Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Government's Budget: The Debt Ceiling

What is a debt ceiling? The US debt ceiling is a cap that is set by Congress on the amount of debt the federal government can legally borrow. The cap applies to debt owed to the public or anyone who buys U.S. bonds in addition to debt owed to federal government trust funds such as those used for Social Security and Medicare.
Every day the federal government spends more money than it takes in and makes up the difference by borrowing money. As a result, every day, the government’s debt increases. This is why the government is considering raising the debt ceiling or the government will have to stop spending more than it takes in which requires balancing the budget. Balancing the budget will require reducing spending by approximately 40 – 44%, raising taxes or a combination of reducing spending and raising taxes.
If the debt ceiling is not increased the government has to pay more money to borrow money which adds up very quickly and could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This can cause taxpayers to lose confidence in the government. If lenders lose confidence in the government that it can’t repay its debts, interest rates will start to increase.

The government generates money by selling debt through Treasury bonds which is the government's IOU. A taxpayer, a foreigner or a hedge fund manager purchases a Treasury bond (bill) and the government promises to pay the bond at a later date, paying the buyer back with a small amount of interest. As of January 2011, foreigners owned $4.45 trillion of the U.S. debt.

As long as Treasury bond buyers are confident that the government will repay them, they accept the lower interest rate of return. However, if bond buyers feel that the government will not be able to repay them, the market will demand a higher interest rate on the bonds which decreases the number of buyers who want to buy them. Taxpayer money is used to pay the bond interest rate so higher interest rates will result in higher taxes. A lack of confidence has already been seen in the stock market decreases over the past week as we approach the current debt ceiling.

If the interest rates on Treasury bonds increases this will have a domino effect and cause the interest rates of other products such as cars, student and mortgage loans and credit cards, business loans or lines of credit to increase. There could also be an increase in personal products such as electronics, clothes, food, household goods and company products and services. This will cause the value of the dollar to decrease causing an increase in costs to purchase foreign imports as well as gasoline for cars.

The less money that is approved for loans or credit will cause taxpayers and business owners to spend less and save more which will hurt the economy.

If Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling, the government will reach the debt ceiling and max out its borrowing power which will prevent the government from paying its debt. This would affect Social Security, Medicare, military salaries, tax refunds, and unemployment insurance, government grants, and other funding.

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