With the United States’ national debt closing in on $34.2 trillion, some of the biggest figures in the world of finance have been speaking out. But few expected Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to address the issue—at least until this weekend, when Powell spoke out about the debt on CBS’ 60 Minutes Sunday. “In the long run, the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal path,” Powell warned.
Even as the U.S. economy avoided a widely forecast recession in 2023, record government spending and lower tax receipts led the national debt to surge to an all-time high. And that trend has continued into this year. The U.S.’s government debt to GDP ratio, a measure of total public debt to economic growth, has surged from just over 100% in 2019 to over 120%. That’s down from the COVID-era peak of 133%, but as Powell put it, the government’s debt is still “growing faster than the economy.”
This means it’s now “past time, to get back to an adult conversation among elected officials about getting the federal government back on a sustainable fiscal path,” Powell argued Sunday.
‘Borrowing from future generations’
It’s rare to see a Fed official discuss politics. The U.S. central bank is supposed to be a non-partisan, independent institution, after all. Powell reiterated as much in his 60 Minutes interview over the weekend, saying “we mostly try very hard not to comment on fiscal policy and instruct Congress on how to do their job, when actually they have oversight over us.”
But almost immediately after that statement, Powell criticized lawmakers for “effectively borrowing from future generations” with their “unsustainable” policies. “It’s time for us to get back to putting a priority on fiscal sustainability,” he added.
Fed Chair Powell joins a number of critics of fiscal policy and the surging national debt, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Dimon, warned last month that the U.S. economy is headed for a “cliff” if something isn’t done to address the federal government’s excessive debt burden.
“We see the cliff. It’s about 10 years out, we’re going 60 miles an hour [toward it],” he said at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel. Dimon argued that U.S. lawmakers will need to alter the current path of spending and control the national debt or there could be “rebellion” among foreign owners of U.S. government bonds.
Other Wall Street heavyweights have been criticizing rising federal deficits for years. Mark Spitznagel, founder and chief investment officer of the private hedge fund Universa Investments, told Fortune last year that we are living “the greatest credit bubble in human history.”
“And that’s not my opinion, that’s just numbers,” he said. “There is no question about the fact that we are living in an age of leverage, an age of credit, and it will have its consequences.”
Ray Dalio, founder of the hedge fund giant Bridgewater Associates, has also been warning of brewing issues. In December, he argued that the U.S. government is reaching an “inflection point” with its debt problem. Eventually, the government will have to borrow just to make its annual debt servicing payments, and that’s a recipe for a debt crisis, Dalio warned.
Some good news?
The good news? As Powell described Sunday, the U.S. still has a “dynamic, innovative, flexible, adaptable economy, more so than other countries.” Powell argued that this is the “big reason” why the U.S. economy has outperformed its peers over the past few years—but there are a few others, as Fortune detailed last week. America’s dynamic economy means the debt situation isn’t too far gone to rectify just yet. But as Powell said: “sooner is better than later.”
Despite the criticism, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has brushed off concerns about the rising national debt. The key metric Yellen looks at is net interest payments as a share of GDP, and that is still “at a very reasonable level,” she argued in a CNBCinterview last September.