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Does the Canadian side of things include CPP revenues and expenditures, and similarly does the US side include social security?

I'd assume that CPP is excluded from the deficit figures, as otherwise the notional CPP surplus for 2016 should have pushed Canada into a very small surplus for that fiscal year.

It would be interesting to see the differing impacts of the demographic bubble between the US and Canada as Canada undertook substantial CPP reform in the 90s, more aggressively than the US reformed Social Security.

@Majromax: CPP is not in Canadian federal spending but social security is in US federal spending. However the Canadian spending includes Old Age Security.

As the provincial and state level responsibilities may not be the same, it would have been a more useful to have another charts that compare total government (national plus provincial, state) expenditure in GDP.

To aid comparisons, can you add [item] as % of GDP series to figures 2 & 3?

@Two Hats:good idea. Will update the post in the next day or so. Livio.

Hi Livio,

I'm having a difficult time reconciling your US interest chart with OMB data:


...which seems to have interest payments as a % of GDP around 1.3%, whereas you have it as 2.5% -- are you perchance plotting debt service rather than interest expense? Principle repayment is not an interest expense.

Also, for your "Federal Government Spending", it's not clear what you mean by "spending".

Federal Net Outlays is the standard measure here:


..which also differs from your chart by about 2%. Are you perchance measuring gross outlays? Again, that's a problematic measure.

More importantly, total outlays isn't going to tell you much of anything, since what you care about is consumption and not capital expenditures. E.g. take a family that was renting in year 1 but in year 2 buys a house. Just looking at the outlays makes it look like the family spent a lot in year 2, but really it just expanded its balance sheet. The actual spending of the family changes by the difference between the interest payment on the house and an equivalent rent, together with re-valuation of the property. But if you bundle capital spending (e.g. on structures) together with things like employee salaries all into one number, you aren't going to get much information, nor is this a useful comparison because if government A prefers to lease it's structures but government B buys them outright, then B will look like it's spending a lot more in some periods and lot less in others, even though both governments are spending exactly the same amount. Similarly, deficit to GDP doesn't mean anything if you are treating capital investments the same as consumption. Also, your graph is a bit different from the one in FRED:


which has the US deficit to GDP as 3.1% in 2016, but it looks like 4% in your graph.

@rsj: Thanks for the comments. I am not as familiar with US data sources as I am with Canadian and it was a bit of a challenge given the wealth of data available. For interest payments on the US federal debt I used - A091RC1Q027SBEA - and for federal spending I used federal government total expenditures - W019RCQ027SBEA. For GDP I used an annual series GDPA (A191RC1). They seemed to correspond to the Canadian variables I used but there may be differences in how they are constructed and what they cover. I know Winer and Ferris had a paper in CPP some time ago in which they compared Canadian and US public sector size and they noted that there were some differences in the measurement of public sector activities but I cannot remember them at the moment.

Hi Livio,

OK, you are not including principle payment, the difference is gross versus net interest. It's a huge difference! I plotted the difference between your BEA current interest outlays and my OMB interest payments:


BEA numbers are roughly double the OMB numbers.

OMB = Office of Management and Budget, which includes the Treasury data on interest payments. These are the people that hold the auctions and send out checks.
BEA = bureau of economic analysis which does NIPA.

To get from BEA Federal Data to OMB you need to subtract interest income received from interest income paid to get the net interest income paid.

A good discussion of this can be found in a recent Survey of Current Business article:


See especially Table 6, section on "Net Interest"

I think the OMB data is the right one to use here, because if the government decides to sell $100 of bonds paying 3% and it uses half the money to buy bonds paying 3%, then the relevant interest payment for purposes of assessing things like fiscal sustainability or the interest burden is not $3 but $1.50, because if taxes need to be raised to pay interest, then the taxes are only going to be $1.50 per year, not $3 per year.

Why would a government decide to do something like that? Well, it has to do with politics and how various agencies are structured. For example, in the U.S. there is a social security trust fund that has been running surpluses and it uses those surpluses to purchase federal debt. Interest paid on the debt is then routed to the social security agency which uses the money to pay benefits.

But alternately, suppose the budget was unified. Then, when the social security payments were running in surplus, the money could have been used to retire government debt outright. In that case, the interest on the debt retired would never need to be paid. But the overall fiscal position of both governments is identical.

As another example, suppose a government endows a clean up fund by selling $100 worth of bonds and giving those bonds to the clean up fund, which uses the interest to pay for cleanup. The interest is paid by raising taxes by $3 per year.

Another government could just have easily decided not to stockpile the debt but to spend the $3 in cleanup out of its general budget, say by raising taxes $3 per year.

Both governments have the same net debt (0) and the same net interest payments (0). But one of these governments has $100 in gross debt and $3 in gross interest payments, that are offset by $100 in assets (held by the cleanup fund) and $3 in interest income received by the cleanup fund. When doing cross country comparisons, or assessing things like overall tax burden and fiscal sustainability, it's good to consolidate these numbers to get an apple to apple comparison, since all of these governments are in the same financial position.

Thanks for this rsj. That is alot to absorb. Your comment will serve as an important qualifier on the post given I did stick to the BEA numbers.

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