Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why you can't trust the US Government's financial figures

As I'm sure many of my readers are aware from personal experience, the US Government has officially stated that inflation was effectively zero last year, so no cost-of-living adjustment was made to Social Security, or Government pensions, to allow for it. Those of us actually buying things knew darn well that prices were going up, but you wouldn't know it from Government statistics.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the Government has been fudging its figures for years. There's an invaluable Web site called Shadow Government Statistics, which provides the real numbers about the financial health (or otherwise) of the nation and the Government. The author, John Williams, had this to say in 2004 about Government accounting gimmicks:

Misleading accounting used by the U.S. government, both in financial and economic reporting, far exceeds the scope of corporate accounting wrongdoing that has received partial credit for recent stock market turbulence. The bad boys of Corporate America, though, still were subject to significant regulatory oversights and the application of GAAP accounting [Generally Accepted Accounting Practices] to their books. In contrast, the government’s operations and economic reporting have been subject to oversight solely by Congress, America’s only "distinctly native criminal class."

Nearly four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson’s political sensitivities led him and the Congress to slough off some of the costs of an escalating Vietnam War through the use of accounting gimmicks. To mask the rapid growth in the federal government’s budget deficit, revenues from the surplus being generated by Social Security taxes were added into the general cash fund, without making any accounting allowance for the accompanying and increasing Social Security liabilities. This accounting-gimmicked reporting was dubbed "unified" budget accounting.

The government’s accounting then, as it is now, was on a cash basis, reflecting cash revenues versus cash expenditures. There were no accruals made for monies owed by or due to the government at some time in the future.

The bogus accounting understated the actual deficit for decades and even allowed for claims of budget surpluses in the years 1998 to 2001. While there were extensive self-congratulatory comments between the President, Congress and the Fed Chairman, at the time, all involved knew there never were any actual budget surpluses. There hasn’t been an actual balanced budget, let alone a surplus, since before Johnson and his cronies cooked the bookkeeping.

The doctored fiscal reporting complemented the short-term political interests of both major political parties. Additionally, the ignorance and/or complicity of Pollyannaish analysts on Wall Street and in the financial media-eager to discourage negative market activity-helped to keep the fiscal crisis from arousing significant concern among a dumbed-down U.S. populace.

. . .

The gimmicked accounting standards, as established during the Johnson era, and as used today for official, unified budget reporting, show a 2003 deficit of $374.3 billion. Using GAAP reporting (without Social Security reporting), the official GAAP deficit for 2003 expands to $665.0 billion. Including accounting for Social Security and related areas, the 2003 deficit balloons to $3,702 billion, or $3.7 trillion. The accounting reflects no adjustment for the new, more expensive Medicare program.

. . .

While gross federal debt is at a record, relentlessly pushing against borrowing ceilings, the markets, press and politicians generally ignore that portion of the debt borrowed from Social Security and similar programs. So, the September 30, 2003 debt level commonly is reported as only the $3.9 trillion owed to the public, instead of the total $6.8 billion. Again, the more accurate GAAP estimate of total government liabilities is $36.2 trillion [as of 2003].

There's more at the link. The paragraph in bold italic print is my emphasis.

Mr. Williams goes on to explain how and why the Government misstates the Consumer Price Index, thereby giving false figures for the rate of inflation in the USA:

Inflation, as reported by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is understated by roughly 7% per year. This is due to recent redefinitions of the series as well as to flawed methodologies, particularly adjustments to price measures for quality changes. The concentration of this installment on the quality of government economic reports will be first on CPI series redefinition and the damages done to those dependent on accurate cost-of-living estimates, and on pending further redefinition and economic damage.

The CPI was designed to help businesses, individuals and the government adjust their financial planning and considerations for the impact of inflation. The CPI worked reasonably well for those purposes into the early-1980s. In recent decades, however, the reporting system increasingly succumbed to pressures from miscreant politicians, who were and are intent upon stealing income from social security recipients, without ever taking the issue of reduced entitlement payments before the public or Congress for approval.

In particular, changes made in CPI methodology during the Clinton Administration understated inflation significantly, and, through a cumulative effect with earlier changes that began in the late-Carter and early Reagan Administrations have reduced current social security payments by roughly half from where they would have been otherwise. That means Social Security checks today would be about double had the various changes not been made. In like manner, anyone involved in commerce, who relies on receiving payments adjusted for the CPI, has been similarly damaged. On the other side, if you are making payments based on the CPI (i.e., the federal government), you are making out like a bandit.

. . .

In the early 1990s, press reports began surfacing as to how the CPI really was significantly overstating inflation. If only the CPI inflation rate could be reduced, it was argued, then entitlements, such as social security, would not increase as much each year, and that would help to bring the budget deficit under control. Behind this movement were financial luminaries Michael Boskin, then chief economist to the first Bush Administration, and Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Although the ensuing political furor killed consideration of Congressionally mandated changes in the CPI, the BLS quietly stepped forward and began changing the system, anyway, early in the Clinton Administration.

Up until the Boskin/Greenspan agendum surfaced, the CPI was measured using the costs of a fixed basket of goods, a fairly simple and straightforward concept. The identical basket of goods would be priced at prevailing market costs for each period, and the period-to-period change in the cost of that market basket represented the rate of inflation in terms of maintaining a constant standard of living.

The Boskin/Greenspan argument was that when steak got too expensive, the consumer would substitute hamburger for the steak, and that the inflation measure should reflect the costs tied to buying hamburger versus steak, instead of steak versus steak. Of course, replacing hamburger for steak in the calculations would reduce the inflation rate, but it represented the rate of inflation in terms of maintaining a declining standard of living. Cost of living was being replaced by the cost of survival. The old system told you how much you had to increase your income in order to keep buying steak. The new system promised you hamburger, and then dog food, perhaps, after that.

The Boskin/Greenspan concept violated the intent and common usage of the inflation index. The CPI was considered sacrosanct within the Department of Labor, given the number of contractual relationships that were anchored to it. The CPI was one number that never was to be revised, given its widespread usage.

Shortly after Clinton took control of the White House, however, attitudes changed. The BLS initially did not institute a new CPI measurement using a variable-basket of goods that allowed substitution of hamburger for steak, but rather tried to approximate the effect by changing the weighting of goods in the CPI fixed basket. Over a period of several years, straight arithmetic weighting of the CPI components was shifted to a geometric weighting. The Boskin/Greenspan benefit of a geometric weighting was that it automatically gave a lower weighting to CPI components that were rising in price, and a higher weighting to those items dropping in price.

Once the system had been shifted fully to geometric weighting, the net effect was to reduce reported CPI on an annual, or year-over-year basis, by 2.7% from what it would have been based on the traditional weighting methodology. The results have been dramatic. The compounding effect since the early-1990s has reduced annual cost of living adjustments in social security by more than a third.

. . .

When gasoline rises 10 cents per gallon because of a federally mandated gasoline additive, the increased gasoline cost does not contribute to inflation. Instead, the 10 cents is eliminated from the CPI because of the offsetting hedonic thrills the consumer gets from breathing cleaner air. The same principle applies to federally mandated safety features in automobiles. I have not attempted to quantify the effects of questionable quality adjustments to the CPI, but they are substantial.

Then there is "intervention analysis" in the seasonal adjustment process, when a commodity, like gasoline, goes through violent price swings. Intervention analysis is done to tone down the volatility. As a result, somehow, rising gasoline prices never seem to get fully reflected in the CPI, but the declining prices sure do.

How Can So Many Financial Pundits Live Without Consuming Food and Energy?

The Pollyannas on Wall Street like to play games with the CPI, too. The concept of looking at the "core" rate of inflation - net of food and energy - was developed as a way of removing short-term (as in a month or two) volatility from inflation when energy and/or food prices turned volatile. Since food and energy account for about 23% of consumer spending (as weighted in the CPI), however, related inflation cannot be ignored for long. Nonetheless, it is common to hear financial pundits cite annual "core" inflation as a way of showing how contained inflation is. Such comments are moronic and such commentators are due the appropriate respect.

Too-Low Inflation Reporting Yields Too-High GDP Growth

As is discussed in the final installment on GDP [Gross Domestic Product], part of the problem with GDP reporting is the way inflation is handled. Although the CPI is not used in the GDP calculation, there are relationships with the price deflators used in converting GDP data and growth to inflation-adjusted numbers. The more inflation is understated, the higher the inflation-adjusted rate of GDP growth that gets reported.

Again, there's more at the link. Bold italic print, once more, is my emphasis.

The whole Web site is very interesting, and provides valuable facts and figures to help you make a true assessment of the fiscal and economic position of the United States. It will handsomely repay your efforts to go through its menus and read the articles provided, particularly the Primers and Reports section. I recommend this resource very highly indeed.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excluding food and energy from the core rate is also a wonderful way of hiding the true costs of the ethanol fuel nonsense, which drives up corn prices-and therefore a huge range of other foods (meat, sugars etc.).

A perfect scam is one where the beneficiaries of statistical lies get to create those statistics in the first place, and have monopoly control of the information market.

Did Washington learn this from Wall St. or vice versa?