Government Debt Grew, While the Rest Shrunk in Q1

The private sector continued to reduce its debt in the first quarter, while the government picked up the slack, and then some. Overall, debt rose at a 3.5% annualized rate, according to the Federal Reserve's Flow of Funds report. But all of that growth was thanks to the government. The following chart tells the story:

fed fof 2010-q1.PNG

As you can see, households (purple line) continued to reduce their debt last quarter by 2.4%. This marked their seventh straight quarter of shrinking debt. Businesses (gold line), however, are beginning to reverse their debt reduction trend. After a four-quarter slide, debt was virtually unchanged in the first quarter. This appears to indicate that businesses are having more luck rolling over their debt this year.

And then, there's the government. State and local governments (green line) increased their debt burden by 4.3%. This was their fifth-straight quarterly increase, which has been pretty stable in the 4% to 5% growth range over that period. The federal government (red line) remains the biggest borrower. Although its debt growth at 18.5% isn't as much as what we saw in late 2008, it's still pretty huge. It's more than last month's 12.6% rise. And remember, this is debt growth, so each quarter total debt has grown to add to the huge late-2008 deficits.

While percentages are interesting, what about the actual dollar values? Households and businesses decreased their debt at annualized rates of $330 billion and $3 billion, respectively. State/local and federal governments increased their debt at annualized rates of $101 billion and $1.45 trillion, respectively. Yes, that was "trillion," with a "t."

To put the federal government's debt growth into perspective, in 2002 through 2007, it grew by an average of $290 billion per year. Since the third-quarter of 2008, it has grown by an average of $1.64 trillion per year. That's an increase of 463%. Even though the recession has been technically over for a few quarters, government borrowing hasn't missed a step.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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