Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Fiscal Train Wreck

A couple days ago, Bloomberg reported:
The bond market is saying that it’s safer to lend to Warren Buffett than Barack Obama.
Two-year notes sold by the billionaire’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in February yield 3.5 basis points less than Treasuries of similar maturity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Procter & Gamble Co., Johnson & Johnson and Lowe’s Cos. debt also traded at lower yields in recent weeks, a situation former Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. chief fixed-income strategist Jack Malvey calls an “exceedingly rare” event in the history of the bond market.
The $2.59 trillion of Treasury Department sales since the start of 2009 have created a glut as the budget deficit swelled to a post-World War II-record 10 percent of the economy and raised concerns whether the U.S. deserves its AAA credit rating. The increased borrowing may also undermine the first-quarter rally in Treasuries as the economy improves....
While Treasuries backed by the full faith and credit of the government typically yield less than corporate debt, the relationship has flipped as Moody’s Investors Service predicts the U.S. will spend more on debt service as a percentage of revenue this year than any other top-rated country except the U.K. America will use about 7 percent of taxes for debt payments in 2010 and almost 11 percent in 2013, moving “substantially” closer to losing its AAA rating, Moody’s said last week.
In my view, a default on U.S. government debt is less likely than another scenario, suggested by Paul Krugman:
How will the train wreck play itself out? prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won't happen right away....But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.

I think that the main thing keeping long-term interest rates low right now is cognitive dissonance. Even though the business community is starting to get scared — the ultra-establishment Committee for Economic Development now warns that "a fiscal crisis threatens our future standard of living" — investors still can't believe that the leaders of the United States are acting like the rulers of a banana republic. But I've done the math, and reached my own conclusions.
Actually, Paul wrote that in 2003, and we know now that his prediction of higher inflation did not come to pass. But budget deficits are much larger today, so maybe his logic will apply this time around.  If it does, the inflation would adversely affect the real return on both government and private bonds (and thus cannot explain the inverted spread described in the Bloomberg article).

My own guess is that the United States will likely raise taxes substantially, and taxes as a percent of GDP will reach levels never seen in U.S. history (although common in Europe).  The politics of that will be fascinating to watch.  If the political process is stymied as our leaders debate the relative merits of tax hikes versus spending cuts, bond investors may get nervous, and we could witness either the Krugman inflation scenario or the much less likely default scenario.