Economic Collapse – 2 Step Plan to Fix America

The Congressional Budget Office recently released a couple of reports that detail the challenges that are now facing America.  Austerity is the Magic Word of the day.  America faces difficult choices ahead in order to fix this financial crunch.

Can you do the 2 step?  Between now and November politicians will try to paint over the Financial Crisis that is building for America.  Austerity is the Magic Word for the rest of this decade.  Obama is already raising taxes, far above levels we've ever seen.  Barry Soetoro's cabinet must also cut Government spending, to a major degree if America is to recover the debt crisis that is looming over America.  We may not survive.

Jonathan Huntley CBO Report
Fri  Aug 27, 2010
Subject; Financial 2 Step for America's New Austerity

www.morningliberty.com

CBO A series of issue summaries from
the Congressional Budget Office JULY 27, 2010

 
1. For more details, see Congressional Budget Office, The Budget
and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020 (January 2010);
The Effects of Automatic Stabilizers on the Federal Budget (May
2010).
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis
 
Over the past few years, U.S. government debt held by
the public has grown rapidly—to the point that, compared
with the total output of the economy, it is now
higher than it has ever been except during the period
around World War II. The recent increase in debt has
been the result of three sets of factors: an imbalance
between federal revenues and spending that predates the
recession and the recent turmoil in financial markets,
sharply lower revenues and elevated spending that derive
directly from those economic conditions, and the costs of
various federal policies implemented in response to the
conditions.1
 
Further increases in federal debt relative to the nation’s
output (gross domestic product, or GDP) almost certainly
lie ahead if current policies remain in place. The
aging of the population and rising costs for health care
will push federal spending, measured as a percentage of
GDP, well above the levels experienced in recent decades.
Unless policymakers restrain the growth of spending,
increase revenues significantly as a share of GDP, or adopt
some combination of those two approaches, growing
budget deficits will cause debt to rise to unsupportable
levels.
 
Although deficits during or shortly after a recession generally
hasten economic recovery, persistent deficits and
continually mounting debt would have several negative
economic consequences for the United States. Some of
those consequences would arise gradually: A growing portion
of people’s savings would go to purchase government
debt rather than toward investments in productive capital
goods such as factories and computers; that “crowding
out” of investment would lead to lower output and
incomes than would otherwise occur. In addition, if the
payment of interest on the extra debt was financed by
imposing higher marginal tax rates, those rates would discourage
work and saving and further reduce output. Rising
interest costs might also force reductions in spending
on important government programs. Moreover, rising
debt would increasingly restrict the ability of policymakers
to use fiscal policy to respond to unexpected
challenges, such as economic downturns or international
crises.
 
Beyond those gradual consequences, a growing level of
federal debt would also increase the probability of a sudden
fiscal crisis, during which investors would lose confidence
in the government’s ability to manage its budget,
and the government would thereby lose its ability to borrow
at affordable rates. It is possible that interest rates
would rise gradually as investors’ confidence declined,
giving legislators advance warning of the worsening situation
and sufficient time to make policy choices that could
avert a crisis. But as other countries’ experiences show, it
is also possible that investors would lose confidence
abruptly and interest rates on government debt would
rise sharply. The exact point at which such a crisis might
occur for the United States is unknown, in part because
the ratio of federal debt to GDP is climbing into unfamiliar
territory and in part because the risk of a crisis is influenced
by a number of other factors, including the government’s
long-term budget outlook, its near-term borrowing needs,
 and the health of the economy. When fiscal crises do occur,
they often happen during an economic downturn, which amplifies
the difficulties of adjusting fiscal policy in response.
 
If the United States encountered a fiscal crisis, the abrupt
rise in interest rates would reflect investors’ fears that the
government would renege on the terms of its existing
debt or that it would increase the supply of money to
finance its activities or pay creditors and thereby boost
inflation. To restore investors’ confidence, policymakers
would probably need to enact spending cuts or tax
increases more drastic and painful than those that would
have been necessary had the adjustments come sooner.
 
1. For more details, see Congressional Budget Office, The Budget
and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020 (January 2010);
The Effects of Automatic Stabilizers on the Federal Budget (May
2010).
 
2 CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
Figure 1.
 
Federal Debt Held by the Public, 1790 to 2035
 
(Percentage of gross domestic product)
Source: Congressional Budget Office, The Long-Term Budget Outlook (June 2010); Historical Data on Federal Debt Held by the Public (July 2010).
 
Note: The extended-baseline scenario adheres closely to current law, following CBO’s 10-year baseline budget projections through 2020 (with adjustments for the recently enacted health care legislation) and then extending the baseline concept for the rest of the long term projection period. The alternative fiscal scenario incorporates several changes to current law that are widely expected to occur or that would modify some provisions that might be difficult to sustain for a long period.
 
Past and Projected Federal Debt
Held by the Public
 
Compared with the size of the economy, federal debt held
by the public is high by historical standards but is not
without precedent (see Figure 1).2 Previous sharp run-ups
have generally occurred during wars: During the Civil
War and World War I, debt climbed by about 30 percent
of GDP; in World War II, debt surged by nearly 80 percent
of GDP. In contrast, the recent jump in debt—so
far, roughly 25 percent of GDP—can be attributed in
part to an ongoing imbalance between federal revenues
and spending but, more important, to the financial
crisis and deep recession and the policy responses to those
developments. According to the Congressional Budget
Office’s (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.
Looking forward, CBO has projected long-term budget
outcomes under two different sets of assumptions about
future policies for revenues and spending.3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The extended baseline scenario adheres closely to current law,
following CBO’s 10-year baseline budget projections through 2020
(with adjustments for the recently enacted health care legislation)
and then roughly extending the baseline concept
 
2. The size of a country’s economy provides a measure of its ability to
pay interest on government debt, in the same way that a family’s
income helps to determine the amount of mortgage interest that it
can afford. Federal debt has two main components: debt held by
the public, and debt held by government trust funds and other
government accounts. This issue brief focuses on the former as the
most meaningful measure for assessing the relationship between
federal debt and the economy. Debt held by the public represents
the amount that the government has borrowed in financial
markets to pay for its operations and activities; in pursuing such
borrowing, the government competes with other participants in
credit markets for financial resources. In contrast, debt held by
government trust funds and other government accounts represents
internal transactions of the government.
 
3. For details about the assumptions underlying the scenarios, see
Congressional Budget Office, The Long-Term Budget Outlook
(June 2010), Table 1-1.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
FEDERAL DEBT AND THE RISK OF A FISCAL CRISIS 3
 
 
for subsequent decades. Under that scenario, annual
budget deficits would decline over the next few years, and
both deficits and debt would remain stable relative to
GDP for several years after that. But then growth in
spending on health care programs and Social Security
would cause deficits to increase, and debt would once
again grow faster than the economy. By 2035, the debt
would equal about 80 percent of GDP.
 
However, certain changes to current law are widely
expected to be made in some form over the next few
years, and other provisions of current law might be difficult
to sustain for a long period. Therefore, CBO also
developed an alternative fiscal scenario, in which most of
the tax cuts originally enacted in 2001 and 2003 are
extended (rather than allowed to expire at the end of this
year as scheduled under current law); the alternative minimum
tax is indexed for inflation (halting its growing
reach under current law); Medicare’s payments to physicians
rise over time (which would not happen under current
law); tax law evolves in the long run so that tax revenues
remain at about 19 percent of GDP; and some other
aspects of current law are adjusted in coming years.
Under that scenario, deficits would also decline for a few
years after 2010 and then grow again, but that growth
would occur sooner and at a much faster rate than under
the extended-baseline scenario. By 2020, debt would
equal nearly 90 percent of GDP. After that, the growing
imbalance between revenues and noninterest spending,
combined with the spiraling cost of interest payments,
would swiftly push federal debt to unsustainable levels.
Debt held by the public would exceed its historical peak
of about 110 percent of GDP by 2025 and would reach
about 180 percent of GDP in 2035. Indeed, if those estimates
took into account the harmful effects that rising
debt would have on economic growth and interest rates,
the projected increase in debt would occur even more
rapidly. Under the alternative fiscal scenario, the surge in
debt relative to the country’s output would pose a clear
threat of a fiscal crisis during the next two decades.
 
 
 
 
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
4 CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE
 
Some Consequences of Growing Debt
 
The economic effects of budget deficits and accumulating
government debt can differ in the short run and the
long run, depending importantly on the prevailing economic
conditions when the deficits are incurred. During
and shortly after a recession, the higher spending or lower
taxes that generate larger deficits generally hasten
economic recovery. 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.
 
More generally, persistent, large deficits that are not
related to economic slowdowns—like the deficits that
CBO projects for coming decades—have a number of
significant negative consequences. Therefore, the sooner
that policymakers agree on credible long-term changes to
government spending and revenues, and the sooner that
those changes are carried out without impeding the economic
recovery, the smaller will be the damage to the
economy from growing federal debt.
 
Crowding Out of Investment
 
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.
 
 
Need for Higher Taxes or Less Spending on
Government Programs
 
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 policymakers
wished to maintain government benefits and services
 
4. See Congressional Budget Office, Policies for Increasing Economic
Growth and Employment in 2010 and 2011 (January 2010).
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.
 
To be sure, slowing the growth of government debt to
hold down future interest payments would require
increases in taxes or reductions in government benefits
and services anyway. However, earlier action would permit
the changes in policy to be smaller and more gradual,
and it would give people more time to adjust to the
changes—although it would also require more sacrifices
by current generations to benefit future ones.
 
 
Reduced Ability to Respond to Domestic and
International Problems
 
Having a small amount of debt outstanding gives policymakers
the ability to borrow to address significant
unexpected events such as recessions, financial crises,
and wars. 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).5
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.
 
 
 
In the United States, the level of federal debt a few years
ago gave the government the flexibility to boost spending
and cut taxes to stimulate economic activity, to provide
public funding to stabilize the financial sector, and to
continue paying for other programs, even as tax revenues
dropped sharply because of the decline in output and
incomes. If the amount of federal debt (relative to output)
stays at its current level or increases further, the government
would find it more difficult to undertake similar
policies in the future. Moreover, the reduced financial
flexibility and increased dependence on foreign investors
that would accompany a rising debt could weaken the
United States’ international leadership.
 
An Increased Chance of a Fiscal Crisis
 
A rising level of government debt would have another
significant negative consequence. Combined with an
unfavorable long-term budget outlook, it would increase
the probability of a fiscal crisis for the United States. In
such a crisis, investors become unwilling to finance all of
a government’s borrowing needs unless they are compensated
with very high interest rates; as a result, the interest
rates on government debt rise suddenly and sharply relative
to rates of return on other assets. Unfortunately, there
is no way to predict with any confidence whether and
when such a crisis might occur in the United States; in
particular, there is no identifiable tipping point of debt
relative to GDP indicating that a crisis is likely or imminent.
But all else being equal, the higher the debt, the
greater the risk of such a crisis.
 
Fiscal crises around the world have often begun during
recessions and, in turn, have often exacerbated them.6
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.
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
FEDERAL DEBT AND THE RISK OF A FISCAL CRISIS 5
 
The history of fiscal crises in other countries does not
necessarily indicate the conditions under which investors
might lose confidence in the U.S. government’s ability
to manage its budget or the consequences for the nation
of such a loss of confidence. On the one hand, the
 
5. See Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, Banking Crises:
An Equal Opportunity Menace, Discussion Paper DP7131
(London: Centre for Economic Policy Research, January 2009).
The authors estimate that debt in countries with banking crises
increases by an average of 86 percent in the three years after
those crises. See also Luc Laeven and Fabian Valencia, Systemic
Banking Crises: A New Database, Working Paper No. 08-224
(Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, November
2008).
6. See Eduardo Borensztein and Ugo Panizza, The Costs of Sovereign
Default, Working Paper No. 08-238 (Washington, D.C.:
International Monetary Fund, October 2008).
United States may be able to issue more debt (relative to
output) than the governments of other countries can,
without triggering a crisis, because the United States has
often been viewed as a “safe haven” by investors around
the world, and the U.S. government’s securities have
often been viewed as being among the safest investments
in the world. On the other hand, the United States may
not be able to issue as much debt as the governments of
other countries can because the private saving rate has
been lower in the United States than in most developed
countries, and a significant share of U.S. debt has been
sold to foreign investors. Quantifying those factors and
the many other factors that could be relevant to how a
fiscal crisis would unfold in the United States is beyond
the scope of this brief.
 
Nonetheless, a review of fiscal crises in Argentina,
Ireland, and Greece in the past decade reveals instructive
common features and differences. For all three countries,
the crises occurred abruptly and during recessions. However,
the crises occurred at different levels of government
debt relative to GDP, showing that the tipping point for a
crisis does not depend solely on the debt-to-GDP ratio;
the government’s long-term budget outlook, its near-term
borrowing needs, and the health of the economy are also
important. All three of those crises illustrate the difficulty
of formulating effective policy responses once investors
lose confidence in a government.
 
 
Argentina
 
Argentina’s experience offers an example of the very serious
consequences that can arise from a fiscal crisis.
Although interest rates on Argentina’s debt had been
comparable for many years with those on debt of other
countries in emerging markets, Argentina’s fortunes
changed quickly when it found itself suffering from a significant
recession in 2000 and 2001. During the first half
of 2001, with government debt equal to about 50 percent
of the country’s GDP, investors became increasingly worried
about Argentina’s fiscal situation—in part because of
the country’s earlier defaults on its debt. As a result, investors
demanded premiums for holding government debt
that increased interest rates by more than 5 percentage
points.7 A few months later, as it became clear that
Argentina was not able to afford (or willing to make) the
interest payments on its debt, interest rates jumped again
to levels so high that the government was effectively
unable to borrow. Subsequently, Argentina ceased paying
its creditors, and ever since it has been unable to raise
funds in international markets. Argentina’s fiscal crisis
accentuated its underlying economic problems, and from
2001 to 2002, the country’s GDP dropped by nearly
11 percent.
 
Ireland
 
In spite of a good credit history and a relatively small
amount of government debt, Ireland experienced a fiscal
crisis after being overwhelmed by large spending obligations,
including those related to the recent financial crisis.
As recently as 2007, Ireland carried a central government
debt of only about 20 percent of output; interest rates on
Irish bonds at the time suggested that investors considered
those bonds to be almost as safe as German bonds,
which are generally perceived as stable and reliable investments.
Over the next two years, however, Ireland’s debt
grew very rapidly as the country dealt with massive failures
of financial institutions and a major economic
downturn. Investors began to lose confidence that Ireland
could manage its rapidly expanding obligations, and by
March of last year, investors in 10-year Irish bonds
demanded almost 3 percentage points in extra annual
interest relative to the rate for German bonds of the same
maturity (see Figure 2).
 
 
 
 
Starting in April 2009, Ireland responded with an aggressive
fiscal austerity program in which it raised taxes and
reduced spending significantly. The program included
cutting wages for public-sector employees by 15 percent,
levying additional taxes, and sharply trimming a number
of social programs. Investors initially responded with
renewed confidence, which was reflected in reduced
interest rates on Irish debt and lower rates for insurance
on Irish bonds (although those measures of perceived risk
remained less favorable than they had been before the crisis).
8 However, the budget deficit in Ireland remains large
 
7. All interest rates cited in this issue brief are in nominal terms. The
data on Argentina are drawn from Donald Mathieson, Garry
Schinasi, and others, International Capital Markets: Developments,
Prospects, and Key Policy Issues (Washington, D.C.: International
Monetary Fund, 2001), p. 63. The data on Ireland and Greece are
from Bloomberg.
8. Investors can purchase insurance that pays off in the event that a
government defaults on its debt. The cost of such insurance is one
indicator of a fiscal crisis; all else being equal, the higher the cost
of insurance, the higher the perceived probability of a government
default.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
6 CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE
 
Figure 2.
 
Interest Rates on 10-Year Debt Issued by Greece and Ireland
 
(Percentage points above the rate for comparable German bonds)
 
Source: Bloomberg.
Note: German bonds, denominated in euros, are generally perceived as stable and reliable investments. The difference in interest rates
between German bonds and other countries’ euro-denominated bonds reflects investors’ relative level of confidence in the safety and
security of those other countries’ debts.
 
and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) projected late last year that
Ireland’s debt would increase to approximately 70 percent
of GDP by the end of 2010.9 Some observers believe that
the austerity program may not be sufficient to put Ireland’s
debt on a sustainable path, and investors may share
that view, because interest rates on 10-year Irish bonds
have risen again to almost 3 percentage points above
those on comparable German bonds.10
 
Greece
 
In 2008, before the recent global recession, the central
government in Greece owed its creditors an amount equal
to approximately 110 percent of the country’s GDP, a
ratio that rose further as the recession lowered output and
increased the deficit by weakening the country’s tax base.
In early 2009, interest rates on 10-year Greek bonds
jumped by 2 percentage points over rates on comparable
German bonds (see Figure 2). Investors’ confidence, as
measured by both interest rates on Greek government
debt and the cost of buying insurance against a default
on such debt, deteriorated throughout 2009. By January
2010, Greece was forced to pay an interest rate on
10-year bonds that was 4 percentage points higher than
Germany was paying.
 
Greece’s crisis continued to worsen as interest rates
climbed higher in the spring. In May 2010, a consortium
of European countries and the International Monetary
Fund pledged to lend to the Greek government up to
120 billion euros (an amount equal to just over 50 percent
of Greece’s GDP last year). Greece also adopted a fiscal
austerity program that includes significant reductions
in benefits and public services as well as increases in taxes.
The actions by the Greek government and other governments
caused the crisis to abate temporarily. However, it
is unclear whether investors will be convinced that spending
will be cut or taxes increased sufficiently to put the
country on a sustainable fiscal path. Moreover, the
amount of maturing debt that the country needs to refinance
in the next few years, in addition to the debt that it
needs to sell to finance its ongoing deficit, has reinforced
investors’ concerns that Greece will be unable to make all
of the required payments on its debt. As a result, interest
 
 
9. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,
OECD Economic Surveys: Ireland 2009, vol. 2009, no. 17
(Paris: OECD, November 2009).
 
10. For one observer’s point of view, see Barry Eichengreen, “Emerald
Isle to Golden State,” Eurointelligence, February 25, 2009,
available at www.eurointelligence.com/artile.581+M5accb03957e.
0.html.
rates on 10-year Greek bonds have climbed to 8 percentage
points above the rates on 10-year German bonds.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
FEDERAL DEBT AND THE RISK OF A FISCAL CRISIS 7
 
How Might a Fiscal Crisis Affect the
United States?
 
In all three of those fiscal crises in other countries, sharp
increases in interest rates on government debt forced the
affected governments to make difficult choices. The U.S.
government would also face difficult choices if interest
rates on its debt spiked. For example, a 4-percentagepoint
across-the-board increase in interest rates would
raise federal interest payments next year by about
$100 billion relative to CBO’s baseline projection—a
jump of more than 40 percent. As longer-term debt
matured and was refinanced at such higher rates, the difference
in the annual interest burden would mount; by
2015, if such higher-than-anticipated rates persisted, net
interest would be nearly double the roughly $460 billion
that CBO currently projects for that year.11 Moreover, if
debt grew over time relative to GDP, the effect of a spike
in interest rates would become increasingly pronounced.
A sudden increase in interest rates would also reduce the
market value of outstanding government bonds, inflicting
losses on investors who hold them. That decline
could precipitate a broader financial crisis by causing
losses for mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies,
banks, and other holders of federal debt—losses that
might be large enough to cause some financial institutions
to fail.12 Foreign investors, who owned nearly half
of U.S. debt held by the public in May 2010 (or about
$4.0 trillion, $1.7 trillion of which was held by Japan and
China alone), would also face substantial losses.13
If a fiscal crisis occurred in the United States, policy
options for responding to it would be limited and
unattractive. In particular, the government would need
to undertake some combination of three actions:
restructuring its debt (that is, seeking to modify the
contractual terms of existing obligations); pursuing
inflationary monetary policy (that is, increasing the
supply of money); and adopting an austerity program
of spending cuts and tax increases.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Restructuring Debt
 
Governments can attempt to change the terms of their
existing debt—for example, by changing the payment
schedule—but that approach tends to be very costly for
countries that try it.14 Any discussions or actions by
U.S. policymakers that raised the perceived likelihood of
that outcome would cause investors to demand higher
interest rates immediately, if they were willing to extend
additional credit at all.15 Furthermore, investors would
demand a large interest premium on subsequent loans
for many years.
 
Inflationary Monetary Policy
 
An alternative approach is to increase the supply of
money in the economy. But as governments create money
to finance their activities or pay creditors during fiscal
crises, they raise inflation. Higher inflation has negative
consequences for the economy, especially if inflation
moves above the moderate rates seen in most developed
countries in recent years.16 Higher inflation might appear
to benefit the U.S. government financially because the
value of the outstanding debt (which is mostly fixed in
dollar terms) would be lowered relative to the size of the
economy (which would increase when measured in dollar
terms).17 However, higher inflation would also increase
the size of future budget deficits.
 
Specifically, if inflation was 1 percentage point higher
over the next decade than the rate CBO has projected,
budget deficits during those years would be roughly
 
11. See Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the President’s
Budgetary Proposals for Fiscal Year 2011 (March 2010).
12. U.S. banks, insurance companies, and mutual funds held
approximately $1 trillion worth of U.S. debt as of the first quarter
of 2010. See Department of the Treasury, Financial Management
Service, “Ownership of Federal Securities,” Treasury Bulletin
(June 2010), Table OFS-2.
13. Department of the Treasury, Major Foreign Holders of Treasury
Securities, May 2010, available at www.ustreas.gov/tic/mfh.txt.
14. See Borensztein and Panizza, The Costs of Sovereign Default.
15. See Carmen M. Reinhart, Kenneth S. Rogoff, and Miguel A.
Savastano, “Debt Intolerance,” Brookings Papers on Economic
Activity, no. 1 (2003).
16. For a discussion of the issues, see N. Gregory Mankiw,
Macroeconomics, 5th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2003),
pp. 95–107.
17. Higher inflation would not enhance the U.S. government’s ability
to redeem Treasury inflation-protected securities, which are
indexed to inflation; however, such debt constitutes only about
7 percent of publicly held U.S. debt.
 
E C O N O M I C A N D B U D G E T I S S U E B R I E F
 
8 CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE
 
$700 billion larger.18 Several factors contribute to that
estimate. Investors, after having their investments
devalued by the rise in prices in the economy, would
demand higher interest rates in the future, even if inflation
was eventually reduced; thus, as debt matured, it
would be refinanced at higher rates. Indeed, even raising
the perceived likelihood of higher inflation during a fiscal
crisis would trigger immediate further increases in interest
rates. Moreover, the amounts of many government
benefits rise when prices rise, and much of the income tax
system is indexed to inflation. On balance, the increase in
tax revenues resulting from higher inflation would be
more than offset by higher payments for benefit programs
and higher interest payments as the outstanding debt
rolled over and ongoing deficits required the issuance
of more debt.19
 
Increasing Taxes and Reducing Spending
 
Austerity programs generally include both tax increases
and spending reductions. When fiscal crises occur during
recessions, as they often do, such policy changes can
exacerbate the economic downturns—although some
studies suggest that certain types of fiscal austerity programs
tend, at least in some circumstances, to stimulate
economic growth.20
 
The later that actions are taken to address persistent
budget imbalances, the more severe they will have to be.
CBO’s long-term projections for the federal budget
indicate that an immediate, permanent cut in spending
or increase in revenues equal to about 1 percent of GDP
(relative to the policies assumed for the extended-baseline
scenario) or about 5 percent of GDP (relative to the
policies assumed for the alternative fiscal scenario) would
prevent a net increase in the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio over
the next 25 years. The latter would be equivalent to
roughly 20 percent of all of the government’s noninterest
spending this year. Actions taken later, particularly if
there was a fiscal crisis, would need to be significantly
greater to achieve that same objective. Larger and more
abrupt changes in fiscal policy, such as substantial cuts in
government benefit programs, would be more difficult
for people to adjust to than smaller and more gradual
changes.
 
20. See, for example, Alberto Alesina, “Fiscal Adjustments: Lessons
from Recent History” (paper presented at a meeting of Ecofin,
Madrid, April 15, 2010); Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna,
Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending, Working
Paper No. 15438 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of
Economic Research, October 2009); Roberto Perotti, “Fiscal
Policy in Good Times and Bad,” Quarterly Journal of Economics,
vol. 114, no. 4 (November 1999), pp. 1399–1436; and Alberto
Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, “Tales of Fiscal Adjustment,”
Economic Policy, vol. 13, no. 27 (October 1998), pp. 487–545.
18. See Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic
Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020, Appendix C.
19. Historically, the long-term effects of countries’ inflating away part
of their debt—very high borrowing costs and reduced economic
output—have been similar to the effects of explicit debt
restructurings. See Reinhart, Rogoff, and Savastano, “Debt
Intolerance.”
 
This brief was prepared by Jonathan Huntley of CBO’s
Macroeconomic Analysis Division. It and other
CBO publications are available at the agency’s Web site
 
Douglas W. Elmendorf
Director

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