Tag: accounting

Do Forced Mortgage Writedowns Create Wealth?

Matt Yglesias recently added his voice to the long running calls for principal reductions on underwater mortgages.  His argument is that such would create additional spending.  Or as he puts it, “I think that if people in Phoenix got a principal writedown on their mortgages, they’d have more disposable income and might go to the bar more.”

What Matt, and others calling for forced principal reductions, miss, or choose to ignore, is that while a mortgage represents a liability to the borrower, it is an asset to someone else.  Matt’s logic, which I agree with here, is that an increase in one’s net wealth (via a reduction in one’s liabilities) should increase one’s consumption.  To complete the analysis, however, we must extend that same logic to the holders of the asset, so that a reduction in the value of their asset (the mortgage) should reduce their spending.  Taking x from A and giving x to B is not going to increase A+B.  To assert otherwise is to engage in Enron-style social accounting.

Now if you want to argue that the borrower has a higher marginal propensity to consume than the investor (say, a retiree living off a pension) then provide some support for that position.  It is just as likely that those on the losing end will take efforts to protect themselves from this loss, decreasing overall social wealth.  So what one has to show is that the marginal propensity to consume for the borrower is so much larger than that for the investor that it offsets any costs from the investor trying to protect his investment from theft.

Now if you simply favor redistribution of wealth for its own sake, just say so.  If you hate investors and love defaulting borrowers, then just say so.  Personally, I don’t believe the role of government should be to take from A to give to B.  I just ask that we stop pretending, in the absence of compelling evidence, that redistribution of wealth is the same as wealth creation.

No Cheers for Title IX

For supporters of Title IX, it’s time to put down the pom-poms.

From the start, Title IX has been an unnecessary and destructive imposition of government and bureaucracy into college sports, substituting regulation and litigation for the free choices of women and men. But yesterday’s ruling that competitive cheerleading isn’t a sport – a decision worth reading just for its brilliant illustration of the torturous athlete-accounting and word-parsing Title IX demands – highlights how truly absurd it has become.

For one thing, tell the women (and men) in competitive cheer that it isn’t a sport – most would probably beg to differ. Much more important, when we have judges ruling what does or does not constitute a sport we have clearly given up way too much freedom in our supposedly free society. Finally, the very basis for Title IX – the notion that women will be systematically and unfairly barred from various activities by misogynistic colleges – just makes no sense, especially today. The fact is, women make up the very large majority of college students, and hence can dictate terms to schools. At least, they can dictate terms if schools want to keep competing in the sport we call “staying in business.”

Which brings us to what probably really scares Title IX fans: Women almost certainly don’t want to participate in intercollegiate athletics as much as men do, a likelihood evidenced by everything from hugely greater male participation in open-access intramural sports, to men choosing ESPN and women choosing Facebook while on the Web. The problem, of course, is that to admit that would be to lose the ability to push schools around with the big ol’ federal government.

Costly IRS Mandate Slipped into Health Bill

Most people know about the individual mandate in the new health care bill, but the bill contained another mandate that could be far more costly.

A few wording changes to the tax code’s section 6041 regarding 1099 reporting were slipped into the 2000-page health legislation. The changes will force millions of businesses to issue hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of additional IRS Form 1099s every year. It appears to be a costly, anti-business nightmare.

Under current law, businesses are required to issue 1099s in a limited set of situations, such as when paying outside consultants. The health care bill includes a vast expansion in this information reporting requirement in an attempt to raise revenue for an increasingly rapacious Congress.

In a recent summary, tax information firm RIA notes the types of transactions covered by the new 1099 rules:

The 2010 Health Care Act adds “amounts in consideration for property” (Code Sec. 6041(a) as amended by 2010 Health Care Act §9006(b)(1)) and “gross proceeds” (Code Sec. 6041(a) as amended by 2010 Health Care Act §9006(b)(2)) to the pre-2010 Health Care Act categories of payments for which an information return to IRS will be required if the $600 aggregate payment threshold is met in a tax year for any one payee. Thus, Congress says that for payments made after 2011, the term “payments” includes gross proceeds paid in consideration for property or services.

Basically, businesses will have to issue 1099s whenever they do more than $600 of business with another entity in a year. For the $14 trillion U.S. economy, that’s a hell of a lot of 1099s. When a business buys a $1,000 used car, it will have to gather information on the seller and mail 1099s to the seller and the IRS. When a small shop owner pays her rent, she will have to send a 1099 to the landlord and IRS. Recipients of the vast flood of these forms will have to match them with existing accounting records. There will be huge numbers of errors and mismatches, which will probably generate many costly battles with the IRS.

Tax CPA Chris Hesse of LeMaster Daniels tells me:

Under the health legislation, the IRS could be receiving billions of more documents. Under current law, businesses send Forms 1099 for payments of rent, interest, dividends, and non-employee services when such payments are to entities other than corporations. Under the new law, businesses will be required to send a 1099 to other businesses for virtually all purchases. And for the first time, 1099s are to be sent to corporations. This is a huge new imposition on American business, costing the private economy much more than any additional tax that the IRS might collect as a result.

There appears to have been little discussion before this damaging mandate was slipped into the health bill and rammed through Congress, but a few business groups did raise concerns. Here’s what the Air Conditioner Contractors of America said:

The House bill would extend the Form 1099 filing requirement to ALL vendors (including corporate) to which they pay more than $600 annually for services or property. Consider all the payments a small business makes in the course of business, paying for things such as computers, software, office supplies, and fuel to services, including janitorial services, coffee services, and package delivery services.

In order to file all these 1099s, you’ll need to collect the necessary information from all your service providers. In order to comply with the law, you would have to get a Taxpayer Information Number or TIN from the business. If the vendor does not supply you with a TIN, you are obligated to withhold on your payments.

Private transactions are the core of a market economy, and the source of America’s growth and prosperity. Now the federal government is imposing a vast new web of red tape on perhaps billions of these growth-generating private exchanges.

For what purpose? So the spendthrift Congress can shake a few extra bucks out of private industry? The business sector is the generator of America’s high living standards, but most federal legislators just see it as a kitty to be raided or a cow to be milked dry.

I’m stunned that there wasn’t a broader debate before such a costly mandate was enacted. If it goes into effect, it will waste vast quantities of human effort in filling out forms, reworking computer systems, collecting and organizing data, and fighting the IRS. The struggling American economy can’t afford anymore suffocating tax regulations. This mandate is a giant deadweight loss. It should be repealed.

Regulation and the Knowledge Problem

Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee but better known as Instapundit, writes in the Washington Examiner that the controversy over big corporations’ reporting the impact of the new health care legislation on their tax bills illustrates the “Knowledge Problem” identified by Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and other writings. Hayek pointed out that the information needed to run an economy doesn’t exist in any one database or agency. It is scattered among millions of people and made available to others by means of the price system. Planning and regulation do away with the information embodied in prices and try to improve on market outcomes by making use of far less information.

Reynolds writes, “Recent events suggest that it’s not just the economy that regulators don’t understand well enough – it’s also their own regulations.”

Obama to Increase FHA Risk

The Federal Housing Administration is heading toward a taxpayer bailout, yet the president’s latest mortgage modification plan would further increase the agency’s exposure to risky mortgages. Mark Calabria calls it a “Backdoor Bank Bailout.”

The administration’s plan would encourage borrowers who owe more than their house is worth to refinance into FHA-insured mortgages. Therefore, the risk of a future foreclosure on these mortgages would fall to the government and taxpayers instead of private lenders.

A recent study from economists at New York University found that the FHA is underestimating its risk exposure. One of the problems is that the FHA isn’t properly accounting for the risk to underwater FHA mortgages that have been refinanced into new FHA mortgages. So it’s hard to see how the president’s plan to refinance private underwater mortgages into FHA mortgages won’t further exacerbate the situation.

To get these mortgages in better shape so the FHA can insure them, $14 billion in TARP money is going to be used to pay private lenders to reduce the amount borrowers owe on their mortgages. Some of this money will also be used to cover eventual losses on these loans. As a taxpayer whose mortgage is underwater, and who would rather go bankrupt than accept a government handout, I find it infuriating that my tax dollars are being used to bail out others in a similar situation.

But with government housing programs, it’s standard practice for officials to cannonball into the pool and worry about who gets splashed by the water later. On Sunday, CNN.com reported on “FHA’s Florida Fiasco,” where the collapse of the heavily FHA-insured condo market has contributed to the possibility of a FHA bailout. The FHA has now tightened its condo standards, but once again it’s a day late and possibly more than few bucks short.

The new FHA initiative is the latest in a series of efforts to “stabilize” the housing market with more subsidies. Policymakers seem oblivious that it was government interventions that helped instigate the housing meltdown to begin with. The housing market would stabilize itself if the supply of and demand for housing was allowed to be brought back into equilibrium. There would be pain in the short-term, but in the long-term we would have a smoother functioning housing market. Unfortunately, for politicians the long-term means the next election.

Tuesday Links

  • Why the Supreme Court should strike down the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board: “Imagine a government agency with the authority to create and enforce laws, prosecute and adjudicate violations, and impose criminal penalties. Then throw in the power to levy taxes to pay for all the above. And for good measure, make the agency independent of political oversight.”

Why Wall Street Loves Obama

wall streetWas it just me, or did there seem to be a whole lot of applause during Obama’s Wall Street speech?  Remember this was a room full of Wall Street executives.  The President even started by thanking the Wall Street execs for their “warm welcome.”

While of course, there was the obligatory slap on the wrist, that “we will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but there was no mention that the bailouts were a thing of the past.  Indeed, there is nothing in Obama’s financial plan that would prevent future bailouts, which is why I believe there was such applause.  The message to the Goldman’s of the world, was, you better behave, but even if you don’t, you, and your debtholders will be bailed out.

The president also repeatedly called for “clear rules” and “transparency” - but where exactly in his plan is the clear line dividing who will or will not be bailed out?  That’s the part Wall Street loves the most; they can all say we’ve “learned the lesson of Lehman:  Wall Street firms cannot be allowed to fail.”  At least that’s the lesson that Obama, Geithner and Bernanke have taken away.  The truth is we’ve been down this road before with Fannie and Freddie.  Politicians always called for them to do their part, and that their misdeeds would not be tolerated.  Remember all the tough talk after the 2003 and 2004 accounting scandals at Freddie and Fannie?  But still they got bailed out, and what new regulations were imposed were weak and ineffective.

As if the applause wasn’t enough, as Charles Gaspario points out, financial stocks rallied after the president’s speech.  Clearly the markets don’t see his plan as bad for the financial industry.

It would seem the best investment Goldman has made in recent years was in its employees deciding to become the largest single corporate contributor to the Obama Presidential campaign.  That’s an investment that continues to yield massive dividends.