How State Budgets Adjust

Here is a figure from the paper I’m presenting at the Eastern Economics Association meetings next weekend, on state and local government balance sheets:

State Government Finances 1999-2013. Source: Census of Governments, author’s analysis

This figure is just for aggregate state governments. It shows total borrowing (red), net acquisition of financial assets (blue), and the overall fiscal balance (black, with surplus as positive). It also shows the year over year change in the ratio of state debt to GDP (the gray dotted line). A number of interesting points come out here:

  • Despite statutory balanced-budget requirements, state budgets do show significant cyclical movement, from aggregate deficits of around 0.5 percent of GDP in recent recessions to surpluses as high as 0.5 percent of GDP in the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s (not shown here). Individual state governments show larger movements.
  • Shifts in state government fiscal balances are accommodated almost entirely on the asset side of the balance sheet. When state government revenue exceeds current expenditure, they buy financial assets; when revenue falls or expenditure rises, they sell financial assets (or buy less). State governments borrow in order to finance specific capital projects; unlike the federal government, they do not use credit-market borrowing to close gaps between current expenditure and revenue. (As I show in the paper, this is still true when we look at state governments cross-sectionally rather than aggregate data.) Between 2005 and 2009, state budgets moved from an aggregate surplus of around 0.3 percent of GDP to an aggregate deficit of around 0.5 percent. But borrowing over this period was completely flat – the entire shortfall was made up by reduced acquisition of financial assets.
  • The ratio of state government debt to GDP rose over the Great Recession period, by a total of about 2 points. While this is small compared with the increase in federal debt over the same period, it is certainly not trivial. Among other things, rising state debt ratios have been used as arguments for austerity and attacks on pubic-sector unions in a number of states. But as we see here, the entire rise in state debt-GDP ratios over this period is explained by slower growth. The ratio rose because of a smaller denominator, not a bigger numerator.
  • State debt ratios rose around the same time that state budgets moved into deficit. But there is no direct relationship between these two developments. Deficits were financed entirely through a reduction in assets. Simultaneously, the drastic slowdown in growth mean that even though state governments significantly reduced their borrowing, in dollar terms, during the recession, the ratio of debt to income rose. It is true, of course, that both the deficits and the growth slowdown were the result of the recession. But the increase in state debt ratios would have been exactly the same if state budgets had not moved to deficit at all.
  • Since 2010 there has been a simultaneous fall in state government borrowing and acquisition of assets. When these two variables vary together (as they also do across governments in some periods) it suggests that there is some autonomous balance sheet adjustment going on that can’t be reduced to the net financial position changing to accommodate real flows. (The fact that offsetting financial positions cannot in general be netted out is one of the main planks of Bezemer’s accounting view of economics.)

The pattern is similar in the previous recession. Although there was some increase in borrowing as state governments moved into deficit in 2002-2003, the large majority of the financing was on the asset side.

The larger significance of all this, and the data underlying it, is discussed more in the paper.  I will post that here next week. In the meantime, the two big takeaways are, first, that a lot of historical variation in debt ratios are driven by the effect of different nominal growth rates on the existing debt stock rather than by new borrowing; and that state governments don’t finance budget imbalances on the liability side of their balance sheets, but on the asset side.

(Earlier posts based on the same work here and here.)