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Economics & Research Blog

Total Debt Out of Control?

Recent news stories about the Federal Debt reaching $

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: November 8, 2007

Recent news stories about the Federal Debt reaching $9 trillion have certainly lacked perspective. A good example is in various Associated Press reports.

First of all, there is no mention of the assets owned by the Federal Government. What's the value of the White House? the Lincoln Memorial? the Grand Canyon? the assets held by the National Park Service? No one knows until they actually are offered for sale, but no one doubts that these are assets that would have great value if they were ever put on the market. This also includes all of the other assets of land, buildings, rare antiquities, and many other items that would have value.

Secondly, current household wealth could easily cover the debt. According to the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds Report, households have $44 trillion in assets and have $13 trillion in debt, and therefore a net worth of $31trillion.

While adding to the Federal Debt may sound ominous, there are many long-term assets that are held, much like households hold mortgages on homes, that have value that will last longer than their debt obligations.

There are many countries that have debts that are far larger than that of the U.S. when compared to their GDP and household worth.

Another aspect of the reporting is that $3 trillion of it is "borrowed" from Social Security trust funds. Nice try. By law, any money in the Social Security trust fund must be invested in Treasury securities, and no other financial instruments, not stocks, corporate bonds, or obligations of other countries, or invested in any other way. Even though it's like taking money from one pocket and putting it in another, it's the law, and characterizing it otherwise without that context is bad reporting.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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