Unprecedented spending, unending fiscal deficits, unconscionable accumulations of government debt: These are the trends that are shaping America's financial future. And since loose monetary policy and a weak U.S. dollar are part of the mix, apparently, it's no wonder people around the world are searching for an alternative form of money in which to calculate and preserve their own wealth.
It may be too soon to dismiss the dollar as an utterly debauched currency. It still is the most used for international transactions and constitutes over 60% of other countries' official foreign-exchange reserves. But the reputation of our nation's money is being severely compromised.
Funny how words normally used to address issues of morality come to the fore when judging the qualities of the dollar. Perhaps it's because the U.S. has long represented the virtues of democratic capitalism. To be "sound as a dollar" is to be deemed trustworthy, dependable, and in good working condition.
It used to mean all that, anyway. But as the dollar is increasingly perceived as the default mechanism for out-of-control government spending, its role as a reliable standard of value is destined to fade. Who wants to accumulate assets denominated in a shrinking unit of account? Excess government spending leads to inflation, and inflation plays dollar savers for patsies—both at home and abroad.
A return to sound financial principles in Washington, D.C., would signal that America still believes it can restore the integrity of the dollar and provide leadership for the global economy. But for all the talk from the Obama administration about the need to exert fiscal discipline—the president's 10-year federal budget is subtitled "A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America's Promise"—the projected budget numbers anticipate a permanent pattern of deficit spending and vastly higher levels of outstanding federal debt.
Even with the optimistic economic assumptions implicit in the Obama administration's budget, it's a mathematical impossibility to reduce debt if you continue to spend more than you take in. Mr. Obama promises to lower the deficit from its current 9.9% of gross domestic product to an average 4.8% of GDP for the years 2010-2014, and an average 4% of GDP for the years 2015-2019. All of this presupposes no unforeseen expenditures such as a second "stimulus" package or additional costs related to health-care reform. But even if the deficit shrinks as a percentage of GDP, it's still a deficit. It adds to the amount of our nation's outstanding indebtedness, which reflects the cumulative total of annual budget deficits.
By the end of 2019, according to the administration's budget numbers, our federal debt will reach $23.3 trillion—as compared to $11.9 trillion today. To put it in perspective: U.S. federal debt was equal to 61.4% of GDP in 1999; it grew to 70.2% of GDP in 2008 (under the Bush administration); it will climb to an estimated 90.4% this year and touch the 100% mark in 2011, after which the projected federal debt will continue to equal or exceed our nation's entire annual economic output through 2019.
The U.S. is thus slated to enter the ranks of those countries—Zimbabwe, Japan, Lebanon, Singapore, Jamaica, Italy—with the highest government debt-to-GDP ratio (which measures the debt burden against a nation's capacity to generate sufficient wealth to repay its creditors). In 2008, the U.S. ranked 23rd on the list—crossing the 100% threshold vaults our nation into seventh place.
If you were a foreign government, would you want to increase your holdings of Treasury securities knowing the U.S. government has no plans to balance its budget during the next decade, let alone achieve a surplus?
In the European Union, countries wishing to adopt the euro must first limit government debt to 60% of GDP. It's the reference criterion for demonstrating "soundness and sustainability of public finances." Politicians find it all too tempting to print money—something the Europeans have understood since the days of the Weimar Republic—and excessive government borrowing poses a threat to monetary stability.
Valuable lessons can also be drawn from Japan's unsuccessful experiment with quantitative easing in the aftermath of its ruptured 1980s bubble economy. The Bank of Japan's desperate efforts to fight deflation through a zero-interest rate policy aimed at bailing out zombie companies, along with massive budget deficit spending, only contributed to a lost decade of stagnant growth. Japan's government debt-to-GDP ratio escalated to more than 170% now from 65% in 1990. Over the same period, the yen's use as an international reserve currency—it clings to fourth place behind the dollar, euro and pound sterling—declined from comprising 10.2% of official foreign-exchange reserves to 3.3% today.
The U.S. has long served as the world's "indispensable nation" and the dollar's primary role in the global economy has likewise seemed to testify to American exceptionalism. But the passivity in Washington toward our dismal fiscal future, and its inevitable toll on U.S. economic influence, suggests that American global leadership is no longer a priority and that America's money cannot be trusted.
If money is a moral contract between government and its citizens, we are being violated. The rest of the world, meanwhile, simply wants to avoid being duped. That is why China and Russia—large holders of dollars—are angling to invent some new kind of global currency for denominating reserve assets. It's why oil-producing Gulf States are fretting over whether to continue pricing energy exports in depreciated dollars. It's why central banks around the world are dumping dollars in favor of alternative currencies, even as reduced global demand exacerbates the dollar's decline. Until the U.S. sends convincing signals that it believes in a strong dollar—mere rhetorical assertions ring hollow—the world has little reason to hold dollar-denominated securities.
Sadly, due to our fiscal quagmire, the Federal Reserve may be forced to raise interest rates as a sop to attract foreign capital even if it hurts our domestic economy. Unfortunately, that's the price of having already succumbed to symbiotic fiscal and monetary policy. If we could forge a genuine commitment to private-sector economic growth by reducing taxes, and at the same time significantly cut future spending, it might be possible to turn things around. Under President Reagan in the 1980s, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker slashed inflation and strengthened the dollar by dramatically tightening credit. Though it was a painful process, the economy ultimately boomed.
Whether the U.S. can once more summon the resolve to address its problems is an open question. But the world's growing dollar disdain conveys a message: Issuing more promissory notes is not the way to renew America's promise.