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Deep in Debt, Deep in Danger

In a question-and-answer period, a professor of economics responds to student questions about disturbing reports of excessive spending and dangerous levels of debt.

The Federal government is about to reach the Congressional debt limit of $7.384 trillion. Should I be concerned about this debt? My history professor likes to quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt who once said: "Our national debt after all is an internal debt owed not only by the nation but to the nation. If our children have to pay interest on it they will pay that interest to themselves."

In 1939 when President Roosevelt made that speech, the Federal debt may have been an internal debt, but it surely was not owed to ourselves. It divided the nation between people who enjoyed the benefits of spending and their descendants who were expected to square the account; it created a persistent social conflict. Since the 1980s we added a rapidly growing international debt. It is estimated at some $5.5 trillion, which amounts to one-half of our gross national product of some $11 trillion. Americans would have to labor half a year in order to pay it off. It is significant that our foreign creditors like to invest their dollar earnings in U.S. Treasury obligations which enjoy highest credit rating. They now own almost one-half of the Federal debt. The Bank of Japan is our biggest creditor with some $700 billion in claims, followed by the Central Bank of China with $165 billion. You need to be concerned because our rising international indebtedness endangers not only the position and value of the U.S. dollar but also casts a dark shadow on world trade and commerce.

The Congressional debt ceiling immediately raises a question. What can we expect when Treasury spending reaches the limit?

Indeed, Federal spending is likely to reach the Congressional ceiling by late September or early October. This year's budget deficit may hit a record $445 billion which is $70 billion more than last year. If we add the amount borrowed from the Social Security Fund, the budget deficit actually amounts to $639 billion, or some 6 percent of gross national product. A tax increase of such magnitude, which would balance spending and revenue, would depress the economy immediately; a sudden cut in spending, which would launch a needed readjustment, would make much political noise. I doubt that the Republicans in both Houses will want to pass legislation raising the debt ceiling. It would cast a shadow on their re-election on November 2. They may rely on U.S. Treasury Secretary Snow to find ways that avoid embarrassment. In the footsteps of former secretaries Rubin and O'Neill, he may have to redefine the debt "subject to limit" or find new ways to circumvent the Congressional limitation.

According to some economists, Federal deficits consume productive capital and lead to economic stagnation. What is your position?

I agree. A deficit is a shortage of funds not covered by tax revenues. I can think of four sources that may cover the shortfall: people's savings, foreign lending, Federal Reserve money creation, and credit expansion by financial institutions.

Regarding people's savings, investors may buy Treasury bills, notes, and bonds instead of corporate obligations. All three are certificates of savings consumed.

Foreign lending may reduce foreign consumption and allow us to boost ours. When the debt falls due the reverse holds true. Federal Reserve money creation debases the currency and causes economic upheavals; it creates economic maladjustments that waste much capital.

Credit expansion by financial institutions has similar effects. The Federal government uses all four sources of revenue to cover its massive deficits. They all drain, dissipate, and waste productive capital.

On August 26, 2004 the U.S. Census Bureau released an annual report according to which the number of Americans now living below the poverty line rose by 1.3 million in 2003 and now totals 35.8 million, that is, more than 12 percent of the population. No matter how you may define the poverty line, the numbers describe a state of economic stagnation for 35 million Americans.

The same economists are concerned about the position and value of the U.S. dollar. How does international indebtedness affect the dollar?

Benjamin Franklin already answered this question in his Poor Richard's Almanac: "Creditors are a superstitious sect - great observers of set days and times. "Our foreign creditors may soon raise the question of how long the U.S. can continue to enjoy huge trade deficits and make no visible effort to correct the imbalance. If they were to call this debt or merely disallow our current trade deficits of some $500 billion a year, interest rates would soar, equity markets would plummet, and the U.S. dollar would plunge. Its position as the primary reserve currency of the world would be severely impaired. In other words, as long as the world is accumulating American dollars and investing in dollar assets, it is sustaining the dollar. If it should unload some dollar holdings or merely decline to accept more, the dollar would face severe pressures in world money markets.

You stated that almost one-half of our debt is held by foreigners. How did we incur this debt? I am not aware of any debt I owe to foreigners.

We incur debt to foreigners by way of trade deficits which are excesses of imports over exports. The dollars earned by foreign businessmen usually are deposited in foreign commercial banks which deposit them in their central banks, which invest them directly in U.S. Treasury obligations or other claims and assets in the U.S. Although you may not be indebted to foreign creditors, the money you spent on the shirt you are wearing may have gone to Hong Kong and come right back with many other dollars for the purchase of U.S. Treasury bills, notes, or bonds. They are certificates of debt.

I don't understand why we are suffering trade deficits.

You are not alone. Most Americans are at a loss about the mysteries of foreign trade and international relations. Some media celebrities and government officials are quick to point to foreign causes; others may wax eloquent about American affluence and the joy of spending and consuming. Few economists find primary fault with U.S. Government policies, in particular the Federal Reserve policy of easy money and credit. They charge that Federal Reserve governors habitually ignore the market rate of interest at which the demand for loanable funds tends to match the supply. In order to stimulate economic activity, Fed governors like to keep their rates far below market rates which causes the stock of money and credit to expand. Goods prices rise, which induces American businessmen to shop abroad and foreign buyers to reduce their purchases of American goods. Our trade deficits are the inevitable result of Federal Reserve monetary policies.

Why don't we experience rates of price inflation higher than just two to three percent annually, but instead suffer huge trade deficits that enable us to import and enjoy so many foreign goods?

If any other country would expand its money and credit at Federal Reserve rates, it would soon experience all the symptoms of serious inflation; its currency may lose much of its value. The American dollar differs from all others because of its size and position as the primary reserve currency of the world. Ever since the Nixon Administration discarded commodity money, that is, gold and silver, the U.S. dollar has filled the void and served as world money. It is used, invested, and hoarded all over the globe, which amounts to an extraordinary demand and support. Surely, the economic principles that rule the valuation of all forms and kinds of money apply also to the U.S. dollar. Given its size and position in the world, they work more slowly but with equal inexorable force.

Such an explanation is simple enough. Why is it ignored by countless media commentators and government officials alike?

It points the finger of responsibility and blame at them. They summarily reject any such explanation and continue on their merry ways. The officials enjoy loud acclaim and full-hearted public support as long as they conduct popular policies such as easy money and plentiful credit at bargain rates. They are unwittingly leading the way on a wrong path to currency depreciation and economic stagnation.

Many other countries suffer higher rates of inflation than the U.S. yet they do not go deep into debt. On the contrary, as their money depreciates they import less and export more. They become net creditors; their balance of trade becomes very "favorable."

Indeed, willful expansion of the stock of money by a central bank at first may cause goods prices to rise rather slowly. But as soon as people begin to expect ever more price inflation, they begin to reduce their cash holdings, that is, their demand for money declines, which causes the rise in prices to accelerate. When people finally despair about the shrinking value of their money, they may rush to exchange their holdings for available real goods. We then speak of a "flight from money. "For example, a ten percent expansion of the stock of money at first may cause goods prices to rise slowly at two, three, or even five percent. When people expect it to continue in the foreseeable future, prices may increase at double-digit rates. When people finally despair, prices may soar at triple-digit rates and the money may finally become utterly worthless. All along, the balance of trade becomes very "favorable."

What is the payment record of governments in bygone times?

Governments rarely ever pay their debts in full. Throughout history many simply defaulted when the burden of debt became bothersome; creditors are rather defenseless against debtors holding supreme political and legal power. Many monarchs engaged in open depreciation of their coinage, replacing precious metals with base metals and forcing them on their hapless subjects. In our age of fiat paper, governments merely issue ever larger volumes of their paper and pronounce it "legal tender." The increase naturally depreciates the money and diminishes the value of all debt. Since 1933 when the U.S. government repudiated its obligation to make payments in gold, the U.S. dollar has lost some 95 percent of its purchasing power. By now, all creditors have lost various amounts depending on the rate of depreciation during the life of the debt. There cannot be any doubt that the present Federal debt of $7.384 trillion will suffer the common fate. At the present, it is depreciating at a modest rate of only three percent. In years to come, the rate is likely to increase and the debt to decline in value and purchasing power. It will dwindle and wane whenever the rate of depreciation exceeds the rate of debt increase. A ten percent annual depreciation will shrink the value of all debt substantially provided its increase is limited to a small percentage. After many years of such debt depreciation when monetary calculation becomes ever more difficult on account of enormous numbers, governments usually conduct "currency reforms." They suddenly decree an exchange of old money for new money at rates of 10 to 1, 100 to 1, or even higher ratios. Of course, the new currency continues to depreciate at rates similar to that of the old.

You asserted that soaring Federal deficits incite social and political strife. I don't understand.

All Federal expenditures other than those for the protection of human life and private property are transfer expenses; they forcibly take income and wealth from one person and give them to another. After all, the Federal government has no means of its own; every penny of benefit it bestows is a forced extraction from a taxpayer. And every such transfer is a source of political and social conflict. The beneficiaries argue and fight to defend their rights to the take; the victims feel wronged and hurt. Some may emigrate, but most get embroiled in an endless brawl about social benefits and their ways of payment. When an economic depression finally descends and impoverishes all, the conflict may turn into an armed struggle and civil war. In the end, it may bring forth a "strong man" who, invested with the necessary emergency powers, restores social peace, that is, complete calm under dictatorial rule. All social conflict societies are moving in this direction.

You explained our international indebtedness and the ever rising debt of the Federal government but did not mention the debts incurred by American business and the people themselves, the consumers. Are they economy-minded and prudent with money or are they following in Federal footsteps?

They are following the pattern of the Federal government. The very policy that led to the precarious international debt situation also has infected American business and consumers. Federal government debt presently is rising at an annual rate of ten percent, household debt at eleven percent, and business debt at 4.1 percent. Any financial institution with direct access to the Fed until recently could borrow funds at one percent and then happily re-lend them at much higher rates. At this time, they may borrow at 1.5 percent and extend credit to house buyers charging six or seven percent and to consumers even higher rates. On both levels, the artificially low rates causes the volume of loans to grow far beyond the level of actual savings. The difference is covered by fiat inflation and credit expansion.

Can you visualize the coming readjustment? How and when should I brace for it?

I doubt that we'll ever see a run-away inflation similar to those we can observe all over the world. In the United States I expect the elaborate house of debt to deteriorate long before the dollar crumbles completely. I fear for the financial institutions that are enjoying the boom, extending their credits and maximizing their profits. As soon as interest rates return to market levels the boom will give way to readjustment, that is, stagflation or recession. Housing prices will decline, which will exert great pressure on the very collateral foundation of the housing boom. Having granted a mortgage loan of 80 to 90 percent of the value of a house, the lender faces substantial losses when its market price falls by 30 or 40 percent. Similarly, as soon as a recession descends on the country and unemployment rises to painful levels, many consumer loans are likely to default inflicting serious losses on lenders. In short, I expect the house which debt built to crumble long before the U.S. dollar goes to its glory. A wise man guards against this scenario by following Thomas Jefferson's advice: "Never spend your money before you have it."

Total U.S. debt (government, corporate, and individual) is estimated at some $37 trillion, which is more than three times gross national product. It doubled over the past five years and continues to grow every day. In addition, the U.S. Treasury reminds us of entitlement programs with unfunded liabilities of some $44 trillion. You may say, our children will be able to handle our debt. You may be right! They may follow in our footsteps and load our debt together with their own on their children, in a long sequence of generational debt passage. At the same time they will depreciate the currency and thus reduce the value of the debt. The value may fall at various rates, depending on the choices by the politicians in power. Whatever they may be, do not let the future disturb you. Meet it with knowledge, courage, and entrepreneurial daring; it is yours to win or to lose.

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