WASHINGTON -- The federal budget deficit this fiscal year will be at least $50 billion less than the $318 billion projected by the Office of Management and Budget due to sharply lower outlays for the thrift bailout and the Persian Gulf war, Wall Street economists said yesterday.
However, most of that $50 billion will be spent in fiscal 1992, when the deficit could hit an all-time high between $300 billion and $320 billion and the excessive borrowing that results could put a mild crimp on the economic recovery, some economists said.
The deficit this year is "goint to be $260 billion or $270 billion," despite a more prolonged recession than the administration forecast at the beginning of the year when making its deficit estimate, said Leonard Santow of Griggs & Santow Inc.
So far through April, the deficit stands at $122 billion, which is about $13 billion above the level during the same period in fiscal 1990, when the deficit eventually reached $220 billion.
"The $318 billion number never was a good one," Mr. Santow said, "it was a political number" which was motivated by the administration's desire to show the deficit would improve in the long term under its economic policies, even if it deteriorated in the short-term because of the recession.
Jeremy Gluck, economist with Mitsubishi Bank, agreed the deficit will be substantially lower than the official prediction and will be about $270 billion, largely because of congressionally-caused delays in Resolution Trust Corp. borrowing, which will cut nearly in half the amount of expected thrift outlays in fiscal 1991 to around $60 billion.
Both the OMB and the Congressional Budget Office predicted thrift-related borrowing of over $100 billion earlier this year. But because Congress failed to pass legislation authorizing the thrift borrowing until March, the CBO now unofficially agrees with estimates in the $60 billion to $80 billion range, said Stanley Collender, federal budget director at Price Waterhouse.
The budget also got an unexpected boost of about $20 billion in contributions from foreign allies to pay for Operation Desert Storm, which have not yet been offset by military spending, and may not be for years, the economists said.
"Our intimidation [of the allies] was effective. We will earn an enormous profit this year on the war," Mr. Gluck said. The OMB had estimated that the war would cost the U.S. about $15 billion over and above an anticipated $55 billion of outlays that was to be financed by the allies.
While all this would seem like good news, the bad news is virtually all of the borrowing and spending anticipated this year is being pushed off into fiscal 1992, and perhaps beyond, when the excessive borrowing could affect the economic recovery, the economists said.
"All the adversity from the lagged costs of the war, the recession, and the thrift crisis will come in fiscal 1992," when the deficit will reach an all-time high of between $300 billion and $320 billion, Mr. Santow predicted. The postponement of borrowing will result in an unprecedented $270 billion of Treasury offerings between July 1991 and March 1992, he said.
This year's spurt in the deficit -- which, while lower than expected, is still well above last year's near-record level -- already is helping to hold middle and long-term interest rates at relatively high levels, he said.
But the situation could get worse in fiscal 1992, when the glut of borrowing could cause an even sharper "upslope" in the yield curve and "limit the degree of recovery" in the economy, he said.
Mr. Gluck agreed with Mr. Santow's prediction that the deficit would peak in fiscal 1992, rather than this year, as the OMB said. However, he disputed the idea that the huge slate of Treasury borrowings next year will impede the economy's recovery.
Since much of the borrowing will continue to finance thrift rescues, it merely substitutes for transactions in the private financial markets, and should have little more impact on the economy than it currently does, he said.
In addition, the bulk of Treasury's borrowing for the thrift bailout has been "on the short end," where the markets are experiencing historically low rates right now, demonstrating that the borrowing has had very little effect, he said.
Despite the market's "knee-jerk" reaction to recent Treasury financing announcements, "careful academic studies have found there may actually be an inverse relation between interest rates and Treasury borrowing," especially during a recession, he said.
While the Treasury's debt load may do little to thwart a recovery, the tight fiscal policies being pursued by state and local governments right now clearly have deepened and prolonged the recession and are threatening to slow growth down, once the economy gets started again, he said.