Tag: fiscal crisis

The Greek Model

It was a good idea to get science and democracy from the ancient Greeks. It’s not such a good idea to get fiscal policy from the modern Greeks.

But that’s the way we’re headed.

Greece has a budget deficit of 13.6 percent. We’re not in that league – ours is only 10.6 percent, the highest level since 1945.

Greece has a public debt of 113 percent of GDP. We’re not there yet. But the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programs has reached nearly $107 trillion.

Under President Obama’s budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020. It could rise to 215 percent of GDP in 30 years. Welcome to Greece.

Here’s a graphic presentation of the official debt and real net liabilities of various countries, including the United States and Greece at the right. (From the Telegraph, apparently based on Jagadeesh Gokhale’s report.)

offbalancesheet

And here’s a Heritage Foundation chart on where the national debt is headed in the coming decade:

Paul Krugman wrote, “My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar.” Now he was writing in 2003, when a different president was in office, but he was also warning about the possibility of a ten-year deficit of $3 trillion. Presumably the same warnings apply to today’s much larger deficit projections. And he was absolutely right to fear that government would turn to inflation as a supposed solution.

Could Obamacare Survive a Fiscal Crisis?

Over at Think Markets, NYU’s Mario Rizzo asks how Obamacare might be repealed. He focuses on the fiscal brawl that will occur when the Medicare cuts must be implemented. Let’s take a look at another fiscal scenario.

The Greek debt crisis is just the leading edge of a global debt crisis in developed countries. It is not Greece that matters to the rest of the European Union, but the precarious position of other highly indebted EU members: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. Fiscally sound Germany could bail out Greece, but not all the others. A Greek default (likely if not inevitable) will fracture the EU and the contagion surely would spread to the United States.

The result will be what I call a Leninist moment. Lenin famously observed that a situation must often get worse before it can get better. He had a different idea of what better would be than do libertarians, but his insight is nonetheless correct.

The resulting fiscal crisis in the United States would finally force a serious debate over fiscal discipline. Not even eliminating all defense expenditures would close the budget gap. Could Obamacare survive the crisis?

A Fiscal Train Wreck

That is the title of a 2003 New York Times column by economist Paul Krugman. The gist of his column was that the Bush tax cuts and future entitlement program liabilities would usher in calamitous deficits. Setting aside the tax cut and entitlements issue, Krugman’s comments on the dangers of deficits are interesting considering seven years later Krugman is one of the most prominent supporters of massive deficit spending to stimulate the economy.

Here are some selected Krugman quotes from the column:

With war looming, it’s time to be prepared. So last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I’m terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.

Two years ago the administration promised to run large surpluses. A year ago it said the deficit was only temporary. Now it says deficits don’t matter. But we’re looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high. A leading economist recently summed up one reason why: ‘When the government reduces saving by running a budget deficit, the interest rate rises.’ Yes, that’s from a textbook by the chief administration economist, Gregory Mankiw.

But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won’t happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.

Although this shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of George Bush’s fiscal policies, the deficit for fiscal year 2003 when Krugman wrote his column was $378 billion. The Congressional Budget Office just reported that the deficit for the first quarter of FY 2010 was $434 billion.

The following chart shows the annual deficits from fiscal years 2002 through 2010 (projected). For 2009 and 2010 the first quarter deficit is also shown. In short, the two most recent first quarter deficits have been about $100 billion higher than the average annual deficits run from 2002 to 2008.

In FY2003, the deficit was 3.4 percent of GDP – for FY2010 it’s projected to be 10.6 percent. According to the President’s optimistic FY2011 budget, annual deficits won’t fall below 3.6 percent of GDP at any point in the next ten years.

Yes, Krugman believes that large deficit spending is necessary to turn the economy around. But that doesn’t change the fact that his dire warnings about deficits in 2003 should apply to today’s even larger deficits, especially now that we’re even closer to an entitlement crisis. However, Krugman recently penned a column warning against “deficit hysteria” in which he makes comments that are more than just a little at odds with his 2003 column:

These days it’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news program without encountering stern warnings about the federal budget deficit. The deficit threatens economic recovery, we’re told; it puts American economic stability at risk; it will undermine our influence in the world. These claims generally aren’t stated as opinions, as views held by some analysts but disputed by others. Instead, they’re reported as if they were facts, plain and simple.

Yet they aren’t facts. Many economists take a much calmer view of budget deficits than anything you’ll see on TV. Nor do investors seem unduly concerned: U.S. government bonds continue to find ready buyers, even at historically low interest rates. The long-run budget outlook is problematic, but short-term deficits aren’t — and even the long-term outlook is much less frightening than the public is being led to believe.

Scratching your head?  I am too.

Is Greece’s Fiscal Crisis Caused by too Much Spending or too Little Revenue?

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Greece, which has been battered by rumors of government default. Interest rates have been climbing, as investors are nervous about state finances, and the country’s debt rating has been downgraded.

Not surprisingly, Greek politicians are dealing with the crisis in large part by further increasing the tax burden. One particularly horrible idea is a 90 percent tax on bank bonus payments. I don’t know if lawmakers in Athens have heard of the Laffer Curve, but they’re about to get a real-world lesson that will teach them how punitive tax rates lead to less revenue.

For those who wonder how Greece got into this mess, here’s a quick chart I put together, based on OECD fiscal data. Don’t be  surprised if America has a similar chart in about 10 years.

200912_blog_mitchell32

Prop 13 and the California Fiscal Crisis

In the Washington Post today, columnist Harold Meyerson blames 1978’s Proposition 13 for today’s budget mess in California. That claim is not supported by the data.

First note that California’s current fiscal crisis is in its state budget. Prop 13 puts restraints on local property taxes.

Second, the most recent Census data show that total state and local general revenues in California were $293 billion in fiscal 2006. Of that, $37 billion was property tax revenue, or  just 13 percent of the total. Meyerson is arguing that that level of property taxes is too low, but it is hard to see how the recent crisis could have been caused by a three-decade old constraint on such a small fraction of overall state and local revenues.

Third, on a per-capita basis, California is in the middle of the pack on property tax collections, thus even though property taxes were cut three decades ago, California governments still get a decent pound of flesh from property owners in the state.

Fourth, Prop 13 placed a supermajority requirement on state tax increases, which Meyerson laments. But that restraint has certainly not led to undertaxation in California. After an initial dip in total state/local tax revenues as a share of income in the late-1970s, California’s tax take has been steady or rising. Estimates for 2008 put the state sixth highest with respect to state and local taxes as a percentage of state incomes.