Deficits are a way for governments to use tax payer money and public spending to stimulate the economy when private demand is weak. This works as long as a country closes its deficit and pays back its borrowings after its economy starts to recover.
The trouble is that government borrowing risks crowding out private investment, driving up interest rates and potentially slowing a recovery still trying to take hold. That is why the American Federal Reserve announced an extraordinary policy this year to buy back existing long-term debt — $300 billion over six months — to drive down yields. The strategy worked for a while, but now the impact of that decision appears to be wearing off as long-term interest rates tick up again.
Then there is the concern that the interest the government must pay on its debt obligations may hurt future generations. The Congressional Budget Office expects interest payments to more than quadruple in the next decade as Washington borrows and spends, to $806 billion by 2019 from $172 billion next year.
GRAHAM BOWLEY and JACK HEALY report in the Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2009: “You’re just paying more and more interest and having to borrow more and more money to pay the interest,” said Charles S. Konigsberg, chief budget counsel for the Concord Coalition, which advocates lower deficits. “It diverts a tremendous amount of resources, of taxpayer dollars.”
Of course, no one is suggesting the United States will have problems paying the interest on its debt. On Wednesday, even as it announced its huge financing needs for the latest quarter, the Treasury said financial markets could accommodate the flood of new bonds. “We feel confident that we can address these large borrowing needs,” said Karthik Ramanathan, the Treasury’s acting assistant secretary for financial markets.
One worry, however, is that there are fewer eager lenders to buy all that American debt. Most of the world is in recession, and other nations have rising borrowing needs as well. As other nations’ surpluses turn to deficits, America will face competition in global financial markets for its borrowing needs. For the moment, the United States is actually benefiting from a flight to quality into Treasuries brought on by the global financial crisis, which helped reduce rates to record lows this winter. But the influx will not continue forever.
China has lent immense sums to the United States — about two-thirds of its central bank’s $1.95 trillion in foreign reserves is believed to be in United States securities — but it has begun to voice concerns about America’s financial health.
To calm nerves and fill the deficit hole, the government is getting creative. The Treasury is ramping up its auction calendar, holding more frequent sales of government debt and selling the debt in expanded amounts. It is now holding sales of its 30-year bond each month, up from four times annually.It is also resuscitating previously discontinued bonds, such as the seven-year note and the three-year note, to try to mop up any available money all along the yield curve. There is even talk of issuing billions of dollars of a new 50-year bond, though the idea has not won official approval