Now that the United States has driven down its annual budget deficit to less than $500 billion a year, there is a widespread temptation to think that we’re out of the fiscal woods. By some fiscal measures, actually, we are performing better than a lot of other countries. I found this McKinsey & Company report to provide a fascinating perspective. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007, the U.S. has added less to its total debt (household, business and government combined) as a ratio of its economy than any developed country but Germany and Norway.
Our relative prudence reflects two main countervailing trends: public profligacy and private thrift. American households have shed much of their debt, either through restrained spending or through bankruptcies, foreclosures and write-offs. But public spending has surged. In effect, we have shifted the risk of over- indebtedness from private balance sheets to public balance sheets. We are at less risk of a consumer-driven recession than we would have been otherwise, but at greater risk of a more systemic, Boomergeddon-style meltdown.
And it’s not as if we’re immune to excess indebtedness in other countries. We’re part of a global economy. If other countries go bust and spending collapses, our exports suffer and our growth slows (as happened this past quarter). If other governments start defaulting on debts, the shock is transmitted through banks and bond markets in unpredictable ways. If economic instability leads to political instability in a key global player like China, we could experience disruptions to supply chains.
Debt is a wonderful thing when the economy is growing and everyone can make their interest and principle payments. It’s a wretched, nausea-inducing thing when the economy tanks. One way to protect ourselves is to make sure we know how much debt is out there, and where it is. Government-issued bonds are a matter of public record and highly visible. But there’s a lot of debt stashed away in economic development authorities, colleges and universities, and other quasi-governmental institutions that we pay less attention to.
Meanwhile, according to Governing magazine, municipalities are increasingly turning to bank debt, which is less transparent. According Governing‘s Liz Farmer, localities are required to report bank loans in their annual financial reports, but such information often doesn’t surface until a year after the fact. And bank borrowing is soaring.
Over the past five years, banks have nearly doubled their municipal holdings to $425 billion in securities and loans, up from $225 billion at the end of 2009, according to a Moody’s report. The practice is becoming so prevalent that muni analysts indicate it’s contributed to the slower pace of new bond issuance over the same period.
The [Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board], which is charged with protecting investors, municipalities and the public interest by promoting a fair and efficient municipal market, can’t do its job it if doesn’t have all the data. …. The terms of these loans can directly affect bondholders. … For example, some loan deals require that a bank loan be paid back first in the event that a government can’t pay all its bills on time. That means that future bondholders’ investments could be less protected than they realized.
Is anyone keeping track of this data for localities in Virginia? Do we have the faintest clue how much debt is backed directly or indirectly by local governments? Are our finances as conservative as we think they are?
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