Thursday, May 28, 2009

Now Your State Can Print Money Too!

One reason why spending at the state level can rarely get out of control is because states lack the power to print money. In other words, they must rely on taxation or municipal bond offerings to raise money to fund their budgets. Since taxation is unpopular, there is an obvious political limit to increased tax rates. Since private municipal bond investors can only buy so much debt before asking for higher interest rates, there is also a limit to the amount states can raise through borrowing. The federal government figured out how to get around this limit by creating the Federal Reserve System which is a pseudo private bank with the power to create money. The Fed can buy federal government debt from the public with fake money. Therefore, the federal government always has a buyer for its paper.

Now, the states want to get in on the action.

Of course, the states will not ask for the direct power to print money. They have a more clever way.
In a move with only one modern-day precedent, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration and members of Congress for federal loan guarantees to help the state out of a desperate, multibillion-dollar jam.

California is not asking for cash, like the tens of billions given to AIG, General Motors or Morgan Stanley. (MS) Instead, the state with the worst credit rating in the nation is asking that Washington act as a sort of co-signer on the state's borrowing, to be backed up with money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

California leaders say that would make it easier and cheaper for the state to borrow money on the bond market, reducing the interest rate by as much as half and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

So, here we go. The states are "not asking for cash" - only federal government "guarantees" to get them out of a "jam". Sound familiar? This is exactly the premise of government sponsored agencies (GSAs) like Freddie and Fannie that were to "guarantee" pools of mortgage backed securities. Such guarantees resulted in the massive issuance of mortgages since they could be pooled and sold to GSAs all in an effort to "help" first time home buyers by keeping mortgage rates down (and underwriting standards lower than otherwise). That worked pretty well, right...?

If the federal government offers similar guarantees to state municipal bond offerings, it will effectively remove any constraint to state level spending. States will no longer have to face the politically unpopular choice of raising taxes to generate revenue or, gasp, cut spending. They will be able to borrow ad infinitum since the federal government will stand behind the state debt with its printing presses in tow. Such a mechanism would effectively transfer the power of printing money to the state level with all of its attendant consequences: reckless spending and runaway indebtedness all backed by the United States taxpayer who will shoulder the burden directly through increased federal taxes or by paying more for everything in the form of inflation as the dollars created to pay for this mess work there way into circulation.

Because this idea is unjust - it effectively spreads state level obligations to other states - and because it is economically disastrous - it will encourage states to spend and borrow more thus crowding out private investment and spurring inflation - and because it mitigates the short run need for politicians to face the consequences of their actions - look for it to pass unopposed.

1 comment:

Galileo Blogs said...

Excellent post.

The "magic" of government guarantees of debt led to the unprecedented housing bubble, but it took decades for the full ill consequence to manifest itself.

The "beauty" of this form of government spending is that it has the same magical cloaked quality. We will only experience the full bad consequence of this years from now as state spending goes wildly out of control, resulting in ever larger deficits and ultimately inflation as the federal government must print ever-larger quantities of money to cover the deficits.

Taxing and spending the tax proceeds -- immoral as it is -- is far more just than this sneaky form of theft.