The Times ran a fantastic article last week which I think deserves a careful look, as it presents in uncharacteristically sharp terms the economic situation before us.
They begin with some fun facts:
With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher.
In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
$700 Billion, as many must recall, was the magical “really big number” Bush and Paulson sold us last September, promising that we likely shouldn’t spend it all, and will probably “see a return on our investment”. I remember the awe with which we once held the TARP program: “$700 Billion, have they lost their minds?” None of us (certainly not I) could have fathomed such a large sum being spent at one time. It is a testament, then, to our infinite ability to adapt that $700 Billion no longer seems so very great, and we can swallow easily the prospect of such an annual payment.
The Times is somewhat disingenuous in claiming $500 billion a year to be “greater than the combined federal budgets for… Iraq and Afghanistan”. As The Times are surely aware, President Obama recently signed a $680 Billion war bill in October, with (according to The Times), “$550 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget in fiscal 2010 and $130 billion more for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But I digress.
Much of this new debt, as The Times is kind enough to report, has to do with the massive dumping of cash onto the open market via the Federal Reserve. Euphemistically, the article states:
“The government is on teaser rates,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates lower deficits. “We’re taking out a huge mortgage right now, but we won’t feel the pain until later.”
“Teaser rates” of course, means lending at 0% interest, essentially lending for free. This is the policy our Fed has chosen over the past year. It, combined with the trillions of untraceable dollars injected into our five major banks, have expanded the Treasury beyond anything previously imaginable. As the article claims:
On top of that, the Fed used almost every tool in its arsenal to push interest rates down even further. It cut the overnight federal funds rate, the rate at which banks lend reserves to one another, to almost zero. And to reduce longer-term rates, it bought more than $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds and government-guaranteed securities linked to mortgages.
What this all means, what the Times doesn’t see fit to mention, is that the US government is bankrupt. That’s it. Our liabilities overshadow our assets, our debts are greater than our ability to pay them; we are underwater, over our heads, sunk.
And we aren’t the only ones:
The United States will not be the only government competing to refinance huge debt. Japan, Germany, Britain and other industrialized countries have even higher government debt loads, measured as a share of their gross domestic product, and they too borrowed heavily to combat the financial crisis and economic downturn. As the global economy recovers and businesses raise capital to finance their growth, all that new government debt is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates.
It looks like the US and Europe will be coming to terms with some hard realizations next decade.