Tag: fiscal policy

Could Technical Default Today Save America from Greek-Style Fiscal Disaster in the Future?

There’s a lot of buzz about a Wall Street Journal interview with Stanley Druckenmiller, in which he argues that a temporary delay in making payments on U.S. government debt (which technically would be a default) would be a small price to pay if it resulted in the long-term spending reforms that are needed to save America from becoming another Greece.

One of the world’s most successful money managers, the lanky, sandy-haired Mr. Druckenmiller is so concerned about the government’s ability to pay for its future obligations that he’s willing to accept a temporary delay in the interest payments he’s owed on his U.S. Treasury bonds—if the result is a Washington deal to restrain runaway entitlement costs. “I think technical default would be horrible,” he says from the 24th floor of his midtown Manhattan office, “but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world. It’s not going to be catastrophic. What’s going to be catastrophic is if we don’t solve the real problem,” meaning Washington’s spending addiction. …Mr. Druckenmiller’s view on the debt limit bumps up against virtually the entire Wall Street-Washington financial establishment. A recent note on behalf of giant banks on the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee warned of a “severe and long-lasting impact” if the debt limit is not raised immediately. …This week more than 60 trade associations, representing virtually all of American big business, forecast “a massive spike in borrowing costs.” On Thursday Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised the specter of a market crisis similar to the one that followed the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. As usual, the most aggressive predictor of doom in the absence of increased government spending has been Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. In a May 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Geithner warned of “a catastrophic economic impact” and said, “Default would cause a financial crisis potentially more severe than the crisis from which we are only now starting to recover.”

Mr. Druckenmiller is not overly impressed by this hyperbole. The article continues with this key passage.

“Here are your two options: piece of paper number one—let’s just call it a 10-year Treasury. So I own this piece of paper. I get an income stream obviously over 10 years … and one of my interest payments is going to be delayed, I don’t know, six days, eight days, 15 days, but I know I’m going to get it. There’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s not going to pay, but it’s going to be delayed. But in exchange for that, let’s suppose I know I’m going to get massive cuts in entitlements and the government is going to get their house in order so my payments seven, eight, nine, 10 years out are much more assured,” he says. Then there’s “piece of paper number two,” he says, under a scenario in which the debt limit is quickly raised to avoid any possible disruption in payments. “I don’t have to wait six, eight, or 10 days for one of my many payments over 10 years. I get it on time. But we’re going to continue to pile up trillions of dollars of debt and I may have a Greek situation on my hands in six or seven years. Now as an owner, which piece of paper do I want to own? To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s piece of paper number one.” …”Russia had a real default and two or three years later they had all-time low interest rates,” says Mr. Druckenmiller. In the future, he says, “People aren’t going to wonder whether 20 years ago we delayed an interest payment for six days. They’re going to wonder whether we got our house in order.”

This is a very compelling argument, but it overlooks one major problem – the complete inability of Republicans to succeed in forcing fiscal reform using this approach.

Here’s a sure-fire prediction, assuming GOPers in the House actually are willing to engage in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Obama on the debt limit.

  • There will be lots of political drama.
  • We will get to a point where the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
  • At that point, either Geithner or Bernanke (or probably both) will make some completely dishonest statements designed to rattle financial markets.
  • The establishment media will echo those statements.
  • The stock market and/or bond market will have a negative reaction.
  • Republican resolve will evaporate like a drop of water in the Mojave Desert.
  • The debt limit will be increased without any meaningful fiscal reform.

For all intents and purposes, this is what happened with the TARP vote in 2008. There were basically two choices of how to deal with the financial crisis. The establishment wanted a blank-check bailout, while sensible people wanted the “FDIC-resolution” approach (similar to what was used during the savings & loan bailouts about 20 years ago, which bails out retail customers but wipes out shareholders, bondholders and senior management). Republicans initially held firm and defeated the first TARP vote, but then they folded when the Washington-Wall Street establishment scared markets.

I hope I’m wrong in my analysis, but I don’t see how Republicans could win a debt limit fight. At least not if they demand something like the Ryan budget. The best possible outcome would be budget process reform such as Senator Corker’s CAP Act, which would impose caps on future spending, enforced by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. Because it postpones the fiscal discipline until after the vote, that legislation has a chance of attracting enough bipartisan support to overcome opposition from Obama and other statists.

As a Matter of Fact, the Baltic Nations Are a Success Story

I got a few cranky emails after my post suggesting the United States should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts. These emailers were upset that I favorably commented on the fiscal discipline of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia while failing to reveal that these nations were suffering from high unemployment.

From the tone of this correspondence, my new friends obviously think this is a “gotcha” moment. The gist of their messages is that the economic downturn that hit the Baltic nations is proof that the free-market model has failed, and that I somehow was guilty of a cover-up.

That’s certainly a strange interpretation, especially since I specifically noted that the three nations had suffered from an economic downturn. There’s no questioning the fact that unemployment spiked upwards because of the global financial crisis, which was especially damaging to the Baltics since they all had real estate bubbles.

But let’s deal with the bigger issue, which is whether this downturn is proof that the free market failed (and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all three Baltic nations are free market even though only Estonia gets high scores in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings).

If you look at the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database, it does show that the Baltic nations had serious economic downturns. Indeed, if we look at the data from 2008 to the present, the recession was far deeper in those nations than in Western Europe and North America.

So at first glance, it seems my critics have a point.

But what happens if you look at a longer period of data? The IMF has data for all three Baltic nations going back to 1999. And if we look at the entire 12-year period, it turns out that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have enjoyed comparatively strong growth. Indeed, as seen in the chart below the jump, they even surpass Hong Kong.

In other words, the Baltic nations may have suffered larger-than-average economic downturns, but they also enjoyed stronger-than-average booms. And the net effect is that they are now in much better shape than the nations that had smaller recessions but also less-robust growth.

A sophisticated critic may look at the data and say they’re meaningless because convergence theory suggests that middle-income countries almost always will grow faster than rich nations. That’s a fair point, so let’s now compare the three Baltic nations to three other nations that were at the same level of development at the turn of this century.

As you can see, the Baltic nations are doing substantially better than other middle-income nations. By the way, skeptics should feel free to peruse the IMF data to confirm that I didn’t cherry-pick nations to make my point (indeed, I deliberately picked Thailand since it was emerging from the Asian financial crisis and is an example of a nation that enjoyed very good growth in the 2000-2011 period).

The point of this post is not that the Baltic nations are perfect. Estonia is ranked 12th in the Economic Freedom rankings, which is impressive, but Lithuania is 33rd and Latvia is 55th. Those aren’t bad scores considering that these nations are recovering from communist tyranny, to be sure, but Hong Kong isn’t in any danger of being dethroned.

Instead, my argument is that the Baltic nations are making slow but steady progress, and I’m quite confident that the recent decisions by these nations to reduce the burden of government spending will help put them back on an above-average growth path.

That is something the United States should emulate.

Let’s Copy the Baltic Nations and Really Cut Spending

All the talk of spending cuts in Washington is fictitious. Even the House Republican Study Committee budget allows spending to increase, on average, by 1.7 percent each year for the next decade. The Ryan budget, which critics deride for its “savage” cuts, allows spending to rise by an average of 2.8 percent each year. And Obama’s budget allows spending to climb, on average, by 4.7 percent each year—which is more than twice the projected rate of inflation.

Too bad American policymakers can’t copy the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Like the United States, these nations got in fiscal trouble, thanks to the combination of excessive spending and an economic downturn triggered by falling real estate prices.

But unlike the United States, these nations didn’t follow the Keynesian policy of more deficit spending. Lawmakers in the Baltic nations recognized, to borrow the words of Dan Hannan, that “you cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.”

So they reduced spending. Not in the Washington sense, where politicians get to increase spending and call it a cut because outlays didn’t rise even faster. The Baltic nations imposed real cuts. And not just for one year, but in both 2009 and 2010. Here’s the data from the European Union for the Baltic nations.

Interestingly, it appears that fiscal restraint has been very successful for the Baltic nations. After suffering a steep downturn, economic growth has returned. Amazingly, Estonia is even back to having a budget surplus.

It’s also worth noting that other nations have enjoyed great success with fiscal restraint. This video shows how Canada, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand dramatically reduced the burden of government spending by freezing or capping outlays. Not quite as impressive as what’s happened in the Baltics, but definitely very good compared to what’s been happening in the United States.

Back-Door Tax Increases Are a Recipe for Bigger Government

Martin Feldstein’s on a roll, but not in a good way. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, he advocated throwing in the towel on reforming Social Security into a system of personal retirement accounts. Today, in the New York Times, he endorses big tax increases.

Rather odd positions for someone who served as Chairman of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Gipper must be rolling in his grave.

To be fair, when compared to Obama’s tax-hike plan, Feldstein wants to raise taxes in ways that impose much less damage on the economy. Obama wants to raise tax rate on productive behavior, thus discouraging work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Feldstein, by contrast, wants to cap various tax preferences.

Reducing the budget deficit and stopping the explosion of our national debt will require more tax revenue… But the need for more revenue needn’t mean higher tax rates. …tax revenues can be increased substantially by limiting the deductions, credits and exclusions that are essentially government spending by another name. …such tax expenditures create incentives for wasteful borrowing and spending; they have been factors in the mortgage crisis and the rising cost of health care. …here is a way to curb this loss of revenue without eliminating any individual deduction: limit the total tax saving for any individual to a maximum percentage of his total income. …What’s the result? Taxpayers with incomes of $25,000 to $50,000 would pay about $1,000 more in taxes; those with incomes of more than $500,000 might pay $40,000 more. The cap would affect more than 80 percent of taxpayers. Although they would continue to benefit from the mortgage deduction, the health insurance exclusion and other tax expenditures, their tax savings would not increase if they took out a larger mortgage or a more expensive insurance policy. … a 2 percent cap on tax expenditures in 2011 would raise tax revenue by $278 billion — nearly 30 percent of total projected income tax revenue for this year. The extra revenue would increase over time, reaching nearly half of the projected future fiscal deficits.

I’m not a fan of tax preferences. I agree with much of Professor Feldstein’s argument about the inefficiency and distortions that are created when government plays industrial policy with the tax code.

But there are good ways and bad ways of addressing the problem. If Professor Feldstein was proposing to cap or eliminate tax preferences as part of a plan that also lowered tax rates, that would be great news.

Unfortunately, Feldstein is proposing to cap tax preferences in order to funnel more money to Washington. But giving more tax revenue to politicians and bureaucrats, in the words of P.J. O’Rourke, would be like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

The big problem with Feldstein’s approach is that any source of additional revenue will ease up the pressure to restrain government spending. There are several budget plans, such as Congressman Ryan’s proposal and the House Study Committee plan, that would significantly improve America’s fiscal position by restraining the growth of federal spending. But these pro-growth initiatives will have zero chance of getting enacted if politicians think more revenue is forthcoming.

America’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not insufficient revenue.

Yes, the tax code is riddled with terrible provisions that are both corrupt and economically inefficient. But those provisions should be eliminated as part of tax reform - not as part of a plan to give politicians an excuse to prop up big government.

Seven Reasons to Oppose Higher Taxes

As I have explained elsewhere, tax increases are a bad idea - unless you favor bigger government.

And I’ve already added my two cents to the tax debate between Senator Coburn and Grover Norquist regarding the desirability of higher taxes.

So it won’t surprise anyone to know that I fully agree with this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, which offers seven reasons why higher taxes are a bad idea.


The video is narrated by Piyali Bhattacharya of Young Americans for Liberty, and here are her seven reasons.

  1. Tax increases are not needed
  2. Tax increases encourage more spending
  3. Tax increases harm economic performance
  4. Tax increases foment social discord
  5. Tax increases almost never raise as much revenue as projected
  6. Tax increases encourage more loopholes
  7. Tax increases undermine competitiveness

I think reasons #1, #2, #3, and #5 are the most powerful.

To a considerable degree, my video on balancing the budget makes the same point as reason #1 about why higher taxes are unnecessary. Simply stated, balancing the budget merely requires a modest degree of fiscal discipline, such as capping spending so it only grows 2 percent per year.

And if tax increases are not needed to balance the budget, then the only purpose they serve is to facilitate a bigger burden of government spending, which is why I like reason #2.

And reason #3 is standard economic analysis, making the common-sense point that if you punish something, you get less of it. This is why it is so misguided to impose higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

Last but not least, reason #5 is just another way of saying that the Laffer Curve is real, as I explain in this tutorial.

White House to Propose 26 Percent Corporate Tax Rate?!? Look before You Leap

According to an article in the New York Times, the Obama Administration is seriously examining a proposal to reduce America’s anti-competitive 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The Obama administration is preparing to inject an unpredictable new variable into its economic policy clash with Republicans: a plan to overhaul corporate taxes. Economic advisers have nearly completed the process initiated in January by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, at President Obama’s behest. That process, intended to make the United States more competitive internationally, has explored the willingness of business leaders to sacrifice loopholes in return for lowering the top corporate tax rate, currently 35 percent. The approach officials are now discussing would drop the top rate as low as 26 percent, largely by curbing or eliminating tax breaks for depreciation and for domestic manufacturing.

This may be a worthwhile proposal, but this is an example where it would be wise to “look before you leap.” Or, for fans of Let’s Make a Deal, let’s see what’s behind Door Number 2.

To judge Obama’s plan, it is important to have the right benchmark. An ideal corporate tax system obviously should have a low tax rate. And it also should have no double taxation (tax corporate income at the business level or tax it at the individual level, but don’t tax it at both levels).

But it’s also important to have a simple and neutral system. The right definition of corporate income for any given year is (or should be) total revenue minus total costs. What’s left is income.

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but it’s not the way the corporate tax code works. The system has thousands of complicated provisions, some of which provide special loopholes (such as the corrupt ethanol credit) that allow firms to understate their income, and some of which impose discriminatory penalties by forcing companies to overstate their income.

Consider the case of depreciation. The vast majority of people understandably have no idea what this term means, but it sounds like a special tax break. After all, who wants big corporations to lower their tax bills by taking advantage of something that sounds so indecipherable.

In reality, though, depreciation simply refers to the tax treatment of investment costs. Let’s say a company buys a new machine (which would increase productivity and thus boost wages) for $10 million. Under a sensible and simple tax system, that company would include that $10 million when adding up all their costs, which then would be subtracted from total revenue to determine income.

But the corporate tax code doesn’t let companies properly recognize the cost of new investments. Instead, they are only allowed to deduct (depreciate) a fraction of the cost the first year, followed by more the next year, and so on and so on depending on the specific depreciation rules for different types of investments.

To keep the example simple, let’s say there is “10-year straight line depreciation” for the new machine. That means a company can only deduct $1 million each year and they have to wait an entire decade before getting to fully deduct the cost of the new machine.

Ultimately, the firm does deduct the full $10 million, but the delay (in some cases, about 40 years) means that a company, for all intents and purposes, is being taxed on a portion of its investment expenditures. This is because they lose the use of their money, and also because even low levels of inflation mean that deductions are worth significantly less in future years than they are today.

To put it in terms that are easy to understand, imagine if the government suddenly told you that you had to wait 10 years to deduct your personal exemption!

Let’s now circle back to President Obama’s proposal. With the information we now have, there is no way of determining whether this proposal is a net plus or a net minus. A lower rate is great, of course, but perhaps not if the government doesn’t let you accurately measure your expenses and therefore forces you to overstate your income.

I’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

P.S. It’s also important to understand that a “deduction” in the business tax code does not imply loophole. If you remember the correct definition of business income (total revenue minus total costs), this means a business gets to “deduct” its expenses (such as wages paid to workers) from total revenue to determine taxable income. Some deductions are loopholes, of course, which is why a  simple, fair, and honest system should be based on cash flow. Which is how business are treated under the flat tax.

Senator Corker Explains His Plan to Cap Spending and Reduce the Fiscal Burden of Government

America is in fiscal peril in the short run because of a 10-year spending binge by Bush and Obama and in the long run because of a toxic combination of entitlement programs and demographics.

Congressman Paul Ryan has introduced a budget plan to address America’s fiscal crisis, but Senator Reid and President Obama have summarily rejected his proposal, so it appears the United States will continue to drift in the wrong direction.

Something is needed to compel action. One might think that such an impetus would have been provided by the recent decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the fiscal outlook for the United States. But this development hasn’t affected the spending culture in Washington.

But there is hope. Senator Corker has legislation that would force Congress to act – and automatically impose fiscal discipline if they don’t. His bill caps – and then slowly reduces – government spending as a share of national economic output (gross domestic product).

I’ve already written about the merits of this proposal, including an explanation of the all-important enforcement mechanism of sequestration (automatic spending cuts). Here’s Senator Corker’s description of his plan, as delivered at a Cato Institute conference on the Economic Impact of Government Spending.

To build on the Senator’s comments, there are two things that deserve special emphasis.

  1. He correctly understands that the problem is the size of government. As explained in this video, spending is the problem and deficits are a symptom of that problem.

    Unfortunately, many policy makers focus on the budget deficit, which often makes them susceptible to misguided policies such as higher taxes. At best, such an approach merely substitutes one bad way of financing federal spending with another bad way of financing federal spending. And it’s much more likely that higher taxes will simply lead to more spending, thus exacerbating the real problem.

  2. Senator Corker’s legislation has a real enforcement mechanism. If Congress fails to produce a budget that meets the annual spending cap, there is a “sequester” provision that automatically takes a slice out of almost every federal program.

    Modeled after a similar provision in the successful Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law of the 1980s, this sequester puts real teeth in the CAP Act and ensures that the burden of government spending actually would be reduced.

Some people complain that Senator Corker’s plan is too timid and that it doesn’t balance the budget by 2021. While it would be desirable to impose additional fiscal restraint, the Tennessee Senator has deliberately chosen a more modest goal in order to attract support from colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And he does have Democratic co-sponsors, something that is critical given the composition of the Senate.

Since I’m just a policy wonk, I’ll leave it to the other people to argue about what’s feasible in the current political environment. My final comment, though, is that we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to the end of American exceptionalism and turn the United States into a decrepit, European-style welfare state. So I’m not going to complain if someone has a plan that finally moves policy in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as I prefer.