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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Crisis Yet to Come

The Atlanta Fed's blog from October 27, 2010 has a chilling piece on the source of the downturn in revenue at the state level (and by implication the local level, too). Quite simply, they note and then back with data that (duh! - with hindsight) real estate assessments lag the market. Hence the downturn has to have other sources, specifically declines in individual income tax receipts and sales tax receipts. Real estate tax receipts have actually continued to rise, as higher assessments from the era of peak prices continue to track up.
That's chilling, because it implies that state and local governments will continue to see revenues fall as assessments are updated to track the market down. Now the level of dependence on real estate related revenue varies widely. But on average it suggests that even if incomes begin to recover, government revenues will continue to fall.
Indeed, a recent paper by Cogan and Taylor quantifies the magnitude of the downturn: budget cuts by state and local governments fully offset the much-maligned Obama stimulus package. They had earlier taken a stand on the "multiplier" (the extent to which an expenditure increase or tax cut would stimulate activity). [Look for a discussion of multiplier estimates by Brad de Long.] But when they went to check what ex post performance might show, they found a problem that rendered that discussion moot: ex post, there was no multiplicand to be multiplied. Of course that's not reassuring going forward, because in 2011 there won't be a stimulus package to offset what state and local government are doing. When teachers are fired next summer, and as road maintenance crews are axed and parks closed, there won't be anyone stepping in to hire them or pay for them to be rehired. Now Cogan and Taylor think the multiplier is small; I'm not convinced by their arguments. But small multiplier or large, the job losses will be real.
John F. Cogan and John B. Taylor, "What the Government Purchases Multiplier Actually Multiplied in the 2009 Stimulus Package." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 16505, October 2010. http://www.nber.org/papers/w16505
If we thought banks were too big to fail, what of the government of the 10th largest economy in the world, California? They are starting their 2011 budget cycle with a $25 billion deficit and a long period of underfunding state and local pension funds. I doubt there's enough available for cutting on the expenditure side, and while I've never lived there, my sense is that there is no ability to enhance revenue, given the demonstrated ability of vocal citizens' movements to impede government via referenda. Pundits may be comparing us to Greece to argue that we need to cut the Federal deficit, but they really don't understand the dynamics of bond markets. But they can and should look at California, and ask whether we will feel compelled to bail them out as the EU did with Greece.
Mike Smitka
Readers might see a contrarian position at Slate Moneybox, Default Position: Why we needn't worry too much about municipal bankruptcy by Annie Lowry. She argues first that the incentives are strong to avoid bankruptcy, while a crisis increases policy options. Second, though only implicit in her argument, bond holders can be forced to renogotiate without bankruptcy. While she does not mention it, many bonds are very close to private placements, and that facilitates renegotiating debt. (I handled sovereign debt renegotiations during a banking career decades back.) Third, and again less explicit, the biggest obligations are not formal bonds but retirement systems. It may be possible to renege on those -- tell retirees "no more pension." That may not need Chapter 9. In sum, all of those lessen the role of formal bankruptcy.
Elsewhere I calculated the numbers for California. Their accounting is arcane, but at the state level the budget is around $100 billion with a projected $25 billion deficit. That means tax receipts of $75 billion, so that closing the gap via revenue enhancement would in the extreme require a 33% increase in taxes (and more in tax rates, given exemptions). But in the background California's GDP is approximately $1 trillion, so the gap is on the order of 2.5% of personal and corporate incomes. Of course the state has perhaps $500 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Now in most places where I've lived government salaries are below market so these pensions are in effect part of the total package. I don't believe it ethical to adjust those retroactively. But in any case the magnitude of the problem is well within the taxing ability of the state, without leading to exorbitant rates. The problem is one of politics, not economics.