Adding Up Government Spending

by: Steven Hansen

Cyberspace is full of data. Some of the data can be correlated across various sources with different interests, some of the data comes from one source but can be correlated within the data itself, and some of the data is on USA government income and spending. This data currently is not adding up.

One can always find reasons for short-term deviations in accounting data. But USA Treasury data has periodic deviations built in. Take something simple like government revenue (which includes social security contributions) and expenditures.

Figure 1: Federal Government Receipts (red line) vs. Expenditures (blue line)

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Just a note that the above graph is current through 1Q2013 - but the FRED computer generates quarterly data plots looking like the data was current only through 4Q2012. While at it, I am also disappointed with FRED plots because they do not allow creation of moving averages which would allow a better visualization of trends on noisy data series.

Having said this, the massive amount of data available in one place - and the ability to compare and automate this data using a variety of tools based into the FRED software - makes FRED one of the most important economic data resources on the internet.

But FRED does not create data, it reports data given to it by various government and private organizations. When you deal with spending data from Treasury, you might as well give up as the data never seems to add up. Take figure 1 above. If you subtract revenue from expenditures - logically this is debt which needs funding. Even in the private sector, the way accounting methods work, it would not add up exactly. But this is not a little difference - but a big difference.

Figure 2 - Difference between Government Expenditure and Receipts (blue line) and Growth of Federal Government Debt (red line)

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Hopefully a reader of this post can advise why figure 2 does not add up in the years since the Great Recession. It almost looks that the difference is the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve. I only point this out in passing because I am not an expert in treasury operations - and am really looking for an answer.

There have been several posts based on the monthly treasury statements which say that the government has run a surplus in three months recently. Can this be true? It is if you subscribe to the Bernie Madoff school of accounting. Consider that the government is at its debt ceiling and is undertaking special operations:

When the US hits the debt limit, the Treasury Department resorts to "extraordinary measures" to fund expenditures. Usually these measures consist of suspending investments in the "G-fund" of the individual retirement funds of federal employees, the Thrift Savings Plan. In 2011 these measures were extended to suspending investments in the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund (CSRDF), the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund (Postal Benefits Fund), and the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF). In addition to suspending investments, certain CSRDF investments were also redeemed early. In 1985, the Treasury has also exchanged Treasury securities for non-Treasury securities held by the Federal Financing Bank.

It also delays payments of current monies due. Can you find a summary of USA government monies payable but not paid? Government sector accounting resembles nothing like what is imposed on the private sector.

Do you think anyone in Congress understands the true state of government treasury operations? Are there special reports (and marked "top secret") so the true status never reaches the general population? Is even debate on raising the debt ceiling a joke as treasury operations seem clouded by smoke and mirrors?

In a period of time when all governments are printing money, it does not seem logical that government debt is that important in the scheme of things. However government transparency is important if the government is to be accountable for their actions.

My weekly economic summary is in my instablog.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.