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Bailout: Pay now, worry later

The economic strategy of immense spending may sow the seeds of higher interest rates and soaring inflation.

November 30, 2008|Jim Puzzanghera | Puzzanghera is a Times staff writer.

But the federal efforts to forestall a depression are still historic in scope.

A $1-trillion deficit next year would represent about 7% of the nation's total economic output, or gross domestic product. That would top the 5.9% reached during the height of the Great Depression in 1934 but would fall well short of the deficits of World War II. In 1943, the high point, the deficit amounted to 30% of GDP.

The national debt is soaring too. In September, the National Debt Clock in New York City ran out of digits as the figure ticked over $10 trillion. The debt is now larger than the 45% of GDP it reached at the end of the Great Depression, but less than in 1946, when war spending had pushed the debt to 129% of GDP, said Gordon, author of "Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt."

There's a potentially crucial difference, however, between the spending then and the commitments now:

Much of the Depression-World War II spending was on industrial production -- building new factories and converting existing plants to produce tanks, planes and ships. Huge sums also went into developing new technologies.

Those investments, combined with pent-up consumer demand and savings from the lean war years, quickly led to budget surpluses and sharp economic growth in the late 1940s as the baby boom began.

Analysts warn not to expect that to happen again. This time the government spending is largely ethereal, with the Federal Reserve printing more money to inject liquidity into the financial system and keep banks and other institutions afloat. And savings rates are low.

"Too many Americans have overextended themselves with regard to credit and debt, and too many have been following the bad example of the government," Walker said. "It is imperative that we recognize that this country has been living beyond its means and that we face large and growing structural deficits even after we turn the economy around."

Walker said he understands the need to attack the financial crisis. But the spending only adds to the looming problems of unfunded Social Security and Medicare commitments as baby boomers begin to retire.

He noted that the Moody's bond-rating firm fired a shot across the government's bow in January with a warning that spending on entitlement programs poses a long-term threat to the triple-A rating for government bonds. And that was before the financial crisis.

Interest rates remain low because of the crisis. But they will rise, particularly when the U.S. government starts borrowing more money to cover its growing debt, analysts predict. That could cause inflation to increase as well.

"We could easily enter into a highly inflationary situation because of all the stimulus we have and all the borrowing we have once it works its way through the economy," MacGuineas said. "The single most important priority right now is to stabilize the economy . . . but it really means that there is a huge risk on the other side."

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jim.puzzanghera@ latimes.com

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