Government fiscal policies show telltale signs of subprime 2008 meltdown

Posted on December 11, 2010


Given the recent announcement from Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General Francis Maude telling vendors that the days of the overarching, big  dollar – big budget IT/ERP initiatives is over, one could see why this decision by the UK Government is likely to trigger similar decisions by governments around the world.

Nowhere is this change in thinking more necessary than it is in the US where, as the article below reports, States and Municipalities are facing massive budget shortfalls that has some experts predicting Municipal bankruptcies for the first time since the Great Depression.

Note: Originally posted in the PI Window on Business Blog

The State of Illinois is still paying off billions in bills that it got from schools and social service providers last year. Arizona recently stopped paying for certain organ transplants for people in its Medicaid program. States are releasing prisoners early, more to cut expenses than to reward good behavior. And in Newark, the city laid off 13 percent of its police officers last week.

from Mounting State Debts Stoke Fears of a Looming Crisis, New York Times December 4th, 2010

It seems appropriate that the month of December is dedicated to the release of Dr. Jackie Black’s new book “Couples & Money: Cracking the code to ending the #1 conflict in marriage,” especially since financial challenges are not limited to the realms of the matrimonial home. Perhaps there is a version of the book geared towards governments?!

As the opening paragraph of today’s post would seem to indicate, government and in particular those who oversee the coffers at the State and Municipal levels are, as the lieutenant governor of New York Richard Ravitch implies, prone to the same short-sighted, easy out decisions of its citizenry. Specifically, and while empathetically recognizing that “Ninety-five percent of them didn’t understand what they were doing,” their motives were nonetheless skewed in that “they did it because it was easier than taxing people or cutting benefits.” In short sacrifice mid to long-term stability in favor of here and now expediency.

What makes the current situation even more troubling is the propensity on the part of officials to use the elasticity of accounting rules in much the same way that companies used Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or “GAAP” just before the implosion that shook the markets in 2001 to hide the true extent of their losses . . . nothing like a 10 year expense capitalization slight of hand to water down the debt load!

It is the “hidden, off the book debts” that similar to my 3 year old son’s belief that if he covers his eyes in the middle of the room the fact that he can’t see us must mean that we can’t see him, that distorts the real level of indebtedness and in the process mutes the true seriousness of the situation. A scenario that has the experts worried in that it is eerily similar to the lower and inaccurate estimates associated with the mortgage-related debt that ultimately led to the most recent market meltdown.

Perhaps part of the problem is that spending taxpayer money is similar to making purchases using your personal credit card in that you are dealing with virtual funds versus cash in hand, where there is a physical element that actually shows something flowing out. Whatever the reasons, in the end one always and inevitably has to pay the piper so to speak, and while bankruptcies at say the municipal levels, which haven’t happened since the Great Depression, may not materialize in the present, we are likely to see significant cutbacks in government services as a result of the growing fiscal shortfalls.

It is at the point that these cutbacks manifest themselves in the form of real-world impact that will invariably stir the masses and with it the public discontent that lead to big election losses for the incumbents. The irony of course is that political interests taking precedence over fiscal responsibility in the form of making short-sighted decisions will lead to the very election losses that the majority of those in power wanted to avoid in the first place. A kind of you can pay me now, or pay me later scenario.

In this chicken and the egg dance, the public of course must bear a certain degree of responsibility in that politicians are put in a no win situation that makes expedient decision-making the order of the day. Think about it for a minute, if a politician runs for office on a platform of increasing taxes and cutting services what is the likelihood that they will be elected? Even after getting to office, how many are likely to be re-elected providing a similar revelation? So the dance goes . . . where the public is content to be left in the dark, while the politicians are all to happy to introduce fiscal policy that is tantamount to a ticking time bomb. It is just a matter of time as to when the thing (in this case the economy) will go off.

Nothing like living on borrowed time . . . I can hear it now, tick – tick – tick . . .