The Future of Public Debt

This is from the author of a forthcoming book Endgame.  The suggestion is that the interest alone on our debt will cause it steadily grow relative our economies, especially if the interest rate exceeds the rate of economic growth.  Pretty scary.  The BIS referred to is the Bank of International Settlements, kind of a central bank to central banks.

This is all pretty sobering, especially since our leadership, congressional and executive doesn’t seem to addressing the issue.  I had hopes that Obama as a liberal could do so more effectively than our so called conservatives, but so far no.  The Republicans are not any better.  They can’t even come up with the 100 billion spending cuts they committed to.


The Future of Public Debt
By John Mauldin
February 11, 2011

After we look at the BIS paper, we will also look at the issues it raises and the implications for public debt. If public debt is unsustainable and the burden on government budgets is too great, what does this mean for government bonds? The inescapable conclusion is that government bonds currently are a Ponzi scheme. Governments lack the ability to reduce debt levels meaningfully, given current commitments. Because of this, we are likely to see “financial oppression,” whereby governments will use a variety of means to force investors to buy government bonds even as governments actively work to erode their real value. It doesn’t make for pretty reading, but let’s jump right in.

The best way to think about governments is to compare them to a household with a mortgage. A big mortgage is easier to pay down with lower monthly mortgage payments. If your mortgage payments are going up faster than your income, your debt level will only grow. For countries, it is the same. The point of no return for countries is when interest rates are rising faster than their growth rates. At that stage, there is no hope of stabilizing the deficit. This is the situation many countries in the developed world now find themselves in.

Debt Projections

“But the main point of this exercise is the impact that this will have on debt. The results [in Figure 6.1] show that, in the baseline scenario, debt/GDP ratios rise rapidly in the next decade, exceeding 300% of GDP in Japan; 200% in the United Kingdom; and 150% in Belgium, France, Ireland, Greece, Italy and the United States. And, as is clear from the slope of the line, without a change in policy, the path is unstable.

“This is confirmed by the projected interest rate paths, again in our baseline scenario. [Figure 6.1] shows the fraction absorbed by interest payments in each of these countries. From around 5% today, these numbers rise to over 10% in all cases, and as high as 27% in the United Kingdom. Seeing that the status quo is untenable, countries are embarking on fiscal consolidation plans. In the United States, the aim is to bring the total federal budget deficit down from 11% to 4% of GDP by 2015. In the United Kingdom, the consolidation plan envisages reducing budget deficits by 1.3 percentage points of GDP each year from 2010 to 2013 (see e.g. OECD [2009a]).

“To examine the long-run implications of a gradual fiscal adjustment similar to the ones being proposed, we project the debt ratio assuming that the primary balance improves by 1 percentage point of GDP in each year for five years starting in 2012. The results are presented in [Figure 6.1]. Although such an adjustment path would slow the rate of debt accumulation compared with our baseline scenario, it would leave several major industrial economies with substantial debt ratios in the next decade.

This suggests that consolidations along the lines currently being discussed will not be sufficient to ensure that debt levels remain within reasonable bounds over the next several decades. An alternative to traditional spending cuts and revenue increases is to change the promises that are as yet unmet. Here, that means embarking on the politically treacherous task of cutting future age-related liabilities. With this possibility in mind, we construct a third scenario that combines gradual fiscal improvement with a freezing of age-related spending-to-GDP at the projected level for 2011. [Figure 6.1] shows the consequences of this draconian policy. Given its severity, the result is no surprise: what was a rising debt/GDP ratio reverses course and starts heading down in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. In several others, the policy yields a significant slowdown in debt accumulation. Interestingly, in France, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States, even this policy is not sufficient to bring rising debt under control.”

And yet, many countries, including the United States, will have to contemplate something along these lines. We simply cannot fund entitlement growth at expected levels. Note that in the United States, even by draconian cost-cutting estimates, debt-to-GDP still grows to 200 percent in 30 years. That shows you just how out of whack our entitlement programs are, and we have no prospect of reform in sight. It also means that if we—the United States—decide as a matter of national policy that we do indeed want these entitlements, it will most likely mean a substantial value added tax, as we will need vast sums to cover the costs, but with that will lead to even slower growth.

Long before interest costs rise even to 10 percent of GDP in the early 2020s, the bond market will have rebelled. (See Figure 6.2.)

John Mauldin

The Future of Public Debt
John Mauldin
Sat, 12 Feb 2011 11:28:52 GMT


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