Greg Ip

Articles by The Economist’s U.S. Economics Editor

A fiscal nightmare and opportunity for Obama

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Waiting for God-only-knows-what

Jan 8th 2009 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition0209us4

 

Rex Features
 

America’s grim fiscal outlook could either be a nightmare or an opportunity for Barack Obama

DURING one of his debates with Barack Obama, John McCain, the Republican candidate, kept referring to the “fiscal crisis” when he meant “financial crisis”. Perhaps he was on to something.

On January 7th the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a non-partisan outfit, released projections that show the financial crash and the resulting recession are already wreaking havoc with America’s finances. It reckons that the budget deficit will soar from $455 billion in fiscal 2008 (which ended last September 30th) to an astonishing $1.2 trillion in the current year. At 8.3% that would be the most as a share of gross domestic product since the second world war. (The CBO does, however, see it dropping to 1.1% of GDP by 2019.)

 

The reality is both better and worse than these numbers imply. Of this year’s total, $420 billion represents the one-off subsidy implicit in the Treasury’s planned $700 billion of injections of capital and loan guarantees into the financial system and its “effective” guarantees of the two big mortgage agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Neither is a cash outlay in the usual sense.

But the underlying picture is worse for several reasons. First, it does not include any estimate of the cost of Mr Obama’s planned fiscal stimulus, which he will seek from Congress soon after being inaugurated. Second, the CBO assumes all of George Bush’s tax cuts will expire as scheduled at the end of next year and that the Alternative Minimum Tax, a parallel levy aimed at the wealthy, is allowed to ensnare a growing share of the middle class each year. True, that is what current law, as opposed to current practice, lays down; but neither is at all likely to happen. (The AMT has repeatedly been “patched” to lessen its baleful effects, and surely will be again.)

But the real problem is that the first baby-boomers retired last year. In coming decades spending on entitlements—the three main ones being Social Security (pensions), Medicare (health care for the elderly) and Medicaid (health care for the poor)—will drive deficits and so debt up sharply. Publicly held debt will climb from 41% of GDP last year to 54% next year, the CBO predicts, then decline (on the assumption that the recession will start to come to an end). But the CBO has previously said that, as America ages and if current policies continue, it could theoretically hit an otherworldly 400% by mid-century.

The situation sounds like a nightmare for Barack Obama. The figures hang over his negotiations with Congress on a fiscal stimulus plan. As currently envisioned, it would include business and individual tax cuts and, for those who pay little or no tax, tax credits. That would include a $500 per worker or $1,000 per household credit that was a centrepiece of Mr Obama’s campaign. It would include substantial funds for public works spending, additional Medicaid funds and other aid for cash-strapped states, and money to broaden the availability of unemployment insurance and provide health benefits to the unemployed. On January 7th Mr Obama said the package would be at the high end of estimates—which his team had previously pegged at $675 billion to $775 billion over two years—but not as high as some economists have urged.

Mr Obama faces three sceptical constituencies: Republicans, fiscal conservatives in his own party, and the markets. The addition of so many tax breaks to the package appears to have won over the co-operation of Republican leaders, although lengthy negotiations remain.

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Fiscal conservatives are resigned to a big expansion of deficits in the short term but they want an early commitment to deal with entitlements as well. This is where the confluence of the economic and budgetary crises creates an opportunity. Since Mr Bush’s tax cuts expire at the end of next year, Mr Obama could try to reform the tax and entitlement systems simultaneously, which makes economic sense since so many aspects of health care and retirement impact the tax code.

Politically, a reform that antagonises so many constituencies is hardly appetising. “When you start making choices, you start losing friends,” says Kent Conrad, the Democratic Senate Budget Committee chairman and a leading fiscal hawk. He argues the job should be handed over to a bipartisan task force. But Thomas Kahn, the top staffer on the House Budget Committee, notes that some legislators worry that such mechanisms undermine the democratic process by limiting the opportunity for amendment and debate.

For his part, Mr Obama has acknowledged the urgency of addressing entitlements, but said more specifics would have to await his draft budget proposal, due for submission in mid-February. He has aimed his anti-deficit rhetoric, both before the election and since, principally at waste and earmarks, the pet projects legislators insert into spending bills. But as Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a watchdog group, notes, such spending is at most $30 billion a year, or 1% of total expenditures. By contrast, entitlements amount to $1.2 trillion, or 41% of the whole; and, left unreformed, will grow to 60% by 2030.

Still, Ms MacGuineas thinks Mr Obama has to start with waste and earmarks to build the necessary credibility for bigger steps. “Before you say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, your Social Security and Medicare benefits are going down and your taxes are going up,’ they want to know there are no more bridges to nowhere.”

Will the markets co-operate? Since November stock and credit markets have rallied partly as previous initiatives gain traction and partly in anticipation of more aggressive actions by the incoming administration. Record deficit projections have not spooked investors: the dollar has strengthened as the overseas outlook turns grimmer, and deflation worries have driven Treasury yields to their lowest in over half a century. But as financial panic subsides, the prospect of huge current deficits combined with the coming entitlements crunch could cause investors to worry America will one day inflate its way out of the debt or even, in the extreme, default. The resulting higher interest rates would elevate the cost of servicing the federal debt, further aggravating the deficit. The threat of such dangerous debt dynamics is ample incentive for Mr Obama to hurry up and explain how he will tame the deficit once the recession is over.

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