How Governments Hide Their Liabilities

In my testimony to the Senate Budget Committee the other day, I recommended that Congress set specific fiscal targets for bringing our out-of-control deficits and debt under control. My particular suggestion? Get the publicly-held debt down to 60% of GDP in 2020.

By budgeting standards, that makes for a great bumper sticker: “60 in 20“.

But as the New York Times points out in two articles today, a measurable target isn’t enough. You also need to make sure that the government doesn’t game the accounting to hide its liabilities.

Exhibit A is Greece. The story was originally broken by Der Spiegel earlier in the week, and is described in the NYT by Louise Story, Landon Thomas Jr., and Nelson D. Schwartz in “Wall St. Helped Greece to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis“:

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. …

Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere.

In dozens of deals across the Continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books. Greece, for example, traded away the rights to airport fees and lottery proceeds in years to come.

Critics say that such deals, because they are not recorded as loans, mislead investors and regulators about the depth of a country’s liabilities.

The winning quote:

“Politicians want to pass the ball forward, and if a banker can show them a way to pass a problem to the future, they will fall for it,” said Gikas A. Hardouvelis, an economist and former government official who helped write a recent report on Greece’s accounting policies.

Exhibit B are all the contingent liabilities of the United States government, of which Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) have been the most prominent (and expensive). In “Future Bailouts of America,” Gretchen Morgenson interviews budget expert Marvin Phaup (now at George Washington University and previously a colleague of mine at the Congressional Budget Office). She writes:

“If we are extending the safety net, extending the implied guarantee to the debts of a lot of other financial institutions, and we know those guarantees are valuable and costly, then we ought to start budgeting for it,” Mr. Phaup sad in an interview. “We can’t reduce the costs of these subsidies if we can’t recognize them.” …

As the number of firms with implicit government backing has risen because of the crisis, so too have the expected costs of those commitments, Mr. Phaup said. And yet, under current budget policy, those costs will be ignored until the recipient of the guarantee collapses — the precise moment when the guarantee is likely to cost taxpayers the most.

If we are going to set an explicit target for the publicly-held debt–60 in 20!–, we need to think carefully about what politicians may strategically omit from the calculation of the 60.

About Donald Marron 294 Articles

Donald Marron is an economist in the Washington, DC area. He currently speaks, writes, and consults about economic, budget, and financial issues.

From 2002 to early 2009, he served in various senior positions in the White House and Congress including: * Member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) * Acting Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) * Executive Director of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee (JEC)

Before his government service, Donald had a varied career as a professor, consultant, and entrepreneur. In the mid-1990s, he taught economics and finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He then spent about a year-and-a-half managing large antitrust cases (e.g., Pepsi vs. Coke) at Charles River Associates in Washington, DC. After that, he took the plunge into the world of new ventures, serving as Chief Financial Officer of a health care software start-up in Austin, TX. After that fascinating experience, he started his career in public service.

Donald received his Ph.D. in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his B.A. in Mathematics a couple miles down the road at Harvard.

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