PIMCO’s Bill Gross joins the chorus of folks concerned that our exploding deficits are leading us down the road to ruin.
The key questions here are:
- “Who is going to lend us the $2 trillion a year necessary to fund this spending?” and
- What interest rates are they going to demand to do it?”
It used to be China who was lending us the money, but China’s getting queasy, and our borrowing has now exploded far beyond what they are willing to lend.
Lots of folks, including Ben Bernanke and Bill Gross, think that one reason interest rates are spiking is that lenders are demanding higher rates of return in anticipation of all the borrowing we’re going to have to do (and what that will do to the country’s balance sheet). The typical way out of this problem is high inflation, which is why many economists are expecting that, too.
The potential [for a US rating] downgrade, while still far off in the future in PIMCO’s opinion, seemed dubious at first blush. While country ratings factor in numerous subjective qualifications such as contract rights, military might, and advanced secondary education, the primary focus has always been on the objective measurement of debt levels, in this case sovereign debt, as a percentage of GDP. Yet, as shown in Table 1, both the U.S. and the U.K. entered the Great Recession with attractive ratios compared to such grievous offenders (and AA rated) as Japan.
Yet as the markets recognised rather abruptly last week, both countries seem to be closing the gap in record time. To zero in on the U.S. of A., its annual deficit of nearly $1.5 trillion is 10% of GDP alone, a number never approached since the 1930s Depression. While policymakers, including the President and Treasury Secretary Geithner, assure voters and financial markets alike that such a path is unsustainable and that a return to fiscal conservatism is just around the recovery’s corner, it is hard to comprehend exactly how that more balanced rabbit can be pulled out of Washington’s hat.
Private sector deleveraging, reregulation and reduced consumption all argue for a real growth rate in the U.S. that requires a government checkbook for years to come just to keep its head above the 1% required to stabilise unemployment. Five more years of those 10% of GDP deficits will quickly raise America’s debt to GDP level to over 100%, a level that the rating services – and more importantly the markets – recognise as a point of no return. At 100% debt to GDP, the interest on the debt might amount to 5% or 6% of annual output alone, and it quickly compounds as the interest upon interest becomes as heavy as those “sixteen tons” in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s famous song of a West Virginia coal miner. “You load sixteen tons and whattaya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Pretty soon you need 17, 18, 19 tons just to stay even and that describes the potential fate of the United States as the deficits string out into the Obama and other future Administrations.
The fact is that supply-side economics was a partial con job from the get-go. Granted, from the 80% marginal tax rate that existed in the U.S. and the U.K. into the late 60s and 70s, lower taxes do incentivise productive investment and entrepreneurial risk-taking. But below 40% or so, it just pads the pockets of the rich and destabilizes the country’s financial balance sheet. Bill Clinton’s magical surpluses were really due to ephemeral taxes on leverage-based capital gains that in turn were due to the secular decline of inflation and interest rates that at some point had to bottom. We are reaping the consequences of that long period of overconsumption and undersavings encouraged by the belief that lower and lower taxes would cure all.
The current annual deficit of $1.5 trillion does not even address the “pig in the python,” baby boomer, demographic squeeze on resources that looms straight ahead. Private think tanks such as The Blackstone Group and even studies by government agencies, such as the Congressional Budget Office, promise that Federal spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will collectively increase by 6% of GDP over the next 20 years, leading to even larger deficits unless taxes are increased proportionately. Collectively these three programs represent an approximate $40 trillion liability that will have to be paid. If not, you can add that present value figure to the current $10 trillion deficit and reach a 300% of GDP figure – a number that resembles Latin American economies such as Argentina and Brazil over the past century.
So the rather conservative U.S. government debt ratio shown in Table 1 will likely be anything but in less than a decade’s time. The immediate question is who is going to buy all of this debt? Estimates suggest gross Treasury issuance of up to $3 trillion this calendar year and net offerings close to $2 trillion – almost four times last year’s supply. Prior to 2009, it was enough to count on the recycling of the U.S. trade/current account deficit to fund Treasury borrowing requirements. Now, however, with that amount approximating only $500 billion, it is obvious that the Chinese and other surplus nations cannot fund the deficit even if they were fully on board – which they are not. Someone else has got to write checks for up to $1.5 trillion additional Treasury notes and bonds. Well, you’ve got the banks and even individual investors to sponge up some of the excess, but a huge, difficult to estimate marginal supply will have to be bought.
The concern is that this can be accomplished in only two ways – both of which have serious consequences for U.S. and global financial markets. The first and most recent development is the steepening of the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the rise of intermediate and long-term bond yields. While the Treasury can easily afford the higher interest expense in the short term, the pressure it puts on mortgage and corporate rates represents a serious threat to the fragile “greenshoots” recovery now underway. Secondly, the buyer of last resort in recent months has become the Federal Reserve, with its publically announced and near daily purchases of Treasuries and Agencies at a $400 billion annual rate. That in combination with a buy ticket for over $1 trillion of Agency mortgages has been the primary reason why capital markets – both corporate bonds and stocks – are behaving so well. But the Fed must tread carefully here. These purchases result in an expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, which ultimately could have inflationary implications. In turn, nervous holders of dollar obligations are beginning to look for diversification in other currencies, selling Treasury bonds in the process.
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