Debt and the Future of the U.S.
From where I sit as an economist, it's still all about the economy and the long-term impact of the problems laid bare by the Great Recession. During the financial crisis, the world came to the apparently shocking realization that debt financing entails risks. Financial institutions, households, and governments all suffered because they had too much leverage.
Though the corporate sector has generally decreased leverage, the same is not true of government, particularly in the U.S. Every company and household here and abroad will ultimately be affected by the unabated and accelerating gap between government revenues and spending.
There is a great deal of confusion in the popular media about the level of the current budget deficit and outstanding debt. To illustrate, most press reports peg the current U.S. deficit at $1.5 trillion, roughly 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). Gross public debt is $14 trillion, or over 95% of GDP. Most observers believe that the government will run a sustained deficit for the next decade that could add over $10 trillion to outstanding federal debt.
But closer inspection of government data reveals that these figures grossly understate both the current deficit and level of debt. Consider, for example, that the estimated net present value of obligations under the Social Security system is approximately $8 trillion. As the ratio of retired people receiving benefits to working people paying into the system increases, there will be an ever-increasing deficit confronting the government.
Even more problematic is that the Medicare system has a vested unfunded net liability of approximately $38 trillion. Once again, the inexorable shift in demographics, combined with high and increasing healthcare costs, will result in a widening gap between tax intake and payment outflow for Medicare.
On another front, the government is also on the hook for insuring bank deposits (including money market funds at the peak of the crisis), pension liabilities, and a wide range of other loans and liabilities. The total value of explicit loan guarantees is well over $10 trillion.
In total, the estimated liabilities of the federal government are in the range of $70 trillion, over five times annual GDP. By implication, the annual deficit is equal to the reported deficit plus the change in the vested, unfunded liabilities incurred in that year (e.g., the change in the Medicare liability) plus the implicit net cost of the annual guarantee for various liabilities. Therefore, the current deficit is more like $4.5 trillion than $1.5 trillion, while the total net revenue for the government was only $2.2 trillion in fiscal 2009. Washington, we have a problem.
This kind of leverage is unsustainable. Though some will argue that higher taxes are required, the reality is that the total amount collected each year in personal and corporate taxes (excluding social security and Medicare taxes) is only a bit over $1 trillion. Spending must be cut.
The recent report of The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform suggested a number of options for addressing the challenges posed by excessive government leverage. This report, and several others prepared by other objective bodies, must become part of our collective dialogue about the future of the country. Every business leader and every citizen has a responsibility to understand and help address these issues. Otherwise, as some scenarios in Europe have already made clear, the U.S. will ultimately suffer the same fate as all countries that spend way beyond their means.
William A. Sahlman is the Dimitri V. D'Arbeloff-MBA Class of 1955 Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School.