Hoisington Management Quarterly Review and Outlook, 3Q 2016

Deficit and Debt

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, the U.S. budget deficit jumped to $590 billion, compared with $438 billion in the prior fiscal year. However, over the same time period the change in total gross federal debt surged upward by $1.4 trillion, more than twice the annual budget deficit measure.

This difference between the increase in the deficit and debt is not a one-off fiscal policy event but instead part of an historical pattern. From 1956 until the mid-1980s, the change in gross federal debt was always very close to the deficit (Chart 1). However, over the past thirty years the change in debt has exceeded the deficit in 27 of those years, which served to conceal the degree to which the federal fiscal situation has actually deteriorated. The extremely large deviation between the deficit and debt in 2016 illustrates the complex nature of the government accounting.

To better understand why there is a gap between the increase in the deficit with the change in gross federal debt, we examine a recently available breakdown and analysis of data on the federal budget deficit from Louis Crandall of Wrightson ICAP, which consists of the year- over-year change ending June 30, 2016. The increase in debt for that period was over $1.2 trillion while the deficit was $524 billion, a near $700 billion difference. The discrepancy between these two can be broken down as follows (Table 1): (a) $109 billion (line 2) was due to the change in the treasury cash balance, a common and well understood variable item; (b) $270 billion (line 3) reflects various accounting gimmicks used in fiscal 2015 to limit the size of debt in order to postpone hitting the Debt Limit. Thus, debt was artificially suppressed relative to the deficit in 2015, and the $270 billion in line 3 is merely a reversal of those transactions, a one-off, non-recurring event; © $93 billion (line 4) was borrowed by the treasury to make student loans, and this is where it gets interesting. Student loans are considered an investment and therefore are not included in the deficit calculation. Nevertheless, money has to be borrowed to fund the loans, and total debt rises; (d) In the same vein, $70 billion (line 5) was money borrowed by the treasury to increase spending on highways and mass transit. It is not included in the deficit calculation even though the debt increases; (e) $75 billion (line 6) was borrowed because payments to Social Security, Medicare and Affordable Care Act recipients along with the government’s civilian and military retirees were greater during this time frame than the FICA and other tax collections, a demographic development destined to get worse; (f) Finally, the residual $82 billion (line 9) is made up of various unidentifiable expenditures including “funny money securities stuffed in various trust funds”.