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美国经济新常态:经济增长与赤字飙升并行

Shawn Tully 2019年01月10日

一般情况下,经济增长与财政赤字之间有一种自我纠正的互动机制,而当前的状况显然彻底偏离了这种纠偏机制。

美国目前正经历一种灾难性的“新常态”:在经济蓬勃发展的同时,政府债务和赤字也在剧增。一般情况下,经济增长与财政赤字之间有一种自我纠正的互动机制,而当前的状况显然彻底偏离了这种纠偏机制。其可带来的长期影响也值得我们加以警惕。

在近代史上的几乎每一个时期,美国的财政赤字都表现出了反周期性。当经济增长放缓时,失业率就会上升,纳税的人就会减少。商业利润的减少导致企业税的税收收入下降,而政府经常会采取紧急支出手段刺激经济。税收收入的下降,以及短期内支出的大幅上涨,会使赤字进一步扩大。反之,当经济复苏时,劳动力规模的扩大和企业收益上涨会提高政府收入,进而缩小预算缺口。

正是这种相互的作用力,使得债务和赤字保持在一个相对较窄的范围,使得国家财政的运行可以远离危险区域。政府支出与收入之间的差距通常是波动的,有时呈赤字,但赤字一般很少超过GDP的4%,有时财政则偶有盈余。从长期看来,美国的年均赤字大约是在2%左右。美国经济是能轻松应对这种规模的赤字的。只要GDP增长达到或超过2%,联邦债务占国民收入的比例就会维持不变,甚至略有下降。

而现如今,这种趋势出现了反转,美国经济和赤字水平出现同步上涨,这种情况以前只是偶尔短暂出现过。2018年,美国GDP强势增长3.1%,国会预算办公室预计2019年美国的GDP增长率将在2.4%左右。然而同时,国会预算办公室也预测道,到2020年,美国的财政赤字将跃升46%,达到9700亿美元,提高至GDP的4.6%。如果美国国会延长了减税期(这也是很可能发生的),那么到2028年,美国的财政赤字将可能会占到GDP的7.1%。

打破历史模式

2018年12月13日,无党派立场的尽责联邦预算委员会(CRFB)发布了一份题为《当经济这样强劲时,赤字从未如此之高》的报告。报告指出,过去美国出现巨额财政赤字时,通常会伴随着高失业率和较大的“产出缺口”,也就是说,经济的运转情况远低于它的自身潜能,因为相当一部分劳动力和大量产能被闲置了。

CRFB的报告指出,在1992年美国经济衰退期间,美国的失业率为7.4%,产出缺口达到了3.5%,GDP也在此前一年略有回落,这些因素将财政赤字推高到了GDP的4.5%。2009年经济危机期间,美国的失业率达到8.5%,产出缺口达到5.9%,经济陷入零增长,导致财政赤字达到了GDP的9.8%,其中政府的一系列紧急支出也是推高赤字的重要原因。

相比之下,美国目前3.4%的失业率已经是历史最低水平了,国民经济的运转也充分发挥了潜能,去年的经济增长率更是超过了3%。然而财政赤字则预计将从今年的3.9%跃升至明年的4.6%,未来可能还会继续走高。CRFB的高级政策总监马克·高德温指出:“这些数字表明,经济的快速增长无法消除赤字,即使经济增长率达到了3%,赤字也会继续变大。”

高德温指出,真正值得担忧的是,据国会预算办公室估计,到2020年,美国经济增长率将降至2%以下,而且接下来的8年里预计都会在2%以下的低位运行。他认为,如果美国的经济增长率真如国会预算办公室所估计的那样长期保持不足2%的低位,那么到2028年,美国的赤字规模将达到1.5万亿美元以上,美国未偿付的联邦债务占GDP的比例将达到100%左右,这是一个极其危险的数字。

高德温坦承,美国的高债务、高赤字看似已然不可持续,但其实还可以继续累积几年,而不会引发金融危机。他表示:“你并不知道经济究竟是明年就会爆发,还是仍在遥远的未来。不过你确切知道的是,就算是现在,赤字仍在抑制增长。”

为了填补赤字,美国必须发行大量国债、公债。由于政府债券安全性较高,很多投资者将大量资金用于购买国债公债,而不是将这些资金投入到创业公司,或是为私营企业提供新鲜资本来建设工厂和数据中心。高德温指出,受赤字的影响,每年都有预计5万亿美元的本可投资私营企业的社会资本被用于购买国债,因此每年都会给经济造成一些减速效应。只要十年,对经济增长造成的损失就将不容小视。

就算美国能避免私营经济投资不足的危机,但日益增长的巨额赤字也会给经济带来第二个迫在眉睫的威胁。不断增长的利息支出,会挤占社会项目所需支出。高德温表示:“明年政府的利息支出将超过联邦政府在儿童事业上的所有支出,包括育儿税收抵免、学校午餐等等。这也意味着我们对上一代人的支出,将超过我们对下一代人的投资。”据国会预算委员会估计,到2028年,美国的债务利息可能会达到1万亿美元,也就是美国政府每支出8美元,就要还1美元的利息。而2018年,这个比例为十三分之一。

为什么赤字没有减少

赤字的主要驱动力是人口结构。即使经济以每年3%或更高速度增长,由于人口的迅速老龄化,收入的增速也远不足以覆盖越来越多的老龄人口的医疗和养老支出。然而最近由于错误的政策导向,赤字的问题通过一系列立法被进一步恶化了。比如2018年的预算协议扩大了国防和国内支出,再加上2017年税收法案的影响,将给2019年的美国财政赤字增加4200亿美元的负担。如果没有这些东西,赤字将仅占GDP的2.6%。

高德温担心,特朗普政府和国会今年会就扩大财政赤字达成新一轮妥协。目前两党都支持大搞基础设施建设。美国总统特朗普主张提高燃油税来扩大财政收入,民主党则希望加大对富人征税。双方很可能会在如何增加财政收入上僵持不下,同时却启动新的支出计划,从而进一步增加赤字。

不过美国的赤字问题也并非全然无解。特朗普政府正在提出一系列有希望的提案,以应对飙升的医疗成本。特朗普政府希望通过立法手段,降低医院的医生收入,同样的法律也将适用于私人诊所的医生。特朗普还希望令联邦医保处方药计划(Medicare Part D)的参保人能获得更便宜的仿制药,同时通过谈判降低联邦医保B计划参保人通过私人医生开的药品的价格。另一个比较有前景的领域,是对为避税而注册为个体经营的个人取消相关激励,从而堵住小企业的大量抵扣造成的漏洞。

这些改革措施也是会有所帮助的。但只有靠彻底的福利改革,或是开辟新的、较大的财政收入来源,或是二者相结合,才能抑制未来财政赤字的不断扩大,提前预防日益迫近的资金危机。

几年前我曾写过一篇文章,文中引用了两位名人的话,一位是前白宫预算委员会主席保罗·瑞恩,另一位是经济权威保罗·克鲁格曼。他们二人几乎在任何事情上都没有共识,但这次他们都认为,如果不采取措施限制支出,美国可能最终不得不转向欧洲式的增值税制。不出预料,保罗·瑞恩看不起这种做法,但克鲁格曼却能欣然接受。瑞安告诉我:“我们可能会陷入一场资金危机,而民主党人会宣称,只有增值税制才能拯救这个国家。”

高德温也认为,增值税未来可能也会在美国出现。他表示:“我们等待的时间越长,增值税出现的可能性就越大。”然而由于国会和政府拒绝采取行动,美国很可能最终被迫采取一种不是解决方案的办法——削减支出,并且永久地扩大政府规模。在这个过程中,增值税虽然不利于私营部门的扩张,但却能为政府提供更多财政收入。而这就是美国财政多年挥霍无度、盲目减税以及在财政灾难面前无动于衷的恶果。(财富中文网)

译者:朴成奎

The U.S. is currently experiencing a disastrous “new normal”: The economy is booming at the same time that government debt and deficits are exploding. That scenario is a radical departure from the normally healthy, self-correcting interplay between economic growth and budget shortfalls—and its likely long-term consequences are worth losing sleep over.

In almost every other period in recent history, U.S. deficits have been counter-cyclical. When growth weakens, unemployment rises, so that fewer people are paying taxes. Falling profits shrink revenues from corporate levies, and the government frequently enacts emergency spending measures to recharge the economy. The shrinking tax receipts and temporary outlays swell the deficit. When the economy revives, in contrast, an expanding workforce and a surge in earnings lifts revenues and narrows the budget gap.

What’s remarkable is that the countervailing forces have held debt and deficits in a relatively tight range, keeping our fiscal course well outside the danger zone. The gap between outlays and revenues generally fluctuates, from deficits seldom exceeding 4% of GDP to occasional surpluses, so that over the long-term, annual shortfalls have averaged around 2%. The U.S. economy has been able to handle those modest deficits with ease. So long as GDP growth matched or exceeded 2%, federal debt as a share of national income remained constant, or even declined.

Today, that trend is reversing. Growth and deficits are moving upward in tandem, something that’s happened only briefly in the past. In 2018, GDP expanded at a robust 3.1%, and the Congressional Budget Office forecasts a decent 2.4% reading for 2019. Yet the agency predicts that the deficit will jump by 46% to $970 billion in 2020, rising to 4.6% of GDP, and that the shortfall will grow to 7.1% of GDP by 2028 if Congress extends tax reductions that are scheduled to sunset, a likely outcome.

Breaking a historic pattern

A December 13 report from the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Budget (“The Deficit Has Never Been This High When the Economy Was This Strong“) points out that past periods of big deficits were usually accompanied by high unemployment and a large “output gap,” meaning that the economy was operating far below its potential because a big share of the workforce, and swaths of manufacturing capacity, stood idle.

The CRFB notes that at the time of the 1992 recession, the unemployment rate was 7.4%, the output gap reached 3.5%, and GDP had contracted slightly the previous year, factors that drove the deficit up to 4.5% of GDP. In 2009, the U.S. had a jobless reading of 8.5%, an output gap of 5.9%, and a no-growth economy that pushed deficits to 9.8% of GDP, a number inflated by a wave of emergency spending.

By contrast, today a record-low 3.4% of the workforce is unemployed, the economy is operating above potential, and growth last year exceeded 3%. Yet the deficit is projected to jump from 3.9% this year to 4.6% next year, with higher numbers to come. “Those numbers show that fast growth cannot wash away the deficit, and that deficits will keep getting bigger even at 3% growth,” says Marc Goldwein, CRFB’s senior policy director.

What’s really scary, says Goldwein, is that the CBO projects that the rate of U.S. economic expansion will drop below 2% by 2020, and stay in the sub-2% range for the next eight years. As he points out, growth in the range the CBO projects would drive deficits to over $1.5 trillion by 2028, and push the ratio of total outstanding federal debt to GDP to around 100%, an extremely dangerous number.

As Goldwein acknowledges, the U.S. could keep piling on seemingly unsustainable debt and deficits for years, without triggering a financial crisis. “You don’t know if a crisis will come next year, or far in the future,” he says. “What you do know is that even now, the deficits are curbing growth.”

The U.S. must issue gigantic volumes of Treasury bills and bonds to fund the deficits, and many investors and companies purchase those safe securities instead of channeling that money into entrepreneurial ventures, or providing private enterprises with fresh capital for new plants and data centers. Each year, Goldwein says, deficits divert an estimated $5 trillion a year that could be spurring private enterprises into Treasuries, slightly lowering growth year after year in a cycle that will make the U.S. economy significantly smaller in a decade than if deficits were shrinking.

Big and growing deficits pose a second near-term threat, even if the U.S. avoids a funding crisis. Growing interest payments will crowd out spending that’s needed for social programs. “Government interest payments next year will exceed everything the federal government spends on children, including child tax credits, school lunches and the like,” says Goldwein. “That means we’ll spend more for the past generation than investing in the future generation.” By 2028, the CBO projects, interest on the debt could reach $1 trillion, or more than one dollar in eight of all spending, versus one in thirteen in 2018.

Why deficits aren’t going away

The deficit’s big driver is demographics. Even if the economy expanded at 3% or more a year, revenues wouldn’t remotely rise fast enough to cover exploding healthcare and retirement costs for the fast-growing population of seniors. Nevertheless, recent, mainly misguided, legislation is making the problem a lot worse. The budget agreement of 2018 that expanded both military and domestic spending, and 2017 tax bill, will add a combined $420 billion to the 2019 deficit; if those measures hadn’t been enacted, the shortfall would be just 2.6% of GDP.

Goldwein fears that the Trump administration and Congress will reach another budget-busting compromise this year. Both parties are championing a big infrastructure deal. President Trump advocates financing the new outlays by raising the gasoline tax; the Democrats want to lift levies on the rich. It’s probable that the two sides will deadlock on raising revenues, and enact the new spending sans funding, adding even more to the deficit.

The outlook isn’t all bleak. The Trump administration is advancing a number of promising proposals to attack galloping healthcare costs. It’s seeking legislation to reduce pay for doctors employed by hospitals to the scale that applies to private physicians. Trump also seeks to shift enrollees in Medicare Part D to cheaper generic drugs, and to start negotiating lower prices on pharmaceuticals prescribed by private physicians under Medicare Part B. Another promising area is removing loopholes from the huge new deduction granted to small businesses, by eliminating incentives for individuals to register as self-employed in order to avoid taxes.

Those reforms would help. But only radical entitlement reform, a big new source of revenue, or a combination of the two, can tame future deficits, and forestall a looming funding crisis.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece citing two figures who agree on almost nothing. Paul Ryan (in his pre-speaker days) and economist-pundit Paul Krugman, both contended that if nothing is done to restrain spending, America may turn to a European-style value-added tax (VAT). Unsurprisingly, Ryan despised that course, and Krugman embraced it. “We could get a funding crisis, and Democrats will claim that that only a VAT will save the country,” Ryan told me.

Goldwein agrees that a VAT may be in American’s future. “The longer we wait, the more likely a VAT,” he says. The shame is that because Congress and the Administration are refusing to act, America may be forced into a solution that will take the pressure from where it should be––cutting spending––and permanently raise the size of government. In the process, a VAT could cap expansion of the private sector that funds that government. That’s the price America may pay for years of profligate spending, unfunded tax cuts, and fiddling in the face of fiscal disaster.

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