Government Bonds, Deficits, Debt, Interest and Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 16th, 2012

Economics 101

Unlike Corporate Borrowing, Government Borrowing does not Translate into Consumer Goods and Services

When corporations need large sums of money to finance their businesses they issue stocks and bonds.  Investors respond by buying their stocks and bonds.  By loaning the business their money they are investing into these businesses.  Giving them capital to create more things to sell.  Thus stimulating the economy.  Because this investment translates into more consumer goods and services.  That consumers will ultimately buy.

When they offer these goods and services at prices consumers will pay the business does well.  As do the consumers.  Who are able to use their money to buy stuff they want.  So consumers do well.  Corporations do well.  And the investors do well.  For a corporation doing well maintains the value of their investments.  Everyone wins.  Unlike when the government enters the bond market.  For when they do there are some winners and, unfortunately, some losers.

Governments issue bonds when they spend more money than they collect in taxes.  They borrow instead of raising taxes because they know raising taxes reduces economic activity.  Which they want to avoid.  Because less economic activity means less tax revenue.  Which would make the original problem worse.  So like a corporation they have a financing need.  Unlike a corporation, though, the money they borrow will not translate into more consumer goods and services.  They will spend it inefficiently.  Reward political friends.  But mostly they will just pay for past spending.  In mature countries deficits and debt have grown so large that some governments are even borrowing to pay the interest on their debt.

Investors like Government Bonds because Government has the Power to Tax

When the government sells bonds it raises the borrowing costs for businesses.  Because their corporate bonds have to compete with these government bonds.  Corporations, then, pay a higher interest rate on their bonds to attract investors away from the government bonds.  Interest is a cost of business.  Which they add to the sales price of their goods and services.  Meaning the consumer ultimately pays these higher interest costs.  Worse, if a corporation can’t get financing at a reasonable interest rate they may not borrow.  Which means they won’t grow their business.  Or create new jobs.

As government debt grows they sell more and more bonds.  Normally not a problem for investors.  Because investors like government bonds.  (What we call sovereign debt.  Because it is the debt of sovereign states.)  Because government has the power to tax.  So investors feel confident that they will get their interest payments.  And that they will get back their principal.  Because the government can always raise taxes to service this debt.  And raise further funds to redeem their bonds.

But there is a downside for investors.  Too much government debt makes them nervous.  Because there is something governments can do that businesses can’t.  Governments can print money.  And there is the fear that if a government’s debt is so great and they have to pay higher and higher interest rates on their sovereign debt to attract investors that they may just start printing money.  Inflate the money supply.  By printing money to pay investors.  Sounds good if you don’t understand the consequences of printing money.  But ‘inflating the money supply’ is another way of saying inflation.  Where you have more dollars chasing the same amount of goods and services.

When Corporations Fail and go Bankrupt they don’t Increase Consumer Prices or Cause Inflation

Think of it this way.  The existing value of all available goods and services equals the amount of money in circulation.  When you increase the money supply it doesn’t change the amount of goods and services in the economy.  But it still must equal the amount of money in circulation.  So the dollar must now be worth less.  Because more of them still add up to the same value of goods and services.  That is, by printing more money they depreciate the dollar.  Make it worth less.  And if the dollar is worth less it will take more of them to buy the same things.  Causing consumer prices to rise.

Worse, inflation reduces the value of bonds.  When they depreciate the dollar the money locked into these long-term investments shrink in value.  And when people get their money back they can’t buy as much with it as they could before they bought these long-term investments.  Meaning they lost purchasing power while the government had their money.  Which gives investors a negative return on their investment.  And if a person invested their retirement into these bonds they will have less purchasing power in their retirement.  Because a depreciated dollar shrinks their savings.  And increases consumer prices.  So retirees are especially hard hit by inflation.

So excessive government borrowing raises consumer prices.  By making corporations compete for investment capital.  And by causing inflation.  Whereas excessive corporate borrowing does not.  They either provide goods and services at prices consumers willingly pay.  Or they fail and go bankrupt.  Hurting no one but their private investors.  And their employees who lose their jobs.  Sad, but at least their failure does not increase consumer prices.  Or cause inflation.

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A Debt Default and ‘no Social Security Checks’ only Scare Tactics in the Budget Debate to Raise the Debt Limit

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 25th, 2011

A Summary of the Budget Debate to Raise the Debt Limit

One day making tracks in the prairie of Prax came a tax-raising Zax.  A tax-raising Zax.  And a spending-cuts Zax.  A tax-raising Zax.  And a spending-cuts Zax.  And it happened that both of them came to a place where they… *boom*  There they stood foot to foot.  Face to face.

“Look here, now,” the tax-raising Zax said.  “I say, you are blocking my path.  You are right in my way.  I’m a tax-raising Zax and I always raise taxes.  Get out of my way, now, and let me raise taxes.”

“Who’s in whose way?” snapped the spending-cuts Zax.  “I always cut spending making spending-cuts tracks.  So you’re in my way and I ask you to move and let me cut spending in my spending-cuts groove.”

Then the tax-raising Zax said with tax-raising pride, “I never have taken a step to one side.  And I’ll prove to you that I won’t change my ways if I have to keep standing here 59 days.”

“And I’ll prove to you,” yelled the spending-cuts Zax.  “That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax for 59 years.  For I live by a rule that I learned as a boy back in spending-cuts school.  Never budge that’s my rule, never budge in the least.  Not an inch to the west, not an inch to the east.  I’ll stay here not budging, I can and I will.  If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still.”

(The Zax, from The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss, slightly modified)

Spending worries most Americans

If neither Zax is moving, at least there’s no spending.  And it appears that it is the spending that worries most Americans.  Based on the polling.  Which shows the spending-cuts Zax gaining support (see GOP has 10-point edge on Democrats in public trust on economic issues in latest Rasmussen Reports national survey by Mark Tapscott posted 7/24/2011 The Washington Examiner).

Republicans have gained a 10 point lead over Democrats in Rasmussen Reports latest national survey on who the public most trusts to deal effectively with economic issues.

The 10 point lead is the widest margin held by either party in months and has opened up in recent weeks as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have become the central players in the debate over how to deal with the approaching debt-ceiling crisis.

It seems pretty clear.  The people want the tax-raising Zax to take a step to the spending-cuts side.

You can’t Fool the Bond Market

And while one Zax stands foot to foot with the other Zax, not budging, the bond market is not all that worried.  Which is kind of odd being that they hold the debt that Obama, Geithner, Pelosi, Reid, etc., warn they may default on (see U.S. bond market: Watching and waiting by Ben Rooney posted 7/25/2011 on CNN Money).

As policymakers in Washington continue to butt heads over the debt ceiling, the response in the bond market Monday was relatively subdued…

…many bond market watchers suggested that stocks are more vulnerable to the ongoing debt ceiling drama. By contrast, some say Treasuries could actually benefit from a flight to safety if the debt ceiling isn’t raised.

This seems counterintuitive.  Especially with all of the dire predictions coming out of Washington.  But it turns out that you can’t fool the bond market.

Another reason why Treasuries have held their ground is that a default would not necessarily result in huge losses for holders of U.S. debt. Treasury would probably have to furlough workers and make other adjustments if the debt ceiling is not raised, but analysts do not expect it to immediately miss interest payments on the federal debt.

The money is there.  Some money.  Tax revenue is still making it to Washington.  Almost $200 billion each month.  The bond market knows this.  They’ll get their interest payment.  Still, there could be some fallout from a downgrading of U.S. debt. 

…many institutional investors, including money market funds and pensions, are required to hold only AAA-rated securities. If the U.S. government is downgraded, those funds may be forced to dump billions worth of U.S. paper.

This could wreak a little havoc.  But probably no more than a downgrade due to the lack of resolve to restrain out of control spending which is the root cause of all these budget problems.  One way or another, we have to cut spending to ultimately calm the bond rating agencies.

Businesses are more Worried about the Tax Code

And they aren’t that worried in corporate America either (see Analysis: CEOs count on cash to cushion default risk by Scott Malone posted 7/25/2011 on Reuters).

Bankruptcy attorney Martin Bienenstock, of Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, said it seemed like most business people were dismissing the likelihood of a default

“People still don’t think there is going to be an actual default,” Bienenstock said. “There doesn’t seem to be any domino effect brewing yet with the concept of ‘rates will rise and companies on the brink will fail and things like that.'”

If the U.S. runs out of money it is more likely that there will be a partial government shutdown.  Not a default.  And, to be frank, there isn’t a lot these businesses need from government.  Other than a simplified tax code.

While businesses would balk at paying higher taxes, CEOs have said that what they want right now is to have the tax debate settled so they know what they will be paying in taxes.

A government unable to pay its bills won’t affect them.  But not knowing what their taxes will be will.  Because the government shakes them down for a lot of money.  And they have to plan accordingly.  Like having a forklift and other heavy-lifting equipment available to lift those vast sums of cash.

Social Security Checks will go out Regardless

It would appear that most aren’t falling for the scare tactics of Obama and the Democrats.  But what about the seniors?  Will they get their Social Security checks?  Team Obama has been playing this card every chance someone places a microphone in front of them.  So what about Social Security?  Should seniors worry about not getting their checks?  As it turns out, no (see Contrary to the President, Social Security Checks Are Not At Risk by Michael McConnell posted 7/23/2011 on Advancing a Free Society).

The Social Security trust fund holds about $2.4 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds, which its trustees are legally entitled to redeem whenever Social Security is running a current account deficit. Thus, if we reach the debt ceiling…, this is what will happen. The Social Security trust fund will go to Treasury and cash in some of its securities, using the proceeds to send checks to recipients. Each dollar of debt that is redeemed will lower the outstanding public debt by a dollar. That enables the Treasury to borrow another dollar, without violating the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is not a prohibition on borrowing new money; it is a prohibition on increasing the total level of public indebtedness. If Social Security cashes in some of its bonds, the Treasury can borrow that same amount of money from someone else…

President Obama is therefore wrong when he says that failure to raise the debt ceiling might result in not sending out Social Security checks. Many bad things might happen, but not that.

Interesting.  So Social Security checks will go out.  Automatically.  Even if the current account is in deficit.  Because of that glorious trust fund stuffed with treasury securities.  In fact, the only way checks won’t go out is if Obama prevents this automatic mechanism to score some political points by falsely blaming Republicans.  Which will be risky.  Because people will eventually learn the truth.  If they don’t know it already.

The Tax-Raising Zax needs to Step to the Spending-Cuts Side

The tax-raising Zax had better learn to swallow his tax-raising pride and however reluctantly he should now take that first step to the spending-cuts side. 

For the people and the bond market and businesses agree.  The problem is spending.  Much too much spending as you must by now plainly see.

And leave our seniors alone and frighten them not with horrors of checks that won’t come their way.  For the trust fund is brimming with securities aplenty that can be cashed to pay all promises made without delay.

Unless Social Security has been a big Ponzi scheme all along.

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We have a Spending Problem, not a Debt Ceiling Problem

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2011

A Special Bond between the UK and the USA despite a Tea Party

A small group of protestors gathered outside the House of Parliament to protest excessive spending and debt.  It was only a small group that numbered in the hundreds.  A fraction of the thousands that protested the UK’s austerity cuts earlier.  Interestingly, they have been described as ‘Tea Party’ protesters.  Like in the USA.  Interesting because the original Tea Party protests kicked off the American Revolution.  Which ended in American independence from Great Britain. 

A lot has changed since then.  The UK kicked off the Industrial Revolution and created an empire that lasted a hundred years or so.  Then the Americans came into their own and became the world’s greatest economic power.  Took the baton, if you will, from the British Empire.  First the costs of World War I ended the British Empire.  Then the era of Keynesian economics began.  Government grew.  Government spending grew.  First in the UK.  Then in the USA.  And their economies tanked in the Seventies.  High debt.  High inflation.  High unemployment.  Then Margaret Thatcher started fixing things in the UK.  As Ronald Reagan did in the USA.  Things got better.  But old habits are hard to break. 

And here we are in 2011.  Both great nations suffering under unsustainable deficits and debt.  Austerity is now the name of the game.  Some understand this.  Like those few hundred across from the House of Parliament (see ‘Rally against debt’ activists call for more cuts in Westminster protest by David Batty and agencies posted 5/14/2011 on the Guardian).

Hundreds of pro-cuts activists have taken part in a “rally against debt” opposite the Houses of Parliament, in the first Tea Party-style protest to challenge the anti-cuts lobby…

Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “There have been lots of chances for other groups to register their protest, and we want to give a voice to people who represent quite a heavy majority who think spending cuts are right and necessary.

The tax consumers protested the austerity cuts.  The taxpayers, on the other hand, are protesting the deficit spending.  For they are thinking long-term.  And know someone eventually has to pay back this debt.  Or someone will at least have to service the debt.  And if it keeps growing, these interest payments are going to become a major budget item.  Requiring cuts in programs today to pay the interest on what they borrowed to pay for programs years ago.

Priti Patel, Conservative MP for Witham, said: “This government is all about deficit reduction. I don’t think enough people realise the extent of the debt facing this country. It is totally unsustainable…

Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, told the rally: “We won’t put up with this. We are the selfless movement. We’re not asking for money, we’re asking for cuts to make sure our children and grandchildren don’t have to foot the bill.”

It is interesting the use of the term ‘Tea Party’ given our common history.  They don’t recall the Boston Tea Party as fondly in the UK.  No, they don’t celebrate it like they do in the US.  So no doubt it’s the similarities of the movements (protesting out of control government spending) and not the name.  They probably even don’t call themselves a ‘tea party’.

Electoral commission records show that in March, Ukip activists registered the name Tea Party as a political party. It is not yet active, but they said they could field candidates in general elections, byelections and local elections.

Or perhaps they do.  Wow.  They’ve sure come a long way since 1773.  That’s nice.  For as George Bernard Shaw said, England and America are two countries separated by a common language.  There is a special bond between these two nations.  And always will be.  We love each other unconditionally.  Despite the US giving them Madonna.  And the UK giving the world John Maynard Keynes.

The Keynesians versus the Austrians

Governments everywhere love John Maynard Keynes.  Because he empowered governments to spend money.  So ‘borrow and spend’ governments everywhere embrace Keynesian economics.  As do Ivy League intellectuals.  Who tend to have high positions in the US government.  Because they just sound so darn smart.  Who are, at heart, anti-capitalists.   

The Austrian school of economics runs contrary to the Keynesian school.  The only thing the Keynesians learned from the Great Depression was that the Federal Reserve caused bank failures by not printing money soon enough.  And that a selloff of assets started a deflationary spiral.  Austrians, on the other hand, say deflationary spirals are good when they correct bad investment by popping asset bubbles.  Because bubbles have to pop.  Eventually.  And the longer you try to sustain these bubbles the more painful the pop will be.  Whereas Keynesians say double down.  When Wall Street was overvalued they pumped bailout dollars into Wall Street firms buying worthless paper assets to sustain their over-priced values (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, etc.).  Didn’t work.  And the nation added a trillion to the debt in the process (see The End of Bernanke’s “End Game” by William L. Anderson posted 5/13/2011 on Ludwig von Mises Institute).

Thus, Bernanke’s minions entered the financial marketplace with a bottomless checkbook, purchasing assets that had lost value (like mortgage securities, AIG stock, and the like) in the marketplace. However, in order to make it look as though the markets were fine, the Fed purchased these securities at prices close to their precollapse worth; Bernanke and company were playing the let’s-pretend-this-worthless-paper-is-valuable game…

In the Keynesian analysis, assets are held to be homogeneous, and the economy is believed to be a bland mixture of those assets that are fully employed when the amount of consumer and investment spending is high enough to continue to give the economy “traction.”

When consumer and investment spending flag, however, Keynesians hold that the government must step in by borrowing and printing money in order to revive the spending circle. If the government spends enough, then the economy can move on its own to the point where consumers and investors keep it going — at least until the next crisis. Keynesians call this movement the “circular flow,” although it is more like circular logic, in which the premise is the conclusion and the conclusion is the premise.

What must never happen is a large-scale liquidation of assets, because that would trigger deflation, which would be accompanied by an endless downward spiral and an economy stuck in a “liquidity trap” with falling prices and high unemployment. Thus, in the Keynesian view, the Fed was justified in purchasing these worthless assets, because it prevented their liquidation and preserved at least their “paper” values.

They spent money like no other administration did and it did nothing.  The unemployment rate went up.  And now inflation is starting to tick up.  Not to mention a trillion dollar deficit adding to an already record debt.  A debt so great that they have to raise the debt ceiling to fund it.

Austrians, however, take a much different view. What Keynesians call idle resources, which need only an injection of spending to be reemployed, Austrians call malinvested resources. The different is crucial, because Keynesians believe that the Fed’s actions prevent an economic downward spiral, while Austrians hold that what the Fed has done furthers the economic downturn.

The difference in opinion centers on causality. Keynesians believe that the downturn is created simply by a reduction in spending, while Austrians hold that the recession is caused by the fact that the series of malinvestments created during the previous boom cannot be sustained. The drop in spending is the result of the downturn, not its cause. The difference in beliefs is crucial: in the Austrian paradigm, trying to sustain the boom conditions by injecting new government spending will always end in disaster.

Keynesian economics are demand-side.  People cause recessions by not spending enough.  So government steps in, borrows (and prints) money and spends in place of consumers.  In the hopes this spending will create jobs.  Austrian economics are supply-side.  Because we are, when it comes down to it, traders.  We trade things.  Or services.  So jobs come first.  Then consumer spending.  So the Austrians would rather create an economic environment that will encourage businesses to create jobs.  And see the market direct resources to the best investments.  Not have the government prop up investments that should fail.

The problem with temporary injections of cash is that they are temporary.  Whereas new jobs will be recurring cash injections.  The Keynesian solution is temporary.  The Austrian solution is sustainable.  It’s sort of like Granny Clampett’s cure for the common cold.  You take it and a week or so later the cold is gone.  Of course, the body just healed itself.  Which is how Keynesian economics works.  If the economy recovers in a year or so the Keynesians will take credit.  When it was just the business cycle finally coming around.  Despite being delayed by Keynesian policies.

The Size of the Debt is a Bigger Problem than a Technical Default

All this Keynesian economics has added greatly to government budgets everywhere.  The UK.  The social democracies of Europe.  And the US.  And it’s reaching critical mass.  Hence the protest outside the House of Parliament.  And the Tea Party protests in the US.  Debts are rising to dangerous levels. 

Now in the US the Keynesians are threatening doom and gloom if we don’t raise the debt limit.  Because that’s the problem.  Not the spending.  Which they don’t see as a problem (see What If the U.S. Treasury Defaults? by James Freeman posted 5/14/2011 on The Wall Street Journal).

Mr. Druckenmiller says that markets know the difference between a default in which a country will not repay its debts and a technical default, in which investors may have to wait a short period for a particular interest payment. Under the second scenario, he doubts that investors such as the Chinese government would sell their Treasury debt and take losses on the way out—”because I’ll guarantee you people like me will buy it immediately.”

Mr. Druckenmiller was once a fund manager for George Soros.  And he helped Soros short the British pound in 1992.  So he knows a thing or two about government finance.  And he’s more worried about the high debt level than a technical default.

Mr. Druckenmiller had already recognized that the government had embarked on a long-term march to financial ruin. So he publicly opposed the hysterical warnings from financial eminences, similar to those we hear today. He recalls that then-Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin warned that if the political stand-off forced the government to delay a debt payment, the Treasury bond market would be impaired for 20 years…

Mr. Druckenmiller notes that from the time he started saying that markets would welcome a technical default in exchange for fundamental reform, in September 1995, “the bond market rallied throughout the period of the so-called train wreck . . . and, by the way, continued to rally. Interest rates went down the whole time, past the government-shutdown deadline, and really interest rates never went back up again until the Republicans caved and . . . supposedly the catastrophic problem was solved.”

Back during the government shutdown in 1995, the bond market actually rallied.  Why?  Because investors are worried about being paid back.  High and growing debt levels decrease those chances.  Serious debt reduction talk increases those chances.  Ergo, the technical shutdown lets investors know that someone is serious about the nation’s long term debt paying ability.  Hence the bond market rally. 

He’s particularly puzzled that Mr. Geithner and others keep arguing that spending shouldn’t be cut, and yet the White House has ruled out reform of future entitlement liabilities—the one spending category Mr. Druckenmiller says you can cut without any near-term impact on the economy.

One reason Mr. Druckenmiller says he spoke up in 1995 was his recognition that the first baby boomers would turn 65 in 2010, so taxpayers would soon have to start supporting a much larger population of retirees. “Well,” he says today, “the last time I checked, it’s 2011. We don’t have another 16 years this time. We’re there. I don’t know whether the markets give us three years or four years or five years, but we’re there. We’re not going to be having this conversation in 16 years. We’re either going to solve it or we’re going to find ourselves being Greece somewhere down the road.”

Some have argued that since investors are still willing to lend to the Treasury at very low rates, the government’s financial future can’t really be that bad. “Complete nonsense,” Mr. Druckenmiller responds. “It’s not a free market. It’s not a clean market.” The Federal Reserve is doing much of the buying of Treasury bonds lately through its “quantitative easing” (QE) program, he points out. “The market isn’t saying anything about the future. It’s saying there’s a phony buyer of $19 billion of Treasurys a week.”

It’s all smoke and mirrors.  Once the quantitative easing ends in June, interest rates will go up.  Adding to the interest on the debt.  Which will only get greater should they increase the debt ceiling.  And refuse to cut spending.  As in commit to entitlement reform.  Their future, in a word, is Greece.  Only without anyone being big enough to bail them out.

QE3, Anyone?

Some people get it.  The responsible ones.  The ones paying the taxes.  And the ones buying the bonds.  The debt is the problem.  Which means any deficit is a problem, let alone a trillion dollar deficit.  And there is really only one option that is doable to fix these problems.  Entitlement reform.  There will be no economic repercussions.  Other than a riot or two.  Perhaps.  Which is not that big of a concern for the politicians.  Their greatest fear is the next election.  Because there are so many people collecting these entitlements, cutting them will have an effect in the voting booth in the next election.

So the Keynesians will no doubt say, “QE3, anyone?”  And fiddle while the US economy burns down.  Rather that than admit that they are not important.  Or needed.

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