19 February 2021: Congressional Budget Office expects a decade of trillion-dollar deficits as the US public finances are hit by the pandemic.
The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently updated its ten-year fiscal projections for the federal budget, providing the subject for this week’s #icaewchartoftheweek.
As the chart illustrates, there was a shortfall of $3.1tn between revenues and spending by the federal government in the year ended 30 September 2020, with a projected deficit of $2.3tn in the current financial year and deficits ranging from $0.9tn to $1.9tn over the coming decade.
The CBO is at pains to stress that its projections are not a forecast of what will happen but instead, provide a baseline against which decisions can be assessed. This is particularly relevant at the moment as Congress debates a potential $1.9tn stimulus plan that would increase this year’s deficit significantly if passed.
On the path shown in the projections, the CBO calculates that debt held by the public will increase from $21.0tn (100% of GDP) in 2020 up to $35.3tn (107% of GDP) by 2031. Will policymakers in the US be comfortable in continuing to run with such a high level of debt compared with pre-pandemic levels of around 80% of GDP and a pre-financial crisis level of less than 40%?
The projections are based on assumed economic growth excluding inflation of 4.6% in the current financial year following on from a fall of 3.5% last year, with the recovery continuing into 2022 with growth of 2.9%. Economic growth over the following nine years to 2031 is expected to average around 1.9%. This is much lower than the average rate of growth experienced before the financial crisis just over a decade ago but may still prove optimistic given the potential for a recession at some point over the next ten years.
The UK counterpart to the CBO – the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) – is currently working its abacus quite hard on updating its five-year projections ready for the Budget on 3 March. The OBR’s projections will be extremely useful in understanding the near-term path in the UK’s public finances, including the effect of any tax and spending announcements that may be featured in the Budget. Unfortunately, they will be less useful than the CBO’s projections in that they are not expected to provide a refreshed baseline for the second half of the decade when the hard work of starting to repair the public finances is expected to take place.