The Only Two Charts That Matter For The US, And A Q&A On The Fiscal "Debate" From Goldman Sachs

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Lately, there has been a lot of chatter by virtually everyone with some soapbox to stand on, about this and that. That's swell... if mostly irrelevant: by now everyone should be aware that only two charts actually matter, both of which are painfully self-explanatory.

Chart 1: The Federal Budget

Chart 2: The growth of the US debt in relation to the soon to be hiked debt ceiling.

And, for the purists, we'll add another chart, this time showing the continuing persistent deterioration in the budget due to mandatory spending. The question is where, absent someone discovering teleportation or some other revolutionary technological invention, will the paradigm technological step up allowing for a surge in revenues, come from.

And since even the most self-explanatory is supposed to come with some narrative, here is Goldman's most recent Q&A on the Fiscal "Debate" - although we wonder just what debate is being referred to: after all D.C. is nothing but a smokescreen for Wall Street which demands either more dollars in circulation or more public debt issued in order to keep the wheels turning. Without either of these it's game over.

Q&A on the Fiscal Debate

The formulation of federal fiscal policy is typically of interest to markets mainly when it involves large changes outside of the annual budget process, such as the countercyclical policies enacted in 2008 and 2009, or other one-off policy decisions, such as the extension of expiring tax measures at the end of 2010. By contrast, the appropriations process is normally not important to market participants apart from those focused on the effect on individual industries.  However, split control of Congress and an increasing focus on fiscal sustainability have raised the profile of seemingly routine budget matters. In what follows we attempt to clarify some of the issues currently in play that are of particular interest to markets:

Q: What is currently being debated?

A: Discretionary spending for FY2011. Defense and non-defense discretionary spending (see Exhibit 1) are projected to account for $1.373 trillion in federal outlays this year, or roughly 39% of total federal spending (Exhibit 1). But with the current fiscal year halfway over, the spending level is still uncertain. Congress has funded the government through a series of six “continuing resolutions” (CRs) while it has debated full-year spending levels. These short-term spending bills are not uncommon, and are often used to provide funding for a few departments at the previous year’s level while appropriations work is being wrapped up in Congress.

However, it is unusual to be operating under a CR halfway through the year. The most recent two CRs also included a combined $10bn in cuts, and lawmakers are negotiating additional cuts of between $33bn and $40bn from current levels to be included in the funding bill for the full fiscal year. As of this writing, differences have narrowed, but the exact amount and composition of cuts is still unclear. Without an extension of spending authority, either through full-year appropriations (the goal of this week’s fiscal discussions) or another short-term measure (a fallback in the absence of a full-year bill), the federal government would partially shut down until funding is restored. Funding expires at the end of April 8.

Q: Why is there such a great focus on non-defense discretionary spending?

A: Non-defense discretionary is only 12% of the budget, but cuts here are often a first step in fiscal consolidation. While discretionary spending cuts will not resolve the budget imbalance on their own, this segment of the budget is addressed once a year, creating a natural first opportunity for cuts. It also tends to have fewer vested constituencies compared with mandatory spending, which is comprised mainly of benefit payments to individuals. In previous research we have found that the level of non-defense discretionary spending is the most responsive to the debt to GDP ratio, probably for these reasons.

Q: Is the possibility of a shutdown related to the debt limit?

A: The debt limit is a legally separate issue, with potentially more important consequences if action is delayed. For historical reasons that stretch back to the First World War, Congress imposes a legally binding limit on the amount of debt the Treasury may issue. Once the Treasury reaches the limit, a prolonged failure to raise it would require the government to reduce outlays to the amount of revenue it takes in, and would not allow it to smooth monthly revenue or spending fluctuations with borrowing. So while the non-essential functions that would cease in a funding lapse account for a few hundred billion per year in federal spending, maintaining the current debt limit would require outlays to decline by an amount comparable to the budget deficit, which we expect to total $1.35 trillion this year and $1.025 trillion in FY2012.

Q: When will the debt limit be reached, and when will it be raised?

A: Probably in June. Treasury has projected that it will reach this statutory limit no later than May 16 (Exhibit 3). Once the limit is reached, the Treasury has several strategies it can use to create additional room under the limit, but after using these options the Treasury projects the limit will become a constraint no later than July 8.

Q: What about next year’s budget?

A: A debate over additional spending cuts is likely. Even though the FY2011 process has not yet concluded, the process for the fiscal year starting October 1 has already begun. The congressional budget process begins with the budget resolution, which recommends spending and revenue levels for the next ten years. The House budget resolution, which passed in committee this week, assumes a reduction in non-defense discretionary outlays of $79 billion from the CBO baseline in FY2012. Along with changes in other areas of the budget, the House budget resolution proposes to reduce overall spending by $110 billion in FY2012, and aims to reduce the 10-year deficit by $4.4 trillion. To achieve this, discretionary spending reductions for FY2012 would likely need to be at least as large as those being debated for the current fiscal year. No budget resolution has been released yet in the Senate.

Agreement this spring on the budget resolution may be difficult. However, the process can continue without an agreement; in fact, the resolution by definition does not become law, and Congress has failed in several recent years to enact a budget resolution. That said, the House and Senate must agree on appropriations legislation for FY2012—or at least another short term continuing resolution—by October 1, 2011 to avoid risking a shutdown.

Apart from the normal budget cycle, lawmakers must also decide whether to extend the 2-point payroll tax cut and expanded unemployment insurance enacted in late 2010, both of which would expire at the end of 2011 in the absence of an extension.

Q: When will Congress tackle structural reforms?

A: The debate has begun, but major reform seems more likely after the election. While discretionary spending changes occur often, changes to tax policy and mandatory spending programs tend to produce the largest policy-driven changes in the budget balance (Exhibit 4 shows the 5-year fiscal effect on the budget balance of all legislation enacted in a given year, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office).
Divided control of Congress appears to be a significant obstacle to these sorts of changes at the moment. Moreover, neither party appears interested in changes to the Social Security program that would reduce spending in the next decade. Some lawmakers have put cuts in health-related entitlements on the table, as have the various fiscal commissions, but in the wake of last year’s health care law, which was partly financed with $455bn in Medicare cuts over ten years, the “easy” reductions in that program have already been made.

Q: Does policy uncertainty increase the fiscal risk facing the US?

A: While potentially unsettling in the very short term, multiple upcoming deadlines could actually increase the likelihood of meaningful fiscal reforms. With two important deadlines ahead, fiscal policy will remain in the headlines. It is possible that the potential for a shutdown will return ahead of FY2012, which starts October 1. In addition, enacting an increase in the debt limit large enough to last through the 2012 presidential election could be difficult, as it would likely require an increase in the range of $2 trillion. Since it is unclear whether lawmakers will be willing to pass such a large increase at one time, the issue could be debated more than once.

While all of these deadlines could result in additional uncertainty, they also create multiple opportunities to enact fiscal reforms. At a minimum, additional spending cuts for FY2012 look likely, on top of what is agreed to for FY2011. Moreover, discretionary spending caps and other fiscal rules are very likely to be debated as part of these measures. Although it is likely to be at least as difficult for lawmakers to  agree on multi-year fiscal restraint as it has been to agree on appropriations for this year, there are two reasons to think this could be achieved: first, prior debt limit increases have often been coupled with important budget reforms, so there is a precedent. The 1997 debt limit increase was packaged with significant entitlement reforms. The 2010 increase was combined with statutory pay-as-you-go rules.

Second, now that both parties have opened the door to discretionary spending cuts, imposing hard multi-year caps on this segment of the budget looks like a realistic possibility as these upcoming fiscal deadlines are addressed.