Niall Ferguson: An Empire at Risk

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and the author of The Ascent of Money.]

Call it the fractal geometry of fiscal crisis. If you fly across the Atlantic on a clear day, you can look down and see the same phenomenon but on four entirely different scales. At one extreme there is tiny Iceland. Then there is little Ireland, followed by medium-size Britain. They're all a good deal smaller than the mighty United States. But in each case the economic crisis has taken the same form: a massive banking crisis, followed by an equally massive fiscal crisis as the government stepped in to bail out the private financial system.

Size matters, of course. For the smaller countries, the financial losses arising from this crisis are a great deal larger in relation to their gross domestic product than they are for the United States. Yet the stakes are higher in the American case. In the great scheme of things—let's be frank—it does not matter much if Iceland teeters on the brink of fiscal collapse, or Ireland, for that matter. The locals suffer, but the world goes on much as usual.

But if the United States succumbs to a fiscal crisis, as an increasing number of economic experts fear it may, then the entire balance of global economic power could shift. Military experts talk as if the president's decision about whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan is a make-or-break moment. In reality, his indecision about the deficit could matter much more for the country's long-term national security. Call the United States what you like—superpower, hegemon, or empire—but its ability to manage its finances is closely tied to its ability to remain the predominant global military power. Here's why.

The disciples of John Maynard Keynes argue that increasing the federal debt by roughly a third was necessary to avoid Depression 2.0. Well, maybe, though some would say the benefits of fiscal stimulus have been oversold and that the magic multiplier (which is supposed to transform $1 of government spending into a lot more than $1 of aggregate demand) is trivially small.

Credit where it's due. The positive number for third-quarter growth in the United States would have been a lot lower without government spending. Between half and two thirds of the real increase in gross domestic product was attributable to government programs, especially the Cash for Clunkers scheme and the subsidy to first-time home buyers. But we are still a very long way from a self--sustaining recovery. The third-quarter growth number has just been revised downward from 3.5 percent to 2.8 percent. And that's not wholly surprising. Remember, what makes a stimulus actually work is the change in borrowing by the whole public sector. Since the federal government was already running deficits, and since the states are actually raising taxes and cutting spending, the actual size of the stimulus is closer to 4 percent of GDP spread over the years 2007 to 2010—a lot less than that headline 11.2 percent deficit.

Meanwhile, let's consider the cost of this muted stimulus. The deficit for the fiscal year 2009 came in at more than $1.4 trillion—about 11.2 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That's a bigger deficit than any seen in the past 60 years—only slightly larger in relative terms than the deficit in 1942. We are, it seems, having the fiscal policy of a world war, without the war. Yes, I know, the United States is at war in Afghanistan and still has a significant contingent of troops in Iraq. But these are trivial conflicts compared with the world wars, and their contribution to the gathering fiscal storm has in fact been quite modest (little more than 1.8 percent of GDP, even if you accept the estimated cumulative cost of $3.2 trillion published by Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz in February

And that $1.4 trillion is just for starters. According to the CBO's most recent projections, the federal deficit will decline from 11.2 percent of GDP this year to 9.6 percent in 2010, 6.1 percent in 2011, and 3.7 percent in 2012. After that it will stay above 3 percent for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in dollar terms, the total debt held by the public (excluding government agencies, but including foreigners) rises from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $14.3 trillion in 2019—from 41 percent of GDP to 68 percent.

In other words, there is no end in sight to the borrowing binge. Unless entitlements are cut or taxes are raised, there will never be another balanced budget. Let's assume I live another 30 years and follow my grandfathers to the grave at about 75. By 2039, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, the federal debt held by the public will have reached 91 percent of GDP, according to the CBO's extended baseline projections. Nothing to worry about, retort -deficit-loving economists like Paul Krugman. In 1945, the figure was 113 percent.

Well, let's leave aside the likely huge differences between the United States in 1945 and in 2039. Consider the simple fact that under the CBO's alternative (i.e., more pessimistic) fiscal scenario, the debt could hit 215 percent by 2039. That's right: more than double the annual output of the entire U.S. economy.

Forecasting anything that far ahead is not about predicting the future. Everything hinges on the assumptions you make about demographics, Medicare costs, and a bunch of other variables. For example, the CBO assumes an average annual real GDP growth rate of 2.3 percent over the next 30 years. The point is to show the implications of the current chronic imbalance between federal spending and federal revenue. And the implication is clear. Under no plausible scenario does the debt burden decline. Under one of two plausible scenarios it explodes by a factor of nearly five in relation to economic output.

Another way of doing this kind of exercise is to calculate the net present value of the unfunded liabilities of the Social Security and Medicare systems. One recent estimate puts them at about $104 trillion, 10 times the stated federal debt.

No sweat, reply the Keynesians. We can easily finance $1 trillion a year of new government debt. Just look at the way Japan's households and financial institutions funded the explosion of Japanese public debt (up to 200 percent of GDP) during the two "lost decades" of near-zero growth that began in 1990.

Unfortunately for this argument, the evidence to support it is lacking. American households were, in fact, net sellers of Treasuries in the second quarter of 2009, and on a massive scale. Purchases by mutual funds were modest ($142 billion), while purchases by pension funds and insurance companies were trivial ($12 billion and $10 billion, respectively). The key, therefore, becomes the banks. Currently, according to the Bridgewater hedge fund, U.S. banks' asset allocation to government bonds is about 13 percent, which is relatively low by historical standards. If they raised that proportion back to where it was in the early 1990s, it's conceivable they could absorb "about $250 billion a year of government bond purchases." But that's a big "if." Data for October showed commercial banks selling Treasuries.

That just leaves two potential buyers: the Federal Reserve, which bought the bulk of Treasuries issued in the second quarter; and foreigners, who bought $380 billion. Morgan Stanley's analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that, in the year ending June 2010, there could be a shortfall in demand on the order of $598 billion—about a third of projected new issuance.

Of course, our friends in Beijing could ride to the rescue by increasing their already vast holdings of U.S. government debt. For the past five years or so, they have been amassing dollar--denominated international reserves in a wholly unprecedented way, mainly as a result of their interventions to prevent the Chinese currency from appreciating against the dollar.

Right now, the People's Republic of China holds about 13 percent of U.S. government bonds and notes in public hands. At the peak of this process of reserve accumulation, back in 2007, it was absorbing as much as 75 percent of monthly Treasury issuance.

But there's no such thing as a free lunch in the realm of international finance. According to Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, if this trend were to continue, the U.S. -current-account deficit could rise to 15 percent of GDP by 2030, and its net debt to the rest of the world could hit 140 percent of GDP. In such a scenario, the U.S. would have to pay as much as 7 percent of GDP every year to foreigners to service its external borrowings.

Could that happen? I doubt it. For one thing, the Chinese keep grumbling that they have far too many Treasuries already. For another, a significant dollar depreciation seems more probable, since the United States is in the lucky position of being able to borrow in its own currency, which it reserves the right to print in any quantity the Federal Reserve chooses.

Now, who said the following? "My prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the [fiscal] crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar."

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The surprising thing is that this was none other than Paul Krugman, the high priest of Keynesianism, writing back in March 2003. A year and a half later he was comparing the U.S. deficit with Argentina's (at a time when it was 4.5 percent of GDP). Has the economic situation really changed so drastically that now the same Krugman believes it was "deficits that saved us," and wants to see an even larger deficit next year? Perhaps. But it might just be that the party in power has changed.

History strongly supports the proposition that major financial crises are followed by major fiscal crises. "On average," write Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their new book, This Time Is Different, "government debt rises by 86 percent during the three years following a banking crisis." In the wake of these debt explosions, one of two things can happen: either a default, usually when the debt is in a foreign currency, or a bout of high inflation that catches the creditors out. The history of all the great European empires is replete with such episodes. Indeed, serial default and high inflation have tended to be the surest symptoms of imperial decline...

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Jules R. Benjamin - 12/11/2009

I like Mr. Spoon's idea of cutting federal military spending to aid in economic recovery. However, his idea includes the almost impossible task of requiring defense dapartment contractors to shift their production to the civilian sector. This is as likely as forcing the banking sector to make loans. In our system of private enterprise Washington can PULL on the string attached to taxes or to government spending. However, it cannot PUSH producers to produce or bankers to lend.
Mr. Ferguson's idea is to incentivise our way out of recession (since giving money to producers is the only thing that does work) and to let the people of the U.S. wait for market deliverance. Even worse is the fact that he wants to save the American economy as a way of saving American hegemony. A republic should promote the welfare of its citizens, not the power of its military.

Ernest T Spoon - 12/4/2009

The federal budget could easily be balanced if defense spending were slashed 50%, the number of servicemen and women in uniform in all branches of the armed forced halved and all overseas bases closed; the nation's leading defense contractors mandated by federal statute to devote at least half of their manufacturing capacity to the production of consumer goods
for the domestic market, with a provision banning the practice of "outsourcing."