Taxing the Future

Today’s New York Times reports that Illinois is seriously considering selling off its state lottery and converting the future cash flow into a current lump sum plus a smaller cash flow over the next 75 years.  Gambling, of course is not an economic development strategy.  Excess profits exist only because the state restricts entry.  Like the mercantile regimes of old, the state is raising cash by selling off its monopoly.

Given the numbers in the Times, I conducted some present value calculations.  The sale is projected to result in a cash flow of $200 million per year for 75 years to the state (current profits are $430 billion).  The remaining cash flow goes to the winning bidder.  The reported estimated bid for this franchise is approximately $1 billion.  That suggests a return on investment of 20% per year compounded over 75 years.  Seems rather steep to me.  A 5% return would result in a much higher bid of $3.9 billion.

If the $1 billion is an accurate reflection of what an auction would yield, then the market is telling us that there is large risk to investing in a business whose only asset is state restrictions on entry.  This is particularly true because of the possibility not only of actual physical entry in Illinois, which is less likely, but entry through the internet.

Gambling markets are not the only markets whose source of profits is state enforced entry restriction.  Some years ago Richard Sansing and I studied the difference between the lease prices and sale values of taxi medallions in New York City (Journal of Policy Analysis and Management volume 13 issue 3 (1994) pp. 565-570).  We found that the market acted as if there was a 5% chance of deregulation in any year (i.e. the market was pricing the asset as if its cash flow would be zero in year 21).

Why are states selling assets for their cash flows?  Spending a billion dollars now rather than $630 million every year (the current profits of the lottery) allows today’s politicians to appear generous.  But my suspicion is that they are taxing the only thing left to tax i.e. people in the future.  My colleague Jagadeesh Gokhale’s work in entitlement reform argues that Social Security and Medicare are policies that redistribute from all future generations to current and past generations.  Politicians do this because the future is the last unorganized group in society.  I think some of the same politics are behind the Illinois lottery financial proposal.  But ironically the inability of the political system to credibly commit to future policies reduces the value of the sale to the current era because the market includes political risk in its valuation.