The Sovereign Debt Train Wreck

The Sovereign Debt Train Wreck – US Debt Is Still A Problem
Satyajit Das
December 1, 2011


Greece and the other debt burdened European countries are merely the first carriages in the derailment of the “Sovereign Debt” Express train service.

The failure of the congressional super-committee to reach agreement on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts means that addressing the problem of US public finances is unlikely in the near term. The failure also casts doubts on the ability of US policy makers to overcome political differences to take actions to stabilise US government debt with potential consequences for the US and global economy

At Debt’s Door…

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The World owes more than the world can pay.” The US certainly owes more than it can repay. US government debt currently totals over $14 trillion.

The US Treasury estimates that this debt will rise to around $20 trillion by 2015, over 100% of America’s Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”). Even these dire forecasts rely on extremely robust assumption about US growth around 5-5.5% per annum. Lower growth will translate into higher debt levels.

There are other current and contingent commitments not explicitly included in the debt figures reported by the government. Since July 2008, the US government has supported Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (known as government sponsored enterprises (GSEs)). This totals over $5 trillion in additional on or off-balance sheet obligations.

The debt statistics do not include a number of unfunded obligations – the current value of mandatory payments for programs such as Medicare ($23 trillion), Medicaid ($35 trillion) and Social Security ($8 trillion). Projections show that payouts for these programs will significantly exceed tax revenues over the next 75 years and require funding from other tax sources or borrowing.

In addition to Federal debt, US State governments and municipalities have debt of around $3 trillion.

US public finances deteriorated significantly over recent years. Pimco’s Bill Gross observed: “What a good country or a good squirrel should be doing is stashing away nuts for the winter. The United States is not only not saving nuts, it’s eating the ones left over from the last winter.”

In 2001, the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) forecast average annual surpluses of approximately $850 billion from 2009–2012. Instead, the US government has run large budget deficits of approximately $1 trillion per annum in recent years. The major drivers of this turnaround include: tax revenue declines due to recessions (28%); tax cuts (21%); increased defence spending (15%); non-defence spending (12%) higher interest costs (11%); and the 2009 stimulus package (6%). German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble told the Wall Street Journal on 8 November 2010 that: “The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base.”

Drowning by Debt…

No borrower can incur debt on this scale without the complicity of its lenders.

The US government holds around 40% of the debt through the Federal Reserve ($1.6 trillion), Social Security Trust Fund ($2.7 trillion) and other government trust funds ($1.9 trillion). Individuals, corporations, banks, insurance companies, pension funds, mutual funds, state or local governments, hold $3.6 trillion. Foreigner investors hold the remainder including China ($1.2 trillion), Japan ($0.9 trillion) and “other”, principally oil exporting nations, Asian central banks or sovereign wealth funds ($2.4 trillion).

Until the global financial crisis, foreign lenders, especially central banks with large foreign exchange reserves, led by the Chinese, increased their purchases of US government debt..

These reserves arose from dollars received from exports and foreign investment that had to be exchanged into local currency. In order to avoid increases in the value of the currency that would affect the competitive position of their exporters, the exporting nations invested the reserves in dollar denominated investment, primarily US Treasury bonds and other high quality securities. By the middle 2000s, foreign buyers were purchasing around 50% of US government bonds.

During this period, emerging countries, such as China fuelled American growth, both supplying cheap goods and providing cheap funding to finance the purchase of these goods. It was a mutually convenient addiction – China financed customers creating demand for exports and America received the money to buy cheap Chinese goods. Asked whether America hanged itself with an Asian rope, a Chinese official told a reporter: “No. It drowned itself in Asian liquidity.”

Following the global financial crisis, foreign purchases have decreased to around 30% of new issuance. Around 70% of US government bonds (US$ 0.9 trillion) have been purchased by the Federal Reserve, as part of successive rounds of quantitative easing.

Foreign Alms…

Historically, America has been able to run large budget and balance of payments deficits because it had no problems in finding investors in US treasury securities. The unquestioned credit quality of the US, the unparalleled size and liquidity of its government bond market ensured investor support. Given its reserve currency and safe haven status, US dollars and US government bonds remained a cornerstone of investment portfolios.

The US dollar’s share of world trade and investment is extraordinary and out of proportion to its economic role. The dollar remains the principal currency for invoicing and settling trade. 85% of foreign exchange transactions involve the dollar. 50% of stock of international securities is denominated in US dollars. Central banks hold 60% of their foreign exchange reserves in dollars. All this is despite the fact that the US’s share of global exports is only 13% and foreign direct investment is 20%.

The US financing strategy is based on the “balance of financial terror”.

China, the major investor in US government bond investors, finds itself in the position that John Maynard Keynes identified: “Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.” Over recent years, Chinese concerns about the US debt position has become increasingly shrill.

In 2010, Yu Yongding, a former adviser to China’s central bank, mused: “I do not think U.S. Treasuries are safe in the medium-and long-run…Only God knows how much value that China has stored in the U.S. government securities will be left in the future when China needs to run down its reserves.” In 2011, a Chinese government spokesperson could only “hope the US government will earnestly adopt responsible policies to strengthen international market confidence, and to respect and protect the interests of investors.” In 2010, US Treasury Secretary told a gathering of Chinese students that US government bonds were “safe” investments, eliciting derisive laughter.

But China has America right where America wants China!

Existing investors, like China, must continue to purchase US dollars and government bonds to avoid a precipitous drop in the value of existing investments. This allows America time to correct its deteriorating public finances and reduce its borrowing requirements. It also allows increases in domestic savings to reduce reliance on foreign investors. The US Federal Reserve remains a buyer of last resort, although the long term consequences of this “printing money” strategy remains uncertain.

For the moment, this tenuous strategy appears to be holding. Demand for Treasury securities from investors and other governments has continued. Domestic investment, primarily from banks who are not lending but parking cash in government securities, has been strong. US government rates remain low. The government’s average interest rate on new borrowing is around 1%, with one-month Treasury bills paying less than 0.10% per annum. This has allowed the US to keep its interest bill manageable despite increases in debt levels.

In effect, the US requires artificially low interest rates to able to service its debt. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee that the US faces a debt crisis: “It’s not something that is 10 years away. It affects the markets currently…It is possible that the bond market will become worried about the sustainability [of deficits over $1 trillion] and we may find ourselves facing higher interest rates even today.”

The current position is not sustainable in the longer term. Unless the underlying debt levels and budget deficits are dealt with the ability of the US to finance itself will deteriorate. The US treasury must issue large amounts of debt almost continuously – weekly auctions regularly clock in at $50-70 billion unimaginable a few years ago. America’a ability to finances its need may not continue. As English writer Aldous Huxley observed: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Debt Calm…

The solution to the US debt problems lies in bringing budget deficits down, through spending cuts, tax increases or a mixture of both.

In 2011, the major categories of government spending were defence (24%), social services (44%), non-defence discretionary (25%) and interest (7%). Interest costs, currently around 7% of total spending, are expected to increase by as much as three times driven mainly by the increase in the level of debt. The major increase in spending will come from social service entitlement programs. If current policies are maintained, pensions and health care for the retired (Social Security and Medicare) and health care for the poor (Medicaid) will increase from 10% of GDP in 2011 to 18% by 2050.

Winding back military overseas commitments and also reduced stimulus spending, assuming the economy and employment improve, will help reduce the deficit. But any significant reduction in government spending requires decreased spending on defence and entitlement programs as well as tax increases. US Federal revenue is around 15% of GDP (down from 18-19%). Comparative levels of government tax revenues are Germany (37%) UK (34%) and Japan (28%).

The task is Herculean. Government revenues would need to be increased 20-30% or spending cut by a similar amount. In a nation where 45% of households do not pay tax (because they don’t earn enough or through credits and deductions) and 3% of taxpayers contribute around 52% of total tax revenues, it is difficult to see the necessary changes being made.

Reducing the budget deficit and reducing debt may also mire the US economy in a prolonged recession. In 2009, students at National Defence University in Washington, DC, “war gamed” possible scenarios for bringing the US debt under control. Using a model of the economy, participants tried to get the federal debt down by increasing taxes and reducing spending. The economy promptly fell into a deep recession, increasing the budget deficit and driving government debt to higher levels. This is precisely the experience of heavily indebted peripheral European nations, such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

As one participant in the National Defence University economic war game observed about the process of bringing US public finances under control: “You’ll never get re-elected and you may do more harm than good.”

Extortionate Privilege…

Given the magnitude of the US debt problem and the lack of political will, the most likely policy is FMD – “fudging”, “monetisation” and “devaluation”.

There is no shortage of creative ideas of financing government debts. Bankers suggested the US issue perpetual debt, that is, the government would not be obligated to pay back the amount borrowed at all. Peter Orzag, former director of the US Office of Management and Budget under President Obama and now a vice-chairman at Citigroup, suggested another creative way to correct the problem – lotteries. To encourage savings, banks should offer lottery-linked accounts offering a lower rate of interest, but also a one-in-a-million chance of winning $1million for each $100 deposited.

As governments printed money to service their debts, US Post issued 44-cent first class “forever stamps” that had no face value but were guaranteed to cover the cost of mailing a first class letter, regardless of how high that cost might be in the future. Between 2007 and 2010 the public bought 28 billion forever stamps. The scheme summed up government approaches to public finance – US Post was cleverly hiding its financial problems, receiving cash up-front against the uncertain promise to pay back the money somewhere in the never, never future.

Debt monetisation – printing money – is the second option. The US Federal Reserve is already the in-house pawnbroker to the US government, purchasing government bonds in return for supplying reserves to the banking system. Expedient in the short term, its risks debasing the currency and setting off inflation. The absence of demand in the economy, industrial over capacity and the unwillingness of banks to lend have meant that successive rounds of “quantitative easing” – the fashionable moniker for printing money – have not resulted in higher inflation to date. But the longer term risks remain.

Monetisation is inexorably linked to devaluation of the US dollar. The now officially confirmed zero interest rates policy (“ZIRP”) and debt monetisation is designed to weaken the dollar.

On 19 October 2010, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told the Financial Times: “It is very important for people to understand that the United States of America and no country around the world can devalue its way to prosperity and Competitiveness. It is not a viable, feasible strategy and we will not engage in it.” The facts show otherwise.

Despite bouts of dollar buying on its safe haven status, the US dollar has significantly weakened over the last 2 years in a culmination of a long term trend which with minor retracements. In 2007 alone, the US dollar weakened by about 8% improving America’s external position by $450 billion, as US foreign investments gained in value but its debt denominated in dollars were unaffected.

On a trade weighted basis, the US dollar has lost around 18% against major currencies since 2009. The US dollar has lost around 30% against the Swiss Franc, 25% against the Canadian dollar, 37% against the Australian dollar and 16% against the Singapore dollar over the same period.

US dollar devaluation makes it easier for the US to service its debt. In the balance of financial terror, it forces existing investors to keep rolling over debt to avoid realising currency losses on their investments. It also encourages existing investors to increase investment, to “double down” to lower their average cost of US dollars and US government debt. The weaker US dollar also allows the US to enhance its competitive position for exports – in effect, the devaluation is a de facto cut in costs. This is designed to drive economic growth.

Valery Giscard d’Estaing, French Finance Minister under President Charles de Gaulle, famously used the term “exorbitant privilege” to describe the advantages to America of the role of the US dollar as a reserve currency and its central role in global trade. That privilege now is not only “exorbitant” but “extortionate”. How long the rest of world will allow the US to exercise this “extortionate privilege” is uncertain.

No Exit …

The US is in serious, perhaps irretrievable, financial trouble. Peter Schiff president of Euro Pacific Capital, identified the state of the Union with characteristic bluntness: “Our government doesn’t have enough spare cash to bail out a lemonade stand. Our standard of living must decline to reflect years of reckless consumption and the disintegration of our industrial base. Only by swallowing this tough medicine now will our sick economy ever recover.”

There is a lack of political or popular will to take the action necessary to even stabilise the position. The role of US dollars and US government bonds in the financial system mean that the problems are likely to spread rapidly to engulf other nations. As John Connally, US Treasury Secretary under President Nixon, beligerently observed: “Our dollar, but your problem.”

Minor symptoms, often increasing in frequency and severity, can provide warning of a life threatening problem in a key organ, such as the heart. Since 2007, the global financial markets have been providing warnings of an impending serious crisis. Private sector credit problems have spread to sovereign nations. Debt problems of smaller nations have flowed on to larger nations. The problems are gradually working their way to the issue of US debt. Without rapid and decisive action, which seems to be unlikely, a major organ failure within the global economy is now inevitable.

Th magnitude of the problem and its effects are so large, market participants would do well to heed Douglas Adams famous advice in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Find dark glasses that go black in the case of a crisis and a towel to suck on.


Satyajit Das is the author of Extreme Money: Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (2011) and Traders, Guns and Money: Knowns and unknowns in the dazzling world of derivatives – Revised Edition (2010)

© 2011 Satyajit Das All Rights reserved.

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