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A million simulations, one verdict for US economy: Debt danger ahead

Bhargavi Sakthivel, Maeva Cousin and David Wilcox, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

The Congressional Budget Office warned in its latest projections that U.S. federal government debt is on a path from 97% of GDP last year to 116% by 2034 — higher even than in World War II. The actual outlook is likely worse.

From tax revenue to defense spending and interest rates, the CBO forecasts released earlier this year are underpinned by rosy assumptions. Plug in the market’s current view on interest rates, and the debt-to-GDP ratio rises to 123% in 2034. Then assume — as most in Washington do — that ex-President Donald Trump’s tax cuts mainly stay in place, and the burden gets even higher.

With uncertainty about so many of the variables, Bloomberg Economics has run a million simulations to assess the fragility of the debt outlook. In 88% of the simulations, the results show the debt-to-GDP ratio is on an unsustainable path — defined as an increase over the next decade.

The Biden administration says its budget, featuring a slew of tax hikes on corporations and wealthy Americans, will ensure fiscal sustainability and manageable debt-servicing costs.

“I do believe we need to reduce deficits and to stay on a fiscally sustainable path,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers in February. Biden administration proposals offer “substantial deficit reduction that would continue to hold the level of interest expense at comfortable levels. But we would need to work together to try to achieve those savings,” she said.

Trouble is, delivering on such a plan will require action from a Congress that’s bitterly divided on partisan lines.Republicans, who control the House, want deep spending cuts to bring down the ballooning deficit, without specifying exactly what they’d slash. Democrats, who oversee the Senate, argue that spending is less of a contributor to any deterioration in debt sustainability, with interest rates and tax revenues the key factors. Neither party favors squeezing the benefits provided by major entitlement programs.

 

In the end, it may take a crisis — perhaps a disorderly rout in the Treasuries market triggered by sovereign U.S. credit-rating downgrades, or a panic over the depletion of the Medicare or Social Security trust funds — to force action. That’s playing with fire.

Last summer provided a foretaste, in miniature, of how a crisis might begin. Over two days in August, a Fitch Ratings downgrade of the U.S. credit rating and an increase of long-term Treasury debt issuance focused investor attention on the risks. Benchmark 10-year yields climbed by a percentage point, hitting 5% in October — the highest level in more than one and a half decades.

As for how things might end, Britain’s experience in fall 2022 provides a glimpse into the abyss. Then-Prime Minister Liz Truss’s plan for unfunded tax cuts sent the gilt market into a tailspin. Yields soared so quickly that the central bank had to step in to snuff out the risk of an outright financial crisis. The bond vigilantes’ actions forced the government to call off the plan and Truss out of office.

For the U.S., the dollar’s central role in international finance and status as the dominant reserve currency lowers the odds of a similar meltdown. It would take a lot to shake investor confidence in U.S. Treasury debt as the ultimate safe asset. If it did evaporate, though, the erosion of the dollar’s standing would be a watershed moment, with the U.S. losing not just access to cheap financing but also global power and prestige.

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