Archive for January, 2010

A sharp reader offers the following hypothesis (which I have edited):

Illinois is fundamentally bankrupt. It has less than $1 million in cash, pays vendors net 90, and owes its state university $450 million that it cannot pay. Oh, and it also has $60 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Now that the Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate, Illinois can’t count on any federal aid. The President’s home state will thus become insolvent.

(For some background on Illinois’s budget woes, see this link.)

My reader expresses similar concerns about California (where Governor Schwarzenegger’s budget assumes $6.9 billion in federal aid) and New York.

All of which raises a question for policymakers and municipal bond investors. Does the election of Scott Brown mean that the Senate will be unwilling to give federal aid to the states? The $862 billion stimulus bill last year (formerly known as the $787 billion stimulus bill) included substantial state aid, and it squeaked through the Senate with exactly 60 votes. Now the Democrats (and the Independents who caucus with them) account for only 59 votes.

Does that bode ill for struggling states and the investors who own their debt? Only time will tell. But I wouldn’t count the states out just yet.

The stimulus bill could have had 62 votes, but Senator Kennedy didn’t vote and Senator Franken hadn’t yet been seated. If the Senate majority can coordinate the same coalition–including Republican Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine–they will have one vote to spare for any new jobs bill (formerly known as a stimulus bill). In addition, with his paean to tax cuts in the State of the Union, the President was signaling that he wants to find enough common ground with congressional Republicans to get a jobs bill passed.

In the short run, then, I wouldn’t be surprised if substantial state aid finds its way into the jobs bill. That may buy Illinois and other struggling states some time.

In the long run, however, the reader is probably right that fiscally-strapped states will find the Senate less welcoming.

Legalistic answer to the title question: No. States can’t seek protection in bankruptcy court, so Illinois can’t technically go bankrupt.


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The economy grew briskly last quarter. According to the advance estimate by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, gross domestic product increased at a 5.7% pace in the fourth quarter of 2009, faster than many forecasters had expected. (Note: BEA will revise this figure next month and the month after that. Oh, and then BEA will revise it periodically over the next few years.)

As usual, I think the best way to understand this report is to see what sectors contributed the most or least to reported growth:

As expected, much of the growth reflects businesses restocking their shelves and warehouses: inventories accounted for 3.4 percentage points of the overall 5.7% of growth.

Consumer spending grew at a moderate 2.0% pace and thus added 1.4 percentage points to overall growth (consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the economy and 70% x 2.0% = 1.4 %). That’s down from the previous quarter, when cash-for-clunkers boosted car purchases. Housing investment also slowed, again in the wake of earlier efforts–the tax credit for new home buyers–that had boosted growth in the third quarter.

Business investment in equipment and software showed signs of life, growing at a 13% pace, the strongest since early 2006. That added 0.8 percentage points to growth, slightly more than half of which was offset by the ongoing decline in business investment in structures.

Government spending fell slightly during the quarter. Stimulus efforts boosted non-defense spending by the federal government, but that increase was more than offset by a decline in defense spending and a small decline in state and local spending.

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Today the Senate voted 60-39 to increase the federal debt limit from $12.4 trillion to $14.3 trillion. No one is happy that we need to borrow another $1.9 trillion in the next year or two, but the alternative–default–is unthinkable. So let’s hope that the House follows suit when it votes next week.

As expected, today’s vote was entirely party line: 60 Democrats (including the two Independents who caucus with them) voted yea, while 39 Republicans voted nay; one R didn’t vote.

You might be tempted to look at these results and try to read into them some larger ideas about fiscal politics. Perhaps Democrats all voted to increase the debt limit because they are big spenders? Perhaps Republicans will recklessly risk default in their anti-government zeal?

I will leave to you, dear reader, to decide whether such claims have any merit. But please understand that the debt limit vote tells us absolutely nothing about them.

With rare exceptions, votes to increase the debt limit do not involve any real substance. Defaulting remains unthinkable, so the debt limit has to go up. The horse-trading before the final vote may have plenty of substance–this round included a welcome amendment bringing back statutory PAYGO rules as well as an almost-successful effort to create a budget commission–but the final vote is pure politics. The Senate has to deliver a debt limit increase. And that means that the Senate majority has to deliver the votes.

As a matter of politics, then, debt limit votes are a tax on the majority. The majority has to take the hit for increasing the limit, while the minority gets a free ride.

To test this view, I looked at Senate votes on the last five stand-alone increases in the debt limit (three other increases were part of the housing, TARP, and stimulus bills that passed in 2008 and 2009). The chart above shows the fraction of senators in each party who voted to increase the limit.

The results are striking: Back in 2004 and 2006, the Republicans (in red, but do I really need to say that?) controlled the Senate and thus bore the political tax of increasing the debt limit. In those two votes, the Rs accounted for 102 of 104 yeas. In 2009 and 2010, the situation was reversed, as the majority Democrats (yes, in blue) bore the political burden. In those two votes, the Ds (including the Is) accounted for 119 of 120 yeas.

And then there’s 2007, when the two parties shared the burden of boosting the debt ceiling. What explains that rare outburst of bipartisanship? Divided government. In 2007, President Bush had to work with a Democratic Congress to get the debt limit passed. With divided government, the pain had to be shared. In the other four years, however, the President was the same party as the Senate majority.

Bottom line: Sometimes it hurts to be in charge.

For a good summary of past debt limit increases, see this CRS report. For information on Senate votes, start here.

Wondering who the three aisle-crossers were? In 2004, Democrats John Breaux and Zell Miller voted yea. In 2009, Republican George Voinovich voted yea.

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Amongst its usual cracker jack budget projections yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office provided a few toy surprises for budget watchers. One is an updated estimate of the direct budget costs of the 2009 stimulus bill, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

CBO originally estimated that ARRA would cost $787 billion from 2009 through 2019. Its new estimate is $862 billion, about $75 billion higher.

Key changes to the estimate:

  • Food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program): $34 billion more than expected
  • Build America Bond program: $26 billion more
  • Unemployment compensation: $21 billion more
  • Medicaid: $3 billion less than expected
  • Other spending: $3 billion less

(CBO did not make any updates for the tax provisions in ARRA.)

For an earlier discussion of the stimulus being bigger than expected, see this post.

For a discussion of why the $862 billion figure (formerly known as the $787 billion figure) is not really the right measure of stimulus, see this post.

Note: CBO provides many details about ARRA in Appendix A of yesterday’s report.

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Deficits As Far as the Eye Can See

Today the Congressional Budget Office released its much-anticipated projections for the budget. As usual, the headline figure is CBO’s estimate of the budget deficit, now projected to be $1.35 trillion for the fiscal year, about 9.2% of GDP.

That’s slightly better than last year–when $1.4 trillion deficits amounted to 9.9% of GDP–but is still the second-worst since World War II. And, as CBO notes, new legislation could easily lift the 2010 figure higher. For example, Congress will likely consider further extensions to unemployment benefits and more war spending, not to mention a possible jobs bill.

CBO also projected deficits for the next decade. They are large and persistent:

The blue line shows CBO’s official budget baseline. That baseline shows persistent deficits over the next decade. They fall below 3% of GDP by 2014 and then increase somewhat in later years. I would characterize that trajectory as unwelcome but not a crisis.

It’s also completely unrealistic given Washington’s current policy predilections.

The official baseline is built upon two key assumptions: that existing laws execute exactly as written and that discretionary spending increases with inflation in future years. Those assumptions make sense for constructing a baseline that will be used to score the budget impacts of new legislation. But, as CBO itself notes, they are unrealistic if your goal to make predictions of where current policy is leading:

  • Under current tax law, a remarkable number of tax reductions will expire in the near future. These include the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (EGTRRA and JGTRRA, often known as the Bush tax cuts), the annual patch to the dreaded alternative minimum tax (which prevent the AMT from hitting more and more families), the Making Work Pay tax credit (enacted as part of the stimulus), expanded net operating loss carrybacks (enacted as part of another, smaller stimulus bill in the summer), and a panoply of other, smaller provisions (e.g., the research and experimentation tax credit). It is unthinkable that Washington will allow all these to expire.
  • In recent years, discretionary spending has grown faster than inflation. As yet, there is no reason to believe that will stop.
  • On the other hand, the current baseline assumes that spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue at their 2009 pace, adjusted for inflation, over the next decade. One hopes that assumption is unrealistically high.

To help outside analysts construct alternative baselines that better show existing policy, rather than existing law, CBO provides estimates for several policy alternatives. Analysts differ on which of these alternatives they use to build a policy alternative (and, given more time, they may also use other estimates).

As rough justice I made the following assumptions for the chart above: (1) that regular discretionary spending grows at the same pace as nominal GDP in coming years (closer to recent history than the baseline assumption of growth with inflation), (2) that spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan moderates somewhat in coming years (CBO’s 60,000 troop scenario), (3) that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are permanently extended, and (4) that the AMT is indexed for inflation.

Under these assumptions, the budget picture is much scarier: deficits never get lower than 5.5% of GDP and they are 7.5% by 2020.

Bottom line: Current policy is unsustainable.

Note: You should view my adjusted baseline as a quick-and-dirty, back-of-the-envelope of existing policy. For example, it doesn’t include any adjustments for other expiring tax provisions (which are substantial) or the infamous Medicare doctor payment problem; if you made adjustments for those, the deficit outlook would look worse. On the other hand, many political leaders, including President Obama, want to scale back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts; if you did that, the deficit outlook would look better.

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(ht Alex Tabarrok)

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Philanthropy and Innovation

Earlier today, Bill Gates released his second annual letter as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The letter is well worth your time, particularly if you are interested in efforts to improve education and global health.

One passage that caught my eye was his description of the foundation’s strategy:

Melinda and I see our foundation’s key role as investing in innovations that would not otherwise be funded. This draws not only on our backgrounds in technology but also on the foundation’s size and ability to take a long-term view and take large risks on new approaches. Warren Buffett put it well in 2006 when he told us, “Don’t just go for safe projects. You can bat a thousand in this game if you want to by doing nothing important. Or you’ll bat something less than that if you take on the really tough problems.” We are backing innovations in education, food, and health as well as some related areas like savings for the poor. …

We have a framework for deciding which innovations we get behind. A key criterion for us is that once the innovation is proven, the cost of maintaining it needs to be much lower than the benefit, so that individuals or governments will want to keep it going when we are no longer involved. Many things we could fund don’t meet this requirement, so we stay away from them. Another consideration for us is the ability to find partners with excellent teams of people who will benefit from significant resources over a period of 5 to 15 years.

There are five principles here: do things that others won’t do, think long-term, take risks, choose strong partners, and target eventual self-sufficiency. All are important, but the fifth deserves particular emphasis.

The classic “fail” in development efforts is to finance upfront investments–building a school, for example–without giving thought to how beneficiaries will later manage it–e.g., how students will get books, who will teach, etc.

To go for the “win”, Gates thus focuses on investments — creating new vaccines, developing new crop varieties, or inventing new teaching methods–that can be self-sustaining by beneficiaries (or their governments) once the upfront costs have been covered.

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