Archive for the ‘State budget’ category

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

February 16, 2018
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The U.S. economy is currently in the third longest period of uninterrupted expansion in its history, soon to be the second longest, and there is a better than even chance it will become the longest in history 16 months from now.  Even without the recently enacted deficit-financed stimulus (tax cuts and expenditure increases) the U.S. economy was on solid ground, with growth forecast to be stronger in 2018 than it was in 2017. That is what makes lack of concern over the projected increase in the government’s annual deficit from about $700 billion to $1 trillion especially troubling.

Expansion

The current economic expansion is exceptional in duration and atypical in gaining strength late in the economic cycle.  But it is also about to become notorious for producing a burgeoning federal deficit during a period of solid economic growth (annual federal deficits are generally inversely related to economic conditions).  So the price of  stronger growth and a longer expansion is looking like higher annual budget deficits (forecast to grow from 3% of GDP to 5% just by 2019) and a national debt that will grow from about 76% of GDP to 97% over 10 years, risking longer-term economic growth.  It is a high price to pay for a small increase in economic growth and a fiscal policy gamble to add stimulus to an economy near full employment but it is  price that the administration and congress are willing to pay without hesitation.

Annual deficits declined between 2012 and 2016 as the economic recovery strengthened and costs associated with the “stimulus” eroded.  But since early 2016 deficits have been increasing.  The difference between monthly revenues and expenditures over the most recent 12 twelve months (between February 2017 and January 2018) shows that the annualized federal deficit stands at $682 billion compared to $585 billion for the February 2016 to January 2017 time period, a 17% increase over the year and up from a low of $405 billion early in 2016.

Deficit

The increase in the deficit results from both higher spending and a slowing rate of revenue growth (chart below), and it comes before the impacts of recently enacted tax cuts and the two-year spending agreement take effect that will both lower revenues by about $1 trillion over the next decade (even after accounting for growth effects) and increase spending by about $300 billion just over the next two years.

Spending and revenues

The U.S. has had higher annual deficits in the past, but always during a period of weak or negative economic growth.  Increasing deficits and greatly adding to the nation’s debt in the absence of an economic downturn should have been a giant caution sign for lawmakers.  If  $400 billion annual deficits were “crippling” our economy in 2016 (as some lawmakers suggested) how are $1 trillion deficits in a growing economy not of more concern?  Debt is often the match that lights the fire of economic crisis, whether the fault was with politicians, central bankers, overzealous consumers, businesses, developers, bankers, credit rating agencies, regulators, or any combination thereof, all true crises involve too much leverage.

With that admonition (screed?), reducing the corporate tax rate was still a good idea, the U.S. rate was too high. And yes, a lower corporate tax will raise wages eventually (lower taxes increase capital investment and improve productivity – raising wages), but only after years, and certainly not in the time frame suggested by the White House. But just as important (and largely a missed opportunity in the legislation) was the need to eliminate targeted and industry-specific preferences that direct too much investment to tax-favored activities rather than to their most productive uses.  Many of the agreed upon expenditure increases also have merit.  Overall, however, the combination of tax and spending policies recently enacted seems poorly structured and ill-timed.  If we enact a deficit funded stimulus when we are near full employment and when the economy is already poised to grow more rapidly, what will we be able to do when the next recession arrives?

Impact on State Finances

The New Hampshire economy is fundamentally strong, our industries are as vibrant and innovative as ever and the state’s economy would be growing and producing more if the supply of labor could accommodate more growth. It can’t, labor force growth is not keeping pace with labor demand and economic growth has been slowing in New Hampshire for at least two quarters. It will continue to do so in 2018. So too will state revenues.

Job and LF Growth

State-level GDP estimates produced by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis are reported with a long lag and are not a very timely indicator of current state growth trends.  A useful proxy for assessing growth trends in state-level GDP is aggregate hours worked in the state (employment times the average number of hours worked) which correlates well with changes in the state’s total output of goods and services (GDP).  Adding current estimates of U.S. productivity growth (there is no similar state-level measure) provides a high-frequency estimate of the state’s GDP growth trend.  As the chart below shows, the growth rate of NH GDP is declining, again, primarily because the rate of employment growth is declining.  When you are adding fewer workers the output of the state’s economy will grow more slowly unless there is a significant increase in productivity (it has increased some but not significantly).

Aggregate Hours Worked

Slower employment and economic growth in NH (along with changes in revenue policies) have slowed the rate of revenue growth in the state since 2016.  There has been a bump in the past few months but how the recently enacted tax cuts at the national level will affect the trend is uncertain.  What is certain is that the growth constraints NH faces will make it difficult to accelerate economic growth in the state and thus state revenues.

Looking at annualized revenue growth (summing any 12 month period), the chart below shows that revenue from NH’s nine largest sources of general revenue (and the sources most affected by economic trends) hit a plateau in 2016, at a time when employment growth was at its post-recession peak.  Since that time, annualized growth in the revenue sources most affected by economic conditions has slowed.

Revenue

 Looking at the rate of change in annualized state revenues illustrates the longer-term slowing of the rate of annualized growth.   The chart below shows how significantly the growth rate in revenues has slowed since 2016.

Revenue Growth Rate

Expenditure Pressures Will Mount

The impact on state revenues of recent changes in federal policies may be uncertain but their impact on state and local government is likely to add to the state’s fiscal pressures.  A great deal of uncertainty exists over how funding for state-operated programs that share costs with the federal government will be affected but most signs point to less funding for programs like Medicaid and infrastructure.  The administration’s recently announced $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal actually reduces funding for states while calling for greater state commitments.  Proposals to cap or block-grant Medicaid funding would significantly add to the fiscal pressures facing all states.  At the same time mandatory spending on things such as government pensions are poised to increase significantly in coming years.

Other recent federal policies will affect states and localities by increasing the cost of borrowing.  One change eliminated the tax-free status of “advance refunding bonds” that allow states and communities to refinance debt at lower interest rates well before their call date in order to free-up funds for other purposes.  The prospect of annual deficits of more than a trillion dollars (placing greater demands on credit markets) during a strong economy when deficits typically fall, has also increased expectations of higher interest rates, increasing the cost of borrowing by governments, households and businesses.  How fast and how much rates rise is not certain but they have already increased significantly this year (albeit from low levels.)

Less directly, federal tax law changes will affect the borrowing costs of state and local governments by making municipal bonds less attractive (relative to other loans and investments).  Banks and insurance companies are big buyers of municipal bonds – lending money to state and local governments.  The interest rate that governments have to pay on those bonds is lower than on other types of loans made by banks because banks and insurance companies do not have to pay taxes on the income they earn from loans to governments.   The drop in the corporate tax rate reduces some of the advantage of the tax- free bonds and makes other loans/investments made by banks and insurers more attractive relative to municipal bonds.  Interest rates on municipal bonds will have to rise to remain competitive with other loans.

Along with slower growth in state revenues there are enough spending pressures building along with potential impacts from recently enacted federal policies to suggest  lawmakers in the state would be wise to be cautious in the next budget cycle that begins in the fall of this year.

The divergence between economic and fiscal conditions doesn’t seem to be troubling to many policymakers at the federal or state level.  With apologies to Dickens, it does feel like “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Let’s hope that it isn’t also becoming “the age of foolishness.”

Great Expectations

June 6, 2017

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”        

    Mr. Jaggers to Pip,  in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”

Optimism in the U.S. economy has been high for most of 2017.  Consumer and small business confidence are both higher than they have been in a decade  and according to the Business Roundtable the CEO’s of America’s largest corporations haven’t been this optimistic in eight years.

Sentiment

From survey data alone the U.S. economy appears to be booming.  But the hard, quantifiable data (1.2 percent GDP growth in the first quarter of 2017) tells a story of more tepid growth.  The degree of divergence between soft (survey and sentiment data) and hard economic data is striking and either consumer and business sentiment will lead to higher rates of growth or sentiment will begin to wane – something has to give and my money is on the latter.

The divergence between sentiment and actual economic performance can be especially problematic for lawmakers crafting state budgets.  With so much economic optimism it is easy for those urging caution in budgeting (based on expected revenue) to be the skunks at the garden party. I don’t know who has the best revenue estimates on which to base NH’s next budget but the trends I see (and present later in this post) urge caution in assuming current levels of consumer and business optimism will be matched by revenue growth.

Still, the economic recovery remains on track (albeit at a modest pace by historical standards) and it has a better than 50/50 chance of becoming the longest expansion in U.S. history by lasting into the middle of 2019.

Length of recovery

The current expansion is getting old but expansions don’t die of old age; something kills them (think the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, the dot com bubble in the early 2000s, and the mortgage and financial crisis of the recent recession).  Right now, the economy does not seem to be harboring the kinds of excesses and imbalances or overindulgence that have presaged sharp slowdowns or recessions in the past. There are some areas of concern; at more than 20 times earnings, stock market valuations (depending on which index is used) are well above the 15-17 time earnings that is the historical average, but this is not at the “irrational exuberance” stage.  Economists tend to write-off or disbelieve negative economic data as statistical anomalies or due to temporary factors prior to slowdowns and lately a bit more of that has been occurring than I am comfortable with.  But even as there are some unflattering economic indicators that should be acknowledged they are still too new to be trends.  No one is saying the “r-word” and the best we can say today is that we are one day closer to the next recession.

There is no more important task for policymakers than estimating revenues. Underestimating state government revenues results in more needs being unmet than is desirable, while overestimating revenues can lead to difficult and painful spending cuts in later years. So why should NH lawmakers be cautious in their revenue estimates in a time of optimism and apparent abundance?   As Dickens (Mr. Jaggers) would say “take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.”   In the case of state government revenue the “looks” are reports of a booming economy and high confidence while the “evidence” is real trends in revenue growth.   Analysis and empirical evidence are not currently in favor as tools for governing, at least at the national level, but the great majority of lawmakers in NH value data and evidence and do their best to employ rigor in the budgeting process.  But a focus on monthly revenue reports and numbers can sometimes make it difficult to separate the signal from the noise in the revenue trends. In addition, while it is important to note how actual revenues compare to “planned” revenues on a monthly basis, revenues can meet “planned” expectations at the same time they are signaling a weakening trend.  Thus it is possible that lawmakers can be optimistic that revenues meet or exceed expectations in any month at the same time revenue growth is slowing.  Which is the more important trend?  When I look at the larger trends in state revenue collections from NH’s nine largest sources of own source, general revenue, I see a slowing growth trend even as revenues have generally met monthly expectations.  The chart below shows the year-over-year percentage change in annualized (sum of prior 12 months) state revenue collections.

Annualized NH revenues

Examining NH business tax collections reveals a similar trend of a declining rate of growth.   The chart below shows the rate of change in annualized (sum of the prior 12 months) business tax collections, along with the trend in rate-adjusted revenue to control for the impacts of rate changes on growth rates.

Annualiz NH Business Taxes

The growth rate of meals and rental tax collections in NH (more commonly called meals and rooms) has also slowed.  The chart below shows annualized growth in spending on meals and rooms in NH.  Because the data shows spending on meals and rooms rather than tax collections the data is free from any changes related to tax rates.

Meals and rooms trend

Many factors influence rooms and meals and hospitality expenditures in the short-term (weather, gasoline prices, etc.) but the most fundamental factor that determines longer-term (longer than month-to-month) trends in meals and rooms expenditures are employment and earnings trends in the state and New England region.  Employment continues to grow but at a somewhat slower rate as the nation and the region confront full-employment and labor shortages. Wage growth is occurring but prices are also rising and as the figure below shows, real (inflation adjusted) earnings growth has been trending downward in the U.S. and New England (the same is true for NH).  The result is that the rate of growth of consumer expenditures, in almost all expenditure categories, has slowed.  The chart below presents an estimate of trends in the growth of real earnings (employment times the average hourly wage times average number of hours worked and adjusted for inflation) in the U.S. and New England.  The earnings of New England residents and their ability and willingness to spend have a significant impact on several NH revenues.

Real Earnings Growth

The relationship between spending on meals and rooms in NH and real earnings in New England (lagged) is evidenced in the graph below.

M&R and NE Earnings

I don’t know who is more accurate in estimating revenues in the current debate over the state’s next budget.  There is a case to be made for different expectations.  As long as policy decisions are made based on some empirical interpretation of trends in the economy and revenues rather than an ideological push for more or less spending I think the state will be fine regardless of what lawmakers decide.  I am frequently in error but rarely in doubt and I’ve presented one of what are many interpretations of revenue trends in NH.  Despite what I see as a lot of unmet needs in the Granite State, the trends highlighted in this post urge caution in pillorying anyone who argues for fiscal restraint at a time of so much economic optimism.

“Honest Brokers” and Revenue Estimates

May 14, 2013

Unlike the federal government, states can’t easily budget and spend more money than they take in revenue so revenue estimates play a much more important role in state budgeting than they do  in federal budgeting.  I don’t know how anyone can accurately forecast revenues when the revenue yields are based on negotiations, lawsuits or other non-economic variables but that seems to be the basis  of much of the disagreement among budget writers in New Hampshire. When a comparatively large percentage (compared to many other states) of your revenues are derived from a “Medicaid enhancement tax”  and “tobacco settlement”  money budget writing can become even more politicized than usual.

I don’t pretend to know what these non-traditional sources of revenue will yield in the coming years but I get a sense that those who do are fitting their forecasts to their meet their budgetary goals.  I  don’t think revenue forecasting is that difficult as long it is based on real economic data and trends and it minimizes the use of assumptions about changes in the performance of the economy.   I make forecasts with assumptions all the time but  minimizing their use  in revenue forecasts will mean that even if the forecast is wrong, it won’t appear as though the error resulted from a desire to “coax” a specific result from the forecast.   In January I presented my outlook to the NH House Committee on Ways Means.  At that time I said I thought revenue growth from major, “own-source” revenues would average about 2% each year of the biennium and that businesses tax revenue growth would be a bit higher, but with even modest economic improvement could average 5-6% annual growth.  Now, several months later, based on recent revenue performance, and making  no assumptions about significant changes in economic conditions, I see growth at about 3% in FY 2014 from the eight largest sources of general revenue, and just under 5% in 2015.  Those numbers don’t count the “non-traditional” revenue sources but I think they are important in reflecting the fundamental underlying growth in the state’s economy and a better assessment of  general revenue trends.

NH General revenue forecast

Clearing out some old boxes from my attic  I came across a number of old college tests and papers.  One was from a graduate school class on public finance where I argued that all federal budgeting and budgeting  debates should proceed from a common economic and revenue forecast.  I also found one from an undergraduate class on the philosophy of Marxism in which I wrote phrases like “man should never be a means to end but only an end in himself ” so clearly I was prone to a lot of bad and muddled thinking back then.  In the 1990’s I wrote a column in a publication arguing for a non-partisan revenue estimating committee in NH.  That was a pretty good idea  and it did happen – although my prompt had nothing to do with it –  and it was enacted largely absent the “non-partisan” aspect (or at least “unbiased”).  I still think a true, non-partisan, representative revenue estimating panel would be a good thing for NH, not to bind any actions but simply to serve as a baseline scenario that any policymakers who wishes to deviate from would have to offer solid reasons for doing so.  Some group in the budget debate has to serve as the “honest broker”  but the honest broker role won’t happen if the group is loved too much by some or hated too passionately by others.   The current estimating panel has some of the best and most qualified people I know to do revenue estimating .  It just doesn’t have the  credibility among many policymakers that it could have  if  no one loved or hated it too much, but instead almost everyone complained a little (or a lot) about  it.  It is too bad because we are still going to need an “honest broker” when the NH House and Senate begin negotiations on the next budget.


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