Category Archives: Debt

Confused?

By James Kwak

Some of the headline numbers for President Obama’s deficit reduction proposal that you hear are the following:

  • $3 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years—more than the $1.2–1.5 trillion expected from the Joint Select Committee (JSC)
  • $4 trillion in deficit reduction, including the discretionary spending caps in the Budget Control Act
  • $1.5 trillion in tax increases
  • $1 trillion in deficit reduction by capping spending on Iraq and Afghanistan

This didn’t make sense to me for a few reasons, notably that any deal that preserves any of the Bush tax cuts should be scored by the CBO as a tax cut, which increases the deficit. The actual numbers are rather more complicated.

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Ponzi Schemes for Beginners

By James Kwak

On the theory that the best defense is a good offense, Rick Perry has been insisting to anyone who will listen that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Probably hundreds of people have already explained why it isn’t, but I think it’s important to be clear about why Rick Perry thinks it is—or, rather, why his political advisers think he can get away with it.

A Ponzi scheme, classically, is one where you promise high returns to investors but you have no way of actually generating those returns; instead, you plan to pay off old investors by getting new money from new investors. Social Security is obviously not a Ponzi scheme for at least two basic reasons. First, there’s no fraud involved: all of Social Security’s finances are right out in the open for anyone who cares to look, in the annual report of the trustees of the Social Security trust funds. Second, a Ponzi scheme by construction cannot go on forever; no matter how long you can keep it going, at some point you will run out of potential new investors and the whole thing will collapse. I’m sure there are other obvious differences, but that’s enough for now.

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How Big Is the Deficit, Anyway?

By James Kwak

According to its CBO score, the Budget Control Act of 2011 (a.k.a. the debt ceiling agreement) initially reduced aggregate budget deficits over the next ten years (2012–2021) by $917 billion, with a provision that ensures that deficits will be reduced by another $1.2 trillion (either through an agreement in the joint committee that is ratified by Congress, or through automatic spending cuts). The chatter in Washington is that even with the $1.2 trillion, this is still too small, and there is still this massive deficit hanging over our heads. This is true to an extent, but not the way you are being led to believe.

The first question is this: How big is the deficit anyway? The answer is pretty complicated—complicated enough for S&P to mess up (although in my opinion they made a rookie mistake, as I’ll explain later). Warning: lots of numbers ahead, though the only math is addition and subtraction.

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Barack Obama and Harry Potter

By James Kwak

Helene Cooper of the New York Times wrote a “news analysis” story saying that the challenge for President Obama is this:

“Is he willing to try to administer the disagreeable medicine that could help the economy mend over the long term, even if that means damaging his chances for re-election?”

The problem, she goes on to say in the next paragraph, is that the economy is in bad shape:

“The Federal Reserve’s finding on Tuesday that there is little prospect for rapid economic growth over the next two years was the latest in a summer of bad economic news.”

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So What? Part Two

By James Kwak

So, Standard and Poor’s went ahead and downgraded the United States yesterday, apparently because we have a dysfunctional political system. Who knew?

As I said before, I don’t think that S&P has added anything new to the world’s stock of information. In the short term, the most worrying thing about a downgrade is what I called the “legal-mechanical consequences”: the possibility that investors, who value their own opinions more than S&P’s anyway, might have to dump Treasuries because they are no longer AAA. Apparently, this is not going be a huge problem. Binyamin Appelbaum of the Times says that (a) many of the rules place Treasuries in a different category from other AAA securities to begin with and (b) since the downgrade only affects long-term debt, money-market mutual funds are safe.

Still, I think the whole thing is preposterous. S&P downgrading the United States is like Consumer Reports downgrading Coca-Cola. Consumer Reports is a great institution. For example, if you want to know how reliable a 2007 Ford Explorer is going to be, they have done more research than anyone to figure out the reliability history of every single vehicle. Those ratings are a real public service, since they add information to the world. But when it comes to Coke and Pepsi, everyone has an opinion already, and no one cares which one, according to Consumer Reports, “really” tastes better. When S&P rated some tranche of a CDO AAA back in 2006, it meant that some poor analyst had run some model fed to her by an investment bank and made sure that the rows and columns added up correctly, and the default probability percentage at the end was below some threshold. It might have been crappy information, but it was new information. When S&P rates long-term Treasuries AA+, it means . . . nothing. And if any serious buy-side investor were tempted to take S&P’s rating into account, she would be deterred by the fact that the analysis that produced the rating included a $2 trillion arithmetic error.

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A Few Thoughts on the Debt Ceiling Deal

By James Kwak

1. Obama still has his hostage—if he wants it. As far as I can tell, the Bush tax cuts are nowhere in the debt ceiling agreement, which means that at current course and speed they expire at the end of 2012. Extending the tax cuts would reduce revenue by about $3.5 trillion over the next decade. According to news reports, Obama was willing to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for $800-1,200 billion of additional tax revenue—in other words, he was willing to cut taxes by about $2.5 trillion relative to current law. Boehner and Cantor walked out because of some combination of (a) they couldn’t get their members to vote for that tax “increase” or (b) they think they will be able to extend all the tax cuts if they negotiate that deal separately. I wouldn’t be so sure about (b). Remember, gridlock means the tax cuts expire.

2. The next step of the deal is that a joint Congressional committee is supposed to come up with a plan to reduce deficits by $1.2-1.5 trillion over ten years. If they fail to come up with a plan, or their plan is rejected by Congress, then there will be major automatic cuts in discretionary spending, including defense. (There will also be cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates, but not in Social Security or Medicaid.) The idea on Obama’s side is that the prospect of major defense cuts will force Republicans to negotiate. But if they were willing to let the government default rather than increase taxes—even by closing tax loopholes—why do we think they will be afraid of some defense budget cuts? Traditional Republicans may have liked high defense spending, but not the new breed. Ron Paul is basically an isolationist; Grover Norquist thinks the defense budget should be reduced.

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Two Can Play

By James Kwak

Quick, what was the greatest conservative accomplishment of the George W. Bush presidency? It wasn’t Medicare Part D: that was a clever way to steal a Democratic issue and pass it in a form that was friendly to the pharmaceutical industry. It wasn’t Roberts and Alito: yes, they are young and conservative, but the majority is still only 5-4. It wasn’t Social Security privatization: that didn’t happen. Iraq? Getting political support to invade Iraq was a major coup, but everything went downhill from there.

The answer is obvious: the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Together, they were a wish list of conservative tax policy: a reduction in the top marginal income tax rate from 39.1 percent to 35 percent; a reduction in the top rates for capital gains and dividends to 15 percent; much higher contribution limits for tax-preferred retirement accounts (meaning that if you have enough money to save, you can shield more of it from taxes); and eventual elimination of the estate tax. In total, when fully phased in, the Bush-era tax cuts sliced almost 3 percent of GDP out of federal government revenues.*

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