Uncle Sam’s Trillion-Dollar Portfolio Partly Offsets the Public Debt

When policy folks talk about America’s federal borrowing, their go-to measures are the public debt, currently $12 trillion, and its ratio to gross domestic product, which is approaching 75 percent. Those figures represent the debt that Treasury has sold into public capital markets, pays interest on, and will one day roll over or repay.

These debt measures are important, but they paint an incomplete picture of America’s fiscal health. They don’t account for the current level of interest rates, for example, or for the trajectory of future revenues and spending. A third limitation, the focus of this post, is that the public debt doesn’t give Treasury any credit for the many financial assets it owns.

As we noted last week, Uncle Sam has been borrowing not only to finance deficits but also to make student loans, build up cash, and buy other financial assets. That portfolio now stands at $1.1 trillion, equivalent to almost one-tenth of the public debt.

Those assets have real value. They pay interest and dividends and could be sold if Treasury ever cared to. In fact, Treasury has sold many financial assets in recent years, including mortgage-backed securities and equity stakes in TARP-backed companies, even as it expanded its portfolio of student loans.

Debt Measures

One way to take account of these holdings is to subtract their value from the outstanding debt. The rationale is straightforward. If Ann and Bob each owe $30,000 in student loans and have no other debts, they both have the same gross debt. But that doesn’t mean their financial situations are the same. If Ann has $10,000 in the bank and Bob has only $5,000, then Ann is in a stronger position. Her net debt is $20,000, while Bob’s is $25,000.

The same logic applies to the federal government: $12 trillion in debt is easier to bear if the government has some offsetting financial assets than if it has none. That’s why both the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office regularly report the public debt net of financial assets. The net debt isn’t a perfect measure; many assets are harder to value than Ann and Bob’s bank accounts, and official valuations may not fully reflect their risk. Nonetheless, as CBO has said, the net public debt provides “a more comprehensive picture of the government’s financial condition and its overall impact on credit markets” than does the gross public debt.

The net debt is now a bit less than $11 trillion or about 68 percent of GDP. That’s more than $1 trillion less than the usual, gross measure of public debt, or about 7 percent of GDP. That difference was only 3 percent of GDP as recently as 2006. Under President Obama’s budget, it would expand to almost 10 percent by 2023, with financial assets growing twice as fast as the public debt.

Financial assets are thus playing a bigger role in America’s debt story. Accumulating deficits remain the prime driver of the debt. But the expansion of Uncle Sam’s investment portfolio means the growing public debt overstates America’s debt burden.

This post was coauthored by Hillel Kipnis, who in interning at the Urban Institute this summer.

Uncle Sam’s Growing Investment Portfolio

The federal government has been borrowing rapidly to finance recent budget deficits. But that’s not the only reason it’s gone deeper into debt. Uncle Sam also borrows to issue loans, build up cash, and make other financial investments.

Those financial activities have accounted for an important part of government borrowing in recent years. Since October 2007, the public debt has increased by $6.9 trillion. Most went to finance deficits, but about $650 billion went to expand the government’s investment portfolio, including a big jump in student loans. Before the financial crisis, Uncle Sam held less than $500 billion in cash, bonds, mortgages, and other financial instruments. Today, that portfolio has more than doubled, exceeding $1.1 trillion:

Uncle Sam Investment Portfolio

Financial crisis firefighting drove much of the increase from 2008 through mid-2010. Treasury raised extra cash to deposit at the Federal Reserve; this Supplemental Financing Program (SFP) helped the Fed finance its lending efforts in the days before quantitative easing. Treasury placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants, into conservatorship, receiving preferred stock in return; shortly thereafter, Treasury began to purchase debt and mortgage-backed securities (MBS) issued by Fannie, Freddie, and other government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). And through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Treasury made investments in banks, insurance companies, and automakers and helped support various lending programs.

Together with a few smaller programs, these financial crisis responses peaked at more than $600 billion. Since then, they have declined as Treasury sold off all its agency debt and MBS and most of its TARP investments and as quantitative easing, in which the Fed simply creates new bank reserves, eliminated the need for cash raised through the SFP.

Those declines have been more than offset by the government’s growing student loan portfolio. The federal government used to subsidize student borrowing not only by providing loans directly to students, but also by guaranteeing many private loans. In 2009, however, Congress eliminated private guarantees and dramatically expanded direct federal lending. The government’s portfolio of student loans has since increased from about $90 billion at the start of fiscal 2008 to more than $560 billion today.

As a result, the government’s financial investments now total about $1.1 trillion, essentially all of which was financed by borrowing. The debt supporting Uncle Sam’s investment portfolio thus accounts for almost 10 percent of the $11.9 trillion in public debt.

Source: The Federal Reserve Financial Accounts (formerly known as the Flow of Funds), Daily Treasury Statement, and the President’s Budgets. The figures here compare balances as of March 31, 2013 (most recent available) with balances as of September 30, 2007 (the end of fiscal 2007). We define financial investments to be all the federal government’s financial assets except for official reserve assets, trade receivables, and tax receivables; this definition approximates those used by the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office in certain debt calculations.

This post was coauthored by Hillel Kipnis, who in interning at the Urban Institute this summer.

Swedish Lessons for EU Bank Owners

Sweden is rightly admired for the way it handled its banking crisis in the early 1990s (and its ensuing fiscal challenges).

In yesterday’s Financial Times, Dag Detter looks back for some lessons for Europe as it struggles to resolve its current banking crisis:

When the Swedish banking system crashed in 1992, the government faced an  identical problem. Yet in the end, Sweden’s taxpayers came very well out of  their experience of bank ownership. How was this achieved, and what lessons can  be learnt for Madrid and the EU’s new bank resolution policy?

First, move fast. Spain and bankers have  been in denial about the scale of bad lending for too long. The Rajoy  government rightly came to office this year on a promise to force banks to write  down bad loans. The situation has predictably turned out to be much worse than  assumed, but their policy is the right one. Painful as it is, transparency on  the scale of bad debt is vital for the market to be confident that it  understands risk and uncertainty  in Spain and can therefore price it properly.

Catharsis can come only with a purge of bad assets. Banks should present  plans to handle problem assets, strengthen controls and improve efficiency. This  might require government or even supranational assistance in the orderly closure  of moribund institutions. In addition, “bad” bank parts must be demerged from  the “healthy” to facilitate recapitalisation. The state should never be left  holding the junk while the healthy part of a bank wriggles free.

Second, maintain commercial principles. In Sweden, each state bank investment  was made on what would have been commercial terms in a normal market, always  with the aim of maintaining competitive neutrality. The terms of the investment  must be structured in a way that gives the bank and its owners no grounds to  request more state funding than is necessary, combined with the incentives to  facilitate a swift exit. Yet it must be sufficient to ensure that the bank can  return to profitability without additional government assistance.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Retail Investors Lack Basic Financial Literacy

“American investors lack basic financial literacy,” according to a new report from the Securities and Exchange Commission (much of which is based on an earlier report by the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress). Many fail to grasp compound interest, don’t understand fees and other investment costs, and aren’t aware about the risks of investment fraud.

From the report summary:

According to the Library of Congress Report, studies show consistently that American investors lack basic financial literacy. For example, studies have found that investors do not understand the most elementary financial concepts, such as compound interest and inflation. Studies have also found that many investors do not understand other key financial concepts, such as diversification or the differences between stocks and bonds, and are not fully aware of investment costs and their impact on investment returns. Moreover, based on studies cited in the Library of Congress Report, investors lack critical knowledge about investment fraud. In addition, surveys demonstrate that certain subgroups, including women, African-Americans, Hispanics, the oldest segment of the elderly population, and those who are poorly educated, have an even greater lack of investment knowledge than the average general population. The Library of Congress Report concludes that “low levels of investor literacy have serious implications for the ability of broad segments of the population to retire comfortably, particularly in an age dominated by defined-contribution retirement plans.”

The report goes on to discuss ideas for increasing financial literacy and increasing the transparency of fees and other investment costs.

People sometimes talk about financial literacy as though the goal is helping people choose their own investments. That can be helpful, but the report rightly discusses another goal: improving consumers’ ability to work with financial advisors.

P.S. For a brief discussion of financial literacy and mortgages, see this post from 2010.

The Rise of Trading Quote Spam

On Monday, I posted a lovely animated gif from Nanex showing the rise of high-frequency trading. What I failed to mention is that graph doesn’t show completed trades. It shows quotes.

And according to another nice chart from Nanex, it’s high-frequency quoting that has skyrocketed (left chart), not trading (right):

As Nanex explains:

Each day is plotted in a separate color over the course of a trading day (9:30 to 16:00 Eastern): older data uses colors towards the violet end of the spectrum, recent data towards the red end of the spectrum. The gaps you see between color groups on the quote chart (left-side) is when system capacity was upgraded to handle the increase in traffic, and quote spam jumped to fill the new capacity that very same day.

The number of unexecuted quotes, many allegedly not intended to be executed, has thus skyrocketed.

France recently took steps to try to deter the rise in quotes. In addition to a financial transactions tax it, France will also impose a tax on traders who submit too many unfilled quotes.

In short, France will levy a financial non-transaction tax.

High Frequency Trading as Wildfire

High frequency trading (HFT) has taken off like wildfire in recent years. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in this stunning animated GIF from Nanex, a provider of streaming market data (ht: Felix Salmon).

The gif shows the rise in HFT or algorithmic trading from 2007 through early 2012. It doesn’t capture last week’s meltdown at Knight Capital, but you can see many other seminal events of recent years.

I find it strangely beautiful, like watching a fire build.

Will September Bring Another Banking Crisis?

Over at the Economist, Greg Ip points us to a new IMF working paper that surveys all the systemic banking crises–147 in all–since 1970. As Greg notes, one of Luc Laeven and Fabian Valencia’s most striking findings is that banking crises disproportionately begin in the second half of the year, with a particular spike in September:

So let’s enjoy what few days of June remain.

P.S. Theories to explain this pattern are appreciated. Or maybe it’s a spurious correlation, at Tyler Cowen hints.

Update: Joshua Hedlund at PostLibertarian crunches the underlying data and finds that (a) the authors provided a date for only 63 of the crises and (b) that 22 of the 25 in September happened in 2008.  ht: Tyler Cowen

Financial Repression and China’s Extractive Elite

Financial repression and extractive institutions are two of the big memes in international economics today.

Financial repression occurs when governments intervene in financial markets to channel cheap funds to themselves. With sovereign debts skyrocketing, for example, governments may try to force their citizens, banks, and others to finance those debts at artificially low interest rates.

Extractive institutions are policies that attempt to redirect resources to politically-favored elites. Classic examples are the artificial monopolies often granted by governments in what would otherwise be structurally competitive markets. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have recently argued that such institutions are a key reason Why Nations FailInclusive institutions, in contrast, promote widely-shared prosperity.

Over at Bronte Capital, John Hempton brings these two ideas together in an argument that Chinese elites are using financial repression to extract wealth from state-owned enterprises. In a nutshell, he believes Chinese authorities have artificially lowered the interest rates that regular Chinese citizens earn on their savings (that’s the repression), and have directed these cheap funds to finance “staggeringly unprofitable” state enterprises that nonetheless manage to spin out vast wealth for connected elites and their families.

I don’t have the requisite first-hand knowledge to judge his hypothesis myself. But both his original post and recent follow-up addressing feedback are worth a close read.

Is Incentive Compensation a Giant FIB?

Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai believes American companies and investment firms have erred–horribly–by linking manager compensation so tightly to financial market performance. In the current Harvard Business Review, he identifies this as a giant FIB, a Financial Incentive Bubble:

American capitalism has been transformed over the past three decades by the idea that financial markets are suited to measuring performance and structuring compensation. Stock-based pay for corporate executives and high-powered incentive contracts for investment managers have dramatically altered incentives on both sides of the capital market. Unfortunately, the idea of compensation based on financial markets is both remarkably alluring and deeply flawed: It seems to link pay more closely to performance, but it actually rewards luck and can incentivize dangerous risk-taking. This system has contributed significantly to the twin crises of modern American capitalism: governance failures that cast doubt on the stewardship abilities of U.S. managers and investors, and rising income inequality.

Mihir has nothing against well-functioning financial markets. He emphasizes that they “play a vital role in economic growth by ensuring the most efficient allocations of capital,” and he believes that capable managers and investors should be “richly rewarded” when their talents are truly evident.

The problem is that incentive compensation based on financial performance does a lousy job of distinguishing skill from luck. In finance-speak, managers and investors often get rewarded for taking on beta, when their pay really ought to be linked to alpha. In practice, luck gets rewarded with undeserved windfalls (that are by no means offset by negative windfalls for the unlucky). And that, he argues, results in an important “misallocation of financial, real, and human capital.”

Well worth a read.

Financial Answers Made Simple

For the past year, I have been advising a start-up, FedWise LLC, that is working to improve American’s financial literacy. (Full disclosure: I have a small interest in the company.)

FedWise’s vision is simple: to provide helpful, unbiased, reliable information to consumers about financial products and services like mortgages and credit cards.

The company recently launched its first two products.

One is a public website, FinFAQs, where visitors can get answers to specific questions. For example, “What are points?” or “What questions can creditors not legally ask me?“. If you are interested, please try it out. FinFAQs is still young, and the team welcomes feedback on the questions, answers, and interface.

The second, the FedWise Answer Engine, allows financial institutions to offer the Qs and As to consumers on their own websites while receiving sales leads and market intelligence. Several banks and credit unions have already signed up for subscriptions. Perhaps needless to say, FedWise is happy to talk to other institutions that might be interested in offering the service to their customers. For more info, click here.