The Big Short’: The Book vs. The Movie

From the 2015 movie, in the scene inside a Vegas restaurant with ‘Mark Baum’ (based on a real person named Steve Eisman of the Greenwich, Connecticut-based Morgan-Stanley unit FrontPoint Partners, played by Steve Carell) and a NJ bond manager that packages Credit Default Swaps and ‘synthetic’ Collateralized Debt Obligations for Merrill Lynch in NY (who was played by an actual CDO trader in real life):

Morgan Stanley’s ‘Mark Baum’: “How much bigger is insuring mortgage bonds for actual mortgages?”

Merrill’s CDO Manager: “It’s about 20x.”

Mark: “Huh? Let’s say you have a pool of $50M in subprime loans…How much money could be out there betting on it in your synthetic CDO swaps right now—tonight?

Merrill’s CDO Manager: “$50M?…So a billion dollars.”

Mark: “What?!”

Overhead audio-dub voice of Ryan Gosling as ‘Jared Vennett’ (based on a real person named Greg Lippmann in charge of global asset-back security trading at Deutsche Bank): “It was at that moment, at that dumb restaurant, with that stupid look on his face, that Mark Baum realized that the whole economy might collapse.”


The book: ‘The Big Short’ by Michael Lewis, financial journalist and nonfiction author…


The movie: ‘The Big Short’ directed by Adam McKay, ‘Funny or Die’ website co-founder.

The book: One of the ‘shorts’ was Mike Burry at Scion Capital.

The movie: Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, an eccentric ex-physician turned one-eyed Scion Capital hedge fund manager, who has traded traditional office attire for shorts, bare feet and a Supercuts haircut. He believes that the US housing market is built on a bubble that will burst within the next few years. Autonomy within the company allows Burry to do as he pleases, so Burry proceeds to bet large against the housing market by first asking Goldman Sachs, and then other banks, to create a derivative known as a credit default swap, or CDS, which is a custom-made insurance policy, on specific subprime debt, hand-picked by Burry. This newly-written policy, this derivative contract, effectively creates an underlying, mirror-image duplicate of that chosen subprime debt with as much devastating loss potential as those subprime securities that they are insuring (guaranteeing to cover all losses in the event of default). These CDS would pay off for Burry if the housing market crashes and the subprime debt his policies are ‘derived’ from, become worthless. The banks are more than happy to accept his proposal for something that has never happened in American history, believe that Burry is a crackpot, and therefore are confident in taking the other side of his bet.

The book: One of the ‘shorts’ was Steve Eisman at Greenwich, Connecticut-based FrontPoint Partners LLC, under Morgan Stanley.

The movie: An errant telephone call to FrontPoint Partners gets information about subprime CDS that are betting against the housing market into the hands of Steve Carell playing “Mark Baum”, an idealist who is fed up with the corruption in the financial industry. “Mark Baum” and his associates at FrontPoint Partners, an arm’s length under Morgan Stanley, invite “Jared Vennett” from Deutsche bank to explain and possibly solicit these CDS, despite not totally trusting him. In addition, “Mark Baum” further believes that most of the mortgage securities are overrated by the bond agencies, especially now with this new information from “Jared Vennett” that banks are dangerously blending an alarmingly increasing amount of subprime mortgages together with AAA-rated mortgages into bundled debt securities known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.

The book: One of the ‘shorts’ was Charlie Ledley & Jamie Mai at Cornwall Capital.

The movie: Charlie “Geller” and Jamie “Shipley”, who are minor players in a $30 million start-up garage company called “Brownfield”, also get wind of “Jared Vennett’s” subprime CDS prospectus on the matter. Wanting in on the action but not having the official clout to play, they decide to call an old friend, retired investment banker Brad Pitt playing “Ben Rickert” – actually based on Ben Hockett, a banker who had previously worked at Deutsche Bank – is also pessimistic about the banking industry, and joins forces with his erstwhile neighbors Charlie and Jamie to help out establishing “Brownfield”. These three groups, these three ‘big shorts’, Scion Capital, FrontPoint Partners, and “Brownfield”, work on the premise that the banks are stupid and don’t know what’s going on, while for them to win, the general economy has to lose, which means the suffering of the general investor who trusts the financial institutions.

The book: One of the ‘shorts’ was John Paulson.

The movie: John Paulson, the most notorious ‘big short’, wasn’t in the movie.

The book: One of the ‘longs’ was American International Group (AIG).

The movie: There was no significant mention of AIG.

The book: One of the ‘longs’ were the proprietary traders at Bear Stearns & Lehman Brothers.

The movie: There was no significant mention of Bear or Lehman’s duplicity in manipulating subprime debt prices—only scenes that described their demise.

The book: One of the ‘longs’ were the German institutional funds in Dusseldorf that were buyers of subprime securities that didn’t beware.

The movie: There was no significant mention of German fund managers that bought these toxic mortgage assets in the movie, except that they too took heavy losses.

The book: Morgan Stanley was also one of the ‘longs’. Firmly believing that wagers on the housing market were safe bets, Morgan Stanley’s Howie Holden was heavily long AAA-rated tranches of CDOs (the slices that were backed by solid mortgages), along with other proprietary traders at the firm, but at the same time, in…

The movie: “Mark Baum” at Morgan Stanley’s hedge fund FrontPoint Partners buys CDS that bet against all mortgage debt, from low-rated subprime debt to AAA-rated mortgage debt from Deutsche bank’s “Jared Vennett”. Meaning “Mark Baum” is betting against his own firm’s long positions in mortgage debt, so his desk’s gains will not only come from the financial carnage of American homeowners, but his own fellow employees as well. A scene in the movie depicts him finding out from his previous assistant, now working for Morgan Stanley’s risk department, the extent of the mortgage CDO losses, 10x more than he imagined, of the other traders at his firm. Coming from a family with a history of suffering from depression, this devastates “Mark Baum” psychologically, and even when eventually proven right, he instead sulks, and out of guilt delays taking profits, nor ever says ‘I told you so’.

The book: One of the ‘longs’ was Greg Lipman at Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank’s proprietary trader Greg Lipmann was at first long subprime tainted CDOs along with other desks at Deutsche to initially get involved in the subprime market. Lipmann then, in….

The movie: …goes rogue, unwinds his personal long positions, and starts soliciting Deutsche Bank mortgage CDS soon after getting wind of what Dr. Michael Burry is doing at Goldman. As a savvy proprietary trader at Deutsche Bank, Ryan Gosling playing “Jared Vennett” believes he too can cash in on Burry’s beliefs, and sells “Mark Baum” mortgage debt CDS, despite being bets against Deutsche’s own long positions in subprime-tainted CDOs. Furthermore, unlike the CDS that Goldman sold to Dr. Burry, the CDS that “Jared Vennett” sells to FrontPoint Partners was his trading idea, and because the expected windfall will be so large, he shamelessly explains that Deutsche intends to rake in a huge mark-up for themselves when “Mark Baum” unwinds the position. In the movie, talking directly to the camera while smugly showing off his 8-figure bonus check, the cold-blooded “Jared Vennett” of Deutsche feels no remorse whatsoever that he personally profited off the financial ruin of others.

The book: While practically everyone was somehow long or short during the housing boom, in a comically-tragic yet impressive display of financial engineering, Goldman Sachs played both sides of the subprime market to perfection. With newly-created, subprime Credit Default Swaps (CDS), not only did Goldman ‘replicate’ the risk exposure of the most toxic of subprime debt by writing contracts insuring it to sell to their clients (to the shorts, wanting to bet against subprime debt), Goldman then took these CDS contracts that they wrote, that placed Goldman at risk, and fraudulently laundered that risk TO THEIR OWN CLIENTS. By cleverly inserting Goldman’s newly-created insurance policies (CDS) on subprime debt inside legitimate, prime AAA-rated collateralized debt obligations (CDO)—so-called ‘Synthetic CDO’—and immediately turning them around…selling them to their other clients…the longs, wanting to bet on subprime debt…Goldman was profiting from both the buyers and the sellers in the subprime mortgage market…the whole time…without taking any risk! Here’s how that worked: CDS, or financial insurance, is not the same as traditional insurance. On Wall Street, you can write and sell a CDS (you can ‘insure’ a financial product), to a person who is not the owner of the ‘property’ being insured. On Main Street, you cannot do that, you cannot insure a house against a fire and offer to sell the policy to someone other than the owner of that house (like an unfriendly neighbor) for obvious reasons. So on Main Street, a fire insurance policy on a house must have what is known as ‘insurable interest’; but on Wall Street you can write a CDS, insure any bond, any debt instrument, owned by one person, and not only sell that contract to the owner of that bond, but to anyone else, and write as many contracts and sell them to as many people as you want. As a newly-created replication of that original debt (as a newly-created risk), these newly-created CDS multiplied the loss potential. This is because the buyer, or holder of the original bond that the CDS is derived from (why they call CDS a ‘derivative’), plus all the sellers, or writers of any additional CDS contracts insuring that debt, all of those people lose money, a potentially devastating amount, if just that one, single, underlying bond defaults. Dr. Mike Burry asked Goldman to insure particular subprime debts that he had researched and concluded had the best chances of defaulting, not because he owned that debt, not because he had an ‘insurable interest’ in that debt, not to wisely hedge against that debt, but only because, like a cunning and unfriendly neighbor, he just wanted to bet against that debt. Worse than the guy that yells “Fire” in a crowded movie theater that isn’t on fire, this is like a guy that DOES NOT yell “Fire” in a crowded movie theater THAT IS on fire —because he would rather call his broker and make money off the carnage. Burry and Goldman couldn’t care less about the worldwide financial damage those subprime mortgages would inflict after burning down. Rather than worry about the damage, they thought about how to MULTIPLY the damage (in order to multiply their profit from it). To be fair to Burry and the other ‘big shorts’, at least they were taking a position, they had ‘skin in the game’, they were exposed to losses, the entire principal amount that they invested (if they were wrong about betting against the mortgage market); but Goldman cleverly was not taking any risk at all. Goldman created this insurance and Goldman (the CDS writer) then sold it to Burry (the CDS holder). As the seller, or the writer of this insurance policy, this CDS insurance contract, Goldman effectively replicated that subprime debt (that low-rated bond that Goldman’s insurance contract covered, that would make whole, in the event of default). Goldman was now temporarily exposed, Goldman was at risk, for this debt, as well as, just as much as, the original holder of that subprime debt. Goldman (instead of carrying this new risk that they just created for one client that wants to short subprime debt) next needs to lay that exposure off (on another client that wants to go long subprime debt). So the trick for Goldman was to devise a way to get clients to take—to become the writers of—these newly-concocted Credit Default Swap contracts. No Goldman client would ever agree to invest in (to write) a fire insurance policy on a single movie theater that had smoke coming out of it, but a Goldman client could be duped into doing just that if the contract was buried deep inside a Collateralized Debt Obligation (a bundle of high-grade bonds). Which is exactly what Goldman did. Goldman took actual AAA-rated mortgage CDOs that were paying a steady stream of bond interest (derived from mortgage interest payments being received from prime-mortgage bond debt), inconspicuously blended in their CDS contracts (insuring junk-mortgage bond debts specifically picked by a ‘big short’); and then Goldman unloaded it on another client that thought they were just investing in, that thought they were simply going long on, mortgage debt. Since these CDOs (portfolio of AAA-rated bonds) now had CDSs (insurance contracts) inside, Goldman renamed them ‘Synthetic CDOs’ and Goldman sold them to their clients—like American International Group (AIG). That was Goldman’s grift. That is how Goldman facilitated The Big Shorts. In what you could call The Big Con, instead of buying plain-vanilla CDOs yielding (mortgage bond) interest payments, a Goldman client, the mark, like AIG, were unknowingly buying financial weapons of mass destruction that were actually paying subprime CDS (insurance policy) premiums. Same difference if you were an investor seeking income and you were bullish on subprime debt, right (?) Sure, until the day that investor finds out after it’s too late that the CDOs that they just bought…from Goldman’s traders…contain risk on subprime debts…that were hand-picked by Goldman’s other client, a hedge-fund expert…who was convinced they would default….because those specific debts had the greatest probability to default….so that expert shorted those particular subprime risks… by replicating that dangerous risk…disguising it as an innocent little CDS…created inside Goldman’s laboratory…and because Goldman didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole…quietly slipped that toxic subprime CDS into your CDO…that you had just bought from Goldman (and paid a sales commission to Goldman). While everyone from the buyers of these securities, to the regulators of these securities, to the credit rating agencies getting paid pretending to know how risky these securities were, Goldman kept profiting, with no skin in the game, as long as everyone kept drinking that housing-boom Kool-Aid…

The movie: Goldman Sachs is portrayed as only a counterparty, as Dr. Michael Burry’s broker, and that the Synthetic CDOs that Goldman later created and sold to lay off their own exposure to subprime debt was just an innocent ‘side bet’, like ‘people standing behind blackjack players making personal wagers.’

The book: Morgan Stanley proprietary traders avoided taking bigger losses on their long CDO positions by using inside foreclosure trend information to front-run the market. Merrill Lynch was able to sidestep losses in their long CDO positions by colluding with other banks to help “bespoke”, or freeze market prices of CDS at grossly inflated levels long enough until they could dump most of their losing positions on their own clients.

The movie: doesn’t specifically finger any bank, just ‘the crooks at the banks’. In separate scenes showing each of three big shorts exasperated and even terrified they were being conned while it took so long for the prices of their CDS positions to reflect actual market conditions.

The book: For the crimes committed that caused the 2008 Credit Crisis, ONLY ONE PERSON went to jail.

The movie: predicts that the blame would go to ‘the immigrants and the poor people’ who caused the housing bubble and shows the only person, Kareem Serageldin, an Egyptian-born trader at Credit Suisse, the only person that went to jail for crimes committed in the 2008 World Financial Credit Crisis.

Meanwhile, over in Staten Island, NY, a black man named Eric Garner died. He choked to death…while resisting arrest…under suspicion of…wait for it…selling loose cigarettes…for a dollar each (Take a knee and ponder that).

NOTE: This is not an exact description of the events leading up to and causing the 2008 Credit Crisis, only my side-by-side comparison of both the book and the movie, The Big Short, which pushes a narrative that the ‘big shorts’ were geniuses, or even prophets. In reality, many other people also knew that there was a dangerous housing bubble, over-inflated with borrowed money, about to burst, and positioned themselves accordingly (i.e. for every single home buyer during the housing boom that was convinced home prices would go higher, there was a seller that wasn’t). The ‘big shorts’ were just good at their jobs, and were even better at timing their bets…

The movie also veers away from incriminating any of the banks, unlike the book, which puts most of the blame for the nationwide, unbridled greed just on the banks, and especially Goldman. At the end of the day, the actions of the banks may not have been criminal, but they were certainly mistakes, and the banks have been punished for those mistakes…

In April 2016, Goldman agreed to pay a fine of $5.1 billion to the US Department of Justice, part of a January 14, 2016 settlement reached with the US federal gov’t for Goldman’s role in “miss-selling” mortgage securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. As per the Justice Department, the settlement also “preserves the government’s ability to bring criminal charges against Goldman and does not release any individuals from potential criminal or civil liability.”

In October 2016, the US Department of Justice demanded that Deutsche Bank pay an additional $14B fine for “miss-selling” toxic mortgage securities to investors including mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. According to Bloomberg, since 2008, Deutsche Bank had already paid US authorities more than $9B in fines for foreign-currency rate manipulation, interbank interest rate manipulation, precious metals pricing manipulation, and whether it facilitated transactions that helped investors illegally transfer billions of dollars out of Russia, a US sanctions violation. The threat of this additional $14B fine (an amount almost as much as Deutsche’s entire value) pushed the bank’s shares to record lows. The following month, officials at Deutsche reached a $7.2B settlement, the largest amount ever paid to resolve charges against a single entity for misleading investors in residential mortgage-backed securities, according to the US Department of Justice.

In May 2018, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the biggest casualty of the financial crisis, agreed (and on 15 Aug 2018 formally finalized a settlement) with the US Department of Justice to pay a $4.9B fine to resolve the investigation into the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities, resolving RBS’s last outstanding litigation issue which had weighed on its share price, blocked dividend distributions to shareholders and complicated the state’s (UK government’s) plan to sell down its more than 70% stake. The settlement was only civil in nature (no criminal charges). Once the world’s largest bank by assets, RBS narrowly avoided insolvency in 2008 after the UK gov’t agreed to a 45.5B pound sterling (approx $58B) state bailout just six months after the bank tapped 12B of emergency cash from shareholders. Furthermore, in July 2017, RBS agreed to pay another $5.5B to resolve a lawsuit by the US Housing Finance Agency on claims that RBS mislead mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. RBS also previously resolved similar claims by the US National Credit Union Administration on claims RBS mislead credit unions, as well as other settlements by RBS in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the state attorneys general of NY and California, bringing the total tab for RBS to settle their US mortgage issue to approximately $11B.

Also in August 2018, Wells Fargo, one of the last remaining big banks to settle charges relating to its role in the subprime mortgage crisis, agreed to pay a $2.1B fine for actions that understated the risk and quality of the mortgages they sold to investors at the height of the housing bubble between 2005 and 2007. The Department of Justice said Wells Fargo sold at least 73,500 loans that had poor underwriting standards to investors. Half of those loans defaulted.

For breaching a variety of financial regulations that led to the 2007- 2008 global financial crisis, banks across the world have paid well over A QUARTER OF A TRILLION DOLLARS in compensation, according to Reuters (the final figure is close to $326 billion). Aside from “miss-selling” mortgage securities, these banks and other financial institutions were fined “for misdeeds ranging from manipulation of currency and interest rate markets and compensating customers who were wrongly sold mortgages in the US or insurance products in Britain.”

P.S. This is a case study why you can’t give the free market’s ‘invisible hand’ full control over the sword of capitalism.

Thanks for reading,

Follow us at Pure MMT for the 100%

Buy(ing) and Hold

Bearish market sentiment is at a five-year high, so should you be feeling the same?

Look at the previous peaks on this graph:  Short Interest near five year high

The US Treasury bond downgrade in August 2011…The Euro zone crisis in ’12…Last week’s and last summer’s Shanghai Composite Index selloffs.

Market sentiment is usually considered as a contrarian indicator, a good thing to bet against, especially when it is more extreme. Very bearish sentiment is usually followed by the market going up more than normal. Buying low-cost, broad-based, index funds when they are on sale is an easy way to get rich.

NOTE: ‘Buy & Hold’ is actually a misnomer. Even if you only bought a low-cost, broad-based, index fund ONCE (if you just made a one-time single investment), that still means that you are automatically re-investing (you are BUYING) more shares every 90 days when quarterly dividends are paid.

‘Clinton Surplus Myth’ Myth

There are tons of delusional things said on the airwaves these days. Most are a simple variation that rhymes with a similar doomsday theme. One example, since our federal government’s debt is so unsustainable, before the entire US economic apparatus implodes, we should abolish the Fed, and go back to a gold standard, blah, blah. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference if these people are actually serious, or are they just hoping for ‘likes’ on their Facebook page, looking for orders on their websites, playing us for ratings, or maybe even pandering for primary election votes (so in cases like that, then I think those people are brilliant marketing geniuses).

That is not always the case with some claims, however. A bizarre statement I heard recently to substantiate an accusation of federal financial finagling was that the Clinton surpluses were a hoax, and that instead of those four years of surpluses, each of them were deficits. If you search ‘Clinton surplus myth’, you will see that there are many people that actually believe this. The main rationale of the ‘Clinton surplus myth’ mentality (which defies accounting reality) is that in each of those four Clinton surplus years, the total public debt, commonly known as the national debt, increased, and thus, that cancels out any ‘surplus’. How could there be a federal budget surplus, they claim, if total federal gov’t debt rose? How could the gov’t borrowing more money in one year be called a surplus in that year? More specifically, they ask how can the gov’t say there was a Clinton surplus of $237 billion in fiscal year 2000, if the total national debt that year increased $18 billion?

I will attempt to explain why, first, with a short answer. The reason why, is that instead of the US federal gov’t borrowing that $18 billion from someone else, the US federal gov’t borrowed that $18 billion from itself. The US federal gov’t has two books, or two set of ledgers, one that counts debt borrowed from others (“on-budget”), and another that counts debt borrowed from itself (“off-budget”). Spending $18 billion that you got from someone else’s pocket in exchange for an IOU that went into someone else’s pocket (“on-budget”) is an outright loss of money, and considered a liability, but spending $18 billion from your own pocket in exchange for an IOU that went into your own pocket (“off-budget”) is considered both an asset to yourself and a liability to yourself of equal amounts that, at the present moment, cancel each other out. ‘At the present moment’ is the key to why the Clinton surpluses were real. If you spend money today, money that is in your own pocket, but money that is earmarked for something else, some future expense, then that is not deficit spending, it’s not a loss, nor a liability, not yet, not until that day, that day when that pending “off-budget” expense is realized. For example, if you won at poker, when you get back home do you put all your winnings in a jar and leave it there for the next game (do you set up an “off budget” trust fund for future poker losses)? No, you don’t. As a ‘user’ of dollars (with a ‘user’ of dollars set of budget books), you simply spend the money right afterwards on whatever your next “on-budget” expenses are. Which is exactly what the federal gov’t does with excess FICA taxes (dollars withheld from your wages for Social Security); except the federal gov’t, an ‘issuer’ of dollars (with an ‘issuer’ of dollars set of budget books) DOES have that jar to keep track of winnings to consolidate their balance sheets. The federal gov’t records any excess FICA receipts (Social Security ‘winnings’) by putting an ‘IOU’ inside a ‘jar’ (puts an intra-government debt known as Gov’t  Account Series bonds in the Social Security trust fund). Note that Social Security and the federal gov’t are two different pockets, but on the same pair of pants. That is why that “off-budget” debt in the year 2000 was not part of the “on-budget” surplus calculation, because that $18 billion increase in total national debt was not borrowed by the federal gov’t from others (which is an immediate liability), it was borrowed by the federal gov’t from itself (which isn’t yet a liability). When the federal gov’t ‘borrows’ from Social Security, it is ‘borrowing’ from itself, not from others, and why pending “off-budget” debt doesn’t negate any actual “on-budget” surplus.

Now here is the long answer. The US federal government has a legislated accounting construct that is quite complex. Being hard to understand, like many other issues today and throughout time, it naturally tempts a certain amount of people to be suspect of it, especially if it fits their subjective narrative. First of all, deficits and debts are two separate things. Deficits or surpluses reflect current cash flow, like entries on an income statement. Debt is a cumulative measure, like entries on a balance sheet. The US national debt ($19 trillion at this writing) is a sum of two separate things. The US national debt is the sum of public-held debt ($14 trillion) and intra-gov’t-held debt ($5 trillion). These two ‘debts’ are not both liabilities, and why they are posted separately in two different “on-budget” and “off-budget” ledger books.

The facts:

The US federal gov’t fiscal year begins on October 1st and ends on September 30th. In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2000, the US federal govt had a surplus of $237 billion. In addition, the total US national debt was $ 5.655 trillion on September 30, 1999 and $ 5.673 trillion on September 30, 2000, so that was an annual increase of $18 trillion [SOURCE: Treasury Department’s ‘Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government’]. The total US national debt is the sum of the debt held by the public (“on-budget”) and the debt held by the gov’t (“off-budget”). The debt held by the public (owed to others) was $ 3.232 trillion on September 30, 1999 and it was $ 2.992 on September 30, 2000, so that was an “on-budget” decrease of $240 billion (The Clinton surplus). The debt held by the gov’t (‘owed’ to itself) was $ 2.423 on September 30, 1999 and $ 2.681 on September 30, 2000, so that was an “off-budget” increase of $258 billion, meaning a net $18 billion increase of both together, or, an $18 billion increase in the total US national debt. [SOURCE: google search ‘monthly statement of the public debt of the United States September 30, 2000’ and in the TreasuryDirect website click 1999, click September, click Summary Adobe Acrobat, repeat for 2000]

The ‘Clinton surplus myth’ movement points out this net $18 billion increase in total debt, and of that total $258 billion increase in govt-held debt, they specifically finger a $246 billion entry figure found in the same Monthly Treasury Statement [To find it, scroll to ‘Table 6. Schedule D’, ‘Net Purchases’, ‘Fiscal Year to Date’, ‘This Year’, ‘Grand total’]. This $246 billion is that year’s increase of intra-govt debt of off-budget items, mainly Social Security. What that means is the US Treasury took that year’s “off-budget” Social Security surplus, gave the Social Security trust fund an IOU in exchange for that cash money, and spent that cash money for other “on-budget” expenditures. The myth movement says that the federal gov’t surplus of $237 billion in 2000 would not have been possible without ‘borrowing’ the Social Security surplus. Only by ‘borrowing’ that fiscal year’s $246 billion off-budget surplus and by Treasury ‘trickery’ could that be called a fiscal year ‘surplus’. According to them, if there was an actual surplus, the national debt in 2000 would have come down, instead of going up $18 billion.

There is a difference when the federal gov’t has borrowed from itself (isn’t a liability), and when the federal gov’t has borrowed from others (is a liability), or more specifically, there’s a difference between “on-budget” and “off-budget” federal gov’t debt. What confuses everybody is that these two different types of debt are added together and called the national debt which makes them seem like the same types of debt. How are these debts different? During current “on-budget” operations, if the federal govt receives less money from individual federal tax withholding, corporate federal tax, etc., than it pays out while provisioning itself, running the country, etc., that “on-budget” deficit spending is financed with newly-created money. That newly-created money was approved by Congress and also was accounted for to the penny by selling additional “marketable” securities, or Treasury bonds, to the public. These additional Treasury bonds increase the federal gov’t debt “held by the public”. Furthermore, when the federal gov’t receives more money from “off-budget” operations, like Social Security payments deducted from paychecks, above what it pays out to those “off-budget” operations, like Social Security recipients, by law it must use that surplus to buy “non-marketable” Government Account Series securities, or what I personally like to call ‘pending’ Treasury bonds. These ‘pending’ Treasury bonds increase the federal gov’t debt “held by the govt”. These ‘pending’ Treasury bonds are placed in the corresponding trust fund for future redemption, and that surplus off-budget cash money is promptly spent on current on-budget expenditures. The sum of both those Treasury bonds issued and sold by the Treasury to finance on-budget deficit spending (debt held by the public), plus all those ‘pending’ Treasury bonds posted in off-budget trust funds (debt held by the gov’t) is the total public debt, or the national debt. The key difference is, only the marketable Treasury bonds issued that coincided with the newly created money to finance on-budget deficit spending are liabilities (because they already monetized an on-budget deficit). The non-marketable securities, or ‘pending’ Treasury bonds that are sitting in trust funds like the Social Security trust fund are not liabilities until they are redeemed by the trust fund (because they have not yet monetized an off-budget deficit)…

In other words, Treasury bonds held by the public and ‘pending’ Treasury bonds held within the federal government are both considered a debt, but both are not a liability. Only debt held by the public that financed on-budget deficit spending is reported just as a liability on the consolidated financial statements, the balance sheet of the United States government. Debt held by government accounts, or the intra-gov’t-held debt, is not (yet) reported just as a liability on the consolidated balance sheet of the United States government (not until it is redeemed by the trust fund). Using basic rules of accounting, not trickery, debt held by government accounts, or the intra-gov’t-held debt, is at the moment both an asset (to those trust funds) and a liability (to the Treasury), so they presently offset each other on the consolidated balance sheet, and why that fiscal year 2000 off-budget debt is separate from that fiscal year 2000 on-budget surplus.

So how does ‘pending’ off-budget debt (which isn’t counted in the 2000 surplus) become actual on-budget debt (that is counted in the 2000 surplus)? When any off-budget trust fund has a deficit in any given year, that trust fund needs to ‘finance’ that deficit. To finance that deficit, the trust fund will hand over some of their ‘pending’ Treasury bonds to the Treasury, and the Treasury will hand over newly created dollars. Newly created dollars means deficit spending, so just as in any on-budget federal gov’t deficit spending, those newly created dollars will be accounted for to the penny with a coinciding issuance of Treasury bonds. Those previously ‘pending’ Treasury bonds will become actual Treasury bonds. That previously ‘pending’ debt held by intra-gov’t will become actual debt held by the public. That previously ‘pending’ off-budget liability (caused by trust fund surplus savings) will become an actual on-budget liability (caused by trust fund deficit spending). Whether that given fiscal year has a total annual surplus or deficit will depend on actual liabilities (which depend on that year’s actual economic performance), not ‘pending’ liabilities (which depend on a future year’s hypothetical economic performance). To see the total debt, you look at the balance sheet, which is the entire, all-time, financial picture of the US federal gov’t from the very beginning. This total debt is the cumulative total of all the years up to the year 2000, made up of both the actual liabilities, or on-budget debt held by the public (money borrowed from others), and the ‘pending’ liabilities, the ‘pending’ off-budget debt held by gov’t (money ‘borrowed’ from itself). Conversely, to see the actual cash flow, you look at the income statement, which is the actual cash money flowing in and the actual cash money flowing out, or just the current, on-budget, actual cash flow that occurred in the year 2000. The bottom line of that US federal gov’t income statement shows that in that year 2000, the amount of actual cash money the federal gov’t took in was large enough to result in an on-budget fiscal year surplus. An increase in the total debt (+$18 billion) which includes a future-day ‘pending’ debt that is posted on the consolidated balance sheet doesn’t change the yearly income statement’s present-day bottom line cash surplus (+$237 billion). A cumulative balance sheet and a current cash flow statement are separate measures, of separate values, in separate time frames, and using separate rules of accounting. Comparing them together is like comparing apples to oranges.

The Clinton-surplus-myth mentality is yet another variation of the same theme, which is a gold-standard mentality that trips up many people when talking about the federal government. This outdated thinking from a bygone era contributes to a ‘federal-government-is-the-same-as-a-household’ groupthink (patterned behavioral and self-reinforcing group dynamicthat is widely pervasive today. Since leaving the gold standard for good in 1971, the federal gov’t is no longer like a household. In the post-gold standard, modern monetary system, when the federal gov’t, the issuer of dollars, ‘borrows’ dollars, it is not the same as when a household borrows dollars. As the saying goes, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. According to the Treasury Monthly Statement, in fiscal year 2000, the United States government had receipts of $ 2.025 trillion and outlays of $ 1.788 trillion and “the final budget results and details a surplus of $237 billion.”  As per the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the US federal budget was in surplus and the Public Debt, or “debt held by the public” (money borrowed from others) was decreased during Clinton’s second term. Rather than grasping this hard reality and instead preferring to deny the accounting science, the Clinton-surplus-is-a-myth movement wants to engage you in a childish ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument. It bothers them that Clinton took a Social Security surplus and shamelessly used it to get his budget in surplus.

I have a compromise to offer to The-Clinton-surplus-is-a-myth folks: I’ll admit to them that Social Security being in surplus gets all the credit for putting Clinton’s budget in surplus if they’ll admit that the U.S. economy under the leadership of President Clinton was so strong that it put Social Security in surplus. If anyone says or posts otherwise, well, they won’t get a ‘like’ on their Facebook page from me.

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P.S. Thankfully, less and less folks are buying into the narrative that ‘social security is broke’. Here’s one of my favorite comments (comebacks) that I’ve read so far to date:

“When the Social Security Administration takes in more money than it paid out, what should it do with the extra money? Earn a bit of interest on it I’d say, wouldn’t you? That’s what they did, they bought a (special issue) Treasury Bond. Now what should the U.S. Treasury do with the money from the bond sale? How about do the exact same thing the U.S. Treasury always does with money from its bond sales!”—Charles ‘Kondy’ Kondak

Agreed… and note that when Kondy wrote that, the Social Security Trust Fund was sitting on 2.89 TRILLION dollars and even though another ADDITIONAL 10 THOUSAND baby boomers EVERY SINGLE DAY SINCE JAN 1ST 2011 starting collecting SS checks for the first time, the Trust Fund is running a $23B profit so far in 2018. The federal gov’t, the (sole monopoly) issuer of dollars, will NEVER have a problem ‘paying back’ this $2.89T to the Trust Fund (nor any “debt” denominated dollars).



The people saying ‘the Clinton surplus was a myth’ are having the same problem as the MMT people who say ‘the national debt is the amount of money the gov’t spent into existence and hasn’t taxed back yet’—they are all getting confused by surplus spending. When the federal gov’t runs a surplus, they hold hearings to decide what to do with them (how to spend them). The choices are either to pay off Treasury bonds that lowers the national debt or to pay for fiscal policies like more spending +/or tax cuts. It was decided that the Clinton surpluses were NOT to be used to pay off Treasury bonds (and with both candidate George W. Bush and Fed Chair Greenspan’s blessings) they eventually funded the next administration’s increased spending and tax cuts. In other words, for the ‘surplus was a myth’ people, just because surpluses don’t lower the national debt (weren’t ‘spent’ on paying off bondholders) doesn’t mean they weren’t a surplus at all; and for the MMT people, the national debt is the amount of money the gov’t hasn’t taxed back AND then used to lower the national debt (SEE Deadly Innocent Misinterpretation #28).

Thanks for reading,

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