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Archive for March, 2016

Britain will soon tax sugary drinks. Whether you love that idea or hate it, you’ve got to give the Brits credit: They’ve designed a better version of the tax than any other government.

Beginning in 2018, the United Kingdom will charge the equivalent of 0.75 cents per ounce for drinks that contain more than 3 teaspoons of sugar in an 8-ounce serving and a full cent per ounce for drinks with more than 5 teaspoons per serving. These tax levels are similar to the penny per ounce that Berkeley, California levies on sugary drinks.

Britain’s innovation is in the tiering. Rather than hit all sugary drinks with the same tax, as Berkeley does, Britain has three levels. Drinks with little sugar aren’t taxed at all, drinks with moderate sugar face one tax rate, and drinks with lots of sugar face a higher one. As a result, many flavored waters will escape any tax, slightly sweet iced teas will face a low tax, and regular soda will usually bear the higher tax.

This three-tier structure will encourage people and businesses to favor lower-sugar drinks over sweeter ones. That’s important because sugar content differs significantly. If you believe sugar is harmful, you should want people not only to cut back on sugary drinks, but to switch to less sugary options. And you’d want businesses to devote product development, marketing, and pricing efforts to lower-sugar options.

Linking the tax to sugar content encourages businesses to do that. Indeed, Britain is delaying the new tax until 2018 to give beverage companies time to avoid or lower the tax by reformulating their products.

Britain’s tiering is far from perfect. Why do the tax rates differ by only a third, when the difference in sugar content is often larger? Why not have more tiers—or even directly tax sugar content? Those are important questions. But they don’t diminish the fact that Britain’s approach makes much more sense than taxing sugary drinks uniformly, as Berkeley (a penny per ounce), Mexico (a peso per liter), and almost all other soda-taxing governments do. Those taxes—and similar ones designed as sales taxes—do nothing to encourage consumers and businesses to favor lower-sugar drinks. (Hungary has a simpler two-tier system; only drinks in the same range as Britain’s upper tier get taxed.)

Soda taxes are at best a limited tool for improving nutrition. Well-designed taxes can discourage consumption of sugary drinks, which clearly contribute to obesity, diabetes, and other ills. But health depends on many factors, not just the amount of sugar one drinks. People may switch to other, tax-free alternatives like juice that also have lots of sugar. Soda taxes are regressive, falling more heavily on lower-income families. And they raise controversial questions about the role of government.

Given those concerns, reasonable people differ over whether these taxes make sense at all. If governments choose to enact them, however, they should target sugar content rather than drink volume. Britain’s tiered tax is a welcome step in that direction.

 

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On Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) defended the current method for budgeting for federal lending programs, known as “credit reform.” By endorsing the status quo, GAO puts itself at odds with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has championed a “fair value” alternative. The details are wonky but the stakes are big. Over a decade, federal lending support for mortgages, student loans, and the Export-Import Bank could appear $300 billion more costly under fair-value budgeting than under credit reform.

CBO is right to question the way we budget for these programs. But GAO is right that CBO’s version of fair value is the wrong solution. Instead, we need a new approach that captures the strengths of both ideas, while avoiding their flaws. I laid out that alternative in a recent report.

One reason we need a new approach is that credit reform violates fundamental principles of good budgeting, for reasons that have nothing to do with the fair value debate.

The problem

Credit reform uses present values to measure the budget impact of federal loans, recording any expected gains or losses the moment a loan is made. But the rest of the budget operates on a cash basis, recording the budget effects of tax and spending policies as they happen over time. These two approaches do not mix well together. By using present values, credit reform can make federal lending appear to mint money out of thin air. It also credits the budget today for earnings it won’t see until well beyond the official budget window.

Consider a simple example: the government lends $1,000 to a business for four years expecting a 4 percent annual return, or $40-a-year for a total of $160. To finance the loan, the government issues $1,000 in Treasury bonds that pay 1.5 percent interest. At $15 per year, interest costs total $60. Thus, the government would net $100.

 

New New Table

How should we budget for those expected gains? One possibility would be to track cash flows, as we do for other government activities. The government lends $1,000 in year one, nets $25 in each of the four following years, and gets repaid $1,000 in year five. Its overall gain would be $100, just as it should be.

That gets the cash flows right, but the timing is ill-suited to budgeting. The upfront cost can make the loan look costly even though it actually brings in money. If Congress focused on a three-year budget window, for example, the loan would look like it costs $950 even though it actually earns $100 over its full life.

A poor solution

We can avoid that problem by eliminating the confusing lumpiness of the cash flows. Credit reform does so by calculating the net present value of the return on the loan, discounted using the government’s borrowing rate. That calculation (the second row in the table) shows an instant gain of $96 when the loan is made. (The $96 is slightly less than the $100 because of pesky technical details.)

Credit reform thus eliminates the lumpiness but at a big cost: it misleadingly claims the returns to lending happen instantly. In reality, those returns accumulate gradually over the life of the loan. In its zeal to get rid of the lumpiness bathwater, credit reform mistakenly throws out the timing baby. As a result, lending programs can look like a magic money machine.

Unlike tax increases or spending cuts, lending programs get instant credit for returns they won’t see for years, sometimes far beyond the official budget window. To take an extreme case, a 100-year loan on the above terms would score as almost $1,300 in immediate budget gains under credit reform, all before the government collects a dime in interest.

To the best of my knowledge, no other person, business, or organization budgets or accounts for loans this way (please share any counterexamples; Enron doesn’t count). Instead, they either accept the lumpiness of the cash flows or use an approach that avoids the lumpiness while reflecting the real timing of returns.

A better answer

It isn’t hard: Instead of tracking all the cash flows, we can report just the net returns on the loan. When the loan is first made, there aren’t any. In our example, the $1,000 loan exactly offsets $1,000 in borrowing to finance it. The reverse happens in year five when the loan gets paid off. In between, the government nets $25 each year: $40 in interest payments less $15 in annual financing costs.

Tracking net returns is a highly intuitive way to report the budget effects of making the loan. It would match the way we budget for tax and spending programs, and would respect the budget window.

The government can and sometimes does make money from its lending programs, but not instantly. The budget community should disavow the credit reform approach and recognize that earnings accumulate gradually over time. CBO, GAO, and budget wonks should join hands to fix this problem regardless of where they sit in the fair value debate.

Note: For more on the technical details, including how to deal with loan guarantees, how the fair value debate reappears in deciding how to measure net returns, and a second challenge in budgeting for lending programs, see my report and policy brief.

 

 

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