What is the true cost of government-backed credit?

The U.S. government is arguably the largest financial institution in the world. If you add the outstanding stock of government loans, loan guarantees, pension insurance, deposit insurance and the guarantees made by federal entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you get to about $18 trillion of government-backed credit. Through those activities, the government has a first-order effect on the allocation of capital and risk in the economy.

Professor Deborah Lucas

The question of what those commitments cost the public is important; accurate cost assessments are necessary for informed decisions by policymakers, effective program management, and meaningful public oversight.  My research and that of others has shown that if one takes a financial economics approach to answering that question — one that is consistent with the methods used by private financial institutions to evaluate such costs — it leads to significantly higher estimates than the approach currently used by the federal government.

At the core of the problem are the rules for government accounting, which by law require that costs for most federal credit programs be estimated using a government borrowing rate for discounting expected cash flows, regardless of the riskiness of those cash flows. That practice systematically understates the cost to the government because it neglects the full cost of risk to taxpayers, who are effectively equity holders in the government’s risky loans and guarantees.

An alternative approach to cost estimation — a fair value approach based on market prices — would fully take into account the cost of risk. Fully accounting for the cost of risk makes a significant difference:  An estimate of the official budgetary cost of credit programs in 2013 shows them as generating savings for the government of $45 billion, whereas a fair value estimate suggests the programs will cost the government about $12 billion.

The understatement of cost has important practical consequences. For example, it may favor expanding student loans over Pell grants because student loans appear to make money for the government. It also creates the opportunity for “budgetary arbitrage,” whereby the government can buy loans at market prices and book a profit that reduces the reported budget deficit, as it did in several instances during the recent financial crisis.

That perspective on how credit program costs should be measured is widely shared by financial economists, although until recently the issue has not received much attention by academics. That changed last month when the Financial Economists Roundtable (FER), of which I am a member, issued a statement on this matter, writing: “The apparent cost advantage of government credit assistance over private lenders is, in the opinion of the FER, primarily due to [government] accounting rules, rather than to any inherent economic advantage of the government.”

According to the FER’s statement, the solution to this undervaluation is to amend current accounting rules to require an approach to cost estimation that fully recognizes the cost of risk in the government’s credit programs. The group maintains (and I agree) that such a change “would make the true budgetary implications of credit assistance more transparent to program administrators, policy makers and the public.”

Prof. Deborah Lucas is the author of “Valuation of Government Policies and Projects.” She previously served as assistant director and chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office.