Notes on the Fiscal Deficit of the U.S. and the Future of the Dollar - Part 1

20 October 2009 by Daniel Munevar

Over the last decade, much of the academic discussion in the economic arena remained concentrated on the topic of the growing current account deficit of the U.S. and its implications for the global configuration of trade surpluses and economic growth patterns. The international context during this period was characterized by 3 interconnected trends.

The first trend was the consistent expansion of the current account deficit of the U.S. throughout the last decade, reaching a historical record of 5.9% of GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
in the fourth quarter of 2006. The implication of this development was that by 2008, the U.S. attracted 43% of the global capital flows. The counterpart of this phenomenon was the rise in China’s and oil-exporting countries trade surpluses. These countries exported 52.6% of total capital flows in 2008 (IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
2009: 167).

The second trend is the massive accumulation of international reserves by countries with trade surpluses. Thus, China’s international reserves increased fivefold over the past 5 years, rising from 410 billion dollars in 2003 to 2,134 billion dollars in late 2008. In the case of oil exporting countries, the increase was of a similar scale, rising from 290 billion to 1,480 billion dollars during the same period (IMF 2009b: 214).

The third trend is the persistent decline in the value dollar over the decade. To the extent that economic recovery from the recession of 2001 took place, the dollar experienced a nominal depreciation of nearly 30% between 2002 and the second quarter of 2008 (IMF 2009: 169).

Taken together, these elements led several observers to declare that a disorderly re-balancing of global current accounts was a disaster waiting to happen (Cline 2005). This position was based on the perception that the growing dependence of the U.S. to finance its deficit from a dwindling group of creditors would force the latter to undertake a process of diversifying their investment portfolio with the objective of reducing exposure to the U.S. dollar. In a context characterized by a plummeting dollar, reduced demand for dollar denominated assets would bring about an increase in interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
, as international investors would seek compensation for the increase in perceived risk. Rising interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. rates would have a devastating effect on the U.S. financing requirements, as ever increasing resources would be required to repay the funds received from abroad. Simply put this would amount to a massive international Ponzi scheme, in which the U.S. would play the role of fraudster in charge of the scheme.

Furthermore, the bulk of the attention of major international financial organizations focused on monitoring the evolution of global current account balances, as well as the inflationary effects of the enduring economic cycle, as the main threats to the global economy in the short run. This left the dangers associated with the massive expansion of financial derivatives Derivatives A family of financial products that includes mainly options, futures, swaps and their combinations, all related to other assets (shares, bonds, raw materials and commodities, interest rates, indices, etc.) from which they are by nature inseparable—options on shares, futures contracts on an index, etc. Their value depends on and is derived from (thus the name) that of these other assets. There are derivatives involving a firm commitment (currency futures, interest-rate or exchange swaps) and derivatives involving a conditional commitment (options, warrants, etc.). in the developed economies as a largely unnoticed and underestimated threat [1].

As the economic situation in the U.S. turned for the worse in the middle of the crisis, the attention quickly shifted to the freezing of international credit markets, leaving aside the issue of global macroeconomic balances. It is only in the context of the apparent stabilization of financial markets and the first signs of economic recovery that the topic was again included in the discussion agenda, in the recent G20 G20 The Group of Twenty (G20 or G-20) is a group made up of nineteen countries and the European Union whose ministers, central-bank directors and heads of state meet regularly. It was created in 1999 after the series of financial crises in the 1990s. Its aim is to encourage international consultation on the principle of broadening dialogue in keeping with the growing economic importance of a certain number of countries. Its members are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, USA, UK and the European Union (represented by the presidents of the Council and of the European Central Bank). meeting in Pittsburgh, (Munchau 2009).

However, the current discussion has a slightly different tone. In the period before the financial crisis the focus of concern was the deterioration of the net investment position of the U.S.; at the present time the center of attention is the massive increase in U.S. fiscal deficit and its implications for the fiscal sustainability in the medium and long term as well as for the value of the dollar.

In the current situation the argument runs in the following lines: the massive issuance of treasury bonds of the U.S. required to finance the projected deficit over the next decade would cause a fall in price and hence a rise in their yields, to the extent that international investors perceive that the solvency of the U.S. Treasury is in jeopardy. In turn, rising interest rates would further weaken the precarious fiscal situation creating a vicious circle that eventually would end up with the declaration of insolvency of the U.S. and the end of the supremacy of the dollar in the global economy.

The aim of the present paper is to analyze the validity of this argument. Our claim is that concerns about a fiscal crisis in the U.S. in the medium and long term are largely unfounded. Although the massive increase in the fiscal deficit will take the national public debt of the U.S. to levels not seen since World War II, this occurs in a special context characterized by an overall decline in private consumption investment. As demonstrated by the Japanese experience over the past 2 decades, a significant increase in public debt in this type of context does not necessarily lead to a rise in interest rates or inflation Inflation The cumulated rise of prices as a whole (e.g. a rise in the price of petroleum, eventually leading to a rise in salaries, then to the rise of other prices, etc.). Inflation implies a fall in the value of money since, as time goes by, larger sums are required to purchase particular items. This is the reason why corporate-driven policies seek to keep inflation down. to the extent that government deficit spending prevents recession to turn into an outright depression. More specifically, deficit spending allows the accumulation of surpluses in the private sector that is required to restore the balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. sheets of households and corporations in order to provide a solid base for a more balanced path of growth.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 1 analyzes the evolution of the fiscal deficit of the U.S. and the public debt of that country, from a historical perspective. The second section highlights the similarities between the current situation of the U.S. economy and that of the Japanese economy after the collapse of its housing bubble in the late eighties. In the third and last section, we study the structural changes that are taking place in the U.S. economy as a result of the financial crisis and how they alter the financing scheme of the fiscal deficit and therefore the value dollar.

1.The fiscal deficit of the U.S. in Perspective

According to projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the U.S. fiscal deficit for 2009 reached 11.2% of GDP, an historic high in the postwar period (CBO 2009: 2). Looking back at history, it is only in the context of the war effort of World War II that the country experienced higher deficits, averaging 22% of GDP between 1941 and 1945.

Source: CBO (2009)

Table 1 shows the official projections for the fiscal deficit and public debt of the U.S. over the next decade. Three elements can be highlighted in the table. The first is the significant increase of the fiscal deficit between 2008 and 2009, as it grew from 459 billion dollars to 1587 billion. This phenomenon is explained, on the one hand, by a 17 percent fall in revenues (the largest drop recorded since 1932). The reduction in the revenues, of nearly 400 billion dollars, came as a result of lower tax collection due to the collapse of economic activity. On the other hand, expenditures expanded a staggering 24 percent (the largest increase since 1952).

For the most part the programs associated with the rescue packages implemented during the financial crisis in 2008 explain the 700 billion dollars increase in expenditures during the 2009 fiscal year. Taken together, the nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the TARP (Troubled Asset Asset Something belonging to an individual or a business that has value or the power to earn money (FT). The opposite of assets are liabilities, that is the part of the balance sheet reflecting a company’s resources (the capital contributed by the partners, provisions for contingencies and charges, as well as the outstanding debts). Relief Program) represented an outlay of 424 billion dollars (CBO 2009: 8). The stimulus program ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) represented a further expansion of expenditures accounting for another 130 billion dollars. In the meantime, unemployment benefits rose by 73 billion dollars, as the ranks of the unemployed have swelled affecting 10% of the working force (CBO 2009: 9). While the increase in resources allocated to protect lay off workers is undoubtedly good news, it is noteworthy that those resources represent only about 10% of the total increase in expenditures and 15% of the rescue packages for the financial system and the stimulus program.

The second element to highlight from Table 1, is the progressive reduction of the fiscal deficit over the next decade. The significant reduction in the deficit starting in 2011 is related to the expiration of the tax cuts implemented by the Bush Administration between 2001 and 2003. It is expected that taxes on individuals, that currently represent 6.5% of GDP, will gradually increase to up to 10.8% in 2019. This will represent a key element of the policies to reduce the fiscal deficit (CBO 2009: 14).

Finally, the third element is the steady growth of public debt, resulting from projected fiscal deficits over the next decade. According to CBO projections, it is expected that the government debt Government debt The total outstanding debt of the State, local authorities, publicly owned companies and organs of social security. held by the public will increase from 5.8 billion dollars in 2008 to 14.3 billion in 2019. As a result, U.S. public debt will represent 67.8% of GDP by the end of the decade.

At first glance these levels of indebtedness would appear to be unbearably high. Nevertheless, to place the CBO projections in an adequate context requires a historical perspective of the evolution of the U.S. public debt. As shown in Figure 1, the projected increase in public debt over the next decade is an unprecedented event in the postwar period both in terms of the pace of debt accumulation as well as in the amounts of resources involved. Yet, the levels of indebtedness that are expected at the end of the following decade are still far from the peak of 108.6% of GDP reached in 1946. Is noteworthy then that this level of debt didn’t represent a significant obstacle to the establishment of the political, economic and military hegemony of the U.S. in the West. Two factors help explain this apparent paradox.

Figure 1 - Public Debt of the U.S. 1939 - 2019 [2]

Source: Department of the Treasury, CBO (2009)

First is the fact that while the U.S. gradually reduced the level of public debt as a percentage of GDP over the first 2 decades of war, this was achieved against a backdrop of increased public spending. As a result, debt in the hands of the public actually increased from 219 billion in 1950 to 237 billion in 1960. The key fact is that the U.S. never actually paid his debt. Thanks to a strong period of growth, the debt ratio to GDP was reduced and the fiscal situation significantly improved (Krugman 2009).

The second element was the will of the rest of the world to finance the U.S. over the postwar period. This willingness was based on three factors. The first is the perception among allied countries that the costs of failing to support the American global position outweigh the costs of maintaining that support. Second is the belief that American military power cannot be successfully defies. The third condition is that the financial system of the U.S. remains second to none as safe heaven for the maintenance of liquidity Liquidity The facility with which a financial instrument can be bought or sold without a significant change in price. and investment value [3] (Galbraith and Munevar 2009).

This role of sanctuary in times of crisis of Treasury bonds is reflected in Figures 2 and 3. Figure 2 shows the yield Yield The income return on an investment. This refers to the interest or dividends received from a security and is usually expressed annually as a percentage based on the investment’s cost, its current market value or its face value. of 10 year treasury bonds. This figure highlights that despite all the discussions and comments on the specialized press regarding the dire fiscal prospects of the U.S., today the country issues debt on extremely favorable terms compared to previous decades. As of October of 2009, rates averaged 3.30% [4], equivalent to those observed in the late 50s.

Figure 2

Source: Federal Reserve FED
Federal Reserve
Officially, Federal Reserve System, is the United States’ central bank created in 1913 by the ’Federal Reserve Act’, also called the ’Owen-Glass Act’, after a series of banking crises, particularly the ’Bank Panic’ of 1907.

FED – decentralized central bank :
Bank of St. Louis.

Even more interesting is to note the significant drop of the yield in the moments of panic after the fall of Lehman Brothers. In the last third of 2008, the yield on the 3-month Treasury fell 153 points whereas the 10-year bond Bond A bond is a stake in a debt issued by a company or governmental body. The holder of the bond, the creditor, is entitled to interest and reimbursement of the principal. If the company is listed, the holder can also sell the bond on a stock-exchange. yield fell 149 points. The volatile behavior of markets during the crisis demonstrates that in the absence of viable alternatives, market participants invariably resort to U.S. Treasuries to protect themselves. This flight to quality is the key element that triggers the significant fall in the yields of treasury bonds.

The other facet of this dynamic is reflected in Chart 3, which shows the dollar exchange rate against the currencies of its major trading Market activities
Buying and selling of financial instruments such as shares, futures, derivatives, options, and warrants conducted in the hope of making a short-term profit.
partners. The tendency towards depreciation of the U.S dollar during the last global economic cycle is abruptly interrupted to give way to a strong appreciation of 20.9% from the third quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009. This dramatic shift took place to the extent that international investors reduced their risk exposure amid the crisis to return to the perceived safety of assets denominated in U.S. dollars.

Figure 3

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

A skeptic might point out that as markets have returned to normal, the yield on Treasury bonds has gone up and the dollar has returned to its long-term trend towards depreciation. Even more important, the fact that up until today countries such as Japan and China have been willing to finance the U.S. deficit that does not imply that this will persist in the future.

Source: HSBC (2009)

Given the high percentage of U.S Treasuries in foreign hands, as shown in Table 2, it seems clear that the goodwill Goodwill The difference between the assets on a company’s balance-sheet and the sum of its tangible and intangible assets. When one company takes control of another company, the acquiring company generally pays a price that is higher than the value of the net assets. Goodwill generally consists of intangible elements, such as brands, which are evaluated subjectively. of both private investors and foreign central banks is a key element for the future financing of the U.S. fiscal deficit. More notably, given the high share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. of U.S. Treasury bonds in the portfolios of major central banks there is little incentive for a further increase in their exposure to U.S. dollar, as officials from China, India, Russia and Brazil have hinted in recent months.

Nevertheless, despite this grim picture there are elements that enable us to envision a scenario in which the expansion of the U.S. fiscal deficit over the next decade wont bring about an increase in interest rates or a massive outbreak of inflacion. To understand this apparent paradox, we need to analyze what happened in Japan in the period after the collapse of the financial bubble of the late ’80s. This will be the subject of the second part of this article.


CBO 2009, The Budget and Economic Outlook: An Update, The Congress of the Unites Status: Washington DC.

Cline, William 2005, The United Status as a Debtor Nation, Peterson Institute for Internacional Economics: Washington DC.

Galbraith, James K. and Munevar, Daniel, 2009, The Generalizad Minsky Moment, UTIP Working Paper #56, University of Texas at Austin.

HSBC, 2009, Second half bull-market for bonds: Long Dated governments to outperform through H2 09, Global Fixed Income Research Group June 2009.

IMF 2009, Global Financial Stability Report: Responding to the Financial Crisis and Measuring Systemic Risks, IMF: Washington DC.
2009b, World Economic Outlook 2009: Crisis and Recovery, IMF: Washington DC.
2007, World Economic Outlook Update: An Update of the Key WEO Projections, disponible en: Consultado el 05/10/09

Krugman, Paul 2009, The Burden of Debt, The Concience of a Liberal Blog, The New York Times, August 28, 2009. Disponible en: Consultado el 06/10/09.

Munchau Wolfgang 2009, A recognition of the deep root of the crisis, The Financial Times, September 27, 2009.

Tett, Gillian 2009, Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan was Corrupted by Wall Strett Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe, Free Press: New York.

World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

2007, Global Development Finance 2007, World Bank 2007: Washington DC.

Notes on the Fiscal Deficit of the U.S. and the Future of the Dollar - Part 1


[1Both the IMF and the World Bank underestimated the threat represented by the collapse of the subprime housing bubble as a minor risk up until late 2007. With the exception of the BIS, no other multilateral organization recognized the extent of the threat of financial derivatives to the stability of global financial systems (IMF 2007; World Bank 2007:8; Tett 2009: 152-155)

[2Data for the 1939-2007 period was obtained from the U.S Department of Treasury. Data for the 2008 – 2019 period was obtained from the CBO official projections.

[3It is key to note that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have severely undermined the first two propositions.

[4In the case of short term 3 month T-bills, the rates in October 2009 average 0.05. This is the lowest rate in history. In real terms, this implies negative returns for investors. See:

Daniel Munevar

is a post-Keynesian economist from Bogotá, Colombia. From March to July 2015, he worked as an assistant to former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, advising him on fiscal policy and debt sustainability.
Previously, he was an advisor to the Colombian Ministry of Finance. He has also worked at UNCTAD.
He is one of the leading figures in the study of public debt at the international level. He is a researcher at Eurodad.

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