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  • Archive for the 'Public Finance' Category

    There Is No Possible Reform for HUD

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 17th December 2016 (All posts by )

    “The Department of] Housing and Urban Development has done an enormous amount of harm. My god, if you think of the way in which they have destroyed parts of cities under the rubric of eliminating slums … there have been many more dwelling units torn down in the name of public housing than have been built.” ~ Milton Friedman, Interview, Hoover Institution, February 10, 1999

    President-elect Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is being criticized on the grounds that he lacks the requisite administrative experience. More likely, Carson’s affront was to question why HUD exists.

    Republican presidents have been ambivalent. Having bigger fish to fry, President Reagan appointed Sam Pierce HUD Secretary so that he could ignore it. George H.W. Bush repaid Jack Kemp’s political opposition by first making him HUD Secretary and then frustrating his attempts to eliminate the Department. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, appointed by George W., was allegedly focused on participating in the traditional kickback schemes while his Assistant Secretary for Housing pursued homeownership policies that contributed mightily to the financial crisis of 2008.

    Democratic presidents have used it as a platform to pursue other agendas. Jimmy Carter’s HUD Secretary Patricia Harris introduced Fannie Mae housing goals – quotas – as punishment for not appointing a woman to the Board of Directors. Between scandals, Clinton’s HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros promoted the homeownership goals that left both the financial system and the new mortgage borrowers bankrupt.

    HUD’s budget is relatively small as compared to other federal departments, but it has always punched far above its budget weight in destructive power. To put HUD’s annual budget of about $50 billion in perspective, the cost of the homeowner mortgage interest tax deduction is two to three times greater, but HUD’s “mission regulation” of financial institutions has given it influence or control over trillions more.

    The initial political interest in housing during the Great Depression was entirely Keynesian, i.e., related to the short-term potential to create jobs and relieve cyclical unemployment – the “infrastructure investments” of that era. The Democrat’s approach to construction, management, and allocation of public housing was generally implemented to benefit builders and rife with corruption. FHA and Fannie Mae were chartered mostly as off-balance sheet financial institutions to stimulate housing production on the cheap.

    The problem of urban development, as many politicians and urban analysts saw it in the 1960s, stemmed from the 1956 Eisenhower initiative to build highways financed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, a byproduct of which was that more affluent people commuted from the suburbs while leaving poorer families behind. The pursuit of the American Dream of homeownership left city administrations accustomed to cross-subsidizing municipal services in fiscal distress, creating a vicious cycle: as services declined, more affluent households moved out.

    The Housing and Urban Development Act in 1965 established HUD as a separate cabinet department as part of LBJ’s Great Society to give a greater priority to housing and urban issues. HUD inherited a mishmash of various New Deal federal programs, ranging from public rental housing to urban renewal, as well as financial oversight of FHA and Fannie Mae.

    Faced with steep “guns and butter” budget deficits, LBJ focused on ways to further encourage off-balance-sheet financing of housing construction through “public-private partnerships.” Republicans, led by Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, convinced by academic studies that the urban riots of the 1960s were the direct result of poor quality housing and the urban environment and by lobbyists for housing producers, supported the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. The “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” was first introduced in the 1949 Housing Act. Title XVI of the 1968 Act “Housing Goals and Annual Housing Report” introduced central planning without specifying the goals, a timetable for implementation, or a budget.

    In the late 1960s, the Weyerhaeuser Corporation produced a forecast of single-family housing production in the coming decade to assist with tree planting. Congressional math wizards divided the total forecast by 10 to produce HUD’s annual housing production goals for the nation. For the next decade, HUD Secretaries were annually paraded before their Senate oversight Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to explain why they did or did not meet these production goals.

    Republicans have historically supported rental housing vouchers for existing private rental units for privately built housing to minimize market distortions. Republican HUD Secretary Carla Hills in the Ford Administration pushed HUD’s Section 8 subsidies for existing housing – something arguably better administered as a negative income tax – as a political alternative to the Democrats’ push for a return to public housing construction. But as a further political compromise, the largely autonomous local public housing authorities would administer these vouchers, leading to the same concentration of crime and urban decay as public housing. To borrow a phrase from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “Republican social engineering” isn’t necessarily better than “Democratic social engineering.”

    The economic goals of “affordable” housing have generally been in direct conflict with urban development. When I proposed demolishing the worst public housing projects and redeveloping the land, using the proceeds to fund subsidies for existing private market housing (something partially achieved during the Reagan Administration), Clinton Administration officials scoffed at the idea.

    HUD combines socialist goals and fascist methods that seriously distort and undermine markets. There is neither market nor political discipline on the enormous scope of its activities. HUD met unfunded goals through financial coercion, undermining both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and their commercial banking competitors, with the collusion of the Senate Committee responsible for both financial and housing oversight, leading to the sub-prime lending debacle of 2008.

    There is no economic rationale for a federal role in housing or urban affairs in a market economy. HUD represents a continuing systemic threat for which there is no cure. May it RIP.

    Kevin Villani


    Kevin Villani

    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Politics, Public Finance, Real Estate, Urban Issues | 4 Comments »

    Can Donald Trump Prevent the Economy from Falling Into a Black Hole?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 13th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Interest rates will eventually rise without an even more devastating policy of financial repression. When they do, rising interest costs will produce a vicious cycle of ever more borrowing. We are already approaching the “event horizon” of spinning into this black hole of an inflationary spiral and economic collapse from which few countries historically have escaped. A substantially higher rate of growth is the only way to break free.

    National economic growth is typically measured by the growth of GDP, and citizen well being by the growth of per-capita GDP. The long run trend of GDP growth reflects labor force participation, hours worked and productivity as well as the rate of national saving and the productivity of investments, all of which have been trending down.

    The population grows at about 1% annually and actual GDP growth averaged 2% overall for 2010-2016 (using the new World Bank and IMF forecast of US GDP at 1.6% for 2016), hence per capita GDP grew at only 1%. Moreover the income from that 1% growth went primarily to the top one percent while 99% stagnated and minorities fell backwards.

    Why we are approaching the Event Horizon
    The Obama Administration annually predicted a more historically typical 2.6% per capita growth rate, consistent with the historical growth in non-farm labor productivity. How could their forecasts be so far off?

    The Obama Administration pursued the most massive Keynesian fiscal and monetary stimulus ever undertaken. Such a policy generally at least gives the appearance of a rise in well being in the near term, as the government GDP statistic (repetitive, as the word “statistic derives from the Greek word for “state” ) reflects final expenditures, thereby imputing equal value to what governments “spend” as to the discretionary spending of private households and businesses in competitive markets. But labor productivity gains stagnated at only about 1%, most likely reflecting the cost and uncertainty of anti-business regulatory and legislative policies that dampened investment, something the Administration denied, trumping even a short term boost to GDP.

    As a result the national debt approximately doubled from $10 trillion to $20 trillion, with contingent liabilities variously estimated from $100 to $200 trillion, putting the economy ever closer to the event horizon. Breaking free will require reversing the highly negative trends by reversing the policies that caused them.

    Technology alone isn’t sufficient
    Obama Administration apologists argued that stagnation is “the new normal” citing leading productivity experts such as Robert Gordon who dismissed the potential of new technologies. Many disagree, but Gordon’s findings imply even greater reliance on conventional reform.

    Fiscal policy won’t be sufficient
    Raising taxes may reduce short term deficits but slows growth. Cutting wasteful spending works better but is more difficult.

    The list of needed public infrastructure investments has grown since the last one trillion dollar “stimulus” of politically allocated and mostly wasteful pork that contributed to the stagnation of the last eight years. Debt financed public infrastructure investment contributes to growth only if highly productive investments are chosen over political white elephants like California’s bullet train, always problematic.

    Major cuts in defense spending are wishful thinking as most geopolitical experts view the world today as a riskier place than at any prior time of the past century, with many parallels to the inter-war period 1919-1939.

    The major entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare for the elderly need reform. But for those in or near retirement the potential for savings is slight. Is Medicare really going to be withheld by death squads? Are benefits for those dependent on social security going to be cut significantly, forcing the elderly back into the labor force? Cutting Medicare or SS benefits for those with significant wealth – the equivalent of a wealth tax – won’t affect their consumption, hence offsetting the fall in government deficits with an equal and offsetting liquidation of private wealth. Prospective changes for those 55 years of age or younger should stimulate savings and defer retirement, improving finances only in the long run.

    The remaining bureaucracies are in need of major pruning and in numerous cases elimination but they evaded even budget scold David Stockman’s ax during the Reagan Administration.

    Americans will have to work more and consume less
    That is the typical progressive economic legacy of excessive borrowing from the future.

    The first Clinton Administration created the crony capitalist coalition of the political elite and the politically favored, e.g., public sector employees and retirees, subsidy recipients and low income home loan borrowers. The recent Clinton campaign promised to broaden this coalition, which would have accelerated the trip over the event horizon.

    Reform that taxes consumption in favor of savings and a return to historical real interest rates could reverse the dramatic decline of the savings rate. Regulations redirecting savings to politically popular housing or environmental causes need to be curtailed in favor of market allocation to productive business investment.

    Repeal and replace of Obama Care could reverse the trend to part time employment. Unwinding the approximate doubling of SS Disability payments and temporary unemployment benefits could reverse the decline in labor force participation.

    Service sector labor productivity has been falling since 1987, the more politically favored the faster the decline. Legal services are at the bottom, partly reflecting political power of rent-seeking trial lawyers, followed by unionized health and then educational services. Union favoritism through, e.g., Davis Bacon wage requirements and “card check” increases rent seeking, particularly rampant in the unionized public sector.

    Competition, of which free but reciprocal trade has historically been a major component, has traditionally provided the largest boost to well being by realizing the benefits of foreign productivity in a lower cost of goods while channeling American labor into employment where their relative productivity is highest. The transition is often painful, but paying people not to work long term is counterproductive. Immigration of both highly skilled and low cost labor (but not dependent family) generally contributes to per capita labor productivity in the same way as free trade.

    None of this will be easy. The alternative is Greece without the Mediterranean climate or a sufficiently rich benefactor.

    —-

    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    Posted in Big Government, Current Events, Economics & Finance, Politics, Predictions, Public Finance, Trump | 13 Comments »

    A Really Big Short Still Awaits

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 24th September 2016 (All posts by )

    When testifying in 2010 before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission into the financial crash, then Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke recommended only one reference, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (2009), presumably for the narrative that insufficient money printing in the aftermath of the Great War lead to the next one. Right idea, wrong narrative!

    The US homeownership rate peaked at a rate well above the current level almost a half century ago mostly funded by a system of private mutual savings banks and savings and loans. The historical justification for federal “secondary market” agencies was political expediency – exemption from now obsolete federal, state and local laws and regulations inhibiting a national banking and mortgage market. Now government-run enterprises account for about 90% of all mortgages, with the Fed their primary funding mechanism, what the Economist recently labeled a de facto nationalization.

    The Historical Evolution

    How did the private US housing finance system repeatedly go bankrupt? To quote Hemingway: Gradually, then suddenly. The two competing political narratives of the cause of financial market crises remain at the extremes – either a private market or public political failure – with diametrically opposite policy prescriptions. The politician-exonerating market failure narrative has not surprisingly dominated policy, with past compromises contributing to the systemic financial system failure, the global recession of 2008 and subsequent nationalization.

    The Great Depression stressed the S&L system, but the industry’s vigorous opposition to both federal deposit insurance and the Fannie Mae secondary market proved prescient as the federally chartered savings and loan industry eventually succumbed by 1980 to the federal deposit insurer’s perverse politically imposed mandate of funding fixed rate mortgages with short term deposits and competition from the government sponsored enterprises.

    The S&Ls were largely replaced by the commercial banks. To make banks competitive with Fannie and Freddie, politicians and regulators allowed virtually the same extreme leverage, in return for a comparable low-income lending mandate – CRA requirements leading to a market dominating $4 trillion in commitments to community groups to whom the Clinton Administration had granted virtual veto power over new branch and merger authority.

    The Financial Crisis of 2008 and the aftermath

    The Big Short by Michael Lewis and more recent movie portrayed not just banker greed but the extreme frustration of those shorting the US mortgage market stymied by a housing price bubble many times greater than any in recorded US history that refused to burst. The reasons: 1. the Fed kept rates low and money plentiful, and 2. whereas banks would have run out of funding capacity, the ability of Fannie and Freddie to continuously borrow at the Treasury’s cost of funds regardless of risk and their HUD Mission Regulator requirement to maintain a 50% market share kept the bubble inflating to systemic proportions.

    The Obama Administration fully embraced the alternative private market failure narrative in Fed policy, regulation and legislation:

    • To partially ameliorate the effects on the real economy of disruption to the global payments mechanism the Fed had to bail out the banking system. QE1/2/3/4 and ZIRP (zero rates), now NIRP, did this by re-inflating the house price bubble, postponing defaults while allowing banks risk-free profits. The Fed – and taxpayers – would lose more than the entire S&L industry did should rates rise by a comparable amount if it marked its balance sheet to market.
    • Regulators had to appear to punish the banks. In response to paying hundreds of billions of dollars in what the Economist labeled “extortion” – some of which ironically went to populist political action groups – and the subsequent oppressive regulatory regime, U.S. commercial banks are exiting the US mortgage market in spite of ongoing profits enabled by extreme leverage.
    • One legislative centerpiece, the Dodd Frank Act passed in July 2010 in direct response to the financial crisis, doubled down on political control of financial markets without addressing the future of Fannie and Freddie. The other, Obamacare, enacted four months earlier, was similarly premised on regulating private health insurers to make health insurance simultaneously cheaper and more widely available.

    The Long Term Consequences

    Bernanke’s focus on choosing the narrative was useful, but the political choice of the market failure narrative appears to reflect convenience rather than conviction. The direct taxpayer costs of implicit or explicit public insurance and guarantees come with both a whimper – tax savings amounting to tens of billions annually due to the deductibility of interest costs – and a bang – future taxpayer bailouts generally delivered off-budget.

    Fannie and Freddie conservatorship deftly avoided debt consolidation while dividends reduced reported federal deficits. The student loan market has also been de facto nationalized, with potential unbudgeted losses totaling hundreds of billions. Obamacare was similarly premised on regulating private health insurers to make health insurance simultaneously cheaper and more widely available, but under-budgeted health insurance subsidies predictable caused massive losses and health insurers are now withdrawing from the market.

    Monetary policies caused household savings to stagnate as returns to retirement savings evaporated. Defined obligation public pension funds were all rendered technically insolvent when funding is valued at current market returns rather than the assumed rate as much as ten times that. The failure of the economy to grow per capita was explained as the “new normal”. But politicians made no attempt to reflect the implied technically insolvency of public pensions or Social Security and Medicare.

    Private firms fail, but private markets rarely do. Public protection and regulation makes firms “too big to fail” until markets fail systemically. The current and projected future public debt bubble is unsustainable, and financial markets will eventually ignore the accounting deceptions and pop it. The relative weakness of other sovereign debt is delaying the inevitably, making The Really Big Short a good title for a Michael Lewis’s sequel. Politicians and central bankers will again say “nobody saw this coming”. What then?

    ====
    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath. This article was originally published at FFE.org

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Markets and Trading, Predictions, Public Finance, Real Estate, Systems Analysis | 21 Comments »

    What has happened to Venezuela?

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 21st May 2016 (All posts by )

    venzuela

    Venezuela is in the news as the country cannot even buy paper to print money.

    This all goes back to 1998 when Chavez was elected by the people.

    He was an army officer and had previously attempted to overthrow the government, a coup that failed.

    in the early 1980s. Chávez led the MBR-200 in an unsuccessful coup d’état against the Democratic Action government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, for which he was imprisoned. Released from prison after two years, he founded a political party known as the Fifth Republic Movement and was elected president of Venezuela in 1998.

    Venezuela is an example of The Curse of Natural Resources.

    The idea that resources might be more of an economic curse than a blessing began to emerge in debates in the 1950s and 1960s about the economic problems of low and middle-income countries.[3] The term resource curse was first used by Richard Auty in 1993 to describe how countries rich in mineral resources were unable to use that wealth to boost their economies and how, counter-intuitively, these countries had lower economic growth than countries without an abundance of natural resources. An influential study by Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner found a strong correlation between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth.

    Venezuela is only the latest and worst example. The history is depressingly familiar.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, International Affairs, Leftism, Public Finance | 55 Comments »

    “THE 30-SECOND GUIDE TO GOVERNMENT SPENDING”

    Posted by Jonathan on 9th May 2016 (All posts by )


    View post on imgur.com

    (Via Dan Mitchell: Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and Other People’s Money – well worth reading.)

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Political Philosophy, Public Finance | 3 Comments »

    Government, the things we do together.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 6th April 2016 (All posts by )

    cal

    Barack Obama is fond of describing government this way.

    As President Obama said the other day, those who start businesses succeed because of their individual initiative – their drive, hard work, and creativity. But there are critical actions we must take to support businesses and encourage new ones – that means we need the best infrastructure, a good education system, and affordable, domestic sources of clean energy. Those are investments we make not as individuals, but as Americans, and our nation benefits from them.

    That was a reaction to Romney’s criticism of his silly comment.

    I prefer the quote attributed to Washington.

    “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

    Now, we see a new imposition.

    The Department of Labor says its so-called fiduciary rule will make financial advisers act in the best interests of clients. What Labor doesn’t say is that the rule carries such enormous potential legal liability and demands such a high standard of care that many advisers will shun non-affluent accounts. Middle-income investors may be forced to look elsewhere for financial advice even as Team Obama is enabling a raft of new government-run competitors for retirement savings. This is no coincidence.

    Labor’s new rule will start biting in January as the President is leaving office. Under the rule, financial firms advising workers moving money out of company 401(k) plans into Individual Retirement Accounts will have to follow the new higher standards. But Labor has already proposed waivers from the federal Erisa law so new state-run retirement plans don’t have the same regulatory burden as private employers do.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Public Finance | 7 Comments »

    Who’s More Fascist: Presidential Candidate Donald Trump or Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 19th March 2016 (All posts by )

    How Economists Facilitated the Transition of Erstwhile “Market” Economies to Fascism

    The Left calls Donald Trump a fascist invoking the memory of Hitler and Mussolini, to which Trump might reply: “they were losers; I’m no loser.” Fascism is in essence the political control of the private economy, historically justified by democratically elected leaders to defend against perceived or orchestrated external threats. Progressive war politicians from Presidents Wilson and FDR to Johnson and Obama and now candidate Clinton have pursued this same goal in the US as has the social democratic European Union.

    At the recent meeting of the G20 leaders and central bankers political responsibility for and control over their respective economies was assumed, but their Alfred E. Newman “what, me worry” smiling faces belie the fragility of the current global economy. The political distortions to both the financial and real economy have arguably never been greater, to which politicians and their economist enablers prescribe more of the same mostly wasteful public spending financed by money printing, a cure reminiscent of medieval bloodletting.

    Having never been of much use to business, economists mostly followed “Say’s Law” that supply creates its own demand (for academic economists). They got their first pervasive shot at political power when President Wilson – an academic who chafed at constitutional constraints – created the Federal Reserve which helped US bankers fund the Allies until he could mobilize a war economy, making the first WW “Great.” The unprecedented death and destruction of the Great War knocked the global economy off kilter and the massive international war debts made stabilization politically difficult. As the creditor and least damaged victor, the US economy boomed in the roaring ’20s, followed by a bust.

    Purveyors of the “dismal science” had previously counseled that politicians had to own up to the cost of war until the private economy recovered. While the “arts” of manipulating the value of currency and public spending financed by coercive taxes and often uncollectable debt as well as coercive regulation were as old as politics and war itself, post WW I economists became noticeably less “dismal” and purportedly more “scientific,” believing that such “macroeconomic” interventions could be calibrated to “tame business cycles” in part by transferring or defaulting on war debts. This was complemented by “microeconomic science,” the recent objective of which has been to prove that individuals aren’t always perfectly rational (and by inference in need of paternalistic political protection and direction). Macroeconomists contend that this psychological defect is contagious, conjuring irrational mobs running on banks (or attending Trump rallies).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Public Finance, Trump | 5 Comments »

    In Defense of Wall Street A**holes

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 11th February 2016 (All posts by )

    Long time Democrat turned Republican Donald Trump, who as a business titan relied more than any of his opponents on “Wall Street” funding, decisively won the Republican primary. In sharp contrast, socialist Bernie Sanders decisively won the New Hampshire Democrat primary by attacking his opponent’s Wall Street ties. Trump supporters apparently believe that the way to deal with Wall Street a**holes is a bigger a**hole who will negotiate much better deals, whereas Sanders supporters believe that “Wall Street (a synonym for the entire US financial system) is a fraud” requiring major extractive surgery.

    Most people within the NY financial community including the numerous mid-town asset management firms agree that many Wall Street players were a**holes during the sub-prime lending debacle leading to the 2008 financial crisis, but surely the Sanders pitchfork brigade wouldn’t travel uptown. This may explain why among the thousands of books and articles written in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Wall Street hasn’t defended itself and has found few defenders willing to go public.

    Truth be told, Wall Street has always attracted more than its share of greedy a**holes. But historically they discriminated against the less profitable investments in favor of those that had the highest return potential relative to risk. This represented the brains of a heartless US capitalist system. Defenders of capitalism correctly argue that it is the only economic system at the base of all human economic progress, however unequally distributed. Progressive critics argue for greater equality, the poor made poorer so long as the better off are equally so (although this is not the way it is typically represented).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Markets and Trading, Politics, Predictions, Public Finance, Trump | 6 Comments »

    The Most Important Story No One Is Talking About – Puerto Rican Debt

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 15th October 2015 (All posts by )

    Dan and I go back and forth on the relatively arcane topic of municipal debt. As we all know, the state of Illinois is awash in debt. The situation is so bad that:


    1. The State of Illinois is operating without a budget

    2. The city of Chicago is proposing a massive property tax increase

    3. Cook County just raised our sales tax (one of the highest rates in the country, already) and is proposing additional fees

    4. Chicago Public Schools face a major deficit and without some sort of massive state tax relief is likely going to face significant layoffs and a likely teachers strike

    5. Note that we are one of the few states and cities to be in such dire straits that we issue TAXABLE debt instead of MUNICIPAL debt which is generally exempt from Federal taxes and some state taxes. This is due to the fact that you generally cannot issue muni bonds to pay off operating expenses (like payroll and legal settlements)

    The long term most indebted players have been Detroit, Puerto Rico, and the State of Illinois / City of Chicago. We saw how the Detroit bankruptcy occurred, with bondholders generally taking it on the chin and unsecured pension holders in fact emerging in a relatively better situation.

    Now Puerto Rico is up to bat. They have massive, unpayable debts of many varieties (some secured by full faith and credit, some secured with revenues, some bank loans, etc…) and their governor basically said so out loud. All of this is inevitable as their island’s best talent has fled to the mainland USA and the remaining population is more and more reliant on government aid to survive. They also have failed to modernize their power infrastructure and / or build new industries outside of tourism which erodes their ability to compete against the mainland USA that in turn has much higher productivity.

    The real issue – long term – is whether or not the Federal government will back up the states. This is essentially the “long game” of the State of Illinois and the city of Chicago – waiting to see whether or not the Federal government is really going to stand by and let us go bankrupt or not. If the government is ultimately going to pick up our debts, it is “business as usual”, and the corruption, back-scratching, and non-competitive behavior can just continue indefinitely, with taxpayers across the nation picking up the debris rather than forcing the citizens of Illinois to clean up our act.

    Today Puerto Rico and the treasury announced that they are working to backstop the Puerto Rican debt with some sort of Federal umbrella per this article.

    Puerto Rico and U.S. officials are discussing the issuance of a “superbond” administered by the U.S. Treasury Department that would help restructure the commonwealth’s $72 billion of debt, people familiar with the plan said.

    And what a great name! A “superbond” means that all the US citizens will pick up the “super” obligations of our corrupt, crony-laden, inefficient city and state. That’s super!

    This is the path out for Illinois and the city of Chicago. Play brinksmanship with Federal government and receive a backstop. Puerto Rico leads the way!

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Politics, Public Finance, Taxes | 15 Comments »

    Risk: An Allegory

    Posted by Jonathan on 26th August 2015 (All posts by )

    Here’s an interesting article on CNBC’s website: Katrina anniversary: Will New Orleans levees hold next time?

    The 100-year threshold is also a statistical guess based on data on past storms and assessments of whether they’ll occur in the future. That means the models change every time a new hurricane strikes. The numbers being used as guidelines for construction are changing as time passes.
     
    The standard also does not mean—can’t possibly mean—that a 100-year storm will occur only once per century. It means that such a storm has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. So for example, it’s technically possible for several 100-year floods to occur in just a few years, although it’s highly unlikely.

    One way to look at it is that the engineers need to estimate how high a wall New Orleans needs to protect itself against a reasonably unlikely flood — say, a 1-in-1000-year event. This is the line of discussion pursued in the CNBC article.

    Another way to look at it is to observe that the odds of another Katrina, or worse, within a specified period are highly uncertain. In this case a radical course of action might be called for. You do something like: take the best estimate for the wall height needed to protect against a 1000-year flood and then double it. Building such a levee would probably be extremely expensive but at least the costs would be out in the open. Or you might decide that it’s not the best idea to have a coastal city that’s below sea level, and so you would discourage people from moving back to New Orleans, rather than encourage them by subsidizing a new and stronger system of walls.

    In this kind of situation the political incentives are usually going to encourage public decisionmakers to ignore radical solutions with high obvious costs, in favor of the minimum acceptable incremental solution with hidden costs: probably subsidies to rebuild the levees to, or perhaps a bit beyond, the standard needed to protect the city in the event of another Katrina. And it’s unlikely that any local pol is going to advise residents to move out and depopulate his constituency. Thus, eventually, a worst case will probably happen again.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Environment, Human Behavior, Markets and Trading, New Orleans Tragedy, Predictions, Public Finance, Statistics, Systems Analysis, Tradeoffs | 14 Comments »

    Greece is going aglimmering.

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 5th July 2015 (All posts by )

    Greeks

    I’ve been planning trip to Greece for months. Back in January, I decided to wait until the Greek monetary crisis was closer to resolution. Finally in May, I made reservations for September. I even posted my plans here.

    Well, today it may be all going glimmering. The Greeks have apparently voted NO to the EU deal.

    Greece has overwhelmingly rejected Europe’s latest bailout package, plunging the country’s future in the Eurozone into jeopardy.

    With most of the votes counted in a referendum that will shape the future of the continent, the ‘No’ campaign has a staggering 61 per cent of the vote – 22 points ahead.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called for an EU crisis summit to find a ‘solution’ for Greece, with leaders set to meet in Brussels on Tuesday.
    Thousands of anti-austerity voters took to the streets in celebration as the leader of the pro-EU ‘Yes’ campaign resigned, with an official announcement of the final result imminent.
    But German politicians warned of ‘disaster’ as they accused Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of ‘tearing down bridges’ between Greece and Europe.

    Now what ?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Current Events, Europe, Leftism, Public Finance | 32 Comments »

    Random Thought

    Posted by Jonathan on 27th June 2015 (All posts by )

    The Supreme Court and Federal Reserve are corrupt in the same way. Both institutions defer excessively to legislative and regulatory agendas instead of sticking to their respective mandates.

    (Re: Judicial Restraint.)

    Posted in Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Law, Organizational Analysis, Political Philosophy, Politics, Public Finance, Tea Party | 6 Comments »

    Economic and Political Turmoil a Century after the Great War: Is it Deja Vu All Over Again?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 17th October 2014 (All posts by )

    This year marks a century since the outbreak of WW I and coincidently the initiation of US Federal Reserve System operations. Prior to these events, politics were democratizing, economic growth was booming, economies were liberalizing and global trade and finance were growing, all at a pace not seen again for almost another century. Recognizing that achieving these mutual benefits required an externally imposed political discipline, all of the countries participating in this happy situation voluntarily followed a set of rules governing domestic and international trade and finance for automatic and continuous adjustment to changing economic reality, then provided by the gold standard.

    It was during this enlightened period that philosopher George Santayana wrote: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hedge fund manager and Brookings Director Liaquat Ahamed set out to remind us why countries failed to recapture this economic dynamism after the Great War with the publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World in 2009. This book took on greater significance when in 2010 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke recommended only this historical account in response to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s request for a book reference explaining the 2008 financial crisis. What history had this most recent financial crisis already repeated and what was Chairman Bernanke determined to avoid repeating in the aftermath?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Current Events, Economics & Finance, History, Public Finance, Systems Analysis | 6 Comments »

    Incentives and Economics

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th July 2014 (All posts by )

    A few years ago I went to Norway and had a great time. In this post I described how expensive everything was in Norway due to their highly valued currency (tied to oil riches) combined with the relentless decline of the US dollar (tied to ZIRP and other dubious economic moves). In the simplest terms, a fast food meal or a beer in Norway cost over $20 USD which is complete madness.

    Business Insider discussed the Scandinavian economic experiment, where high taxes are applied to goods and services in order to fund a vast social safety net. From the article:

    In Norway, a burger and fries at a fast food joint will set you back $23. A six-pack of warm grocery-store beer is nearly $30.
    These hefty price tags are due, in part, to high wages for low-skilled service jobs. But high taxes play a role too.
    Most products have a 25 percent value-added tax, which means that $5.50 of the cost of that burger goes to fund Norway’s generous social programs.
    As a visitor, you get little for the added price. But, as a resident, your daily spending helps to fund an expansive package of benefits, including health care, child care, high-quality education, pensions, and unemployment insurance.

    Some are now proposing this high-cost method, with large taxes embedded in everyday prices, as a solution to the inequity in incomes and wealth that is discussed widely in politics and economics today.

    From the perspective of someone who is highly interested in economics and tax policy, my two rules of thumb are:
    1) that the tax policy raise the money that it intends to raise
    2) that the tax policy not significantly distort economic activity

    Any society that implements high taxes such as Norway needs a comprehensive surveillance model in order to collect these taxes. It is difficult to avoid taxes that are broadly assessed on fast food, for instance, because each corporate location will set up cash registers and controls to remit these taxes onto the state. The same types of processes can be installed in liquor stores, formal bars and nightclubs, grocery stores, and restaurants.

    In a less-homogeneous society such as the USA, we already have major problems with tax evasion on cigarettes and likely liquor, and these are in responses to our sales taxes. The problems would be compounded if we placed value added taxes on all goods at a higher level and on services such as restaurants, hair care, etc… Smuggling would become rampant and informal or barter methodologies would increase in size and scope. These sorts of costs would have to be applied across the USA or some areas would become uncompetitive and see an out-migration of economic activity, starting with incremental additions (no one has opened a new manufacturing plant in Illinois in years, for instance) and eventually leading to the lock, stock and barrel out migration of existing industries (such as the exodus of car manufacturing out of the Midwest and California to the American South).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Public Finance, Taxes | 33 Comments »

    Emmanuel Todd, Speaking in English, on Why the Euro is a Failure

    Posted by Lexington Green on 9th July 2014 (All posts by )

    Todd applies his family structure analytic model to explain why the Euro is doomed to fail. He notes that the French and the Germans, for example, have little in common. He expressly says that the French individualism is much closer to the Anglo-American individualistic culture, distinct from the German authoritarian style. He says that the French elite caused the problem and they cannot admit their mistake or the entire foundation of the French political structure would collapse.

    The European idea of a union of free and equal states has been destroyed by the Euro, and it is now an economic hierarchy, with the Germans at the top. Further, democracy itself is incompatible with the Euro.

    Todd notes that the very low birth rates in Europe have a positive benefit: There will be no open or violent conflict to resolve the current political conflicts. Rather, contentious issues are kicked up to the “European level” — which means nothing whatsoever will happen.

    He sympathizes with the British position. Britain is dependent on a dying content, Europe. “It is committing suicide under German leadership.” But Britain is part of a much larger Anglo-American world, which in ten years, on current trends, will have more people than all of Europe.

    Of course, America 3.0 is based in large part on a “Toddean” understanding of American culture, and this talk is consistent with our understanding.

    A fascinating talk.

    H/t Brian Micklethwait

    Posted in America 3.0, Anglosphere, Economics & Finance, Europe, France, Public Finance, Video | 3 Comments »

    Posted by Jonathan on 19th June 2014 (All posts by )

    canned gold

    After Janet Yellen’s latest press conference Chicagoboyz plunge heavily in canned kipper snacks and other hard assets.

    Posted in Photos, Public Finance, That's NOT Funny | 6 Comments »

    Picketty’s Introduction

    Posted by TM Lutas on 9th June 2014 (All posts by )

    Thomas Piketty has written a monster of a book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I find myself in strange agreement with Brad DeLong, that the collective conservative response is weak. I had a patch of time that left me twiddling my thumbs waiting for some pretty long database operations to finish over the past four days. So I went and decided to fisk the book. I just finished the introduction. It took four posts, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and overran the spare time I had available from a database import and indexing task by about 12 hours.

    Now I know why the criticism is so weak. Piketty is a target rich environment and doing a line by line analysis is simply exhausting. But it’s the only way to be sure.

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Economics & Finance, Public Finance, Society, Taxes, USA | 18 Comments »

    “Death Stars are overrated military investments”

    Posted by Jonathan on 27th April 2014 (All posts by )

    Via J. Scott Shipman and Grurray on Twitter:

    Real-life performance data shows that the most important and high-impact technologies are not the gold-plated, over-engineered wonder weapons that turn majors into colonels, colonels into generals, and young Jedi apprentices into Sith Lords. Instead, data suggest the real winners are humble, simple, low-cost products made by small, rapid innovation teams — the type of projects that don’t attract much attention from the press or from the brass because all they do is get the mission done without any fuss.

    Read the whole thing.

    Posted in Management, Military Affairs, Public Finance, Systems Analysis | 34 Comments »

    Income inequality: Social justice or crony capitalism?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 26th April 2014 (All posts by )

    The political movement Occupy Wall Street has shaped the tax and spending proposals of the Obama administration’s budget and political debate on the premise that our capitalist economic system is rigged to favor the top-earning “one percenters.” But income inequality can result either from capitalism or politics, each for better or worse.

    Historically, political elites focused on enriching themselves at the expense of the general public: In 1773 patriots threw the tea into Boston Harbor of the East India Tea Company, granted a “royal charter” in 1600. The U.S. system was founded not just on the principles of democracy but on limited government complementing private market capitalism that encouraged individuals to “pursue happiness” — accumulate wealth — on merit rather than political connections. Support for the less fortunate was provided by family members, religious and other charitable organizations.

    Believing (wrongly) that class envy against the new economic elites — innovative entrepreneurs — would cause revolution, Karl Marx offered the socialist alternative “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” with politics supplanting merit. Despite totalitarian methods universally employed by governments seriously pursuing the socialist model leading to the murder of tens of millions, one historian recently concluded that communism reduced workers “to shiftless, work-shy alcoholics.”

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, History, Political Philosophy, Public Finance, Taxes | 15 Comments »

    “Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue”

    Posted by Jonathan on 9th December 2013 (All posts by )

    New from Kevin Villani: Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue: How Politicians Caused the Financial Crisis and Why their Reforms Failed, and the Kindle version: Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue

    (Kevin has shared on this blog a couple of prior works on the same subject. You can find those essays, and reader comments in response, here.)

    Posted in Big Government, Book Notes, Economics & Finance, Public Finance, Urban Issues | Comments Off on “Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue”

    “THE DANGER OF BALANCING THE BUDGET”

    Posted by Jonathan on 19th August 2013 (All posts by )

    Henry Meers:

    House Republicans have to learn and proclaim the basics of money and taxes because balancing the budget could be a disaster for the economy as even more money is pulled out of the productive economy to pay for their past sins. The best example of how to get out of debt remains what England did after Waterloo and the massive debt of the Napoleonic War. Parliament dumped the income tax immediately, returned to sound money in 1821 and went to free trade later. The economy exploded and led to a century of prosperity like none seen before. They didn’t pay off their wartime debts, a huge sum for the time, they froze it and paid interest. As time went by, that once inconceivable mountain of debt shrank to insignificance in the shadow of the world’s most powerful economy.

    He gets it. Economic growth is the solution to most of our problems. Growth requires investment capital. The less investment capital that gets diverted from the private sector into unproductive govt spending and misguided debt paydowns, the more growth there will be.

    Read the whole thing.

    (Via Lex.)

    Posted in America 3.0, Economics & Finance, Public Finance | 20 Comments »

    Citizen Intelligence curious fact of the day

    Posted by TM Lutas on 9th July 2013 (All posts by )

    During the process of putting together Citizen Intelligence, I sometimes run into some things that are quite simple, but are worth remarking on. I’ve decided to put them up here as an irregular series.

    Out of the ~89,000 governments in the United States, ~55,000 of them bond, or borrow money, about 61% of the total. That means 34,000 do not. Which of your governments live within their means and spend all their tax money on providing services and which of them have an invisible drain installed siphoning off unnecessary interest payments to Wall Street? How many of them could, with minimal inconvenience, add a few more percent in services or cut a few percent off their tax bills simply by not bonding or reducing their bonding to large capital items instead of borrowing for operations?

    Note: Updated to make it clear that this is not about the classic large capital expenditure items that most would agree are legitimate projects for bond financing but rather borrowing that could be foregone and where, in some jurisdictions, they manage their cash flow well enough to do without the borrowing.

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Public Finance | 3 Comments »

    Heed the Voices

    Posted by Lexington Green on 14th May 2013 (All posts by )

    IRS Intimidation Forced Founder to Shut Down Tea Party Group.

    Progressive Group: IRS Gave US Conservative Groups’ Confidential Documents.

    IG report: ‘Inappropriate Criteria’ Stalled IRS Approvals of Conservative Groups.

    During the 2012 election cycle the Internal Revenue Service did not act as an objective, nonpartisan arm of government subject to the rule of law.

    Instead the Internal Revenue service acted as an arm of the Democrat Party, engaged in harassment, intimidation and opposition research for partisan political purposes.

    The result of the most recent Presidential election, in the key state of Ohio, was impacted, possibly decisively, by this intentional, partisan, coordinated, unlawful activity.

    Yet this entity, the Internal Revenue Service, will imprison you if you disobey it.

    There are “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity … that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.”

    Heed the voices.

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Big Government, Crime and Punishment, Politics, Public Finance, Tea Party, USA | 6 Comments »

    “College Grads: It’s a Different Economy”

    Posted by Jonathan on 10th May 2013 (All posts by )

    This is very good:

    There are opportunities, but they require a deep understanding of risk and security. A livelihood with day-to-day low-level insecurity and volatility is actually far more stable and secure than the cartel-state one that claims to be guaranteed.
     
    The burdens of Fed manipulation and the cartel-state rentier arrangements will come home to roost between 2015-2017. Those who are willing to seek livelihoods in the non-cartel economy will likely have more security and satisfaction than those who believed that joining a rentier arrangement was a secure career.
     
    There is a price to joining a parasitic rentier arrangement, a loss of integrity, agency and independence. Complicity in an unsustainable neofeudal society has a cost.

    Read the whole thing.

    (Via Lex and ZeroHedge.)

    Posted in America 3.0, Big Government, Economics & Finance, Education, Political Philosophy, Predictions, Public Finance, Society, USA | 9 Comments »

    “Often, the insights of behavioral economics are used or misused to support this thesis.”

    Posted by Jonathan on 30th March 2013 (All posts by )

    Riffing on David Foster.

    It’s like how Keynes’s theory about liquidity traps is used to rationalize all kinds of govt spending programs, perhaps far beyond what Keynes himself would have advocated.

    1 Great man has a theory about a, b and c.

    2 Great man’s acolytes turn the theory into a dogma, religion and, eventually, industry.

    3 Politically savvy third parties with agendas use the theory to justify x, y and z.

    Posted in Human Behavior, Political Philosophy, Politics, Public Finance | 4 Comments »