Is the Deficit Even a Problem Anymore?

There's a theory in behavioral psychology called "recency bias." It says that people's assumption of the future is closely shaped by the recent past. Recent events are easy to recall, especially if they're traumatic or extreme. So we end up using yesterday as a baseline for what we think will happen tomorrow, systematically ignoring change.

I'm starting to think we're suffering from recency bias when it comes to the federal budget deficit.

This story starts in 2009, when a combination of stimulus and the worst recession in 80 years pushed the government to an unprecedented deficit of $1.4 trillion. This was totally unsustainable, and it rightly caused people (including me) to worry about government deficits like never before.

But four years later, we've made a lot of progress in stabilizing the deficit, which doesn't seem to be fully appreciated by those who continue to fret. We had a $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009, but it has since come down by nearly a third:

Source: Office of Budget and Management. *CBO's most recent estimate based on current law.

Two things have happened here. One is that the economy has gotten stronger. There are 4.7 million more people working today than there were in 2010, which increases tax revenue. And total federal spending has increased just marginally (less than 1%) since 2009 as stimulus spending tapers off. Put those two together, and you get a smaller deficit.

But the bigger change comes from two rounds of deficit-reduction bills Congress and the president hammered out over the last 18 months. The first was in 2011, when the Budget Control Act mandated a spending sequestration that begins this year. The second was the more recent fiscal-cliff negotiations, which raised tax rates on those earning more than $400,000 a year.

In both cases, most of the press coverage focused on the political flamethrowing and partisan aspects of the deals. But both really did make a difference in bringing the deficit under control -- particularly when combined with a strengthening economy.

Consider this chart, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

The blue line is what we faced in 2009 and 2010 -- reckless and unsustainable. 

But after two rounds of deficit-reducing bills, today we're on the orange line. And it really isn't that bad. Debt as a share of GDP is set to stabilize next year and decline until 2018. A decade from now, it's set to be about where it is today. The red line, projecting today's path plus an extra $140 billion a year in savings, completely stabilizes the debt for the next decade.

No, stabilizing the debt doesn't mean running a surplus, or even a balanced budget. It stabilizes debt as a percentage of GDP, meaning debt is growing slower than the economy -- the key to long-term stability. (More on that here).

Budget forecasts have an abysmal track record, and the biggest asterisk on this chart should be that it doesn't include the possibility of another recession in the next decade -- which, you know, might happen. (Although it also doesn't include the possibility of another 1990s-style boom).

But the deficit path guided by current law -- the so-called "structural deficit" -- is on substantially better footing than it was two years ago, and there's a decent chance that it's already sustainable.

So is the deficit a problem anymore? Yes, because the biggest budget issues were never about what happens this year or next year or the year after that, but rather 15, 20, and 30 years from now as the population ages and entitlement spending grows exponentially. Those are still issues we haven't addressed. And the longer they're put off, the larger they grow.

But if you're still panicked about the deficit, remember recency bias. It's not 2009. It's 2013, and things have changed dramatically.

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  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 1:51 PM, astuber9 wrote:

    The answer to your title question is hell yes. Borrowing $1 trillion per year is still 30% or so of the total budget, that seems like a lot to me. You are correct that entitlements in the future are a much bigger problem than our current situation but I think we still need to cut things like unemployment and defense spending. A big economic boom would be wonderful but that is not what El-Erian and Arnott are predicting.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 2:18 PM, StopPrintinMoney wrote:

    What are you smoking?

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 3:46 PM, mdk0611 wrote:

    First, the CBPP is hardly a non-partisan outfit when Ezra Klein is involved and Marion Wright Edelman is a Director Emeritus. Beyond that:

    1. They do not state in their explanation of that graph what their assumptions are for interest rates. Yes, it is highly unlikely we will see a jump in 2013 or 2014. I don't think you can blithely make that assumption for 2016 or 2017.

    2. They assume that any business credit extenders in the future will be paid for. Oh really? I'd say the ethanol and solar credits are taking on a life of their own.

    And as you said, even if the intermediate term is less threatening, the long term is still an issue. And by taking some action now, it may be possible to soften blow when the consequences of "blindness of future" replaces "recency bias"

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 3:58 PM, damilkman wrote:

    I have to agree I am also dubious about this author's data. There is this huge open ended uncertainty called health care reform that could add trillions. I also agree with the responder that points out that interest rates are at a historical low. If the debt were to get too much bigger the federal government might not be able to affording a boom cycle as servicing on the past debt becomes unsustainable. How ironic the federal reserve might have to pull the plug on an economic rebound because they could not afford it.

    What I do know is that expenses are greater then revenue by about 40% today. There is no evidence that this number is going to budge much for the next several years if policy changes are not made. I know what happens to my budget if I run a deficit of 40% for years.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 4:05 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    Folks, the economic and budget assumptions here are from the Congressional Budget Office, as the graph states. It does indeed allow for a large rise in interest rates. Interest costs are projected to double between 2012 and 2017.

    <<What I do know is that expenses are greater then revenue by about 40% today.>>

    It's actually 26%, but who's counting.

    <<There is no evidence that this number is going to budge much for the next several years if policy changes are not made.>>

    But that's the entire point: policy changes have been made.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 6:10 PM, douglee8 wrote:

    Also the fiscal cliff negotiations took away many tax deductions from those making over $250,000 annually.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 8:46 PM, Shark52 wrote:

    Doubling of interest rates at rates of today means rates go from 150 basis points to 300 basis points. By any historical measure, such rates are extremely low. Additionally, not sure where numbers come from, but today we finance approximately 40 cents of every dollar spent by the government. That sounds a lot more like 40% than 26% suggested. Unfortunately, at my advancing years my recent bias is a lot longer than recent events.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2013, at 8:51 PM, DividendsBoom wrote:

    Chances of another recession in the next 5 years. Very high. Greater than 75%? Probably. What does that do to those numbers?

    Also, interest costs doubling does not allow for a large rise in interest rates. Total debt over that time will increase what? A third? That would equate to a 50% rise in interest rates. Sounds big, but that would only be a blended rate rise of about 1.5%

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 8:57 AM, TMFGortok wrote:

    Even with the manipulation of interest rates by the Federal Reserve, there's always a limit to how much people will let you borrow -- not to mention the moral and ethical problems with passing your debt on to your children and your children's children. There will be a financial reckoning in the long run. Of course, to the Keynesians, "In the long run we're all dead." That's little solace to those that will be alive, and have to clean up our mess.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:42 AM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Additionally, not sure where numbers come from, but today we finance approximately 40 cents of every dollar spent by the government.>>

    I can tell you where those numbers come from: 2009. Today is 2013, and the deficit is a third lower.

    Interest payments in 2012 were $224 billion, and are projected to be $556 billion by 2017. Play around with that figure as you'd like. The broader point that we're on a much better path today -- though nowhere near done, particularly on long-term health care costs -- than we were two years ago remains.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 6:00 PM, JadedFoolalex wrote:

    I can't believe what I'm reading... America is in Debt to the tune of 233 Trillion, that's right, Trillion dollars and the Pres and Congress are fiddling while Rome burns!!! Wow, my question is "Who is going to pay back all that money when we Baby Boomers, Gen -Xers and Gen-Ys retire? Bad enough Baby Boomers get off without much penalty, but lookout all you up and coming workers who'll have to pay triple the tax rate because President Obama spent America into the ground.....

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 6:04 PM, stevews99 wrote:

    I usually respect your articles even given your obvious biases. In this case, frankly, I'm astounded that anyone with even a scintilla of common sense could arrive at the conclusions you promote. The deficit is our NUMBER ONE problem and threatens all aspects of our future prosperity. The concept that "spending money you don't have" (by either printing more or borrowing from others) is sound economic policy is something only Barry the Unicorn Prince, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi could embrace. Now there are some really Motley Fools.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 6:31 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<I'm astounded that anyone with even a scintilla of common sense could arrive at the conclusions you promote. The deficit is our NUMBER ONE problem and threatens all aspects of our future prosperity>>

    The conclusion was: "So is the deficit a problem anymore? Yes,"

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:18 PM, aarondean wrote:

    There are several things that astound me about the debt/deficit. First thing, how can a president (D or R) expect to throw several trillion at a collapsing $60T derivatives market and expect that to do much good. The second one is how ignorant voters are to cast their vote based primarily on social issues rather than structural. Talk about having your head up your Obama. Next thing is I don't believe that graph at all. Our GDP is around $16T which our debt quietly snuck past before the election last year with utterly little fanfare. Wait until interest rates tick up and the interest on our debt swallows 75% of our budget leaving the politicians nothing to buy votes with, then we're going to really need to worry about marriage equality instead of some semblance of fiscal restraint.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:27 PM, RetiredAt37 wrote:

    I have two questions about that chart.

    1 - The debt is bumping up against the ceiling at around $16.4 trillion dollars. The chart has that at 78% of GDP. Which would put GDP at about $20 trillion. I was under the impression that GDP is actually a little under $16 trillion i.e. that the correct number for the start of 2013 is 103%

    2 - What is the big change at the start of 2014 that is going to magically stop the growth of debt vs GDP even in the worst case scenario? If growth is around 2% and the economy is $16 trillion then it seems as if the deficit would have to be growing at only $320 billion a year for that to work. The claim that we are on the Orange line implies that the deficit will be cut to about $0 by 2014. I must have missed that news article.

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:33 PM, Logger59 wrote:

    I'm not a frequent contributor, however I know if we can get all the horses pulling in the direction that will most benefit the Country as a whole (in my opinion infrastructure repair/replacement) and away from spending that in the Long Term doesn't directly benefit us (including huge weapon systems, Military hardware and hundreds of thousands of troops who require lifetime medical benefits, pension benefits and education subsidies at our expense (really a "time bomb" economically if you consider all the people who've served in the last 2 decades) we will likely see our Economy fall into a more reasonable range. I also believe that "Single Payer" Healthcare is infinitely more logical than Obamacare! I reference multiple studies in "Developed Countries which indicate better value/lower cost healthcare! I really do expect to have my "liberal notions" hammered in this Forum, but I'm heavily invested for my future, just like everyone else and want to see the Economy flourish, just Socially Responsibly. Thanks!

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2013, at 9:50 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    ^Retiredat37,

    1. It's debt held by the public, which is total debt less debt owned by U.S. government agencies. When comparing projected deficits with debt, debt held by public is always used, because what debt held by govt agencies represent are future deficits, but those future deficits are already included in the budget projections, so if you look at both you're double counting.

    2. The spending sequestration, mostly, with a big decline in projected defense spending as military operations wind down. There's also a projected decline in income security (unemployment benefits) relative to 2012 as unemployment falls.

    << If growth is around 2% and the economy is $16 trillion then it seems as if the deficit would have to be growing at only $320 billion a year for that to work>>

    Real (inflation-adjusted) growth is around 2%, but nominal growth over the last four years has averaged more than 4%. So a deficit can total more than $600 billion in today's dollars while keeping debt-to-gdp stable.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 12:28 PM, moneytrail wrote:

    Morgan:

    In addition to “recency bias” let me throw in a couple of other behavioral psychology theories: "self-delusion" where one's perspectives of reality defy the obvious facts at hand; and, “cognitive dissonance” where the facts poignantly contradict one’s strongly held beliefs, thereby causing the “believer” to alter rational conclusions so they conform to his or her strongly held personal beliefs.

    Here are some facts as known by objective investors based on historic economic performance in societies (Socialist Europe, Soviet Union, Venezuela, Cuba, Japan) that have ignored the consequences of government squandering of precious, national capital resources:

    • Our total debt of $16.3 TRILLION will soon blow past the entire US GDP; with trillion dollar annual increases accumulating far into the future.

    • When increased interest rates double or triple due to reckless monetary policy, US debt service costs on our increasing debt will accelerate and will be further exacerbated by the increased costs of Obama Care, thereby putting us deeper into a hole.

    • The Federal Government consumes more than 24% of GDP; the most since WWII, which will continue to drag down the worst economic recovery since WWII, as most of that money is wasted maintaining the federal bureaucracy and feeding outright fraud. This, of course, drains capital from the only part of our economy that actually creates wealth, thereby promoting productive job opportunities for Americans – the private spending and investing sector.

    • The employment picture is where it was in '09, at best. Real unemployment is more than 14% and would be much worse were it not for the hundreds of thousands of well paid, economic jobs created by the energy sector, the pariah of the Obama Administration, and the millions of workers who have disappeared from the American work force during the past four years, over and above retirees.

    • The poverty rate in America is the highest it's been since the number has been recorded.

    • Current reckless fiscal and monetary policies have resulted in stunted economic growth well into the fourth year after the alleged end of the Great Recession. These fiscal policies are draining productive capital from the private sector, thereby promoting chronic high unemployment and expanding poverty levels.

    This list identifying the tragic, multifaceted consequences of “immoral, unpatriotic” national debt accumulation, “at the expense of our children and grandchildren,” to paraphrase Obama’s statements made in “08 (perhaps his last truthful words), while describing the reckless debt accumulation of the Bush Administration, could fill a volume of economic analysis predicated upon demonstrable causes and effects. However, that would be a pointless exercise in the case of one who is impervious to fundamental economic principles, derived from the quantifiable, undesirable results suffered by societies that have ignored the lessons of reckless government spending policies.

    I don't know where you get your material but it sounds an awful lot like White House talking points, both delusional and baseless.

    Moneytrail.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 12:58 PM, crca99 wrote:

    "Political flamethrowing" I like that.

    Thanks for an article that makes me think about psychology and economics together, and thanks for finding economic data that I wouldn't know where to search for.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 12:40 AM, NoOracleHere wrote:

    Logger59, I appreciate what you said about pulling in the same direction. I think it is possible. The challenge for us as a nation is to take what is possible and make it more likely a reality. I think a deficit we have perhaps greater even than fiscal is that deficit we have in leadership. We can't pull in the same direction as long as we have a large and influential group that is following a separatist or obstructionist agenda. That sounds like I'm assigning blame. Conservatives and Liberals - what a bunch of codependents we've become! It's time we remember something that's printed on every one of those 16T dollars - E pluribus unum. It's time we rediscover what that means. If that makes me a liberal for saying it, for referencing back to our founding principles, then so be it. It's not difficult to tell who among our leaders remembers E pluribus unum. I'm hoping we can begin holding our leaders to that higher standard. Oh, getting back to the economy - given a will, can we find a way to pull together? Of course, we can. Don't let anyone tell you different.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 7:39 AM, marvsehn wrote:

    I think we have a big spending problem. Somewhere along the path there has been some inference that the federal government will never have to repay its debt or face the consequences. We all are the federal government and will ultimately face the consequences.

    We can spend as long as someone in the world will loan us money (China for awhile), then we can always print more money and buy our own bonds. I do believe in the end we will end up with a huge mess, high inflation and a devalued dollar. (What do you think about Greece! It looks like we are heading in a similar path.)

    I am just confused by a comment that seems to think annual trillion dollar deficits are not a problem (is this a new normal)

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 11:57 AM, jahartmu wrote:

    So by the logic of this column, if the federal government runs a $5 trillion deficit in FY2014 but then spends only $2.5 trillion more than revenues in FY2015, it'll be a cause for celebration! Wow.

    "We're still digging ourselves deeper into this pit, but we're not digging quite as fast as we were before!"

    Again: wow.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 12:10 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<So by the logic of this column, if the federal government runs a $5 trillion deficit in FY2014 >>

    Wait, what?

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 12:32 PM, ericandmisti wrote:

    I think recency works the opposite of what the author proposes. It is what prevents people from totally freaking out about the reckless overspending that is going on. If we go back to 2008 or any year prior to that a deficit of over $1 trillion was unimaginable. Now we think that it is impossible and the world will end if we reduce government spending to levels that would still be higher than they were just a few short years ago. It should be clear to any thinking person that this country has already dug a hole that it will never climb out of. Digging it deeper is definately not the solution.

    Eric

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 12:34 PM, Camito wrote:

    @moneytrail:

    "The poverty rate in America is the highest it's been since the number has been recorded."

    And how do we fix this? Shutting down spending isn't going to help - we need to wisely invest in infrastructure and education to increase chances for future success

    "When increased interest rates double or triple due to reckless monetary policy, US debt service costs on our increasing debt will accelerate and will be further exacerbated by the increased costs of Obama Care, thereby putting us deeper into a hole."

    I would expect interest rates to go up 10-20x what they are now! That .25% rate should be at 2.5-5% with a healthy economy

    Although I am worried about a huge devaluation in the dollar as caused by the debt, I do not believe that shutting down the government or gutting it is the way to cure the problem.

    There are two things that need to be addressed and they can be addressed quickly: Social Security and Medicare.

    Reduce SS payments and raise the age you begin receiving them to 70 or more. Make it a formula based on life expectancy, even (i.e., the govt only pays for the last 10-15% of your life). Raise the age on medicare too, or change it so that everyone receives it from birth to death.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 2:08 PM, ChrisBern wrote:

    For starters, why does the CBO graph list current debt/GDP as around 75%? Is not the current debt over $16T and is not the current GDP around $15T? I'm guessing they're ignoring intra-governmental obligations such as Social Security, but that should be called out in the graph/article as that's not the most commonly cited figure for debt/GDP.

    Second, if the deficit is still around 6.2% of GDP per year, why do you seem to imply that it's stabilized relative to growth? Our economy isn't growing anywhere near 6.2% per year, nor will it likely anytime soon.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 2:13 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<Second, if the deficit is still around 6.2% of GDP per year, why do you seem to imply that it's stabilized relative to growth?>>

    From article:

    "Debt as a share of GDP is set to stabilize **next year** and decline until 2018.

    Debt/GDP figures explained in previous comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 2:34 PM, tylee100 wrote:

    Morgan,

    Your article says, "Debt as a share of GDP is set to stabilize next year and decline until 2018."

    If this is true when the books close in Sept, 2018, I will be more than happy to buy you a steak dinner anywhere you suggest.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 3:04 PM, CoSyBob wrote:

    I won't believe the Federal Govt is serious about paring down to its appropriate size and mission until they shut down the light bulb bureaucracy and police .

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 3:18 PM, chzmnia wrote:

    The number one factor that no one mentions in future deficits, is interest rates. The USA has the current luxury of borrowing money almost for free. The problem is that it is ALL short term borrowing. The Treasury is buying long term bonds with short term money. This, as floating rate mortgage borrowers have found, is a recipe for disaster.

    If we accept the scenario of roughly $1 Trillion deficits for a few more years (exclusive of a change in interest rates), we will soon have a $20 Trillion national debt.

    For fiscal year 2012 Interest cost on the national debt was approximately $360 Billion, or about a 2.25% interest rate. If we assume a slightly more normal rate of 5% (since the Treasury is not locking in long term rates, currently 1.86% on 10 year, 2.63% on 20 year, and 3.04% on 30 year bonds), the interest cost to the nation would triple to about $1 Trillion, on top of the assumed structural deficit of $1 Trillion, bringing the deficit up to $1.64 Trillion.

    Keep in mind that in the early 1980's the Treasury issued 14% long term bonds, and short term T-Bills ( our current preferred financing method) yielded in the 16% range.

    At that extreme level, the deficit would balloon to $4 Trillion, a no longer manageable scenario.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 4:59 PM, TMFMorgan wrote:

    <<short term T-Bills ( our current preferred financing method) >

    The average duration on Treasury debt is 64 months (more than five years), up from 48 months in 2008.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 7:54 PM, exvol wrote:

    There are but 4 options for the U.S. to follow: (1) Significant reduction in spending, which Obama seems to be opposed to, (2) significantly increase taxes on everyone paying income tax, which most Republicans and Democrats are opposed, (3) some combination of 1 and 2, unlikely with the existing political climate, or (4) devalue the dollar, which would likely send inflation skyward. Obama has made it clear that he intends to spend as much of our money as he believes is needed to "spread the wealth around". The Republicans made it equally clear that they will fight him at every turn. This is a perfect example of a leaderless disfunctional government!

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2013, at 8:28 PM, TheKoz72 wrote:

    Would somebody write to me and explain what is the effect of an interest raise on the equity value of the Federal Reserve holdings. Assume the Fed has $3 Trillion on Federal Debt - 10 years at 1.5% and the interest rate rises to 3%. In effect that would drive the value of the Federal Reserve holdings down to $1.5 Trillion - a loss of $1.5 Trillion of equity value. Does that mean anything? Will it have any effect on the money supply? Will the government, like a member bank have to provide additional equity to the Fed? I just don't understand how the Fed's balance sheet effects the financial game. Help - sandykoz@hotmail.com

  • Report this Comment On January 26, 2013, at 10:50 PM, jlclayton wrote:

    Thank you, Morgan, for a very well written, though-provoking article!

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2013, at 5:16 PM, RetiredAt37 wrote:

    ^Morgan

    <<1. It's debt held by the public, which is total debt less debt owned by U.S. government agencies. >>

    That kinda makes sense. Although better figures for public debt might also include the debts of individual states, counties and municipalities.

    <<2. The spending sequestration, .... There's also a projected decline in income security... relative to 2012 as unemployment falls.

    Real (inflation-adjusted) growth is around 2%, but nominal growth over the last four years has averaged more than 4%. >>

    So we are OK if the assumptions around unemployment, growth and interest rates hold. And if the sequestration goes ahead as planned (just like the last one did!). I AM seeing the whole thing in a more positive light after reading all this but I don't think I am fully buying into any of those assumptions.

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2013, at 1:51 AM, jfrankh57 wrote:

    That you even pose this question in an article for Fools, suggest that we are in more trouble than we originally thought. I cannot understand where anyone with a modicum of intelligence will believe that the interest rates will stay low. The only reason they aren't higher now is the rest of the world is in the toilet with us and no one has found a way around that. Of course, China is working on making the dollar irrelevant to the global economy. When that happens, the interest rate we pay to foreign debt owners will grow exponentially! Regardless, it will grow when our debt is too high in most leanders' thought processes and extra "hard" currency will be cost us dearly.

  • Report this Comment On January 29, 2013, at 12:36 PM, Xrap wrote:

    When the Great Recession hit, revenues went down and the safety net kicked in. The deficit widened. As the economy recovers, revenues rise, and safety net costs decline. The deficit narrows.

    Projecting the annual deficit based on 2009 greatly exaggerates the size of the problem.

    The economic models, those used by the CBO, Brookings and Heritage, do a poor job of projecting beyond 4-5 years. We have a dynamic international economy and the models never account for everything.

    We don't need to be guided by cataclysmic ideological theories; we need to muddle through pragmatically and empirically.

  • Report this Comment On February 19, 2013, at 6:01 AM, thidmark wrote:

    I was wondering whatever became of "Baghdad Bob."

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