What Happens When The US Can Borrow No More?

In a previous post, I noted that the US can handle a debt load up to about $20 Trillion, even in the absence of rapid economic growth. Unfortunately, we appear to be rapidly headed past that figure, with the White House’s official projection showing that total debt will pass $20 Trillion by 2016 [1], and will rise above $25 Trillion by the end of the decade!

The growth of the federal debt is thus unsustainable, as even politicians now acknowledge. Eventually, bond markets will be unable to consume the volume of debt that America needs to issue in order to continue spending. What happens at that point, when the US can no longer borrow to fund current spending?

Here are the options for 2015, using the assumption that real GDP growth and inflation will both average 2% through 2015, with a resulting budget deficit of $1,014 Billion [2]:

  1. Cut Spending: Spending cuts of $475B will be needed to reduce the budget deficit below 3% in 2015. A 3% budget deficit is generally viewed as sustainable by economists [3]. Budget cuts this size would necessarily have to include cuts to Defense, Medicare, or Social Security, as they together make up 2/3 of the Federal budget.
  2. Raise Taxes: As with spending cuts, $475B in taxes would be needed to drop the deficit below 3% in 2015. Taxes would have to be raised to 21% of GDP to close the gap, the highest total tax burden since at least 1975.
  3. Monetize Debt: Since the start of financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has been purchasing US treasuries in order to keep interest rates down and to inject cash into the economy. The Fed could also bail out government finances by buying the $475B in excess Treasury issuance in 2015, but this is the equivalent of printing money. Such an approach will create inflation, and is unsustainable in the long term.

The federal government is likely to attempt a combination of all three approaches in order to minimize the pain on any one interest group. Inflation will likely rise above its recent norm of 2% as the Federal Reserve quietly injects money into the economy. The federal government’s total tax burden will likely rise to at least 20% of GDP, and spending cuts in the hundreds of billions will be required. The sacred cows of Medicare, Defense, and Social Security will be cut, since there’s little to cut outside these programs. The future looks increasingly to hold higher taxes and less government services, a penance decades in the making.

[1] See table S-14 for the OMB’s debt projections.

[2] The OMB uses rosy economic growth projections (table S-13) of over 4% for most of the years between now and 2015. I use a more conservative 2% for real economic growth and 2% for inflation, for 4% total nominal GDP growth (vs. 5.6% used by the OMB). Using 4%, I estimate GDP at $18 Trillion in 2015, whereas the OMB projects $19.4 Trillion. My lower GDP estimate also lowers projected government revenue proportionally, so that my budget deficit estimate for 2015 is $1014 Billion (versus $752 Billion OMB estimate).

[3] Why is a 3% budget deficit acceptable? Long term real economic growth in the US is around 3.75%, so a 3% budget deficit will over time cause the overall debt to grow more slowly than the economy. As the debt-to-GDP ratio shrinks, interest payments on the debt become easier and easier to pay via the growing tax base.

How Much Can America Borrow?

From a fiscal stability standpoint, the US can manage a national debt up to around $20 Trillion – but paying those debts off will require huge spending cuts and tax increases.

How much can the US government borrow before it becomes a bad credit risk? How much can the government borrow before it has to resort to inflating its way out of debt rather than simply paying off the bills? On the surface, the US government does not appear overly leveraged, as analysts point to the fact that public debt is only 60% of GDP. But is this a realistic way to look at America’s debt situation? Let’s look at America’s fiscal situation through the eyes of a loan officer, and see how it fares.

1. What is the US Government’s income, its current debt, and debt-to-income ratio?

Here is the US government’s revenue over the last three years: 2007: $2,568 Billion, 2008: $2,524 Billion, 2009: $2,105 Billion

The federal government’s total debt as of 03/21/2010: $12,661 Billion

The US government’s current debt-to-income ratio is 6.01. Using the US government’s best income year (2007), its debt-to-income ratio is 4.93. In the best circumstances, an individual might be able to borrow up to a ratio of 4.

2. What is the loan-to-value ratio for funds that the US government is borrowing this year?

The US government expects to borrow $1.56 Trillion this fiscal year. The majority of the money is being spent on Social Security payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense. Virtually none of the expenditures will be in tangible investments of any form. If we assume (generously) that $100 Billion of the deficit spending will be invested, the LTV of this year’s borrowing is 15. Most individuals need an LTV of 0.9 or less to get a home loan.

3. What is the US Government’s Total Debt Service Ratio? What percentage of revenue is spent on interest payments?

In 2009 the government spent $187 Billion on interest payments, for a TDS of 8.9%. The government’s interest payments are extremely low because lenders are currently willing to lend the US government money at interest rates near 0%. If, hypothetically, interest rates went up to 5%, the government would have to pay $633 Billion in interest, 30% of 2009 revenue.

4. How does it add up? How much can the US borrow?

The federal government’s DTI and LTV would be unsustainable for any private borrower. However, since individuals and governments have been willing to lend the US money at close to 0%, the US has been able to comfortably cover its debt service thus far. As the federal debt balloons that may begin to change.

Let’s assume that US government debt average yield rises to 5% (closer to historical average), and that debt service should not exceed 40% of revenue. Using the government’s highest annual income ($2.57 Trillion in 2007), this means that interest payments should not exceed $1027 Billion per year. If the average interest rate is 5%, this means that total debt carried at that point would be $20.5 Trillion.

While the US might be capable of borrowing $20 Trillion, at that point only 60% of revenue would be available for government programs. Since the government is currently spending 180% of revenue on programs, it’s unlikely that it would be able to reduce spending on government programs by almost 70%. It’s most likely that a combination of taxes, spending cuts, and inflation will have to be used to keep debt at sustainable levels at that point.

US debt to exceed GDP by 2010!

In Febuary, I predicted that US federal debt would exceed US GDP by 2015. It appears that I was too optimistic at that time.

The Obama Administration’s latest budget projections now show that the debt may exceed GDP as soon as 2010! This year’s deficit is expected to rise to $1.75 Trillion, raising the total debt from the current 11.2 trillion (4/9/09) to almost 13 trillion by year end. Next year’s deficit is projected to be in the trillion dollar range, driving the debt up to 14 trillion [1], which is roughly equivalent to 2008 GDP. Since GDP growth will be negative in 2009 and modest in 2010, it’s not unlikely that GDP and gross federal debt will be equal at the end of 2010 [2].

It looks like the budget situation may force decisions on big government programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Defense sooner than most expected – and likely sooner than the Administration would prefer. Here’s to the return (or beginning?)  of fiscal discipline!

[1] See Table S-9 in the White House Budget for FY 2010, showing gross debt of 14.078 Trillion for 2010.

[2] Table S-8 shows the White House’s economic growth assumptions, which are more optimistic than many mainstream economists’ assumptions. In fact, the table itself shows that both the CBO and private economists have lower growth projections than the White House (kudos for the honesty). The CBO estimates GDP at 14.6 Trillion for 2010, meaning that any further slippage in the budget cause the debt to surpass GDP.

How Large is the Real Federal Deficit?

Politicians have a habit of trying to obfuscate facts that don’t paint a positive picture.  Thus when uncomfortable discussions on the federal deficit cannot be avoided, attempts are made to conceal its true size.  For instance, the Iraq war has been funded through emergency supplemental spending, leaving it outside the official federal budget and deficit numbers, though the spending is quite real.

A simple technique can be used to reveal the true* size of the annual Federal deficit. Since all federal revenue shortfalls (deficits) are paid for through increases in the total US debt, the increase in debt each year exactly equals that year’s real federal deficit.

Here is the amount of US Federal debt outstanding from 1997-2008, for Sept. 30th of each year:

Year US Debt ($ Billions)
2008 10,024
2007 9,007
2006 8,506
2005 7,932
2004 7,379
2003 6,783
2002 6,228
2001 5,807
2000 5,674
1999 5,656
1998 5,526
1997 5,413

Using this data, we can calculate the true Federal deficit for each year, and compare it to the publicly announced deficit for that year:

Year Official US Surplus / Deficit ($Billions) Actual US Deficit
($Billions, based on actual borrowing)
% Larger than Official
2008 -410 -1017 115%
2007 -162 -501 209%
2006 -248 -574 131%
2005 -318 -553 74%
2004 -412 -596 45%
2003 -377 -555 47%
2002 -158 -421 166%
2001 128 -133 204%
2000 236 -18 108%
1999 125 -130 204%
1998 69 -113 263%

The Federal government’s need to borrow has been consistently understated in official deficits for the past decade, and has been as large as triple the official number! These numbers also show that the US government never actually ran a surplus at any time in the last decade. It appears that the first step to dealing with our government’s revenue shortfalls is to get our government to admit how large they are!

* Under US GAAP, federal deficits would be even larger, because they would take into account future Social Security and Medicare shortfalls. These programs are likely to be modified in the future, however, and so I believe that the method used above provides an accurate measure of the government’s cash deficit each year. This is a number most Americans would recognize – how much do you have to borrow to pay the bills each year?

** The argument might be made that during the “surplus” years of the late 90s, debt was increased simply to provide liquidity in treasury bond markets. This doesn’t make sense, however – if it had a cash surplus, the Treasury could easily have issued new debt while retiring old debt, leaving net debt unchanged. Economists generally take the view that government debt crowds out private sector borrowing, so why would the Treasury borrow if it didn’t need the funds?