In his famous book Economics in One Lesson, economist Henry Hazlitt wrote, “Government encouragement to business is sometimes as much to be feared as government hostility.”
In 2009, renewable energy company Solyndra received $535 million through the federally backed 1705 loan guarantee program of the Department of Energy (DOE). Two years later the firm filed for bankruptcy and had to lay off its 1,100 employees, leaving taxpayers bearing the cost of the loan.
For obvious reasons, more than any other recent events, the waste of taxpayers’ money due to Solyndra’s failure has attracted much attention. However, the problems with loan guarantees are much more fundamental than the cost of one or more failed projects. In fact, the economic literature shows that (1) every loan guarantee program transfers the risk from lenders to taxpayers, (2) is likely to inhibit innovation, and (3) increases the overall cost of borrowing. At a minimum, such guarantees distort crucial market signals that determine where capital should be invested, causing unmerited lower interest rates and a reduction of capital in the market for more worthy projects. At their worst, they introduce political incentives into business decisions, creating the conditions for businesses to seek financial rewards by pleasing political interests rather than customers. This is called cronyism, and it entails real economic costs.
Yet, these loan programs remain popular with Congress and the executive. That’s because in general most of the financial cost of these guaranteed loans will not surface for many years. That means that Congress can approve billions of dollars to benefit special interests, with little or no immediate impact to federal appropriations in the short term, because they are almost entirely off-budget.
HOW DO THESE LOAN GUARANTEES WORK?
The DOE Loan Programs Office (LPO) administers three separate loan programs: (1) Section 1703 loan guarantees, (2) Section 1705 loan guarantees, and (3) Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) loans. Here are descriptions of the three loan programs, as explained by DOE:
Section 1703 of Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes the U.S. Department of Energy to support innovative clean energy technologies that are typically unable to obtain conventional private financing due to high technology risks.
Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loans support the development of advanced technology vehicles (ATV) and associated components in the United States. They also meet higher efficiency standards.
The Section 1705 Loan Program authorizes loan guarantees for U.S.-based projects that commenced construction no later than September 30, 2011 and involve certain renewable energy systems, electric power transmission systems, and leading edge biofuels.
According to LPO’s website, DOE’s loan guarantee authority originated from Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109–58). Under Section 1703, the federal government can guarantee 80 percent of a project’s total cost. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111–5) amended the Energy Policy Act of 2005 by adding Section 1705. Section 1705 was created as a temporary program, and 1705 loan guarantee authority ended on September 30, 2011.
The dollar volume of loans that can be guaranteed under DOE’s authority is predetermined by congressional appropriations that oversee the program. A simple way to explain how these loans work is the following: If a recipient defaults on its loan, the federal government pays the remainder of the debt to the lenders and repossesses all of the assets from the unfinished projects.
As with other loan programs, to prevent taxpayers’ exposure, the federal government has established a credit subsidy fee. In this case, the cost of the fee is determined by DOE, with guidance from OMB. The lenders usually charge the up-front guarantee fee to the borrower after the lender has paid the fee to DOE and has made the first disbursement of the loan.
This is not the case for 1705 loans, however. Under the stimulus bill, DOE received appropriated funds to pay for credit subsidy costs associated with Section 1705 loan guarantees, which, after rescissions and transfers, was $2.435 billion. As the Congressional Research Service rightly puts it, “Section 1705 loan guarantees were very attractive as they provided an opportunity to obtain low-cost capital with the required credit subsidy costs paid for by appropriated government funds.”
DOE does not provide loans directly. Instead, borrowers have to apply to qualified finance organizations. These lenders are expected to perform a complete analysis of the application. Then DOE reviews the lender’s credit analysis rather than conducting a second analysis. DOE still makes the final credit and eligibility decision.
DO LOAN GUARANTEES DO WHAT THEY CLAIM TO DO?
Leaving aside the question of whether the government should encourage the production of certain goods or ser- vices, the economic justification for any government-sponsored lending or loan guarantee program must rest on a well-established failure of the private sector to allocate loans efficiently (meaning that deserving recipients could not have gotten capital on their own). Absent such a private-sector deficiency, the DOE’s activities would simply be a wasteful at best, politically motivated at worst subsidy to this sector of the economy.
Yet, many argue that some public policy objectives require the sacrifice of marketplace efficiency. It is an accepted feature of modern American government that some public interests or social policy gains outweigh economic losses. In the case of green energy, the government’s lending programs could fulfill specific public policy objec- tives that the marketplace on its own would not otherwise serve or would supply at suboptimal levels. But do they?
In describing its role in the economy, the DOE proclaims that its loans help save the planet by helping to secure funding for the earlier-stage technologies or the later commercialization stage—known as the manufacturing “Valley of Death.” It also claims that the loan recipients will generate economic growth and “green” jobs that otherwise would not appear. DOE can thus be judged on its ability to meet these public policy goals—namely, to fill the supply-and-demand gap in the clean energy loan market, particularly for startups.
To measure the DOE results, I looked at the flow of DOE credits to evaluate who receives them and whether the DOE is meeting its stated policy objectives of promoting new startups and encouraging the creation of green jobs.
A close examination demonstrates that neither stated DOE policies nor its actual lending patterns provide evi- dence that its loan guarantees serve any of its defined public policy purpose.
FOLLOWING THE 1705 LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM MONEY
Since 2009, DOE has guaranteed $34.7 billion, 46 percent of it through the 1705 loan program, 30 percent through the 1703 program, and 14 percent through the ATVM.