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Today, the Federal Reserve announced a 0.25 percentage point increase in the target for the federal funds rate. The increase in that rate, which is the interest rate at which commercial banks lend to one another overnight, is meant to help tame rising inflation; however, the increase also has implications for the federal government’s borrowing costs and therefore the nation’s fiscal picture.
The Fed’s move will set the target range for the federal funds rate to between 5.00 and 5.25 percent — a 16-year high. It reflects the third time the central bank has raised rates this year (following seven raises in 2022 after holding them close to zero since the onset of the pandemic).
The federal funds rate is the benchmark for Treasury bills and other short-term securities. Adjusting the rate is an important tool for the Federal Reserve to help achieve their statutory mandate, which is to promote the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates. Expectations about the short-term rates, combined with other factors, may also affect longer-term rates that are applied to business investment loans and consumer borrowing such as mortgages and car loans.
However, as interest rates on U.S. Treasury securities rise, so too will the federal government’s borrowing costs. The United States was able to borrow cheaply to respond to the pandemic because interest rates were historically low. However, as the Federal Reserve increases the federal funds rate, short-term rates on Treasury securities will rise as well — making some federal borrowing more expensive. Expectations about short-term rates and inflation have already pushed up longer-term rates as well.
In February, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that annual net interest costs would total $640 billion in 2023 and double over the upcoming decade, soaring from $739 billion in 2024 to $1.4 trillion in 2033 and summing to $10.5 trillion over that period. However, if inflation is higher than CBO’s projections and if the Fed raises interest rates by larger amounts than the agency projected, such costs may rise even faster than anticipated.
The growth in interest costs presents a significant challenge in the long-term as well. According to CBO’s projections, interest payments would total around $74 trillion over the next 30 years and would take up nearly 40 percent of all federal revenues by 2053. Interest costs would also become the largest “program” over the next few decades — surpassing defense spending in 2029, Medicare in 2044, and Social Security in 2050.
Ballooning interest costs threaten to crowd out important public investments that can fuel economic growth in the future. CBO estimates that by 2053, interest costs are projected to be nearly three times what the federal government has historically spent on R&D, nondefense infrastructure, and education, combined.
The long-term fiscal challenges facing the United States are serious. Significant borrowing was necessary to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the structural imbalance between spending and revenues that existed before the pandemic is still large and will grow rapidly in the future. Furthermore, as interest rates rise and the nation’s debt grows, it will become even more expensive to borrow in the future. Congresses and Presidents of both parties, over many years, have avoided making hard choices about our budget and failed to put it on a sustainable path. It is vital for lawmakers to take action on the growing debt to ensure a stable economic future.