By This Measure, the U.S. has the 2nd Highest National Debt
USA is #7 in debt to gdp, but #2 in debt to revenue
In absolute terms, the United States is the most indebted country in the world, accounting for 29% of the world’s $60 trillion of sovereign debt.
However, this is not really a fair comparison in some ways because it does not account for the relative wealth of the country in contrast to poorer economies. That’s why it is standard practice to measure sovereign debt in a ratio comparing it directly to the economic productivity, measured by gross domestic product (GDP).
Using this ratio in comparison with other OECD countries, the United States is a modest 7th place (out of 34) in the rankings in terms of its debt load. However, as Jeffrey Dorfman writes in Forbes, comparing debt and GDP has some considerable problems.
The major issue is that economic production cannot be converted directly to dollars that a government can spend. If this were true, a government could claim everyone’s income as taxes and use it to pay down the debt. However, in reality, a 100% tax rate would make everyone would quit their jobs or leave the country. That’s why it makes more sense to compare a government’s debt to the actual tax revenue collected, as this creates a clearer picture of the country’s debt burden and the capacity to pay.
We pulled the latest data from the OECD to compare three ways of measuring the amount of debt that a country has accumulated. The first is the standard Debt to GDP ratio. In addition, we looked at Debt to Revenue (this includes all federal, state, and municipal tax revenues) as well as Debt to Central Government Revenue (this excludes state and municipal tax revenue). The data from the OECD database is from 2013.
When tabulated using all three measures, the world debt picture changes significantly. The United States is 7th in Debt to GDP with a ratio of 103%, but it jumps to 4th place (406%) in terms of Debt to Revenue, and then 2nd place (979%) in terms of Debt to Central Government Revenue. In other words, when it comes to the actual capacity to pay down this debt, the United States is the second most indebted country in the world. Even if the federal government theoretically used all tax revenue to pay down debt, it would take 10 years (not including any interest).
Of course, the United States also has the world’s reserve currency for now, which gives it more flexibility with its debt and monetary policy. This is less true for a country like Greece, where the currency cannot be devalued at all so long as the country is a part of the EU.
How do other major countries do when comparing the regular measure to the new one using revenue? Canada jumps five spots to 5th place with 695%, and Germany jumps nine spots to 6th place. The UK drops five spots down to 16th overall with 351%. Australia rises two spots from 30th to 28th.
The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill
A visual breakdown of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion package to provide COVID-19 economic relief. It’s the largest stimulus bill in modern history.
The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill
The unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prioritized keeping people apart to slow the spread of the virus. While measures such as business closures and travel restrictions are effective at fighting a pandemic, they also have a dramatic impact on the economy.
To help right the ship, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — also known as the CARES Act — was passed by U.S. lawmakers last week with little fanfare. The act became the largest economic stimulus bill in modern history, more than doubling the stimulus act passed in 2009 during the Financial Crisis.
Today’s Sankey diagram is a visual representation of where the $2 trillion will be spent. Broadly speaking, there are five components to the COVID-19 stimulus bill:
|Category||Total Amount||Share of the Package|
|Individuals / Families||$603.7 billion||30%|
|Big Business||$500.0 billion||25%|
|Small Business||$377.0 billion||19%|
|State and Local Government||$340.0 billion||17%|
|Public Services||$179.5 billion||9%|
Although the COVID-19 stimulus bill is incredibly complex, here are some of the most important parts to be aware of.
Funds for Individuals
Amount: $603.7 billion – 30% of total CARES Act
In order to stimulate the sputtering economy quickly, the U.S. government will deploy “helicopter money” — direct cash payments to individuals and families.
The centerpiece of this plan is a $1,200 direct payment for those earning up to $75,000 per year. For higher earners, payment amounts will phase out, ending altogether at the $99,000 income level. Families will also receive $500 per child.
There are three other key things to know about this portion of the stimulus funds:
- There will be a temporary suspension for any student loan held by the federal government. This means no payments required and no interest accrued until the end of September, 2020.
- Borrowers with federally backed loans can request forbearance on mortgage payments for up to six months.
- There will be an expansion of unemployment benefits, including a four-month enhancement of benefits. This plan includes freelancers, workers in the gig economy, and furloughed employees.
Amount: $500.0 billion – 25% of total CARES Act
This component of the package is aimed at stabilizing big businesses in hard-hit sectors.
The most obvious industry to receive support will be the airlines. About $58 billion has been earmarked for commercial and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors. Perhaps in response to recent criticism of the industry, companies receiving stimulus money will be barred from engaging in stock buybacks for the term of the loan plus one year.
One interesting pathway highlighted by today’s Sankey diagram is the $17 billion allocated to “maintaining national security”. While this provision doesn’t mention any specific company by name, the primary recipient is believed to be Boeing.
The bill also indicates that an inspector general will oversee the recovery process, along with a special committee.
Amount: $377.0 billion – 19% of total CARES Act
To ease the strain on businesses around the country, the Small Business Administration (SBA) will be given $350 billion to provide loans of up to $10 million to qualifying organizations. These funds can be used for mission critical activities, such as paying rent or keeping employees on the payroll during COVID-19 closures.
As well, the bill sets aside $10 billion in grants for small businesses that need help covering short-term operating costs.
State and Local Governments
Amount: $340.0 billion – 17% of total CARES Act
The biggest portion of funds going to local and state governments is the $274 billion allocated towards direct COVID-19 response. The rest of the funds in this component will go to schools and child care services.
Public and Health Services
Amount: $179.5 billion – 9% of total CARES Act
The biggest slice of this pie goes to healthcare providers, who will receive $100 billion in grants to help fight COVID-19. This was a major ask from groups representing the healthcare industry, as they look to make up the lost revenue caused by focusing on the outbreak — as opposed to performing elective surgeries and other procedures. There will also be a 20% increase in Medicare payments for treating patients with the virus.
Money is also set aside for initiatives such as increasing the availability of ventilators and masks for the Strategic National Stockpile, as well as providing additional funding for the Center for Disease Control and expanding the reach of virtual doctors.
Finally, beyond the healthcare-related funding, the CARES Act also addresses food security programs and a long list of educational and arts initiatives.
Hat tip to Reddit user SevenandForty for inspiring this graphic.
Chart: The Downward Spiral in Interest Rates
As interest rates continue their historic spiral downwards, the world’s central banks are running out of conventional tools to settle markets.
During the onset of an economic crisis, national governments are thought to have two chief policy tools at their disposal:
- Fiscal Policy
How the central government collects money through taxation, and how it spends that money
- Monetary Policy
How central banks choose to manage the supply of money and interest rates
Major fiscal policy changes can take time to be implemented — but since central banks can make moves unilaterally, monetary policy is often the first line of defense in settling markets.
As the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, central banks have been quick to act in slashing interest rates. However, with rates already sitting at historic lows before the crisis, it is possible that banks may be forced to employ more unconventional and controversial techniques to try and calm the economy as time goes on.
The Fed: Firing at Will
The most meaningful rate cuts happened on March 3rd and March 15th after emergency meetings in the United States.
First, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cut the target rate from 1.5% to 1.0% — and then on Sunday (March 15th) the rate got chopped by an entire percentage point to rub up against the lower bound of zero.
As you can see on the chart, this puts us back into familiar territory: a policy environment analogous to that seen during the recovery from the financial crisis.
ZIRP or NIRP?
It’s been awhile, but with interest rates again bumping up against the lower bound, you’ll begin to see discussions pop up again about the effectiveness of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and even negative interest rate policy (NIRP).
Although the latter has been used by some European banks in recent years, NIRP has never been experimented with in the United States or Canada.
Here’s a quick primer on both:
With rates sitting at zero, it’s not impossible for the Fed and other central banks to begin toying more seriously with the idea of negative rates. Such a move would be bold, but also seen as highly experimental and risky with unforeseen consequences.
Global Rate Slashing
Since only the beginning of March, the world’s central banks have cut interest rates on 37 separate occasions.
The only exception to this rule was the National Bank of Kazakhstan, which raised its key rate by 2.75% to support its currency in light of current oil prices. Even so, the Kazakhstani tenge has lost roughly 15% of its value against the U.S. dollar since February.
Here’s a look at cumulative interest rate cuts by some of the world’s most important central banks, from January 1, 2020 until today:
Going into the year, rates in developed economies were already between 0% and 2%.
Despite not having much room to work with, banks have slashed rates where they can — and now out of major developed economies, Canada has the “highest” interest rate at just 0.75%.
Helicopters on the Horizon
With central banks running out of ammo for the use of traditional measures, the conversation is quickly shifting to unconventional measures such as “helicopter money” and NIRP.
Life is already surreal as societal measures to defend against the spread of COVID-19 unfold; pretty soon, monetary measures taken around the globe may seem just as bizarre.
Put another way, unless something changes fast and miraculously, we could be moving into an unprecedented monetary environment where up is down, and down is up. At that point, it’s anybody’s guess as to how things will shake out going forward.
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