The U.S. economy is headed down a dangerous path. In our opinion it has nothing to do with the length of the current economic cycle, valuations, interest rates, or trade wars. Instead, it has everything to do with our mounting government deficits. We have been talking about the federal budget deficits for the past ten years but when does that problem really come home to roost?
A Crisis In Plain Sight
An economic crisis is often easier to spot than you think if you are looking in the right places. Most of the time it involves identifying a wide spread trend that has evolved in the financial markets and the economy, shutting out all of the noise, and then applying some common sense. Looking at the tech bubble, people were taking home equity loans to buy tech stocks that they themselves did not understand. During the housing bubble people that were making $40,000 per year were buying homes for $500,000 and banks were giving loans with no verification of income. Both of the last two recessions you could have spotted by paying attention to the trends and applying some common sense.
Looking at the data, we think there is a good chance that the next economic crisis may stem from reaching unsustainable levels of government debt. Up until now we have just been talking about it but my goal with this article is to put where we are now in perspective and why this “talking point” may soon become a reality.
Debt vs GDP
The primary measuring stick that we use to measure the sustainability of the U.S. debt level is the Debt vs GDP ratio. This ratio compares the total debt of the U.S. versus how much the U.S. economy produces in one year. Think of it as an individual. If I told you that someone has $100,000 in credit card debt, your initial reaction may be “wow, that’s a lot of debt”. But then what if I told you that an individual makes $1,000,000 per year in income? That level of debt is probably sustainable for that person since it’s only 10% of their gross earnings, whereas that amount of credit card debt would render someone who makes $50,000 per year bankrupt.
Our total gross federal deficit just eclipsed $21 trillion dollars. That’s Trillion with a “T”. From January through March 2018, GDP in the U.S. was running at an annual rate of $19.965 trillion dollars (Source: The Balance). Based on the 2018 Q1 data our debt vs GDP ratio is approximately 105%. That’s big number.
The Safe Zone
Before I start throwing more percentages at you let’s first establish a baseline for what’s sustainable and not sustainable from a debt standpoint. Two Harvard professors, Reinhart and Rogoff, conducted a massive study on this exact topic and wrote a whitepaper titled “Growth in a Time of Debt”. Their study aimed to answer the question “how much debt is too much for a government to sustain?” They looked at historic data, not just for the U.S. but also for other countries around the world, to determine the correlation between various levels of Debt vs GDP and the corresponding growth or contraction rate of that economy. What they found was that in many cases, once a government’s Debt vs GDP ratio exceeded 90%, it was frequently followed by a period of either muted growth or economic contraction. It makes sense. Even though the economy may still be growing, if you are paying more in interest on your debt then you are making, it puts you in a bad place.
Only One Time In History
There has only been one other time in U.S. history that the Debt vs GDP ratio has been as high as it is now and that was during World War II. Back in 1946, the Debt vs GDP ratio hit 119%. The difference between now and then is we are not currently funding a world war. I make that point because wars end and when they end the spending drops off dramatically. Between 1946 and 1952, the Debt vs GDP ratio dropped from 119% to 72%. Our Debt vs GDP ratio bottomed in 1981 at 31%. Since then it has been a straight march up to the levels that were are at now. We are not currently financing a world war and there is not a single expenditure that we can point to that will all of a sudden drop off to help us reduce our debt level.
Spending Too Much
So what is the United States spending the money on? Below is a snapshot of the 2018 federal budget which answers that question. As illustrated by the spending bar on the left, we are estimated to spend $4.1 trillion dollars in 2018. The largest pieces coming from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
The bar on the right illustrates how the U.S. intends to pay for that $4.1 trillion in spending. At the top of that bar you will see “Borrowing $804 Bn”. That means the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. will have to borrow an additional $804 billion dollars just to meet the planned spending for 2018. With the introduction of tax reform and the infrastructure spending, the annual spending amount is expected to increase over the next ten years.
Whether you are for or against tax reform, it’s difficult to make the argument that it’s going to “pay for itself in the form of more tax as a result of greater economic growth.” Just run the numbers. If our annual GDP is $19.9 Trillion per year, our 3% GDP growth rate I already factored into the budget numbers, to bridge the $804B shortfall, our GDP growth rate would have to be around 7% per year to prevent further additions to the total government debt. Good luck with that. A 7% GDP growth rate is a generous rate at the beginning of an economic expansion. Given that we are currently in the second longest economic expansion of all time, it’s difficult to make the argument that we are going to see GDP growth rates that are typically associated with the beginning of an expansion period.
Apply Common Sense
Here’s where we apply common sense to the debt situation. Excluding the financing of a world war, the United State is currently at a level of debt that has never been obtained in history. Like running a business, there are only two ways to dig yourself out of debt. Cut spending or increase revenue. While tax reform may increase revenue in the form of economic growth, it does not seem likely that the U.S. economy is at this stage in the economic cycle and be able to obtain the GDP growth rate needed to prevent a further increase in the government deficits.
A cut in spending, in its simplest form, means that something has to be taken away. No one wants to hear that. The Republican and Democratic parties seem so deeply entrenched in their own camps that it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for any type of spending reform to take place before we are on the eve of what would seem to be a collision course with the debt wall. Over the past two decades, the easy solution has been to “just borrow more” which makes the landing even harder when we get there.
Answering the “when” question is probably the most difficult. We are clearly beyond what history has revered as the “comfort zone” when to comes to our Debt vs GDP ratio. However, the combination of the economic boost from tax reform and infrastructure spending in the U.S., the accelerating economic expansion that is happening outside of the U.S., and the low global interest rate environment, could continue to support growth rates even at these elevated levels of government debt.
Debt is tricky. There are times when it can be smart accept the debt, and times where it isn’t helpful. As we know from the not too distant past, it has the ability to sustain growth for an unnaturally long period of time but when the music stops it gets ugly very quickly. I’m not yelling that the sky is falling and everyone needs to go to cash tomorrow. But now is a good time to evaluate where you are risk wise within your portfolio and begin having the discussion with your investment advisor as to what an exit plan may look like if the U.S. debt levels become unsustainable and it triggers a recession within the next five years.
Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.