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.
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.
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.