WASHINGTON -- The recent news that the federal deficit could hit almost $350 billion next year is only part of the shocking story. The Congressional Budget Office and private analysts say the even worse news is that there may be no relief in sight from yearly deficits near that colossal peak.
The CBO, in a forecast due to be released this Thursday, is now projecting that the deficit will linger between $250 billion and $300 billion for at least two more years, sources there said. And they see no end in the foreseeable future for a deficit stuck in the triple-digit range it has inhabited since the early 1980s.
These projections -- and even grimmer scenarios suggested by some private economists -- mean long-term interest rates could move substantially higher as credit markets brace for year after year of huge Treasury borrowings. Further, the Treasury's appetite for funds could collide with private credit demand as the economy revives and, combined with the higher rates, suppress growth.
The bond market and most lawmakers had taken comfort in the belief that the $480 billion of five-year savings in the 1990 budget agreement eventually would bring the deficit down to manageable levels below $100 billion -- even if it shot up in the short term because of the recession and "onetime" factors.
The prospect of an eventual reduction in the deficit caused a market rally and some lowering of long-term rates when the agreement was announced last fall, while it has been the main reason Congress has done nothing further to reduce the gap all year, despite escalating deficit forecasts.
But the CBO's new deficit outlook will show how the recession -- which Congress did not anticipate when it wrote the budget agreement -- is increasing the deficit permanently by causing a loss of revenues that cannot be recouped even when the economy picks up steam again, the CBO sources said.
Beyond that, analysts say the expectation of significantly lower deficits may be unjustified for other reasons. In particular, they see some seeds of doubt buried in the very Office of Management and Budget report last month that proclaims the surge in the deficit would be only temporary due to a shift of more than $100 billion of borrowing for the thrift bailout and Persian Gulf war from this year into the next two years.
The OMB's July forecast not only contained the "onetime" shift, which analysts said is debatable, but the revelation that -- because of a technical revenue-estimating error -- the administration has understated the deficit by $20 billion or more each year.
That income tax estimating error will cost $133 billion over the five years of the budget agreement and will eat up most of the agreement's $166 billion of savings from tax increases, analysts said.
Many bond market participants had considered the agreement's tax increases to be the one sure thing that would produce a permanent improvement in the deficit and interest rates. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said after the agreement was enacted that the market's limited optimism was due largely to the tax increases, since the market was skeptical whether most of the agreement's purported spending cuts would ever be realized.
But even Mr. Greenspan's confidence that the deficit would be tamed by the budget agreement appears to have been shaken. While he has said publicly that he still hopes to see improvement in later years, he privately has told reporters that the new figures "astounded" him.
Even the CBO may have understated the problem, analysts said. For one thing, sources there said they had not realized that the agreement's tax savings would be largely wiped out by the estimating mistake. And the CBO forecast also assumes that Congress will adhere in coming years to the budget agreement's spending caps and other budget disciplines -- an assumption that many private analysts consider "iffy."
Congress has openly flirted all year with various ways of getting around the restrictions, including taking some programs such as the multibillion-dollar highway program out from under the spending caps, and sidestepping both the caps and the law's "pay as you go" requirements by declaring a spending "emergency" to pass $5.2 billion of expanded unemployment insurance benefits.
Stanley Collender, budget director at Price Waterhouse, said the CBO's and OMB's belief that the deficit is temporarily ballooning due to "onetime" factors is also questionable. "This 'onetime' spending is very likely to be repeated in one way or another well into the future," he said.
The so-called temporary deficit spending for the thrift bailout has been going on since 1989, he said, and could be extended into a protracted bailout of banks or insurance companies that fail as a result of the recession.
Similarly, he argued, Desert Storm's cost will likely be spread out over years, since procurement of some weapons destroyed during the Persian Gulf war may not be completed until the end of the decade.
"Even if these particular so-called onetime events do eventually stop requiring federal expenditures, others are likely to take their place. There are always unanticipated costs that are not accounted for in the current budget projections," he said.
Next year's "onetime" expenses could be natural disasters, such as floods or crop failures, he said, or they could be "man-made" emergencies, such as a deeper-than-expected economic downturn or another foreign military venture.
Mr. Collender said that in light of the OMB's "stunning" and "previously unimaginated" 1992 deficit forecast of $348 billion, the only "obvious success" of the budget agreement has been "removing the deficit as a political issue."
One year ago, the same forecast would have sent all of Washington scrambling to pass a budget agreement to prevent devastating across-the-board budget cuts under the Gramm-Rudman law, he said. This year, the forecast created little more than a ripple of concern in Washington or on Wall Street, he said.