California’s budget mess is front page news. Some are trying to figure out whether they can (or will) cut spending enough to live within their means. Others are looking for new revenue enhancers–we don’t call them taxes anymore or people will vote them down in elections. Both are missing the point. It’s not only the budget, but the balance sheet that needs attention.
California does not only have a tax and spend problem; it has a balance sheet problem. There are too many promises of future cash flow to pay for pensions and the like. California needs a balance sheet solution. Not the one that failed in last week’s election—borrowing more money and accounting with mirrors. California needs to sell assets and shrink liabilities in order to regain financial health. When a person or a company declares bankruptcy the judge takes your house, your car, your toys and your other ‘stuff.’ Although state governments cannot, formally, declare bankruptcy, the same medicine will work for them as well. Easier said than done.
Yesterday I wrote about the strange accounting practices for government entities used by the Federal Reserve Board in preparing their quarterly Z1: Flow of Funds of the United States reports. They provide detailed information about cash receipts and cash disbursements for federal, state and local governments, consolidated on p. 110 for all levels of government. They include the information on current receipts (tax collections) and current expenditures as well as information on government purchases and sales of all sorts of assets including spending to buy fixed assets (buildings etc., $513.1 billion annual rate in Q4/08). But in the consolidated balance sheet, which I have reproduced above, they conveniently forget to mention that governments own real assets.
According to the table, All levels of government owned $3280.4 billion in financial assets and had total liabilities of $10,171.3 billion on 12/31/08, which seems to imply that governments had a negative net worth position of nearly 7 trillion dollars (-$6,890.9 billion). But where are the $513.1 billion in fixed assets they reported governments buying in the flow of funds table? Indeed, where are all the other tangible assets–the land, the buildings, the machines, the trucks and buses) the governments purchased in all the previous periods? If they had included government holdings of tangible assets the statements would look much different. Indeed, they would reveal the immense stockpile of real assets on government balance sheets that are available for sale to meet the government obligations everyone is writing about. The federal government, for example, owns more than 700 million acres of land (not reported on their balance sheet either). These assets can be sold outright or they can be sold and leased-back. Either way the cash is available to pay obligations. Either way we would have more honest financial statements.