US Debt

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Today the US debt broke the $13 trillion level. Considering that the US GDP or the US economy is $14.2 trillion (according to the World Bank), that makes our debt level just over 91% of the GDP. Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio is currently at 115%  (or 133% depending on who you ask – I don’t think even the Greeks know for sure!) and look at the trouble it’s facing!

Professor Morici, of the University of Maryland, is critical of excessive government spending. He claims that whenever the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 150%, you run the risk of hyperinflation or “the Chinese buying up Wall Street”, a reference to China being the largest foreign lender to the US government. Either way, he claims that we will run the risk of losing our financial standing.

On a brighter note, the UK is trailing right behind us with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 78%.  But the real leader of pack is Japan, with a whopping 227%! Not to worry, we’re nowhere close to Japanese levels yet!

After WWII, our debt stood at 125% of our GDP and we were able to bring it under control. Let’s hope we can do the same thing once again. Meanwhile, we can all watch our share of the federal debt over on http://www.usdebtclock.org, and how the national debt seems to be growing $50,000 every second!

With the passing of the Health Care Bill, there is a slew of tax increases that will go towards paying for it. I don’t think any of them are going towards paying down our ballooning debt. Congress probably feels that inflating it away is the easiest solution! And it is, provided the inflation comes in an orderly fashion. But what if it doesn’t?

A lot of people don’t even know that Greece’s debt is a problem that is threatening to bring down the European Union. And of those that have heard about, few realize its significance and potential impact on the US. John Mauldin has done a fine job explaining that in his most recent newsletter. It’s written as a letter to his kids explaining how the current economic situation affects them.

Why is Greece important? Because so much of their debt is on the books of European banks. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth. And just a few years ago this seemed like a good thing. The rating agencies made Greek debt AAA, and banks could use massive leverage (almost 40 times in some European banks) and buy these bonds and make good money in the process. (Don’t ask Dad why people still trust rating agencies. Some things just can’t be explained.)

Except, now that Greek debt is risky. Today, it appears there will be some kind of bailout for Greece. But that is just a band-aid on a very serious wound. The crisis will not go away. It will come back, unless the Greeks willingly go into their own Great Depression by slashing their spending and raising taxes to a level that no one in the US could even contemplate. What is being demanded of them is really bad for them, but they did it to themselves.

But those European banks? When that debt goes bad, and it will, they will react to each other just like they did in 2008. Trust will evaporate. Will taxpayers shoulder the burden? Maybe, maybe not. It will be a huge crisis. There are other countries in Europe, like Spain and Portugal, that are almost as bad as Greece. Great Britain is not too far behind.

The European economy is as large as that of the US. We feel it when they go into recessions, for many of our largest companies make a lot of money in Europe. A crisis will also make the euro go down, which reduces corporate profits and makes it harder for us to sell our products into Europe, not to mention compete with European companies for global trade. And that means we all buy less from China, which means they will buy less of our bonds, and on and on go the connections. And it will all make it much harder to start new companies, which are the source of real growth in jobs.

And then in January of 2011 we are going to have the largest tax increase in US history. The research shows that tax increases have a negative 3-times effect on GDP, or the growth of the economy. As I will show in a letter in a few weeks, I think it is likely that the level of tax increases, when combined with the increase in state and local taxes (or the reductions in spending), will be enough to throw us back into recession, even without problems coming from Europe. (And no, Melissa, that is not some Republican research conspiracy. The research was done by Christina Romer, who is Obama’s chairperson of the Joint Council of Economic Advisors.)

And sadly, that means even higher unemployment. It means sales at the bar where you work, Melissa, will fall farther as more of your friends lose jobs. And commissions at the electronics store where you work, Chad, will be even lower than the miserable level they’re at now. And Henry, it means the hours you work at UPS will be even more difficult to come by. You are smart to be looking for more part-time work. Abbi and Amanda? People may eat out a little less, and your fellow workers will all want more hours. And Trey? Greece has little to do with the fact that you do not do your homework on time.

And this next time, we won’t be able to fight the recession with even greater debt and lower interest rates, as we did this last time. Rates are as low as they can go, and this week the bond market is showing that it does not like the massive borrowing the US is engaged in. It is worried about the possibility of “Greece R Us.”

Bond markets require confidence above all else. If Greece defaults, then how far away is Spain or Japan? What makes the US so different, if we do not control our debt? As Reinhart and Rogoff show, when confidence goes, the end is very near. And it always comes faster than anyone expects.

The good news? We will get through this. We pulled through some rough times as a nation in the ’70s. No one, in 2020, is going to want to go back to the good old days of 2010, as the amazing innovations in medicine and other technologies will have made life so much better. You guys are going to live a very long time (and I hope I get a few extra years to enjoy those grandkids as well!). In 1975 we did not know where the new jobs would come from. It was fairly bleak. But the jobs did come, as they will once again.

At least there is some good news in the end!

The underlying issue is the size of the country’s debt. At some point, either it becomes too big to service, or creditors get cold feet about the ability to service the debt and demand repayment – usually at the worst possible time. This is what happened to Iceland. They defaulted on $50 Billion euros of debt, not a large amount by US standards, but 488% of their GDP and a huge amount to their tiny population of less than 350,000. Greece, Portugual, Spain, Ireland and the UK are all in a similar situation.

Even the US isn’t too far behind. Currently our debt is nearly 400% of our GDP. At what point do our creditors stop lending us money?
USdebt-vs-gdp

One of my favorite investors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder of Empirica investment management funds and author of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, was recently quoted on Bloomberg advising every single human being to short the US Treasury bonds. While this news is about a week old, I thought I’d still comment on it given the fact that it’s a pretty strong statement and that I recently exited a similar paired-trade.

Taleb said investors should bet on a rise in long-term U.S. Treasury yields, which move inversely to prices, as long as Bernanke and White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers are in office, without being more specific. Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who predicted the credit crisis, also said at the conference that the U.S. dollar will weaken against Asian and “commodity” currencies such as the Brazilian real over the next two or three years.

The Fed and U.S. agencies have lent, spent or guaranteed $9.66 trillion to lift the economy from the worst recession since the Great Depression, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bernanke, who in December 2008 slashed the central bank’s target rate for overnight loans between banks to virtually zero, flooded the economy with more than $1 trillion in the largest monetary expansion in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama has increased the U.S. marketable debt to a record $7.27 trillion as he tries to sustain the recovery from last year’s recession. The Obama administration projects the U.S. budget deficit will rise to a record $1.6 trillion in the 2011 fiscal year.

“The problem we have in the United States, the level of debt is still very high and being converted to government debt”, Taleb said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We are worse-off today than we were last year. In the United States and in Europe, you have fewer people employed and a larger amount of debt”.

Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said on Feb. 2 that the U.S. government’s Aaa bond rating will come under pressure in the future unless additional measures are taken to reduce budget deficits projected for the next decade.”.

Do I believe him? Absolutely. So why did I exit my highly profitable trade? Several reasons. During times of global economic uncertainity, there has always been a flight to quality. We saw this during the financial meltdown in 2008, where US Treasury prices soared and yields tanked. Right now, there is uncertainity in Europe regarding the debt of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. People are worried this might have lasting consequences on the Euro as a viable currency. These fears are probably overblown, but until everything settles down and we have more clarity, there will be a flight to quality, which means that people will sell the Euro and flock to US Treasuries.

At least thats my hypothesis and I sold all my positions (except Berkshire Hathaway), shorted the Euro and also the S&P500. The one thing I didn’t do is go long the US Treasuries, since inherently I feel Nassim Nicolas Taleb is correct. At some point, I’ll most likely re-enter my short US Treasury trade, but in the meanwhile I happy to see how the European Union handles the issues of excessive debt.