Federal spending fell from 21.5 percent of gross domestic product to 20.8 percent, while taxes declined from 17.5 percent to 16.9 percent.
To be clear, the government is spending and collecting just as much as it did yesterday. But we now know that the U.S. economy is bigger than we thought. GDP totaled $16.2 trillion in 2012, for example, about $560 billion larger than the Bureau of Economic Analysis previously estimated. That 3.6 percent boost reflects the Bureau’s new accounting system, which now treats research and development and artistic creation as investments rather than immediate expenses.
In the days and months ahead, analysts will sort through these and other revisions (which stretch back to 1929) to see how they change our understanding of America’s economic history. But one effect is already clear: the federal budget is smaller, relative to the economy, than previously thought.
The public debt, for example, was on track to hit 75 percent of GDP at year’s end; that figure is now 72.5 percent. Taxes had averaged about 18 percent of GDP over the past four decades; now that figure is about 17.5 percent. Average spending similarly got marked down from 21 percent of GDP to about 20.5 percent.
These changes have no direct practical effect—federal programs and tax collections are percolating along just as before. But they will change how we talk about the federal budget.
Measured against an economy that is bigger than we thought, Uncle Sam now appears slightly smaller. Wonks need to update their budget talking points accordingly.
Is the Federal Reserve part of the government? You might think so, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about America’s debt. When it comes to the debt held by the public, for example, the Fed is just a member of the public.
That accounting reflects the Fed’s unusual independence from the rest of government. The Fed remits its profits to the U.S. Treasury each year, but is otherwise ignored when thinking about fiscal policy.
In the era of quantitative easing, that accounting warrants a second look. The Fed now owns $2 trillion in Treasury bonds and $1.5 trillion in other financial assets. Those assets, and the way the Fed finances them, could have significant budget implications.
To understand them, we’ve calculated what the federal government’s debt and financial asset positions look like when you combine the regular government with the Federal Reserve, taking care to net out the debt owned by the Fed and Treasury cash deposited at the Fed:
This consolidated view offers five insights about America’s debt situation:
1. Less long-term debt. The Fed has bought $2 trillion of Treasury debt with maturities of a year or more. As a result, $2 trillion of medium- and long-term public debt is not, in fact, held by the real public. Interest payments continue, but they cycle from the Treasury to the Fed and then back again when the Fed remits its profits to Treasury. (This debt would become fully public again if the Fed ever decides to sell or allows the debt to mature without replacing it.)
2. More short-term debt. The Fed needs resources to buy longer-term Treasuries, mortgage-backed securities, and other financial assets. In the early days of the crisis response, it did so by selling the short-term Treasuries it owned. But those eventually ran out. So the Fed began financing its purchases by creating new bank reserves. Those reserves now account for $2 trillion of the Fed’s $2.3 trillion in short-term borrowing, on which it currently pays 0.25 percent interest.
3. Slightly more overall debt. The official public debt currently stands at $11.9 trillion. When we add in the Fed, that figure rises to $12.1 trillion. Bank reserves and other short-term Fed borrowings more than offset the Fed’s portfolio of Treasury bonds.
4. Lots more financial assets. Treasury’s financial assets now total $1.1 trillion. That figure more than doubles to $2.5 trillion when we add in the Fed’s mortgage-backed securities and other financial assets.
5. Less debt net of financial assets. The Fed adds more in financial assets than in government debt, so the debt net of financial assets falls from $10.8 trillion to $9.6 trillion. That $1.2 trillion difference reflects the power of the printing press. As America’s monetary authority, the Fed has issued $1.2 trillion in circulating currency to help finance its portfolio. That currency is technically a government liability, but it bears no interest and imposes no fiscal burden.
The Fed thus strengthens the government’s net financial position, but increases the fiscal risk of future increases in interest rates. When the Fed buys Treasuries, for example, it replaces long-term debts with very short-term ones, bank deposits. That’s been a profitable trade in recent years, with short-term interest rates near zero. But it means federal coffers will be more exposed to future hikes in short-term interest rates, if and when they occur.
Max Baucus and Dave Camp, leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees, are on the road promoting tax simplification. One goal: cleaning out the mess of deductions, exclusions, credits, and other tax breaks that complicate the code.
Done well, such house cleaning could make for a simpler, fairer, more pro-growth tax code. It could also shrink government’s role in the economy. Eric Toder and I explore that theme in a recently released paper, Tax Policy and the Size of Government. Here’s our intro:
How big a role the government should play in the economy is always a central issue in political debates. But measuring the size of government is not simple. People often use shorthand measures, such as the ratio of spending to gross domestic product (GDP) or of tax revenues to GDP. But those measures leave out important aspects of government action. For example, they do not capture the ways governments use deductions, credits, and other tax preferences to make transfers and influence resource use.
We argue that many tax preferences are effec¬tively spending through the tax system. As a result, traditional measures of government size understate both spending and revenues. We then present data on trends in U.S. federal spending and revenues, using both traditional budget measures and measures that reclassify “spending-like tax preferences” as spending rather than reduced revenue. We find that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced the government’s size significantly, but only temporarily. Spending-like tax prefer¬ences subsequently expanded and are now larger, relative to the economy, than they were before tax reform.
We conclude by examining how various tax and spending changes would affect different measures of government size. Reductions in spending-like tax preferences are tax increases in traditional budget accounting but are spending reductions in our expanded measure. Increasing marginal tax rates, in contrast, raises both taxes and spending in our expanded measure. Some tax increases thus reduce the size of government, while others increase it.
Eric and I first presented this line of reasoning in How Big is the Federal Government? in March 2012. Our latest paper, recently published in the conference proceedings of the National Tax Association, is a pithier presentation of those ideas.
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