May 14, 2012 2:00PM

Dealing with Fiscal Challenges

I was recently asked the following:

You gotta figure:

  1. States defaulting on pension obligations through bankruptcy and/​or action by legislatures. Some de facto defaults will likely be to promise payment at age 90 or whatever.
  2. National governments, including the US, also likely defaulting on everything, gov’t bonds and so‐​called “entitlements.”

So, pensioners, city, state and national get at least a huge haircut on what they expected and Medicare and Medicaid just aren’t viable over time.

What are the economic implications and possible other implications?

Here’s my response:

Many US states are facing pension fund insolvency and will have to impose heavier burdens either on taxpayers, employees, or retirees, or some combination thereof. There is a precedent, although not a direct one, for a federal bailout of state and local governments: The Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 provided $300 million to be lent to the states (and onward to cities and counties) for relief. Everybody understood that these loans probably would never be repaid and, in fact, they were eventually written off. This statute was the first breach of the federal “relief dam” — one that burst after FDR took office in March 1933. Despite it, three states‐​Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Carolina‐​defaulted on their debts. By the end of 1933, approximately 1,300 local governments also had defaulted and many other state and local governments verged on default.

Recently, Ben Bernanke has ruled out a bailout of states via the Fed (who believes him, given what he’s already done?) and Eric Cantor recently wrote that the states have the tools to deal with their fiscal challenges, including renegotiating agreements with public‐​sector unions. In his opinion, there is no reason for federal involvement in state government fiscal problems, but how policymakers will respond when the chips are down (or there’s “blood on the streets”) is anyone’s guess. Some states are in pension trouble because they assumed highly risky investment strategies that failed when asset values sank during the 2001 and 2008-09 recessions. One favorable element for some states — Arizona, Utah, Texas, NM, etc. — is their favorable demographics that could help them to slowly improve their pension and fiscal conditions.

At the federal level, the default must also occur through a “renegotiation” of entitlement promises. The Medicare actuaries have clearly indicated that the so‐​called Medicare fix enacted through ObamaCare is untenable. So, whether or not ObamaCare is repealed, we’re still at square one and a renegotiation must happen soon. The problem is that we always wait for the people to deliver a “clear verdict” through elections, and elections usually don’t. Leadership on this issue is sorely needed but is not forthcoming for understandable reasons. The political game is to push the adjustment costs out into the future — but eventually it will imply significantly reduced living standards for future generations. How that will come about — whether through a crisis as in Greece and Spain, or through a gradual erosion of living standards is difficult to say. The inevitability of one or the other is not in doubt. All we could say is that the probability of a resolution through a violent crisis increases the longer we continue to push the costs out.

I’m placing a high probability on the dissolution of the Euro by the end of this year. With the election results in France, Greece, and Germany, the debt roll‐​over requirements that Greece, Spain and Italy are facing, and the impossibility of external sources of credible “bailouts” I don’t see how it can be any other way. Some people wonder whether the periphery states will opt out first or whether Germany and stronger northern states will move first to kick them out. There are no formal exit strategies included in the European Stability and Growth Pact. I think, though, that it will be the former — the southern countries are facing austerity with, or chaos without, the Euro and now the perceived difference between the two is not very large.

To answer the last question “And then what?” I would simply say that the developed nations will all be poorer — have lower living standards, more unemployment, less growth, etc, until the boomers pass away. I predict as much in my book that examines the implications of demographic and economic trends in developed nations (it does not deal with business cycle related events). Future generations will have to re‐​think the state‐​citizen relationships — a process that we can influence.