National Debt: Problem or Necessity?

Is the national debt a problem, a necessity, both or neither?

During the last presidential election, there was a lot of talk about the national debt spiraling out of control. Then-candidate Donald Trump suggested that the national debt could be paid off completely in 8 years, although he said that would not necessarily be his goal.

So, what is the national debt and should investors worry about it? Not surprisingly, it’s challenging to get people to agree on the number, but let’s examine what it is and do our best to get an estimate.

The National Debt

If you spend more money than you make, you are in debt. When the federal government spends more money than it collects, it is in debt. It really is that simple.

Current Debt Held By The Public Intragovernmental Holdings Total Public Debt Outstanding
05/05/2017 $14,311,376,945,689.99 $5,534,818,575,636.20 $19,846,195,521,326.19

If you really want your mind blown, check out the U.S. National Debt Clock!

Let’s put it in historical perspective – the US has not been debt free since 1835, when President Andrew Jackson decided to pay off the $75 million debt of all the states by selling land in the western part of the US and blocking every spending bill he could. So, on January 8, 1835, the US was debt free.

It lasted just one year.

The Number

The US Department of the Treasury updates the national debt every day and as of May 2017, the Treasury reported the national debt to be approximately $19.8 trillion.

Senator Ben Sasse, Republican from Nebraska, on the other hand, recently made headlines when he said the real number is more like $70-$75 trillion because there are other liabilities – he calls them entitlements – that are not included in the $19 trillion number.

Most economists agree, however, the $19 trillion is more appropriate because Senator Sasse’s number extends to programs that may or may not happen.

So, assuming the official debt of the United States government is $19.8 trillion, this amounts to:

  • $61,072 for each person living in the US;
  • $157,736 for each household in the US;
  • 104% of the U.S. gross domestic product; and
  • 554% of annual federal revenues.

What if the US Government Was a Public Company?

There is a big difference between how the US Government presents its finances and how a publicly traded company presents its finances. Specifically, publicly traded companies are required to account for explicit and implicit future obligations – the US Government is not. But what if the US Government was held to the same standards? The results would be more frightening.

According to research group JustFacts, our federal government had about $84.3 trillion in “debts, liabilities, and unfunded obligations” at the close of its 2016 fiscal year. Shockingly, this $84.3 trillion shortfall is 93% of the combined net worth of all households and nonprofit organizations in the US.

Is the National Debt a Problem?

The Journal of Economic Perspectives published a white-paper aimed at determining the economic consequences of government debt. Using thousands of data points on government debt and economic growth rates from 20 developed economies from 1800-2009, the authors found that that countries with national debts above 90% of GDP averaged 34% less real annual economic growth than when their debts were below 90%.

Looking at it another way, the average US household has outstanding mortgage debt of more than $168,000. Average household incomes, on the other hand, are about $55,000. So, the typical household’s debt/income ratio is more than 300%.

What Keeps Me Up at Night

As a financial planner, do I lose sleep over the national debt? Not really. I do, however, lose sleep over these other debt statistics:

  • In our country, we owe over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers.
  • That’s debt is $620 billion more than the total US credit card debt.
  • Last year’s graduate owed an average of $37,172 in student loan debt, up from about 6% the previous year.

national debt

My Ask

We may not be able to directly control the size of the national debt, but we can absolutely help our next generation control the burden of their student debt with thoughtful planning.