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.

US Debt to exceed GDP by 2015

Here’s a more recent post – the US Debt is now likely to exceed GDP by 2010, next year!

The United States federal debt stands at 10.7 trillion today, or 75% of US GDP. The CBO projects that the US debt will reach 14.6 trillion by 2015, without accounting for the effects of the stimulus package and ongoing bank rescues. These efforts could easily add 1-2 trillion to the total debt, sending the debt over 16 trillion by 2015.

GDP growth may be negative for 2009, and will probably average 2% through 2015 according to CBO projections. Real GDP at the end of 2008 was 14.2 trillion, and is project to rise to 15.8 trillion by 2015, less than the federal debt at that time! Rising inflation may prevent this from happening, but will bring its own set of problems.

Where does a debt load of 100% of GDP put the United States relative to other nations? That would put the US among the top 10 most indebted nations in the world, with peers like Zimbabwe and Italy.

Source Links:

Current US GDP at Bureau of Economic Analysis

US Total Debt at treasurydirect.gov

CBO Budget and Deficit Projections – Click Budget Projections. This xls also includes economic growth estimates.

CIA World Factbook Ranking of Nations by Public Debt

What’s the Real Federal Deficit?

The federal deficit for the past ten weeks alone is now 650 Billion dollars, in addition to a fiscal 2008 deficit of $1 Trillion.

Since the US government fiscal year ended on 9/30/08, the federal debt has increased from $10,024 Billion to $10,656 Billion (as of 12/9/08).* The federal debt increased by $1 Trillion over the 12 months ending 9/30/08.

As I’ve previously noted, measuring the Federal deficit by looking at growth in the Federal debt provides a clearer picture of budget shortfalls than the officially announced numbers, which hide significant expenditures, and paint too rosy a picture.

A large part of the recent increase in the debt can be tied to the Treasury Department’s various stabilization and bailout initiatives, including the TARP and other programs. President-elect Obama plans to add a significant dose of fiscal stimulus to the Treasury and Federal Reserve efforts, driving the deficit up by another 500 Billion to one trillion in the next year. While current circumstances do call for aggressive action, the government should take care not to exacerbate our economic problems by trying to roll the clock back to 2006. Lowering mortgage rates for new home purchases, for instance, provides an incentive to create and buy more of a product that is already in a state of massive over-supply.

When the bad times end, we’ll have to start paying these debts back. Let’s hope President-elect Obama and his team spend their stimulus money on projects with tangible return on investment, and not just on make-work programs.


* A significant portion of the increase in deficit spending is being used to buy financial institution shares and various commercial debt instruments, which might be thought of as investments. Nonetheless, the federal debt grows when we borrow, even if we use the money to buy investments. This holds true for personal balance sheets, corporate balance sheets, and for the federal government as well. The federal government has a particularly poor record of decreasing the size of its debt, so I believe it’s fair to regard any excess borrowing as a deficit.

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?