US debt hasn't been this high since World War II. That's ok...for now

The amount of money that the United States owes investors has hit record levels in more than a few ways, based on new numbers reported Friday by the US Treasury.

Posted Updated

Jeanne Sahadi
, CNN Business
CNN — The amount of money that the United States owes investors has hit record levels in more than a few ways, based on new numbers reported Friday by the US Treasury.

Both the annual deficit and total debt accumulated over the years has topped levels not seen since World War II.

On Friday, the US Treasury reported that for fiscal year 2020, which ended September 30, the US deficit hit $3.13 trillion (which is an estimated 15.2% of GDP) thanks to the chasm between what the country spent ($6.55 trillion) and what it took in ($3.42 trillion) for the year.

As a share of the economy, the 2020 deficit is more than triple what the annual deficit was in 2019.

The reason for the huge year-over-year jump is simple: Starting this spring, the federal government spent more than $4 trillion to help stem the economic pain to workers and businesses caused by sudden and widespread shutdowns. And most people agree more money will need to be spent until the Covid-19 crisis is under control.

Having topped $21 trillion, the country's total debt owed to investors -- which essentially is the sum of annual deficits that have accrued over the years -- is now estimated to have outpaced the size of the economy, coming in at nearly 102% of GDP, according to calculations from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Those calculations are based on GDP projections for 2020 from the Congressional Budget Office.

Debt hasn't been that high since 1946 when it hit 106% of GDP.

"The only other time debt has exceeded the size of the economy was at the end of World War II -- and we ran years of mostly balanced budgets afterward to bring it back down," CRFB president Maya MacGuineas said. "We should be borrowing now, but once the economy recovers, our debt cannot continue to grow faster than the economy forever."

Concerns that will have to be put off

With millions of Americans still out of work and struggling to get by as a result, the country's burgeoning debt is understandably no one's top concern at the moment.

Even deficit hawks are urging a dysfunctional Washington and a chaotic White House to approve another round of badly needed stimulus to the tune of trillions of dollars.

"The US federal budget is on an unsustainable path, has been for some time," Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said last week. But, Powell added, "This is not the time to give priority to those concerns."

However, when the country eventually pulls out of its current health and economic crises, Americans will be left with quite a debt hangover.

The problem with such high debt levels going forward is that they will increasingly constrain what the government can do to meet the country's needs.

Spending is projected to continue rising and is far outpacing revenue. And interest payments alone on the debt -- even if rates remain low -- will consume an ever-growing share of tax dollars.

Given the risks of future disruptions to the economy, a debt load that already is outpacing economic growth puts the country at greater risk of a fiscal crisis, which in turn would require sharp cuts to the services and benefits on which Americans rely.

"There is no set tipping point at which a fiscal crisis becomes likely or imminent, nor is there an identifiable point at which interest costs as a percentage of GDP become unsustainable," Congressional Budget Office director Phillip Swagel said last month. "But as the debt grows, the risks become greater."

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