The U.S. national debt originated with the American Revolution and as of 2009 amounted to more than $12.3 trillion. President Ronald Reagan made the debt a campaign issue in his successful presidential run (1980), but the national debt nearly tripled during his presidency. By the late 1990s, however, a federal budget surplus allowed President Bill Clinton to start paying down the debt—the first time this action had been taken since 1972. In 1998, Clinton presented the first balanced federal budget (with no annual deficit) since 1969. By 2002, however, the large tax cuts enacted under President G. W. Bush, combined with the effects of an economic slowdown and increased expenditures on national security following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, led to new deficits and an increase in the national debt. In the financial crisis that began in 2007 and the subsequent recession, the U.S. government's efforts under President Barack Obama to stabilize the financial system and revive the economy led to record budget deficits.
Governments may borrow to meet temporary needs, as when estimated revenue falls below or is exceeded by estimated expenditures. Short-term treasury notes, payable by increased taxes or by greater economizing, may be issued, but such a debt should not become permanent. Nonetheless, many national goverments incur such debt because of an unwillingness to limit spending or increase taxes for fear of the political consequences. Borrowing to finance public works, especially when widespread unemployment exists, is another source of public debt and is justified in part by their long-term social utility. The largest public debts are incurred to meet emergencies, such as war debts that arise when it is difficult to finance the extended activities of the government by new or increased taxes, or when the government must borrow abroad to finance the war effort..
Public debt is advantageous in that part of the national funds are secured at an interest rate lower than that provided to private industry and in that the financial operations of government are funded on a permanent basis. It may also have an expansionary effect on employment and production during times of high unemployment. The disadvantages are that unjustifiable projects may be undertaken because the full burden of payment is postponed; that the government's demands may become so large that the interest rate on government bonds will rise to the point where money is diverted from private enterprise; and that too great a debt may induce governments to depreciate currency or default on obligations.
Public loans, the characteristic form of government debts in modern times, may be in the form of short-term instruments, e.g., tax warrants, treasury certificates, treasury notes, and other notes such as those of the Federal Reserve System; of long-term government bonds; and of various notes that promise yearly payment of interest but do not specify a date for payment of principal. Although governments in times of stress have often converted bonds to issues carrying lower interest rates, have depreciated the value of currency, or have defaulted entirely on their obligations, with disastrous results for the bondholders, the number of those holding government obligations has increased in recent history. Default on obligations held by foreigners has been a reason offered for past intervention by major powers in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.
The payment of the public debt improves the national credit by instilling public confidence in the economy, which usually leads to economic growth. Public debts may be paid by a sinking fund or by annuities, but both have the disadvantage of committing the government to fixed annual payments, whether convenient or not. Another method is to use only surplus revenue, setting a permanent appropriation to be paid against principal over and above annual interest rates. The ultimate security of the public debt lies in the willingness of the people to pay and the ability of the government to collect taxes.
See R. Heilbroner and P. Bernstein, The Debt and the Deficit (1989); D. Stabile, The Public Debt of the United States (1991); J. S. Gordon, Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt (1997).
Debt is that which is owed; usually referencing assets owed, but the term can cover other obligations. In the case of assets, debt is a means of using future purchasing power in the present before a summation has been earned. Some companies and corporations use debt as a part of their overall corporate finance strategy.
A debt is created when a creditor agrees to lend a sum of assets to a debtor. In modern society, debt is usually granted with expected repayment; in many cases, plus interest. Historically, debt was responsible for the creation of indentured servants.
Before a debt can be made, both the debtor and the creditor must agree on the manner in which the debt will be repaid, known as the standard of deferred payment. This payment is usually denominated as a sum of money in units of currency, but can sometimes be denominated in terms of goods. Payment can be made in increments over a period of time, or all at once at the end of the loan agreement.
A debt obligation is considered secured if creditors have recourse to the assets of the company on a proprietary basis or otherwise ahead of general claims against the company. Unsecured debt comprises financial obligations, where creditors do not have recourse to the assets of the borrower to satisfy their claims.
Private debt comprises bank-loan type obligations, whether senior or mezzanine. Public debt is a general definition covering all financial instruments that are freely tradeable on a public exchange or over the counter, with few if any restrictions.
Loan syndication is a risk management tool that allows the lead banks underwriting the debt to reduce their risk and free up lending capacity.
A basic loan is the simplest form of debt. It consists of an agreement to lend a principal sum for a fixed period of time, to be repaid by a certain date. In commercial loans interest, calculated as a percentage of the principal sum per year, will also have to be paid by that date.
In some loans, the amount actually loaned to the debtor is less than the principal sum to be repaid; the additional principal has the same economic effect as a higher interest rate (see point (mortgage)).
A syndicated loan is a loan that is granted to companies that wish to borrow more money than any single lender is prepared to risk in a single loan, usually many millions of dollars. In such a case, a syndicate of banks can each agree to put forward a portion of the principal sum.
A bond is a debt security issued by certain institutions such as companies and governments. A bond entitles the holder to repayment of the principal sum, plus interest. Bonds are issued to investors in a marketplace when an institution wishes to borrow money. Bonds have a fixed lifetime, usually a number of years; with long-term bonds, lasting over 30 years, being less common. At the end of the bond's life the money should be repaid in full. Interest may be added to the end payment, or can be paid in regular installments (known as coupons) during the life of the bond. Bonds may be traded in the bond markets, and are widely used as relatively safe investments in comparison to equity.
There are differences in the accounting of debt for private and public agents. If a private agent promises to pay something later, it has a debt, and this debt is enforceable by public agents. If a public body passes a law stating that it'll pay something later (a kind of promise), it keeps the right to change the law later (and not to pay). This is why, for instance, the money governments promised to pay for retirements does not show up in the public debt assessment, whereas the money private companies promised to pay for retirements do.
The form of debt involved in banking accounts for a large proportion of the money in most industrialised nations (see money and credit money for a discussion of this). There is therefore a relationship between inflation, deflation, the money supply, and debt. The store of value represented by the entire economy of the industrialized nation, and the state's ability to levy tax on it, acts to the foreign holder of debt as a guarantee of repayment, since industrial goods are in high demand in many places worldwide.
In countries with consistently high inflation, ordinary borrowings at banks may also be inflation indexed.
However, if the real value of a currency changes during the term of the debt, the purchasing power of the money repaid may vary considerably from that which was expected at the commencement of the loan. So from a practical investment point of view, there is still considerable risk attached to "risk free" or "low risk" lendings. The real value of the money may have changed due to inflation, or, in the case of a foreign investment, due to exchange rate fluctuations.
A change in ratings can strongly affect a company, since its cost of refinancing depends on its creditworthiness. Bonds below Baa/BBB (Moody's/S&P) are considered junk- or high risk bonds. Their high risk of default (approximately 1.6% for Ba) is compensated by higher interest payments. Bad Debt is a loan that can not (partially or fully) be repaid by the debtor. The debtor is said to default on his debt. These types of debt are frequently repackaged and sold below face value. Buying junk bonds is seen as a risky but potentially profitable form of investment.
Excesses in debt accumulation have been blamed for exacerbating economic problems. For example, prior to the beginning of the Great Depression debt/GDP ratio was very high. Economic agents were heavily indebted. This excess of debt, equivalent to excessive expectations on future returns, accompanied asset bubbles on the stock markets. When expectations corrected, deflation and a credit crunch followed. Deflation effectively made debt more expensive and, as Fisher explained, this reinforced deflation again, because, in order to reduce their debt level, economic agents reduced their consumption and investment. The reduction in demand reduced business activity and caused further unemployment. In a more direct sense, more bankruptcies also occurred due both to increased debt cost caused by deflation and the reduced demand.
It is possible for some organizations to enter into alternative types of borrowing and repayment arrangements which will not result in bankruptcy. For example, companies can sometimes convert debt that they owe into equity in themselves. In this case, the creditor hopes to regain something equivalent to the debt and interest in the form of dividends and capital gains of the borrower. The "repayments" are therefore proportional to what the borrower earns and so can not in themselves cause bankruptcy. Once debt is converted in this way, it is no longer known as debt.
Debt will increase through time if it is not repaid faster than it grows through interest. This effect may be termed usury, while the term "usury" in other contexts refers only to an excessive rate of interest, in excess of a reasonable profit for the risk accepted.
In international legal thought, Odious debt is debt that is incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the interest of the state. Such debts are thus considered by this doctrine to be personal debts of the regime that incurred them and not debts of the state.
In an economy with high interest rates, debt will be more costly to a business than more flexible dividends on equity investment. It may be easier for a struggling business to be financed through equity investment as it may be possible to avoid paying a dividend if times are hard.