(Updated: 1/5/15) Note: If you like this idea, be sure to vote for it in the Progressive Change Institute's Big Ideas Project. The top 20 ideas will be presented to members of Congress. Voting ends on Sunday, January 11. Click here to vote!
Using our central bank's resources to save cash-strapped local governments from bankruptcy would prevent economic devastation and bring other benefits.
The Federal Reserve should be allowed to make long-term loans directly to cities, states, school districts, and other public agencies so taxpayers can get low interest rates and avoid predatory Wall Street fees. Currently, banks borrow money at near-zero interest rates from the Fed while public entities are forced to pay billions in fees and interest each year. Cities and states should have access to the same low interest rates that banks enjoy so that taxpayer money earmarked for infrastructure improvement and other public goods will no longer be spent subsidizing corporate profits. If the Fed lent directly to cities and states at low interest, it would free up public dollars for services like education and mass transit. Direct loans from the Fed could also help alleviate fiscal crises and become a tool for promoting stronger environmental and labor protections.
Fiscal crises and municipal bankruptcies are typically caused by revenue shortfalls. The definition of "municipal insolvency" is the inability to pay debts as they come due. A city is insolvent and can file for bankruptcy if it is not bringing in enough revenue to be able to pay its bills on time. For example, although there were many political and economic causes for Detroit’s bankruptcy, the technical reason that Detroit went bankrupt was that the city had a $198 million revenue shortfall and could not pay all of its bills. A $198 million loan could have allowed Detroit to avoid bankruptcy. In the future, we can prevent untold devastation if the Fed can provide affordable loans to municipal borrowers.
Detractors will argue that it would be imprudent to use federal taxpayer dollars to make loans to distressed cities and states that might be unable to pay them back. However, the reality is that municipal borrowers in the United States have extremely low rates of default because their debt is ultimately backed by tax revenues. According to Moody’s, one of the three major credit rating agencies in the country, the default rate for municipal issuers that it rates was 0.012 percent between 1970 and 2012. Even though there has been a slight uptick following the financial crisis, the likelihood of municipal default is still virtually nonexistent.
If a municipality defaults on a loan, it is because elected officials made a political decision to default rather than raise taxes. In the case of Detroit, state elected officials in Michigan made that decision by cutting revenue-sharing with the city and prohibiting it from raising additional taxes. The Fed could take proactive steps to address this political problem. For example, it could attach a provision requiring elected officials to raise taxes on large corporations and high-income earners to avoid defaulting on loans from the Fed.
Direct loans from the Fed could also be used to promote fair and sustainable development. Either Congress or the Fed could establish minimum labor and environmental standards that cities and states must abide by to qualify for a loan from the Fed. For example, cities that borrow from the Fed could be required to pay all workers a living wage. Any state that borrows from the Fed for highway repairs could be required to establish stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars. The Fed could also prioritize loans for green infrastructure improvements. This would ensure that direct loans from the Fed support long-term national interests.
Currently, the Fed already has the power to purchase municipal debt securities that mature within six months. In other words, the Fed effectively has the power to lend to cities and states for up to six months, with some caveats. But if Congress were to pass a law allowing the Federal Reserve to make long-term loans directly to cities and states, we could start using our central bank to support the long-term financial, economic, and environmental health of our cities and states. It would allow us to cut Wall Street out of the middle and ensure that our taxpayer dollars are going toward improving our communities instead of padding banker bonuses.
Saqib Bhatti is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow and Director of the ReFund America Project.