How deficits could be the Trump agenda's No. 1 nemesis

The market has been surging on the apparent belief that President-elect Donald Trump will be able to adopt a far-reaching tax cut and stimulus program that will ignite growth.

But an old nemesis for many politicians — the deficit — could stand in his way. From politics to markets to public perceptions, the deficit can be a tricky problem to maneuver. It's not insurmountable by any means — and doubting the president-elect has been a sucker's bet — but it should factor into investors' calculations about how much Trump can accomplish.

His promises in the campaign were soaring. Trump offered up a $6 trillion tax cut, including lower taxes across the board for most Americans and deep cuts to business taxes, a big infrastructure plan and higher military spending. He pledged to not reduce entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare.

To be sure, his advisors say there will be little if any increase in the deficit, at least from the tax cut part of it. They say tax cuts, deregulation and better trade deals will cause growth to surge, even topping 4 percent from the current 2 percent levels. Also offsetting deficit increases will be sharp spending cuts to the nondefense, discretionary side of the budget.

Many economists remain skeptical that, for example, tax cuts generate sufficient revenue to pay for themselves. Potential trade barriers also could boost inflation and cut growth. Several political observers think Trump's plans to cut 1 percent annually from the shrinking nondefense discretionary side of the budget will meet with harsh resistance. The results, then, could be much higher deficits in the years to come, unless the growth and spending cuts materialize to offset them.

Donald Trump
Eric Thayer | Reuters
Donald Trump

Here's a look at different factors that will influence the president-elect's ability to achieve his goals.

The public

Concern about the deficit has fallen down the list of issues top of Americans' minds. In several polls taken just before the election, the deficit ranked a weak fourth or fifth on the list of major concerns, far below jobs and health care and education and terrorism. That's a long way from where it was in 2013 when concern over government shutdowns and sequestrations gripped the public and the nation's deficit was a top priority.

Such sentiment would appear to give the president-elect some breathing room to increase the deficit without a major public outcry, especially if the increase is couched in terms of growth and jobs. Trump's plan to cut government spending could also find support as a majority of Americans in exit polls on Nov. 8 said they believed the government is doing too much.

A 46 percent plurality of registered voters in an October CNBC All-America Economic Survey believed that Trump would increase the deficit, and 23 percent thought he would decrease it. So there's no expectation among the broader public that he would cut the deficit. One caveat: 50 percent of Trump supporters in the poll thought he would cut the deficit, compared to just 17 percent who believed it would increase. So a surge in the deficit could risk disappointing his own constituency.


It's become so normal for politicians to switch sides on the deficit depending on whether they are in power that it almost seems a waste of breath to be indignant when it happens. But this next Congress could still offer some eyebrow-raising turnabouts. Democrats will be hard-pressed to complain too much about the national debt after it doubled under President Barack Obama's watch to nearly $20 trillion, in part from the recession, in part from a big stimulus package. Democrats also have called for infrastructure spending and government stimulus to kick-start the economy.

They will likely argue that big tax cuts, the bulk of which will go to the wealthy, are inefficient stimulus since the wealthy don't spend much of what they'll save in taxes. And they'll reject the notion that tax cuts stimulate growth by creating incentives to invest. They will also point out that President Obama reduced the deficit as a percentage of GDP each year of his presidency, bringing it back toward more normal levels in the past three.

The stridency of the tea party Republicans on the deficit, some of whom argued it was a moral (bordering on religious) issue, would make their about-face on the deficit issue among the more notable in recent political memory. Such fiscal forbearance is not assured. They could end up opposing Trump's plans on deficit grounds.

Even some more establishments Republicans have expressed some concern. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., in a CNBC interview cautioned, "there's certainly going to a lot of skepticism about" administration plans that end up raising the deficit. He added that "you can't actually put the social safety net off the table."

Some Republicans in Congress may find the ability to justify their support for Trump's plans in the work of economists and think tanks that show substantial tax revenues kicked off by the tax cuts.

The Fed

Fed Chair Janet Yellen and the central bank will have a say, at least in the first year until Trump can appoint his own chair, about how much room to run they give the new president in terms of deficit financing and growth. So far, the signals have been mixed.

Yellen in recent testimony noted that the economy is "operating reasonably close to maximum employment' and that inflation is "heading back towards 2 percent." A fiscal package like one discussed by the president-elect "could have inflationary consequences," she said. Yellen said the Fed would have to consider the effects of such a package in devising monetary policy. That sounded like rates could go up faster than markets currently expect, especially if a new fiscal package prompts higher inflation forecasts.

Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, in comments this week, didn't necessarily contradict Yellen, but seemed more open to the fiscal package. He noted that for many years the Fed has been "the only game in town" when it came to stimulating the economy and said the right fiscal policies can increase the growth potential of the economy.

But a higher growth potential also could mean a higher fed funds rate. And the Fed could use the cover of a big fiscal package to more quickly normalize its $4.1 trillion balance sheet, that is, sell mortgage or Treasury securities it owns, raising rates even further.


Economists disagree over how much deficits matter. Japan's debt as a percentage of GDP is 210 percent and yet its 10-year Treasury bond yield trades barely above zero. With U.S. government debt held by the public at around 77 percent of GDP, there would appear to be scope for the U.S. to run higher deficits with little impact on borrowing costs.

But one rule of thumb is that deficits matter when markets say they do. If markets begin to believe the deficit is on an unsustainable path, or begins to doubt the country's ability to pay its debt, rates could skyrocket. The market then could be a critical limiting factor on the president's plans. Higher interest rates could boost the deficit impacts of the new fiscal program as well as raise the cost of tax cuts to the Treasury, further limiting the new president's leeway for fiscal stimulus.

The irony is that the more exuberant the market gets about Trump's plans, the more it drives rates as a result, the more it may actually limit the president-elect's horizons.