Stimulus Plans Intact, Despite Big Deficit

by Lesley Politi on January 12, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama’s economic team is pressing ahead with a costly economic-stimulus plan despite a projected $1.2 trillion budget deficit this year.

The incoming administration is convinced that international lenders will be more likely to keep the U.S. government afloat if they see aggressive action to emerge from recession, and that the potential costs from insufficiently bold action are greater than the dangers of rising interest rates from swelling deficits.

And Mr. Obama appears ready to up the ante. In an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, he acknowledged that the plan’s price tag, currently $775 billion, is likely to rise. “We’ve seen ranges from 800 [billion] to 1.3 trillion and our attitude was that given the legislative process, if we start towards the low end of that, we’ll see how it develops,” he said.

Mr. Obama and his senior economic aides confronted projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday that the federal deficit will reach $1.2 trillion in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. That would shatter the nominal dollar record of $455 billion set in fiscal 2008. Measured against the size of the economy, the deficit — at 8.3% of gross domestic product — is expected to eclipse the postwar record of 6% in 1983.

Mr. Obama pledged Wednesday to attack surging spending on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, and he promised to lay out specific federal programs to cut when he unveils his first budget blueprint next month.

But he also framed the dilemma he is inheriting Wednesday as he introduced at a news conference a new federal “chief performance officer,” Nancy Killefer, a senior director at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. “If we do nothing, then we will continue to see red ink as far as the eye can see,” the president-elect said. “And at the same time, we have an economic situation that is dire, and we’re going to have to jump-start this economy with my economic recovery plan, creating three million jobs. That’s going to cost some money.”

Mr. Obama will deliver what aides describe as a major speech on the economy Thursday morning at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he will detail his plans to tackle the recession.

In the next decade, the CBO forecasts the federal government piling on more than $3.1 trillion in additional debt. In the short run, the government faces a $166 billion plunge in tax revenue compared with last year, the CBO says.

Spending will grow this year by almost $622 billion. More than half of that growth will come from the Wall Street rescue fund and the federal takeover of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Unemployment compensation will nearly double, to $79 billion from $43 billion last year. Nutrition assistance will surge to $50 billion from $39 billion.

But those figures likely understate the problem. The debt total doesn’t include the stimulus plan, estimated at $775 billion but likely to go higher as it winds through Congress. It assumes all of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts will expire on schedule in 2010, although Mr. Obama has promised to extend all of them except those affecting families earning more than $250,000. And it assumes that Congress will allow the alternative minimum tax to grow unchecked. The AMT went into effect in 1969 to ensure that the super wealthy pay income tax, but it is increasingly hitting the middle class. Extending the Bush tax cuts and holding the AMT at bay by linking it to inflation would add a further $761 billion in debt.

In past recessions, surging deficits have been fed by an upward spiral. The Treasury had to sell more government bonds. To attract buyers, interest rates would rise, leading to ever higher interest costs for the government and higher deficits. This year, federal interest payments are expected to plunge by more than 20%.

That is because foreign governments, financiers and savers are stashing their money in Treasury bonds. They will continue to do so until the world economy recovers, Obama aides and congressional leaders agree. But deficit hawks worry that economic recovery will present other investment opportunities and could lead to a rapid flight from U.S. government debt. That would cause a surge of interest rates and possibly “an inflationary bow wave out in the future,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota.

Senior Obama economic officials have been studying that scenario closely. For now, Democratic economists say even with a trillion-dollar deficit, there aren’t enough Treasury bills to satisfy world demand for a savings safe harbor. The economic crisis has actually put much of the world at more risk than the U.S. And an aggressive response — both through fiscal stimulus and the second $350 billion tranche of the Wall Street bailout fund — will be more reassuring, not less.

But the Obama team recognizes that position won’t last indefinitely. The ratio of debt to GDP has to stop growing and must stabilize at what they see as a reasonable rate. The problem is determining when to ratchet back the stimulus. Obama officials are determined not to pull back too fast for the sake of fiscal discipline and risk plunging the economy back into recession.

“When you start seeing the private sector lending again, when credit is flowing to families and businesses, they can get auto loans, they can support their mortgage, that the job market has stabilized, then we will want to pull back,” Mr. Obama said on CNBC.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, top Democrats for the first time broadened the stimulus discussion to rank-and-file lawmakers, beginning Wednesday to lay the groundwork for action in the House and Senate later this month.

—Greg Hitt and Naftali Bendavid contributed to this article.


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