March 2017 Deficit Preview

Just a quick preview of what March is looking like with 2 business days left:

The story so far is that refunds are up as expected, hurting net revenues, while corporate tax deposits are down 52% to just $18B compared to $38B last year. I wonder if companies pulled a lot of cost forward into 2016 thinking Trump would cut taxes in 2017? That’s not looking like such a safe bet anymore. The deficit currently sits at 119B…an estimate thanks to the “Extraordinary Measures” currently deployed. With April 1 on a weekend, a lot of outlays are going to be pulled forward and paid March 31, so a deficit in excess of $150B is pretty likely, though that will make April a little better….depending on the strangth of tax receipts we could post a $200B surplus…hopefully they don’t experience the same collapse we are seeing in corporate taxes.

 

We will have the March finals next week so check back for an update. Also, please check out my latest over at seeking alpha Back To The Future: King Coal Takes Back His Crown From Natural Gas¬†where I investigate the surprisingly quick resurgence of coal in the last few weeks….hint…it’s due to the increase in the price of natural gas….not Trump’s tweeting ūüôā For updates sign up as a follower…Enjoy!!

 

 

 

Here We Go Again (Debt Limit 2017)

Will we never learn? Without a lot of fanfare, the debt limit was reinstated on 3/15/2017 at $19.809T and Treasury instituted the infamous “Extraordinary Measures” (EM) to circumvent the law and give our politicians more time to make fools of themselves.

Extraordinary Measures??

First off…what are Extraordinary Measures? ¬†For me, they are a huge pain in the rear. You see, calculating the “cash” deficit is actually a very simple exercise…we look at the change in cash balance, and adjust it for the change in debt…and voila!! So for example on 3/3/2017¬†the cash balance dropped by $22.080B and the debt decreased by $235M. Add them together and we get a daily cash deficit of $21.845B. Of course you can add up all of the revenue line items and subtract out the outlays….and come up with the exact same answer. Of course…I actually do that as well, but you don’t need all of that complexity to¬†calculate the cash deficit. In any case, EM nukes my process, and while I can back into a decent educated guess, unfortunately I won’t have an actual number until these shenanigans are over. The margin of error is ~$5B a month, which actually isn’t bad, but still enough to drive the accountant in me a little nuts.

The mechanism for EM¬†is actually quite simple…they take some parts of the debt…I can’t remember specifically off of the top of my head but things like federal retirement funds…and simply pretend thy don’t exist(a little at a time). This simple move lowers the official debt outstanding, allowing them to continue to issue new debt. When the debt limit is ultimately increased, they just pull all of the EM debt they were pretending didn’t exist back onto the balance sheet resulting in a huge one day increase. Last time we played this game back in late 2015 the result was a $339B increase, so it seems reasonable to think they can squeeze about $350B of EM this time.

How Long Do We Have?

Last time around the timing of the debt limit was the same if I recall…debt limit reinstated 3/15/2015, and EM used to get us all the way to the resolution in early November…so over 7 months. As I stated back then…the middle of March is just about the best possible time for a debt limit standoff because the huge outflows of tax refunds are pretty much behind you, and you are just a month removed from a huge inflows in April which as of late have been running in the ballpark of a $200B surplus. With an April surplus and¬†$350B of EM…and getting to October/November again seems like a pretty solid bet.

Cheney was right…Deficits Don’t Matter(Anymore)

Here is what I know…the US debt/deficit is a massive problem. It will blow up, and there will be a lot of pain….maybe worse. This will happen…I am 100% certain of it. The window to fix it has now closed….I’m not sure it was ever really open. Could be this year…could be 20 years from now…but it will happen. ¬†But since it’s going to happen, I’ve stopped worrying about it. Why should republicans who don’t care about the deficit and democrats who don’t care about the deficit fight over some measily $15B here or there…when obviously the American people don’t care about the deficit either? Just hours ago….the republicans plan the shoot down the¬†much hated and relatively new entitlement(ACA…AKA Obamacare) went down in flames despite Republicans having the presidency and majorities in congress. This is the system that is going to fix $20T in debt…growing at ~1T per year indefinitely? Hah!!

My thoughts on the matter have changed a lot over the last few years as I have accepted this reality. Rather than worrying about it…we should just enjoy it as long as we can. As long as there are still suckers around willing to buy “risk free” US debt…let them!! ¬†So this is my advice to Trump and the Republicans….stop pretending to care about the debt…we don’t believe you…you aren’t impressing anyone, and honestly nobody even cares anymore. ¬†So forget about it and go big on things people do care about. Tax cuts, jobs, infrastructure,trade, immigration….heck maybe break up the medical¬†industry that seems more interested in financially screwing us over every time we walk into an office or hospital than actually improving health.

So pass the silly debt limit increase or better yet just get rid of it….then get to work!!

 

US Cash Deficit February 2017

The US Cash Deficit for February 2017 came in at $219B wiping out January’s small surplus and bringing the YTD cash deficit through 2 months to $186B.

Revenue:

Revenue was down 9B from last year which in itself isn’t surprising given that last February had an extra day and favorable timing. What is surprising is that the year over year was down despite refunds being down by $20B. Taking a step back February is generally the largest month for refunds in the year, and I account for refunds as a reduction in revenue rather than an expense/outlay. So looking at February 2016, traditional revenues were $283B, but were reduced to $149B by $134B of refunds. February 2017 posted only $253B of traditional revenues but refunds were only 113B, so total revenue came in at $140B….a $9B miss rather than a $30B miss. So the big question is…will tax refunds be lower this year…or were they simply delayed…and we will see a ~$20B increase in March. From what I have read there was a ~2 week delay in the earned income tax credit processing this year, so there is good reason to believe that this is primarily just timing…. we should have a better idea in a few weeks.

Either way revenue for February looks weak and the YTD $20B lead 2017 has over 2016 may be attributable to the timing of tax refunds….meaning that we could be looking at flat YOY revenue numbers by the end of March. That reminds me…I really need to start working on my taxes!!

Outlays:

Outlays were down $17B compared to last February with most of the reduction coming in the “other” category which was pretty high at $31B last year compared to only $16B in 2017. It looks like there was a $15B payment to the IMF last year that spiked “other” that did not repeat in 2017….so hooray for that!!! Still, looking at the YTD, outlays are up 5% over last year…running strong but still looking better than last month when some timing issues went against us. With any luck we will be trending down to the 3%-4% range as we get further into the year and the one time issues become a smaller % of the population and the overall trends start to show themselves.

Deficit:

The monthly deficit of $219B was a slight improvement over last year’s $226B, but as noted it looks like this is only because of the delay in tax refunds. For the year the deficit is at $186B, $12B over 2016 through 2 months.

Forecast:

Last March ran a $100B deficit, and that’s about the ballpark we would probably be this year, but we need to make a few adjustments to account for timing. First, I am going to assume the $20B of tax refunds we didn’t see in February simply slide right into March. Second, April 1 is on a Saturday, which means a lot of outlays due on the first are going to get paid a day early, on 3/31…which is going to add around $40B. There is one “good guy”…seems like Fannie/Freddie dividends may be as high a $10B this quarter compared to less than $3B last March.Add it all up and I have the March 2017 cash deficit forecast at $144B with most of the variance being due to timing. Of course March’s loss is April’s gain…April would have posted a large surplus anyway, but by dumping $40B of cost into March, we may see a $200B cash surplus come April…

Summary:

The year is early and the data is noisy, but with 2 months in the bank revenues are up 4% and outlays are up 5%. I don’t think either of those numbers will hold, but either way it is looking like the deficit is headed back up in 2017…and this before any material policy change by the new administration. Forecasting any of that would be a fools errand, so for now I am holding everything steady…the 2017 deficit looks to be on a trajectory to surpass 2016, but it is a bit early to give up all hope. For now, I’m staying focused on refunds…if there is anything interesting I’ll try to get in a mid month update…my first in quite a while.