Our Terrible Fiscal Situation: Now With Pictures!

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 15, 2010

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Via Edmund Conway, we have the following graph, which measures American gross debt as a percentage of GDP, and projects it into the outyears:

US gross debt as a percentage of GDP

Reminding us that Britain “is often pinpointed as a Greece in the making,” Conway then shows up how gross debt as a percentage of GDP is shaping up in Britain:

UK gross debt as a percentage of GDP

None of these graphs are pleasing, but I will take the British projections over the American ones anyday.

The takeaway from all of this?

So does all of this mean the US is Greece? The answer, you might be surprised to hear, is no. Now, it is true that the US has some similar issues to Greece – the high debt, the need to roll over quite a lot of debt each year, the rising healthcare costs and so on. But it has two secret (or not so secret) weapons. The first is that unlike Greece it is not trapped in a monetary union. The US, like Britain and Japan, can independently control its monetary policy; it can devalue its currency. These are hardly solutions in and of themselves, but they do help make the adjustment a lot easier and more gradual. Second, the US has growth. It remains one of, if not the, world’s most dynamic economies. It is growing at a snappy pace this year (in comparison to other countries). And a few percentage points of GDP make an immense difference, since they make those debts much easier to repay.

Finally, some might be tempted at this point to cite the fact that the US has the world’s reserve currency in the dollar as another bonus. I am less sure. There is no doubt that this has made the US a safe haven destination (people buy US bonds when freaked out about more or less anything), and has meant that America has been able to keep borrowing at low levels throughout the crisis. However, the flip side of this is that because it has yet to feel the market strain, the US also has yet to face up properly to the public finance disaster that could befall it if it does not do anything about the problem. America is not Greece, but if it does not start making efforts to cut the deficit within a few years, it will head in that direction. The upshot wouldn’t be an IMF bail-out, but a collapse in the dollar and possible hyperinflation in the US, but it would be horrific all the same. America has time, but not forever.

I am sure that Paul Krugman will be along shortly to inform us that we have nothing whatsoever to worry about.

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