Federal Spending to Top a Record $4 Trillion in FY2017

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
July 11, 2017

1. June Unemployment Report Was Better Than Expected

2. Federal Spending to Blow Through $4 Trillion in FY2017

3. What Does the Government Spend Our Tax Dollars On?

4.
Even President Trump’s Federal Budget Increases Spending

Overview

Both the Congressional Budget Office and the White House Office of Management and Budget announced last week that federal spending will top $4 trillion for the first time ever in fiscal 2017, which began on October 1, 2016 and ends on September 30.

The Congressional Budget Office released its annual “Budget and Economic Outlook: 2017 to 2027” last week in which it projected that total federal spending in fiscal 2017 will hit a record $4,008,000,000,000. That’s up from the previous record of $3.853 trillion spent in fiscal 2016.

While most Americans have no idea how much our out-of-control government spends each year, much less what our enormous annual federal budget deficits are, long-time clients and readers know this is a topic I focus on and warn about each and every year – and will again today. This is something every American voter should absolutely know about!

Yet before we get to those discussions, I will summarize last Friday’s better than expected unemployment report for June. The strong jobs report had several significant implications for the economy going forward as I will discuss below. Let’s get started.

June Unemployment Report Was Better Than Expected

Friday’s unemployment report for June was a welcome surprise, especially following the weaker than expected report for May. The Labor Department reported at the end of last week that the economy created 222,000 new jobs in June, up from only 152,000 in May – and well above the pre-report expectation of 179,000.

The increase in new jobs in June was the largest in four months and the second highest of the year. Hiring was also revised higher for May and April than previously reported. The pickup in hiring in the spring coincides with a fresh spurt of growth in the economy after a slow start to the year.

Monthly change in nonfarm payrolls

The headline unemployment rate rose slightly from 4.3% in May to 4.4% in June, but that was largely because more jobless Americans rejoined the labor force by actively looking for work last month. That’s a good thing.

Hourly pay rose 0.2% to $26.25 an hour in June, the government said. Over the last 12 months, wages have only advanced a modest 2.5% -- up slightly from the rate reported for May, but still well below the usual gains at this late stage of an economic expansion.

Underemployment, which measures people who want to be working full-time but are not, rose to 8.6% in June from 8.4% in May. It‘s still far lower than in prior years but it’s never a good sign to see this measure tick up.

The number of Americans who work part-time but want a full-time job also rose a notch to 5.3 million in June. Part-time employment has been a persistent problem for job seekers since the recession ended, as many companies try to limit increases in full-time workers.

Overall, economists say the strong job gains in June reflect a healthy labor market. Some believe we are approaching the level of “full employment.”

Federal Spending to Blow Through $4 Trillion in FY2017

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reported last week that federal spending will top $4 trillion for the first time ever in fiscal 2017, which ends on September 30.

The CBO released its annual “Budget and Economic Outlook: 2017 to 2027” last week in which it projected that total federal spending in fiscal 2017 will hit a record $4.008 trillion. That’s up from the previous record of $3.853 trillion spent in fiscal 2016.

Federal spending to top $4 trillion

The record $4.008 trillion the CBO estimates the federal government will spend this fiscal year equals $33,805 for each of the 118,562,000 households the Census Bureau estimated were in the United States as of March.

I should note for the record that while federal spending will top $4 trillion for the first time this year while Donald Trump is president, this year’s spending is actually tied to Barack Obama’s budget passed in his last year in office. So don’t blame President Trump… yet.

The federal budget goes up every single year, no matter which party is in office, and no matter that our national debt will top $20 trillion later this year. Clearly, federal spending is out of control, and no one in Washington, DC has the will to stop it – including President Trump (more on this below).

Apparently, leaders in both parties no longer believe there is a limit to how much our country can borrow and spend. There is no longer any sense that our ballooning national debt will at some point trigger a new financial crisis much worse than what we experienced in late 2007-early 2009.

Worst of all, WE keep electing and re-electing these people. In that sense, it’s our own fault.

What Does the Government Spend Our Tax Dollars On?

Many (if not most) Americans don’t understand how and where the government spends our tax dollars and the tens of billions it borrows each and every year. That’s what we will take a look at in the discussion just below. Let’s start with this graphic for an overview.

Government spending

Pew Research had an excellent analysis on how the federal government spends our money (and what it borrows) earlier this year. I’ll reprint the highlights for you below (emphasis mine).

“When thinking about federal spending, it’s worth remembering that, as former Treasury official Peter Fisher once said, the federal government is basically ‘a gigantic insurance company,’ albeit one with ‘a sideline business in national defense and homeland security.’

In fiscal year 2016, which ended this past September 30, the federal government spent just under $4 trillion, and about $2.7 trillion – more than two-thirds of the total – went for various kinds of social insurance (Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, unemployment compensation, Veterans benefits and the like).

Another $604 billion, or 15.3% of total spending, went for national defense; net interest payments on government debt was about $240 billion, or 6.1%. Education aid and related social services were about $114 billion, or less than 3% of all federal spending. Everything else – crop subsidies, space travel, highway repairs, national parks, foreign aid and much, much more – accounted for the remaining 6%.

It can be helpful to look at federal spending as a share of the overall US economy, which provides a consistent frame of reference over long periods. In fiscal 2016, total federal outlays were 21.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For most of the past several decades, federal spending has hovered within a few percentage points above or below 20%.

The biggest recent exception came in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crash: In fiscal 2009, a surge in federal relief spending combined with a shrinking economy to push federal outlays to 24.4% of GDP, the highest level since World War II -- when federal spending peaked at nearly 43% of GDP.

Social security, Medicare, human services a growing share of spendingMeasured as a share of GDP, the biggest long-term growth in federal spending has come in human services, a broad category that includes various kinds of social insurance, other health programs, education aid and veterans benefits.

From less than 1% of GDP during World War II (when many Depression-era aid programs were either ended or shifted to the war effort), federal spending on human services now amounts to 15.5% of GDP.

It actually was higher – 16.1% – in fiscal 2010, largely due to greater spending on unemployment compensation, food assistance and other forms of aid during the Great Recession. Now, the main growth drivers of human-services spending are Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

While spending on human services has grown to represent a greater share of GDP over time, the defense share has become smaller: It was 3.3% in fiscal 2016, versus 4.7% as recently as fiscal 2010. In general, and perhaps not surprisingly, defense spending consumes more of GDP during wartime (well over a third at the height of World War II) and less during peacetime.

The major exception was the Reagan-era military buildup… From a post-Vietnam low of 4.5% of GDP in fiscal 1979, defense spending eventually peaked at 6% of GDP in fiscal 1986.

Besides human services and national defense, the next-biggest category of federal spending is interest on public debt. Excluding interest paid to government trust funds (such as the Social Security and military-retirement trust funds) and various other small government loan programs, the $240 billion in net interest paid on federal debt in fiscal 2016 represented 1.3% of GDP. [Remember that interest rates are near historic lows today.]

Even though total public debt has continued to grow (it stood at nearly $19.96 trillion in February, hitting the statutory debt limit), the dollar amount of actual interest paid fluctuates with the general interest rate environment. Rates are quite low now, but they were much higher in the 1980s and 1990s; in those decades, net interest payments often approached or exceeded 3% of GDP. END QUOTE

Even President Trump’s Federal Budget Increases Spending

Back in March, President Trump unveiled a controversial new federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, which begins on October 1st. The budget was a shocker in that it proposed cutting spending in every federal agency except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

The new budget would slash Environmental Protection Agency spending by over 31% next year and cut State Department spending by over 28%, all in one fell swoop. It is by far the most conservative, smaller government budget we have seen in my adult lifetime.

Trump proposals for government agency budget changes

Yet as I wrote on March 21, Mr. Trump’s so-called “skinny budget” has no chance of becoming law. I bring it back up today only to point out that even with Trump’s massive government agency cuts (which will never pass), federal spending still increases in FY2018.

As noted above, the CBO and the OMB now agree that federal spending in FY2017 will be apprx. $4.008 trillion. In Trump’s proposed budget, federal spending would reach apprx. $4.094 trillion. And it goes up each year thereafter, soaring to $5.7 trillion by 2027 – even under Trump’s skinny budget.

The sad reality is that our politicians will not take definitive actions to slow the rise in our national debt. Perhaps that’s because half of American households receive direct benefits from government programs like Medicare, Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), nutrition programs for mothers and children, subsidized housing and unemployment assistance, to name just a few.

That’s another topic for another day. The point is, federal spending is out of control, and our leaders have no intention of stopping or reversing this dangerous trend. What this means is that we are destined for another serious financial crisis at some point. The markets and our creditors will decide when and it won’t be pretty!

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Wishing you well,

Gary D. Halbert

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