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商业 - 金融

别被忽悠了:美国仍存在赤字问题

William G. Gale 2014年09月09日

尽管美国政府最新发布的预算估算报告让一众评论家欢呼雀跃,他们纷纷声称,联邦债务已经得到控制,政府赤字问题已不再严峻,但值得指出的是,有两个事实可能会延缓他们宣布赢得这场赤字战争“胜利”的时间。

    美国国会预算办公室(Congressional Budget Office)最近公布了新的预算估算报告。这份报告已经让评论人士迎来了一系列感觉良好的时刻。他们表示,债务已经得到控制。他们指出,联邦医疗保险(Medicare)的预期成本将继续下降。他们还宣称,根据国会预算办公室的估算,未来的利率水平也将下降,利息支出因而将减少。在一片欢呼雀跃声中,值得指出的是,有两个事实可能会延缓他们宣布赢得这场赤字战争“胜利”的时间。

    首先,和历史正常水平相比,美国政府的债务总额仍处于高位。目前,联邦政府债务占美国GDP的74%,除了二战前后的7年,这是该比率有史以来的最高水平。二战结束时,美国的政府债务占GDP的比率为106%,但随后快速下降,原因是低利率、低通胀以及维持了二三十年的强劲经济增长。如今我们只能盼望着这样的经济发展势头能在短时间内再次出现。

    但是,政府债务占GDP比率预期不会下降。今后十年内,这个数字预计将缓慢上升,随后还将迅速增长。以前,人们担心政府债务将达到很高的水平,比方占GDP的74%。而现在,这已经成为现实。在“经济大衰退(Great Recession)”之前,就算布什政府大幅度减税,增加社会福利,提高国内支出并扩大军事行动规模,那时的政府债务占GDP比率也只有现在的一半。

    有意思的是,在当时的情况下,许多人都认为美国负担不了乔治•W•布什总统的开支计划。如今,在政府债务占GDP比率达到74%,并且预期还将进一步增长之际,这些人却觉得没什么可担心的。

    然而,就像国会预算办公室所提醒的那样,赤字增多会挤占投资空间,降低经济增长率,降低美国民众生活水平的提升速度。更广义地讲,如果居高不下的政府债务占GDP比率不产生任何政治和经济成本,许许多多国家就会在“经济大衰退”之前出现高额净负债。毕竟,如果政府债务占GDP比率无关痛痒,许多国家就可以毫无顾忌地增加开支并减税。而实际上,政府债务占GDP比率超过70%的国家少之又少。无论是以往,还是和别的国家相比,如此高的政府债务都不是好现象。

    其次,目前预测的赤字水平可能会让人们无端地产生自满情绪,原因是这样的预期既暗含了经济好转,还体现了政府支出和收入趋势的改善。从下图可以看出,在国会预算办公室预测的基准情景中,今后5年内,政府赤字占GDP的比率基本上都将保持在3%以下,随后略有上升。

    The Congressional Budget Office recently put out new budget projections and commentators have had a series of feel-good moments about it. Debt is under control, they say. Projections of Medicare costs continue to fall, they point out. The CBO’s estimates of future interest rates, and hence interest payments, have come down as well, they echo. Amidst all of the congratulations, it is worth pointing out two facts that might give one pause in claiming “victory” in the deficit wars.

    First, the overall debt level is already high relative to historical norms. At its current level of 74%, the ratio of federal debt-to-GDP is at its highest ever, except for seven years around World War II. At that time, the debt ratio peaked at 106% at the end of the war and then fell rapidly, due to low interest rates, inflation, and a generation’s worth of strong economic growth that we can only hope to see again anytime soon.

    Now, however, the debt-to-GDP ratio is not projected to fall. It is projected to creep up slowly over the next decade and then more rapidly in the future. It used to be the case that people worried about whether the debt would increase to high levels – like 74% of GDP. Now, we have arrived there. Before the Great Recession, even with the major tax cuts, new entitlements, increased domestic spending and the expanded military operations of the Bush administration, the debt-to-GDP ratio was just half as big as it is now.

    It is interesting that many people who thought former U.S. president George W. Bush’s agenda was unaffordable back when the debt-to-GDP ratio was half as big as it is now feel that a ratio of 74% is nothing to worry about as debt is predicted to rise further.

    But higher deficits, as the CBO reminds us, will crowd out investment, reduce economic growth and reduce the increase in living standards for the population as a whole. More generally, if sustaining a high debt-to-GDP ratio were politically and economically costless, one would have seen many more countries, before the Great Recession, in high net debt territory. After all, countries could spend more and cut taxes with impunity if the debt-to-GDP ratio didn’t matter. In fact, very few were above 70 percent. It is not a good place to be historically nor comparatively.

    Second, the current projections of the deficit could prompt unwarranted complacency because they reflect both an improving economy and underlying spending and revenue trends. The figure below shows the CBO’s baseline projection that deficits are basically flat at just under 3% of GDP over the next five years, then rise slightly.

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