Insufficient Spending Cuts triggers S&P Downgrade, not Insufficient Taxes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 6th, 2011

Ah, the Good Old Days when Communists didn’t school Americans in Capitalism

It happened.  S&P downgraded the U.S.  Just like they said they would if we didn’t make $4 trillion in spending cuts.  And our patron is not pleased (see China attacks US debt ‘addiction’ after America loses AAA credit rating by Richard Blackden posted 8/6/2011 on The Telegraph).

“The US government has to come to terms with the painful fact that the good old days when it could just borrow its way out of messes of its own making are finally gone,” China said in a commentary carried by the Xinhua News Agency.

Ouch.  Strong words from a communist.  The Soviet Union never gave us lessons in capitalism when there was a Soviet Union.  Then again, we always had a AAA bond rating back then.  And their GDP growth wasn’t greater than ours.  Ah, the good old days.  When communists didn’t school Americans in capitalism.

Vince Cable, the British Business Secretary, said the downgrade was an “entirely predictable consequence of the mess that the Congress created a few weeks ago when they couldn’t agree on lifting the debt ceiling.”

Francois Baroin, France’s finance minister, said his country had total confidence in the US economy, while India called the “situation was grave” and Russia said it would keep the level of dollar investments in its national reserve funds, adding: “There is not a great difference between AAA and AA+.”

Those are some very supportive words from the Russians.  Which differ slightly from previous remarks when Putin said, “They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar.”  It’s subtle but it’s there.  On the one hand the downgrade is no big deal.  On the other we’re the scum of the earth.  It’s subtle but there is a distinct difference in these statements.  They resent us.  But they can’t live without us.  Kind of sweet.  In a bitter way.

In an explanation of the decision, S&P said that despite last week’s agreement, which raised the $14.3trillion debt ceiling and promised cuts of $2.5 trillion to the deficit over the next decade, the ratio of America’s public debt to the size of its economy may climb to 79pc in 2015 and 85pc by 2021. It is understood that an agreement that had delivered a $4 trillion reduction in the debt pile would have preserved the AAA rating.

S&P downgraded us, of course, for having too much debt.  Now debt grows from having annual deficits.  And deficits are caused by either taxing too little.  Or by spending too much.  S&P wanted to see the debt reduced by $4 trillion.  They only got $2.5 trillion.  Hence the downgrade. 

You can’t Reduce the Debt $4 Trillion by Raising Taxes, at least not Mathematically

Reducing the debt by $4 trillion won’t be easy.  That’s a lot of money.  About $333 billion each month.  Current tax revenue into Washington is about $200 billion each month.  So, to get this $4 trillion in deficit reduction with new taxes only would require raising monthly tax revenue from $200 billion to $533 billion (an increase of 166%).  Increasing taxes by 166% (income taxes, payroll taxes, capital gains taxes, etc.) is going to do some devastating economic damage.  The kind the economy is not going to get up and walk away from.  So it’s a non-solution.

But what about a balanced approach?  In addition to that $2.5 trillion in cuts we throw in $1.5 trillion in new taxes for a total $4 trillion in debt reduction.  $1.5 trillion is about $125 billion each month.  This would increase monthly tax revenue from $200 billion to $325 billion (an increase of 65%).  This will also do some serious economic damage.  So it’s a non-solution, too.

And sticking it to the ‘rich’ won’t work either.  For they can’t afford it.  Let’s look at the numbers.  The total adjusted gross income reported in 2009 was $7.626 trillion.  The percent of that total earned by the top 5% earners (earning $159,619 or more) is 31%.  So the total income of the top 5% in 2009 is $2.36 trillion.  Total federal income taxes paid in 2009 was $1.05 trillion.  The top 5% of earners pay 59% of all federal income taxes.  So the total they paid in income taxes in 2009 is $570 billion.  This leaves a balance of $1.79 trillion of their earnings they didn’t pay in federal income taxes, or about $150 billion each month.  Which is not enough to pay an additional $333 billion each month.  But it is enough to pay an additional $125 billion each month.  As long as these people are willing to pay an effective federal income tax rate of 87.6%.  Which I doubt.  For another 12.4% in taxes (state, country, local, property, gas, sales, etc.) and they’re working for free.  Like a slave.  Only without the free room and board.

You can’t reduce the debt enough by raising taxes a lot.  Or a little.  The rich people (those earning $159,619 or more) will run out of earnings before they can pay the $4 trillion in debt reduction.  It’s just mathematically impossible.  The only way you can do this is by cutting spending.  And they didn’t.  Hence the downgrade.

Paul Krugman ‘defends’ Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s Deficits

Meanwhile, while the S&P tragedy unfolds, Paul Krugman ‘defends’ Ronald Reagan‘s and George W. Bush‘s deficits.  Saying that big deficits aren’t a big deal.  And we don’t have to knock ourselves out trying to pay down the debt they create.  For depreciation of the dollar makes those once large numbers become trivial (see The Arithmetic of Near-term Deficits and Debt by Paul Krugman posted 8/6/2011 on The New York Times).

What matters for debt sustainability is the real interest rate, since what matters is keeping real debt, not nominal debt, from growing. (World War II debt never got paid off, it just eroded in real terms to the point where it was trivial). As of yesterday, the US government could lock in 30-year bonds at a real interest rate of 1.25%. That means that a trillion dollars in extra debt would mean $12.5 billion a year in additional real interest payments.

Meanwhile, the CBO estimates potential real GDP in 2021 at about $18 trillion in 2005 dollars, or around $19 trillion in 2011 dollars.

Put these together, and they say that an extra trillion in borrowing adds something like 0.07% of GDP in future debt service costs. Yes, that zero belongs there. The $4 trillion S&P said it needed to see clocks in at less than 0.3% of GDP.

Of course I’m extrapolating his remarks to apply them to the Reagan and Bush deficits.  For if they hold for a $1.6 trillion dollar deficit then they surely hold for a $200 billion (Reagan) and a $400 billion deficit (Bush).  The key is to make that old debt worth less by making the dollar worth less.  The more you devalue the dollar the less that debt held by the Chinese is worth.  As well as the debt held by pension funds and retirement accounts.  And our personal savings.  For inflation is a killer of dollar-denominated assets.  Which is good for the debtor (the seller of treasuries).  But bad for the creditor (the buyer of treasuries).

Further extrapolating Krugman’s remarks one must conclude that with the deficit being trivial he would endorse the economic boom of the Eighties.  And agree that Reaganomics was a success.  For the argument has always been that Reaganomics traded exceptional GDP growth for deficits.  But with deficits being trivial, there is no tradeoff for that exceptional GDP growth.

To Live within our Means we will have to Cut Spending 

True, inflation will make bonds easier to redeem 30 years later.  But too much inflation causes a lot of damage.  Especially to those living on fixed incomes.  No, a better solution would be to live within our means.  And that doesn’t mean raising taxes.  Besides, the rich don’t have much left to give.  No, if we’re going to live within our means we will have to cut spending.  As painful as that may be.  And the longer we wait to make those cuts the more painful those cuts will be.

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Raising the Debt Ceiling may be Worse than Default

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 30th, 2011

Despite U.S. Debt Crisis, U.S. still the World’s Safe Asset of Choice

As Congress debates over the debt ceiling…blah blah blah…Armageddon.  Funny thing is, the U.S. debt problem is not that bad.  When compared to the debt problem in Europe (see Err, over here by Schumpeter posted 7/29/2011 on The Economist).

AS THE August 2nd deadline for a resolution of America’s debt-ceiling row approaches, other news is being drowned out. America’s debt debacle provokes rubber-necking fascination but the euro crisis is still the bigger threat to financial stability.

The chances (admittedly diminishing with time) are that America will get its house in order and avoid default; and that a ratings downgrade will happen but not threaten the pre-eminence of Treasuries as the world’s safe asset of choice. In contrast, the euro area’s crisis is already in full swing and policymakers, as this week’s issue of The Economist makes plain, have not found a way to stop it.

Things are worse in the European Union.  Especially the Eurozone.  And though Armageddon is at hand in the U.S., we’re still the “world’s safe asset of choice.”  So the end of the world as we know it may not be at hand.  But the out of control government spending and debt is fast approaching European levels.  So if we don’t cut our spending and reduce our deficits, we will follow lockstep behind Europe into fiscal ruin.  And then, of course, Armageddon.  

Partisan Democrats decry Republican Partisanship

So this Republican partisanship needs to end.  They need to be bipartisan.  Like the Democrats.  That is, when they’re not being partisan themselves (see For Reid, Durbin, and Obama, a (very) partisan record on debt ceiling by Byron York posted 7/30/2011 on The Washington Examiner).

A look at Reid’s record, however, shows that in the last decade his own voting on the issue of the debt ceiling is not only partisan but perfectly partisan. According to “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases,” a January 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, the Senate has passed ten increases to the debt limit since 2000.  Reid never voted to increase the debt ceiling when Republicans were in control of the Senate, and he always voted to increase the debt ceiling when Democrats were in control…

At look at Durbin’s record shows that he, too, has voted along absolutely partisan lines.  In the last decade, Durbin never voted to increase the debt ceiling when Republicans were in control and always voted to increase the debt ceiling when Democrats were in control.  As for Obama, there were four votes to raise the debt ceiling when he was in the Senate.  He missed two of them, voted no once when Republicans were in charge, and voted yes once when Democrats were in charge.

So the Democrats have a history of being just as partisan as the Republicans.  Even now, as they decry the Republican’s partisanship, they refuse to compromise at all on what they’ve always wanted.  More taxes.  And more borrowing.  So they can spend a lot more.

Democrats open to Compromise, as long as it’s the Republicans doing the Compromising

And they’ve drawn a line in the sand.  No meaningful cuts without new taxes (see Senate Kills Debt Bill, Bipartisan Talks on Hold by Steven T. Dennis posted 7/29/2011 on Roll Call).

“We’ve got a closet full of triggers,” he said. But, he added, “I came to the conclusion that we are negotiating with ourselves. The Republicans will not agree to any triggers that have any revenues in it.”

And Reid noted that Democrats have drawn a line in the sand against any cuts to entitlement programs without revenue.

The Republicans refuse to raise taxes because America is still wallowing in the Great Recession.  Democrats refuse to drop their request to raise taxes.  And flat out refuse to cut entitlements.  Like Social Security.  Medicare.  And the new Obamacare.  Because, though fiscally responsible, it’s not politically expedient.  Which is going to become a BIG problem soon.

Repeal Obamacare and all our Current Troubles go Away

Health care spending will take the U.S. to European levels of spending and debt (see CMS Projections Confirm Runaway Health Care Spending by Kathryn Nix posted 7/29/2011 on The Foundry).

As the economy recovers and the major provisions of Obamacare kick in, national health spending is projected to grow at quite a clip—increasing, on average, 5.8 percent each year. By 2020, the nation will spend $4.54 trillion on health care, or close to 20 percent of GDP. (For the sake of comparison: In 2010, federal tax revenue totaled 14.9 percent of GDP, and all federal spending combined amounted to 23.8 percent of GDP.)

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining.  An S&P report calls for real spending cuts of $4 trillion or more over 10 years to avoid the credit downgrade.  And look at this.  Obamacare will cost $4.54 trillion over some 10 years.  Imagine that.  Save the AAA bond rating.  Leave Social Security and Medicare intact.  And all you have to do is cut one program that no one is receiving any benefits from yet.  Repeal Obamacare.  And all our current troubles go away.

Or you can Devalue the Currency

Of course, that’s one way of solving the current crisis.  There appears to be another.  One that is a bit more destructive (see Answers to the 7 big “what-ifs” of debt default by Lauren Young posted 7/30/2011 on Reuters).

Traders say Asian central banks, among the world’s biggest dollar holders, have been steady buyers of alternatives to the dollar such as the Singapore dollar and other Asian currencies as well as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand dollars. “Foreigners are at the vanguard of the drop in the dollar,” says Dan Dorrow, head of research at Faros Trading, a currency broker/dealer in Stamford, Connecticut. “I don’t think anyone expects a catastrophic U.S. default. But a downgrade will make them more aggressive in moving away from the dollar…”

The bottom line? It will be more expensive to travel overseas, drink French wine or buy Japanese cars.

A little trade war anyone?  A weak currency is like a tariff.  It makes imports so expensive that we stop buying them.  And buy American instead.  Thus increasing U.S. GDP.  And there is a corollary to this.  Can you guess what that is?  Here’s a hint.  It does something to our exports.  And our vacation market.

Fixing our Economy by Destroying other Economies

A weak currency not only makes your imports more expensive, it also makes your exports less expensive.  Which helps your export market.  And encourages people to vacation in your country because those stronger, foreign currencies can buy so much more (see U.S. Economy: Growth Trails Forecasts as Consumers Retrench by Shobhana Chandra posted 7/29/2011 on Bloomberg).

The improvement in the difference between imports and exports added another 0.6 point [of U.S. GDP].

Overseas sales will remain a backstop for factories. Dow Chemical Co. (DOW), the largest U.S. chemical maker, said demand is “strong” in markets abroad.

“We captured strong growth in Latin America, and the emerging geographies more broadly, while North America experienced moderate growth,” Andrew Liveris, chief executive officer, said on a July 27 conference call with analysts.

So perhaps this is the grand plan.  Increase spending to unsustainable levels.  Incur record debt.  This spending and debt triggers a downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt.  Which devalues the U.S. dollar.  Which places a de facto tariff on imports.  And provides a subsidy for our exports.  And it makes the U.S. a vacation destination.  Until our trading partners retaliate for fixing our economy by destroying their economies.  Like everyone is saying the Chinese are doing by keeping their own currency weak.

Repealing Obamacare would Please the Credit Rating Agencies

So the only bright spot in the U.S. economy is other economies.  Where they’re experiencing growth.  And can easily afford U.S. goods.  Which is about the only market buying them these days.  But for the world’s largest economy (for now) to rely solely on exports can be a bit risky.  Especially if it triggers a trade war.  Which, incidentally, helped trigger the Great Depression.

No, it would probably be more prudent to keep that AAA rating by cutting spending.  Before we spend ourselves to European ruin.  That’s the key to everything.  In particular cutting the fastest growing government expenditure.  Health care.  Which makes repealing Obamacare made to order.  No one is benefitting from it yet.  So no one will even notice this cut.  Other than the credit rating agencies.  Who will stand up and applaud this action. 

For just raising the debt ceiling doesn’t solve the real problem.  In fact, raising the debt ceiling without the $4 trillion in spending cuts will just push us closer to European ruin.

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