President Barack Obama seemed pretty darned impressed with his economic and fiscal stewardship of the United States during his State of the Union speech last night. “We’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two-thirds, a stock market that has doubled, and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years,” he crowed.
Let’s unpack that statement. Yes, we have seen the fastest economic growth in ten years — which is a real indictment of the economic growth before the last two quarters. The last time we had economic growth this strong was… yikes!… during the George W. Bush presidency!
Yes, our deficits have been cut by two-thirds. The FY 2014 deficit was “only” $483 billion — one-third the $1.4 trillion deficit in in FY 2009. Unfortunately, the deficit is still massive by historical standards, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects the deficit to start climbing in FY 2016 to nearly $1 trillion by 2024.
Yes, the stock market has doubled. That’s one thing we truly can credit Obama’s economic policies for. The Federal Reserve Board’s zero-interest rate policy, pursued with the full backing of the administration, has pushed the stock market to record highs. As a small-time stock investor, I’m grateful. I’m sure America’s millionaires and billionaires are grateful, too. The poor and middle class, not so much.
Yes, health care inflation is at its lowest rate in 50 years. Of course, that has absolutely nothing to do with Obamacare, as many assume. The cost curve in health care started bending before Obamacare was implemented, and the slowdown in increasing costs mainly reflects private-sector strategies: (a) efficiencies gained by the consolidation of the hospital industry into health systems, and (b) the shifting of private-sector plans of costs to employees, in effect forcing them to exercise more diligence as health care consumers. To quote PWC:
Doctors and hospitals are adopting standardized processes that offer the prospect of better value for our health dollar. At the same time, consumers are starting to price-shop for health services and put new demands on the delivery of care. Over one-quarter of employers have a high-deductible health plan as their highest enrolled medical plan in 2014—the highest percentage ever. With more individuals making healthcare purchasing decisions, value and price are the new mantra.
Ironically, the federal government, which pays for Medicare and Medicaid, is the biggest beneficiary of these changes. Because health care is the biggest single driver of expected deficits, “bending the curve” of health care inflation could make a big difference over the long term. Let’s just be clear where those cost savings are coming from.
So, is the U.S. still headed to Boomergeddon? The spending discipline imposed by sequestration has made a difference. My prediction, made in 2010, of fiscal calamity by 2025 to 2027 now looks excessively pessimistic. Calamity may be forestalled until 2030 or so.
Only a fool would think the U.S. is out of the fiscal woods. The CBO says that, without major policy changes, built-in structural deficits will grow relentlessly from hereon out. The projection goes out only ten years, but by year eleven, the deficit likely will be running at 1 trillion annually. Meanwhile, we have unresolved problems looming like the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund running out of money next year, triggering a 20% cut in benefits to the disabled. Congress likely will shore up the program by reallocating funds from the Social Security Old Age & Survivors Insurance fund, but that will accelerate the day when both funds run out of money — in 2030.
In effect, that means we have 15 years to fix the largest and most critical component of the U.S. social safety net. It is theoretically possible to restore the Social Security system to health if we make a series of tweaks that make a difference over a long period of time. But the longer we wait — and it doesn’t look like anyone is in a hurry to act — the bigger and more politically painful those tweaks will have to be.
The U.S. is deep into one of the longest (though weakest) economic recoveries in its history. Another 10 years of steady economic growth would be unprecedented. There will be another recession. Hopefully, it won’t be nearly as calamitous as the last one, but it will drive deficits higher. The reversal of Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing will have an impact, too. The Fed has been handing over nearly $100 billion a year in profits, resulting from its purchase of long-term bonds and its manipulation of interest rates, to the U.S. Treasury. As interest rates resume their climb, that source of pain-free deficit reduction will evaporate. Meanwhile, it’s becoming increasingly evident that our precipitous withdrawal from the Middle East is not sustainable from a geopolitical perspective. We would like to walk away from the Middle East but al Qaeda and ISIS don’t seem to want to walk away from us. There will be considerable pressure for defense spending to increase.
Without dramatic corrective action, we’re still heading to Boomergeddon. I would expect a major fiscal-financial crisis around 2030 when the combined Social Security trust fund runs out. With a divided government in Washington, D.C., there’s no chance of getting that corrective action over the next two years. After that? Who knows.