Why Interest Rates Could Drive a Debt Crisis



The average interest rate paid by Washington on its debt has fallen from 8.4 percent to 1.5 percent over the past three decades. However, economic variables tend to fluctuate, and only a fool would assume that a current economic trend will last forever. In the past, economic forecasts and markets told us that high inflation and high unemployment cannot happen simultaneously, that the late-1990s tech-stock bubble wouldn’t burst, and that national housing prices can never fall. Just last year, the Federal Open Market Committee consistently underestimated current-year inflation by three full percentage points. Interest-rate forecasts have proven spectacularly wrong for 50 years.

But now, economic commentators assure us that soaring federal debt is affordable because interest rates will remain low forever.

By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office projects that rates will nudge up to 4.6 percent over three decades. That is easily possible. After all, a broad range of studies show that the projected 100 percent of GDP increase in federal debt over the next three decades should, by itself, add three percentage points to interest rates. Added federal debt over the past 15 years also put upward pressure on interest rates, but this was offset by low productivity, baby-boomer savings, and Federal Reserve policies that pushed rates downward. For interest rates to remain low, those offsetting factors would have to accelerate much further to counteract the three-percentage point effect of future debt.

Author(s): Brian Riedl

Publication Date: 4 Feb 2022

Publication Site: National Review