Opinion: Why Interest On Federal Debt Matters For Defense

Credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has stoked consternation that U.S. defense spending is going to be significantly pressured in the 2020s. Congress will likely stick to the $740.5 billion defense discretionary top line agreed to in last year’s budget deal for fiscal 2021. But the combination of trillions more in federal debt from higher spending and lower tax receipts this year and next and the probability that there will be future federal spending to better prepare for pandemics raise a higher probability of defense spending pressure. 

“Flat” was already the new “up,” but “flat” now may be a budget that does not keep pace with annual inflation. The fears may be that defense spending will decline in the 2020s after a couple of good years of largesse from Congress and the White House.

Despite trillions in additional deficits and federal borrowing in 2020-21, there is one bright spot that indicates less dire defense spending pressures than now perceived—the interest on the federal debt.

U.S. federal debt is comprised of debt held by the public and intragovernmental debt, which is owned by different federal trust funds, the largest of which is Social Security. As of May, total debt held by the public was $19.8 trillion, and intragovernmental debt was another $6 trillion. Often, these two sums are lumped together, but they should be treated separately. The interest paid on debt held by the public is dispersed by the Treasury in the form of outlays to the owners of that debt. The interest paid on intragovernmental debt is, in essence, interest the federal government pays itself.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in its annual projections of outlays, breaks out these two components of interest outlays to show net interest outlays. This is mandatory spending, and so it has been paid along with the other mandatory and discretionary funding the U.S. federal government provides.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been the Federal Reserve’s aggressive lowering of interest rates. This makes federal debt more affordable, much in the way that a lower interest rate on a home mortgage can make a place to live more affordable. 

The OMB projections released in February showed net interest outlays of $378 billion for fiscal 2021 rising to $665 billion by 2030. One could take issue with the deficit projections behind these outlay projects, as they may have rested on GDP growth expectations that were too optimistic and nondefense spending cuts that were not going to be realized. However, dividing interest outlays on debt held by the public by debt projections implied an interest rate of 3% or more over the forecast period.

The pandemic has trashed those rate projections. Federal debt held by the public is offered in different maturities. Treasury bills, which mature in a year or less as of May, were 23% of the total debt held by the public. Treasury notes that mature in 1-10 years were 51%, and bonds that mature in 10-30 years were 12%. (There is another 10% of other Treasury instruments.)

Rates now are much lower, although clearly that would only matter for new debt that is issued by the Treasury. The rate on a 90-day Treasury bill is currently 0.13%. On a five-year note, it is 0.33%, and on the 10-year note, 0.69%. The 30-year note rate is 1.4%.

This implies that interest outlay projections should be declining, although new projections may have to wait until the White House releases its 2022 fiscal budget request and out-year projections, presumably in February-March 2021. Net interest outlays could be at least $100 billion less in 2022-23 than the February 2020 projections on higher debt but lower rates.

In the scheme of total federal outlays, which the OMB projected to be $4.8 trillion for 2021, $100 billion is not a lot, but it indicates there is a bit more headroom for defense spending and other nondefense discretionary spending than a focus on federal debt alone might suggest. Federal infrastructure spending could be one area of more traction in the 2020s, and the issue of social justice may also spur more demand for federal resources. 

One outcome of the pandemic, however, will be to make defense expectations more sensitive to interest rate expectations. It is not too difficult to project scenarios with rising debt and interest rates that increase to more “normal” levels. The pandemic also underscores that the unthinkable should be given a bit more room on long-term projections. It is quite conceivable that a major military conflict, a massive natural disaster or another economic contraction could further add to federal debt in the 2020s.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.

Byron Callan

Contributing columnist Byron Callan is a managing director at Capital Alpha Partners in Washington.


1 Comment
Ah, the magic money tree - low interest rates. Anything that anyone wants can be obtained with cheap borrowed federal money courtesy of the Federal Reserve. Consume now and let the coming generations foot the bill. Americans refuse to pay the level of tax required to fund the things that we demand. We are eating the future of our children and grandchildren and will force them to pay higher taxes to make up for our wanton gluttony.