My last post, “The Major Challenges Facing the United States,” came to the conclusion that, while the U.S. has many big problems to address, our national debt is the biggest problem of all, because it will be so hard to deal with through the political process.
Our total national debt is now $19.9 trillion. The so-called public debt, on which we pay interest, is $15 trillion, or 77% of GDP, the highest it has been since right after WWII. Furthermore it is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office to keep getting steadily worse, reaching 90% of GDP by 2025 and 150% of GDP by 2047 unless current policy is substantially changed.
Right now our debt is almost “free” money since interest rates are so low. But when interest rates return to more normal levels, interest payments on the debt will skyrocket by hundreds of billions of dollars per year, likely leading to a new fiscal crisis, much worse than the Financial Crisis of 2008.
The only sane solution to this humongous problem is to start shrinking our annual deficits, this year at about $685 billion, down close to zero over a period of several years. This will require a painful combination of spending curtailments and perhaps some tax increases as well.
One possible way to accomplish this herculean task has been laid out by Barron’s economic journalist Gene Epstein, see here and here. Mr. Epstein’s plan would balance the budget in ten years by decreasing projected spending by $8.6 trillion, with 60% of spending curtailments coming from the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the rest from both military and domestic discretionary programs.
It needs to be strongly emphasized that under the Epstein plan spending would not actually decrease from one year to the next, but would rather grow at a slower rate, from $3.9 trillion in 2016 to $4.7 trillion in 2026. His plan would decrease the public debt from 77% of GDP today to 58% in 2026.
Conclusion. The U.S. faces the very unpleasant problem of excessive debt which will just keep getting worse and worse without making some relatively unpleasant adjustments in the way that the federal government spends money. The sooner we get started in this process the better off we will be.
President Trump’s proposed 2018 Budget lays out a plan to achieve a balanced budget over a ten year period. I strongly endorse this goal whether or not the Trump budget is a realistic way to get this done.
The virtue of the Trump budget is to tackle waste and inefficiency across many different domestic programs (see chart below).
Its main defect is that neither healthcare reform nor tax reform has yet been implemented and the cost and/or savings of these two major initiatives are not yet known.
In the meantime the only way to think about balancing the budget is conceptually in terms of how it might be done. Barron’s economic analyst Gene Epstein has done this recently.
Mr. Epstein proposes:
$8.6 trillion worth of spending cuts over ten years, of which 40% would come from programs other than Social Security and healthcare. By achieving a balanced budget in ten years it would lower our public debt (on which we pay interest) from 77% today to 58% in 2027.
By raising the age limit for full SS benefits to 67 (already enacted) at a faster pace, and indexing initial benefits to price inflation rather than wage inflation, $200 billion can be saved over ten years. Another $300 billion can be saved by phasing in a 25% reduction in SSDI benefits.
Cutting the estimated improper payment rate for Medicare of 12.1% in half would save $400 billion over ten years. Raising the premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D to 35% of costs from the current 25% of costs would save $400 billion.
Another $600 billion would be saved by turning Medicaid into a block grant program to the states and giving the states much more flexibility in how it is spent.
$950 billion could be cut from the military budget by cutting back on overly expensive new weapon systems as well as closing unnecessary military bases, both foreign and domestic.
Many cuts in government subsidies to individuals and businesses would save $1 trillion. Grants in aid to sates could be cut by $500 billion.
Conclusion. There are many different ways to curtail federal spending. It has to be done and the sooner we get started the less painful it will be for all concerned.
So declared Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, in March 2011. At the time, federal debt held by the public (on which we pay interest) stood at 63% of GDP. Now, just six years later, that ratio stands at 77% and is projected by the CBO to reach 150% by 2047 if current laws remain unchanged.
The CBO has just released its latest (March 2017) report and the debt situation continues to get worse:
The interest rate on federal debt has averaged 5.8% over the past 60 years. It is now at an unusually low 2% and the CBO projects that it will climb no higher than 4.4% by 2047. Even with such a conservative projection, the total cost of servicing the debt will rise to almost 1/3 of federal revenue by 2047, compared with just 8% today.
Here are some of the dire consequences of such a large and growing debt:
Reduces national savings and income in the long term because more of people’s savings would be used to buy Treasury securities, thus crowding out private investment.
Increases the government’s interest costs and thus makes it much more difficult to lower deficits.
Reduces the ability to respond to unforeseen events. For example, when the Financial Crisis hit in 2008, public debt stood at 40% of GDP and lawmakers had the flexibility to respond to the crisis with both TARP and a fiscal stimulus. Such costly actions will be much more difficult next time.
Increases the chances of a new fiscal crisis if investors become less willing to finance more federal borrowing or demand higher interest rates in return.
Conclusion. The more debt that accumulates and the higher interest rates rise, the more painful it will become to implement a solution. What is really scary is that nothing will be done until a new crisis occurs. Then we will be forced to act and it will be very painful indeed.
Most informed observers of the U.S. economy agree that the Corporate Income Tax of 35% is too high and should be lowered to a rate which is more competitive with other developed countries. Republican Congressional leaders and the Trump administration have agreed that a 20% rate is about the right level.
Now the question is how to make up the tax revenue lost to the federal government from a lower tax rate. One idea is to impose a Border Adjustment Tax on imports into the U.S. but exempting exports from such a tax. Since the U.S. trade deficit is currently running at about $500 billion per year (see chart), a 20% tax on imports offset by a 20% tax credit for exports would raise the necessary $1 billion per year.
Economic theory predicts that a 20% BAT would mean that the dollar would rise in value by 20%, offsetting the higher costs of imports. But if this happens, then other industries, such as U.S. tourism, would take a big hit.
Other countries could retaliate in ways that would be unfavorable to us and cause a “Trump slump.”
If a BAT leads to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports, the $500 billion trade deficit will shrink and so the BAT will bring in less revenue than the predicted $100 billion per year.
The Barron’s article suggests much better ways to make up the $100 billion in tax revenue (on a static basis) which would be lost to a corporate tax rate cut to 20%. For example:
A corporate tax rate cut of this magnitude would be revenue enhancing (on a dynamic basis), easily raising an additional $50 billion in tax revenue.
The CATO Institute recently compiled a list of corporate welfare programs in the federal budget totaling $100 billion. Eliminating just half of this would save an additional $50 billion.
Conclusion. Cutting the corporate tax rate to 20% from its current level of 35% will contribute significantly to faster economic growth. It should be quite possible to keep such a tax rate cut revenue neutral by cutting back on crony capitalism.
I have mixed feelings about Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him because of his crude and sleazy behavior. But I like some of the things he is doing. Barron’s frames the issue well in its cover story this week, ”A Tale of Two Trumps,” by John Kimelman.
On the positive side he has:
Been a successful real estate developer and serial entrepreneur who favors lower taxes and fewer regulations for many industries, especially energy, financial services and healthcare.
Made many good appointments such as Mnuchin for Treasury, Tillerson for State, Pruit for EPA, Price for HHS, Cohn for Chief Economic Advisor, Ross for Commerce, etc.
But on the negative side he has:
Issued a badly executed travel ban on immigrants from seven Mideast nations which has now been withdrawn.
Belittled the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
Torn up the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiated by President Obama
Threatened to withdraw from NAFTA which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S.
On the other hand he has dialed back some of his extreme rhetoric by
Meeting with President Obama after the election.
Deferred to Defense Secretary Matson on the undesirability of waterboarding.
Accepted the “One China” policy in a telephone conversation with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.
What remains to be seen is whether or not he can:
Make better trade deals with Mexico and China without starting a trade war which would badly hurt our economy.
Enact tax rate cuts and a $1 trillion infrastructure program without making deficits worse than they already are.
Work with his deficit hawk Budget Director Mulvaney to establish a plan to eventually achieve a balanced budget.
Conclusion. I personally remain optimistic that his good instincts will lead to faster economic growth and that his disruptive instincts will be sufficiently restrained by Congress and the courts so that they will not do major harm.
As I discussed in my last post, Donald Trump’s primary mandate from the presidential election is to get the economy growing faster in order to help out his base of blue-collar workers who have suffered wage stagnation for many years and especially since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009. The tax and regulatory reform needed to accomplish this urgent task will undoubtedly turn out to be the first plank of Trumponomics.
But there is another equally urgent task which must not be overlooked by the incoming Trump Administration. Our national debt, the public part on which we pay interest, is now 75% of GDP, the highest level since the end of WWII, and projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to keep growing rapidly in the years just ahead (see chart above).
As Barron’s has pointed out, “Saving America, Part 1”, in its current issue:
Today’s public debt of $14 trillion will grow to $45 trillion in just 20 years’ time on the basis of current entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, without any new spending programs or tax cuts.
The annual interest on a $45 trillion debt load would be about $750 billion at today’s super low interest rates. If interest rates rise to more typical levels, the interest payment on this level of debt would be about $1.5 trillion a year. This represents almost half of all federal spending during the current 2016-2017 budget year.
Conclusion. Such a high level of interest payment on our debt is unthinkable. This means that either we make fundamental reforms in government entitlement programs in the next few years or else we will have a severe fiscal crisis on our hands in less than twenty years’ time. We have some stark choices to make and hopefully the incoming Trump Administration will not shy away from what needs to be done.
I have written several posts recently, here and here, about America’s current very slow rate of economic growth. In fact:
From 1970 – 2000 our economy grew on average at the rate of 3.5%.
Since 2000 it has grown at only half this rate, 1.76% annually.
The economics journalist, Gene Epstein, writing in Barron’s, “The Real Reason Behind Slowing U.S. Growth,” points out the very strong correlation between our rate of GDP growth and the Fraser Institute’s Index of Economic Freedom in the U.S. This index is based on ratings in the five categories:
Size of Government.
Legal System and Security of Property Rights.
Soundness of Money.
Freedom to Trade Internationally.
Regulation of Credit, Labor and Business.
As shown in the chart above, the biggest reductions have occurred in the (2nd) Legal System, (4th) International Trade and (5th) Regulation areas. Examples of freedom declines in the Legal System area are:
Judicial Independence: political interference in the bankruptcy proceedings of GM and Chrysler.
Impartial Courts: expanded use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA) where government requests are rubber stamped.
Property Rights: eminent domain made easier by the Supreme Court’s Kelo vs City of New London decision in 2005. The expanded use of civil asset forfeiture.
Military Interference in the Political Process: local police officers using excess military equipment.
According to the Fraser Institute, ”The effects of the Reagan and Thatcher political revolutions … led to increases in economic freedom and convergence among OECD nations. The so-called Washington Consensus of lower taxes, lower trade barriers, privatization and deregulation is quite evident in the data in the EF index. The last decade has not been as kind to the cause of economic freedom.”
Such a huge correlation between the rise and decline of economic freedom and the concurrent rise and decline of economic growth is unlikely to be a coincidence. Government policies strongly effect economic growth. To ignore this self-evident truth is to invite economic decline.
The federal Highway Trust Fund is almost out of money. It takes in $35 billion per year from the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993. Sometime this summer the government will have to cut back on payments to state highway departments unless Congress acts. As the above chart from the Economist shows, the U.S. spends much less of GDP on roads than many other developed nations. Something clearly needs to be done because we need many improvements in infrastructure. But there are better ways and poorer ways to solve this problem. Here are two good ways as described by Thomas Donlan in a recent issue of Barron’s:
A bill to raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over two years has been introduced in the Senate by Bob Corker (R, Tenn.) and Chris Murphy (D, Conn.). Each penny added to the federal gas tax rate will raise $1.3 billion and this would solve the problem.
Repeal the federal gas tax and turn federal highway construction entirely over to the states. Each state could then increase its own gas tax and/or pay for construction with tolls on bridges and roads.
Here are two examples of poor ways to replenish the Highway Trust Fund:
Continue adding to the Fund with borrowed money. $54 billion has been borrowed since 2008 for this purpose. Presumably the Sequester will make it much harder to continue such deficit financing.
Rep John Delaney (D, Mary.) has proposed a tax break for repatriated foreign profits by multinational American companies if part of the money brought back was spent on infrastructure bonds. This would interfere with the urgent need to reform corporate taxes with significantly lower rates offset by lowering deductions, in order to make our corporate tax internationally competitive.
Conclusion: There is a good chance that the Budget Sequester established by Congress in 2011 to control discretionary spending, as well as the widely recognized urgent need for corporate tax reform, will lead to a “good” rather than “bad” solution to the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. This is just one specific example of the challenge to sensible budgeting by Congress.
A much broader approach is needed to really shrink the deficit. Stay tuned!
In the latest issue of Barron’s, Frederick Rowe, the managing partner of Greenbrier Partners Capital Management, asks in “More Than a Sugar High?” , “Can you imagine a country that is managed in an economically rational manner, creating the wealth that’s necessary to take proper care of the citizens who get left behind? … What if our economic recovery is more than a sugar high? What if there is more here than insanely stimulative monetary policy from the Federal Reserve? What if the U.S. has already begun to steer an economic course to a period of unprecedented and genuine prosperity, achievement, and problem solving?”
Here are eight factors which Mr. Rowe gives to point us in the right direction:
North American Energy Independence (already on the horizon).
Sensible Immigration Reform: encouraging our most enterprising and hard-working people to become citizens rather than chasing them away.
Repatriation of Corporate Income: if a company domiciled in the U.S. makes money in Argentina and wants to invest it in the U.S. we double-tax the daylights out of it. It would be hard to imagine a more counterproductive tax policy.
Changing Directors and Their Thinking: the once unthinkable mindset of corporate directors acting on behalf of long-term owners (rather than the CEOs with whom they play golf) is actually gaining traction.
Lowering Corporate Taxes: the tax-writing committees in Congress are working on this.
Increasing Technological Leadership: the most dynamic technology companies in the world are domiciled in the U.S. Technology, in the short run, displaces workers. But eventually workers catch up because new technology creates new kinds of jobs that were never imagined before.
Americanization of the World: more than three billion people around the world will soon be able to afford to live much more like the 300 million Americans do. So companies which make it big here have an automatic global opportunity.
Obamacare: Even this bureaucratic catastrophe provides a large opportunity for economic opportunity. Think of Jimmy Carter’s failures which led to Ronald Reagan’s successes.
“Let your imagination run and consider all the things that can be accomplished by an energy-independent, cash-generating, cash-repatriating country that is a hotbed of technological innovation.”
I can’t possibly say it any better than this!
The lead story in this week’s Economist, “The Perils of Falling Inflation” and a recent article in the New York Times, “In Fed and Out, Many Now Think Inflation Helps“, both make the case that the U.S. core inflation rate of 1.2%, excluding food and energy prices, is dangerously low, risking deflation. “Rising prices help companies increase profits; rising wages help borrowers repay debts. Inflation also encourages people and businesses to borrow money and spend it more quickly.”
But there is another distinctly different point of view. In a Barron’s column last week “Deflating the Inflation Myth”, Gene Epstein points out that “business activity is motivated by profit, not prices.” He shows with a chart that profits decreased during the highly inflationary 1970’s and 1980’s but they have been increasing since the end of the recession in 2009, even with very low inflation. The key to boosting the economy is more business investment and risk taking but a higher rate of inflation is not the way to accomplish this.
In a speech at the Economic Club of New York in June of this year, former Fed Chair Paul Volcker said that “the implicit assumption behind that siren call (to let inflation increase) must be that the inflation rate can be manipulated to reach economic objectives – up today, maybe a little bit more tomorrow, and then pulled back on command. All experience amply demonstrates that inflation, when fairly and deliberately started, is hard to control and reverse.”
As soon as interest rates go up as they surely will in the not too distant future, interest payments on our now enormous national debt will skyrocket and become a huge drag on the economy. If and when inflation goes up, it will pull interest rates up along with it. Let’s not push inflation, and therefore interest rates, up any faster or higher than necessary!