Deficits, Debt and Interest on the Debt 1988-2012

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 26th, 2013

History 101

Congress printed so much Money that the Continental Dollar became Worthless

The American Revolutionary War lasted eight years.  And eight years of war ain’t cheap.  It took money to buy arms.  It took money to buy uniforms.  It took money to pay soldiers.  And paying for these for eight years required a lot of money.  Which the Americans didn’t have.  They were at war with Great Britain.  Who was their major trading partner.  And pretty much their only trading partner.  As the Americans were a British colony in the days of mercantilism.  Which meant the Americans sent raw materials to the mother country.  On British ships.  Through British ports.  Britain then transformed those raw materials into finished goods.  And exported them.  On British ships.  Through British ports.  Throughout the world.  And back to America.  Before the Revolution, that is.

Thankfully for the Americans there was a nation that hated the British.  And had been in a near perpetual state of war with them since about forever.  And they had just recently lost their North American territories to the British.  Which they wanted back.  So the French had other interests than American Independence.  But American Independence was a good opportunity to settle the score with their old nemesis.  And when the Americans defeated a British Army at Saratoga the French thought that just maybe the Americans could pull this off.  And if so they wanted to be in on the spoils of a British defeat.

So the French financed a large part of the American Revolutionary War.  But it wasn’t enough.  The Continental Army was poorly fed and poorly clothed.  Even leaving bloody footprints in the snow as the Continental Congress couldn’t put boots on their feet.  Nor could they pay them.  So they turned to printing money.  Unleashing a brutal inflation.  No one wanted the currency.  The inflation was so bad that it lost its value before they could spend it.  So no one wanted to accept the Continental paper dollar.  Giving rise to the expression ‘not worth a Continental’.  Everything had two prices.  A low price if you paid with hard currency (gold and silver coins).  And a very high price if you paid in Continental dollars.  They printed so much money that the money became worthless.  So the Continental Army just took what they needed from the people to keep their men from starving to death.  Leaving the people with an IOU.  That Congress would redeem one day.  Maybe.

The Percentage of Tax Receipts going to Pay the Interest on the Debt has fallen as the Federal Debt Rose

Today hard currency is a thing of the past.  It’s pure un-backed paper these days.  This paper money has no intrinsic value.  And you can’t exchange it for gold or silver that does.  But you sure can print it.  Well, the government can.  And they do.  They borrow and print money like there’s no tomorrow.  Allowing them to spend money they don’t have easier than ever before.  And it’s not just for feeding and clothing our soldiers.  But just about everything under the sun.  Causing the federal debt to soar.

Think of the growing federal debt like a credit card with a growing balance.  And these balances grow fast because each month they charge you interest on your past purchases.  And on your past interest charges.  Which is why if you let that credit card balance get too high it’ll grow beyond your ability to pay it off.  A lot of people who do find themselves filing a personal bankruptcy.  Because the interest charges just balloon their monthly payment.  With the interest in their credit cards consuming an ever larger portion of their paycheck.  As should the interest on the federal debt consume an ever larger portion of federal tax receipts.

Debt and Interest as Percentage of Receipts

(Sources: A History of Debt In The United States; Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Historical Amount of Revenue by Source)

Interestingly, the percentage of federal tax receipts going to pay the interest on the debt has in general fallen as the federal debt rose.  Odd.  The more debt one has the greater the interest one pays.  That’s how it works on our credit cards.  When the debt was approximately $6.2 trillion in 1991 the percentage of total tax receipts going to pay the interest on the debt was 27.1%.  But when the debt soared to $16.1 trillion in 2012 the percentage of tax receipts going to the interest on the debt fell to 15%.  The federal debt grew to be 2.6 times what it was in 1991.  Yet it appears we are paying less interest in 2012 than in 1991.  Something doesn’t seem right.

Interest Rates will Rise as the Purchasing Power of the Dollar Falls, Raising Prices and the Cost of Borrowing

A couple of things could explain this.  And the first thing that comes to mind is tax revenue.  The reason why interest on the debt as a percentage of tax receipts has fallen while the federal debt grew is, perhaps, that tax revenues grew even greater.  So even though interest on the debt could be soaring along with the soaring federal debt the government could be awash in tax revenue.  And if the number you’re dividing by is larger than the number you’re dividing into it than you get a smaller percentage.  Simple arithmetic.  The driver of the federal debt is the annual deficits.  So let’s compare interest on the debt to the deficit.  To see if the interest on the debt rises with the deficit.

Interest on the Debt and the Deficit

(Sources: Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Table 1.1—SUMMARY OF RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, AND SURPLUSES OR DEFICITS (–): 1789–2017)

And it doesn’t.  In fact, the interest on the debt almost held constant when the deficit plunged into a surplus.  And when the deficit soared to a record high.  It seems like there was some other factor involved here.  Something actually keeping the interest on the debt down.  Even when the deficit soared after 2007.  What could do this?  Well, there is only one other thing to look at.  Interest rates.

Interest on the Debt the Deficit 10 Year Treasury

(Sources: Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Table 1.1—SUMMARY OF RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, AND SURPLUSES OR DEFICITS (–): 1789–2017; Market yield on U.S. Treasury securities at 10-year constant maturity, quoted on investment basis)

And we have our answer.  Interest on the debt has not kept pace with the debt because of bad monetary policy.  Keynesian economic policies introduced permanent inflation into the economy.  The Keynesians in government kept interest rates artificially low to stimulate economic activity.  Those low interest rates stimulated so much economic activity in the Nineties that it created a dot-com bubble.  And when it burst it created a painful recession in the early 2000s.  Also, President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending lowered lending standards in the Nineties setting the stage for a great housing bubble that burst into the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007.  And the Great Recession.

The Keynesians have been increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money) in a desperate attempt to pull the economy out of recession.  Which is why the market yield on a 10-year treasury has fallen as the deficit soared in the early 2000s.  And fell even more as the deficit soared even further after 2007.  With the yield falling to as low as 1.8% in 2012.  Even though the demand for so much borrowing should have raised interest rates.  Which would have happened had the government not been increasing the money supply.

And this is why interest on the debt as a percentage of receipts has fallen.  Despite record debt.  Some may look at this and think it’s a good thing.  As it lets the government borrow more money.  So they can give us more stuff.  But printing money causes inflation.  Which has been kept at bay for now thanks in large part to the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.  As investors everywhere are desperate to find a safe harbor for their money during these uncertain times.  But that won’t last forever.  Eventually those interest rates will rise as the purchasing power of the dollar falls.  Raising prices.  And the cost of borrowing.  A lot.  Because of that record debt.  And when they start selling new treasuries at higher interest rates than the ones they’re replacing a very large portion of our tax receipts will go to pay the interest on the debt.  Just like when people charge too much on their credit cards.  Pushing the country closer to bankruptcy.  Just like people with overextended credit cards.  And like countries in the Eurozone.

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