How soon will the US national debt be unaffordable?

It is time to look again at a subject which has been a regular topic in the comments section. This is what happens when national debt costs start to rise again? We have spent a period where rises in national debts have been anesthetized by the Quantitative Easing era where central bank purchases of sovereign debt have had a side effect of reducing debt costs in some cases by very substantial amounts. Of course  it is perfectly possible to argue that rather than being a side effect it was the real reason all along. Personally I do not think it started that way but once it began like in some many areas establishment pressure meant that it not only was expanded in volume but that it has come to look in stock terms really rather permanent or as the establishment would describe it temporary. Of the main players only the US has any plan at all to reduce the stock whereas the Euro area and Japan continue to pile it up.

So let us take a look at projections for the US where the QE flow effect is now a small negative meaning that the stock is reducing. Here is Businessweek on the possible implications.

Over the next decade, the U.S. government will spend almost $7 trillion — or almost $60,000 per household — servicing the nation’s massive debt burden. The interest payments will leave less room in the budget to spend on everything from national defense to education to infrastructure. The Congressional Budget Office’s latest projections show that interest outlays will exceed both defense discretionary spending and non-military discretionary spending by 2025.

The numbers above are both eye-catching and somewhat scary but as ever this is a case of them being driven by the assumptions made so let us break it down.

US National Debt

It is on the up and up.

Debt held by the public, which has doubled in the past
10 years as a percentage of gross domestic product
(GDP), approaches 100 percent of GDP by 2028 in
CBO’s projections.

Those of you who worry we may be on the road to World War III will be troubled by the next bit.

That amount is far greater than the
debt in any year since just after World War II

As you can see the water has got a bit muddled here as the CBO has thrown in its estimates of economic growth and debt held by the public so let us take a step back. It thinks that annual fiscal deficits will rise to above US $1 Trillion a year in this period meaning that from now until 2028 they will total some US $12.4 billion. That will put the National Debt on an upwards path and the amount held by the public will be US $28.7 Trillion. Sadly they skirt the issue of how much the US Federal Reserve will own so let us move on.

Deficits

These have become more of an issue simply because the CBO thinks the recent Trump tax changes will raise the US fiscal deficit. The over US $1 Trillion a year works out to around 5% of GDP per annum.

Bond Yields

These are projected to rise as the US Federal Reserve raises its interest-rates and we do here get a mention of it continuing to reduce its balance sheet and therefore an implied reduction in its holdings of US Treasury Bonds.

Meanwhile, the interest rate on 10-year Treasury notes increases from its average of 2.4 percent in the latter part of 2017 to 4.3 percent by the middle of 2021. From 2024 to 2028, the interest rate on 3-month Treasury bills averages
2.7 percent, and the rate on 10-year Treasury notes,
3.7 percent.

Currently the 10-year Treasury yield is 2.83% so the forecast is one to gladden the heart of any bond vigilante. If true this forecast will be a major factor in rising US debt costs over time as we know there will be plenty of new borrowing at the higher yields. But here comes the rub this assumes that these forecasts are correct in an area which has often been the worst example of forecasting of all. For example the official OBR forecast in the UK in a similar fashion to this from the CBO would have UK Gilt yields at 4.5% whereas in reality they are around 3% lower. That is the equivalent of throwing a dart at a dartboard and missing not only it but also the wall.

Inflation

This comes into the numbers in so many ways. Firstly the US does have inflation linked debt called TIPS so higher inflation prospects cost money. But as they are around 9% of the total debt market any impact on them is dwarfed by the beneficial impact of higher inflation on ordinary debt. Care if needed with this as we know that price inflation does not as conventionally assumed have to bring with it wage inflation. But higher nominal GDP due to inflation is good for debt issuers like the US government and leads to suspicions that in spite of all the official denials they prefer inflation. Or to put it another way why central banks target a positive rate of consumer inflation ( 2% per annum) which if achieved would gently reduce the value of the debt in what is called a soft default.

The CBO has a view on real yields but as this depends on assumptions about a long list of things they do not know I suggest you take it with the whole salt-cellar as for example they will be assuming the inflation target is hit ignoring the fact that it so rarely is.

In those years, the real interest rate on
10-year Treasury notes (that is, the rate after the effect of
expected inflation, as measured by the CPI-U, has been
removed) is 1.3 percent—well above the current real rate
but more than 1 percentage point below the average real
rate between 1990 and 2007.

Economic Growth

In many ways this is the most important factor of all. This is because it is something that can make the most back-breaking debt burden suddenly affordable or as Greece as illustrated the lack of it can make even a PSI default look really rather pointless. There is a secondary factor here which is the numbers depend a lot on the economic impact assumed from the Trump tax cuts. If we get something on the lines of Reaganomics then happy days but if growth falters along the lines suggested by the CBO then we get the result described by Businessweek at the opening of this article.

Between 2018 and 2028, actual and potential real output
alike are projected to expand at an average annual
rate of 1.9 percent.

The use of “potential real output” shows how rarefied the air is at the height of this particular Ivory Tower as quite a degree of oxygen debt is required to believe it means anything these days.

Comment

The issue of the affordability forecast is mostly summed up here.

CBO estimates that outlays for net interest will increase
from $263 billion in 2017 to $316 billion (or 1.6 percent
of GDP) in 2018 and then nearly triple by 2028,
climbing to $915 billion. As a result, under current law,
outlays for net interest are projected to reach 3.1 percent
of GDP in 2028—almost double what they are now.

This terns minds to what might have to be cut to pay for this. However let me now bring in what is the elephant in this particular room, This is that if bond yields rise substantially pushing up debt costs then I would expect to see QE4 announced. The US Federal Reserve would step in and start buying US Treasury Bonds again to reduce the costs and might do so on a grand scale.. Which if you think about it puts a cap also on its interest-rate rises and could see a reversal. Thus the national debt might remain affordable for the government but at the price of plenty of costs elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

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