Truth in Accounting has released a new analysis of the 10 most populous U.S. cities that includes their largest underlying government units. With the exception of New York City, most municipalities do not include in their annual financial reports the finances of large, underlying government units for which city taxpayers are also responsible, such as school districts, and transit and housing authorities.
This report takes into account these underlying government entities and provides residents and taxpayers in these cities with a more accurate and holistic view of their respective city’s finances. We only include underlying entities that city governments claim responsibility for in their annual financial reports. These underlying governments are essentially subsidiaries of the city and the majority of their debt falls on all city taxpayers. When the unfunded debt of these underlying government units is combined with the county, municipal, and state debt, city taxpayers are on the hook for much more than they think.
It is a miracle anyone ever listens to us. Honestly, sometimes they shouldn’t. Other than the theory of comparative advantage, I can’t think of any correct economic insights that defy common sense. Economists, or experts in any field, are meant to offer a framework to weigh costs and benefits, help us see risks, and understand how the economy and people respond to shocks and policy. This helps people make choices that are right for them. If someone is pushing something totally counterintuitive, whether in economics or public health, we should be skeptical.
The same goes for debt. I heard someone say MMT has become an accepted theory – that is simply not true. And there is nothing new here. If you look at the history of debt cycles and financial crisis, they often featured some convoluted justification for why taking on tons of leverage isn’t so risky after all because this time was different – we are so much more clever now. Guess what, you might use some big words that tell you otherwise, but debt is always risky. Sure, some of the time it works out and juices higher growth, but when it doesn’t, things get really nasty.
Nashville recently was named a “Bottom 5 Sinkhole City” by the nonpartisan think tank Truth in Accounting (TIA) in its fifth annual Financial State of the Cities report.
TIA examined the fiscal health of the 75 most-populous U.S. cities and graded and ranked the cities accordingly. The 2021 report is based on fiscal year 2019 comprehensive annual financial reports.
“At the end of the fiscal year 2019, 62 cities did not have enough money to pay all their bills,” the report’s executive summary read. “This means that to balance the budget, elected officials did not include the true costs of the government in their budget calculations and have pushed costs onto future taxpayers.”
The big misunderstanding here is that, though structural changes are certainly persistent and less responsive to policy, they are not permanent. Conditions are always changing. Productivity transforms economies, and so do shifting age structures and demographics. Foreigners are already losing their appetite for U.S. debt; much of it is now bought by the Fed or by banks required to hold it for regulatory reasons. Thus prices may not be as revealing as we think.
And we can’t be sure that debt monetization won’t unleash inflation or higher interest rates. The Fed buys bonds from the banks and credits them with reserves. Eventually banks may want to spend their reserves, and the Fed will need to sell some bonds—which could increase interest rates, or increase inflation, or both. The world could also discover a new safe asset, like German stocks. For many years, gold was considered the only safe asset, and it was unimaginable that a fiat currency could be safe.
Structural changes happen more often and much faster than people realize. We could come out of the pandemic in a new regime of less trade and more reliance on tech that could change debt and price dynamics in ways that we don’t yet understand.