Government Debt Spirals
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I have been writing about sovereign debt risk for some time. Japan, Spain, Italy and Portugal are all facing serious fiscal deficits and funding problems within a few years. But Greece may be the first country to hit the wall. In today's Outside the Box, we look at a short column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Telegraph on the problems facing Greece. Greece will soon be faced with deciding which bad choice to make among a very small set of really bad, difficult choices.

And then we turn to a piece by Edmund Andrews in the New York Times about the funding problem facing the US. The US is going to have to borrow at a minimum $3.5 trillion in the next three years according to Obama administration officials, and it is likely to be much higher. And rates are likely to be rising. As Andrews notes "Even a small increase in interest rates has a big impact. An increase of one percentage point in the Treasury's average cost of borrowing would cost American taxpayers an extra $80 billion this year." If interest rates were at the same level as a few years ago, interest costs on the debt this year would be $221 billion more than they actually were.

We are not yet Greece or Japan. But we are working on it given the current direction. At some point the bond market is not going to "go along" for the ride. Read these pieces and think about them.

As I often write, if something cannot happen then it won't. Greece cannot go along the same path they are on. While today we are blithely ignoring the debt problem, the US cannot continue with massive deficits without serious consequences.

With that being said, for those in the US, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. My intention is to write a letter this Friday as usual, assuming I can roll out of bed after the feasting. I am told by very reliable sources that thanksgiving calories do not count, and I intend to take advantage of that.

Your still hopeful we will find a way to Muddle Through analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box


Greece tests the limit of sovereign debt as it grinds towards slump

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph

Greece is disturbingly close to a debt compound spiral. It is the first developed country on either side of the Atlantic to push unfunded welfare largesse to the limits of market tolerance.

Euro membership blocks every plausible way out of the crisis, other than EU beggary. This is what happens when a facile political elite signs up to a currency union for reasons of prestige or to snatch windfall gains without understanding the terms of its Faustian contract.

When the European Central Bank's Jean-Claude Trichet said last week that certain sinners on the edges of the eurozone were "very close to losing their credibility", everybody knew he meant Greece.

The interest spread between 10-year Greek bonds and German bunds has jumped to 178 basis points. Greek debt has decoupled from Italian debt. Athens can no longer hide behind others in EMU's soft South.

"As far as the bond vigilantes are concerned, the Bat-Signal is up for Greece," said Francesco Garzarelli in a Goldman Sachs client note, Tremors at the EMU Periphery.

The newly-elected Hellenic Socialists (PASOK) of George Papandreou confess that the budget deficit will be more than 12pc of GDP this year, four times the original claim of the last lot. After campaigning on extra spending, it will have to do the exact opposite. "We need to save the country from bankruptcy," he said.

Good luck. Communist-led shipyard workers have already clashed violently with police. Some 200 anarchists were arrested in Athens last week after they torched streets of cars in a tear gas battle.

Mr Papandreou has mooted a pay freeze for state workers earning more than €2,000 a month. This has already set off an internal party revolt. "There is enormous denial," said Lars Christensen, emerging markets chief at Danske Bank. "They don't seem to understand that very serious austerity measures are needed. It is a striking contrast with Ireland," he said.

Brussels says Greece's public debt will rise from 99pc of GDP in 2008 to 135pc by 2011, without drastic cuts. Athens has been shortening debt maturities to trim costs, storing up a roll-over crisis next year. Some €18bn comes due in the second quarter of 2010 (IMF).

Modern economies have reached such debt levels before, and survived, but never in the circumstances facing Greece. "They can't devalue: they can't print money," said Mr Christensen.

The tourist trade is withering, down 20pc last season by revenue. Turkey was up. It is hard to pin down how much is a currency effect, but clearly Greece has priced itself out of the Club Med market. Wages rose a staggering 12pc in the 2008-2009 pay-round alone (IMF data), suicidal in a Teutonic currency union. Greece has slipped to 71st in the competitiveness index of the World Economic Forum, behind Egypt and Botswana.

Greece has long been skating on thin ice. The current account deficit hit 14.5pc of GDP in 2008. External debt has reached 144p (IMF). Eurozone creditors – German banks? – hold €200bn of Greek debt.

A warning from Bank of Greece that lenders must wean themselves off the ECB's emergency funding has brought matters to a head. Default insurance on Greek debt jumped 40 basis points last week.

Greek banks have borrowed €40bn from the ECB at 1pc, playing the "yield curve" by purchasing state bonds. This EU subsidy has made up for losses on property, shipping, and Balkan woes.

The banks insist that they are in rude good health. EFG Eurobank has halved reliance on ECB funding. "Greek banks are very liquid: we maintain billions in extra liquidity," it said. Yet markets are wary. Recession has come late to Greece, but will bite deep in 2010. It takes three years for defaults to peak once the cycle turns.

David Marsh, author of The Euro: The Politics of The New Global Currency, said the danger for EMU laggards is that the ECB will begin to tighten before they are out of trouble. It is German recovery that threatens to stretch the North-South divide towards breaking point.

Athens squandered its euro windfall. For a decade, EMU let Greece borrow at almost the same cost as Germany. It was a heaven-sent chance to whittle down debt. Instead, the country dug itself deeper into a hole by running budget deficits near 5pc of GDP at the top of the boom.

Like Labour under Brown, idiot leaders mistook a bubble for their own skill. But the consequences in EMU are more dreadful. Austerity may prove self-defeating, without the cure of devaluation. Greece risks grinding deeper into slump.

The EU can paper over this by transfering large sums of money to Greece. But will Berlin, Paris – and London, also on the hook – feel obliged to bail out a country that has so flagrantly violated the rules of the club, not least by holding Eastern Europe's EU entry to ransom over Cyprus? That is neither forgotten, nor forgiven.

During the panic last February, German finance minister Peer Steinbruck promised to rescue any eurozone state in dire trouble. He is no longer in office. The pledge was, in any case, a bounced political cheque even when he wrote it. Greece can assume nothing.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/6630117/Greece-tests-the-limit-of-sovereign-debt-as-it-grinds-towards-slump.html


Wave of Debt Payments Facing U.S. Government

By Edmund L. Andrews, the New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States government is financing its more than trillion-dollar-a-year borrowing with i.o.u.'s on terms that seem too good to be true.

But that happy situation, aided by ultralow interest rates, may not last much longer.

Treasury officials now face a trifecta of headaches: a mountain of new debt, a balloon of short-term borrowings that come due in the months ahead, and interest rates that are sure to climb back to normal as soon as the Federal Reserve decides that the emergency has passed.

Even as Treasury officials are racing to lock in today's low rates by exchanging short-term borrowings for long-term bonds, the government faces a payment shock similar to those that sent legions of overstretched homeowners into default on their mortgages.

With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government's tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher.

In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The potential for rapidly escalating interest payouts is just one of the wrenching challenges facing the United States after decades of living beyond its means.

The surge in borrowing over the last year or two is widely judged to have been a necessary response to the financial crisis and the deep recession, and there is still a raging debate over how aggressively to bring down deficits over the next few years. But there is little doubt that the United States' long-term budget crisis is becoming too big to postpone.

Americans now have to climb out of two deep holes: as debt-loaded consumers, whose personal wealth sank along with housing and stock prices; and as taxpayers, whose government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone, just as costs tied to benefits for retiring baby boomers are set to explode.

The competing demands could deepen political battles over the size and role of the government, the trade-offs between taxes and spending, the choices between helping older generations versus younger ones, and the bottom-line questions about who should ultimately shoulder the burden.

"The government is on teaser rates," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates lower deficits. "We're taking out a huge mortgage right now, but we won't feel the pain until later."

So far, the demand for Treasury securities from investors and other governments around the world has remained strong enough to hold down the interest rates that the United States must offer to sell them. Indeed, the government paid less interest on its debt this year than in 2008, even though it added almost $2 trillion in debt.

The government's average interest rate on new borrowing last year fell below 1 percent. For short-term i.o.u.'s like one-month Treasury bills, its average rate was only sixteen-hundredths of a percent.

"All of the auction results have been solid," said Matthew Rutherford, the Treasury's deputy assistant secretary in charge of finance operations. "Investor demand has been very broad, and it's been increasing in the last couple of years."

The problem, many analysts say, is that record government deficits have arrived just as the long-feared explosion begins in spending on benefits under Medicare and Social Security. The nation's oldest baby boomers are approaching 65, setting off what experts have warned for years will be a fiscal nightmare for the government.

"What a good country or a good squirrel should be doing is stashing away nuts for the winter," said William H. Gross, managing director of the Pimco Group, the giant bond-management firm. "The United States is not only not saving nuts, it's eating the ones left over from the last winter."

The current low rates on the country's debt were caused by temporary factors that are already beginning to fade. One factor was the economic crisis itself, which caused panicked investors around the world to plow their money into the comparative safety of Treasury bills and notes. Even though the United States was the epicenter of the global crisis, investors viewed Treasury securities as the least dangerous place to park their money.

On top of that, the Fed used almost every tool in its arsenal to push interest rates down even further. It cut the overnight federal funds rate, the rate at which banks lend reserves to one another, to almost zero. And to reduce longer-term rates, it bought more than $1.5 trillion worth of Treasury bonds and government-guaranteed securities linked to mortgages.

Those conditions are already beginning to change. Global investors are shifting money into riskier investments like stocks and corporate bonds, and they have been pouring money into fast-growing countries like Brazil and China.

Articles in this series will examine the consequences of, and attempts to deal with, growing public and private debts.

The Fed, meanwhile, is already halting its efforts at tamping down long-term interest rates. Fed officials ended their $300 billion program to buy up Treasury bonds last month, and they have announced plans to stop buying mortgage-backed securities by the end of next March.

Eventually, though probably not until at least mid-2010, the Fed will also start raising its benchmark interest rate back to more historically normal levels.

The United States will not be the only government competing to refinance huge debt. Japan, Germany, Britain and other industrialized countries have even higher government debt loads, measured as a share of their gross domestic product, and they too borrowed heavily to combat the financial crisis and economic downturn. As the global economy recovers and businesses raise capital to finance their growth, all that new government debt is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates.

Even a small increase in interest rates has a big impact. An increase of one percentage point in the Treasury's average cost of borrowing would cost American taxpayers an extra $80 billion this year — about equal to the combined budgets of the Department of Energy and the Department of Education.

But that could seem like a relatively modest pinch. Alan Levenson, chief economist at T. Rowe Price, estimated that the Treasury's tab for debt service this year would have been $221 billion higher if it had faced the same interest rates as it did last year.

The White House estimates that the government will have to borrow about $3.5 trillion more over the next three years. On top of that, the Treasury has to refinance, or roll over, a huge amount of short-term debt that was issued during the financial crisis. Treasury officials estimate that about 36 percent of the government's marketable debt — about $1.6 trillion — is coming due in the months ahead.

To lock in low interest rates in the years ahead, Treasury officials are trying to replace one-month and three-month bills with 10-year and 30-year Treasury securities. That strategy will save taxpayers money in the long run. But it pushes up costs drastically in the short run, because interest rates are higher for long-term debt.

Adding to the pressure, the Fed is set to begin reversing some of the policies it has been using to prop up the economy. Wall Street firms advising the Treasury recently estimated that the Fed's purchases of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities pushed down long-term interest rates by about one-half of a percentage point. Removing that support could in itself add $40 billion to the government's annual tab for debt service.

This month, the Treasury Department's private-sector advisory committee on debt management warned of the risks ahead.

"Inflation, higher interest rate and rollover risk should be the primary concerns," declared the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee, a group of market experts that provide guidance to the government, on Nov. 4.

"Clever debt management strategy," the group said, "can't completely substitute for prudent fiscal policy."

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/business/23rates.html?_r=1&hp


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John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.

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Posted 11-24-2009 10:57 AM by John Mauldin