Friday, December 18, 2009

Headlines of the Day: How Are Governments to Finance Themselves?

More and more attention is being directed toward the problems that governments are having with their financial situation. We have spent so much time this year discussing the problems in the financial industry, in housing, in credit cards, in consumer credit, in business bankruptcies, in debt-swaps, and in commercial real estate, that the plight of governments, other than the federal government, has taken a back seat.

Is 2010 to be dominated by the financial problems of government: federal, state, and local?

The cloud is certainly on the horizon.

Budget and debt problems on the national level have risen to prominence in the last few weeks. Just to list a few, you can start with Ireland, Greece, Spain, Mexico, and Dubai.

Yeah, and what about California and New York?

More and more we are hearing about the sagging prospects for the states and for cities and other local administrative units. See, for example, “States Scramble to Close New Budget Gaps” in the Wall Street Journal,

In almost all states, there is some kind of balanced budget requirement. This is also true of many local government bodies. This means that attempts must be made to bring budgets under control.

The problem is on the revenue side; funds are just not coming in at the rate even severely revised budget projections anticipated. And, all of these shortfalls cannot be filled by federal stimulus monies. Certainly some jobs, especially in education, were maintained by federal funds, but this source cannot be continually relied upon.

And, the situation is a cumulative one. Unemployment and non-existent economic growth have caused the revenues of these entities to slow down. This is resulting in more budget cuts, primarily in programs and layoffs which just exacerbate the problem in unemployment and slow economic growth. This in turn slows down the revenue flow even further. And, so on, and so on.

Just as businesses and households are doing, state and local governments are re-thinking what it is they do, what they can do, and how they are going to go about doing it. The de-leveraging and down-sizing are coming after 50 years or so of relatively constant expansion of budgets and programs.

The inflationary-bias that has existed in the United States for the last 50 years resulted in a very prosperous public sector to go along with the very prosperous private sector. As I have stated repeatedly in my posts over the last two years, inflation is wonderful for the creation of debt and for financial innovation, in the public sector, as well as in the private sector.

Ah, thank goodness for gambling, for it seems to be one of the “gap-filling moves” that states are relying on to replace revenue shortfalls. The problem with this is that “planned gambling expansions” are zero-sum games if people, on the whole, don’t increase their gambling activities. And, do we really want people to increase their gambling activities, especially at this time?

But, this leads us back to the federal sector. It seems as if future inflation is the only answer to the consequences of past inflation.

The latest official estimate for the federal deficit for 2010 is $1.5 trillion, up from 1.4 trillion the year before. Even scarier is that the Gross Federal Debt is projected to increase by $2.2 trillion this year, an increase of 18.6% from last year. Even shakier is that the public is supposed to absorb more of the increase in the federal debt than ever before: a rise of $2.0 trillion or 26.9% ahead of last year.

And, these budget figures don’t include the Pentagon “bill” that was passed yesterday with much pork and “earmarks”, buying things that the Pentagon didn’t even want! And, it doesn’t include the new Pelosi “jobs bill” which just passed the house last week. And, it doesn’t include real numbers for the health care legislation. Oh, yes, and where is the $100 billion going to come to help finance the climate concerns of the emerging or developing nations? This was just proposed two days ago. Also, where is the cost of the increased troop commitment to Afghanistan? And, there are four or five other things that could be included in this list.

Where are the funds going to come from to finance all of these expenditures?

In addition, we have a Federal Reserve System that is on the verge of “exiting” from the excessive liquidity that it has injected into the financial system over the past 15 months. The Fed has a portfolio of securities that amounts to $1.835 trillion. The composition of this portfolio is U. S. Treasury securities, $777 billion, Federal Agency securities, $158 billion, and Mortgage-Backed securities, $901 billion.

How is the government going to finance all of the new debt it must place on the market at the same time the Federal Reserve is trying to reduce the size of its balance sheet by selling off these securities?

Furthermore, the Congress is not going to be happy with the Fed selling securities to “exit” its current bloated balance sheet which will cause interest rates to rise at the same time that massive amounts of new federal debt is going to be hitting the financial markets.

Well, the Bernanke Fed is not independent of the government anyway.

So, inflation is the answer! Bring it on!

The interesting thing about the international concern over the financial health of the nations is that the value of the United States dollar has risen. International finance seems to be saying that maybe things in the United States are not that bad when you consider the state of other nations in the world.

As I wrote above, maybe in 2010 a lot more of the concern in credit markets will be with the status of government budgets and government debts. The question then becomes, how long can governments continue to bail out other governments? Maybe as long as some governments can still print money.

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