Obama’s Debt Interest Bomb
Rising interest payments are already showing up in the federal fisc.
President Obama left his successor many time bombs—think chemical weapons in Syria and the collapsing Affordable Care Act. But a burning fuse that gets less attention showed its first signs of the explosion to come in Friday’s Congressional Budget Office budget review for March: Rising net interest payments on the national debt. CBO reported that the federal budget deficit rose $63 billion in the first half of fiscal 2017 (October-March) to $522 billion from a year earlier. But here’s the especially bad omen: Net interest payments rose $7 billion, or 30%, in March from a year earlier.
If that seems small, consider that interest payments rose $28 billion for the six months of fiscal 2017 to $152 billion. That’s a 22.2% increase, among the biggest in any single spending item highlighted by CBO. The increases reflect the growing debt but in particular the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates after years of near-zero rates. While Mr. Obama was doubling the national debt over eight years, the Fed’s monetary policies spared him from the fiscal consequences. The Fed’s near-zero policy kept interest rates at historic lows that reduced net interest payments even as the overall debt increased. The Fed’s bond-buying programs also earned money that the Fed turned over to Treasury each year, reducing the size of the federal budget deficit by tens of billions of dollars. This not-so-free Fed lunch is starting to end. CBO estimates that $160 billion more spending will be required each year over the next decade if interest rates are merely one percentage point higher than in its current projections. As interest rates rise, the Fed will also have to pay banks more to keep excess reserves parked at the central bank. After its latest rate increase in March, the Fed now pays banks 1% on reserve balances or about $20 billion a year, and that will go up. Fed officials are also now hinting that this year they may finally stop buying new securities when the current bonds on its balance sheet come due. This is necessary and long overdue, but it will mean smaller Fed contributions to the federal budget than the more than $90 billion the Fed has turned over in recent years.
All of this is set to explode on President Trump’s watch, and it will complicate the task for Republicans as they try to reform the tax code within tighter budget constraints.
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