Tag: borrowing

Note to Larry Summers: The Government Borrows for Transfer Payments, Not Investment

“It is time for governments to borrow more money,” according to former treasury secretary Larry Summers.  He is not peddling this advice to Greece and Spain, but to countries like the United States and Japan that can still sell long-term bonds at very low interest rates. Summers urges the United States, in particular, to borrow more for “public investment projects” that are presumed to raise the economy’s future output. He offers the hypothetical example of “a $1 project that yielded even a permanent 4 cents a year in real terms increment to GDP by expanding the economy’s capacity or its ability to innovate.”

Even if such promising projects were easy to find, however, that is not the way the current government has been inclined to spend borrowed money. Despite all the rhetoric about “shovel-ready projects,” about 95 percent of the 2009 stimulus bill consisted of government consumption (salaries), refundable tax credits, and transfer payments which, as Robert Barro notes, “dilute incentives to work.”

Summers says, “Any rational chief financial officer in the private sector would see this as a moment to extend debt maturities and lock in low rates — the opposite of what central banks are doing.” Locking-in low borrowing costs would indeed make sense if the money from selling long bonds were used to retire short-term Treasury bills, but that would not involve borrowing more as Summers proposes.

For both government and households, it is certainly more prudent to use borrowed money to finance investments that will yield a stream of income in the future—either actual income (such as toll roads) or implicit income (the benefits from living in a mortgaged home).

Apostles of the Keynesian doctrine, such as Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, and Alan Blinder, invariably use hypothetical public works examples to make the case for more and more national (taxpayer) debt. Keynesian forecasting models, used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to warn of the looming fiscal cliff and defend the fiscal stimulus of 2009, likewise assume the highest “multiplier” effect from tangible government investments.

In the real world of politics, however, Congress and the White House use borrowed money to placate constituencies with the most political clout. Federal spending on investment projects has essentially nothing to do with the huge 2009-2012 budget deficits (only 29 percent of which can be blamed on the legacy of recession, according to the CBO).

The Table shows that transfer payments and subsidies account for 63.8 percent of estimated spending in 2012, while federal purchases account for 28.4 percent. Also, most federal aid to states is for transfer payments like Medicaid.  Within federal purchases, only 7.6 percent of the spending ($152.5 billion) was counted as gross investment in the first quarter GDP report, and two thirds of that was military equipment and buildings. Net investment, minus depreciation, is smaller still.

If borrowing more for investment was a genuine political priority, rather than an academic conjecture, the government could do that by borrowing less for government payrolls, transfer payments, and subsidies.  At best, Larry Summers has made an argument for spending borrowed money much differently, not for borrowing more.

Fannie Mae and Greece’s Problems Enabled by Basel

On the surface the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would appear to have little connection to the fiscal crisis in Greece, outside of both occurring in or around the time of a global financial crisis.  Of course in the case of Fannie and Freddie, primary blame lies with their management and with Congress.  Primary blame for Greece’s problems clearly lies with the Greek government. 

Neither Greece or Fannie would have been able to get into as much trouble, however, if financial institutions around the world had not loaded up on their debt.  One reason, if not the primary reason, for bailing out both Greece and the US’s government sponsored enterprises is the adverse impact their failures would have on the banking system.

Yet bankers around the world did not blindly load up on both Greek and GSE debt, they were encouraged to by the bank regulators via the Basel capital standards.  Under Basel, the amount of capital a bank is required to hold against an asset is a function of its risk category.  For the highest risk assets, like corporate bonds, banks are required to hold 8%.  Yet for those seen as the lowest risk, short term government bonds, banks aren’t required to hold any capital.  So while you’d have to hold 8% capital against say, Ford bonds, you don’t have to hold any capital against Greek debt.  Depending on the difference between the weights and the debt yields, such a system provides very strong incentives to load up on the highest yielding bonds of the least risky class.  Fannie and Freddie debt required holding only 1.6% capital.  Very small losses in either Greek or GSE debt would cause massive losses to the banks, due to their large holdings of both.

The potential damage to the banking system from the failures of Greece and the GSEs is not the result of a free market run wild.  It was the very clear and predictable result of misguided and mismanaged government policies meant to create a steady market for government borrowing.

Moody’s Mulls Downgrading U.S. Debt

The U.S. isn’t Greece.  Yet.

Moody’s is no longer so sure about the quality of Uncle Sam’s debt.  Reports the Christian Science Monitor:

The US needs to make significant government spending cuts or else risk losing its gold-plated credit rating that has made extensive borrowing so affordable, Moody’s Investor Service said late Monday.

The announcement was a sobering warning that the country’s burgeoning debt has weakened the country’s economic standing, and that US Treasury Bonds, traditionally a bullet-proof investment, could lose their sterling Aaa-rating if Washington cannot control its federal debt.

If Moody’s were to downgrade the country’s rating, the impact could be severe. It would signal to lenders worldwide that the US is no longer one of the safest places to invest money.

That, in turn, would threaten the country’s ability to borrow freely and extensively from other countries on favorable terms. Investors would likely demand a higher interest rate to finance US debt, which would push federal debt higher still.

“There’s a profound effect in this announcement,” says Max Fraad Wolff, a professor of economics at New School University in New York. “The US has always been the gold standard … and this begins to signal a fall or weakness in US global economic position. That’s a bit like a sea change.”

Obviously we are long overdue for some fiscal responsibility in Washington.  And that means cutting spending across the board.  Lawmakers might start by considering what programs are authorized by the Constitution–and the far larger number which represent unconstitutional political power grabs.

Moody’s Caves In to Political Pressure on Municipal Bonds

Moody’s has announced that it will change its methods for rating debt issued by state and local governments.  Politicians have argued that its current ratings ignore the historically low default rate of municipal bonds, resulting in higher interest rates being paid on muni debt, or so argue the politicians.

First this argument ignores that the market determines the cost of borrowing, not the rating.  And while ratings are considered by market participants, one can easily find similarly rated bonds that trade at different yields.

Second, while ratings should give some weight to historical performance, far more weight should be given to expected future performance.  Regardless of how say California-issued debt has performed in the past, does anyone doubt that California, or many other municipalities, are in fiscal straights right now?

Last and not least, politicians have no business telling rating agencies how to handle different types of investments.  We’ve been down this road before with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  During drafting of GSE reform bills in the past, politicians put constant pressure on the rating agencies to maintain Fannie and Freddie’s AAA status.

The gaming over muni ratings illustrates all the more why we need to end the rating agencies govt created monopoly.  As long as govt has imposed a system protecting the rating agencies from market pressures, those agencies will bend to the will of politicians in order to protect that status.  As Fannie and Freddie have demonstrated, it ends up being the taxpayers and the investors who ultimately pay for this political meddling.

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.

FDIC Plan to Borrow from Banks Just Back-door Way of Putting the Taxpayer on the Hook

With the declining balance of the Federal Deposit Insurance Fund, and more bank failures likely in the days ahead, the FDIC is looking for novel ways to avoid borrowing from Treasury to cover its expected shortfalls.  One proposal being floated is to have the FDIC borrow from healthy banks to cover the costs of bank failures.  Without borrowing from either the Treasury or the banks, FDIC would likely have to raise insurance premiums on all insured banks.

While the scheme is imaginative, it is in reality no different than borrowing from the Treasury.  Banks, in exchange for a loan, would receive a government bond.  Does anyone doubt that these bonds would not simply be backed by the FDIC, but also backed by the Treasury?  In effect the plan is no different than FDIC borrowing from the Treasury and the Treasury selling bonds to the banks to cover the FDIC’s borrowing. Why the FDIC and Treasury would prefer a direct FDIC borrowing from banks is that it hides the real cost of the borrowing from the American taxpayer.

If we are going to continue to put the taxpayer on the hook for the behavior of the banks, let’s at least be honest about it.

Out of the TARP, But Still on the Dole

While banks such as Goldman and J.P. Morgan have managed to find a way to re-pay the capital injections made under the TARP bailout, their reliance on public subsidies is far from over. The federal government, via a debt guarantee program run by the FDIC, is still putting considerable taxpayer funds at risk on behalf of the banking industry.  The Wall Street Journal estimates that banks participating in the FDIC debt guarantee program will save about $24 billion in reduced borrowing costs of the next three years. The Journal estimates that Goldman alone will save over $2 billion on its borrowing costs due to the FDIC’s guarantees.

One of the conditions imposed by the Treasury department for allowing banks to leave the TARP was that such banks be able to issue debt not guaranteed by the government.  Apparently this requirement did not apply to all of a firm’s debt issues.  These banks should be expected to issue all their debt without a government guarantee and be required to pay back any currently outstanding government guaranteed debt.

To add insult to injury, not only are banks reaping huge subsidies from the FDIC debt guarantee program, but the program itself is likely illegal.  The FDIC’s authority to take special actions on behalf of a failing ”systemically” important bank is limited to a bank-by-bank review.  The FDIC’s actions over the last several months to declare the entire banking system as systemically important is at best a fanciful reading of the law. 

The FDIC should immediately terminate this illegal program and end the continuing string of subsidies going to Wall Street banks, many of which are reporting enormous profits.