Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
At the Annual Conference of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Washington, D.C.
June 14, 2011
I am pleased to speak to a group that has such a distinguished record of identifying crucial issues related to the federal budget and working toward bipartisan solutions to our nation's fiscal problems. Today I will briefly discuss the fiscal challenges the nation faces and the importance of meeting those challenges for our collective economic future. I will then conclude with some thoughts on the way forward.
Fiscal Policy Challenges
At about 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the federal budget deficit has widened appreciably since the onset of the recent recession in December 2007. The exceptional increase in the deficit has mostly reflected the automatic cyclical response of revenues and spending to a weak economy as well as the fiscal actions taken to ease the recession and aid the recovery. As the economy continues to expand and stimulus policies are phased out, the budget deficit should narrow over the next few years.
Unfortunately, even after economic conditions have returned to normal, the nation faces a sizable structural budget gap. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget project that the budget deficit will be almost 5 percent of GDP in fiscal year 2015, assuming that current budget policies are extended and the economy is then close to full employment.1 Of even greater concern is that longer-run projections that extrapolate current policies and make plausible assumptions about the future evolution of the economy show the structural budget gap increasing significantly further over time. For example, under the alternative fiscal scenario developed by the Congressional Budget Office, which assumes most current policies are extended, the deficit is projected to be about 6-1/2 percent of GDP in 2020 and almost 13 percent of GDP in 2030. The ratio of outstanding federal debt to GDP, expected to be about 69 percent at the end of this fiscal year, would under that scenario rise to 87 percent in 2020 and 146 percent in 2030.2 One reason the debt is projected to increase so quickly is that the larger the debt outstanding, the greater the budgetary cost of making the required interest payments. This dynamic is clearly unsustainable.