The Major Challenges Facing the U. S. II. National Debt

 

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.

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“The Federal Government’s Budget Is on the Road to Hell”

 

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.

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Corporate Tax Reform and the Border Tax

 

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.


This week’s Barron’s points out several disadvantages of a BAT:

  • 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.

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A Tale of Two Trumps

 

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.

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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.

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Trumponomics II. Debt

 

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.

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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.

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Economic Freedom and Economic Growth

 

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.Capture4

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.

    Capture5

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.

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Must America Resign Itself to Much Slower Economic Growth?

The cover story in this week’s Barron’s, by Jonathan Laing, “The Snail Economy, Slowing to a Crawl”, makes a well-documented argument that “over the next 20 years, the U.S. economy is likely to grow only 2% a year.  That’s down from 3% or better since World War II.  Blame it on an aging population and sluggish productivity growth.  Bad news for stocks and social harmony.”
Here’s an example of the argument he makes.  “Mean incomes of minorities in the U.S. population have remained at about 60% of white incomes in recent decades.  Unless that pattern changes, and minorities earn bigger incomes, that augers slower income growth for the overall population as the baby boomers, predominately white, retire over the next 20 years. …At the same time the minority population, particularly Hispanic, will expand. …If income relationships remain the same, U.S. median income growth will drop by an estimated 0.43% a year through 2020 and 0.52% a year over the succeeding decade.”
This demographic trend can be offset to some extent by boosting the ages at which Social Security benefits are received in order to lighten the burden on those who are working.  Immigration policy could be reformed to attract more highly skilled (and therefore more highly paid as well) workers to further offset the growing number of retirees.  “And most of all, the U.S. should engage in a crash educational program to close the gap in skills and income levels among different parts of the American population.”
In addition to the demographic challenge well described by Mr. Laing, there is the problem that growing economic efficiency (caused by advances in technology and ever more globalization) will continue to replace American workers by both machines and lower cost foreign workers.
It is imperative for us to set aside partisan ideology and dramatically confront all of these economic challenges to continued American supremacy on the world stage.  First and foremost we need fundamental tax reform, significantly lowering tax rates for all productive aspects of our economy, especially for investors, risk takers, entrepreneurs and corporations.  (Lower tax rates can be made revenue neutral by eliminating deductions and closing loopholes.)  We should simplify and streamline regulatory processes, again, to give all possible support to the businesses which can make the economy grow faster.
Our status in the world and therefore the future of our country depend on our success in this urgent endeavor!