It's the federal budget deficit for 2009, more than three times the most red ink ever amassed in a single year.
And, some economists warn, unless the government makes hard decisions to cut spending or raise taxes, it could be the seeds of another economic crisis.
Treasury figures released Friday showed that the government spent $46.6 billion more in September than it took in, a month that normally records a surplus. That boosted the shortfall for the full fiscal year ending Sept. 30 to $1.42 trillion. The previous year's deficit was $459 billion.
As a percentage of U.S. economic output, it's the biggest deficit since World War II.
"The rudderless U.S. fiscal policy is the biggest long-term risk to the U.S. economy," says Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard professor and former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund. "As we accumulate more and more debt, we leave ourselves very vulnerable."
Forecasts of more red ink mean the federal government is heading toward spending 15 percent of its money by 2019 just to pay interest on the debt, up from 5 percent this fiscal year.
President Barack Obama has pledged to reduce the deficit once the Great Recession ends and the unemployment rate starts falling, but economists worry that the government lacks the will to make the hard political choices to get control of the imbalances.
Friday's report showed that the government paid $190 billion in interest over the last 12 months on Treasury securities sold to finance the federal debt. Experts say this tab could quadruple in a decade as the size of the government's total debt rises to $17.1 trillion by 2019.
Without significant budget cuts, that would crowd out government spending in such areas as transportation, law enforcement and education. Already, interest on the debt is the third-largest category of government spending, after the government's popular entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, and the military.
As the biggest borrower in the world, the government has been the prime beneficiary of today's record low interest rates. The new budget report showed that interest payments fell by $62 billion this year even as the debt was soaring. Yields on three-month Treasury bills, sold every week by the Treasury to raise fresh cash to pay for maturing government debt, are now at 0.065 percent while six-month bills have fallen to 0.150 percent, the lowest ever in a half-century of selling these bills on a weekly basis.
The risk is that any significant increase in the rates at Treasury auctions could send the government's interest expenses soaring. That could happen several ways
- higher inflation could push the Federal Reserve to increase the short-term interest rates it controls, or the dollar could slump in value, or a combination of both.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that the nation's debt held by investors both at home and abroad will increase by $9.1 trillion over the next decade, pushing the total to $17.1 trillion decade under Obama's spending plans.
The biggest factor behind this increase is the anticipated surge in government spending when the baby boomers retire and start receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits. Also contributing will be Obama's plans to extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone except the wealthy.
The $1.42 trillion deficit for 2009 - which was less than the $1.75 trillion that Obama had projected in February
- includes the cost of the government's financial sector bailout and the economic stimulus program passed in February. Individual and corporate income taxes dwindled as a result of the recession. Coupled with the impact of the Bush tax cuts earlier in the decade, tax revenues fell 16.6 percent, the biggest decline since 1932.
Immense as it was, many economists say the 2009 deficit was necessary to fight the financial crisis. But analysts worry about the long-term trajectory.
The administration estimates that government debt will reach 76.5 percent of gross domestic product
- the value of all goods and services produced in the United States - in 2019. It stood at 41 percent of GDP last year. The record was 113 percent of GDP in 1945.