[Viewpoint] ... and three false premises

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[Viewpoint] ... and three false premises

Washington is filled with self-congratulation this week, with Republicans claiming that they have opened serious discussion of the U.S. budget deficit and President Barack Obama’s proponents arguing that his counterblast will win the day. The reality is that neither side has come to grips with the most basic of our harsh fiscal realities.

Start with the facts as provided by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Compare the CBO’s budget forecast for January 2008, before the outbreak of serious financial crisis in the fall of that year, with its latest version from January 2011. The relevant line is “debt held by the public at the end of the year,” meaning net federal government debt held by the private sector, which excludes government agency holdings of government debt.

In early 2008, the CBO projected that debt as a percent of gross domestic product would fall from 36.8 percent to 22.6 percent at the end of 2018. In contrast, the latest CBO forecast has debt soaring to 75.3 percent of GDP in 2018.

What caused this stunning reversal, which in dollar terms works out to a $10 trillion swing for end-year 2018 debt, from $5.1 trillion to $15.8 trillion?

Almost all of this increase is due to the severe recession that followed the financial crisis of late 2008. This lowered output and employment, and therefore reduced tax revenue.

For example, look at the tax revenue numbers for 2011, as a percent of GDP. The earlier expectation for 2011 was that the federal government would collect revenue equal to 19.3 percent of GDP. The forecast now is for revenue of 14.8 percent of GDP.

Whatever you think about the fiscal stimulus of 2008 (at President George W. Bush’s instigation) or 2009 (from Obama), those had relatively little impact compared with the automatic stabilizers, such as unemployment benefits, that are triggered by deep recession. Why did we have a severe recession with such a crippling fiscal consequences? On this issue, most politicians from both sides of the aisle fall silent.

What isn’t in doubt is that this was a financial-sector crisis of classic proportions. But the political elite that now profess to be bothered by the fiscal deficit made no serious effort to make the financial sector any safer after the events of September-October 2008. When you press politicians and their advisers on this, you will hear three kinds of responses in candid moments.

First is the notion that banking crises are rare. This is a favorite of the Treasury Department. Perhaps that was true in the past but our big banks have become bigger and too-big-to- fail banks have major incentives to take on high levels of risk. After all, the downside isn’t their problem.

Second is the idea that we fixed it with the Dodd-Frank Act, a line heard most often from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Almost no one holds to that view, including William Dudley, president of the New York Federal Reserve or Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Both have expressed concerns that the roadmap for closing a large troubled bank remains elusive.

The idea that new international rules will force banks to increase their capital enough to reduce the risk of systemic crises is regarded as ludicrous, at least by leading independent finance experts. Forcing banks to raise more equity in an appropriate way would lower risk, strengthening the financial system at little or no cost to the broader economy.

Third, “Let the markets evolve the way the markets evolve.” This was a recent quote from Anthony Santomero, former president of the Philadelphia Fed and current Citigroup Inc. director. Citigroup has blown up repeatedly in the past 30 years, not surprising for a complex and unwieldy megabank with 260,000 employees worldwide.

Each time, it was saved through some form of external assistance, usually from the government, in part because responsible policy makers feared what Citigroup’s collapse would do the broader economy. Do we really think that the next time a bank with 200 million clients worldwide gets in trouble that the U.S. will let it go bankrupt, regardless of the consequences? Is that what Vikram Pandit, the chief executive officer, or Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, argued for in 2008 or will argue for next time?

The right way to think about future budget deficits is in a probability-based fashion: What is the chance something bad will happen and how bad will that be for debt levels? The odds of another major financial calamity next year are small but the risk over a 10- to 20-year period is high. That’s the right time horizon to use in the coming budget debate. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative must stop dodging this issue and start proposing solutions.

*The writer, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is a Bloomberg News columnist.

By Simon Johnson
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