Think our $20 trillion debt is bad? Get a load of the real number

Think our $20 trillion debt is bad? Get a load of the real number
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In recently released numbers, the Treasury Department announced the government, after accounting for some scheduling quirks, ran a $152 billion deficit in August. The budget deficit was $107.7 billion in August 2017, 41-percent less than the newest data.

These numbers are startling, but the reality is that the nation’s debt load is actually much, much worse.

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Washington uses an outdated, inaccurate accounting system that contributes greatly to America’s fiscal irresponsibility. The quality of financial reporting practiced by the U.S. would make Enron blush. The U.S. government is using accounting practices that I would not allow in a first-year business school class.

Washington’s cash-based accounting system records revenues when money is received and records expenses when they are paid.

This method produces a highly inaccurate budget number that doesn’t acknowledge bills that we know we must pay in the future like tax cuts, increases in benefits payable to federal employees or new obligations incurred due to promised Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

If the federal government was honest with the public and followed accrual accounting in its annual budget, which would recognize the increase in future obligations, there is little doubt that politicians would have found a way to deal with the looming financial crisis on our hands.

To put this another way, the Treasury bills owed by the U.S. — or the debt number often referred to in casual conversations — stands at around $20 trillion. But if you look at what the nation really owes, especially related to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that liability number is pushed closer to $80 trillion.

No publicly traded firm would survive if it reported or acknowledged anything resembling a 300-percent increase in its public debt holdings. If we wouldn’t accept this from leading companies in the business world, why do we let our government get away with it?

The unrecorded debt — about $60 trillion — works out to roughly $240,000 for every adult living in the United States, but the country’s median wealth is a mere $44,900 per adult.

That means that if the U.S. were to one day recognize the unrecorded federal debt, a stunning 560 percent of the median wealth of the average American could be wiped out in future taxes to cover costs. Yet, that $80 trillion figure doesn’t even take into account unfunded obligations of state and local governments.

The country’s financial statements are in disarray due to a number of reporting shenanigans.

Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have amassed 400 times as much debt as they have equity, indicating a low likelihood of generating enough cash to pay back the U.S. government. Therefore they are effectively fully-owned by the U.S. government, yet their debt is not consolidated on the U.S. balance sheet.

Second, the Department of Defense, which recently received an added $165 billion, currently accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. government’s physical assets and 50 percent of its’ discretionary spending, yet it has never passed a successful audit.

The government’s own auditors recently identified 43 material weaknesses related to internal control systems for monitoring spending among government agencies, but no discernable actions have been taken. 

Although publicly-traded firms are not immune to these reporting problems, a governance network generally keeps them honest. That network consists of a private sector reporting body, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, and information intermediaries such as equity analysts, credit rating agencies and audit firms.

These entities work in tandem with aggressive owners such as short sellers and activist investors. But such a parallel network does not exist — or worse, is ineffective — at policing the accounting policies of countries.

Thankfully, reasonably independent entities such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office are not afraid to call out faulty financial reporting. But these institutions live within a political power vacuum and have little power to affect actual, worthwhile change.

At the same time, many Washington leaders beholden to the election cycle have decided that an aging voter base doesn’t care about leaving the next generation saddled with the country’s exceedingly high debt.

So how does one restore accountability to a country’s accounting practices? The only real hope to spark change in reporting transparency and restore fiscal responsibility to our government lies in voters demonstrating a preference for a more financially secure country.

Millennials will need to urgently educate themselves and demand to be told the truth about the reporting games their governments rely on to camouflage their profligate ways.

Otherwise, the next generation is already condemned to pay off the ever-increasing on- and off-balance sheet public debt that their current leaders are leaving behind with no feasible fix in sight.

Shiva Rajgopal is the Kester and Byrnes professor at Columbia Business School.