Category Archives: Federal

Virginia Economic Growth Still a Struggle

New home of Phone2Action -- celebrating small victories.

New home of Phone2Action — celebrating small victories.

Straws in the wind regarding Northern Virginia’s business climate:

Budget sequestration may be a thing of the past, but the federal budget squeeze is not. In her latest Richmond Times-Dispatch column, economist Chris Chmura notes that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2015, federal spending on contracts fell 4.4% — some $2.4 billion — in Virginia. About two-thirds of that was defense spending. With slow economic growth and Baby Boomer retirements driving Medicare spending ever higher, there is likely no relief in sight. Short of another big war, it seems to me, it is difficult to imagine a strong rebound in federal contracting.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., continues to gain competitive advantage over outlying jurisdictions in the metropolitan region. Even Arlington County, which is highly urbanized, close to the urban core, and blessed by mass transit and walkable neighborhoods, is feeling the challenge. “The county is … facing heavy competition from Alexandria and D.C., both of which are aggressively recruiting the same pool of talent,” writes Daniel J. Sernovitz with the Washington Business Journal.

The competition has gotten so fierce that Governor Terry McAuliffe made a trip to Arlington last week to celebrate the leasing of 3,586 square feet on Wilson Blvd. by Phone2Action, a 25-employee startup that had recently landed $4.7 million in venture funding. The governor provided $127,800 in state assistance. According to Sernowitz, Opower, an energy conservation company, has wangled money out of the state and Arlington County, to stay in Arlington rather than move to the district. Meanwhile, Arlington and Alexandria, he reported in February, felt compelled to set aside more funds for business recruitment.

To mangle an old phrase, if Northern Virginia sneezes, Virginia catches a cold. The commonwealth finished the 2016 fiscal year $266 million in the red, as revenues increased only 1.7%, short of the projected 3.2%.

— JAB

The Hidden Risk in Money Market Funds, and What It Means for Virginia

Cranky old man... or seer of the future?

Cranky old man… or seer of the future?

by James A. Bacon

I’m sure many readers are tired of hearing my jeremiads about excess debt, fiscal unsustainability, and the necessity of re-engineering Virginia institutions to survive the inevitable reckoning. Well, too bad. The global economy is severely out of balance, Virginia is part of that economy, and we will suffer the consequences when the world’s 21st century experiment with fiscal and monetary perpetual motion machines collapses. State and local polities that prepare for the inevitable storm will be in a better position to ride it out.

Bacon’s Rebellion has explored the unintended consequences of the Federal Reserve Bank’s policy of monetary easing, which has been magnified by comparable policies of monetary easing and reckless credit creation in the European Union, China and Japan. While near-zero interest rates benefit the world’s largest debtor, the United States federal government, it punishes savers and the institutions that serve them. Thus, the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are generating lower income from their surpluses, leading to premature depletion. Insurance companies are earning less on their capital, causing them to increase premiums. The rate of return for pension funds are earning less money, compelling corporations and governments to bolster their contributions.

Even money market fund are affected. A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The Unintended Consequences of the Zero Lower Bound Policy,” has found that zero-interest rate policies create problems for savers who park their cash in seemingly safe money market funds. In an effort to deliver non-negative net returns to their investors, portfolio managers have not only reduced expenses charged to investors but chased higher yields by taking bigger risks.

That money market fund you think is a safe and stable repository for your cash? It may not be as safe and stable as you think. Not only is the yield approaching zero, but you may be shouldering risks you didn’t know existed. What’s worse:

Although our empirical results speak mostly to one part of financial markets, we want to emphasize that the effects we document are not necessarily limited to [the] money fund industry only. The reaching-for-yield phenomenon has been observed in other markets: for example, an average insurance company has shifted its assets toward riskier equity holdings, reaching the level of equity exposure of almost 20% in 2014. Similarly, pension funds expanded their holdings into more than 60% equity, away from typically held bonds. More work is needed to better understand the transmission mechanisms underlying the effects of the zero lower bound monetary policy on the stability of financial markets.

Just as generals are said to fight the last war, economic policy makers fight the last recession. Just as the masters of the universe in Washington, D.C. pursue policies to prevent a repeat of what they failed to foresee in 2007, they are blind to the extraordinary leverage built into the global economy, the linkages between sectors, and the mechanisms by which defaults in one corner of the globe will spread panic and chaos to other parts of the globe.

The best way for state and local lawmakers to insulate Virginia and its communities is (a) to curtail borrowing and (b) stop creating new long-term obligations that cannot be readily pared back. That’s not to say that we should cease borrowing altogether or refuse to launch any new programs, but it is to say that we live in times of great volatility and unpredictability and we should set higher standards for incurring any new liability.

Republicans and Leftists Are Outraged, Outraged, I Tell You

Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji in "Yoshino Mountain"by James A. Bacon

Here’s what I missed in yesterday’s quickie post about Governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to convene a clean energy task force: Both Republicans and leftist environmental groups are attacking the move, though for opposite reasons.

Republican legislators see the initiative as an end run around the state budget, which specifically prohibits any spending on the federal Clean Power Plan for reducing CO2 emissions from electric power plants while it is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Normally, such accusations strike me as political blather, but Brian Coy, a spokesman for the governor’s office, confirmed that that was precisely the motive. Here’s how the Washington Post summed up his statement: “The governor did not create the work group to assuage environmental groups but rather as a way to dodge the Republican-controlled General Assembly.”

House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, was not pleased: As quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he said: “This order is another deliberate attempt to circumvent the legislature and the will of Virginia voters.  The governor is developing a troubling tendency to prefer Washington-style executive action instead of the dialogue and collaboration that Virginians expect and deserve.”

Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s initiative was belittled from the left, who cited his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would supply natural gas to Virginia and other Southeastern markets, as evidence that he is not serious about combating climate change. A joint statement by the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Virginia Organizing called McAuliffe’s initiative “a minor environmental policy” dwarfed by the harm of natural gas transportation and combustion.

The kinds words came from mainstream environmental groups who have been working through the administration to implement the strictest of the Clean Power Plan alternatives available to the state.

The governor is trying to reconcile his desire to combat climate change with his priority of creating jobs. Thus, he defends construction of two natural gas pipelines through the state on the grounds that they will create economic opportunity for the Tidewater region of the state, which is effectively precluded from competing for important categories of industrial expansion due to an insufficient supply of natural gas. At the same time, he has supported the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), which seeks to curtail CO2 emissions from Virginia power plants. If the CPP passes legal muster, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will be charged from choosing from one of four broad approaches for the state to implement the plan. Environmentalists favor the option that would curtail CO2 emissions the most, although industry consumer groups worry the approach would drive up electric rates. McAuliffe has not yet endorsed an option.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m still not sure what the fuss is all about. McAuliffe has already enacted a series of measures driving state government to pursue energy efficiency goals and to purchase solar energy. There is not much else that he can legally do. This new working group can recommend anything it wants, but it won’t have power to spend a dime. Meanwhile, the big action revolves around the Clean Power Plan. If the Supreme Court upholds its constitutionality, the focus turns to the already-instated DEQ working group to recommend how to implement it. If the Supremes nix the CPP, regulatory decision-making effectively reverts to the State Corporation Commission, which responds to legislative guidance enacted into law, not to gubernatorial directives.

I regard this whole hoo-ha as political theater — a kabuki production in which the actors rigidly play out their assigned roles.

Boomergeddon Update: Medicare HI

Image credit: 2016 Medicare Trust Fund Board of Trustees annual report

Image credit: 2016 Medicare Trust Fund Board of Trustees annual report

by James A. Bacon

The Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, one of the four major components of the Medicare program, will run out of money in 2028 — two years earlier than previously projected. That appraisal comes from the Medicare Board of Trustees, which, the last time I checked, is not funded by the Koch Brothers.

The news of the accelerating structural crisis in the nation’s health care safety net stirred only the slightest of ripples in the news media, which buried the story deeper than an Iranian nuclear research facility. One would think the news to be of more than passing interest to the program’s 55.3 million recipients and thus to major media, but the nation’s elite journalists are so obsessed with the latest Tourettes-like tweets by Donald Trump that they cannot bestir themselves to ask the presidential candidates how they intend to preserve the social safety net.

This news comes soon after Congress and the Obama administration avoided the impending depletion of Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund only through the expediency of folding it into the Old Age Survivors Insurance trust fund, thus accelerating by a year the impending breakdown of both by 2034.

Medicare and Social Security will not collapse when the trust funds run out, but the gap between spending and revenues will have to be covered either by a hike in taxes, a cut in benefits or an increase in government borrowing, each of which would be grievous in its own way. The magnitude of this gap, caused by the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, will precipitate the nation’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression — what I call Boomergeddon.

And to what do we owe the accelerating crack-up of Medicare’s hospital insurance program (often referred to as Medicare Part A). Not to accelerating health care costs, ironically enough. “Since 2008, U.S. national health expenditure (NHE) growth has been below historical averages, despite having accelerated in 2014 mainly due to insurance expansions,” state the Medicare trustees.

But having said what the problem is not, the Medicare trustees fail to explain what it was. That is understandable, given the politically sensitive nature of what appears to be going wrong — weak job growth, the low labor participation rates, and less-than-expected payroll revenues. After real-world economic performance has under-performed forecast economic forecast every year for seven years running, the Obama administration appears to be adjusting its long-range forecasts for purposes of long-term budgetary planning.

Nobody wants to admit, least of all in an election year, that economic growth and job creation stink. But that is precisely what underlies the rush to ruin of Medicare, Social Security and the federal budget deficit generally. A weak economy means weak revenue.

Bacon’s bottom line. Boomergeddon is running right on track. The Congressional Budget Office projects a $534 billion deficit this year. (We don’t hear about that number from our journalistic elite either.) Were it not for monetary easing, ultra-low interest rates and multi-billion remittances from the Federal Reserve Bank, the deficit would be far bigger. In any case, CBO projects a cumulative $9.4 trillion in deficits, to be added to the existing $19 trillion national debt. The U.S. is on track to carry World War II levels of borrowing by the mid-2030s, the big difference being that in 1945 the war was over and the nation could demobilize its massive military, while in 2035 the nation will not be in a position to demobilize its social safety net.

Meanwhile, the structural budget deficit of the United States must be viewed in the context of chronic deficits of the European countries and Japan, and the massive over-leveraging of the Chinese economy. As McKinsey & Co. pointed out in a 2015 report, the global economy has added $57 trillion since the Great Recession; rather than de-leveraging, virtually every major nation has doubled down with increased borrowing. Systemic risk has never been greater. All it takes is a black swan event, and financial chaos will rip through the global economy, transmitted by financial linkages that public policy makers don’t even know exist. The Bear Stearns/Lehman Brothers financial panic will be a picnic by comparison.

The question, as always, for Virginians is this: How do we as citizens and taxpayers protect ourselves from the inevitable financial reckoning? Borrowing more is not an answer. (Somebody please tell Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, who proposes raising the city’s debt limit in order to borrow $580 million more in bonds over the next 10 years.) Building new transportation mega-projects that require subsidies indefinitely into the future is not an answer. Expanding social welfare programs like Medicaid is not an answer. The storm is coming, and we must prepare.

Fed Theft Update: $749 Billion from Bank Depositors

silent_theftFederal Reserve Bank suppression of interest rates has cost bank depositors $749 billion in interest income on savings accounts, CDs, and money market accounts over the past six years, according to Richard Barrington with MoneyRates.com.

Quantitative Easing has made possible one of the greatest redistributions of wealth in United States history. Unlike with taxes, which tend to be highly visible, most people don’t understand how interest rate suppression affects them. Low interest rates have devastated not only bank account savings but public and private pension funds and savings vehicles such as insurance policies. Beneficiaries are borrowers, including house buyers, car owners, college students, credit card owners, corporations leveraging their balance sheets, and, of course, the U.S. government. Every percentage point in interest rate suppression across the yield curve benefits Uncle Sam to the tune of $180 billion a year.

So, how did Barrington calculate the cost to bank depositors?

MoneyRates.com starts with the total amount on deposit at U.S. banks as of March 31, per the FDIC. That total is then increased by average money market rates over the subsequent year … and then adjusted for the inflation rate over the same period. The difference between the resulting figure and the original amount on deposit at U.S. banks represents the hidden cost of the Federal Reserve’s low-rate policy.

The little guy knows the system is stacked against him. He just doesn’t know how. Pass this blog post around.

— JAB

Your Federal Tax Dollars at Work

The fog of government

The fog of government

And I thought the City of Richmond was incompetent for its inability to close out its financial books in a timely manner!

Heed this opinion from the federal Government Accountability Organization (GAO) on Uncle Sam’s financial statements for 2014 and 2015: “Certain material weaknesses in internal control over financial reporting and other limitations on the scope of … work resulted in conditions that prevented GAO from expressing an opinion on the accrual-based consolidated financial statements.”

Three major departments — Defense, Agriculture and Housing & Urban Development, controlling 34% of assets and 19% of spending — accounted for the most questionable financials, according to Government Executive MagazineBut accounting issues pertaining to Medicare cost control also prevented GAO from expressing an opinion on sustainability financial statements on HHS’ Statement of Social Insurance on accounts worth about $27.9 trillion.

Bacon’s bottom line: The federal government will run a $544 billion budget deficit this year…. we think. It could be more, it could be less. What’s a few billion dollars?

(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Radiation, Hormesis and Nuclear Power

radiationby James A. Bacon

I belong to a generation that grew up with a fear of nuclear war, fall-out and slow, agonizing death by radiation poisoning. We’d seen the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We lived through the scare of Three Mile Island and, years later, had our fears reinforced by catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Given the fear of radiation, when people talked about the wonders of nuclear power, my reaction was, “Sounds great. Just make it safe.”

As the United States evolves toward a low-carbon future, nuclear energy has two great virtues. First, it emits zero carbon dioxide. Second, nuclear power plants run around the clock; unlike with wind and solar, output does not vary with weather conditions. The drawback is that nuclear units are hideously expensive to build, largely because federal rules have zero tolerance for radiation leaks.

The zero-tolerance philosophy is based upon a scientific premise known as the linear no-threshold model (LNT), which states a linear dose-risk relationship. We know incontrovertibly that large radiation doses are deadly. The LNT model asserts that small doses are damaging as well, though at proportionately lower levels. While that scientific view has prevailed in the regulatory arena — better safe than sorry — it has not been universally accepted.

Proponents of “radiation hormesis” argue that biological organisms evolved in an environment with measurable background radiation. Not only is this low level of radiation not harmful, says the hormesis hypothesis, it is beneficial because it stimulates organisms to engage in cellular repair activities that counter not only the deleterious effects of radiation but cancers unrelated to the radiation exposure. The positive hormesis effect small, however, so its statistical signal has been drowned out by seemingly infinite variations in environmental conditions and by measurement error.

Still, the hormesis hypothesis has been gaining traction in recent years — so much so that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has requested public comment on proposals to change the basis for NRC “Standards for Protection Against Radiation” from the LNT model to the hormesis model. Presumably, the proposed change would declare low levels of radiation emissions to be harmless, which in turn could relax the regulatory requirements surrounding the construction and operation of nuclear reactors.

“Exaggerated radiation fears have been crucial in driving up the safety, waste storage and licensing costs of nuclear power,” declares Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in the Wall Street Journal today. “But change may finally be coming—a paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear risk.”

While sentiment may be shifting, millions of Americans remain less than convinced. Most of the comments I perused in the NRC comments were negative. Many people are convinced that the revised thinking is being driven by a self-serving nuclear power industry.

There is a good chance that the LNT-vs.-hormesis debate will come to Virginia. Dominion has filed for NRC regulatory permission to extend the life of its two Surry nuclear power units, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep alive the option of building a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power station. Environmental groups, most notably the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, have campaigned actively against the nuclear option.

Bacon’s bottom line: What’s fascinating about the NRC’s look at hormesis is that it comes from a Democratic administration, which, all other things being equal, one would expect to be far more responsive to environmentalist concerns than a Republican administration. In a conference on nuclear power last month that generated little attention in the media, the White House reiterated its commitment to nuclear as a necessary component of its clean energy policy.

While Dominion’s proposal to invest roughly $1.5 billion to patch up the Surry units so they can operate another 20 years may be economically defensible, it is hard to see any case being made for spending $19 billion to build a third North Anna unit…. unless Dominion is banking on major regulatory changes at the NRC. If the Obama administration embraces hormesis as the basis for its rule making, and if the new standards strip billions of dollars of expense from building new nuclear reactors, Dominion’s commitment to North Anna 3 makes more sense.

Whatever the NRC decides, fear of radiation is so deeply embedded in our popular culture that the LNT-hormesis controversy is sure to play out here in ye Olde Dominion.