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Will the next fiscal crisis start in Washington?

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By Sheila C. Bair
Friday, November 26, 2010

Two years ago the United States experienced its worst financial crisis since the 1930s. The crisis began on Wall Street, where misguided bets on risky mortgage loans resulted in enormous losses that few anticipated. More than 4 million jobs were lost in just six months after the peak of the crisis. There is hardly one Main Street in America not still feeling its effects.

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Even as work continues to repair our financial infrastructure and get the economy moving again, we need urgent action to forestall the next financial crisis. I fear that one will start in Washington. Total federal debt has doubled in the past seven years, to almost $14 trillion. That's more than $100,000 for every American household. This explosive growth in federal borrowing is a result of not just the financial crisis but also government unwillingness over many years to make the hard choices necessary to rein in our long-term structural deficit.

Retiring baby boomers, who will live longer on average than any previous generation, will have a major impact on government spending. This year, the combined expenditures on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are projected to account for 45 percent of primary federal spending, up from 27 percent in 1975. The Congressional Budget Office projects that annual entitlement spending could triple in real terms by 2035, to $4.5 trillion in today's dollars. Defense spending is similarly unsustainable, and our tax code is riddled with special-interest provisions that have little to do with our broader economic prosperity. Overly generous tax subsidies for housing and health care have contributed to rising costs and misallocation of resources.

Unless something is done, federal debt held by the public could rise from a level equal to 62 percent of gross domestic product this year to 185 percent in 2035. Eventually, this relentless federal borrowing will directly threaten our financial stability by undermining the confidence that investors have in U.S. government obligations. Financial markets are already sending disquieting signals. The cost for bond investors and others to purchase insurance against a default by the U.S. government rose markedly during the financial crisis, from an annual premium of less than 2 basis points in January 2007 to 100 basis points in early 2009, before falling to the current level of 41 basis points.

With more than 70 percent of U.S. Treasury obligations held by private investors scheduled to mature in the next five years, an erosion of investor confidence would lead to sharp increases in government and private borrowing costs. And while we enjoy a uniquely favored status today - investors still view U.S. Treasury securities as a haven during crises - events in Greece and Ireland should serve as a warning. The yields on their long-term government securities have risen from rough parity with U.S. Treasury obligations in early 2007 to levels that are hundreds of basis points higher. If investors were to similarly lose confidence in U.S. public debt, we could expect high and volatile interest rates to impose losses on financial institutions that hold Treasury instruments, and to raise the funding costs of depository institutions, which can be highly vulnerable to interest-rate shocks. All of us would pay more for consumer and business credit, and our economy would suffer.

Recent proposals by the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and by the Bipartisan Policy Center represent credible first steps toward recognizing and addressing the nation's fiscal problem. Both propose to reduce and cap discretionary spending, enact comprehensive tax reform, reduce mandatory spending on health care and other programs, and ensure the long-term solvency of Social Security.

Fixing these problems will require a bipartisan national commitment to a comprehensive package of spending cuts and tax increases over many years. Most of the needed changes will be unpopular, and they are likely to affect every interest group in some way. We will want to phase in these changes as the economy continues to recover from the effects of the financial crisis.

Establishing a comprehensive plan now would demonstrate a firm commitment to the type of long-term budget discipline that will be needed to preserve our nation's credibility in the global financial markets and a stable banking sector at home.

The quiet confidence of the American public in the FDIC's deposit insurance guarantee was one of the bulwarks that helped to stem the tide in the recent crisis and avert even greater economic calamity. But we must never take public or investor confidence for granted. In the end, that confidence is only as great as the resolve shown by our government in identifying emerging risks and taking concerted action to head them off. Excessive government borrowing poses a clear danger to our long-term financial stability. All of us must work together now as Americans, look beyond our narrow partisan interests and show the world that we are prepared to act boldly to secure our economic future.

The writer is chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.


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