America can now only defer its debt crisis
Whatever action its politicians do or don’t take this week, the US is already bust, writes Jeff Randall.
Without a deal to raise the country’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, the US will default on August 2.
It has come to this: the world’s biggest economy, head of the triple-A club and home of the financial system’s reserve currency, can pay its bills only if it borrows more money. America needs to increase its credit limit by $2.5 trillion simply to get through to next year’s presidential election.
Billions, trillions, schmillions, chill out, why fret over a few more zeros? Well, for context, America’s 2011 GDP (annual output) will be the same as its “official” debt, $14 trillion to $15 trillion.
This doesn’t tell the whole story. The good news is that $4.6 trillion of America’s debt is accounted for by intra-government loans, money the US owes itself. The bad news is that on top of the $9.7 trillion Washington must repay to outside investors ($1.1 trillion to China), it has $60 trillion of unfunded social security and Medicare obligations, ie, welfare pledges to its own citizens for which there is no pot of savings, only the taxes of future generations.
As Dolly Parton nearly said, it cost a lot of money to sink this deep. America’s commercial and military hegemony came at a terrifyingly high price.
In 1835, US federal debt was zero; the country owed nothing. Two centuries later, having become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, America is, quite literally, running out of cash. The problem was explained by Addison Wiggin and Bill Bonner in their best-seller Empire of Debt: not many people can afford to live like Americans; the trouble is, neither can they.
Last year, the difference between what the US paid for imports and received from exports was almost $500 billion. This year, the trade gap with China alone is running at $25 billion a month. As a result of ambitious welfare programmes and military adventures, the Obama administration is running a budget deficit of $1.3 trillion.
According to Warren Buffett, America’s most successful investor, the country has “relied on the labour of others to provide things that can be used every day… this can continue for a long time and on a large scale – but not forever”.
There speaks the voice of common sense. On the other side of the hospital screens, we have media dons, Princeton’s Paul Krugman and British-born David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, championing fiscal incontinence as the route to salvation.
Aside from their links with Ivy League universities, Krugman and Blanchflower have something else in common: they both admire Gordon Brown, who clocked up £160bn of budget deficits in the boom years of 2003-07. At the core of their thinking, and his, is an unshakeable belief that government spending sparks growth, which is the sine qua non of life, liberty and happiness – and also debt reduction.
But hang on a minute, how come Greece required two multi-billion-euro rescue packages? Did the Greeks economise themselves into penury? Were they guilty of criminal parsimony? Or was it that, thanks to its fraudulent entry into the euro, Athens was able to borrow recklessly, allowing vote-crazed leaders to bribe the electorate with money the country did not have and could never afford? Ah, say the professional spendthrifts, the US is not like Greece. True, it is vastly bigger and so are its debts – and they’re not going away.
A study by Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart from the Peterson Institute shows that when public debt tops 90 per cent of GDP it acts as a brake on growth. Their study of 44 countries, going back 200 years, concludes that it would be foolish to interpret today’s low borrowing costs as a green light for further debt. “Politicians everywhere like to argue that their country will expand its way out of debt, [but] our research suggests growth alone is rarely enough to achieve that with the debt levels we have today.”
Boston University’s Professor Laurence Kotlikoff goes further: America is already bankrupt. Writing for Bloomberg, he explained that US debt is much greater than has been declared: “Congress has been very careful… to label most of its liabilities as 'unoffical’ to keep them off the books and far into the future… This is what happens when you run a massive Ponzi scheme for six decades straight, taking ever larger resources from the young and giving them to the old while promising the young their eventual turn at passing the generational buck.”
Ponzi schemes survive as long as they are able to attract increasingly bigger contributions from ever more participants. Eventually they collapse under the burden of impossibility. This is where America is heading. It is beyond the point at which it can cut benefits or raise taxes sharply enough to prevent exponential debt growth.
If Democrats and Republicans can cobble together a compromise this week – and the markets still give them the benefit of the doubt – their fix will be nothing more than crisis deferral. Capitol Hill is in the business of Micawberism. What price the Fed resorts again to printing money?