Tag: insolvency

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.

Fiscal Imbalance and Global Power

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, this week’s question revolves around the health of the U.S. economy, and its relationship to U.S. power. 

The editors ask

How serious a threat is the mounting debt to the nation’s standing as the world’s only superpower? Can the U.S. continue to spend more than all other countries combined on its military forces given burdensome debt levels? In what other ways does the mounting debt undermine the country’s strategic position? […]

My response:

Our long-term fiscal imbalance, which increasingly amounts to a massive intergenerational wealth transfer, is clearly a sign of our decline. But it is a decline that has been a long time coming. (I first wrote about the insolvency of the Social Security system as a college sophomore, 23 years ago.) As such, it is tempting for people to assume that we’ll figure our way out of this mess before a complete collapse. Let’s call them, at the risk of a double negative, the declinist naysayers. And, even if they are willing to admit to the problem in the abstract, the naysayers can point to the more serious, and urgent, imbalances between pensioners and those who pay the pensions in Europe or Japan and say “At least we aren’t them.”

That is a pretty shoddy argument, but it seems to be ruling the day. We can talk about the obvious unsustainability of using taxes on current workers to pay benefits for retirees until we’re blue in the face. And my second grader can do the math on a system that was designed when workers outnumbered beneficiaries by 16.5 to 1, and in which, by 2030, that ratio will fall to 2 to 1. It simply doesn’t add up. (For more on this, much more, see my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s latest.)

But this isn’t a math problem; this is a political problem. The incentive to kick the can down the road is overwhelming. The pain in attempting to deal with the problem in the here and now is, well, painful. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that members of Congress / Parliament / Bundestag / Diet, etc, have become very good at avoiding the issue altogether. And many of those who have chosen to tackle it are “spending more time with their families.”

What does all this mean for the United States’s standing as the world superpower? Less than you might think. Our difficulties in two medium-sized countries in SW/Central Asia have done more to puncture the illusion of American power than our political inability to deal with domestic problems. Our fiscal insolvency might convince other countries to play a larger role, if they genuinely feared for their safety. But other countries, especially our allies, are cutting military spending, while Uncle Sam continues to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In other words, our ability to maintain our global superpower status isn’t driven by our economic problems. But it is strategically stupid.

It is here that I take issue with Ron Marks’s contention that we spend less today than during the Cold War. While technically accurate, measuring military spending as a share of GDP is utterly misleading (as I’ve argued elsewhere.) If the point is to argue that we could spend more, I agree. But the measure doesn’t address whether we should do so.

We should think of military spending not as a share of the American economy, but rather relative to the threats we face. In real terms (constant current dollars), we spend today more than when we were facing down a nuclear-armed adversary with a massive army stationed in Eastern Europe and a navy that plied the seven seas from Cam Ranh Bay to Cuba. We spend more than during the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars. Today, terrorist leaders are hunkered down in safe houses somewhere in, well, somewhere. In other words, what we spend is utterly disconnected from the threats we face, a point that is easily obscured when one focuses on military spending as a share of total output.

We spend so much today not because we are facing down one very scary adversary, but because we are facing down dozens or hundreds of small adversaries that should be confronted by others. After the Cold War ended, our strategy expanded to justify a massive military. Since 9/11, it has expanded further. Our fiscal crisis alone won’t force a reevaluation of our grand strategy. It will take sound strategic judgement, and a bit of political courage, to turn things around.

In the cover letter to his just-released National Security Strategy, President Obama acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense for any one country to attempt to police the entire planet, irrespective of the costs. Unfortunately, the document fails to outline a mechanism for transferring some of the burdens of global governance to others who benefit from a peaceful and prosperous world order. We should assume, therefore, that the U.S. military will continue to be the go-to force for cleaning up all manner of problems, and that the U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

Social Security in the Red

Social Security is officially in the red.  The New York Times reports that the system will pay out more than it takes in this year.  Explains the Times:

The bursting of the real estate bubble and the ensuing recession have hurt jobs, home prices and now Social Security.

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, said that while the Congressional projection would probably be borne out, the change would have no effect on benefits in 2010 and retirees would keep receiving their checks as usual.

The problem, he said, is that payments have risen more than expected during the downturn, because jobs disappeared and people applied for benefits sooner than they had planned. At the same time, the program’s revenue has fallen sharply, because there are fewer paychecks to tax.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

The crisis is now, since the vaunted “trust fund” is filled with non-recourse government bonds–essentially worthless pieces of paper.  There’s no there there when it comes to financing future benefits.  Either payments have to come down or taxes have to go up, unless we adopt real reform centered around personal accounts.  And the latter course seems ever more distant after Congress voted to expand federal control over every Americans’ health care.

Europe: Either Bismarck or the Euro, but Not Both

The Maastricht Treaty requires countries in the eurozone not to exceed a public debt of 60% of GDP. Well, now almost all of them have an official debt exceeding that ceiling. But the situation is immensely worse because European states also have huge, and largely hidden, unfunded liabilities arising from their pension and health systems. According to a 2009 study by my colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale, the true debt of the 25 European countries is, on average, 434% of GDP. And the treaties that underpin European integration do not say a word about such debt.

Greece’s true debt is 875% of GDP and its current problems are just the first act of the coming fiscal bankruptcy of Europe. In my 2004 essay “Will the Pension Time Bomb Sink the Euro?”, I concluded that Europe would end up facing a critical crossroads: either leave the Euro or abandon the Bismarckian welfare state paradigm. As it turns out, the DNA of the pay-as-you-go system allows for political manipulation and the consequent inflation of pension and health “rights.” This, exacerbated by falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, will lead to increasing fiscal deficits, unpayable debt, state insolvency, defaults, covert age wars, and the failure of the Eurozone project.

The welfare state has really become an arbitrary “entitlement state,” where everyone uses the state to rob someone else, and politicians from the right and the left play the transfer game to win elections. This crisis may serve to reveal the true nature and enormous flaws of the welfare state. Sooner or later, Europe will have to dismantle it and move toward a paradigm of personal responsability – that is, a system of personal accounts for pensions, health and unemployment benefits.

Social Security: Debating the Ostriches

Over at Salon, Michael Lind takes me to task for raising the alarm about the latest Social Security Trustees report showing that a) Social Security’s insolvency date is growing closer, and b) the system’s unfunded liabilities have increased dramatically since last year’s report.

Like most of those who resist having an honest debate about Social security’s finances, Lind relies on a combination of economic flim-flam and political sophistry to obscure the true problem. For example, Lind points out that when I quote the Trustee’s assertion that the system’s unfunded liabilities currently top $17.5 trillion, that “assumes there are no changes made between now and eternity.” Well, duh! All estimates of US budget deficits assume that spending won’t be cut or taxes raised enough to eliminate the deficit. In fact, when I get my Visa bill and it shows how much I owe, it doesn’t tell me anything about whether I will or can pay that bill in the future. Obviously, if we raise Social Security taxes, cut Social Security benefits (or create personal accounts), we can reduce or even eliminate the program’s unfunded liabilities.

Lind then returns to the hoary idea of the Trust Fund. He objects to my characterization of the Trust fund “contains no actual assets. Instead, it contains government bonds that are simply IOUs, a measure of how much the government owes the system.” This, he says, is the same as saying “government bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, a government that has never defaulted on its obligations in its entire existence since 1776, are not actual assets?” He points out that millions of Americans invest in government bonds through their retirement programs and consider them assets. “Are U.S. government bonds “actual assets” when they are part of IRAs but not “actual assets” when they are owed to the Social Security system?” he asks.

That’s right. If I write you an IOU, you have an asset and I have a debt. If I write an IOU to myself, the asset and debt cancel each other out. I haven’t gained anything, else it would be a whole lot easier to pay my bills. When Lind invests in a government bond, he has an asset and the government has a liability. But when the government issues a bond to itself (ie. Social Security), the asset and liability cancel each other out. There’s no net increase in assets.

But don’t take my word for it. This is what Bill Clinton’s budget had to say about the Trust Fund in FY2000:

These Trust Fund balances are available to finance future benefit payments…but only in a bookkeeping sense….They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of Trust Fund balances, therefore, does not by itself have any impact on the government’s ability to pay benefits.

Lind then switches course and says, ok, forget about the Trust Fund. Think about Social Security like we do about defense spending. “Why do we never hear of the “unfunded liabilities” of Pentagon spending – the third of the big three spending programs (Social Security, Medicare, defense) that take up most of the federal budget? Defense spending comes out of general revenues, not a dedicated tax.”

Actually, that is a valid comparison. Both defense and Social Security spending for any given year are ultimately paid for out of that year’s tax revenue. The composition of the tax revenue is largely irrelevant. And, when taxes don’t equal expenditures, we get budget deficits. Those deficits will eventually have to be paid for by raising taxes or cutting spending.

Current projections by the Congressional Budget Office suggest that unless we reform entitlements programs, government spending will reach 40 percent of GDP by mid-century. Paying for all that government will be a crushing burden of debt and taxes for our children and grandchildren.

No amount of obfuscation by defenders of the status quo can obscure that fact.