Monday, October 1, 2007

U.S. DEBT | If and When It Matters

October 2, 2007–Congress has just approved raising the U.S. federal debt ceiling to a tad short of $10 trillion. What happened to the virtue of thrift and foresight exemplified by the fable about the ant and the cricket? The ant works all summer to save for the winter, while the cricket just sings his heart out. Come fall, the cricket begs in vain for food and starves to death, not having figured out the America Buys on Credit solution – buy what you want and put it on Uncle Sam's credit card until it maxes out at $10 trillion.

The debt ceiling had held at under $6 trillion from August 1997 to June 2002, when after 18 months in office President Bush asked for a higher ceiling. Three more increases took the ceiling to nearly $9 trillion, which was reached on October 2, according to the national debt clock, i.e., nearly $30,000 per U.S. citizen. The latest increase raises the ceiling more than 60 percent above what it was when the President took office in 2001.

A CIA table updated as of September 20, 2007 shows the national debt of France, Turkey and the United States clustered around 64.7 percent of GDP.

Debt, External Debt and Deficits. If Americans owe $30,000 to one another, some argue, it's just a wash. Perhaps the burden of the debt is shifted to the next generation. Perhaps the debt service encumbers future budgets. Perhaps the President is setting a bad example as Borrower in Chief. That's the way Mayor Bloomberg feels: “Too many of our conservatives in the United States want to run up enormous deficits and hope that some way, somehow, someone else will pay for it. That’s not conservatism, that’s alchemy at best, or if you like, lunacy.”

On the other hand, if the money is spent for investment, the next generation is benefiting from this investment and U.S. debt itself provides the buyers with a low-risk asset. The problem is that the money is not being spent for investment. The increases are for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that are not going well and are dubious investments. The U.S. debt has been bought heavily by foreign central banks, allowing them to neutralize the extra dollars and keep the local currencies strong, at the expense of the dollar. A weaker dollar is not necessarily bad, because it means Americans can export more overseas. It also means that imports will cost more. This could well contribute to inflation. It also provides some hope that U.S. consumers will spend a smaller share of their income of imports and the enormous annual U.S. current account deficit will start to shrink.

U.S. external debt, i.e., public and private debts repayable in foreign currencies, shows the extent of the cumulative overhang. Debt obligations are calculated in U.S. dollars at current exchange rates. While U.S. external debt is the highest at $10 trillion, it isn’t much higher than the $8.3 trillion figure for the UK.

Top Five Cricket Nations by External Debt
1. United States $10.0 trillion
2. United Kingdom, $8.3 trillion
3. Germany, $3.9 trillion
4. France, $3.5 trillion
5. Italy, $2.0 trillion
Source: CIA, The World Factbook , updated as of 9/20/07.

To rank the cricket nations on a current basis, we can use current-account deficits, i.e., a country's net imports in goods and services, less net earnings from rents, interest, profits, and dividends, and less net transfer payments (such as pension funds and worker remittances) from the rest of the world during the year, calculated on an exchange-rate basis. The U.S. current account deficit in 2006 of $862 billion is nearly 15 times the UK's $58 billion.

Top Five Cricket Nations by Current Account Deficits, 2006
1. United States, -$862.3 billion
2. Spain, -$98.6 billion
3. United Kingdom, -$57.7 billion
4. Australia, -$41.6 billion
5. France, -$38.0 billion
Source: CIA, The World Factbook , updated as of 9/20/07. The Trade Balance is the net exports of goods and services, i.e., exports less imports. Examples of services would be legal and consulting services to overseas clients. The Current Account Balance (ranked for 163 countries) is the Trade Balance + net factor income from abroad (such as interest and dividends) + net unilateral transfers from abroad (such as foreign aid, pension payments from overseas or workers’ remittances from overseas). When the trade or current account balance is positive it is called a surplus. When the balance is negative it is called a deficit.

Why Do Debts and Deficits Matter? Americans owing money to one another is not worrisome. But Americans selling public debt to foreign countries, and adding to the debt at a rapid clip, is worrisome. Those who are holding dollar securities must be noticing that the value of these securities has declined seriously.

Meanwhile, U.S. consumers must eventually pay substantially more for imports. That must put an upward pressure on the CPI. We could be back to the 1970s problem of simultaneously rising unemployment and rising inflation, and therefore a rising Misery Index. The U.S. Misery Index hit a high of 22 percent in June 1980. Right now it is down to 5.6 percent.

Postscript - October 2008. One year later, asset values have plummeted. That should take care of the inflation pressure for a while, until balance sheets of financial institutions, businesses and individuals are back in some kind of order.