Posts Tagged ‘Budget Deficit’

No, We Can’t

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

                                          From “The Charge of the Light       Brigade”

Take pity on the can.  It’s been kicked so far down the road, it could circle the globe a dozen times.  It’s been battered more than the New England Patriots’ starting lineup.  It’s been kicked harder than an Adam Vinatieri football.

And still it persists.

This week, Congress and President Obama reached a deal that reopens the government through January 15 and suspends the debt ceiling through February 7.  Calling it a deal, though, is an exaggeration.  One side, the Democrats, refused to negotiate.  The other side, the Republicans, asked for something it had no hope of getting.  So everyone agreed to kick the can three months down the road.free-the-fowl-games-photo-420-1196-FF11015_0

Beyond that, according to The Wall Street Journal, “The bill includes one minor change to the health law sought by Republicans, setting new procedures to verify the incomes of some people receiving government subsidies for health-insurance costs.  It also provides back pay for all federal workers who were furloughed during the government shutdown.”

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Spending Our Way to Prosperity

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Focusing on the government shutdown is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while drawing closer to the iceberg.

The iceberg in this case is the massive government debt that will be made worse by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Later this month, Congress will need to lift the debt ceiling from its current $16.7 trillion to keep the government solvent and enable the U.S. to continue paying its massive bills.  In the meantime, as a result of the negotiations that led to sequestration, Congress had until the end of September (the end of the fiscal year) to reach a spending agreement.Yield Curve

It didn’t, of course, and now the government has shut down.  But what does the shutdown really mean?

The shutdown affects only “nonessential” services.  That means 85% of government services are still being funded and 63% of federal employees are still working.  Mail is being delivered, military personnel are still keeping us safe, and payments are still being made for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the countless other programs that we can’t afford.  Amtrak trains will continue running, so if your train is late, don’t blame it on the shutdown.

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One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor

Friday, September 27th, 2013

“There’s been some hard feelings here
About some words that were said …
Remember, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”
                                                         Paul Simon

Here we go again. Hold on to your wallets, taxpayers. It’s time for another debt ceiling “negotiation.”

We use the term “negotiation” loosely, as it’s now extinct in Washington.

On one side, we have House Republicans waging an unwinnable battle, saying they’ll agree to suspend the debt ceiling limit for a year in exchange for a one-year delay of the individual mandate for ObamaCare, tax reform, approval of the Keystone pipeline and other concessions. While such changes would potentially provide a huge benefit to the economy, they have zero chance of passing in the Senate, which is controlled by the Democratic majority.Debt ceiling

On the other side, we have President Obama and Senate Democrats saying the Republicans are trying to shut down the federal government, because they are not willing to lift the debt ceiling without concessions from the President.

There will be no concessions by the Democrats. As President Obama put it, “I will not negotiate on anything when it comes to the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”

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Sequestration: The Crisis Du Jour

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

It’s crisis time again in Washington, D.C.  Having just barely avoided a swan dive off the fiscal cliff, the leaders of our country are now locked in battle over the pending sequestration.

“Locked” is the operative word here, as the deep freeze that’s hit New England this week is likely to thaw well before the freeze in progress over sequestration.

If nothing else, this standoff has added to our vocabulary.  “Sequestration,” as we’ve learned, is a procedure that triggers automatic spending cuts.  It also means “the seizure of property for creditors,” as in, “China will begin sequestering U.S. property if we can’t control our debt and pay our bills.”  That definition may be more appropriate in years to come, but for now, let’s concentrate on the immediate future.

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Fiscal Cliff Turns Into Fiscal Bluff

Friday, January 4th, 2013

“What’s a five letter word for ‘cliff’?“ an editorial page cartoon asked.  The answer: “Bluff.”

To bluff is to mislead and that’s an appropriate summary of the fiscal cliff agreement, which will raise taxes and spending, while failing to consider the country’s growing debt crisis.

The market reacted positively, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average initially up more than 2% and markets in other parts of the world showing similar gains.

The market reaction was not, we suspect, because a well-crafted agreement that benefits America had been negotiated, but because the “fiscal cliff” had been avoided at the last possible second.  Consider what the agreement does – and what it doesn’t do.

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From Goldfinger to Groundhog Day

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

It’s like that scene in “Goldfinger,” where the seconds are ticking down and James Bond is trying to defuse the bomb.  He succeeds, of course, just in time.

Of course, John Boehner is not James Bond and real life is far more complicated than the movies.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

The real problem is not a cliff, but a chasm.  The degree of separation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress has never been wider.

On one side, President Obama and his Democratic supporters are hell-bent on raising taxes on the wealthy, which may not do much to tame the deficit, but may achieve the goal of moving toward class equality.  Democrats believe that more spending is needed to stimulate the economy, even though spending is at an all-time high and the economy is still in dismal shape.

On the other side, Republicans are dead set against raising taxes, and want spending cuts, tax reform and entitlement reform.  Medicare, Social Security and government employee pensions have created unfunded liabilities of more than $86 trillion, but the chances of working out a rational reform before the end of the year are about the same as the chances of winning Powerball.  Maybe less.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Congressman Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would have raised taxes on millionaires, did not even make it to a vote.  He could go through the entire alphabet and the results would likely be the same.

Republicans in Congress would rather go over the fiscal cliff than approve taxes on the wealthy, who are viewed as job creators.

Democrats would rather go over the fiscal cliff than approve major spending cuts, as spending is viewed as an economic stimulant.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Maybe Gary Cooper in “High Noon” provides a more appropriate comparison.  The clock on the wall ticks down and you know that confrontation is unavoidable and blood will be spilled.

Take a look at the futures market and you’ll see that it’s already spilling.  Last night, S&P 500 futures dropped from 1437.25 to 1391.25 as soon as Congressman Boehner’s plan was scrapped.  The value of the dollar also tumbled, as witnessed on the EUR/USD, which pairs the dollar with the euro.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Another movie that comes to mind is “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray’s day is endlessly repeated until he gets life right.

The déjà vu is appropriate to today’s negotiations.  Consider the U.S. Macro Surprise Index, which quantifies the extent to which U.S. economic indicators exceed or fall short of consensus estimates.  This year’s path is almost identical to last year’s, when Congress put off making tough decisions by extended tax breaks for another year.

Then again, “Groundhog Day” had a happy ending.  Maybe “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a better comparison.

So This Is Compromise?

Friday, November 30th, 2012

“We are both heading for the cliff.  Who jumps first is the Chicken.”

                                                                                                      – Rebel Without A Cause

Post-election, both Democrats and Republicans have promised to compromise and avoid the fiscal cliff.

So what would you consider a compromise?  A little tax increase, perhaps, along with some spending cuts, then call it a day?  That’s not happening.

Apparently, by “compromise,” they mean not giving an inch.  With the end of the year just a month away, both parties seem to be digging in and playing a game of chicken.

President Obama doubled down by calling for a $1.6 trillion tax increase – twice the increase that will take place if no action is taken and we go over the fiscal cliff.  Media has focused on a couple of Republicans who have said that they will break their pledge of no tax increase … but mostly there has been talk and no concrete plan for avoiding the fiscal cliff.

Remember the scene in “Rebel Without a Cause,” where two cars race toward a cliff and the first driver to jump out of the car is “the Chicken?”  The winner went over the cliff and died in a fireball as his car slammed into the ground.

Real life is resembling that 1955 film, but this time when the car goes over the cliff we will all be along for the ride.

Looking Over the Fiscal Cliff

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

You’ve heard plenty about the fiscal cliff.  But little attention has been paid to what’s beyond it.

What’s beyond it is another higher, steeper cliff.

The federal debt now exceeds $16 trillion and Congress will need to vote shortly to raise the debt ceiling in order to keep the government operating.  We’re running an annual budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion, so the debt will only get higher.

The longer we try to maintain the status quo, the more difficult it will be to bring the debt back in line.  We’re reaching the point where every dollar in the federal budget will be needed just to service our debt.  That means your taxes will no longer go toward building new highways, helping the poor or protecting the United States.  They will be needed to pay off the enormous debt that the President and Congress have incurred.

The only way to keep the government functioning under those circumstances, even if we cut spending and raise taxes, will be to incur more debt.

The bigger issue, though, is the unfunded liabilities from government entitlement programs.  According to The Wall Street Journal, we have already incurred $86.8 trillion in liabilities for Medicare, Social Security and future retirement benefits for federal employees.  If we could freeze time and incur no further liabilities, we would still need to pay out $86.8 trillion.

Both Medicare and Social Security are “pay as you go” systems.  As baby boomers retire, payment for these two entitlements will come from those who are still in the workforce.  As they are a much smaller population than the baby boomer generation, they will need to pay more or both Medicare and Social Security will collapse.

But how much more will be needed?  A commentary in The Wall Street Journal, “Why $16 Trillion Only Hints at the True U.S. Debt,” includes the following glum assessment:

“When the accrued expenses of the government’s entitlement programs are counted, it becomes clear that to collect enough tax revenue just to avoid going deeper into debt would require over $8 trillion in tax collections annually.  That is the total of the average annual accrued liabilities of just the two largest entitlement programs, plus the annual cash deficit.

“Nothing like that $8 trillion amount is available for the IRS to target. According to the most recent tax data, all individuals filing tax returns in America and earning more than $66,193 per year have a total adjusted gross income of $5.1 trillion. In 2006, when corporate taxable income peaked before the recession, all corporations in the U.S. had total income for tax purposes of $1.6 trillion. That comes to $6.7 trillion available to tax from these individuals and corporations under existing tax laws.

“In short, if the government confiscated the entire adjusted gross income of these American taxpayers, plus all of the corporate taxable income in the year before the recession, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to fund the over $8 trillion per year in the growth of U.S. liabilities.”

This Is Progress?

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Economic growth for the second quarter of 2012 officially has been revised down to 1.25%, which is below the lowest previous estimate.

In an effort to stimulate the economy, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress have added $6 trillion to the federal debt, with annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion.  The Federal Reserve Board meanwhile has announced its third round of quantitative easing, on top of Operation Twist.

Yet the unemployment rate remains over 8% and, as we stated earlier this month, could be as high as 19% if you take a true and accurate count of everyone who is not working.

Since the current “recovery” began, real income for the average American has dropped 5.7%, and while inflation as a whole remains in check, the price of essentials such as oil and food has soared.  At least we can credit quantitative easing with taming deflation!

This all sounds pretty gloomy, but cheer up.  Alan Krueger, who chairs the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, says “we’re making progress.”

It’s All Relative

Progress, of course, is relative.  It’s true that the free fall that began in 2008 created the worst economic conditions we’ve encountered since The Great Depression, but in the past the rule has been the greater the recession, the greater the recovery.

Not so this time.  Cumulative growth for the past three years has been just 6.7%, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.  In comparison, the average for all 10 post-World War II recoveries is 15.2%.

In other words, the economic growth we’re experiencing is well under half of what it has been historically after past recessions, even though it should have been among the best periods of growth ever, given the severity of the recession.

Worse still, we can look forward to the long-term impact of today’s failed economic programs.  Someday, the debt we’ve accumulated will have to be paid back.  And quantitative easing may keep the country’s debt payments manageable today, but it weakens the dollar and boosts inflation.

And sooner or later interest rates could rise to the point where our current tax revenues will not be enough to pay the interest on our debt, let alone support government programs.

So what do we do when the current economic programs produce the same results as they have in the past?  Prepare for a multi-trillion dollar stimulus package?  QE3, the third quantitative easing program is open ended and can last as long as The Fed wants it to last, so at least we don’t have to worry about QE4.

Dancing With A Cow

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

While Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has beaten down the U.S. stock market, it has helped the bond market.

Because the European bond market is in such poor shape, U.S. bonds are a relatively healthy investment.  Investors have been buying U.S. bonds, because they look good relative to European debt.  But that’s like dancing with a cow because your only other option is a pig.

U.S. yields are at record lows, even though U.S. debt has now reached $15.9 trillion, up from $9 trillion in 2007.  The 10-year Treasury yield, which has averaged 4.88% over the past two decades, hit a record low of 1.44% on June 1, down from its high for the year of 2.4% percent on March 20.

Regardless, the cow may be turning into a pig.  Robert Auwaerter, head of Vanguard Group’s fixed-income group, predicted that unless the U.S. gets its debt under control within the next four years, U.S. bonds will become about as popular as the bonds of the five European countries that have seen borrowing costs soar as investors boycotted their bonds.

What Bloomberg called a Treasuries Doomsday isn’t on the Mayan calendar, but it could be as grim as those end-of-days predictions, at least from a financial perspective.  If yields were to rise back to 3.8% by December 2014, which is their average for the past decade, investors would realize loses of 10.8%.

Demand for U.S. bonds has enabled the Federal Reserve Board to keep borrowing costs low, and President Obama and Congress to fund a budget deficit that’s forecast to exceed $1 trillion for the fourth straight year.

However, Auwaerter said, “In the absence of a long-term credible plan, we are somewhere around four years away on where the markets are going to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”