Have you ever seen one of those debt clocks? They show our national debt, with the numbers ticking away at the end so fast you can't even read them.
The debt is a source of popular conversation again, now that it has hit a new high of $8.4 trillion. And of course, it's never been out of favor with the Debt Doomsday crowd. I'm sure you know those folks. They're the ones who have been predicting a debt-driven collapse of the U.S. economy for decades -- yet it's never happened. Even so, you can be sure they won't go away. They're a patient and persistent bunch, so you can be sure they'll keep waiting for it and telling you it's only a matter of time before Doomsday unfolds.
You want my advice?
Much ado about nothing
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: The U.S. debt is tiny. That's right, tiny. Take a look at this: The $8.4 trillion figure is only about two-thirds of our nation's economic output, which is currently at $13 trillion and growing. This happens to be far below the debt-to-GDP ratio (debt divided by gross domestic product) of most other countries. In fact, the United States ranked 35th on a list of 113 countries in a recent study.
You still think that's high? Well, perhaps you should consider this: America beat out such notable fiscal conservatives as France and Germany. And super-saver Japan, by comparison, weighed in as a super-heavyweight on the debt scales by taking position No. 3: Its bloated debt-to-GDP ratio was 170%, meaning that debt equals 1.7 times the nation's economic output. For those of you wondering who took the dubious top honors in the world of national debt, it was Uruguay, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 793%!
For America, however, the debt news is really better than it appears. Of the $8.4 trillion that the government owes, $3.5 trillion is intragovernmental debt -- or what the government owes to itself. Essentially, this is all bookkeeping, and operationally never a cause for worry.
The remaining $4.9 trillion, however, is owed to the public. When you look at that as a percentage of GDP, however, it comes in at a very comfortable and manageable 38%, which is well below the post-World War II average of 43%.
Why is the debt-to-GDP ratio so important? Well, think about it in terms of an individual. For someone making $35,000 per year, $10,000 in debts may be a difficult amount to deal with. On the other hand, $10,000 in debt for Bill Gates would be nothing (even if he is leaving Microsoft). Even $10 million in debt would be nothing for him. Furthermore, if you've ever gone to a bank to get a loan or some other form of credit, you know that bankers and finance companies use the debt-to-income ratio all the time to help determine how much someone can comfortably borrow.
So follow the logic. Are we really supposed to believe that Uruguay's $136 billion national debt is less of a risk than the $8.4 trillion U.S. national debt just because it is so much smaller?
Hardly. Uruguay's economic output is $13 billion. The United States' economy is one thousand times larger! America is the Bill Gates of global economies. So as long as our economy keeps growing -- which it has since the inception of our country -- then paying that debt or continuously rolling it over, as we have been doing, is not a problem.
Countries need credit, too
Alexander Hamilton once said that having a national debt is a national treasure, because it's a reflection of a nation's ability to establish and maintain credit. Anyone who's ever been denied credit can understand how difficult life can be with credit troubles: You can't buy a car; you can't buy a home. Perhaps you are even denied work because of a bad credit history.
For countries, credit is equally important. The Debt Doomsday crowd will focus on that nominal $8.4 trillion number and tell you that "America is a debtor nation." What they won't tell you is that households and businesses own $60 trillion in assets, that we have the highest net worth of any nation in the world, and that our economy -- which is still the engine of the global economy -- cranks out $13 trillion in goods and services annually and is still growing at upwards of 5%. Talk about wealth creation -- it's no less than staggering!
So many books have been written on using "other people's money" to get rich. In real estate, it is done all the time. In the stock market, you can buy on margin, and leveraged buyout strategies have been the catalyst behind some of the greatest corporate takeovers we have ever seen.
Yet if we were asked to live our lives in the same fashion as many insist the government operate, few people would own homes or stocks or cars or much of anything. We'd be a vast nation of poor people, perhaps with a few wealthy or privileged folks reigning over us. Thankfully, we have thus far chosen not to follow that path.
In my next few columns, I plan to take on a number of myths and misconceptions about deficits, money, and how the federal government operates financially. I think you'll find it enlightening. There are many people out there in high positions on Wall Street, corporate America, or in policymaking who are either misinformed or naive about these things, and the public blindly follows them. Ultimately, policy often goes down the wrong path as a result.
In the meantime, let the Debt Doomsday crowd make their dire predictions about the end of the world, but don't listen to them. They're just trying to scare you. Even politicians use the national debt to try to scare you, because they know fear is a great motivator. And the next time you see one of those debt clocks, ask to see a GDP clock right alongside of it. You'll see the numbers on that thing tick up as fast as the debt, if not faster. Then calculate the debt-to-GDP ratio, and you'll see there's absolutely nothing to worry about. So get on with your activities of investing and making money and let the Debt Doomsday crowd worry their way to extinction.
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