exclusions, credits, and other tax breaks that complicate the code.

Done well, such house cleaning could make for a simpler, fairer, more pro-growth tax code. It could also shrink government’s role in the economy. Eric Toder and I explore that theme in a recently released paper, Tax Policy and the Size of Government. Here’s our intro:

How big a role the government should play in the economy is always a central issue in political debates. But measuring the size of government is not simple. People often use shorthand measures, such as the ratio of spending to gross domestic product (GDP) or of tax revenues to GDP. But those measures leave out important aspects of government action. For example, they do not capture the ways governments use deductions, credits, and other tax preferences to make transfers and influence resource use.

We argue that many tax preferences are effec¬tively spending through the tax system. As a result, traditional measures of government size understate both spending and revenues. We then present data on trends in U.S. federal spending and revenues, using both traditional budget measures and measures that reclassify “spending-like tax preferences” as spending rather than reduced revenue. We find that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the government’s size significantly, but only temporarily. Spending-like tax prefer¬ences subsequently expanded and are now larger, relative to the economy, than they were before tax reform.

We conclude by examining how various tax and spending changes would affect different measures of government size. Reductions in spending-like tax preferences are tax increases in traditional budget accounting but are spending reductions in our expanded measure. Increasing marginal tax rates, in contrast, raises both taxes and spending in our expanded measure. Some tax increases thus reduce the size of government, while others increase it.

Eric and I first presented this line of reasoning in How Big is the Federal Government? in March 2012. Our latest paper, recently published in the conference proceedings of the National Tax Association, is a pithier presentation of those ideas.

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Economists often ignore politics when analyzing policy issues or view politics as a problem to overcome rather than as fundamental. When evaluating a carbon tax, for example, I try to tote up its potential environmental benefits, its hit to consumers and producers, what happens to the revenues, etc. I might also ponder what policy tweaks could facilitate a political coalition willing to enact such a tax. But I don’t typically worry about how a carbon tax would change the balance of power among coal, oil, nuclear, natural gas, and nuclear interests or between energy consumers and producers.

In the latest Journal of Economic Perspectives, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that this approach is short sighted, sometimes dangerously so. They argue that economic policy analysts should evaluate how policy decisions might change the future balance of political power and, thereby, the efficiency and fairness of future economic decisions:

There is a broad—even if not always explicitly articulated—consensus amongst economists that, if possible, public policy should always seek ways of reducing or removing market failures and policy distortions. In this essay, we have argued that this conclusion is often incorrect because it ignores politics. In fact, the extant political equilibrium may crucially depend on the presence of the market failure. Economic reforms implemented without an understanding of their political consequences, rather than promoting economic efficiency, can significantly reduce it.

Our argument is related to but different from the classical second-best caveat of Lancaster and Lipsey (1956) for two reasons. First, it is not the interaction of several market failures but the implications of current policy reforms on future political equilibria that are at the heart of our argument. Second, though much work still remains to be done in clarifying the linkages between economic policies and future political equilibria, our approach does not simply point out that any economic reform might adversely affect future political equilibria. Rather, building on basic political economy insights, it highlights that one should be particularly careful about the political impacts of economic reforms that change the distribution of income or rents in society in a direction benefiting already powerful groups. In such cases, well-intentioned economic policies might tilt the balance of political power even further in favor of dominant groups, creating significant adverse consequences for future political equilibria.

Our argument is that economic policy should not just focus on removing market failures and correcting distortions but, particularly when it will affect the distribution of income and rents in society in a direction that further strengthens already dominant groups, its implications for future political equilibria should be factored in. It thus calls for a different framework, explicitly based in political economy, for the analysis of economic policy. Much of the conceptual, theoretical, and empirical foundations of such a framework remain areas for future work.

They offer several examples, including the allocation of natural resource rights (an Australian approach promoted democracy, while one in Sierra Leone did not) and financial and banking regulation / deregulation in the United States.

Well worth a read.

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