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The Budget Deal: And the Winners Are?

US Capitol-WinterWithin the last two days, the U.S. House and Senate have passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014, a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the 2014 federal budget.

So who are the winners in this budget and spending deal?

Without question, Washington politicians are the biggest winners.  With caveats, the American people can also be considered winners.  The only real losers in this deal were the people who wanted significant increases or cuts to federal spending.  Let’s explore each group a little more closely.

Washington Politicians

Although no party or chamber got everything they wanted, everyone got enough to declare victory.  The political movers and shakers also got to burnish their bipartisanship credentials and willingness to compromise.  They also avoided another bruising government shutdown akin to the first 16 days of October.  Even though another shutdown might have inflicted more political damage to Republicans, Democrats were wise not to antagonize a restless electorate.  It’s an election year, and there’s always a risk voters will develop an anti-incumbent attitude and vote to “throw the bums out.”  At the same time, the bills passed by large enough margins that anyone wanting to cast a vote of displeasure could easily do so without scuttling the deal.  In the end, these votes were more symbolic than substantive.

The American People

We the people are winners to some extent.  Albeit four months into the current fiscal year, Congress passed its first real budget and spending bill in four years.  The government has essentially been operating on autopilot for the past four years via temporary and stopgap measures, rather than following the budgetary and appropriations process.  We also avoided another government shutdown, which ultimately doesn’t save any money and only makes many lives more difficult.  Congress also ended the across-the-board spending cuts known as Sequestration.  Although I agreed with the reduction in federal spending, the manner in which it was carried out was asinine.  Sequestration was a political maneuver which was never supposed to be implemented, but it was.  Therefore, it took some time for Congress and the President to figure out another political angle to extricate themselves from the mess they created.

As much as we are winners in this deal, we’re also losers.  In the deal to eliminate Sequestration, Congress increased short-term spending with the promise of larger cuts to future spending.  History has proven the promises of future cuts rarely materialize.  While spending may not have increased much in the short-term, the hard decisions of how to reduce spending and balance the budget have been postponed once again.  The enactment of a spending plan is good, but the process stunk.  Instead of Congress passing the requisite 12 appropriation bills for federal spending, they combined them all into one 1,582 page, must-pass bill, voted on hours after being released.  How well do you think your Representative or Senator read this 1,582 page bill?

The Advocates

Those who advocated for significant spending increases were disappointed. However, if you consider the federal spending increases over the past four years, they have already won in some respects and were unlikely to secure further increases.  The big losers were the budget hawks and those who want to dramatically pare federal spending and balance the budget.  They not only lost the battle to further cut spending, but some of the guaranteed Sequestration cuts were replaced with a promise of future cuts.  Although this deal is only for the 2014 budget, it has set the stage for the 2015 budget.  The motivations for Congress to reach this deal will drive the politics for the 2015 budget to be quite similar.  Therefore, the 2016 budget will probably be the first real opportunity for the budget hawks to make significant steps towards a balanced budget.

Win  and Lose

The 2014 budget and appropriations bills essentially maintain the status quo, which is a win for preventing major financial disruptions.  At the same time, we have lost another opportunity to make the tough decisions and address the issues which are perpetuating the overspending by the federal government and adding to the mounting federal debt.

Add Another Trillion

debt ceiling_foxIn the midst of the hullabaloo last week over the deal in Washington to end the shutdown of the U.S. government, a little fact missed the attention of most reporters and media outlets.  The public debt of the United States is now in excess of $17 trillion.

Technically, the debt ceiling was reached in May and has been stuck at the same level for months.  As a result of the continued receipt of federal taxes and other “extraordinary measures” employed by the U.S. Treasury, the nation was able to stave off default until the debt ceiling was raised again.  When the debt deal was struck, the official debt of the U.S. increased $329 billion in a day.  As a result, the official tally of the debt increased from $16.747 trillion to $17.076 trillion.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  While many politicians are touting their accomplishments of deficit reduction and fiscal restraint, the U.S. still overspent by $329 billion in less than 5 months.  While it’s an improvement over the recent annual deficits in excess of $1 trillion, the deficit is still projected to be $700-800 billion this year.

While I don’t necessarily agree with their tactics or timing, I do commend those who attempted to draw attention to the continuous deficit spending and rising national debt.  Shutting down the government was a drastic step, and in the end, it probably did little to change the current policies or debate.  However, it seems painfully obvious that something drastic needs to happen for our national leaders to get in touch with the reality that it’s impossible to borrow trillions of dollars forever.

It wasn’t very many years ago when adding another $1 trillion to the national debt would have been headline news.  Sadly, we keep breaking the next trillion-dollar mark so quickly, it barely garners anyone’s attention.  Of the $17 trillion we owe, nearly 40% of it has been borrowed within the past five years.

If you share the belief of many politicians, pundits and economists that the continual rise of the debt is not an immediate concern, then you probably won’t pay much attention as the debt continues to increase another $1 trillion in a few months.

If you think the perpetual rise of our debt poses a threat to our long-term security and prosperity, you’re probably frustrated that we reached another trillion-dollar milestone and will probably break the $20 trillion mark in the next couple of years.  It can be disconcerting to see the lack of concern over this issue, but don’t give up.  Now more than ever, you need to speak up and press for change.  It may not happen quickly or easily, but if you don’t speak out, who will?

Breaking the $17 trillion mark may have gotten lost in the noise of the deal to end the shutdown and avoiding possible default by the U.S. government.  Whether the lack of coverage was accidental or intentional, this is equally important.  The shutdown and debt ceiling were an immediate crisis, but the continuous overspending and borrowing by our government is slowing creating a future calamity, which will make the last predicament seem like a nonevent.

Where Did The Money Come From?

paying taxesThe Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their preliminary estimate of the monthly budget deficit for January.  The CBO estimated the government overspent by a measly $2 billion in January 2013. This compares to a monthly deficit of $27 billion in January 2012.

Hold on before you think we’re making much progress towards reducing the $1 trillion plus deficits of the past four years.  This was only one month out of twelve.  The CBO estimates the cumulative deficit for the past four months is $295 billion (the U.S. fiscal year starts on October 1), and the Fiscal 2013 total deficit is projected to be $850 billion.

The CBO reported a $36 billion uptick in revenues collected in January 2013 over those collected in January 2012.  Some politicians and pundits are already citing these numbers as being indicative of the success of the increased taxes, which were part of the fiscal cliff deal reached on January 1, 2013. It’s a stretch to make this claim, but that rarely matters in the world of politics.

The CBO estimated the government collected $9 billion more in Social Security taxes.  These additional taxes arose from the additional Social Security taxes collected after January 1, 2013.  The 2% temporary tax holiday was scheduled to expire December 31, 2012, and further extension was never a serious consideration.  Social Security is already headed towards insolvency, and continuing a reduced rate would have only exacerbated the problem.  It’s a stretch, but since Congress could have extended the lower rate, you could make the argument these additional revenues were part of the fiscal cliff deal.

Although the remaining additional $27 billion may have been collected in 2013, most of it is not attributable to the fiscal cliff deal.  The increased tax rates only affected high income individuals on income earned after January 1, 2013.  Most super wealthy people pay their taxes through estimates, not withholdings, and the first quarterly payment is not due until April 15th.  Thus, the first real increase in revenue from the higher 2013 taxes won’t be collected by the Treasury until April 2013.

So where did the money come from?  In all likelihood, most of it was additional 2012 taxes which were paid in 2013.  Quarterly estimated taxes for individuals are due April 15th, June 15th, September 15th and January 15th of the following year.  Based on my experience, most wealthy people pay their fourth quarter installment in January of the following year.  Odds are that most of the additional $27 billion in tax revenues actually relates to taxes paid for 2012, not the increased taxes due for 2013.  It’s a reasonable conclusion, since many high income taxpayers accelerated income into 2012 to avoid the anticipated higher 2013 tax rates.

The additional revenues may be good for the country and the economy.  However, I think it’s a little too early to declare success and victory from the increased tax rates.  I believe the verdict is still out, but to make a fair assessment, you have to understand where the money comes from.

Avoiding the Cliff but what about the Abyss?

US Capitol-WinterCongress and President Obama finally reached an agreement to solve the “fiscal cliff.”  The compromise, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, was reached in the early morning hours of January 1, 2013.

Many of our illustrious leaders in Washington tried to sound reasonable by saying no one got what they wanted but it was the best deal they could reach.   Essentially, they were saying you may not be happy, but be satisfied.

It’s a sad day if this was the best they could do.  I have two primary contentions with the deal they reached.  First… the timing and process of the solution, and secondly, the absence of any meaningful changes in federal spending.

The process was extremely political, and the American electorate should expect more… no demand more… of our leaders.  The fiscal cliff was primarily created by two pieces of legislation.  In December 2010, Congress temporarily extended the “Bush tax cuts” until December 31, 2012.  Thus, they have known for two years tax rates would increase unless they passed legislation to extend or change the rates.  The other part of the equation was the spending cut provisions agreed to in August 2011 to settle an impasse on increasing the debt limit.  Thus, Congress and President Obama have known for 18-24 months the fiscal cliff was coming but didn’t resolve it until after the deadline passed.

I have many smart and successful clients.  It has been exceptionally frustrating and difficult for them to make business and financial decisions without knowing what the future tax rates and rules will be.  Even on December 31st, no one knew what the rules would be the next day.  In my opinion, it was an absolute lack of leadership and prudence on behalf of both branches of government, both houses of Congress and both political parties.

Although the process was frustrating, the most upsetting part of the compromise was the complete absence of spending cuts.  The tax increases are projected to raise over $600 billion of additional revenue over the next 10 years, and all spending cuts are postponed, at least for another two months.

Fiscal Cliff statementPresident Obama campaigned on a balanced approach to deficit reduction.  How can you consider $620 billion of additional revenue and no spending cuts a balanced approach?  Our political leaders have promised the spending cuts will come soon, but that’s what they promised when they passed the law in August 2011.  It was easy to promise future cuts, but when it came time to actually implement a spending reduction, they postponed them once again.

Don’t be deceived into thinking the new tax revenues will make any significant dent in our debt or deficit.  $620 billion is a lot of money, but it’s over the next 10 years.  The U.S. Government is currently overspending by $1.3 trillion each year.  The additional revenues will help, but we’ll still rack up an additional $10+ trillion in debt over the next decade, based on current spending.  The exclusion of spending cuts in this deal was another missed opportunity.  Spending cuts are never easy or popular, but I’ll offer two guarantees; 1) spending cuts will come and 2) the longer we wait, the more painful they will be.

There may have been some political winners from the whole fiscal cliff debacle, but I believe we, the American public, were the real losers.  The deal cut may have averted the fiscal cliff, but the absence of any real spending cuts pushes us closer to a financial abyss.

Arithmetic

A few weeks ago, former President Clinton scored political points while criticizing the economic plan of Gov. Mitt Romney.  He touted the Federal budget surpluses during the final years of his presidency.  He went on to say he was able to balance the budget by simple arithmetic.  He also invoked the simple arithmetic principle to argue that Gov. Romney’s plan didn’t add up and would result in a large tax increase on middle class Americans.

The truth is that neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama’s plans pass the arithmetic test.  A detailed analysis of their plans is far beyond the scope if this article, so I’ll briefly summarize.

The highlights of Gov. Romney’s plan:

  • Cut tax rates by 20% for individuals and lower the corporate rate to 25%
  • Have preferential rates for interest, dividends and capital gains
  • Eliminate loopholes and limit certain deductions for higher income taxpayers

The criticism of Romney’s arithmetic is there aren’t enough loopholes to close which will offset the reduced revenue from the lower tax rates.  Deductions would also have to be limited for lower income taxpayers to make the numbers work.

The main point of President Obama’s plan:

  • Increase the tax rates for people making over $250,000
  • Eliminate the preferential rate for dividends and increase the capital gains rate

These changes are estimated to raise an additional $70 billion in annual tax revenues.

The arithmetic doesn’t work for either of these plans to balance the budget.  For the 2012 budget year, the federal government overspent by $1.1 trillion, and the total national debt has exceeded $16 trillion.  Since the government spends approximately $3.5 trillion each year, it’s a monumental task to close a $1.1 trillion deficit.

The U.S. Treasury collects approximately $2.2 trillion in income tax revenue each year.  To balance the budget under the Romney plan, all current deductions would need to be cut in half to raise another $1 trillion.  Deductions would have to be limited even more if the tax rates are reduced.  The Obama plan is no better.  Even if his tax changes were implemented, he’s about $1 trillion short to balance the budget.  By simple arithmetic, the numbers don’t add up… for Romney or Obama.

We can’t tax our way out of the hole we are in.  We must cut spending in order to balance the budget.  This is not Washington semantics for cuts by reducing the rate of growth or cutting the amount you hoped to spend.  It means actually spending less than the $3.5 trillion we spent last year.

On this front, I give the edge to Gov. Romney.  You or I may not agree with his proposals or priorities, but at least he’s willing to talk about cutting federal expenditures.   He was criticized and ridiculed after the first Presidential debate for trying to kill Big Bird, because he advocated ending the federal subsidy to the Public Broadcasting Service.  He has also been willing to tackle the “third rail” of politics – Medicare and Social Security.

In contrast, I can’t think of one significant cut in federal spending proposed by President Obama.  Counting money which would have been spent for the war in Iraq but isn’t going to be spent doesn’t count in my book.  It’s like saying you cut your spending by $5,000 for the vacation you didn’t take.  Furthermore, the budget deficit for 2013 will still be over $1 trillion without any spending for Iraq.  Instead of talking about spending cuts, the President is pushing for more “investments” (aka spending) for teachers and infrastructure.  These may be good things, but it doesn’t address how to balance the budget, and taxing the rich more isn’t going to close the gap.

Politicians are very good at using sound bites and obscuring the truth.  President Clinton was right… balancing the budget is simply a matter of arithmetic.  In this case, both candidates (and most members of Congress) probably need a remedial math class.

Ignore the WARNing

The Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act (WARN) is a federal law requiring an employer with more than 100 employees to provide at least 60 advance notice of any mass layoffs or plant closings.  The law is intended to alert employees and communities of upcoming layoffs, and a company can be penalized for up to 60 days of employees’ wages for failing to comply with the WARN notification.

The WARN requirements have created a serious political problem.  According to the Congressional budget deal worked out last year, defense spending will be reduced by $55 billion starting on January 2, 2013.  If the spending cuts occur many defense contractors are concerned about a significant reduction in their contracts, which could lead to massive layoffs on January 2, 2013.  In order to avoid penalties and meet the 60-day WARN notification, employers need to notify their employees before November 2, 2012, which just happens to be 4 days before Election Day… ala the political conundrum.

On Monday, the Department of Labor (DOL) mailed a letter to state agencies stating it would be “inappropriate” for employers to send out WARN layoff notifications in anticipation of the defense spending cuts.  This immediately raised many eyebrows as to whether or not the DOL’s letter was politically motivated.   Suspicions were heightened, because the Department of Labor previously issued guidance to employers saying it could not give WARN advice regarding specific situations.

Three primary concerns come to mind regarding this matter.

Undue Political Influence

It’s hard to get away from politics in an election year.  Every decision is interpreted through a political prism, and it’s hard to divorce politics from the process.   Decisions like this one are made by high-ranking political appointees, and their jobs and influence are dependent upon whether or not their boss retains his job.  Thus, it can be near impossible to think politics won’t influence the decision makers.  However, it seems like elected and appointed officials are predisposed to make most of their decisions based on what’s best for their career and pocketbook, instead of what’s best for the country.  We can’t honestly know the motivation of the DOL personnel involved in this decision, but choosing to provide guidance on an issue they previously refused, certainly raises questions.

Meaningless Laws

The primary rationale for the DOL’s conclusion for employers to refrain from sending out WARN notices was the uncertainty of whether or not the cuts would remain in effect. The DOL essentially acknowledged this law was a sham in the first place and was passed for political expediency.  Irrespective of whether Congress ever intended for the cuts take effect, are the spending cuts the law or not??  According to the legislation on the books, the cuts will occur unless a new law is passed to restore the spending.  As a citizen, you’re penalized for disobeying a law or regulation, so why do politicians and government bureaucrats get to decide which laws they enforce or follow?

Ineffective Government

As a nation we are probably more divided than any time in history since the Civil War, yet the problems we face are immense.  The sluggish economy and $16 trillion debt are enormous problems.  Rather than having serious discussions and working towards creative solutions, our leaders are more focused on partisan brinkmanship and political machinations.  If history repeats itself, the defense spending cuts will probably never happen.  Rather than face a disgruntled electorate and risk losing an election, our leaders will forge some “compromise” which maintains the status quo and allows both sides to declare victory.  Meanwhile, nothing is resolved and the country plunges further into debt each day, and our leaders are able to pass laws that are never intended to go into effect to maintain the charade of getting something accomplished.

The DOL’s guidance for employers to ignore the WARN notices should set off a much larger warning.  Aside from the political ramifications, it’s a dangerous place for politicians and bureaucrats to selectively choose which laws to follow and enforce.  We’re either a nation of laws or not.  If not… then God help us.  Lawless nations and those which allow its leaders to use the laws to reward their friends and punish their enemies are always destructive to the people at large.

A New Record

On Wednesday, the United States of America established a new record, although it may not be one we want to boast about.  As of the close of business on Wednesday, the U.S. total debt exceeded $15 trillion.

This bad news gets worse… don’t expect the debt increase to stop or slow down anytime soon.  We’re already two months into the current budget year without an approved budget (that’s a different matter).   However, the 2012 Budget proposals put forth so far expect to add at least another $1 trillion to the debt, which is approximately $3 billion per day.

Interestingly enough, there was very little media coverage regarding this matter.  There was more coverage about Occupy Wall Street, the Supercommittee and the Penn State scandal than our debt breaking the $15 trillion barrier.  After all the acrimony earlier this year about raising the debt ceiling, it might not be considered important news.

Here are a few details about our national debt which might interest you.

  • The U.S. population is approximately 310 million people, which means there is approximately $48,000 of debt for every man, woman and child.
  • The debt is divided into two broad categories; intragovernmental debt and debt held by the public.  The intragovernmental debt is $4.7 trillion and the debt held by the public is $10.3 trillion.
  • The intragovernmental debt is essentially money owed to the Social Security system. When politicians refer to the Social Security Trust Fund, this is what they mean.  Its debt the government owes itself.
  • Even though it may be considered an independent government agency, the U.S. Federal Reserve is now the largest stakeholder of the debt held by the public.  The Fed currently holds $1.665 trillion of U.S. Treasury Securities.
  • China is the second largest holder of debt, with $1.148 trillion.
  • As a result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, its stake in U.S. debt obligations increased by over $850 billion over the past year.

I may be a bit cynical, but unfortunately I don’t think there is much hope Congress will act to stem the flow of red ink in the near term.  They battled a few months ago and agreed the debt will rise to over $16 trillion by the end of 2012, so I don’t expect much to happen on the political front.  The lack of media coverage is an indication of the lack of interest by Congress in this dubious milestone.

On the bright side, one thing that’s preventing us from being crushed by our own debt is that nearly one-third of the $15 trillion of Treasuries is effectively being held by the federal government (i.e., Social Security and the Federal Reserve).  Thus, our real debt to investors is effectively $10 trillion.  Not a good situation, but better than $15 trillion.

At the same time, it’s not a healthy position for the government to hold so much of its own debt.  Congress may have played fast and loose with the Social Security funds, but the day has arrived when the Social Security payments exceed the taxes collected.  It’s going to put more strain on the budget, and the real cash flow of the federal government, as Social Security starts cashing out its intragovernmental loans.

It’s also not great for the Federal Reserve to continually increase its Treasury holdings.  As I and others have previously written, the Federal Reserve essentially printed money to buy up a huge chunk of government debt issued over the past 12 months.  Quantitative easing may have some economic benefits, but there are tremendous long-term risks from this strategy.

Americans like to break records, and we just broke another one.  Unfortunately, it’s an honor we could have done without.  The real question is what are we going to do to stop the hemorrhaging and get our fiscal house in order?  We just set a new record, and it’s only a matter of months before we break the $16 trillion mark.

Effects of the Credit Downgrade

Late Friday afternoon, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) announced it was downgrading the credit rating of U.S. Treasury securities from AAA to AA+ and retained its negative outlook.  Although S&P previously announced it was considering a downgrade, the announcement was a bombshell dropped at the end of a tumultuous week of economic and political news.

  • After weeks of political posturing and rancorous debate, Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, increasing the debt ceilingPresident Obama signed the legislation on August 2, thereby avoiding a potential default by the U.S. government.
  • After the debt deal was done, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings announced they would retain their AAA rating of U.S. Treasuries but continue to monitor U.S. fiscal health.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended a 9-day losing streak with a blistering 334 point decline; wiping out all of the gains for 2011.
  • S&P capped the week by announcing their downgrade.

Since Friday afternoon, politicians, economists, and pundits have been discussing the impact of the downgrade.  There has also been a lot of pointing fingers of who is to blame for  tarnishing the image of the U.S.  It has also left a lot of people wondering about the real implications of a downgrade in the credit rating of the U.S. Government.

Here are a couple of things I think you can expect from the downgrade.

  • There is a bruising to the American pride and psyche.  Nothing has changed since Friday, but most Americans want to believe we are the best of the best.  The downgrade is likely to increase the uncertainty and pessimism of the American consumer.
  • Interest rates won’t change immediately.  Interest rates are effectively determined by the free markets, not by S&P.  A credit ratings agency simply tries to assess the risk of a particular security, but it’s up to the market to decide the interest rate.  Don’t expect interest rates to change in the near future, but there could be some upward pressure on rates if investors become more leery about the fiscal stability of the U.S. government.
  • The stock markets aren’t going to crash.  As anticipated, the markets were battered yesterday and lost about 5% of their value, but it’s not a direct correlation to the S&P ratings change.  Remember the Dow took a 334 point hit last week before S&P made its announcement.   Furthermore, the 10-year Treasury yield fell from Friday’s rate of 3.558%. This means investors bought more Treasuries; the very securities that are supposedly more risky.  The selloff is more attributable to the poor outlook of the global economy and European sovereign debt worries.  Investors are seeking stability, so they’re buying up Treasuries and gold.

There is one potential redeeming element which may come from the downgrade, but it’s far from certain.  This might serve as a wake-up call for our political leaders to get serious about the fiscal future of our country.  As I wrote last week, the debt deal was long on promises and short on spending cuts.  In my opinion, a 0.6% cut in spending for 2012 is a pittance in light of overall spending.  The rating downgrade could prompt our leaders to get serious about tackling the debt and deficit.

No longer is it just extreme fiscal conservatives who think it unrealistic for the U.S. government to overspend by $1 trillion each year without consequence.  Standard & Poor’s is a significant player in the global economy.  You may question the timing and motivation of their downgrade, but it should serve as a clarion call of the long-term risks and ramifications of our debt and deficit spending.  I can only hope our politicians are listening and have the courage to do something about it.

Details of the Debt Deal

After weeks of political wrangling, Congress and President Obama enacted the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The legislation provides for an immediate increase the debt ceiling of $400 billion, averting a potential default by the U.S. government.  Avoiding default is probably the one thing most Americans are pleased with in this bill.

The debt deal is long on political rhetoric and short on details.  While many of our political leaders are touting the success of this legislation as a significant step towards dealing with the fiscal challenges of our country, there is little discussion of what is actually going to happen.  Beyond deferring the most significant spending cuts to a Joint Select Committee (JSC) composed of 12 Congressional leaders, evenly divided by house and party, there are few details of how the actual spending cuts are going to be achieved.

The Congressional Budget Office scored the spending cuts to be $2.1 trillion between 2012 through 2021. Of this amount $917 billion is supposed to be guaranteed in exchange for allowing the Treasury to sell another $900 billion in bonds.  The remaining $1.2 trillion is supposed to be determined by the JSC.  At this point, no one knows what is going to be cut to achieve any savings.

From what has been released, the bill calls for $21 billion of spending cuts in Fiscal 2012 and $42 in 2013.  Not surprisingly, the substantial cuts happen far in the future, which means there is always the chance the cuts won’t happen.  For those of us who believe government spending is on an unsustainable path, this is not very encouraging.  Here are a couple of things to consider.

President Obama’s 2012 Budget  proposal calls for $2.6 trillion in revenue and $3.7 trillion of spending; resulting in a $1.1 trillion deficit.  The House passed a budget with $2.5 trillion in revenue and $3.5 trillion of spending; racking up a $1 trillion deficit.  According to the debt deal, spending will be trimmed by a measly $22 billion.  This is about 0.6% of all federal  spending for the coming year.

Talking in trillions and billions can seem rather esoteric, so think in these terms.  Assume you make $50,000 this year.  If you managed your finances like the federal government, you would spend over $70,000, borrowing the difference.  If you cut your spending like Congress and the President have proposed, you would only trim your spending by $420 for the next year.  That’s right… just a mere $8 per week, even though you’re overspending by $20,000.  Given those parameters, would you say you were serious about changing your spending habits by cutting $8 per week?

Many politicians and commentators are calling this a historic piece of legislation.  They refer to it as a down payment on our debt and an important first step.  This may be true, but it’s an indication of how difficult it is for Congress to cut federal spending.   If they can barely manage to trim $22 billion, how are they going to come anywhere near close to $1 trillion?  It would take over $1 trillion of additional cuts and/or revenues to balance the budget, before we can even begin to pay down the debt.

The debt deal further illustrates the Congressional propensity to defer hard decisions.  Effectively, it will be a future Congress and potentially a different President, who will have to make the hard decisions to cut spending and balance the budget.  Given the history and culture of Congress, it’s no wonder the debt deal is long on politics and promises and short on specifics and spending cuts.

Decoding the Debt Debate

If you’re following the current debate on raising the debt ceiling, you’re probably frustrated.  Your angst may be triggered by, the partisan bickering, the lack of great leadership or the uncertainty of what may happen and what it all means.

Politicians from all political persuasions and affiliations have become very adept at obfuscation.  Knowing whatever they say or do can and will be used against them in a future election, politicians have become very proficient in deflecting and dodging direct answers.  They speak in vague terms and try to boil everything down to a 30 second sound bite.

Politicians and political commentators often use terminology that is confusing and often misleading.  You almost need a secret decoder to decipher what they are saying.  I don’t all of the secret codes, but I have a few.

As you listen to the debate, the following are a few terms to keep in mind.

  • The National Debt – The cumulative amount of money owed by the U.S. government. These are actual bonds held by various investors (including the Chinese government and your friendly bank).  The total outstanding debt is approximately $14.5 trillion.
  • The Debt Ceiling – The total amount of bonds the U.S. Treasury is authorized to issue.  The debt ceiling is currently equal to the National Debt.  A law must be passed to increase the debt limit.
  • Deficit – This is the amount of money the government is spending in excess of revenues it collects in one fiscal year (October 1 – September 30).  The deficit for fiscal 2011 is projected to be $1.4 trillion.
  • Credit Rating – Every bond traded on a public market is rated by an independent credit rating agency, which assesses the financial strength of the issuer and the likelihood of default.  The lower the rating, the higher the interest rate required.  For bonds already issued, a change in credit rating will often influence the price at which the bond is traded on the market.

Aside from these terms bantered about, I believe there are a few important factors you need to pay close attention to in any deal that is reached.  These will be the types of issues our  political leaders will attempt to obfuscate.

  • Time Horizon – The time horizon for the spending cuts and additional revenues will be calculated over the next 10 years.   If Congress and the President agree to cut $1 trillion in spending, it won’t all come in fiscal 2012.  They may sound like everything is happening this year, but any plan will be adopted over the next decade.  Raising the debt ceiling is the only thing to take effect immediately.
  •  Timing – Look at the timing for when additional revenue is received and spending cuts are enacted.  If history repeats itself, the revenues will start to be received soon, and the  bulk of the spending cuts will happen in the latter years.  In the world of pork barrel politics, elected officials use government spending to buy votes, and the termination of programs will frequently cost votes.  Thus, politicians have a real incentive to defer spending cuts to another day.
  • Details –It won’t be easy, but do your best to understand the details of the plan.  Congress is trying to make major changes to the tax code, Social Security, Medicare and  Medicaid, and they’re rushing to get it done in the next few days.  I don’t think you want a repeat of Nancy Pelosi’s famous quote, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”

I believe this is a serious issue, and how it is resolved could have far-reaching implications for the future.  No one knows what will happen if the government defaults on its debt, since it has never happened.  As I previously wrote, I think Congress will and should raise the debt ceiling, but it also needs to curtail government spending.  Racking up over $1 trillion of debt each year is just as perilous as defaulting on the current obligations by not raising the debt ceiling.

I also have serious reservations about our leaders’ability and willingness to cut spending.  The 2011 budget compromise is a good illustration of this.  Although they supposedly agreed to $38 billion in spending cuts, most of it was accounting gimmicks and money that wasn’t going to be spent anyway.  One analyst calculated the reduction in spending on specific programs to be less than $1 billion in comparison to fiscal 2010.

As the debate continues forward, follow closely.  Here’s why.  Last week, President Obama was pushing a plan to cut spending by $3.7 trillion and add $1 trillion of new revenue, for a net decrease of $2.7 trillion over the next decade.  Sound like a reasonable compromise?  Before deciding, you may want to consider this.  When the Administration presented their 2012 budget to Congress, they also provided a 10-year budget estimate.  The Administration projected total deficits over the next 10 years to be in excess of $9 trillion.  If the current deal cuts it by $2.7 trillion, that still means we’ll add over $6 trillion to the national debt, pushing out total debt close to $21 trillion by the end of the decade.  Still think it’s a good deal?

To me this is a good example of why we must watch this closely.  Despite the political rancor, everyone in Washington is looking for a deal which will make them look good.  Let’s just make sure the American people get as good of a deal as our politicians.