Economic Newsletter 30 2021

This week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter reports on the Producer Price Index key variables such as Treasury yields and commercial bank involvement in the sovereign-debt market. We also explain the current state of the public inflation debate.

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Economic Newsletter 29 2021

This week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter is shorter than normal, due to vacation. We will be back in full force next week.

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Economic Newsletter 28 2021

In this week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter we give a brief update on Treasury security yields and analyze the fiscal balances of the states and of local governments in 2018 and 2019. Based on this, and recent GDP data, we predict that a majority of states will have heavier fiscal problems in 2021 than in 2019.

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Predicting a Fiscal Crisis, Part 1

Consider Figure 1. It compares two outlooks on the federal budget, both published in 2019:

Figure 1

Sources of raw data: OMB, CBO

The OMB forecast at the time did not stretch beyond 2024; the extension is a simple extrapolation based on “backward engineering” of the forecast.

At the time, the OMB had its own staff of economists with all their technical resources for quantitative analysis at their disposal. They were also heavily backed up by the forecasters at the Heritage Foundation, who have comparably generous access to computerized rigor in their work.

The Heritage Foundation relied in part on its contacts with the OMB when it marketed itself as one of the most influential think tanks in the world. More than that, though, the combination of the OMB and Heritage resources should have been enough to produce a substantially higher level of accuracy in budget forecasting than what the CBO mustered. After all, the CBO can reasonably be said to come up short in terms of technical sophistication. For one, they do not rely on econometrics in their forecasting.

Yet as Figure 1 explains, the two forecasts are as different as they can be when analyzing the same variable.

How is this possible? Before we approach this question, it is worth noting that in other outlooks or forecasts, the CBO and OMB agree on key variables pertaining to the federal budget. However, this only reinforces the question: how can they differ so dramatically as in Figure 1?

We are not going to answer this question from a technical viewpoint; it would not be possible to do anything of the kind without full access to the resources that all the outfits involved have at their disposal. Instead, we are going to approach the question from a more fundamental angle, namely the very nature of forecasting itself.

In a 2016 paper published by the Tax Policy Center, Rudolph G Penner explains:

Forecasting is a perilous activity. Forecasters often make big mistakes, whether tyey are forecasting the economy, the weather, or the outcome of the World Series. Budget forecasts are no beter than any other and revenue forecasts are particularly difficult. Errors occur even when forecasting with a one-year time horizon.

He then asks what the consequences are of this for long-term forecasts: are those that run over a couple of decades “totally worthless”?

Plainly speaking: yes, they are. Penner notes that long-term forecasters have an advantage over those doing short-term predictions:

In the short term, the economy is buffeted by the turbulence of business cycles, oil shocks, political upheavals, droughts, etc. Over the longer term, however, more fundamental forces exert themselves and there is some tendency for variables to return to long-term trends. Regression to the mean is the long-term forecaster’s best friend and policy makers often react to surprises with policy responses that keep variables within bounds.

He notes that there is no higher rate of accuracy in long-term forecasting, but at the same time he offers an example of why the long term should be easier to predict: the ratio of tax revenue to GDP which is characterized by “remarkable constancy”. However, it is actually not a good example – on the contrary. It is an arithmetic truth that tax revenue varies with GDP, for the simple reason that taxes are proportionate to economic activity. In other words, it is an institutional constant and therefore essentially pointless to forecast.

It is important to note this, because it helps explaining the perils with economic forecasting in general and with fiscal forecasting in particular. While the revenue-GDP ratio is close to trivial, the actual numerical values of the two variables are close to impossible to predict with any reasonable level of accuracy, especially when that ratio is used in the forecasting of the government budget. The counterpart variable, spending, is defined independently of revenue and, at least to some degree, independently of GDP.

This is not the place to delve more deeply into the details of how these two variables are defined. The point, instead, is one of the perils of forecasting for the purposes of policy making. It is often expected among legislators, governors and presidential staff with fiscal-policy responsibilities, that highly sophisticated forecasting methods – the processing of large amounts of statistics through highly complex models – will yield highly accurate predictions.*

This is not true, in part for the reasons that Penner alludes to. There are two challenges with forecasting fiscal policy, the first of which is to forecast the interaction between the economy and – yes – fiscal policy. We know a great deal about the reaction patterns in the economy from any given change in taxes or government spending; the challenge is to take account of a series of changes over a longer period of time. Fiscal policy (and its de-facto appendix, monetary policy), often changes as a direct or indirect result of the effects of previous policy changes.

The second challenge is to take into account the non-economic incentives for fiscal-policy changes. The foremost among those incentives is known as “ideology”. Economists run away from this one like the plague, which limits their ability to understand and explain – sine qua non forecasting – the government budget.

At the heart of the forecasting problem is the pursuit of high numerical accuracy. For reasons mentioned above, that pursuit is a self-defeating endeavor, but this “cat tail” problem in forecasting is not limited to the government budget. It is in fact built into the very models that forecasters use. They can account for it to some degree, but only after the fact; updating models to account for self-generating errors is costly and time consuming, with the cost increasing exponentially with the level of sophistication.

This is one reason why highly complex, costly econometric models do not exhibit a higher level of accuracy than simple forecasting based on methodology from traditional political economy. The trick, instead, is to be content with a certain level of forecasting approximation. Or, as John Maynard Keynes once said:

It is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong.

He made this comment in response to a question as to why he was no fan of econometrics, at the time an emerging branch of economics. While the foundations of econometrics were laid in the 1920s, it did not gain much interest in economics until after the Great Depression. The sudden onset of a catastrophic economic crisis made many politicians criticize economists for not having warned them about the crisis; econometricians promised an exactness that would insure political leaders against the perils of the unforeseen.

Keynes was among the economists who refused to fall for the lure of econometrics. He was not alien to forecasting himself – on the contrary, being the father of macroeconomics, he explained how multipliers and accelerators, essential mechanics of the economy, actually worked. To do so he needed to rely heavily on statistics. He just wasn’t a fan of the kind of closed-system rigor that econometrics forced upon the dismal science.

There were many occasions where Keynes was proven right in his skepticism of econometrics. During a conference in Cambridge, UK, he was approached by Jan Tinbergen, one of the world’s foremost econometricians at the time. Tinbergen, who later won the first Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, commented on Keynes’s estimate of the import elasticity in private consumption in the British economy. Explaining that he had matched Keynes’s number using his own methodology, Tinbergen congratulated Keynes on his estimate. Keynes’s response was a classic British smile: “I am glad to hear you found the right number.”

Keynes’s forecasting method was founded in traditional political economy, which takes into account economic institutions and the purposes of those institutions. There is no way to account for those purposes in regression-based forecasting. Therefore, it is also next to impossible for the econometrician to explain the variables, trends and economic activity he is forecasting. To bring us back to the federal budget, this is why Penner tells us that:

The most important single force driving the debt-GDP ratio upward in essentially all long-term projections is the rapid growth of the elderly population. It propels the growth of three large spending programs—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—to the point that their spending growth exceeds that of the rest of the budget and the GDP. 

The point about a growing elderly population, while visible in demographic data, is not obviously deduced from the growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs. To begin with, the share of total federal spending that these three programs account for does not correlate with the deficit. In 1970, when we were just at the beginning of our permanent budget deficit, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid accounted for 23.1 percent of total federal spending. In 1980 that share had risen to 30.9 percent, where it remained for the next decade.

By 2000 the share had risen to 36.9 percent, but that correlates in large part with the SCHIP expansion of Medicaid under Clinton. By 2010, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid consumed 37.2 percent of the federal budget.

The next leap in budget share came with Medicaid Expansion, which helped push this program trio above 40 percent of the federal budget.

In other words, it is not the aging population that causes the budget deficit. To further demonstrate this, let us do an experiment. Suppose we adjust Social Security spending per eligible capita – every person 65 or older – for inflation, but we do it in the “opposite direction”: we allow Social Security benefits to increase strictly along the lines of the consumer price index. After calculating Social Security spending per eligible person, we replace its growth rate since 1981 (the year from which we have reliable, appropriate demographic data) with a growth rate identical to annual CPI.

The outcome is striking: in 2020, when Social Security paid out $1,142.4 billion, the CPI-based method would have landed the cost of the program at $874 billion. This is a reduction of 23.5 percent.

This means, bluntly, that either the standard of living on Social Security, or the entitlement base has expanded. Given the direction of Social Security reforms in the past 40 years, the latter explanation is unlikely. This leaves us with the former, namely that retirees cash out bigger checks, adjusted for inflation, than Social Security retirees did 40 years ago.

There is a technical explanation for this, which I have accounted for in one of the chapters in my book about how to reform away the welfare state. The chapter, which started its life as a paper I presented at a couple of seminars for Republican members of Congress and staffers, as well as retirement investors, back in 2006 and 2007, demonstrates why Social Security is inherently insolvent. I present both technical and analytical evidence of this, with the short story being that individual benefits grow faster than the tax base supposed to pay for them.

In other words, the reason why the program is bound for insolvency is to be found inside the program. Even if we had a child-birth explosion, it would not change the fact that the program is insolvent by design.

As for Medicare, its costs have increased on par with the rising cost of medical technology. Figure 2 shows actual total Medicare costs since 1981 and the same costs if they had grown strictly on par with the cost increases for medical technology:

Figure 2

Sources of raw data:
Office of Management and Budget (Medicare); Department of Health and Human Services (NHE expenditures)

Assuming that the same is true for Medicaid, it is clear that the costs of these two federal health-insurance programs are driven by the costs of the services that eligible citizens are entitled to. In other words, the cost problem is the entitlement program, not the demographics of the eligible population.

The same holds true for Social Security: eligible individuals earn the entitlement to benefits based on a formula written into the program itself. So long as that formula remains intact, the costs of the program will outpace its tax base regardless of what the American population pyramid looks like.

Which brings us back to the forecasting problem. If we understand demographics to be the driving force behind the budget deficit, we will predict its path based on that premise. If we understand entitlements to be the driving force, we will predict the trajectory of spending – and therefore of the deficit – based on the cost-driving mechanisms in those entitlement programs.

In conclusion: the difference in forecasting that we saw in Figure 1 is an example of how institutional variables and policy preferences can make all the difference in the world to how a forecast predicts even the not-so-distant future. Coming articles will address this in more detail.

*) One of my professors in grad school, a former Bank of England chief economic forecaster, explained that the laptop he had in front of him allowed him to process as much data as his 20 employees had done in the 1960s, and much faster. But the forecasts that he made with the laptop were not more accurate.

Fiscal Crisis: Behind the Curve

We here at the Liberty Bullhorn have been writing about a U.S. fiscal crisis longer than any other outlet. We are now glad to see the public debate catching up with us – albeit slowly. Some have been out earlier than others: on May 9, Maya Macguineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, was interviewed by Bloomberg’s Opinion columnist Karl W Smith.

As the start of a review of the current debate over a U.S. fiscal crisis, let us take a look at what Macguineas said in that May 9 interview. We will get to more recent contributions to the debate as we move through the week.

The illuminating part of this interview is how analytically crude Macguineas’ approach is. It is worth highlighting, not to pick on her, but because it represents a very common approach to the fiscal-crisis issue. Since the CFRB is a non-partisan outfit, her views count even stronger toward explaining where the public discourse is today.

Explains MacGuineas:

Danger is basically signaled when your debt is growing faster than your economy. We’ve been on that trajectory for quite some time, driven primarily by an aging population and healthcare costs — things that we could have addressed at any point, but for political reasons failed to do so.

No, this is not the case. It is a widespread myth in the public-policy universe that the welfare states in Europe and North America suffer fiscal problems because the population is aging and health care costs are rising.

The reason for structural budget deficits is to be found in the very ideological architecture of the modern welfare state. This architecture, which the American welfare state shares with its European equivalents, dispenses entitlements independently of the ability of the economy to pay for those entitlements; since the entitlements are designed to reduce economic differences, they will grow over time; as they grow and taxes rise accordingly, the welfare state weighs more heavily on the economy, thus depressing economic growth.

When GDP growth is depressed, so is growth in tax revenue. Since entitlements grow for ideological reasons and tax revenue grows with an increasingly stagnant economy, a structural deficit inevitably opens up in the government budget. This is not rocket science – just political economy – and it has nothing to do with demographics. The trend is the same across all redistributive (socialist) welfare states, regardless of population “aging”.

As for the health care costs, they rise for the same reasons as the costs rise for all government-provided entitlements.

Macguineas again, trying again to explain where our structural deficit comes from:

Second, interest rates have been stunningly low in recent years, which has given people who don’t want to have to worry about how you pay for things a pretty good reason to say, “Hey, nothing to see here, there’s nothing to worry about.” Third … before Covid we had a huge tax cut that was not paid for, followed by two huge spending increases that were not paid for. And then on top of that there was another $500 billion tax cut. So that’s about $4.7 trillion in new borrowing in the three years before COVID hit when the economy was strong, which is exactly when we should be bringing the debt down.

Low interest rates do not cause deficits. They may encourage politicians to defer structural reforms, but given the lack of insight into the nature those reforms – though they aren’t hard to understand – it is more likely that low interest rates simply have accommodated continued expansion of the welfare state. With that said, it is important to understand that the welfare state, and the budget deficit, grew at generous speed back in the ’70s and ’80s, when interest rates were considerably higher. It is true that the cost of the debt at that time was smaller as share of total expenditures, but that does not change the fact that the marginal cost for expanding the debt was bigger in those two decades – when, to just mention two examples, Congress added the EITC and made numerous amendments to Medicaid services and eligibility.

Again: low interest rates do not cause budget deficits.

The comment about tax cuts and spending hikes is equally uninformed. Here, Macguineas demands the budget be statically balanced, in other words that $100 in tax cuts be paid for with $100 in spending cuts and $100 in spending hikes be funded by $100 in higher taxes. However, given the dynamics of the economy, such static balancing is impossible. Any change in taxes will have dynamic repercussions – call them multiplier or accelerator effects depending on their nature – and therefore alter the operation of the economy. Spending changes have similar effects on the economy.

For these reasons, there is no such thing as a tax or spending change that is “paid for”. The only way a tax cut can “pay” for itself is by generating such strong GDP growth that government revenue after the cut is equal to or higher than it was before the reform. As I have explained recently – and thoroughly – that is no longer possible: we cannot reduce, let alone eliminate, the budget deficit with tax cuts. In this respect, Macguineas is correct, but not for the reasons she suggests…

Then Macguineas makes a good point:

Then Covid comes. That is when you should be borrowing. Luckily, we’re able to because we have the reserve currency. But this moment has basically numbed people to understanding how big an amount we’re adding to the debt. Billions have seamlessly turned into trillions. Nobody knows what either one of them means. … This is massive, and I think the country has become numb to both the cost of things and the idea that if you borrow this much, it’s going to lead to some pretty painful economic situations down the road.

This applies more strongly to members of Congress and their staffers than to the general public, but that does not make things better.

Then Macguineas gets to the key point about where our current situation turns into a bona fide fiscal crisis:

We do have more room before the markets force us to pull back, but that doesn’t mean we should be intent on finding out where that limit is. It’s like if you’re blindfolded walking up to the edge of a cliff, stop walking! Don’t find out where that last point is, and don’t push us into a situation where markets do start to lose faith in the U.S. government and the foreign lending that’s readily available at low rates starts to dry up.

Indeed. It is not possible to generalize the “trigger point” for a fiscal crisis; it is, in a sense, like that infamous definition of pornography: you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. That said, we do have some experience from other countries to draw on. We know that the debt-to-GDP ratio plays a role, but we also know that it varies between countries in such a way that some countries with a lower rate have been hit by a fiscal crisis while others, with a higher spending-to-GDP ratio, have not been hit. It appears to be the case that the rate at which deficits grow plays a bigger role in causing a crisis than the level of debt itself, especially when the debt ratio is high.

Unfortunately, after having made a couple of astute points, Macguineas again falls for conventional wisdom:

What’s not going to be the problem is that we default, because we do borrow in our own currency and we can print. But the problem is all the collateral damage that comes from that: the economic risks of higher interest rates, inflation, of losing our enviable currency role in the global economy

The smaller point here is that she offers a contradiction: that we can continue to borrow without default problems because we have a reserve currency, but that we at the same time risk losing reserve-currency status precisely because of that borrowing. Once we do, a default can happen, she seems to suggest.

She is correct, which is the bigger point here. Every government can default. The path to default is different, much like the path to the fiscal crisis itself is different, but once the crisis point has been passed, the default is a matter of time only.

Nobody thought Greece would default, because it was part of the euro zone. It had Germany as a co-signer on its sovereign debt.

Toward the end, Macguineas gets the chance to talk about solutions:

Our goal should be to pick as big a savings package as is doable, meaning picking the low-hanging fruit on both sides. Let’s say we decided we wanted to offset the costs of the $1.9 trillion emergency package that we passed in January. I can see a package that said, let’s look at re-applying discretionary spending caps, which have been very useful. Let’s partner that with pay-as-you-go, where every new initiative needs to  be paid for. And let’s have some revenue increases and find the ones that are politically most doable. There are around $1.8 trillion in tax breaks per year, we could cap them and capture a lot of money there. So I think we could put together a $2 trillion savings package without too much work. It’s not going to get us nearly as far as we need to go. But it will get us started and that’s what compromise looks like.

These are all interesting measures, but none of them – neither as individual proposals nor as a whole – will change the trajectory of entitlement spending. For that, we need to rewrite the purpose of our entitlement programs.

Another point that Macgunieas appears to be oblivious about is that the very size of government, as share of GDP, in itself appears to have a permanently depressing effect on GDP growth. Once government reaches or exceeds 40 percent of GDP, growth slows down noticeably. We are at that point now, and the only way we can reverse from it is by – again – rewriting the purpose of our entitlement programs. That is not a sufficient condition for reducing the size of government, but it is a necessary condition.

It is good that we see a debate over the prospect of a fiscal crisis. It would be better if we saw that debate catching up with us here at the Liberty Bullhorn, where we warned about a fiscal crisis long before it became part of the public discourse.

Economic Newsletter 27 2021

In this week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter we ask: Who is going to buy U.S. debt once the debt ceiling has been raised?

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Economic Newsletter 26 2021

In this week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter we discuss the frail state of state finances. We put projected deficits in the context of two key macroeconomic variables and discuss to what extent states can be expected to contribute to an economic recovery – or bring it to a halt.

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Stagflation Update

Note to my subscribers: this will be the last separate update on stagflation. Starting next week, all analysis of inflation, unemployment and the debt market will be rolled into the weekly Economic Newsletter. This will enrich the content of the newsletter and free up space here for another project that I am ready to roll out, alongside the newsletter.

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A Note on Unemployment Benefit Fraud

The spending madness from last year’s artificial economic shutdown continues, morphing into the American Families Plan in Biden’s FY2022 budget and a colossal infrastructure bill that has very little to do with infrastructure. You don’t need to be a fiscal conservative to see that such an unhinged blowout of government money would come with a lot of waste, fraud and abuse, but even ardent libertarians are struck by just how insane that black hole is. Here is Tyler Durden over at ZeroHedge:

According to Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me – a fraud prevention service, America has lost over $400 billion to fraudulent claims, with as much as 50% of all unemployment payments possibly being stolen. Of that, up to 70% of the money stolen by impostors ultimately left the country according to Haywood Talcove, CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions, who ways [sic] “These groups are definitely backed by the state.” The rest of the money was likely stolen by street gangs domestically, who have made up a greater share of the fraud in recent months.

Ya think? Figure 1 below provides the unemployment benefits paid out per unemployed person, month by month since 2018. It is calculated from the unemployment benefits received under personal income as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the number of people who are unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Does anyone really believe that unemployed individuals on average cashed in over $6,500 per month in June and July last year?

Figure 1

Sources of raw data: Bureau of Economic Analysis (Personal Income); Bureau of Labor Statistics (Unemployment)

Government is still currently paying out about ten times more per unemployed person than before last year’s artificial economic shutdown. And we don’t even have to pay the taxes for all this – we are throwing the burden of all that onto the shoulders of our grandkids! Whatever they did to deserve that burden, I don’t know, but maybe we can ask someone who likes this government spending blow-out.

There is not a whole lot of interest in stopping wasteful and fraudulent use of government money. Medicaid is a good example: in 2016 the American Action Forum reported that so-called improper payments in Medicaid accounted for 8.4 percent of average Medicaid spending. And that was a low estimate, the AAF noted:

Medicaid has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) list of high-risk programs since 2003 because of its high improper payment rate, consistently ranking second among federal programs with the highest improper payment rates. Since 2008, Medicaid’s improper payment rate has averaged 8.4 percent, resulting in $161 billion worth of improper payments and accounting for more than 17 percent of all improper payments made by the federal government. Eliminating all of the waste, fraud, and abuse in just Medicaid (assuming a continued improper payment rate of the current 9.8 percent) would reduce the deficit by approximately 11.4 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent projections.

And this was five years ago. As a testament to the lack of interest in this issue, I did a search for “waste fraud and abuse in medicaid” on all the major search engines. Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo all yielded similar results, with the AAF article and a 2011 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures being the only ones of any substance. Yandex produced a couple of more hits, among them a Congressional bill from 1997 that aimed to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in Medicaid.

Searches of the same kind for other entitlement programs yield a slightly better crop of results, but not by much. Overall, the improper use of government funds is not something our politicians, think tanks and media pay that much attention to.

The one way, of course, to stop government waste, fraud and abuse is to end the welfare state. Its very structure, its very purpose, invites those immoral activities.

Economic Newsletter 25 2021

In this week’s issue of The Liberty Bullhorn Economic Newsletter we analyze the latest macroeconomic forecast from the Federal Reserve. We also place the latest Producer Price Index figures in the context of that forecast. Last but not least, we add our own near-term prediction of consumer prices for June and July.

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