Free Markets, Free People
Monty Pelerin, writing in The American Thinker, is thinking about the unthinkable. What would happen if the US held a bond auction..and no one bought any bonds? Even worse, what would happen if we were to default on the $16 trillion in bonds already outstanding?
What occasions this thinking is something he read in Bob Woodward’s new book on the Obama administration, a portion of which is excerpted in the Washington Post. This excerpt discusses last year’s debt ceiling crisis. In it Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tries to explain how bad it would be if credit markets stopped buying Treasuries.
But, here’s the thing:
Credit markets have (or nearly have) stopped US government debt financing. That’s why we have the Federal Reserve, the counterfeiter of last resort. If government can raise the debt limit, then it would be legal for the Treasury to issue new debt. The Treasury’s sibling, the Fed, would buy it by printing new money. That would allow the government to pay its bills for a while longer…
No one will buy US Treasuries other than the Federal Reserve. Raising the debt limit only puts the government more hopelessly in debt, ensuring that Treasuries will be even more difficult to sell. Without intending it, Geithner admits that Bernanke will be printing money until the electricity is shut off or until hyperinflation shuts everything economic down. In either case, we reach his "indelible, incurable" situation which will "last for generations."
Take a look at the monetary base of the United States, which I would describe simply as all the money of all types floating around in the economy. You know why that number has jumped massively since 2009? Because the Fed has been the major buyer of US treasuries, and it buys them by simply printing new money.
Now, the US Dollar is the world’s reserve currency. What that means is that it is expected to be strong, stable, and plentiful enough—though not too plentiful—to be used as the primary backup currency for the entire world’s global trade.
But, since 2009, we have essentially financed our massive debt, which is now at 104% of GDP by having the Fed print the money to buy the Treasury’s bonds. The chart you see here is the result of two separate rounds of Quantitative Easing of that sort, and the Fed is now considering QEIII.
Now, Greece, the sick man of Europe’s financial system, has a debt to GDP ratio of 128%. At the current rate of spending, we could reach that within a decade. But we won’t, of course, because at some point between 104% and 128% of GDP, we will have so much debt that the US will be the world’s financial sick man. At some point credit markets will simply not bid on US Treasuries, because the specter of inflation or default will loom so large that only the Fed would be stupid enough to show up at a bond auction.
When that happens, current foreign holder of US treasuries will face intense pressure to divest themselves of them. Prices will collapse, and interest rates will skyrocket. If the Fed steps in to buy those treasuries to support the price—which they almost certainly will, because politicians will demand it—we will then be clearly seen as fully monetizing the debt.
At that point, foreign holders of US dollars will demand that some other currency or asset be used as a reserve, at which point foreign holders of dollars will scramble to repatriate those dollars as quickly as they can.
The dollar will then become worthless in foreign trade, and we will face massive hyperinflation in the US.
On our current spending path, with our current level of debt, this is inevitable, and we have no idea when it will happen. We are literally a single bond auction away from a complete and utter collapse of the US financial and monetary system. We just don’t know when, exactly, that bond auction will be. It might be this week. It might be five years from now.
But, I repeat, at this point, barring a massive change to our fiscal and monetary policy, it is inevitable. There is no way credit markets will continue to buy US Bonds as our debt to GDP ratio climbs towards that of Greece. When that happens, we will either monetize that debt or default on it. Either way, the result will be years, if not decades, of American poverty.
And once that process starts, there will be no way to stop it. We can’t come back a week later and say, "hey, we fixed it!" Once it starts…we’re done.
After WWII, the US debt to GDP ratio was 124%. At the end of WWII, we slashed government spending by 50%, and eliminated the most onerous and confiscatory wartime taxes, and, though marginal rates were still high, offered a myriad of exemptions that essentially ensured that no one paid the marginal rates. We also scrapped the entire wartime system of industrial production regulation and eliminated rationing. And, of course, we had the only fully industrialized economy left in the world, as everyone else’s had been bombed, if not back into the Stone Age, at least into the Age of Reason, and we became the world’s chief industrial power, exporter, and global business leader.
To do something similar today, we’d have to completely eliminate the entirety of the Federal government, with the exception of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Interior, and Treasury, and cut Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare spending by at least 50%.
That’s not going to happen. I believe the current Republican plan to attack the debt and balance the budget won’t even eliminate the budget deficit until sometime around 2040.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!b That’s rich. Like we have 30 years available to fix this. It is to laugh.
Update: And, this morning, right on time, I see that House Speaker John Boehner says he’s "not confident" that Congress and the administration can reach a debt deal. In which case, Moody’s has already warned that they will downgrade the US credit rating by another step. Meanwhile, the rumor is that the Fed is now preparing for another $840 billion in quantitative easing.
That bond auction just keeps getting closer.
In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss concerns about Turkey, and the debt limit.
The direct link to the podcast can be found here.
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