Really very, very, very sad, along many, many, many dimensions…
Don't be fooled by today's low interest rates. The government could very quickly discover the limits of its borrowing capacity: An urgency to rein in budget deficits seems to be gaining some traction among American lawmakers. If so, it is none too soon. Perceptions of a large U.S. borrowing capacity are misleading. Despite the surge in federal debt to the public during the past 18 months—to $8.6 trillion from $5.5 trillion—inflation and long-term interest rates, the typical symptoms of fiscal excess, have remained remarkably subdued. This is regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency that can have dire consequences….
Beneath the calm, there are market signals that do not bode well for the future. For generations there had been a large buffer between the borrowing capacity of the U.S. government and the level of its debt to the public. But in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, that gap began to narrow rapidly. Federal debt to the public rose to 59% of GDP by mid-June 2010 from 38% in September 2008. How much borrowing leeway at current interest rates remains for U.S. Treasury financing is highly uncertain. The U.S. government can create dollars at will to meet any obligation, and it will doubtless continue to do so. U.S. Treasurys are thus free of credit risk. But they are not free of interest rate risk…. In the wake of recent massive budget deficits, the difference between the 10-year swap rate and 10-year Treasury note yield (the swap spread) declined to an unprecedented negative 13 basis points this March from a positive 77 basis points in September 2008. This indicated that investors were requiring the U.S. Treasury to pay an interest rate higher than rates that prevailed on comparable maturity private swaps….
The 10-year swap spread understandably has emerged as a sensitive proxy of Treasury borrowing capacity: a so-called canary in the coal mine. I grant that low long-term interest rates could continue for months, or even well into next year. But just as easily, long-term rate increases can emerge with unexpected suddenness. Between early October 1979 and late February 1980, for example, the yield on the 10-year note rose almost four percentage points….
The current federal debt explosion is being driven by an inability to stem new spending initiatives. Having appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars on new programs in the last year and a half, it is very difficult for Congress to deny an additional one or two billion dollars for programs that significant constituencies perceive as urgent…. With huge deficits currently having no evident effect on either inflation or long-term interest rates, the budget constraints of the past are missing. It is little comfort that the dollar is still the least worst of the major fiat currencies. But the inexorable rise in the price of gold indicates a large number of investors are seeking a safe haven beyond fiat currencies. The United States, and most of the rest of the developed world, is in need of a tectonic shift in fiscal policy. Incremental change will not be adequate….
I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced. The current spending momentum is so pressing that it is highly unlikely that any politically feasible fiscal constraint will unleash new deflationary forces…. Fortunately, the very severity of the pending crisis and growing analogies to Greece set the stage for a serious response. That response needs to recognize that the range of error of long-term U.S. budget forecasts (especially of Medicare) is, in historic perspective, exceptionally wide. Our economy cannot afford a major mistake in underestimating the corrosive momentum of this fiscal crisis. Our policy focus must therefore err significantly on the side of restraint.