Tag: debt

The Simple and Predictable Story of Fiscal Bankruptcy in Cyprus

With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach - at best - simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

Fidel Castro, Medicare Beneficiary?

There’s no proof yet, but it looks an awful lot like Medicare might be subsidizing the Castro brothers.

I, for one,  was not surprised to read that Medicare payments for non-existent medical services are ending up in Cuban (read: government-controlled) banks. Nor that “accused scammers are escaping in droves to Cuba and other Latin American countries to avoid prosecution — with more than 150 fugitives now wanted for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare program, according to the FBI and court records.”

In fact, I have been wondering for some time when we would see evidence that foreign governments have been stealing from Medicare. The official (read: conservative) estimates are that Medicare and Medicaid lose $70 billion each year to fraud and improper payments, a result of having almost zero meaningful controls in place. That’s practically an open invitation to steal from American taxpayers. Kleptocratic governments—and other organized-crime rings—would be insane not to wet their beaks.

In this National Review article, I explain how easily it could happen:

Last year, the feds indicted 44 members of an Armenian crime syndicate for operating a sprawling Medicare-fraud scheme. The syndicate had set up 118 phony clinics and billed Medicare for $35 million. They transferred at least some of their booty overseas. Who knows what LBJ’s Great Society is funding?

I also explain how these vast amounts of fraud aren’t going to stop without fundamental Medicare and Medicaid reform. Give the National Review article a read, and tell me if you share my suspicion that Medicare is bankrolling other governments.

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.

Will More Federal Debt Improve the U.S. Government’s Creditworthiness?

Writing in today’s Washington Post, former Obama economist Larry Summers put forth the strange hypothesis that more red ink would improve the federal government’s long-run fiscal position.

This sounds like an excuse for more Keynesian spending as part of another so-called stimulus plan, but Summers claims to have a much more modest goal of prudent financial management.

And if we assume there’s no hidden agenda, what he’s proposing isn’t unreasonable.

But before floating his idea, Summers starts with some skepticism about more easy-money policy from the Fed:

Many in the United States and Europe are arguing for further quantitative easing to bring down longer-term interest rates. …However, one has to wonder how much investment businesses are unwilling to undertake at extraordinarily low interest rates that they would be willing to undertake with rates reduced by yet another 25 or 50 basis points. It is also worth querying the quality of projects that businesses judge unprofitable at a -60 basis point real interest rate but choose to undertake at a still more negative rate. There is also the question of whether extremely low, safe, real interest rates promote bubbles of various kinds.

This is intuitively appealing. I try to stay away from monetary policy issues, but whenever I get sucked into a discussion with an advocate of easy money/quantitative easing, I always ask for a common-sense explanation of how dumping more liquidity into the economy is going to help.

Maybe it’s possible to push interest rates even lower, but it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s any evidence showing that the economy is being held back because today’s interest rates are too high.

Moreover, what’s the point of “pushing on a string” with easy money if it just means more reserves sitting at the Fed?

After suggesting that monetary policy isn’t the answer, Summers then proposes to utilize government borrowing. But he’s proposing more debt for management purposes, not Keynesian stimulus:

Rather than focusing on lowering already epically low rates, governments that enjoy such low borrowing costs can improve their creditworthiness by borrowing more, not less, and investing in improving their future fiscal position, even assuming no positive demand stimulus effects of a kind likely to materialize with negative real rates. They should accelerate any necessary maintenance projects — issuing debt leaves the state richer not poorer, assuming that maintenance costs rise at or above the general inflation rate. …Similarly, government decisions to issue debt, and then buy space that is currently being leased, will improve the government’s financial position as long as the interest rate on debt is less than the ratio of rents to building values — a condition almost certain to be met in a world with government borrowing rates below 2 percent. These examples are the place to begin because they involve what is in effect an arbitrage, whereby the government uses its credit to deliver essentially the same bundle of services at a lower cost. …countries regarded as havens that can borrow long term at a very low cost should be rushing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Much of this seems reasonable, sort of like a homeowner taking advantage of low interest rates to refinance a mortgage.

But before embracing this idea, we have to move from the dream world of theory to the real world of politics. And to his credit, Summers offers the critical caveat that his idea only makes sense if politicians use their borrowing authority for the right reasons:

There is, of course, still the question of whether more borrowing will increase anxiety about a government’s creditworthiness. It should not, as long as the proceeds of borrowing are used either to reduce future spending or raise future incomes.

At the risk of being the wet-blanket curmudgeon who ruins the party by removing the punch bowl, I have zero faith that politicians would make sound decisions about financial management.

I wrote last month that eurobonds would be “the fiscal version of co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

Well, giving politicians more borrowing authority in hopes they’ll do a bit of prudent refinancing is akin to giving a bunch of money to your drug-addict brother-in-law in hopes that he’ll refinance his credit card debt rather than wind up in a crack house.

Considering that we just saw big bipartisan votes to expand the Export-Import Bank’s corporate welfare and we’re now witnessing both parties working on a bloated farm bill, good luck with that.

Blocking Obamacare Exchanges Is Only Risky for Obamacare Profiteers

USA Today reports that groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Cato Institute have had much success in discouraging states from creating Obamacare’s health insurance “exchanges.” Even the Heritage Foundation, which once counseled states to establish “defensive” Obamacare exchanges, now counsels states to refuse to create them and to send all exchange-related grants back to Washington.

In response, Obamacare contractor and self-described conservative Republican Cheryl Smith sniffs:

When you work at a think-tank, it’s really easy to come up with these really high-risk plans.

Except, there is no risk to states. The only risks to this strategy are that health insurance companies won’t get half a trillion dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and that certain Obamacare contractors won’t get any more of those lucrative exchange contracts.

Switzerland’s ‘Debt Brake’ Is a Role Model for Spending Control and Fiscal Restraint

I’ve argued, ad nauseam, that the single most important goal of fiscal policy is (or should be) to make sure the private sector grows faster than the government. This “golden rule” is the best way of enabling growth and avoiding fiscal crises, and I’ve cited nations that have made progress by restraining government spending.

But what’s the best way of actually imposing such a rule, particularly since politicians like using taxpayer money as a slush fund?

Well, the Swiss voters took matters into their own hands, as I describe in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Americans looking for a way to tame government profligacy should look to Switzerland. In 2001, 85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.

So how does this system work?

Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance). This feature appeals to Keynesians, who like deficit spending when the economy stumbles and tax revenues dip. But it appeals to proponents of good fiscal policy, because politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes. Maximum rates for most national taxes in Switzerland are constitutionally set (such as by an 11.5% income tax, an 8% value-added tax and an 8.5% corporate tax). The rates can only be changed by a double-majority referendum, which means a majority of voters in a majority of cantons would have to agree.

In other words, the debt brake isn’t a de jure spending cap, but it is a de facto spending cap. And capping the growth of spending (which is the underlying disease) is the best way of controlling red ink (the symptom of excessive government).

Switzerland’s spending cap has helped the country avoid the fiscal crisis affecting so many other European nations. Annual central government spending today is less than 20% of gross domestic product, and total spending by all levels of government is about 34% of GDP. That’s a decline from 36% when the debt brake took effect. This may not sound impressive, but it’s remarkable considering how the burden of government has jumped in most other developed nations. In the U.S., total government spending has jumped to 41% of GDP from 36% during the same time period.

Switzerland is moving in the right direction and the United States is going in the wrong direction. The obvious lesson (to normal people) is that America should copy the Swiss. Congressman Kevin Brady has a proposal to do something similar to the debt brake.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has introduced legislation that is akin to the Swiss debt brake. Called the Maximizing America’s Prosperity Act, his bill would impose direct spending caps, but tied to “potential GDP.” … Since potential GDP is a reasonably stable variable (like average revenue growth in the Swiss system), this approach creates a sustainable glide path for spending restraint.

In some sense, Brady’s MAP Act is akin to Sen. Corker’s CAP Act, but the use of “potential GDP” makes the reform more sustainable because economic fluctuations don’t enable big deviations in the amount of allowable spending.

To conclude, we know the right policy. It is spending restraint. We also know a policy that will achieve spending restraint. A binding spending cap. The problem, as I note in my op-ed, is that “politicians don’t want any type of constraint on their ability to buy votes with other people’s money.”

Overcoming that obstacle is the real challenge.

P.S. A special thanks to Pierre Bessard, the President of Switzerland’s Liberales Institut. He is a superb public intellectual and his willingness to share his knowledge of the Swiss debt brake was invaluable in helping me write my column.

Sometimes, Governments Lie (6th Anniversary Ed.)

(This blog post first appeared at Cato@Liberty following the release of the 2006 Medicare and Social Security trustees’ reports. I repost it, with updated links and “exhaustion dates” because sadly nothing else has changed.)

Sometimes, Governments Lie

Year after year, federal officials speak of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds as if they were real.  Yesterday Today, the government announced that the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2040 2033 and that the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2018 2024— projections that the media dutifully reported.

But those dates are meaningless, because there are no assets for these “trust funds” to exhaust.  The Bush administration wrote in its FY2007 budget proposal:

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures—but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds…are not assets…that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits…When trust fund holdings are redeemed to pay benefits, Treasury will have to finance the expenditure in the same way as any other Federal expenditure: out of current receipts, by borrowing from the public, or by reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, increase the Government’s ability to pay benefits.

This is similar to language in the Clinton administration’s FY2000 budget, which noted that the size of the trust fund “does not…have any impact on the Government’s ability to pay benefits” (emphasis added).

I offer the following proposition:

If the government knows that there are no assets in the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds,” and yet projects the interest earned on those non-assets and the date on which those non-assets will be exhausted, then the government is lying.

If that’s the case, then these annual trustees reports constitute an institutionalized, ritualistic lie.  Also ritualistic is the media’s uncritical repetition of the lie.