Tag Archives: recovery act

Grants to Puerto Rico haven’t helped much

Greece’s monetary and fiscal issues have overshadowed a similar situation right in America’s own back yard: Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s governor recently called the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt “unpayable” and this has made Puerto Rico’s bondholders more nervous than they already were. Puerto Rico’s bonds were previously downgraded to junk by the credit rating agencies and there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Puerto Rico’s ability to honor its obligations to both bond holders and its own workers, as the commonwealth’s pension system is drastically underfunded.   A major default would likely impact residents of the mainland U.S., since according to Morningstar most of the debt is owned by U.S. mutual funds, hedge funds, and mainland Americans.

So how did Puerto Rico get into this situation? Like many other places, including Greece and several U.S. cities, the government of Puerto Rico routinely spent more than it collected in revenue and then borrowed to fill the gap as shown in the graph below from Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget. Over a recent 13 year period (2000 – 2012) Puerto Rico ran a deficit each year and accrued $23 billion in debt.

Puerto rico govt spending

Puerto Rico has a lot in common with many struggling cities in the U.S. that followed a similar fiscal path, such as a high unemployment rate of 12.4%, a shrinking labor force, stagnant or declining median household income, population flight, and falling house prices. Only 46.1% of the population 16 and over was in the labor force in 2012 (compared to an average of nearly 64% in the US in 2012) and the population declined by 4.8% from 2010 to 2014. It is difficult to raise enough revenue to fund basic government services when less than half the population is employed and the most able-bodied workers are leaving the country.

Like other U.S. cities and states, Puerto Rico receives intergovernmental grants from the federal government. As I have explained before, these grants reduce the incentives for a local government to get its fiscal house in order and misallocate resources from relatively responsible, growing areas to less responsible, shrinking areas. As an example, since 1975 Puerto Rico has received nearly $2.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has received over $900 million. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBGs awarded to the major cities of Puerto Rico from 1975 – 2014.

Total CDBGs Puerto Rico

As shown in the graph San Juan has received the bulk of the grant dollars. The graph below shows the amount by year for various years between 1980 and 2014 for San Juan and Puerto Rico as a whole plotted on the left vertical axis (bar graphs). On the right vertical axis is the amount of CDBG dollars per capita (line graphs). San Juan is in orange and Puerto Rico is in blue.

CDBGs per capita, yr Puerto Rico

San Juan has consistently received more dollars per capita than the other areas of Puerto Rico. Both total dollars and dollars per capita have been declining since 1980, which is when the CDBG program was near its peak funding level. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, San Juan received an additional $2.8 million dollars and Puerto Rico as a country received another $5.9 million on top of the $32 million already provided by the program (not shown on the graph).

It’s hard to look at all of this redistribution and not consider whether it did any good. After all, $2.7 billion later Puerto Rico’s economy is struggling and their fiscal situation looks grim. Grant dollars from programs like the CDBG program consistently fail to make a lasting impact on the recipient’s economy. There are structural problems holding Puerto Rico’s economy back, such as the Jones Act, which increases the costs of goods on the island by restricting intra-U.S.-shipping to U.S. ships, and the enforcement of the U.S. minimum wage, which is a significant cost to employers in a place where the median wage is much lower than on the mainland. Intergovernmental grants and transfers do nothing to solve these underlying structural problems. But despite this reality, millions of dollars are spent every year with no lasting benefit.

Government shouldn’t pick winners either

Last week, Steven Mufson of the Washington Post reported:

The Energy Department gave $150 million in economic Recovery Act funds to a battery company, LG Chem Michigan, which has yet to manufacture cells used in any vehicles sold to the public and whose workers passed time watching movies, playing board, card and video games, or volunteering for animal shelters and community groups.

This week, Mufson’s colleague Thomas Heath reports about another firm that has received gov’t aide:

District-based daily-deal company LivingSocial has received a much-needed $110 million cash infusion from its investors, according to a memo the company sent to employees Wednesday.

“This investment is a tremendous vote of confidence in our business from the people who know us best, our current board members and investors,” LivingSocial chief executive Tim O’Shaughnessy said in the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Mr. O’Shaughnessy is putting a nice gloss on it. A LivingSocial “senior company insider” tells PrivCo:

We scrambled for cash quickly….we did receive one other funding offer, but the current investors’ terms were the least bad of two terrible proposals….which we had no choice but to take it or file for Chapter 11.

According to PrivCo, the company ended the year with just $76 million in cash and assets while it faces some $338 million in liabilities.

Readers will no doubt remember that just eight months ago, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to give LivingSocial a $32,500,000 get-out-of-tax-free card.

These stories (and the many, many more that could be told) suggest that President Obama’s former economic adviser  Larry Summers, was right to warn that government is a crappy venture capitalist. Milton and Rose Friedman’s simple explanation of the four ways money can be spent offers a nice explanation:

how to spend money

A private venture capitalist spends her own money to buy equity in a firm. And if that firm does well, she does well. Since she is spending her own money on herself, she has an incentive to both economize and seek the highest value.

But when government policymakers play venture capitalist, they are spending other peoples’ money on other people. They therefore have little incentive to either economize or seek high value. It is no wonder that they often make the wrong bets.

But the scandal has much more to do with a bad bet. Even if the bet pays off—which it sometimes does—there are problems associated with taxpayer support of private industry. There are more details in my paper, but just to name a few, government-supported industries will tend to:

  • Be cartelized, which means consumers are stuck with higher prices;
  • Use less-efficient productive techniques;
  • Offer lower-quality goods;
  • Waste resources in an effort to expand or maintain their government-granted privileges;
  • Innovate along the wrong margins by coming up with new ways to obtain favors rather than new ways to please customers.

Together, these costs can undermine long term growth and even short-term macroeconomic stability. And since the winners tend to be the wealthy and well-connected and the losers tend to be the relatively poor and unknown, privileges such as these undermine people’s faith in both government and markets.

We should be upset when governments sink money into firms that then go bankrupt. But it is no less scandalous when government sinks funds into firms that survive.

Governments should stay out of the business of picking winners or losers.

What if Stimulus Works, But Government Can’t Get the Timing Right?

As of September 3, 2010, about $154.8 billion of the approximately $282 billion of total funds made available by the Recovery Act in 2009 for programs administered by states and localities had been paid out by the federal government.

That’s the conclusion of a new GAO report, out this week. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that:

[S]pending stimulus dollars fast has turned out to be surprisingly hard.

This reminds me of a point that Megan McArdle raised a few weeks back:

[W]hat if Keynesian stimulus works, but no one can ever actually afford to do it, short of something like World War II, where the government can tap into a patriotic outpouring of national savings by issuing bonds with negative real yields.

She was talking about the sheer size of the stimulus. But we could ask a similar question: What if Keynesian stimulus works, but the machinery of government is so slow and inept, that it is impossible to effectively implement it in time to be effective?

This, of course, was the (near) consensus view among macroeconomists just a little over a decade ago. Writing in the American Economic Review in 1997, Martin Eichenbaum wrote:

[T]here is now widespread agreement that counter cyclical discretionary fiscal policy is neither desirable nor politically feasible.

Perhaps the current struggles to effectively administer stimulus will one day cause that consensus to re-emerge.

GAO Report on Local Stimulus Spending

This morning the GAO released a report entitled “Recovery Act: States’ and Localities’ Current and Planned Uses of Funds While Facing Fiscal Stresses.” (A two-page summary is available here.)

Here’s a chart of where the money has gone thus far:

Here are the highlights from the recommendations section:

Accountability and Transparency
To leverage Single Audits as an effective oversight tool for Recovery Act programs, the Director of OMB should

  • develop requirements for reporting on internal controls during 2009 before significant Recovery Act expenditures occur, as well as for ongoing reporting after the initial report;
  • provide more direct focus on Recovery Act programs through the Single Audit to help ensure that smaller programs with high risk have audit coverage in the area of internal controls and compliance;
  • evaluate options for providing relief related to audit requirements for low-risk programs to balance new audit responsibilities associated with the Recovery Act; and
  • develop mechanisms to help fund the additional Single Audit costs and efforts for auditing Recovery Act programs.

Matter for Congressional Consideration: Congress should consider a mechanism to help fund the additional Single Audit costs and efforts for auditing Recovery Act programs.

Reporting on Impact
The Director of OMB should work with federal agencies to provide recipients with examples of the application of OMB’s guidance on recipient reporting of jobs created and retained. In addition, the Director of OMB should work with agencies to clarify what new or existing program performance measures are needed to assess the impact of Recovery Act funding.

Communications and Guidance
To strengthen the effort to track funds and their uses, the Director of OMB should (1) ensure more direct communication with key state officials, (2) provide a long range time line on issuing federal guidance, (3) clarify what constitutes appropriate quality control and reconciliation by prime recipients, and (4) specify who should best provide formal certification and approval of the data reported.  The Secretary of Transportation should develop clear guidance on identifying and giving priority to economically distressed areas that are in accordance with the requirements of the Recovery Act and the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965, as amended, and more consistent procedures for the Federal Highway Administration to use in reviewing and approving states’ criteria.

Czars, Auditors, Data Trails and Statistics

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last week stressing the need for accountability on the state and local level for how federal stimulus dollars are used. Ninety percent of $49 billion headed to the states will be spent in three areas: Medicaid, transportation and education. The sixteen states surveyed are handling oversight differently. Some are appointing, ‘recovery czars’, others like Mississippi are delegating oversight of education and transportation to the independent authorities that manage these activities for the state.

One of the primary concerns expressed by states  is the difficulty of tracking spending. GAO reports states are “uncertain about their reporting responsibilities when Recovery Act money goes directly to the localities.”  Such uncertainty is not limited to which transactions to follow, but also, how to calculate economic impacts including indirect job creation and the impact of funding not intended to create jobs.

A few things to consider. Why is following federal spending on the state and local levels so difficult? States and localities have been receiving federal funds for decades – why haven’t better tracking systems emerged?  And secondly, it is likely estimating the economic impact of stimulus dollars will be fraught with difficulty, with much potential for miscalculation and error.

Accountability officers and auditors have their work ahead of them.