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Aug. 20, 2020, 1:59 p.m. EDT

How will the U.S. ever repay all this debt?

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By TODD G. BUCHHOLZ

SAN DIEGO, Calif. ( Project Syndicate) —The United States today not only looks ill, but dead broke. To offset the pandemic-induced “Great Cessation,” the Federal Reserve and Congress have marshaled staggering sums of stimulus spending out of fear that the economy would otherwise plunge to 1930s soup-kitchen levels.

The 2020 federal  budget deficit  will be around 18% of gross domestic product, and the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio will soon hurdle over the 100% mark. Such figures have not been seen since Harry Truman sent B-29s to Japan to end World War II.

Assuming that America eventually defeats COVID-19 and does not devolve into a  Terminator -like dystopia, how will it avoid the approaching fiscal cliff and national bankruptcy? To answer such questions, we should reflect on the lessons of WWII, which did not bankrupt the U.S., even though debt soared to 119% of GDP. By the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, that ratio had fallen to  just above 40% .

WWII was  financed  with a combination of roughly 40% taxes and 60% debt. Buyers of that debt received measly returns, with the Fed keeping the yield on one-year Treasuries at around 0.375%—compared with the prevailing 2%-4% peacetime rates. Ten-year notes /zigman2/quotes/211347051/realtime BX:TMUBMUSD10Y -0.22% , meanwhile, yielded just 2%, which actually sounds high nowadays.

These U.S. bonds, most with a nominal value of $25 or less, were bought predominantly by American citizens out of a sense of patriotic duty. Fed employees also got in on the act, holding competitions to see whose office could buy more bonds. In April 1943, New York Fed employees snapped up more than $87,000 worth of paper and were  told  that their purchases enabled the Army to buy a 105-millimeter howitzer and a Mustang fighter-bomber.

Patriotism aside, many Americans purchased Treasury bonds out of a sheer lack of other good choices. Until the deregulation of the 1980s, federal laws prevented banks from offering high rates to savers. Moreover, the thought of swapping U.S. dollars for higher-yielding foreign assets seemed ludicrous, and doing so might have brought J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to your door.

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While equity markets were open to investors (the Dow Jones Industrial Average /zigman2/quotes/210598065/realtime DJIA +0.93% actually rallied after 1942), brokers’ commissions were hefty, and only about 2% of American families owned stocks. Investing in the stock market seemed best-suited for Park Avenue swells, or for amnesiacs who forgot the 1929 crash. By contrast, a  majority  of American households own equities today.

In any case, household savings during WWII were up—and largely in bonds. But Treasury paper bore a paltry yield, a distant maturity, and the stern-looking image of a former president. How, then, was the monumental war debt resolved? Three factors stand out.

First, the U.S. economy grew fast. From the late 1940s to the late 1950s, annual growth  averaged around 3.75% , funneling massive revenues to the Treasury. Moreover, U.S. manufacturers faced few international competitors. British, German, and Japanese factories had been pounded to rubble in the war, and China’s primitive foundries were far from turning out automobiles and home appliances.

Second, inflation took off after the war as the government rolled back price controls. From March 1946 to March 1947,  prices jumped 20%  as they returned to reflecting the true costs of doing business. But, because government bonds paid so much less than the 76% rise in prices between 1941 and 1951, government debt obligations fell sharply in real terms.

Third, the U.S. benefited from borrowing rates being locked in for a long time. The average duration of debt in 1947 was more than 10 years, which is about twice today’s average duration. Owing to these three factors, federal debt had fallen to about 50% of GDP by the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s administration in 1961.

So, what’s the lesson for today? For starters, the Treasury should give tomorrow’s children a break by issuing 50- and 100-year bonds, locking in today’s puny rates for a lifetime.

To those who would counter that the government might not even be around in 50 or 100 years, it is worth noting that many corporations have already successfully auctioned long-term bonds of this kind.

When Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS +0.18% issued 100-year “Sleeping Beauty” bonds in 1993, the market scooped them up. Norfolk Southern /zigman2/quotes/200877725/composite NSC +2.62% enjoyed a similar reception when it issued 100-year bonds in 2010. (Imagine, buying century bonds from a  railroad .) And Coca-Cola /zigman2/quotes/209159848/composite KO +0.81% , IBM /zigman2/quotes/203856914/composite IBM +3.90% , Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +2.45% , and dozens of other companies have issued 100-year debt.

Notwithstanding the fact that many institutions of learning have been compromised by the pandemic, the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State University, and Yale University also have issued 100-year bonds. And in 2010, buyers even grabbed Mexico’s 100-year bonds, despite a history of devaluations stretching back to 1827.

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