Category Archives: Debt

Lessons from North Carolina’s proposed budget

In today’s Room for Debate at The New York Times, I discuss what’s good and what is worrying about North Carolina’s proposed biennial budget.

The good: a doubling of the state’s Rainy Day Fund and end to the estate tax. But a big controversy surrounds the legislature this week. Lawmakers decided to cut unemployment benefits by one-third. This move disqualifies the state from receiving additional emergency unemployment insurance funds from the federal government, affecting 170,000 jobless in the state.

The issue points to the perennial calls for reform to the federal-state Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. North Carolina is one of many states that must pay the federal government back what it has borrowed to offer extended benefits to its residents, or face higher payroll taxes. Their choices are tough ones to make: raise the state payroll tax (or taxable wage base) and replenish the trust fund – which has its own effects on the economy and the workforce – or cut benefits. A better solution is to re-think our approach to social insurance, something economists, such as Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, have been highlighting the structural flaws of UI since the 1970s.

n.b. update: a reader rightly notes at the NYT – the states must pay back the money they’ve borrowed from the federal government to continue paying benefits. But they don’t have to pay back the temporary EUC program. 

Should Illinois be Downgraded? Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

No one disputes that Illinois’s pension systems are in seriously bad condition with large unfunded obligations. But should this worry Illinois bondholders? New Mercatus research by Marc Joffe of Public Sector Credit Solutions finds that recent downgrades of Illinois’s bonds by credit ratings agencies aren’t merited. He models the default risk of Illinois and Indiana based on a projection of these states’ financial position. These findings are put in the context of the history of state default and the role the credit ratings agencies play in debt markets. The influence of credit ratings agencies in this market is the subject a guest blog post by Marc today at Neighborhood Effects.

Credit Ratings and Mal-Investment

by Marc Joffe

Prices play a crucial role in a market economy because they provide signals to buyers and sellers about the availability and desirability of goods. Because prices coordinate supply and demand, they enabled the market system to triumph over Communism – which lacked a price mechanism.

Interest rates are also prices. They reflect investor willingness to delay consumption and take on risk. If interest rates are manipulated, serious dislocations can occur. As both Horwitz and O’Driscoll have discussed, the Fed’s suppression of interest rates in the early 2000s contributed to the housing bubble, which eventually gave way to a crash and a serious financial crisis.

Even in the absence of Fed policy errors, interest rate mispricing is possible. For example, ahead of the financial crisis, investors assumed that subprime residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) were less risky than they really were. As a result, subprime mortgage rates did not reflect their underlying risk and thus too many dicey borrowers received home loans. The ill effects included a wave of foreclosures and huge, unexpected losses by pension funds and other institutional investors.

The mis-pricing of subprime credit risk was not the direct result of Federal Reserve or government intervention; instead, it stemmed from investor ignorance. Since humans lack perfect foresight, some degree of investor ignorance is inevitable, but it can be minimized through reliance on expert opinion.

In many markets, buyers rely on expert opinions when making purchase decisions. For example, when choosing a car we might look at Consumer Reports. When choosing stocks, we might read investment newsletters or review reports published by securities firms – hopefully taking into account potential biases in the latter case. When choosing fixed income most large investors rely on credit rating agencies.

The rating agencies assigned what ultimately turned out to be unjustifiably high ratings to subprime RMBS. This error and the fact that investors relied so heavily on credit rating agencies resulted in the overproduction and overconsumption of these toxic securities. Subsequent investigations revealed that the incorrect rating of these instruments resulted from some combination of suboptimal analytical techniques and conflicts of interest.

While this error occurred in market context, the institutional structure of the relevant market was the unintentional consequence of government interventions over a long period of time. Rating agencies first found their way into federal rulemaking in the wake of the Depression. With the inception of the FDIC, regulators decided that expert third party evaluations were needed to ensure that banks were investing depositor funds wisely.

The third party regulators chose were the credit rating agencies. Prior to receiving this federal mandate, and for a few decades thereafter, rating agencies made their money by selling manuals to libraries and institutional investors. The manuals included not only ratings but also large volumes of facts and figures about bond issuers.

After mid-century, the business became tougher with the advent of photocopiers. Eventually, rating agencies realized (perhaps implicitly) that they could monetize their federally granted power by selling ratings to bond issuers.

Rather than revoking their regulatory mandate in the wake of this new business model, federal regulators extended the power of incumbent rating agencies – codifying their opinions into the assessments of the portfolios of non-bank financial institutions.

With the growth in fixed income markets and the inception of structured finance over the last 25 years, rating agencies became much larger and more profitable. Due to their size and due to the fact that their ratings are disseminated for free, rating agencies have been able to limit the role of alternative credit opinion providers. For example, although a few analytical firms market their insights directly to institutional investors, it is hard for these players to get much traction given the widespread availability of credit ratings at no cost.

Even with rating agencies being written out of regulations under Dodd-Frank, market structure is not likely to change quickly. Many parts of the fixed income business display substantial inertia and the sheer size of the incumbent firms will continue to make the environment challenging for new entrants.

Regulatory involvement in the market for fixed income credit analysis has undoubtedly had many unintended consequences, some of which may be hard to ascertain in the absence of unregulated markets abroad. One fairly obvious negative consequence has been the stunting of innovation in the institutional credit analysis field.

Despite the proliferation of computer technology and statistical research methods, credit rating analysis remains firmly rooted in its early 20th century origins. Rather than estimate the probability of a default or the expected loss on a credit instruments, rating agencies still provide their assessments in the form of letter grades that have imprecise definitions and can easily be misinterpreted by market participants.

Starting with the pioneering work of Beaver and Altman in the 1960s, academic models of corporate bankruptcy risk have become common, but these modeling techniques have had limited impact on rating methodology.

Worse yet, in the area of government bonds, very little academic or applied work has taken place. This is especially unfortunate because government bond ratings frame the fiscal policy debate. In the absence of credible government bond ratings, we have no reliable way of estimating the probability that any government’s revenue and expenditure policies will lead to a socially disruptive default in the future. Further, in the absence of credible research, there is great likelihood that markets inefficiently price government bond risk – sending confusing signals to policymakers and the general public.

Given these concerns, I am pleased that the Mercatus Center has provided me the opportunity to build a model for Illinois state bond credit risk (as well as a reference model for Indiana). This is an effort to apply empirical research and Monte Carlo simulation techniques to the question of how much risk Illinois bondholders actually face.

While readers may not like my conclusion – that Illinois bonds carry very little credit risk – I hope they recognize the benefits of constructing, evaluating and improving credit models for systemically important public sector entities like our largest states. Hopefully, this research will contribute to a discussion about how we can improve credit rating assessments.

 

 

Detroit’s Art is Not the Key to its Revival

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free-market urban development.

Detroit’s art assets have made news as Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is evaluating the city’s assets for a potential bankruptcy filing. Belle Isle, where Rod Lockwood recently proposed a free city-state may be on the chopping block, but according to a Detroit Free Press poll, residents are most concerned about the city auctioning pieces from the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection.

I’ve written previously about the downsides of publicly funding art from the perspective of free speech, but the Detroit case presents a new reason why cities are not the best keepers of artistic treasures. Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette contrasts the Detroit Institute of Art’s situation with the benefits of a museum funded with an endowment:

As usual, Andrew Carnegie knew what he was doing.

The steel baron turned philanthropist put the City of Pittsburgh in charge of operating the library he gave it in 1895, but when he added an art museum to the Oakland facility just one year later, he kept it out of city hands.

“The city is not to maintain [the art gallery and museum],” Carnegie said in his dedication address. “These are to be regarded as wise extravagances, for which public revenues should not be given, not as necessaries. These are such gifts as a citizen may fitly bestow upon a community and endow, so that it will cost the city nothing.”

Museums and other cultural amenities  are a sign of a city’s success, not drivers of success itself. The correlation between culturally interesting cities and cities with strong economic opportunities is often mistakenly interpreted to demonstrate that if cities do more to build their cultural appeal from the top down, they will encourage job growth in the process. Rather, a productive and well-educated population both demand and supply these amenities. While an art museum may increase tourism on the margin, it is unlikely to draw additional firms or individuals away from other locations. Detroit is sitting on an estimated $2.5 billion in art, enough to put a dent in its $15 billion long-term obligations.

On a recent episode of Econtalk, Ed Glaeser explains that over investing in public amenities relative to demand is a sign of continued challenges for municipalities:

It is so natural and so attractive to plunk down a new skyscraper and declare Cleveland has ‘come back.’ Or to build a monorail and pretend you are going to be just as successful as Disney World, for some reason. You get short-term headlines even when this infrastructure is just totally ill-suited for the actual needs of the city. The hallmark of declining cities is to have over-funded infrastructure relative to the level of demand in that city.

Similarly, cities throwing resources at museums and other amenities designed to attract the “creative class” are highly likely to fail because bureaucrats are poorly-positioned to learn about and respond to their municipalities’ cultural demands. When cities do successfully provide cultural amenities, they are catering primarily to well-educated, high-income residents — not the groups that should be the targets of government programs.

I think it’s highly unlikely that Detroit will sell off any taxpayer-owned art to pay down its debts based on the media and political blow back the possibility has seen. However, seeing the city in a position where it owns enough art to cover a substantial portion of its unsustainable long-term debts demonstrates why municipalities should not be curators. Tying up municipal resources in art is irresponsible. The uncertainty that the city’s debt creates for future tax and service provision is clearly detrimental to economic growth. While assets like museums are nice for residents, they do not attract or keep residents or jobs.

Detroit does have an important asset; new ideas need cheap rent. Detroit’s affordable real estate is attracting start ups with five of the metro area’s young companies making Brand Innovator’s list of American brands to watch. While these budding businesses could be key players in the city’s economic recovery, top-down plans to preserve and increase cultural amenities for these firms’ employees will not.

Happy Tax Freedom Day

Today, the Tax Foundation notes that Americans have worked enough to pay off their 2013 taxes, leaving the rest of the year’s earnings available for private consumption and investment:

Tax Freedom Day is the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for the year. A vivid, calendar based illustration of the cost of government, Tax Freedom Day divides all federal, state, and local taxes by the nation’s income. In 2013, Americans will pay $2.76 trillion in federal taxes and $1.45 trillion in state taxes, for a total tax bill of $4.22 trillion, or 29.4 percent of income. April 18 is 29.4 percent, or 108 days, into the year.

Because of the increase in payroll taxes and income taxes on high income earners as part of the fiscal cliff deal, Tax Freedom day falls three days later this year than it did last year. While many limited government advocates will view this tax burden as too large, the Tax Foundation website points out that the $4.22 trillion we will pay in taxes this year will not cover the full cost of government spending. Including this year’s deficit spending, which is a tax on future earnings, would push Tax Freedom Day out to May 9th.

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.

 

 

 

 

Civil Disobedience and Detroit’s financial manager

Michigan’s Governor Rick Synder may be greeted by protestors when he arrives for a meeting today on Detroit’s financial condition. His recent appointment of Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency financial manager has angered many of Detroit’s residents who are afraid he has powers that are far too sweeping and is thereby destroying local control. The purpose of the financial manager law is to help the city stave off bankruptcy and allows the emergency manager the ability to renegotiate labor contracts and potentially sell city assets. The last recession has worsened the already-struggling city’s financial outlook. Detroit has a $327 million budget deficit and $14 billion in long-term debt and has shown very little willingness to make the kind of structural changes it needs in order to stay solvent.

Detroit’s problems are acute. The city’s population has fallen from 1.8 million to 700,000, giving the city, “a look and feel that rivals post World War II Europe.” But as Public Sector Inc’s Steve Eide writes, the real problem is that local leaders have proven unable to deal with fiscal realities for far too long. His chart shows the consequences. The gap between estimated revenues and expenditures over time is striking. In sum, Detroit overestimates its revenues and underestimates its spending, by a lot, when it plans for the budget. That is a governance and administration crisis and one that the state has decided needs outside intervention to set straight.

Standard & Poors likes the appointment and has upgraded Detroit’s credit rating outlook to “stable.”

Why now is a good time to worry about the future

There are many smart people who think that deficits are a problem, but not now. Right now, they say, we need growth. And growth, according to standard Keynesian theory, requires higher deficits today. This perspective has three problems.

That’s me at US News. Click here to see why I think the “no need to worry now” view is wrong. And if you agree with me, let your voice be heard and please vote!

Implications of an emergency fiscal manager for Detroit

Reuters reports that an emergency financial manager might provide Detroit with a path toward bankruptcy. This week I’m at US News writing on how an emergency financial manager might help the city renegotiate the obligations that it cannot afford to pay:

An emergency financial manager will have a greater incentive than elected city officials to improve Detroit’s financial standing. For any Michigan politician, Detroit’s municipal employees make up an important group of voters. However, their political influence is more concentrated at the city level, and as an interest group they have diminished power at the state level. Because the emergency financial manager will be responsible to the governor and state legislature, he or she will not face the pressures to appease city employees that local policymakers confront.

Don’t make us drive these cattle over the cliff

First a brief note: I am now blogging at the American Spectator on economic issues. I invite you to visit the inaugural posts. Last week, I covered the fiscal cliff. Like many others, I also marvel at the audacity of the pork contained therein.

Lately the headlines have given me a flashback to 1990 and those first undergrad economics classes. And not just econ but also U.S. history and the American experience with price floors and ceilings. In this post I’ll discuss the floors.

As I note at The Spectacle one of the matters settled by the American Taxpayer Relief Act is the extension of dairy price supports from the 2008 farm bill. Now, Congress won’t be “forced to charge $8 gallon for milk.” To me, nothing screams government price-fixing more than this threat aimed to scare small children and the parents who buy their food.

Chris Edwards explains how America’s dairy subsidy programs work in Milk Madness. Since the 1930’s the federal government  has set the minimum price to be charged for dairy. A misguided idea from the start, the point of the program was to ensure that dairy farmers weren’t hurt by falling prices during the Great Depression. When market prices fall below the government set price the government agrees to buy up any excess butter, dry milk or cheese that is produced. Thusly, dairy prices are kept artificially high which stimulates more demand.

According to Edwards’ study, the OECD found that U.S. dairy policies create a 26 percent “implicit tax” on milk, a regressive tax that affects low-income families in particular. Taxpayers pay to keep food prices artificially high, generate waste, and prevent local farmers from entering a caretlized market.

Now for the cows. The recession revealed that the nation has an oversupply of them. The New York Times reports that rapid expansion in the U.S. dairy market driven by increased global demand for milk products came to a sudden halt in 2008. Farmers were left with cows that needed to be milked regardless of the slump in world prices. The excess dry milk was then sold to the government but only at a price that was set above what the market demanded.

In other words, in a world without price supports, farmers could have sold the milk for less at market and consumers would have enjoyed cheaper butter, cheese and baby formula. Instead, the government stepped in, bought $91 million in milk powder so the farmer could get an above-market price and keep supporting an excess of milk cows. Rather than downsize the dairy based on market signals (and sell part of the herd to other dairy farmers, or the butcher) farmers take the subsidy and keep one too many cows pumping out more milk than is demanded.

It turns out auctioning a herd is not something all farmers are anxious to do. Some may look for additional governmental assistance to keep their cattle fed in spite of dropping prices, increased feed costs, and bad weather. To be sure eliminating farm subsidies would produce a temporary shock (a windfall for farmers and sticker shock for consumers), but in the long run as markets adjust everyone benefits.Dairy cows in the sale ring at the Warragul cattle sales, Victoria, [2]

New Zealand did it. Thirty years later and costs are lower for consumers, farmers are thrivingenvironmental practices have improved, and organic farming is growing. While politicians and the farm lobby may continue pushing for inefficient agricultural policy in spite of the nation’s fiscal path,as Robert Samuelson at Real Clear Politics writes, “If we can’t kill farm subsidies, what can we kill?”

 

Maryland’s budget troubles continue into the New Year

Each year a committee made up of Maryland state legislators gets together to set a spending growth limit for Maryland’s general fund budget. The Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) has been in place for 30 years. Originally created to avoid instituting a Tax and Expenditure Limit (TEL), the SAC has proven unable to stop the persistent structural deficit which emerged in 2007. This year the SAC recommends a budget of $37 billion, one billion more than last year. That’s an increase in spending of 4 percent

In a paper for the Maryland Journal entitled, “The Appearance of Fiscal Prudence” Benjamin Van Metre and I detail the flaws of the SAC process based on our read of the official reports. The main problem with the process is that lawmakers have convinced themselves that the SAC imposes fiscal prudence on the legislature. We find while there is some formulaic guidance in the form of a limit based on the growth in personal income, it only applies to part of  the budget. The SAC also involves policymakers deliberating over spending “needs” while referring to revenue estimates. The result is not a hard limit on spending but a recipe for a budget soufflé. To be fair, the SAC wasn’t designed to be a hard limit. It was built to be flexible.That’s fine if the SAC is clear about its own limitations in setting a spending limit.

What’s interesting is that over the years there’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the SAC reports about fast-growing areas of the budget – the Transportation Trust Fund, Medicaid, and a growing reliance on debt finance. Debt limits are covered by a separate legislative committee, the Capital Debt Affordability Committee (CDAC). But, the SAC’s warnings about debt tiered up with the CDAC’s increase in the debt cap. It leads one to conclude that these two committees are, at best, talking past one another.

Given the recent history of Maryland it’s more likely legislators will continue finding ways to fund “increased needs.” And they will do so by seeking more revenues in the form of new taxes, tax rate increases, and debt.  As one legislator put it with this year’s SAC recommendation, “we’re setting our citizens up for massive tax increases.”