The US debt to GDP ratio is reaching worrisome proportions. What indicators tell you the US debt situation is becoming a crisis?
There is a lot of truth in that claim. After all, the
In a paper by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, the authors of This Time Its Different found that when government debt-to-GDP ratio rises above 90%, it lowers the future potential GDP of that country by more than 1%. It also locks in a slow-growth, high-unemployment economy. The authors point to history that shows that public debt tends to soar after a financial crisis, rising by an average of 86% in real terms. Defaults by sovereign entities often follow.
The recent sovereign credit problems in
The creation of the euro helped to change some of the
dynamics of sovereign debt. Several countries, including
According to various reports,
To receive a bailout,
put this into perspective the
To quote the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020, dated January 2010:
“If the tax cuts were made permanent, the AMT was indexed
for inflation, and annual appropriations kept pace with GDP, the deficit in 2020
would be nearly the same, historically large, share of GDP that it is today, and
debt held by the public would equal nearly 100 percent of GDP” by 2020. This is
only for the portion of debt held by the “public” which is about half of the
total debt of the
Assuming GDP expands at a 3% per annum rate and the annual deficit remains at $1.4 trillion, both optimistic assumptions, the U.S Debt-to-GDP ratio will pass the 90% threshold in 2011 and reach 102% by 2016, just six years away. This is for the total debt held by the public and by the Federal Reserve and Intergovernmental Agencies.
To keep annual deficits and total federal debt from reaching levels that would substantially harm the economy, lawmakers would have to increase revenues significantly as a percentage of GDP, decrease projected spending sharply, or enact some combination of the two. do you expect the politicians to address the US debt to GDP ratio any time soon?
Certainly, the Greek economy is not the same as the U.S. Greece is a country of 10 million people with over 50% of the GDP is government spending. The country does not have the where withal to fund its debt. Any austerity program will be devastating to the country causing a severe recession.
Why not let
Some countries might try to reduce their debt load through lower spending and higher taxes. This action will push them into a new recession. As one country tips to recession it will curtail spending that drags other countries down with it.
Paul Krugman, a prominent economist, believes this risk is unfounded. The
economic strength of the
What if this does not take place? What if the
A less robust economy increases the strain on paying for this debt. Governments must reduce their spending and increase taxes to cover existing obligations. People who depend on payments from various entitlement programs will receive lower benefits as the promises are not kept.
Already the Social Security system is taking in less in taxes than it spends on benefits. The government has been borrowing from the social security system for years giving the Trust IOUs in the form of Treasury securities. The interest from these treasury securities helps to cover the cost of benefits. The government pays this same interest to all holders of the securities. When you remove the government interest payments from social security, the surplus turns into a deficit. According to the CBO: “For Social Security as a whole, the estimated surpluses peak at $139 billion in 2015 and decline to $107 billion in 2020. Excluding interest (which accounts for the bulk of the intra-governmental transfer), surpluses for Social Security become deficits of $28 billion in 2010 and $202 billion over the period from 2011 to 2020.” The social security system is cash flow negative.
At some point the U.S. will have to bite the bullet and address its debt situation. We do not know what specific event will cause the change or when it will happen, but the current trend is unsustainable. That is why some investors worry what happens with Greece might be that event. I suspect that Europe will deal with Greece and keep it from becoming a more significant problem.
As the safe haven, the U.S. enjoys a unique situation. It is able to sell its debt at very low rates and there is a ready market for these securities. However there are some forces in play that could cause this view to change and the debt to GDP ratio to keep climbing.
First, the debt of the large rich countries goes beyond the temporary affects of the credit crisis. An ageing population with soaring health and pension costs will cause the U.S.’s debt to continue to climb. So far investors have ignored this deterioration of the balance sheet of the U.S. At some point the piling on of debt will become a problem to big to ignore.
Second, as the economy recovers and expands, investment will increase, spawning demand for credit. Interest rates will rise accordingly. Higher interest rates require higher payments taking money away from other government expenditures. This raises the risk premium on sovereign debt. Presently, the average maturity on federal debt is less than five years. With higher rates it becomes much more expensive to roll over this debt, making the debt situation worse. Some analysts expect the 10-year rate to rise to 5% be the end of 2010. It was 3.825% on March 24, 2010.
Third, the emerging economies are changing the global economic structure. In the next few years there will be one billion middle people classified as middle class in their countries. Domestic spending in these countries will climb offsetting their savings, which is likely to fall relative to their net worth and incomes. This will encourage the cost of capital to climb, hurting those countries with the most debt. The rapid growth of these countries will cause a shift in the perception of what is a safe place to invest. On a relative basis, countries such as Brazil will be more attractive to investors vs. the U.S.
Fourth, new entitlement programs that cannot be funded will add to the debt burden of the U.S. If the market perceives that these new expenditures are unfunded, it will drive up the risk premium of any new debt. The new health insurance program that become law on March 23, 2010 could fall into this category.
Fifth, as Paul Krugman indicated, if households rebuild their savings, it will provide much of the capital to help fund the debt. On the other hand, if consumers start to spend as before, reducing their savings, the cost of capital will rise. The growth in savings seems to have tapered off as consumers are starting to spend. While a positive for the domestic economy, the consumer discretionary sector and GDP, it is a negative for the capital markets and will drive up interest rates.
Going forward we need to monitor the expansion of the debt to GDP ratio as driven by these events to see if any one of them causes a break in the debt markets, as this maybe the first sign the U.S. must face up to its growing debt problem.
As investors a United States debt crisis will cause the economy to falter and stocks to turn down. Watch for U.S. Treasury interest rates to rise as a good sign bond investors around the world worry that the risk of a default on some of the U.S. debt may be more likely. Just keep in mind that when bond investors sell they need to place their money in other asset classes including stocks. This might cause the stock market to continue to rally in the face of higher interest rates as explained in Bond and Stock Price Trends.