The federal government racked up a $389 billion deficit during the first three months of the fiscal year (October through December), according to estimates released by the Congressional Budget Office yesterday. That’s $56 billion more than during the first quarter of last year, almost a 17% increase. (A portion of that increase is due to the timing of weekends and holidays, but even controlling for those, the deficit is up 8%.)
Two factors have been driving the increase:
1. Tax revenues continue to plummet. Revenues fell to $489 billion during the quarter, down $58 billion or 11% from last year.
2. Spending continues to grow rapidly in most programs. For example, Medicaid has grown by 25% since the same period last year, Medicare spending has grown by 8%, and Social Security spending has grow by 10%. After declining last year, interest payments are now on the rise, up more than 17%. Excluding the three programs most closely related to the financial crisis (TARP, the GSE bailout, and the FDIC), federal spending is up about 13% over the same period last year. (All these figures have been adjusted to control for timing differences due to weekends and holidays.)
The one piece of good news, budget wise, is that spending on the three financial programs has declined significantly. CBO estimates that TARP spending during the first quarter fell by $85 billion (from $91 billion to $6 billion), and spending on the GSEs fell by $1 billion (from $14 billion to $13 billion). Net spending by the FDIC fell by $45 billion, primarily because FDIC receipts have increased sharply (and are accounted for as a reduction in spending). Together, those three programs have cost $131 billion less than at this point last year.
Bottom line: Tax revenues continue to fall, most types of spending continue to increase, but spending on the financial rescue has declined.
A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:
J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.
Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.
And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.
“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”
The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.
As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?