How to Interpret Federal Government Debt?

May 2, 2022 | Macro Insights

While the federal government had $30 trillion in debt outstanding at the end of 2021, it is not fair to compare it to the $17 billion outstanding at the end of 1929 (market crash) because these dollar amounts have not been adjusted for inflation. However, it is appropriate to analyze the debt load as a percentage of GDP (which approximates the size of the economy). As the chart indicates below, the current debt load is at the highest percentage of GDP (currently 120%+), exceeding the WW2 level. 

However, when compared to total household assets ($163 trillion at the end of 2021), $30 trillion in government debt looks more manageable at 18%. This compares favorably to $1,436 billion in HH assets at the end of 1952 (earliest available info) vs. $259 billion in government debt (also 18%).  

This suggests that GDP growth has not kept-up with asset accumulation as older Americans are richer but less productive. In turn, less productive Americans are more dependent on the government and, resultantly, Uncle Sam must make-up for this deficit with more debt fueled spending. 

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