Bill Gross | August 2011
Kings of the Wild Frontier
- Nothing in the Congressional compromise reached over the weekend makes a significant dent in our $1.5 trillion deficit.
- In addition to an existing nearly $10 trillion of outstanding Treasury debt, the U.S. has a near unfathomable $66 trillion of future liabilities at "net present cost."
- Aside from outright default, there are numerous ways a government can reduce its future liabilities. They include balancing the budget, unexpected inflation, currency depreciation and financial repression.
Nothing in the Congressional compromise reached over the weekend makes a significant dent in our $1.5 trillion deficit. "Out year" fantasies, as opposed to "current year" realities, is an apt description of the spending cuts that characterize this compromise. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that future deficits will be reduced at most by .5%, and if so, it would be welcomed, but that .5% comes with no new taxes and a continuation of the belief that we don't have to pay for our trespasses. Like many a Banana Republic, we may one day be invoking the Lord's Prayer, pleading – "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," yet at the same time looking towards the heavens á la Saint Augustine with a fervent "let me be chaste, but let it be tomorrow."
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner noted last week that it would be unthinkable that the U.S. would not meet its obligations on time. Now that the timeliness has temporarily been put aside, an investor must logically ask how we will meet our obligations, and how much they really are. In addition to an existing nearly $10 trillion of outstanding Treasury debt, the U.S. has a near-unfathomable $66 trillion of future liabilities at "net present cost." As shown in the following table from a Mary Meeker "USA Inc." study, and validated by the Department of Treasury and Congressional Budget Office (CBO) calculations, the combined present cost "payment due" from Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security is over six times our current obligations of Treasury debt. The press and most professional investors are accustomed to measuring "paper" debt as opposed to walking/living liabilities in the form of people. I call these liabilities "debt men walking" because as long as 330 million living Americans require promised entitlements – the $66 trillion that wear shoes are as much of a liability as the $10 trillion on paper.
Admittedly, as Meeker's table (Figure 1) points out, we can address these liabilities by improving the efficiency of our healthcare system, reducing benefits, raising retirement ages, increasing tax rates or a combination of all of the above. We likely will. So reduce that $66 trillion if you care to, but the subjective remainder still hangs over financial markets like a Damocles sword. How will we meet these obligations as Secretary Geithner asked?
Aside from the unthinkable outright default, there are numerous ways that a government – especially a AAA rated one – can employ to reduce its future liabilities. Highlighted below are the prominent tools that can significantly affect investor pocketbooks:
- Balance the budget and/or grow out of it
- Unexpected inflation
- Currency depreciation
- Financial repression via low/negative real interest rates
Let me address each of them in brief:
- Balance the budget/growth – The current Congressional compromise is but one small step for fiscal solvency. There is no giant leap for mankind anywhere on the horizon. Trillions of further spending cuts, and yes trillions of tax hikes, are necessary to stabilize our "official" debt/GDP ratio of 90% or so. One important detail to keep in mind: projected deficits in 2012 and 2013 of 7-8% of GDP rely on OMB growth estimates of 3%+ in the next few years. Recent trends give pause to these estimates as does PIMCO's New Normal, which believes 2% not 3% is closer to reality. If so, deficits move right back up to near-double-digit percentages of GDP. Likewise, should interest rates ever rise from current 2% average levels, a 100 basis point increase raises the deficit by 1% and erases any hoped for gains. Sisyphus would be familiar with this seemingly unsolvable dilemma.
- Unexpected inflation – While markets are global these days, figures sometimes lie and policymakers often figure. Focusing investors' attention on statistics emphasizing "core" or "chain-linked" methodologies can entice investors to stay home, or in the case of foreign nations, to "invest American." Central bankers, not just in the U.S., but the U.K., have long been arguing for a reversion of headline 3% CPI numbers to the 2% or lower "core" standard expectation. "Patience," they argue, but "prudence" might be the better watchword. If so, then the expected "unexpected" inflation would mimic the old Roman custom of coin shaving or its substitution with base metals instead of silver or gold. Inflation is the result no matter how you coin it, which puts more money in government coffers to pay their bills and less money in your pocket to pay yours.
- Currency depreciation – High deficits, both fiscal and trade, combined with low interest rates for extended periods of time produce declining currency valuations against more prosperous, and more policy conservative competitor nations. Few Americans are aware that the dollar's recent 12-month depreciation of over 15% is an explicit tax on their standard of living. Uncle Sam, the government overseer, benefits enormously: one rather clever way for the U.S. to pay its bills to foreign creditors is to pay them in depreciated dollars. The Chinese and other offshore holders wind up getting not only .05% interest on their Treasury Bills, but 12 months later – voila! – their Bills are worth only 85 cents on the dollar in global purchasing power. The Chinese should be reading Shakespeare, not Confucius – especially the second half of "neither a borrower nor a lender be," when it comes to U.S. dollars.
- Financial Repression via low/negative real interest rates – I have commented on this Carmen Reinhart, commonsensical technique in prior Outlooks. If the Treasury is borrowing money from you or PIMCO at .05% for the next six months and CPI inflation is averaging 3%, then lenders/savers are being shortchanged beyond even rather egregious historical examples. The burden of "sixteen tons" of debt á la Tennessee Ernie Ford is considerably reduced at 5 basis points of annual interest. "Loading" coal or debt in this case at near 0% yields doesn't make the borrower another day older, nor deeper in debt. Actually it's a shot of Botox for the borrower, but a shot of lead for the lender. Duck!
William H. Gross
PIMCO Australia Pty Ltd
ABN 54 084 280 508
AFS Licence 246862
Level 19, 363 George Street
Sydney, NSW 2000
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