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The Coming Crisis
Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
The topic of the federal debt is going to be front and center when the new Congress is seated in January. Many Republicans are already signing on to the recommendations of the commission that was appointed by President Barack Obama in Feb. 2010 to look into the looming crisis and co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson recently released the bipartisan findings. Following is a description of the serious issue the nation faces, as released on Dec. 1.
Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Spending is rising and revenues are falling short, requiring the government to borrow huge sums each year to make up the difference. We face staggering deficits. In 2010, federal spending was nearly 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of all goods and services produced in the economy. Only during World War II was federal spending a larger part of the economy. Tax revenues stood at 15 percent of GDP this year, the lowest level since 1950. The gap between spending and revenue – the budget deficit – was just under nine percent of GDP.
Since the last time our budget was balanced in 2001, the federal debt has increased dramatically, rising from 33 percent of GDP to 62 percent of GDP in 2010. The escalation was driven in large part by two wars and a slew of fiscally irresponsible policies, along with a deep economic downturn. We have arrived at the moment of truth, and neither political party is without blame.
Economic recovery will improve the deficit situation in the short run because revenues will rise as people go back to work, and money spent on the social safety net will decline as fewer people are forced to rely on it. But even after the economy recovers, federal spending is projected to increase faster than revenues, so the government will have to continue borrowing money to spend. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects if we continue on our current course, deficits will remain high throughout the rest of this decade and beyond, and debt will spiral ever higher, reaching 90 percent of GDP in 2020.
Over the long run, as the baby boomers retire and health care costs continue to grow, the situation will become far worse. By 2025 revenue will be able to finance only interest payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every other federal government activity – from national defense and homeland security to transportation and energy – will have to be paid for with borrowed money. Debt held by the public will outstrip the entire American economy, growing to as much as 185 percent of GDP by 2035. Interest on the debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion by 2020. These mandatory payments – which buy absolutely no goods or services – will squeeze out funding for all other priorities.
Federal debt this high is unsustainable. It will drive up interest rates for all borrowers – businesses and individuals – and curtail economic growth by crowding out private investment. By making it more expensive for entrepreneurs and businesses to raise capital, innovate, and create jobs, rising debt could reduce per-capita GDP, each American’s share of the nation’s economy, by as much as 15 percent by 2035.
Rising debt will also hamstring the government, depriving it of the resources needed to respond to future crises and invest in other priorities. Deficit spending is often used to respond to short-term financial “emergency” needs such as wars or recessions. If our national debt grows higher, the federal government may even have difficulty borrowing funds at an affordable interest rate, preventing it from effectively responding. Large debt will put America at risk by exposing it to foreign creditors. They currently own more than half our public debt, and the interest we pay them reduces our own standard of living. The single largest foreign holder of our debt is China, a nation that may not share our country’s aspirations and strategic interests. In a worst-case scenario, investors could lose confidence that our nation is able or willing to repay its loans – possibly triggering a debt crisis that would force the government to implement the most stringent of austerity measures.
Predicting the precise level of public debt that would trigger such a crisis is difficult, but a key factor may be whether the debt has been stabilized as a share of the economy or if it continues to rise. Investors, reluctant to risk throwing good money after bad, are sure to be far more concerned about rising debt than stable debt. In a recent briefing on the risk of a fiscal crisis, CBO explained that while “there is no identifiable tipping point of debt relative to GDP indicating that a crisis is likely or imminent,” the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is “climbing into unfamiliar territory” and “the higher the debt, the greater the risk of such a crisis.”
If we do not act soon to reassure the markets, the risk of a crisis will increase, and the options available to avert or remedy the crisis will both narrow and become more stringent. If we wait ten years, CBO projects our economy could shrink by as much as 2 percent, and spending cuts and tax increases needed to plug the hole could nearly double what is needed today. Continued inaction is not a viable option, and not an acceptable course for a responsible government.
Wall Street History returns in two weeks with a review of 2010 in the markets.