OUCH

10.16.13

Budget and Debt Ceiling Games Could Cost America $3 Trillion and 2.75 Million Jobs

The current battle over the budget and debt ceiling may be coming to an end. But we shouldn’t discount the long-term economic costs of brinksmanship.

The budget and debt end games are still playing themselves out on Capitol Hill; and judging by its current behavior, Congress has developed the political equivalent of a brain tumor.  A toxic byproduct of an ongoing power struggle inside the Republican Party, the cancer has caused incapacitating seizures that have virtually crippled the national government’s capacity to take care of the most elemental aspects of governance. Even if House Republicans finally agree today or tomorrow to fund the government and raise the debt limit, the tumor they have spawned will continue to damage our economy -- and the longer term prognosis is not encouraging. 

The current fight will not diminish the education and skills of American workers, or erode the technological and organizational assets of the businesses they work for. The rash demands of the radical right also won’t lessen the competitive pressures that drive our businesses to develop new goods and services, and to adopt the innovations of others.  And whatever Congress does this week, the United States will remain the world’s largest market.  The catch, however, is that all of these strengths also depend on steady streams of low-cost capital, which the House GOP has now put at risk. 

For nearly 70 years, the United States has been the world’s number one place to invest and lend to. The economic reason is straight-forward– with considerable consistency, American businesses generate stronger returns than their counterparts in other advanced economies. But  another factor is at play here as well, one especially important to foreign lenders and investors – namely, confidence that the United States will preserve and maintain the political conditions required to protect those healthy returns. 

Investors and lenders, both foreign and domestic, have long seen the United States as the most reliable country for enforcing contracts, respecting intellectual property rights, maintaining generally low taxes and light regulation, and applying the rule of law fairly. The result has been an unusually low level of political risk attached to the economic returns expected by lenders and investors. That’s why U.S. Treasury securities have long been the world’s lowest-risk financial instrument. For the same reasons, the political “risk premium” for private-sector loans and investments – the additional return required to offset any risk that political forces will reduce an investor or lender’s returns – has been negligible for decades. 

But a country that finds itself unable to fund its government and unwilling to honor its government’s debts has to expect that lenders and investors will demand a considerable risk premium on any future loans and investments. In short, our current war over government funding and the debt limit is raising interest rates – and the costs could be huge.  For example, a one percentage-point increase in the interest rate paid on Treasury securities will cost the government (and taxpayers) some $1 trillion in additional debt payments over 10 years – enough to wipe out the savings from a decade of sequester cuts. 

A combination of this new risk premium, plus new wariness by foreign lenders and investors, should also push up interest rates on private loans and the required returns on private investments. Interest rates normally rise during booms, when the demand for capital expands faster than its supply. When interest rates rise without an accompanying increase in demand, however, they directly depress demand and growth. For example, a one percentage-point increase in mortgage rates today is expected to depress housing starts, housing sales and demand for related goods and services by 11 percent – and reduce GDP growth this year by 0.4 percent. Across the economy, the same increase in interest rates in the absence of strong demand could take 2 percentage-points off real GDP growth. Even if the House radicals agree to a cease fire this week, it could cost Americans $300 billion in foregone goods and services over the next year, and the 2.75 million jobs required to produce them.

The damage to growth and jobs could be long-lasting. House extremists nearly pushed the economy off the cliff over the same issues in 2011 – and they could be back for another round in a few months, when any agreement this week runs out. Such a sustained pattern of political dysfunction could lower growth for a decade and cost Americans as much as $3 trillion in lost income and wealth. And that assumes that Tea Party Republicans, in the end, will not force the government to default on its debts, a development that would likely cost the American and global economies as much as the 2008-2009 financial collapse.