Soaring U.S. debt poses risks to global economy, IMF warns

U.S. government budget deficits and an escalating debt load pose “a growing risk” to the global economy, marring an otherwise stellar economic performance, the International Monetary Fund said on Thursday.

The United States over the next several years faces “a pressing need” to reduce its debt burden, which could require broad-based income tax increases and cuts in popular entitlement programs, the fund said at the conclusion of its annual review of the U.S. economy.

The required fiscal adjustment will mean “difficult political decisions over the course of multiple years,” the fund said, warning that an unchecked rise in debt could eventually sap U.S. growth and snowball into global financial distress.

“Now is a good time,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the fund’s managing director. “The U.S. economy is very strong, and it is in good times where you can do more to prepare yourself for risks in the future.”

President Biden has ruled out at least one of the fund’s suggested remedies: Higher taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year.


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But debt aside, the IMF statement praised the U.S. economy for “a remarkable performance” in recent years. Inflation has largely been brought under control without the sharp increase in unemployment that many economists had expected. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth remains above expectations and is expected to continue.

“The U.S. is the only G-20 economy whose GDP level now exceeds the pre-pandemic level. This is good for the U.S. and it is good for the global economy,” Georgieva told reporters.

Despite the U.S. debt bulge, financial markets remain untroubled. The return that the government must offer to entice investors to purchase 10-year treasury securities hovers around 4.2 percent, below rates that were typical before the Great Recession.

The U.S. economy also is attracting an increasing share of global capital, according to Georgieva. Before the pandemic, 18 percent of funds invested outside national borders was placed in the United States. Today, the U.S. share of mobile finance is 33 percent, she said.

Debts and deficits will be an early challenge for the next president. In early 2025, Congress must lift the statutory debt ceiling or see the United States default on its debt. Lawmakers also must decide by the end of 2025 to extend Trump’s 2017 tax cuts or allow them to expire, thus increasing taxes on most Americans.

In April, as part of a separate review, IMF officials chided the United States for government deficits that stimulated the economy, saying they effectively made it more difficult for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates.

On Thursday, citing potential upside risks to inflation, the IMF said the Fed should wait to cut interest rates until “at least late 2024.”

Hours before her news conference at fund headquarters, Georgieva met with Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to discuss the review.

Thursday’s IMF statement is just the latest warning on the U.S. debt picture. On Tuesday, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development said that adding debt at a time of higher interest rates will limit the ability of the United States to meet other needs, including defense, an aging population and future economic shocks.

Years of repeated tax cuts have narrowed the government’s revenue base at a time when it faces escalating spending commitments for programs such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as rising interest charges, the OECD said.

As a share of the economy, corporate income tax payments are now less than half what they were in 1967, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Interest expenses on the national debt over the same period have doubled to 2.4 percent of gross domestic product.

The OECD, a group of more than three dozen advanced economies, called for a “sustained but steady multiyear” budget effort to curb debt. Only Italy, Greece and Japan have higher gross debt-to-GDP ratios, the OECD said in its annual assessment of the U.S. economy.

Government debt held by the public, which excludes Treasury securities in the Social Security Trust Fund, is equal to 99 percent of total U.S. output and is expected to hit 122 percent in 2034, according to the CBO.

Many economists say the government’s growing debt burden must be addressed with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Stabilizing the debt relative to the size of the economy is “a really important goal,” Jared Bernstein, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said at the Brookings Institution this week.

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