Spotlight: Experts warn of potential risks amid skyrocketing U.S. national debt

Source: Xinhua| 2019-02-15 22:33:56|Editor: yan
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NEW YORK, Feb. 15 (Xinhua) -- In the 1980s, New York real estate developer Seymour Durst initiated the idea to install the U.S. national debt clock.

By highlighting the rising debt, he hoped the project would help the next generation avoid being crippled by this burden.

Durst's wish, however, seems still far from being accomplished.

Sitting on the western side of One Bryant Park on Sixth Avenue in New York City, the clock tracks the U.S. debt, which was more than 22 trillion U.S. dollars as of Feb. 11, the highest in the country's more than 240-year history.

Vinnie Mazzone, 67, a driver from the neighboring Brooklyn borough, attentively watched the changing number of real-time gross debt and each American family's share of the debt as he stopped by the site for a break.

Although he had no clear idea of what it exactly means to average U.S. citizens, Mazzone said debt has been a longtime issue in the nation and "it's gonna take time to get back to the track."

There is much to be concerned about as U.S. debt reached a record high in a faster pace, experts cautioned.


The total public debt hit 22.01 trillion dollars on Monday, with some 30 billion dollars in debt added this month alone, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

"Reaching this unfortunate milestone so rapidly is the latest sign that our fiscal situation is not only unsustainable, but accelerating," said Michael A. Peterson, CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to addressing America's long-term fiscal challenges, in a note.

"Our growing national debt matters because it threatens the economic future of every American," he added.

"It does matter. It's just a matter of when it's going to hit, be a very negative influence or crisis on the economy," Stephen Gallagher, chief U.S. economist at Societe Generale, told Xinhua during a telephone interview on Thursday.

Statistics showed the nation has added more than 1 trillion dollars in debt over the last 11 months.

Analysts said the Trump administration's 1.5 trillion dollar tax cut and increased government spending have fueled the rapid increase in budget deficits and public debt. When U.S. President Donald Trump took office, the country's debt stood at about 19.9 trillion dollars.

An aging population and the rising cost of health care contribute significantly to the growth in spending, experts noted.

"The demographic issue is the biggest underlying government expenditure and it'll keep going for many years to come," Gallagher said.

Ethan Harris, a leading economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research, said that with the steady retirement of the baby boom generation in the United States, payment on social security and medicare will keep growing.

The federal budget deficit is about 900 billion dollars in 2019 and exceeds 1 trillion dollars each year beginning in 2022, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last month estimated.

Because of persistently large deficits, the public debt is projected to grow steadily, reaching 93 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2029 and about 150 percent of U.S. GDP in 2049, according to the CBO.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and the World Bank have found that if the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 77 percent for an extended period of time, it slows economic growth. Every additional percentage point of debt above this level costs a country 0.017 percentage points of annual real growth.


The main reason why the United States has been able to avoid the consequences of chronic budget deficits so far is a low level of interest rates, which suppresses the cost of debt service -- the ongoing interest payments on the debt, said Stephen Roach, senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

Though there is not necessarily a threat now, experts warned of potential risks to the U.S. economy in the future.

"Policy interest rates are the wildcard in this story ... any surprise in inflation that prompts a shift to monetary tightening would cause serious problems for countries like the United States with high levels of indebtedness," said Roach, also former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, in an email interview with Xinhua on Wednesday.

While most expect low inflation to persist indefinitely, the senior economist noted that "there is good reason to question that optimism."

According to Roach, the possibility for an uptick in inflation cannot be ruled out with U.S. labor markets being their tightest in 30 years and wage inflation starting to rise.

"An upside surprise to U.S. inflation that triggers a more aggressive Fed tightening could prompt a surge in interest expenses for an overly indebted U.S. economy," he added.

The growing debt should be a concern for the United States, because over time it can push up interest rates for consumers and businesses, which would ripple through the economy, experts said.

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has warned that the rising public debt in the United States could lead to the next economic recession.

During an interview with Bloomberg Television in November 2018, Greenspan said he saw "a lot of talk but no realistic movement" to address the problems of rising deficits and debt, which could drag the U.S. economy into a period of stagflation with rising inflation and high unemployment.

"The impacts it's having on day-to-day economy are very uncertain. So I would say immediately for the economy in the next couple of years it's not much ... By the time we see it affects the economy, it's usually a crisis," Gallagher said.