One of a few critical building blocks of American policy that will be required to right our ship of state is stabilization of America’s debt. The seeming annual deadline to vote on raising the debt ceiling is set for August 2nd. While the Republicans have threatened to default unless the ceiling increase has corresponding cuts to the budget, and while the world anticipates corrective action, we may only see hollow political chatter without material cuts because it is not yet America’s season for freefall from treasuries default.
However, it should be the season for reason. Some economists tell us that recent fear of historic deficits comes only from those ignorant of economics. They say we can print money at will without retaliation because of our sovereignty and world reserve currency status, that we owe this debt to ourselves, and that we can inflate the debt away. They surmise that we are nowhere near an insurmountable debt maximum. But how can they be so confident that America’s ballooning debt is not an issue?
Learned pontifications have confounded us through continued clamoring of countering arguments since 1990, when the debt ceiling was raised 33% to 4.1 trillion to contain our previous housing bubble, the savings and loan crisis. We have just exceeded our latest federal debt ceiling of $14.29 trillion dollars. Total American obligations of all public and private debtors are over $55 trillion, and including government’s unfunded liabilities, we owe $168 trillion. Even if we could balance the budget today, each working American is already obligated in some form to pay the world one million dollars. Who is right? How much American debt is too much debt?
In placing their faith in the pseudoscience of modern economics, our scholars fail to mention that the majority of currencies in history no longer exist. Hyperinflations do occur with regularity, 21 countries in the last 25 years. Debt levels do collapse governments, small (Zimbabwe) and large (USSR). Unfortunately, by the time societies recognize they have reached the beginnings of hyper-inflation, their currencies are already on a glide path to extinction. How close are we?
Prior to WWII, America paid down its debt between wars but our perception of debt changed in 1945. Backed by 70% of the world’s gold, the dollar was the world’s hope for rebuilding, and hence became its reserve currency. In 1944, the architects of Bretton Woods envisioned the dollar as the lynchpin to a system in which central banks maintained stable exchange rates to support balanced trade between industrialized countries, with minimal international indebtedness. They did not foresee the corrupting power they entrusted to the United States that would later subjugate the emerging world to a devaluing dollar.
Control of the world’s reserve currency proved too powerful an elixir for America. Perhaps we convinced ourselves that exporting inflation was a fair trade for granting Europe and Japan seed capital, and for our supplying our trading partners with military security. Nonetheless, for the past six decades the U.S. taxed the world $15 trillion through devaluation, and borrowed another $14 trillion, diverting substantial growth capital from emerging countries to fund America’s sustenance.
Without a realistic alternative, the world reluctantly accepted losses of their reserve currencies, but devaluation has not been without cost to America. The collapse of Bretton Woods spurred the growth of a $300 trillion FX market that has quickened the demise of the dollar’s reserve currency role. FX arbitrage and speculative volatility also precipitated the Asian crisis, causing the Asian monetary zone to closely align, lessening a need for dollar reserves. Including Europe’s drive to a common currency and China’s rise, all reduced the dollar’s power and made the possibility of an alternate monetary system possible. And America’s choice to drastically export dollar devaluation to provide investment banks buffer for unwinding of credit default swaps has brought the world to the brink.
While largely diminished, the dollar still yet dominates but for how much longer? After $2.6 billion of quantitatively eased dilution, Bernanke has fatefully claimed an end to QE, but only after President Obama announced a decade long expansion of trillion dollar budget deficits, replacing QE in name only. Is there no limit? If a limit is reached and the world fully rejects the dollar, history has shown that its fall will be too rapid to save. We now have imminent signs of that moment’s approach:
• China rejecting the dollar – For eight years, China purchased 20% of the U.S.’s deficit, buying 50% in 2006. However, for the last year, China has been a net seller of U.S. debt, reducing its total holdings 30%, and dropping its treasuries 97%. China has signaled that its risk of holding U.S. debt is greater than its risk of causing U.S. interest rates to rise, which will limit our investment in China, and will cause us to purchase less Chinese goods. Their risk equation has pivoted.
• Fed’s acquisition of treasuries – In 2011, the Fed has been the chief buyer of U.S. treasuries, purchasing over 70%, as opposed to 10 % during the last decade.
• Private investment shies away from the dollar – Investment firm Pimco, managing the largest bond fund in the world, cut its holdings of US government-related paper from $237 billion to zero for the first time in the history of the firm, stating the U.S’s problem is worse than Greece’s.
• Regionalization of reserve currencies – Asian, European, and Middle Eastern trading blocs all are all moving away from dollar denominated trades. As an example, China’s and India’s central banks agreed to direct currency exchange as of 2011.
• Commodity inflation – While the U.S. government quoted core inflation is up a mere 0.4 percent, Americans have felt the results of a real 12% inflation and much higher commodity inflation.
• Debt rating concerns – As of June, 2011, Moody’s has threatened to reduce the U.S.’s debt rating unless imminent progress is made on reducing America’s deficit
• American public losing faith – Most telling is the behavior of the American people. With 28% of home prices lower than the underlying mortgages, record numbers of Americans have chosen strategic foreclosures. 25% of foreclosures are from those that have chosen to walk away from debt obligations even though they still have the wherewithal to pay them. Feeling betrayed by America’s financial institutions’ “contract” with Americans for stable money, stable employment, and stable pricing, Americans increasingly no longer feel compelled to honor their financial contracts. The underpinnings of the dollar are on shaky grounds.
Our political and financial leadership now have choices to make. The Fed has signaled no more QE and the President has signaled a decade of continued historic deficits, but those announcements are political balloons that have been lofted toward their constituents. What should America’s true strategy be for our mounting debt?
We have but limited choices. 1) Debt can continue to increase at historic rates, perhaps preserving our banking system in its zombie state, but risking the loss of world credit, a spike in interest rates, crowding out of government services, and the march toward hyperinflation. 2) The rate of increasing debt can be reduced by either budget cuts or tax increases, but either measure may precipitate a return to America’s recession, increasing unemployment, decreasing GDP, and without substantially austere measures, continuing down a path toward loss of world reserve currency status. Or 3) America can take drastic measures to eliminate the deficit and to begin reducing the debt, most likely causing a rapid downward spiral of GDP which, similar to Greece’s predicament, will create an imploding cycle of further austerity measures and GDP reduction.
Considering that credit agencies have already fired lowered debt rating shots hair-raisingly close to America’s bow, the first option of continuing down our current path of printing money to fund our federal deficit is daring fate to draw us into the abyss. The world is quickly shutting off America’s Fed spigot of money printing. If we continue printing money, we risk paying higher interest on existing debt, crowding out needed government services and shocking America back into recession. The EU’s prescription for Greece has enlightened us that the third option of severe austerity is a prescription for thrusting America into obscurity with little hope of return. Therefore, we must now immediately embark down the second path of significant but directed deficit reduction. Sound choices of which reductions to make is a topic for a near future building block post and would be an interesting response from readers.
While the middle choice of materially lowering the rate of increase in our debt and over time reaching balance is our hope of recovery, it risks sending America into a double dip recession. If we reduce public spending without subsequently increasing private spending, demand will decrease, most certainly causing a downturn. Increasing taxes, without correspondingly increasing earnings of those paying them, will crowd out private spending, also decreasing demand. To successfully navigate our debt hazards, any decrease in government spending must be accompanied by a similar increase in private spending.
To increase private spending, either consumer demand must be increased with corresponding availability to credit, or private business spending must be increased with a corresponding potential for demand for its goods or services and a corresponding availability of credit. To keep this post to a reasonable limit, these issues are items for a future building block post.
Consumer credit is maxed out. Historic consumer debt combined with loss of housing and stock market equity and lowered prospects for employment have dried up any chances of a consumer led recovery. Loosening of credit without a corresponding increased demand for employees is unwarranted and spurring demand for employees is unfortunately another building block topic.
State and local governments are operating outside of constitutional authority in the red, and foreign governments have reduced credit to the federal government. Therefore, deficit reduction must initially be accompanied by increased domestic business spending if we are to avoid a recession. Increased spending must have the potential for successful creation of new profits. Sources of new spending must come from private providers of debt and capital, bank debt in combination with private business equity. America can no longer allow our banks to set the agenda for the path forward. The current prescription of repairing bank balance sheets while limiting credit is no longer feasible. These issues are also a subject for another building block discussion.
Some in Congress suggest we have a fourth option, that of initially maintaining the deficit by cutting taxes to spur growth while reducing government spending accordingly, eventually growing tax revenue through increased growth of the economy. While the idea has much conceptual merit, its implementation in previous Congresses was spurious. Private capital from lowered taxes was siphoned into overseas investments with little if any net benefit to the domestic economy. Much work from Congress, the courts, our executive branch, including trade negotiators and national strategists, business and labor must be done together as a community if we are to establish the real environment that can actually benefit from reduced taxes. (yet another building block discussion)
Initial prescription: Material reductions in government spending with corresponding highly incentivized, private investment that directs spending to domestic projects and increases domestic employment. Ultimately, in a timeframe considered realistic by world markets, the deficit must be eliminated through combination of reduced spending and increased GDP that strategically grows the domestic economy, creates full employment, and retains innovation. (More meat in future building block discussions)