President Trump’s proposed cuts in discretionary spending have prompted a frenzy of dire headlines, including this gem from the Detroit Free Press: “Trump budget cuts would make life miserable for many.” But lost amid all the special interest outrage is any mention of how uncontrolled federal spending affects taxpayers.
For example, few Americans are aware that, collectively, they shoulder more than $18 trillion in debt exposure from loans, loan guarantees and subsidized insurance provided by some 150 federal programs. With some government loans extending 40 years, the ever-growing burden of federal credit will encumber generations to come — without their consent.
This redistribution of taxpayers’ money erodes the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit, increases financial risk and fosters cronyism and corruption.
The government credit portfolio consists of direct loans and loan guarantees for housing, agriculture, energy, education, transportation, infrastructure, exporting and small business, among other enterprises. Federal insurance programs cover bank and credit union deposits, pensions, flood damage, declines in crop prices and acts of terrorism. Capital for mortgage lending by banks is provided by government-sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
In “Bailout Barometer,” researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond estimate that 61 percent of all liabilities throughout the U.S. financial system are explicitly or implicitly backed by government (that is, by taxpayers).
Total outstanding loans and loan guarantees backed by taxpayers exceeded $3.4 trillion at the end of fiscal 2015. Add in the exposure of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Banks, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and the total swells to an estimated $18 trillion.
Proponents say that government lending is necessary in order to spur economic growth or to mitigate “market imperfections,” such as gaps in available financing or lack of competition (leading to unduly high credit costs).
But government credit is a poor substitute for private financing. Private lenders offer credit to generate profit. The challenge they face is to minimize risk and maximize return. Under threat of loss (and independent of government meddling), great care is taken in lending decisions.
In contrast, government financing is entirely detached from the profit motive and its inherent discipline. Tax revenues give government lenders an endless source of capital, and bureaucrats are largely protected from accountability. Consequently, default rates exceeding 20 percent are common among federal credit programs.
The sheer volume of lending leaves taxpayers at tremendous risk. For example, the Department of Education has $1.3 trillion in direct student loans outstanding — and more than $74 billion is delinquent, and billions more are in default.
When entrepreneurs need not compete for private loans based on merit, productivity improvements and innovation become less important than political capital. Moreover, creditworthiness becomes less relevant to banks and mortgage lenders when they act as mere pass-through agents for government financing. The result is a larger proportion of economic assets — in the form of both property and enterprise — are inherently weakened.
There is also a pernicious regulatory chain reaction when government engages in lending. As noted by economist Henry Hazlitt, “[When] the government provides the financing, the private property becomes public property instead, and the government has the right to decide how, where, when and by whom the property shall be used.”
Indeed, the trillions of dollars of credit subsidies represent the commandeering of financial services by government and its escalating power over private enterprise.
Whether issued as a loan or a loan guarantee, government credit constitutes a risk borne by taxpayers for the benefit of a private party. That risk — multiplied by tens of thousands of transactions — carries direct and indirect consequences for the nation. While legions of regulators scrutinize the actions of private banks and financiers, there is sparse oversight of the government’s credit subsidies and their detrimental effects on the economy.
It is time to shut down this massive credit racket.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times