With 10 year Treasuries yielding 1.6% in the United States, some argue that higher deficits are warranted. As the discussion below shows, the logic behind that view is fundamentally flawed, if not reckless. Words: 1238
So says Axel Merk (www.merkfunds.com) in edited excerpts from his original article*.
Lorimer Wilson, editor of www.munKNEE.com (Your Key to Making Money!), has edited the article below for length and clarity – see Editor’s Note at the bottom of the page. This paragraph must be included in any article re-posting to avoid copyright infringement.
Merk goes on to say, in part:
To have budgets sustainable is as simple as matching revenue and expenses. Almost. Politicians have figured out that running a deficit may still yield a stable debt-to-GDP ratio, assuming there is economic growth. When U.S. politicians brag their budget forecasts bring down the absolute level of the deficit, it’s the debt-to-GDP ratio at best that may improve, assuming their rosy projections of economic growth prove correct.
In the Eurozone, governments have – theoretically – committed themselves to running no more than 3% deficits, suggesting that such deficits lead to sustainable debt-to-GDP ratios. Not quite. Our research shows that, in order to achieve a long-term debt-to-GDP ratio in the low 50% range, deficits of no more than half of GDP growth may be run.[As outlined in the table below] if GDP growth is 3% a year, the deficit ought to be no higher than 1.5%. If 3% deficits are allowed, but GDP growth is only half of that – a more realistic assumption for many countries in today’s environment, the debt-to-GDP ratio will stabilize at above 200%.
|Average annual deficit||Average GDP growth||Long-term debt-to-GDP|
Why do we care about debt-to-GDP ratio? [Because] allowing a high debt-to-GDP ratio is akin to playing with fire. Just look at the housing bust for an illustration as to what’s so dangerous about piling up too much debt:
- when interest rates are low, life feels great, the standard of living has gone up but
- when interest rates move up, those with a higher debt load have to make disproportionate cuts to their standard of living to service their debt.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the U.S. paid an average of 2.2% of GDP in interest from 1972 until 2011. In its “Extended Alternative Fiscal Scenario” that assumes current policies, as opposed to current laws, remain in place, net interest payments will soar to 9.5% of GDP in 2037.
In 2011, $454.4 billion in interest was paid in a $15 trillion economy; that is, 3% of GDP was spent in servicing interest payments. If the U.S. were to spend 9.5% of GDP to service its debt rather than 3%, it requires a cut of 6.5% of GDP in other services. It dwarfs the fiscal cliff (the reference to Bush era tax cuts running out coupled with spending cuts, absent of Congressional action) that might put a 3% to 5% dent on GDP.
The pessimistic CBO outlook assumes what we judge to be an unrealistically low 2.7% average interest rate on debt payments. Should the market demand more compensation – generally referred to as bond vigilantes holding policy makers accountable – financing the deficits may no longer be feasible. Just ask Greece; or Spain….
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In the U.S., we differentiate between discretionary and mandatory spending. Mandatory refers to contractual obligations, the entitlements, most notably regarding Social Security and Medicare. Put simply, it may not be realistic in the long run to finance thirty years of retirement with forty years of work. As interest payments take a bigger chunk of GDP, discretionary spending is squeezed out. Be that an infrastructure project at the federal level; teachers at the state level; or firefighters or animal shelters at the local level.
In real life, there are some added complexities: we all fight for our benefits, take them for granted once granted and will fight vigorously to retain them. Also keep in mind that emergencies, such as natural disasters or wars, are typically not reflected in budget forecasts, as they might be considered “one off” items; even if that were correct, emergency spending adds to the deficit.
Austerity or Growth?
As debate rages whether austerity or growth is the solution to the plight of the developed world, keep in mind that there is a history spanning centuries, if not millennia, of governments spending too much money. In the old days, neighboring countries were “taxed” to fill domestic coffers: taxation, as in conquering other countries and taking treasures and slaves.
Debt is a modern form of slavery, except that it is voluntary servitude. If history is any guide, don’t get your hopes up too high that these issues will be resolved…[even though some] investors may be able to navigate the waters, mitigate some of the risks or even profit from opportunities that arise in this environment.
The growth camp suggests that, with enough growth, a high debt load can be carried. That may be the case if such growth is not financed through debt. In recent years, trillions have been spent to achieve billions in growth – not exactly a recipe for sustainable budgeting.
The austerity camp suggests that, with enough austerity, books can be balanced. Except that, as services are cut, the economy is at risk of entering a downward spiral, increasing, rather than decreasing deficits.
The role of central banks: While these two ideologies are being discussed, central banks struggle to either keep the banking system afloat (as in the Eurozone) or are helping to finance the government deficit (as in the U.S.). Indeed, the key difference between the U.S. and European model is that:
- in the U.S. their Treasuries appear to be backed by the taxing power of Congress and, as a lender of last resort, the Federal Reserve (Fed) with its printing press whereas
- European sovereign debt is backed only by the taxing power of the national governments. The European Central Bank (ECB) has made it clear that its role is to support the banking system, not the sovereigns. In contrast, the Fed, while not admitting to outright financing of government deficits, has shown a willingness to do so in practice. As such, European sovereign debt is trading more like municipal bonds trade in the U.S., with weak “municipalities” (think Spain) paying a huge premium.
To be fair, the growth camp wants more than deficit spending; and the austerity camp wants more than cost cutting. Indeed, in a recent analysis Saving the Euro, we argued policy makers should instead focus on competitiveness, common sense and communication.
Ultimately, both camps believe their philosophies should attract more investment as confidence is increased. In practice, the proverbial can is kicked down the road. By the time the can reaches the end of the road, it may be very beaten up. Indeed, an increasing number of investors are spreading their investments across multiple “cans” – we refer to these “cans” as diversified baskets of currencies, including gold.
What’s the Difference Between U.S. and European Debt?
What’s different between the U.S. and Europe is that the U.S. has a significant current account deficit. In our experience, countries with current account deficits tend to favor growth oriented strategies as they need to attract money from abroad to finance their deficit and, as such, to support the currency. While a bond market in shambles is a major drag on growth in the Eurozone, the Euro has been able to hold up reasonably well given the fact that the Eurozone’s current account is roughly in balance.
A misbehaving bond market might have dire consequences for the U.S. dollar, even if one disregards the odds that the Federal Reserve may make U.S. Treasuries even less attractive by financing government spending (when a central bank buys a country’s own debt by printing money, such securities are intentionally over priced, potentially weakening the currency).
*http://www.merkfunds.com/merk-perspective/insights/2012-06-20.html?registered=yes&utm_source=cc_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2012-06-20-insight (To access the above article please copy the URL and paste it into your browser.)
Editor’s Note: The above article may have been edited ([ ]), abridged (…), and reformatted (including the title, some sub-titles and bold/italics emphases) for the sake of clarity and brevity to ensure a fast and easy read. The article’s views and conclusions are unaltered and no personal comments have been included to maintain the integrity of the original article.
Why are both debtors and creditors willing to build a status quo of massive unprecedented debt? [After all, the delusions of] creditors that debt is wealth and should never be liquidated, and of debtors that debt is an easy or free lunch have been smashed by the juggernaut of history many times before…[and] I think they will soon be smashed again. [Let me explain.] Words: 1150
Damnit, how long do we have put up with this crap? Will we ever have an honest conversation on the facts of the matter related to what’s going on in the banking system — and has been since 2007 and indeed for the last 30 years? …That’s [unlikely] because there has been no recognition of the truth, not in Greece, not in Portugal, not in Ireland and not in the United States and here’s truth: Government cannot spend more than it taxes. Period! There is no “if”, there is no “and”, and there is no “but.” All the games played over the last 30 years, were, [and still] are, in fact, scams. Let me explain why. Words: 1700
The deficits aren’t going to stop anytime soon. The debt mountain will keep growing…Obviously, the debt can’t keep growing faster than the economy forever, but the people in charge do seem determined to find out just how far they can push things….The only way for the politicians to buy time will be through price inflation, to reduce the real burden of the debt, and whether they admit it or not, inflation is what they will be praying for….[and] the Federal Reserve will hear their prayer. When will the economy reach the wall toward which it is headed? Not soon, I believe, but in the meantime there will be plenty of excitement. [Let me explain what I expect to unfold.] Words: 1833
Economists are telling central banks to accelerate monetary growth even faster…to avoid a bank balance sheet implosion with all the deflationary consequences that implies. [As such,] the prospects for 2012, and thereafter, are for Total Money Supply to continue its hyperbolic trend – and when such a trend becomes established it becomes almost impossible to stop because the whole debt-based economy and the banking system would collapse. [Let me explain further.] Words: 550
When the supply of something is increased sharply relative to demand, the value of that commodity will decline. If the supply continues to increase rapidly and indefinitely, then that item will become worth less and less, with the potential to finally become nearly worthless. This is the Developing Disaster facing the US Dollar and the world. This is the factor that could become the single most important criterion in investment allocation decisions and possibly even for individual financial survival…[Let me explain this further by reviewing the 7 major problems facing the U.S. (and thus the world) and how they all will lead to problem #7 – devolution.] Words: 1520
In this article I lay out precisely why the coming Crisis in Europe will be THE Crisis I’ve been forecasting for the last 24 months, why it will have dire consequences on the U.S. and why the Fed can do absolutely nothing to stop it this time round. Words: 1334
One of the problems with the debate over the “national debt” is that there’s no generally agreed upon definition of that term. Is it what the federal government owes, or what it owes foreigners, or what the whole country, private and public sector together, owes? Does it include off-balance-sheet items and contingent liabilities? There’s a hundred-trillion dollar gap between lowest and highest on this spectrum, which allows each commentator to confuse the rest of us by picking the measure that best suits their point of view. [Let’s try to decipher the true state of the nation.] Words: 1468
“An essential point in the social philosophy of interventionism is the existence of an inexhaustible fund which can be squeezed forever. The whole system of interventionism collapses when this fountain is drained off: The Santa Claus principle liquidates itself.” [This article discusses the reality of the current economic crisis and] what is required to revive the economy. Words: 1666
With the U.S. election just nine months off, political pressures will mount to favor fiscal stimulus measures instead of restraint. Such action can only accelerate higher domestic inflation and intensified dollar debasement culminating in a Great Collapse – a hyperinflationary great depression – by 2014. [Let me explain why that is the inevitable outcome.] Words: 2766
Today’s western financial world operates much like government-sponsored medical systems. Mask the problem and give the bankers the pharmaceutical drugs (bail out money) to help them dull the pain and keep them on life support. Letting the free markets work in curing the ailment is not an option because then there would be little need for doctors (governments) or the manufacturers of these drugs (central banks). The banks are sick and should be allowed to pass on…so the virus known as debt does not affect the rest of the population. Unfortunately, the governments and central bankers have only one prescription drug of choice to keep them alive [and that seems to be the supposed cure-all of] printing money… [Let me explain further.] Words: 970
The developed economies of the world have opened the money spigots…[and this] massive money and credit creation is sitting in the banking system like dry tinder just waiting for a spark to set it ablaze. How quickly it happens is anyone’s guess, but once it does we are likely to be enveloped in a worldwide inflation unlike anything before ever witnessed. [Let me explain further.] Words: 625