US President Donald Trump’s administration has now released its budget plans for fiscal year 2018. Among the details provided in the document, entitled America First – A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, are projections for the expected path of gross federal debt as a percentage of GDP, which is shown to decline from its current level of about 106% to about 80% in 2027. Debt held by the public is expected to mirror this path, shrinking from 77% to 60% over this period.
Unfortunately, neither projection is credible.
A sustained and marked decline in government debt (relative to GDP) would be welcome news for those of us who equate high indebtedness with the kind of fiscal fragility that reduces the government’s ability to cope with adverse shocks. But, as many critics have pointed out, the economic assumptions underlying the Trump administration’s benign scenario appear improbable. In fact, they are also internally inconsistent.
The Trump budget assumes a steady spell of 3% GDP growth, which appears to be at odds with the prevailing trends of weakening productivity performance, slowing population growth, and a significantly lower level of labor force participation. These factors are all reflected in recurrent downward revisions to potential GDP growth by institutions such as the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
A new study by the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Budget presents a very different outlook for US deficits and debt from the one contained in Trump’s budget blueprint. It estimates that under realistic economic assumptions from the CBO, debt in Trump’s budget would remain roughly at current levels, rather than falling precipitously (as deficits would remain above 2% of GDP, rather than disappear by 2027). Furthermore, the study shows that relying on assumptions that are more in sync with the consensus economic outlook implies a deficit of 1.7-4% of GDP by 2027, with debt at 72-83% of GDP.
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