Sep 23, 2012

The Magnitude of the Mess We're In - debt burden will explode when interest rates go up.

WJS - Shultz, Boskin, Cogan, Meltzer and Taylor: ...The amount of debt is one thing. The burden of interest payments is another. The Treasury now has a preponderance of its debt issued in very short-term durations, to take advantage of low short-term interest rates. It must frequently refinance this debt which, when added to the current deficit, means Treasury must raise $4 trillion this year alone. So the debt burden will explode when interest rates go up.

The government has to get the money to finance its spending by taxing or borrowing. While it might be tempting to conclude that we can just tax upper-income people, did you know that the U.S. income tax system is already very progressive? The top 1% pay 37% of all income taxes and 50% pay none.

Did you know that, during the last fiscal year, around three-quarters of the deficit was financed by the Federal Reserve? Foreign governments accounted for most of the rest, as American citizens' and institutions' purchases and sales netted to about zero. The Fed now owns one in six dollars of the national debt, the largest percentage of GDP in history, larger than even at the end of World War II.

The Fed has effectively replaced the entire interbank money market and large segments of other markets with itself. It determines the interest rate by declaring what it will pay on reserve balances at the Fed without regard for the supply and demand of money. By replacing large decentralized markets with centralized control by a few government officials, the Fed is distorting incentives and interfering with price discovery with unintended economic consequences.

Did you know that the Federal Reserve is now giving money to banks, effectively circumventing the appropriations process? To pay for quantitative easing—the purchase of government debt, mortgage-backed securities, etc.—the Fed credits banks with electronic deposits that are reserve balances at the Federal Reserve. These reserve balances have exploded to $1.5 trillion from $8 billion in September 2008.

The Fed now pays 0.25% interest on reserves it holds. So the Fed is paying the banks almost $4 billion a year. If interest rates rise to 2%, and the Federal Reserve raises the rate it pays on reserves correspondingly, the payment rises to $30 billion a year. Would Congress appropriate that kind of money to give—not lend—to banks?

The Fed's policy of keeping interest rates so low for so long means that the real rate (after accounting for inflation) is negative, thereby cutting significantly the real income of those who have saved for retirement over their lifetime.

The problem gets much, much worse at: