28 July 2010

Debt and Crisis

The CBO Director's Blog has an ominous assessment of the where our massively increasing national debt may be leading us in the coming decade.  While the brief is careful to note that there is no way to accurately predict when and if increasing debt will lead to financial crisis or collapse, history (and recent experiences in Greece and Poland) indicates that out-of-control debt leads to collapse.
'Unfortunately, there is no way to predict with any confidence whether and when such a crisis might occur in the United States. In a brief ("Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis") released today, CBO notes that there is no identifiable “tipping point” of debt relative to the nation’s output (gross domestic product, or GDP) that would indicate that such a crisis is likely or imminent. However, in the United States, the ratio of federal debt to GDP is climbing into unfamiliar territory—and all else being equal, the higher the debt, the greater the risk of such a crisis.  Over the past few years, U.S. government debt held by the public has grown rapidly. According to CBO’s projections, federal debt held by the public will stand at 62 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2010, having risen from 36 percent at the end of fiscal year 2007, just before the recession began. In only one other period in U.S. history—during and shortly after World War II—has that figure exceeded 50 percent.'
The full CBO report is here.  Standouts from the report include the following notes:
'In particular, when many workers are unemployed, and much capacity (such as equipment and buildings) is unused, higher government spending and lower tax revenues usually increase overall demand for goods and services, which leads firms to boost their output and hire more workers.4 But those short-term benefits carry with them long-term costs: Unless offsetting actions are taken at some point to pay off the additional government debt accumulated while the economy was weak, people’s future incomes will tend to be lower than they otherwise would have been.'
In other words, continuing to add one government spending program after another, without concern for the long-term economic impacts, and without a plan for retraction, will lead to individual impacts that are worse than if the government had let the economy self-correct.  Self-correction is of course not always desirable, and is frequently politically impossible, but wise leadership would apply only the remedy that is absolutely necessary, in a restrained, well-planned method, and with definitely plans for retraction.
'One impact of rising debt is that increased government borrowing tends to crowd out private investment in productive capital, because the portion of people’s savings used to buy government securities is not available to fund such investment. The result is a smaller capital stock and lower output and incomes in the long run than would otherwise be the case. The effect of debt on investment can be offset by borrowing from foreign individuals or institutions. But additional inflows of foreign capital also create the obligation for more profits and interest to flow overseas in the future. Thus, although flows of capital into a country can help maintain domestic investment, most of the gains from that additional investment do not accrue to the residents. ... Another impact of rising debt is that, as government debt grows, so does the amount of interest the government pays to its lenders (all else being equal). If policy makers wished to maintain government benefits and services while the amount of interest paid grew, tax revenues would eventually have to rise as well. To the extent that additional tax revenues were generated by increasing marginal tax rates, those rates would discourage work and saving, further reducing output and incomes. Alternatively, policymakers could choose to offset the rising interest costs, at least in part, by reductions in benefits and services.'
No matter how well-meaning policy-makers may be, the rapid growth of government involvement in the economy inevitably leads to long-term, unintended, negative consequences. Government expansion as a proscriptive against crisis may trigger the very event it seeks to avert.  Finally, the report cites a lack of flexibility in responding to other crises (e.g., national security crises) as an affect of massive debt.
'A large amount of debt, however, leaves less flexibility for government actions to address financial and economic crises, which, in many countries, have been very costly to the government (as well as to residents). A large amount of debt could also harm national security by constraining military spending in times of crisis or limiting the ability to prepare for a crisis.'
Finally, a little bit of historical summary:
'Fiscal crises around the world have often begun during recessions and, in turn, have often exacerbated them. Frequently, such a crisis was triggered by news that a government would, for any number of reasons, need to borrow an unexpectedly large amount of money. Then, as investors lost confidence and interest rates spiked, borrowing became more difficult and expensive for the government. That development forced policymakers to immediately and substantially cut spending and increase taxes to reassure investors—or to renege on the terms of its existing debt or increase the supply of money and boost inflation. In some cases, the crisis made borrowing more expensive for private borrowers as well, because uncertainty about the government’s policy response to the crisis raised risk premiums throughout the economy. Higher private interest rates, combined with reductions in government spending and increases in taxes, have tended to worsen economic conditions in the short term.'
The report on debt of course ties directly to the CBO's recent budget outlook report. The opening summary paragraphs lay out the same arguments noted above, largely from the perspective of government spending on health care, medicare/medicaid, etc.
'Recently, the federal government has been recording the largest budget deficits, as a share of the economy, since the end of World War II. As a result of those deficits, the amount of federal debt held by the public has surged. At the end of 2008, that debt equaled 40 percent of the nation's annual economic output (as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP), a little above the 40-year average of 36 percent. Since then, large budget deficits have caused debt held by the public to shoot upward; the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that federal debt will reach 62 percent of GDP by the end of this year--the highest percentage since shortly after World War II. The sharp rise in debt stems partly from lower tax revenues and higher federal spending related to the recent severe recession and turmoil in financial markets. However, the growing debt also reflects an imbalance between spending and revenues that predated those economic developments. As the economy recovers and the policies adopted to counteract the recession and the financial turmoil phase out, budget deficits will probably decline markedly in the next few years. But over the long term, the budget outlook is daunting. The retirement of the baby-boom generation portends a significant and sustained increase in the share of the population receiving benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Moreover, per capita spending for health care is likely to continue rising faster than spending per person on other goods and services for many years (although the magnitude of that gap is very uncertain). Without significant changes in government policy, those factors will boost federal outlays sharply relative to GDP in coming decades under any plausible assumptions about future trends in the economy, demographics, and health care costs.'
Daunting indeed.


  1. 我們這一代最偉大的發現是,人類可以藉由改變心中的態度來改變人生。.......................................................

  2. 愛,拆開來是心和受兩個字。用心去接受對方的一切,用心去愛對方的所有。......................................................................

  3. Best translations I could find of the two comments above:
    Comment 1: Our generation's greatest discovery is that by changing the hearts of human beings can change the attitude of life.
    Comment 2: Love is the heart and be open to the word. Intention to accept the other's all love with each other all.
    If these translations are somewhat accurate, I'm not sure what the point of the comments are. Perhaps the posters could clarify.


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