Government debt explosion hits turning point

Thursday, May 6, 2010
By Paul Martin

Government debt explosion hits turning point with forecast for drop of 18 percent this year

Martin Crutsinger

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government’s explosive borrowing has hit a turning point: It’s expected to drop 18 percent this year after last year’s record high.

The brighter picture is due to higher tax revenue and less government spending as the economy has improved.

The Obama administration still expects this year’s deficit to set another high: $1.56 trillion. Even if, as expected, that number declines a bit when the administration issues a revised estimate this summer, it isn’t likely to drop below $1.4 trillion. That would match last year’s all-time record.

The stronger economy is boosting federal tax revenue and lowering emergency spending needed to stabilize the financial system and invigorate the recovery. As a result, the Treasury Department has trimmed its estimated borrowing needs for this budget year to $1.459 trillion. That’s down 18.3 percent from last year’s record $1.786 trillion.

Because of the drop, Treasury said Wednesday it’s reducing its borrowing amount at its quarterly auction to $78 billion in a series of three debt auctions next week. That’s down from a record $81 billion at the last quarterly action in February.

It marks the first decline in the amount the government plans to borrow at a quarterly auction since May 2007. Many economists view it as a watershed event, indicating that the high point for Treasury’s debt demands had passed.

“The government still needs boatloads of money, but at least borrowing has peaked,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The better economy is helping to slow the growth in spending, and the improvement in the financial system means that banks are now paying back the money they received last year.”

The deficit, along with the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, have become political challenges for the Obama administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Public outcry over both nearly sank the health care overhaul. Lawmakers have been under pressure to show more fiscal responsibility with every legislation under consideration.

A presidentially appointed deficit commission is scheduled to report by year’s end on what spending cuts or higher taxes, or both, are needed to control future deficits. In addition, lawmakers have adopted rules requiring new non-emergency spending to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts.

A reduction in borrowing could help ease some concerns. But it hardly signals an end to the problems.

The deficit soared to $1.4 trillion last year. Private analysts say it will be around that level this year, too. The administration expects the deficit for 2011 to decline only slightly to $1.227 trillion.

In fact, the administration doesn’t see the budget deficit falling below $706 billion for any year over the next decade. That means the government would pile up an additional $8.5 trillion in debt over that time that would have to be financed.

The administration has stressed it recognizes the need to reduce future deficits and is committed to reducing the deficit, as a percentage of the economy, to 3 percent over the next five years. That would be down from 10 percent of GDP this year.

So far, the government has been able to pay low interest rates on the borrowing it has done because foreign investors still see U.S. Treasury securities as a haven in times of turmoil.

The deep global recession has also meant less competition for loans by businesses and consumers. That’s helped keep rates low. So have the Federal Reserve’s steps to push rates to record lows to stimulate growth.

“All the factors that have helped to keep U.S. rates low from the bad economy to a global flight to quality will start to reverse over the next year,” Zandi said. “When they do, if we haven’t appreciably changed our fiscal outlook by then, investors will begin to grow nervous and start demanding dramatically higher interest rates to hold our debt.”

Investor fears about high government debt loads have triggered a debt crisis in Greece and forced that country to seek a $145 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund and other European countries.

Treasury officials said they are seeing no less interest in U.S. Treasury debt as a result of the Greek crisis.

“We have very strong interest in our Treasury auctions,” Mary Miller, assistant secretary for financial markets, told reporters.

For the refunding next week, Treasury said it would auction $38 billion in three-year notes on Tuesday, $24 billion in 10-year notes on Wednesday and $16 billion in 30-year bonds on Thursday.

The size of the three-year note is being cut by $2 billion from the last refunding auction in February. The 10-year note is being cut by $1 billion.

The last time the government was able to reduce the size of one of its debt offerings was May 2007, when it cut the three-year note sale to $14 billion from $16 billion.

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