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Mortgaged to the hilt: experts look at Uncle Sam's debt problem

Is the United States economy going two ways at once - building toward a solid recovery and at the same time speeding down the track toward future trouble? ''Yes,'' say many experts, unless Congress and the White House find some way to control budget deficits which, without major action, will keep growing.

''We are really on a very dangerous road right now,'' says economist Rudolph G. Penner. ''I don't see the deficit going anywhere but up. I'm getting worried about just being able to pay interest on the debt.''

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He adds up government spending required by current law and rising interest on the national debt and finds them outweighing whatever tax revenues may be generated by recovery.

''If there is no legislative action to reduce spending or raise revenue,'' says Martin S. Feldstein, President Reagan's chief economic adviser, ''the budget deficit is likely to remain at 5 percent of gross national product (GNP) for the rest of the present decade, rising from $200 billion this year to more than $250 billion by 1988.''

Governments unable to pay their debts, notes Mr. Penner, a former presidential adviser and now a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, historically resort to hyperinflation. They seek a way out by paying off debts in vastly cheaper money. He doubts the United States would fall into that trap.

But neither does he see Congress and the White House grappling in a realistic way with the budget deficits.

By 1987, says Alice M. Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office, tax revenues under current law will amount to a little more than 18 percent of GNP, or the total output of goods and services. Government spending will total more than 23 percent of GNP.

That, says Dr. Rivlin, leaves a 6 percent gap between government income and outgo - the prime source of the widening deficit embedded in the budget.

Also disturbing is the recent rapid rise in the nation's basic money supply, which has burst beyond the 1983 growth boundaries set by the Federal Reserve Board. Already interest rates, responding to the threat of future inflation implicit in the money supply increase, have begun to edge up.

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Unless the growth of M-1 - which measures currency in circulation plus checking accounts available for immediate spending - slows down, says Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, the Fed will have to tighten the monetary reins, even at the risk of driving interest rates higher.

Mortgage interest rates, which had dropped to a national average of about 12. 5 percent in April, are close to 13 percent now, says Kenneth Kerin, vice-president for research of the National Association of Realtors.

''We're walking a tightrope on housing recovery,'' said Mr. Kerin, ''and higher interest rates could push us off. A good solid recovery needs mortgage rates below 12 percent.''

Almost everyone agrees that some combination of spending cuts and revenue increases is required to reduce the built-in deficit. But an appropriate formula so far has eluded President Reagan and Congress.

US studies, says Secretary Regan, disclose little direct correlation between budget deficits and high interest rates, an argument rejected by most economists.

''Deficits in the past,'' says Barry P. Bosworth of the Brookings Institution and a former presidential adviser, ''usually have been associated with a depressed US economy, when private sector borrowing was low.''

In such a case there is little upward impetus on interest rates, even when the Treasury borrows heavily in the capital market to finance the deficit. ''Now , however,'' says Mr. Bosworth, ''the White House anticipates huge deficits in an expanding economy, when private borrowing will be brisk.''

Such borrowing would eventually collide with the US Treasury's growing need for capital to finance the deficit. Competition for money would drive up interest rates.

So far the Fed has failed to stabilize the growth of M-1. This measurement of the money supply mushrooms, as millions of Americans switch funds from savings accounts into interest-bearing checking accounts.

This poses a question no one is able to answer: Do people with M-1 checking accounts regard them as another form of savings, or are they poised to inject huge amounts of money into the economy in the form of consumer spending?

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