As we head toward the end of the year, the media's fixation with the congressionally imposed "fiscal cliff" will reach a fever pitch and no doubt become a major factor in the presidential campaign. The danger is supposed to arise from the simultaneous implementation of $2 trillion in automatic spending "cuts" (in reality, just reductions in the rate by which federal spending increases) and the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax rates. Most economists fear that higher taxes and slower increases in federal spending will combine to send us back into recession. Despite the hand-wringing, it is certain that the lame-duck Congress will slap together a late-December, last-minute, can-kicking compromise that will buy time at the expense of long-term solvency. Any success in wriggling out of this particular budgetary straitjacket will just make it more certain that we head straight for another, larger, fiscal cliff that is hiding in plain sight.
As it is constructed currently, the U.S. budget will be completely and thoroughly upended when interest rates approach levels that would be considered normal by historical standards. A mere 5 percent rate portends a clear and present danger to the budgetary priories of the United States.
The current national debt is about $16 trillion. This is just the funded portion - the unfunded liabilities of the Treasury, such as Social Security and Medicare, and off-budget items, such as guaranteed mortgages and student loans, loom much larger. Our recent era of unprecedented fiscal irresponsibility means we are throwing an additional $1 trillion or more on the pile every year. The only reason this staggering debt load hasn't crushed us already is that the Treasury has been able to service it through historically low interest rates (now below 2 percent). These easy terms keep debt-service payments to a relatively manageable $300 billion per year.
On the current trajectory, the national debt likely will hit $20 trillion in a few years. If, by that time, interest rates were to return to 5 percent (a low rate by postwar standards) interest payments on the debt could run around $1 trillion per year. Such a sum would represent almost 40 percent of total current federal revenues and likely would constitute the single largest line item in the federal budget. A balance sheet so constructed would create an immediate fiscal crisis in the United States.
In addition to making the debt service unmanageable, a return to normal rates of interest would depress the kind of low-rate-dependent economic activity that characterizes our current economy. A slowing economy would cut down on tax revenue and trigger increased government spending to beleaguered public sectors. Higher rates on government debt also would push up mortgage rates, thereby putting renewed downward pressure on home prices and perhaps leading to another large wave of foreclosures. (My guess is that losses on government-insured mortgages alone could add several hundred billion dollars more to annual budget deficits.) When all of these factors are taken into account, I think annual deficits could quickly approach, and then exceed, $3 trillion. This would double the amount of debt we need to sell annually.
Currently, foreign creditors buy more than half of all U.S. debt issuance. Most of these purchases are motivated by political reasons that are subject to change. The buyers, who legitimately can be described as "investors," extend credit to the United States at such generous terms largely because of America's size, power and perceived economic unassailability. If those perceptions change, 5 percent could quickly become a floor, not a ceiling, for interest rates. Given that America's balance sheet bears more than a casual resemblance to those of both Spain and Italy, it should not be radical to assume that one day we will be asked to pay the same amount as they do for the money we borrow. The brutal truth is that 6 percent or 7 percent interest rates will force the government to either slash federal spending across the board (including cuts to politically sensitive entitlements), raise middle-class taxes significantly, default on the debt, or hit everyone with the sustained impact of high inflation. Now that's a real fiscal cliff.
By foolishly borrowing so heavily when interest rates are low, our government is driving us toward this cliff with its eyes firmly glued to the rearview mirror. Most economists downplay debt-servicing concerns with assertions that we have entered a new era of permanently low interest rates. This is a dangerously naive idea.
For years, I warned that the bursting of the real estate bubble would trigger a financial crisis. My warnings routinely were ignored based on the near-universal assumption that real estate prices would never fall. That was wrong. My warnings about the real fiscal cliff also are being ignored because of a similarly false premise that interest rates will never rise. However, if history can be a guide, we should view the current period of ultralow rates as the exception rather than the rule.