How High a Budget Deficit Can We Sustain?

The US can sustain a budget deficit of 5%, not 3% as commonly assumed, because 2.5% inflation and 2.5% real growth combine to keep the total debt/gdp ratio stable.

With both the financial crisis and European debt crisis having a root in excess borrowing, the American political debate has turned toward deficit reduction as well. If current budget deficits (averaging 10% of GDP since the financial crisis) are recognized as unsustainable over the long term, then what level of budget deficit is sustainable? At one extreme, politicians call for a balanced budget, and at the other extreme the budget deficit is considered a distant issue. Meanwhile, many economists set the sustainable deficit threshold at 3% of GDP, and EU rules formally set the budget deficit threshold at 3% as well. What is the basis for the idea of a “sustainable” budget deficit, and is the 3% figure too high or too low?

What is a sustainable budget?

Unlike individuals or families, a nation has an indefinite lifespan, and can therefore continually roll over its debt as long as markets deem it a worthy creditor. As long as a nation’s economy is growing, its capacity for borrowing grows as well. But if the debt grows at a rate faster than the economy, then it will eventually exceed the nation’s ability to repay it. The idea of a sustainable budget deficit is summarized by the chief economist of the Concord Seo Company Coalition, “President Obama’s fiscal commission set a goal of getting deficits down to about 3 percent of GDP within five years – 3 percent being the average annual growth rate of the US economy since World War II.”

The Real Sustainable Deficit Target

There’s just one problem with the 3% target for a sustainable budget deficit – it’s too low! While GDP growth is measured in real terms, inflation also eats away at the value of the US debt over time. For instance, assume that the US has no future economic growth, but continues to have 2% inflation. Assume that we also manage to (magically?) balance the US budget. With no economic growth, does this mean that debt/gdp stays constant? Actually, inflation would cause the numerical value of GDP to continue rising, while the debt stays constant. This would cause the debt/gdp ratio to fall by around 2% per year.

In practical terms, this means that we have to look at the rate of nominal GDP growth to determine a sustainable budget deficit level [1]. To be conservative, let’s assume 2.5% real GDP growth (less than the 3% post-war average) and 2.5% inflation (within Americans’ comfort zone, and less than the 90’s and 2000’s average). Taken together, this means that if nominal GDP grows at 5% per year, a budget deficit of 5% can be sustained long term. The difference between 3% and 5% of GDP is big, over $300 Billion in 2012. As the federal budget and spending again enter serious debate after the November elections, it’s important that politicians understand the government’s true borrowing capacity – and neither the populist “balanced budget” nor the typical economist’s 3% magic number stand up to examination.

[1] Here’s the actual nominal GDP data from the Fed:

Using this data, we see that nominal GDP has grown at a compound annual rate of 6.6% over the post-war period (since 1947, when the data series begins). Over the past 30 years, nominal GDP has grown at a compound annual rate of 5.4% – and this period excludes most of the late 70’s and early 80’s inflation spike. Even over the past 20 years, which are skewed downward due to the financial crisis, the nominal GDP growth rate is 4.7%.

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.

How to Balance the Federal Budget

Can the US federal budget be balanced? It is obviously physically possible to balance the budget by either lowering spending, raising taxes, or a bit of both. But can the budget be balanced in a manner that is fiscally prudent while maintaining adequate funding for government’s most important operations?

I have attempted to balance the 2008 budget below while obeying the following constraints:

  1. No tax increases
  2. No spending shifts between departments, only spending cuts
  3. All spending, including entitlements spending, is fair game

The actual federal deficit for 2008 was $459 Billion, which forms the goal for the cost cutting exercise outlined in the table below [1].

Category 2008 Spending ($Billions) Proposed Cuts Proposed Spending
Defense 612 Cut by $150 Billion, maintaining US defense spending at a level that exceeds the entire World excluding NATO. [2] 462
Social Security 612 Phase out social security benefits for upper income seniors, cutting roughly $110 Billion annually. [3] 500
Medicare + Medicaid 587 Introduce 20% coinsurance for medical spending above $40,000 per year for Medicare and Medicaid recipients, saving $110 Billion. End Medicare Advantage subsidies, saving $17 Billion. [4] 460
Non-defense Discretionary 508 Make an across-the-board 9% cut in non-defense discretionary spending, saving $46 Billion. [5] 462
Other Mandatory Programs [5] 411 End agricultural commodity subsidies and crop insurance subsidies, saving $15 Billion. Modify student loan programs to cut out private middlemen, saving $9 Billion. [6] 387
Interest Payments 253 This cannot be cut without a US government default. 253
Totals 2,983 459 2523

As the table shows, the US federal budget cannot be balanced without deep cuts in Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, and the Department of Defense. Roughly 60% of the budget is allocated to these major programs, making a balanced budget impossible without reductions here.

A rationale for each major budget cut is provided in the footnotes below. I invite readers to share their balanced budgets as well, or to suggest changes in the cuts that I’ve suggested. Just make sure that the numbers add up, as cutting $459 Billion from the federal budget is harder than it looks!

[1] The core budget data for the table comes from Table S-3 of the US Budget Summary Tables. The 2010 budget document is used, as actual spending for 2008 is not available in earlier versions. The 2009 fiscal year data is incomplete, and also has significant one-time items like TARP and Stimulus package spending, so I chose to focus on the finalized 2008 numbers instead.

[2] The US defense budget represents almost 50% of the entire world’s defense spending, leaving ample room for cuts without jeopardizing US security. Over time the US defense apparatus has become particularly bloated, and cuts may actually improve the DoD’s efficiency over time. It’s worth noting that the US won the Cold War with much lower defense budgets than today.

[3] Social Security was enacted to ensure that American seniors did not starve in their last years, but later grew into a mandatory retirement program. Cutting Social Security payments to upper income seniors would bring the program closer to its original goal. There are 5 million senior households with income greater than $50,000, and they represent the top 20% of all seniors in income terms. These seniors likely draw maximum social security benefits, around 30k annually if there is slightly more than one senior per household on average.  Phasing out these benefits for the wealthiest 20% of seniors would save around $110 Billion. Gross benefits reductions would be around $150 Billion (5 million * 30,000), with an offsetting loss of tax revenue from the reduction in benefits.

[4] Along with defense spending, Medicare and Medicaid are the fastest growing parts of the federal budget.  Since government resources are limited, government benefits must also be limited. Medicare and Medicaid spending can be contained by requiring individuals to pay 20% of their own health care bills beyond $40,000 per year. This change would affect only 5% of Medicare recipients, but would yield huge savings as many patients would decline expensive treatments once cost became a consideration. 32% of all Medicare spending occurs above the $40,000 line; if requiring coinsurance cut this in half, roughly $110 Billion would be saved. This analysis assumes that the breakdown in Medicaid spending is similar to that of Medicare.  An additional $17 Billion annually could be saved by ending subsidies to Medicare Advantage, which is part of current health care reform proposals under debate.

[5] Non-defense discretionary spending includes almost all other federal departments. A 10% across-the-board cut would force all departments to shrink and increase efficiency. Alternately, targeted cuts could be used to shrink certain programs, but these cuts would still have to total $51 Billion annually. Health care cost growth could be reined in through heavy cuts at the NIH, which heavily subsidizes health care and pharmaceutical research. Cutting NIH’s $30 Billion budget in half would enable other departments to get by with a 6% cut instead. One more alternative would involve eliminating Congressional earmarks, which would reduce spending by $20 Billion.

[6] Other Mandatory Programs includes federal funding for food stamps, unemployment insurance, farm subsidies, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and other miscellaneous programs written into law with automatic spending formulas. Farm subsidies in particular deserve heavy cuts, as they distort the economy while worsening Americans’ health. Eliminating commodity crop payment programs and crop insurance subsidies would save $15 Billion annually (see page 4). An additional $9 Billion in savings is possible through the removal of middlemen in federally-backed student loans. Since the federal government assumes all risk on these loans, there’s no reason to compensate private banks to issue the loans.

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?

The World My Son Will Inherit

My son Vishnu was born a bit more than three months ago – and what a wonderful whirlwind it has been! Being a father doesn’t leave much time for introspection, but now that I find myself thinking further into the future, I wonder: what sort of world are we leaving our children? The usual laments can be heard throughout mainstream media, that we are running up an insurmountable debt to be born by our children, that Medicare and Social Security are both going bankrupt, that global warming will wreak havoc, and so on. While it’s obvious that the media tends toward hyperbole to draw an audience, some of these are real concerns. Here’s my short list of major American and global issues, and why I’m an optimist with regard to most:
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