U.S. National Debt Level at Record High

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 |  Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Susan Mangiero, CFA

There is something for everyone when it comes to U.S. national debt. Unfortunately, that "something" is a gigantic IOU to the banks, insurance companies, mutual funds and international investors who buy our government bonds and bills. Click here to access statistics about ownership of U.S. government securities. According to "National Debt at Record $9 Trillion" by Associated Press International reporter Martin Crutsinger, "It took the country from George Washington until Ronald Reagan to reach the first $1 trillion in debt."

Zowie!

Lest you confuse the deficit with debt, the U.S. Treasury offers Frequently Asked Questions that describe the deficit as "the fiscal year difference between what the United States Government (Government) takes in from taxes and other revenues, called receipts, and the amount of money the Government spends, called outlays." In contrast, the total debt includes accumulated deficits "plus accumulated off-budget surpluses." Click here to read other factoids about our crushing economic situation.

Ignore the finger pointers in Congress who explain why U.S. debt is racing past $9 trillion (that's 12 zeroes). Focus instead on the school of thought that taxpayers (especially younger ones) are on the hook. According to the U.S. debt clock site, "the estimated population of the United States is 303,509,977 so each citizen's share of this debt is $30,036.47."

In retirement land, this slice of Uncle Sam's spending frenzy hurts. With more than a few companies, and state and local plan sponsors, cutting back on benefits, taking on more debt has as much appeal as getting a tooth pulled, without novocaine. Click here to see how quickly national debt is mounting. Refresh your screen several times to appreciate the speed with which we are being pushed into an economic hot zone.

For companies seeking to grow, increased national debt crowds out other borrowers. This in turn has the effect of raising the cost of capital which typically means lower profits and decreased share price. Why is this important to plan participants?

Simply put, the probability of payout at current benefit levels critically depends on the plan sponsor's financial health. Additionally, troubled companies are not likely to hire. For those retirees seeking a return to the workforce, that's unwelcome news indeed. Don't forget the pension asset-liability management challenges associated with excess leverage. To finance its funding gap, the U.S. government issues more bonds and/or raises taxes. The former impacts the shape and magnitude of the yield curve, which affects a plan sponsor's ability to manage interest rate risk. The latter impedes new spending and truncates growth, dragging corporate earnings downward.

The bottom line is that none of us escapes this problem. What a mess!