Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Deficits and Energy

After reading several articles about the administration's proposed 2011 fiscal-year budget, I decided to look through the figures myself. My primary interest was in finding indications of what might lie in store for energy-related taxes and incentives. However, once I noticed how the projected deficits accumulate and examined the assumptions behind them, it struck me that the larger concern for energy and everything else is whether this budget represents a reasonable and sustainable picture of our future national finances. The expected 10-year deficit for the 2009-2018 period appears to have grown by $1.5 trillion relative to last year's budget. And that's after counting roughly $2 T in newly-proposed spending reductions and tax increases, including higher taxes on the energy industry. Against that backdrop the extra few billion dollars for renewables and other favored energy technologies nearly get lost in the rounding.

As a veteran strategic planner, I started by examining the economic assumptions for the budget. While everyone hopes for a strong rebound that would boost tax revenues by moving millions of the un- and under-employed back onto the tax rolls, it seems overly optimistic to assume that on top of an expected 2.7% growth rate in real GDP for this year, real GDP growth would then average 4% per year from 2011-2015 (calendar years.) The last time we had a five-year growth spurt like that was in the late 1990s--thanks to the Tech Bubble--and prior to that in the late 1980s. Yet despite such strong projected growth and the addition of roughly $2 T in "savings" and new taxes, the Treasury would still need to borrow an additional $14 T over the next decade. Even less realistically, perhaps, given such robust growth and massive borrowing, the budget also assumes that consumer-price inflation will not rise above 2.1% for the next decade, while nominal interest rates go up only gradually, never averaging more than 5.3% for 10-year Treasuries.

All this suggests that the current budget might be merely a placeholder awaiting the recommendations of the proposed deficit-reduction commission, while generating a set of figures that just manages to keep the total federal debt level--Table S.14, not the same as the "debt held by the public" shown in summary table S-1--below around 106% of GDP. Of course, this hinges on achieving those higher tax revenues, some from growth and some from higher taxes, including the termination of the Bush tax cuts for "upper-income" Americans. Even if the Congress passed all the required tax legislation, which is not inconceivable since for the biggest portion they'd be voting for a tax cut for everyone except "upper-income" taxpayers, the chances of things turning out even this well seem low. If growth doesn't reach the projected levels and stay there for years, tax revenues will fall short, deficits will grow, and at some point interest rates will rise, requiring even bigger deficits to cover the cost of debt service that under this budget exceeds $800 billion a year by 2020.

Then there are the tax increases, starting with energy. The big difference vs. last year is the absence of $646 billion from cap & trade. Even if cap & trade is eventually enacted, it now seems likely that most of its proceeds would be rebated to taxpayers or spent on new energy programs, so it doesn't look like a way to close the budget gap. The proposed budget has roughly $3.6 billion per year in increased revenue from eliminating what the oil industry regards as appropriate tax benefits and the administration calls tax loopholes. Either way the budget would increase the cost of producing oil and gas in the US by around $0.60 per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) after tax. While that won't break the industry, it also won't make US exploration and production any more attractive or competitive. In case you're wondering why we should care about that in light of our new emphasis on green energy, it turns out that the entire energy contribution of the record 10,000 MW of wind turbines installed in the US last year equates to about 100,000 BOE per day, the equivalent of one good-sized Gulf of Mexico oil platform or roughly 0.2% of our total energy consumption. We need more renewables and more conventional energy.

The budget also includes roughly three-quarters of a billion over 10 years in new fees on "non-producing oil and gas leases." Grounded in the mistaken notion of "idle leases," this was ill-advised last year and remains so, not just because oil companies don't bid on leases to take them off the market and keep them idle--they already pay rentals on any leases that aren't producing, which revert to the government after 10 years--but because adding these fees will merely reduce the up-front bonuses companies would be willing to bid to get them in the first place. As a result, the net revenue from this item ought to be zero.

Of course in terms of total revenue all of this pales in comparison to what the administration expects to collect from upper-income Americans, who seem unlikely to get any more sympathy than the oil companies. (Ironically this segment probably includes the bulk of the potential early buyers for the advanced technology vehicles that the government is lending or granting carmakers billions to produce.) The budget includes about $700 billion of additional revenue over 10 years from reversion to the pre-2001 tax rates for this group, along with some less obvious increases involving phaseouts of itemized deductions and exemptions and the treatment of deductions for those in the new 39.6% federal bracket as though they were incurred in the 28% tax bracket. Together these features would impose effective marginal tax rates much higher than that notional 40% on the folks at the bottom of the new bracket, creating a heck of a disincentive on earning a little more once you're near that threshold. But aside from making additional work or investment unrewarding for those unlucky enough to qualify narrowly for this bracket, this approach increases our collective reliance on this group to fund our government. These folks were already paying 86.3% of the federal income tax before these increases, and that share would go up under this budget. I wouldn't call that either reform or a sound basis for responsible democracy.

What we're left with, then, is a federal budget that even under a rosy set of assumptions expands the cumulative deficit and total US indebtedness into a range that greatly multiplies the large-scale uncertainties we face, while making minimal cuts to spending and increasing taxes only on unpopular corporations and upper-income Americans. Unfortunately, this scenario doesn't look conducive to generating the enormous private investments in new energy technology and infrastructure that will be necessary and that the government can't afford to make, particularly as mounting debt constrains its freedom of action. We seem to be stuck in a zone in which the only real solutions are unpopular, while most of the ideas that are popular wouldn't be real solutions.

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