A few things became clearer during the recently ended federal government “shutdown” and debt ceiling crisis:
1. Our political system has deteriorated to the point where each side of the political spectrum is willing to push to the very brink of disaster before even the most basic remedial action is taken.
2. The “level” of the debt is really not the issue; it is the growth rate of that debt relative to the growth of the economy.
These issues raise the level of uncertainty in the economy and therefore stymie private-sector growth and job creation.
All credible projections of federal spending show that Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and other social spending programs will explode in the coming years unless Congress and the president do something to fix the situation.
In 1982, projections were that Social Security faced insolvency by 1990. But, that didn’t happen because President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill reached a compromise and a solutionthat kept the Social Security program viable for a while longer.
To the brink
When Congress and the president confront the spending issues, their choices will be to raise taxes, reduce benefits or, via compromise, some combination of the two.
But we know that they won’t act until the spending issues become a recognizable crisis and/or their political futures require that they act. This is most likely to come in the form of “invisible hand” economic actions wherein the dollar drops in value relative to other currencies and interest rates rise, as the international community relies less and less on the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
China and Russia are becoming more and more vocal and active in seeking alternatives to the dollar in world trade. If the necessary spending controls aren’t soon put in place, the U.S. economy could lose its premier status. Don’t underestimate the importance of the “reserve currency” status in the economic growth equation.
The reality of the debt
One argument in the current bickering is that the country will never be able to repay the $17 trillion of debt it has accumulated. From an economic point of view, the debt level itself isn’t the issue. The issue is how fast that debt is growing and its cost.
Unlike an individual whose debts all come due upon death(either the estate pays the debt off or the lender(s) writes it off), a country doesn’t die (without a revolution). As long as the growth rate of the debt is less than the growth rate of the economy, and as long as interest rates remain reasonable, the debt will never be expected to be repaid.
From this point of view, the most significant single statistic is the debt’s relationship to GDP. The concept is similar to that of an application for a mortgage. The borrower needs a reasonable “debt payment/income ratio” to qualify. The more pre-existing debt one has, and the more of one’s income it takes to service that debt, the less credit worthy the individual becomes.
After World War II, the debt/GDP ratio was 120 percent. Why wasn’t it a disaster then? The answer: 1) the war had ended and spending was reduced; and 2) the economy grew faster than the debt.
By 1974, the debt/GDP ratio had fallen to 32 percent. It rose after that to 66 percent in 1996 after the recession of the early ’90s, but fell to 56 percent during the strong economic growth years of the late ’90s and the spending-control emphasis of the Congress (which was accepted and then embraced by President Bill Clinton).
By 2008, as a result of the 2001 recession and debt growth outpacing economic growth during the Bush presidency, the ratio rose to 70 percent. Then came the financial crisis and the recession with weak economic growth in its aftermath. The debt/GDP ratio now stands at more than 100 percent, a level that makes the international community nervous.
There are two key concepts here: 1) controlling the size of the fiscal deficit to control the growth rate of the debt (this implies confronting the growth rate of the social programs); and 2) growing the economy fast enough to accommodate a rising level of debt.
Spending, entitlement growth, the growth of the debt and economic growth are all intertwined. Since the spending issues were taken off the table in this week’s debt ceiling bill, the only chance at avoiding a true debt crisis is for the economy to grow.
The so-called “resolution” reopens the government only through Jan. 15 and increases the debt ceiling only until Feb. 7. Businesses are asking, “Are we going to relive this debacle all over again in three months?”
Such uncertainty clearly shows up in all of the business surveys as holding back economic growth and job creation. For everyone’s benefit, it behooves Washington to put some degree of certainty back into the business markets, at least for a long-enough time period to allow a return on new capital deployment.
The longer-term question is whether or not federal spending growth will allow the debt/GDP ratio to decline. If it does, then the fiscal issues in Washington, D.C., will disappear, just as they did post-World War II.
Unfortunately, the current way the government runs almost guarantees that spending will continue to probe the limits of the debt/GDP ratio. If this doesn’t change, one might want to prepare for those “invisible hand” economic implications.
Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee.
Contact Robert Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone and Andrea Knapp) who are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.