Politics & Policy

The Great Budget-Deficit Myth

The Democrats don't have recent history on their side.

On January 29, 2003, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the U.S. federal deficit for 2003 would be approximately $199 billion, up from a previous forecast of $145 billion. In one response, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Democrats pounced on the increase as proof that Mr. Bush is ruining the economy.” The paper then quoted North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking Democrat, as saying, “His policies have plunged the nation back into deficits and debt, Social Security and Medicare are threatened, and the administration is shortchanging domestic priorities.”

Our recent history of large budget deficits and strong economic growth contradict these Democratic claims. [See chart.] All during the Reagan era of budget deficits, the economy grew at an above-average rate. The late ’90s surge in the budget did little to augment economic activity. As a matter of fact, the record budget surplus may have contributed to the economic decline of the early 21st century. So there is little substance to Democratic claims that budget deficits are evil.

One argument against President Bush’s proposed stimulus package is that large budget deficits drive interest rates higher. (Investors could benefit from a little boost in interest rates from record-low levels — if such a relationship held.) If the enemies of increased spending and lower taxes could establish this relationship, they could argue that higher interest rates would stymie economic activity and make the likelihood of meaningful fiscal stimulus problematic.

Recent economic studies have attempted to prove that such a relationship exists, although these studies appear to avoid analyzing all of the economic variables. In the real world, these “other” economic variables must be taken into account before the conclusions of such studies can justify forecasting any relationship between budget deficits and interest rates. Before economists and politicians go off on a rant about how increased deficits will raise U.S. interest rates, they should take a serious look at the Japanese experience over the last 10 years. [See chart.]

In 1993, yields on ten-year Japanese government bonds were a little over 3% and the budget deficit as a percent of GDP was approximately 4.5%. All through the ’90s, budget deficits as a percent of GDP rose and reached a peak in 2002 of over 8% of GDP. Interest rates, meanwhile, continued to decline. In comparison, the estimated $200 billion U.S. deficit for 2003 amounts to about 2% of GDP. Don’t even think about comparing short-term interest rates and the budget deficit in Japan — short rates are well below 1%.

Some economists will dismiss the lack of any correlation between large budget deficits and long-term interest rates because the Japanese economy works differently than the U.S. economy. In other words, there are reasons for the dichotomy between budget deficits and interest rates in Japan. However this dichotomy is at the very heart of understanding why, only in isolation, there can be a relationship between budget deficits and interest rates.

For example, in the real world, deficit spending triggers economic growth as government expenditures impact the private economy and contribute to an increase in private saving. This increase in private saving benefits fixed income markets, i.e. increases the demand for government bonds. This demand will offset the increased supply of government bonds that will be issued to finance a rising budget deficit. Therefore, interest rates remain stable.

During the 1980s, record budget deficits were accompanied by dramatic declines in interest rates as the U.S. economy grew out of an early-decade recession. [See chart.] From 1980 through the mid ’90s the U.S. accumulated an enormous amount of government debt. However, during this same period, long-term interest rates declined by over 50%. Whether the budget was in deficit or surplus over the past twenty years, long-term interest rates were in a downtrend. [Click on chart link above.]

One must also remember that the central bank in Japan and the Federal Reserve in the U.S. have something to say about interest-rate levels. Since the Fed controls short-term interest rates, they also influence long-term interest rates. If the Fed so desired, they could maintain interest rates at low levels no matter what happened to the federal deficit. In Japan, where short-term interest rates are near zero, it appears that the Japanese central bank is keeping rates low. Record budget deficits are having no impact on interest rates.

The U.S. and Japanese experience clearly point out the importance of doing your economic homework in the real world, not in the laboratory, before making projections regarding interest rates and budget deficits. We must not lose sight of the fact that stimulative fiscal policy is the critical economic variable in getting the U.S. economy back on a growth path. If wayward economists and biased politicians are successful in convincing the public that budget deficits are bad because they will increase interest rates, then our economy will suffer the consequences.

Tom Nugent is Executive Vice President & Chief Investment Officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc., and an investment consultant for Wealth Management Services of South Carolina.


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