Friday, April 20, 2018

Our Debt is Slowly Crushing Us

If you’re not highly concerned about our nation's debt problem, you should be.

The Great Recession and 2008 financial crisis were sparked by an excess of debt in an overly connected global financial system.

Today, the total amount of debt is even greater at the federal, corporate and consumer levels, while state and local debt is enough to be catastrophic in the next recession. In essence, the solution to the debt crisis was to create even more debt.

Next time will be different, because it will be worse.

This most obvious concern is the national debt, which has surpassed $21 trillion. This whopping debt is serviced by borrowing even more money, creating a sort of black hole of debt that can never be escaped.

According to a Congressional Budget Office report released this month, trillion dollar deficits are now the norm. Congress recently voted to both reduce revenues by cutting taxes and to increase spending. Those can only be described as acts of insanity.

As the debt has steadily grown, an annual deficit of 3 percent (which was long viewed as a stable) results in ever-expanding debt payments. For example, 3 percent of a $100 billion deficit is $3 billion. However, 3 percent of a $1 trillion deficit is $30 billion. As a result, the growth in federal debt has become exponential.

People often measure the national debt in relation to the size of the economy — the so-called debt-to-GDP ratio. However, the government doesn’t service its debt with the entire economy; it services it with tax collections, which are now smaller and actually adding to the debt.

Yet, our troubles aren’t confined to the federal government.

At the end of 2017, the 50 US states had a cumulative debt of $1.176 trillion. When local debt is added, the figure leaps to more than $3 trillion. Most states have constitutional requirements stipulating that they maintain balanced budgets, yet none of them manage to do that.

Even the most financiallly healthy states face substantial long-term challenges related to their pension and healthcare benefits systems.

Additionally, total corporate debt has reached an unprecedented level and is currently at three-and-a-half times GDP. Even a moderate drop in the value of corporate bonds would result in wealth losses equivalent to a large fraction of GDP. For example, a 10 percent decline in the value of corporate debt would wipe out an amount of wealth equal to 35 percent of GDP. That would mean absolutely massive losses for bond holders, such as pensions and 401ks. That should make you queasy.

The chart below shows the additional economic output (GDP) generated by each additional dollar of business debt in the US. As you can see, debt has become steadily less stimulative over the last several decades. Despite low interest rates and a massive debt binge, the stimulative affect of debt is back down where it was during the lows of the Great Recession. That’s troubling.

Furthermore, total household debt rose to an all-time high of $13.15 trillion at year-end 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It was fifth consecutive year of annual household debt growth, with increases in the mortgage, student, auto and credit card categories.

Our economy is addicted to debt for growth; it can't function without it. But, like any addict, our addiction is slowly killing us. We need more and more of the drug (debt) to get a continually weakening effect. Without our government’s deficit spending, our economy would likely be in a depression.

This policy of debt-induced economic expansion is baked into the cake; it is the very essence of our economic system. However, spending a dollar to get anything less than a dollar of return is not productive.

As Chris Martenson at Peak Prosperity notes, debt has been growing twice as fast as GDP for nearly five decades. That’s not sustainable. Debt expansion only works if it is exceeded by GDP growth.

Eventually, this will end very badly and it will be terribly disruptive to our economy, our national security and our way of life. There is no cure or recourse, other than a massive deflation.

Yet, that’s exactly what our financial masters at the Fed and on Wall St. are desperately trying to avoid… until they no longer can.

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