Edited for posting by: munKNEE.com
While Treasuries are said to have no default risk as the Federal Reserve can always print money to pay off the debt, hidden risks might be lurking. As oxymoronic as it may sound, the biggest risk to the economy and the U.S. dollar might be, well, economic growth! Let us explain. Words: 2065; Charts: 1
So writes Axel Merk (www.merkfunds.com) in edited excerpts from his original article* entitled Hidden Treasury Risks?.
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Merk goes on to say, in part:
The U.S. government paid an average interest rate of 2.046% on the $11.0 trillion of Treasuries (Bills, Notes, Bonds and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities – TIPS) outstanding as of the end of November at a carrying cost of $225 billion per annum or 6% of the federal budget(1).
While total government debt has ballooned in recent years, the interest rate paid by the government on its debt has continued on its downward trend:
We only need to go back to the average interest rate paid in 2001, 6.19%, and the annual cost of servicing Treasuries would triple, paying more than Greece as a percentage of the budget. Not only would other government programs be crowded out, the debt service payments might likely be considered unsustainable. Except for the fact that, unlike Greece, the Fed can print its own money, diluting the value of the debt. In doing so, the debt could be nominally paid, although we would expect inflation to be substantially higher in such a scenario.
These numbers are no secret. Yet, absent of a gradual, yet orderly decline of the U.S. dollar over the years – with the occasional rally to make some investors believe the long-term decline of the U.S. dollar may be over – the markets do not appear overly concerned. Reasons the market aren’t particularly concerned include:
- The average interest rate continues to trend downward. That’s because maturing high-coupon Treasury securities are refinanced with new, lower yielding securities.
- Treasury Secretary Geithner has diligently lengthened the average duration of U.S. debt from about 4 years when he took office to currently over 5 years.
For the U.S. government, a longer duration suggests less vulnerability to a rise in interest rates, as it will take longer for a rise in borrowing costs to filter through to the average debt outstanding. The opposite is true for investors: the longer the average duration of a bond or a bond portfolio one holds, the greater the interest risk, i.e. the risk that the bonds fall in value as interest rates rise.
Debt management by the Treasury only tells part of the story on interest risk. When the Treasury publishes “debt held by the public,” it includes Treasuries purchased in the open market by the Fed. By engaging in “Operation Twist”, the Federal Reserve stepped onto Timothy Geithner’s turf, manipulating the average duration of debt held by the private sector. Notably, the private sector holds fewer longer-dated bonds, as the Fed has gobbled many of them up.
However, investors may still be exposed to substantial interest risk in their overall fixed income holdings as, in the search of yield, many have doubled down by seeking out longer dated and riskier securities.
The Fed, many are not aware of, employs amortized cost accounting, rather than marking its holdings to market, thus hiding potential losses should interest rates go up and its portfolio of Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) fall in value.
Quantitative easing to increase interest risk
Whenever there’s a warning that all the money created by the Federal Reserve is akin to printing money, some dismiss these concerns as the money created out of thin air to buy securities has not caused banks to lend, but park excess reserves back at the Federal Reserve. As of December 14, 2012, $1.4 trillion in excess reserves is parked at the Fed.
Substantial interest risk might be baked into reserves: Consider that the Fed has been paying about $80 billion in profits to the Treasury in recent years. Think of it this way: the more money the Fed “prints”, the more (Treasury & MBS) securities it buys, the more interest it earns. That’s why Fed Chair Bernanke brags that his policies have not cost taxpayers a cent, even if the activities may put the purchasing power of the currency at risk.
Bernanke has also claimed he could raise rates in 15 minutes. In our assessment, it’s most unlikely he would do so by selling long-dated securities; instead, in an effort to keep long-term rates low, the most likely scenario is that the Fed will pay a higher interest rate on reserves. Up until the financial crisis broke out, the Federal Reserve would have intervened in the Treasury market by buying and selling securities to move short-term interest rates. In the fall of 2008, the Fed was granted the authority by Congress to pay interest on reserves.
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As interest rates rise, not only will Treasury pay more for debt it issues, it may also receive less from the Fed. Interest rates would have to rise to about 6% for the entire $80 billion in “profits” to be wiped out assuming a constant $1.5 trillion in reserve balances ($1.4 trillion in excess reserves and $0.1 trillion in required reserves that also receive interest); that assumes, the Fed does not grow its balance sheet in the interim (in an effort to generate more “profits” for the Fed) and would not reduce its payouts in the interim as a precaution because bonds held on the Fed’s books may be trading in the market at substantially lower levels.
Should interest rates move up, the Treasury may no longer be able to rely on the Fed to finance the deficit (while the Fed denies the purposes of its policies is to finance the deficit, the Fed is buying a trillion dollars in debt as the government is running a trillion dollar deficit).
Biggest risk: economic growth?
In our surveys, inflation tends to be on top of investors’ minds, no matter how often government surveys show us that inflation is not the problem. Should inflation expectations continue to rise – and a reasonable person may be excused for coming to that conclusion given that the Fed appears to be increasingly focusing on employment rather than inflation – bonds might be selling off, putting upward pressure on the cost of borrowing for the government.
If we assume, however, that inflation is indeed not an imminent concern (keep in mind that the Fed is also buying TIPS and, thus, distorting important inflation gauges in the market), we only need to look back at the spring of this year when a couple of good economic indicators got some investors to conclude that a recovery is finally under way. What happened? The bond market sold off rather sharply! A key reason why the Fed is increasingly moving towards employment targeting is to prevent a recurrence, namely a market-driven tightening, pushing up mortgage costs.
The government should be grateful that we have this “muddle-through” economy. Let some of that money that’s been printed “stick;” let the economy kick into high gear. In that scenario, the “good news” may well be reflected in a bond market that turns into a bear market.
Historically, when interest rates move higher in an economic recovery, the U.S. dollar is no beneficiary because foreigners tend to hold lots of Treasuries: should the bond market turn into a bear market, foreigners historically tend to wait for the end of the tightening cycle before recommitting to U.S. Treasuries.
The point we are making is that for bonds to sell off and the dollar to be under pressure, we don’t need inflation to show its ugly head; we don’t need China or Japan to engage in financial warfare by dumping their Treasury holdings. All we may need is economic growth! While Timothy Geithner has studiously been trying to extend the average duration of U.S. debt, Ben Bernanke at the Fed has thrown him a curveball.
Perception is reality
One only needs to look at Spain to see that a long average duration of government debt is no guarantor against a debt crisis. Spain has an average maturity of government debt of 6 years, yet it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that borrowing at 6% in the market is not sustainable given the total debt burden. As such, markets tend to shiver when confidence is lost, even if, technically, governments could cling on for a while when the cost of borrowing surges.
History may repeat itself
It was only 11 years ago that the U.S. government paid [an] average of 6% on its debt. Sure the average cost of borrowing has been coming down but no matter what scenarios we paint, if the average cost of borrowing can come down to almost 2% from 6%, we believe it is entirely possible to have the reverse take place over the next 11 years. Given the additional risks the Fed’s actions have introduced, the timing could well be condensed. Even if not, we believe it is irresponsible for policy makers to pretend interest rates may stay low forever (except, maybe, Tim Geithner’s steps to increase the average maturity of government debt; but as pointed out, his efforts may be overwhelmed by those of the Fed).
What’s so sad about the discussion about the so-called fiscal cliff is that even the initial Republican proposal results in approximately $800 billion deficits each year. Financed at an average 2%, this would add over $900 billion in interest expenses over ten years; financed at an average 4%, it would add almost $2 trillion in interest expense over ten years. Mind you, this is a politically unrealistic, conservative proposal. Democrats pretend we don’t even have a long-term sustainability problem, only that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share.
In our humble opinion, both Republicans and Democrats are distracted. In many ways, the simultaneous increase in taxes and cut in expenditures of the fiscal cliff is akin to European style austerity: if the cliff were to take place in its entirety, we would:
- suffer a significant economic slow down;
- continue to run deficits exceeding 3% of GDP before factoring in any slowdown; and
- still not have fixed entitlements.
While our discussion focused on $11 trillion in Treasury securities, the so-called “unfunded liabilities” go much further than the $5 trillion in accounting liabilities set aside. Depending on the actuarial assumptions, unfunded liabilities may be as high as $50 trillion to $200 trillion or higher.
In our assessment, the only way to tame the explosion of government liabilities over the medium term is to tame entitlements but it is very difficult to cut back on promises made. As Europe has shown us, the only language that policy makers understand may be that of the bond market. As such, unless and until the bond market imposes entitlement reform, we are rather pessimistic that our budget will be put on a sustainable footing. Put another way, things are not bad enough for policy makers to make the tough decisions….
1 Reported government net interest expense in fiscal 2011 was $251 billion or 6% of GDP; it includes non-marketable securities, particularly money owed to state and local governments. Gross interest expense in fiscal 2011 amounted to $359.8 billion and includes non-cash interest expense on intra-governmental holdings, most notably interest recorded for borrowing from the social security trust fund: as social security receipts flow into the general budget, an intra-government liability is created. Total intra-government holdings currently are almost $5 trillion, however, the liability substantially under-estimates what is needed to pay future benefits. Estimates for unfunded liabilities range from $50 trillion to over $200 trillion, depending on different actuarial assumptions.
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*http://www.merkfunds.com/merk-perspective/insights/2012-12-18.html (Please sign up for our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on gold and currencies. )
(The above report was prepared by Merk Investments LLC, and reflects the current opinion of the authors. It is based upon sources and data believed to be accurate and reliable. Merk Investments LLC makes no representation regarding the advisability of investing in the products herein. Opinions and forward-looking statements expressed are subject to change without notice. This information does not constitute investment advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any specific investment. The information contained herein is general in nature and is provided solely for educational and informational purposes. The information provided does not constitute legal, financial or tax advice. You should obtain advice specific to your circumstances from your own legal, financial and tax advisors. As with any investment, past performance is no guarantee of future performance.)
[The just announced] QE4 will see the Fed buying $85B per month in U.S. Tbonds and Fanny/Freddie bonds with newly printed dollars – essentially debasing the dollar by 1 $trillion per year. The cold reality, however, is that each time QE is launched we get less wealth-effect bang for the buck and more inflation and, IMO, by the time it’s switched off in mid-2014, we will have a real-world inflation rate of 5%+. (Words: 863; Charts: 2)
As Ayn Rand said “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality” so, with apologies to Ayn Rand, let’s explore some examples of ignoring reality. (Words: 1132; Charts: 1)
Many articles are being written these days that more or less scope the dire financial circumstances the U.S. is in. That being said, I had not been able to find one “analyst” – even one – who had the guts to outline the probable outcome and general hopelessness of the situation and to offer any meaningful prescription for investors to survive this coming catastrophe – until now. Words: 710
We’ve all heard countless times from mainstream economists, policymakers, and their ilk that America is somehow immune from consequences. They always pin their argument on the dollar standard. ‘Our’ central bank issues the reserve currency of the globe and that alone immunizes us from any repercussions. The 25% unemployment of Spain and Greece? The 50% unemployment among the young people in Spain? Forget about it! Never going to happen here because our paper is better than everyone else’s. Right? Sounds good, but only if you take them at their word and ignore the realities that lie just under the surface. [Let’s take a closer look those realities.] Words: 2220
We are on the precipice of enormous financial and economic change. It is not change for the good, especially for the United States. Excesses and mis-allocated resources of several generations are about to be exposed as modern industrial nations sink deeper into the economic hole they have dug for themselves. The purging of these economic mistakes will be painful, could create new wars as politicians attempt to deflect blame and may end up changing the political form of government in some countries. (Words: 364; Charts: 1)
Although our supposed leaders are presumably highly intelligent, educated, and knowledgeable, they act largely “brain-dead” as they lead the United States down an unsustainable path that guarantees eventual catastrophic financial destruction. Do you own enough gold and silver that you would feel safe in a such a financial melt-down? If not, why not? Words: 817
People riding a runaway train can party and remain oblivious to the fact that the train is about to crash into a huge obstacle. Our runaway financial train is about to destroy the status quo as it crashes into the obstacle of mathematical consequences – the inevitable financial train wreck. “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” [Let me explain.] Words: 974
It is relatively easy to predict further commodity price inflation as a result of the massive money printing going on worldwide and that hard assets, not paper assets, will help protect purchasing power but it is much more difficult to project where else this money printing leads and to what extent a crash is inevitable. What is the endgame? Will it be another financial crash such as in 2008 or will it be a more destructive financial and economic crash that causes a severe but temporary disruption in the delivery of goods and services? Words: 1470
Financial repression occurs when governments channel funds into their own sovereign bonds in order to reduce debt levels through mechanisms such as directed lending, caps on interest rates, capital controls, debt monetization, or by other means. The promise of financial repression is that it will hold down government borrowing costs and reduce government debt levels, but critics argue that financial repression merely targets the producers of society, i.e., the middle class, and therefore harms the economy. Let’s take a look at financial repression ands its supposed pros and cons. Words: 1486
It’s easy to find analysts and investors who are certain that a deal [to avoid the fiscal cliff] will be reached, or at least that the can will be kicked down the road to buy more time. It’s also easy to find more pessimistic views that are based on the lack of cooperation in the past, and a deeply polarized country and political system. However, I think many are missing the point, which is that austerity is coming to America – taxes are going up and government spending will be reduced – [and. as such,] the United States is likely to face a recession and market correction in 2013, regardless of whether or not a compromise is reached over the Fiscal Cliff. Words: 970