Spending Crisis – Part IV

We chose to steal from our children and grandchildren rather than control our spending.
Spending Crisis – Part IV
Can Catastrophe Be Averted?
By: George Noga – May 19, 2019

        This is the fourth and final post in our Spending Crisis series, available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. Our headline asks, “Can Catastrophe Be Averted?” The answer (spoiler alert) in one word is: no! If something cannot go on forever, it won’t; the spending cannot go on forever, so it won’t. America today is only 2-3 years from the point-of-no-return, from which no nation ever has escaped without grave harm.

          The USA will blow past the point-of-no-return because there is no constituency for action and there won’t be until the crisis affects people’s daily lives. Politically, there is no incentive, and in fact there is a strong disincentive, to act absent a manifest crisis. When the crisis arrives, government initially will take only quarter-measures and it will be far too little, far too late. We simply have dug the spending, debt and deficit hole too deep; but instead of beginning to fill in the hole or even to stop digging, we blithely continue to dig the hole ever deeper, oblivious to the consequences.

         The most likely initial government response to the crisis will be to hold short-term interest rates at or near zero – and perhaps even negative. If the interest rate is ultra low, the amount of debt theoretically is unlimited. However, although the Fed exerts strong control over short-term rates, they don’t have similar control over long-term rates. Alternatively, the Fed can simply buy an unlimited amount of debt in a massive quantitative easing process. Neither of these actions is without consequence and at some point everyone will know that the emperor has no clothes.

Comments from Reviewers

        Three highly knowledgeable people, to whom I am grateful, reviewed this series. No one disputed the data or the analysis. Most were less pessimistic about the final outcome, although they didn’t present solutions; one wrote, “Things are never as good or as bad as they at first seem; the sky is not falling – it never does.” Another wrote, “As long as (people) continue to invest in our Treasury debt, the crisis will not happen. The point-of-no-return comes when no one will invest.” All the reviewers noted that, despite everything, we are better off than in the past and than most other countries.

         One reviewer suggested we might be able to reduce the debt to acceptable levels, over many years, by a combination of inflation and weakening the dollar such that foreign holders of our debt absorb most of the pain. Officially, foreigners hold only 39% of the debt, but this reviewer believes the real number is higher as some foreigners mask their ownership. However, this reviewer acknowledges this tactic can only succeed if the US gets its budget into balance; otherwise, it doesn’t matter.

Two Dimensions to Crisis: Excess Debt and Balancing the Budget

        There are two distinct dimensions to the spending crisis. First, we must purge the system of all excess debt to return the debt/GDP ratio to an acceptable level. Second, we must get our spending under control and balance our budget. Even if aliens from another galaxy showed up and miraculously repaid our national debt, we would be right back in the same position unless we got our budget into reasonable balance.

        Timing: When Will the Crisis Begin?

         The most frequent questions I get are about timing. The short answer is that there is no way to know. No bell goes off when the crisis begins; no bell went off in Japan or Greece; at first, the crisis may seem transitory. I can make a credible argument that the crisis already may have begun given the ultra low interest rates. In all of recorded history (since 3000 BCE) there never before have been zero or negative interest rates.

        The best answer I can muster is the crisis will be in full bloom when the ratio is 125% to 150%. But it could happen much sooner; once markets see where things are headed, it isn’t necessary to wait until they get there. It also could happen much later. I recall Adam Smith’s admonition, “Be assured, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“. By that, Smith meant it requires much to completely ruin a nation, which can survive mistakes, stupidity and disastrous policies far longer than is assumed.

 

Concluding Thoughts

            The spending crisis has many moving parts and it is easy to get overwhelmed by the data. Fundamentally however, it is simple. The US has spent and borrowed too much in relation to the size of its economy. It is rapidly approaching a hard and fast tipping point (90%) determined by the inexorable laws of mathematical compounding and from which no nation ever has escaped without great pain and a lost generation.

           By the time the crisis is manifest, the budget gap will be over $1.5 trillion per year, or 30%, amidst punishing demographic forces. There is no realistic way to bridge that gap. Perhaps, catastrophe can be postponed or ameliorated with extreme financial repression – which in itself will put America in crisis; moreover, it won’t permanently solve the fundamental problem. Ultimately, all excess debt must be purged and the budget brought into some semblance of balance. There is no other way out!

       Charles Murray, one of the titans of our time, recently said, “The American experiment in self-government is essentially over“. I fear he is correct, as America in 2019 panders to people’s fears and prejudices, while it ignores existential threats. The spending crisis, which will cost America a lost generation, was eminently foreseeable and preventable. It is at root a moral crisis because we lacked the will to act.

          We chose to take from our children and grandchildren rather than to control our own spending. To make matters even worse, the money we stole was not put to good use. Instead of borrowing to save our nation from calamity (as in World War II), we stole the money from future generations to finance a perpetual New Year’s Eve party.

Note: Email us with questions or comments. We may publish a follow up post in a few weeks with reader questions. We also are open to publishing other viewpoints; if you are interested, email us for guidelines. We will continue to publish regular updates about the spending crisis.


Next up: MLLG’s Complete Principles of American Politics

Spending Crisis – Part III

Possible solutions: grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, MMT
Spending Crisis – Part III
Possible Solutions to Spending Crisis
By: George Noga – May 12, 2019

           This is the third of four posts in our Spending Crisis series, which is available in its entirety at www.mllg.us. There are many theoretical ways a spending crisis could be averted; we could grow, cut, tax, inflate, repress, restructure, repudiate, seize, or MMT our way out. More likely, we will employ a combination of these measures.

          Grow: There once was a time, as recently as 5-10 years ago, where growth was a possibility: no longer. There is no way the economy can grow at a faster rate than the debt, which currently is growing by 5.25% and increasing to 8.00% by 2025.

         Cut (Spending): FY 2019-2020 spending will be about $4.7 trillion with a deficit of $1.1 trillion. To balance the budget requires spending cuts of 23.4% but, by the time an impending crisis gets Congress’s attention, cuts of 30% will be necessary. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions and defense would have to be savaged to such an extent as to sow the seeds of civil unrest. Moreover, the cuts would have to remain in effect for 15 straight years just to get back to today’s 78% debt ratio.

       Tax: Balancing the budget will require a 36% tax increase. Even if possible, it would be self defeating, as sky-high taxes would lead to economic stagnation. Note: tax hikes are a higher percentage than spending cuts due to starting from a lower base.

        Inflate: Inflation is the cruelest tax of all and devastates everyone’s plans, hopes and dreams. Just to cut the debt in half requires 10 years of 7.5% inflation provided the deficit is not increasing during that same time. Realistically, it would require 20%  inflation for ten or more consecutive years just to maintain the status quo.

       Repress: Repression is government action that insidiously transfers wealth from the private to the public sector to facilitate financing massive public debt. It includes: (1) low or negative interest rates; (2) war on cash; (3) currency/capital controls; and (4) bail-ins. We already have repression; it will get much worse as the crisis approaches.   See our post of November 11, 2018, devoted entirely to financial repression.

       Restructure: Debt restructure likely will be part of the government crisis response. It takes many forms including: (1) lengthening maturities; (2) requiring roll-over; (3) imposing haircuts; (4) lowering interest rates; and (5) conversion to other securities.

       Repudiate: Nations that have repudiated are unable to borrow again for decades. Any repudiation would be perpetually tied up in courts and would decimate the savings of ordinary Americans who own government debt, directly or indirectly, in money market accounts, pensions and annuities. A direct repudiation is unlikely.

       Seize: When crisis hits, there will be $25 trillion of IRA, 401(k) and pension assets; government could seize some or all such assets in exchange for government pensions. In recent years, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ireland and France have, through one artifice or another, seized money from pension assets. Government, like Willie Sutton, will go where the money is and that place is pensions.

         Modern Monetary Theory: MMT has been around for a while but recently has been embraced by the democratic socialist crowd as a justification for unlimited spending. MMT asserts that a sovereign government that issues debt in its own currency, has flexible exchange rates and controls its central bank can spend without limit or constraint. With MMT, the state simply creates unlimited amounts of money.

Combination of Most of the Above

          Just to stabilize (not to fix) the ratio requires $1.25 to $1.50 trillion per year from the above sources for up to 15 years. In the early stages of the crisis, a panicky government will: (1) enact VAT and/or carbon taxes; (2) make modest spending cuts; (3) increase repression; and (4) tweak Social Security and entitlements. It will be too little, too late; at most, it could slow the progression of the crisis for a few years.

          In the advanced stages of the crisis anything is possible including: (1) massive tax increases; (2) hyperinflation; (3) severe financial repression including negative interest and currency/capital controls; (4) debt restructure; and (5) reliance on MMT to create unlimited amounts of money. When the crisis reaches the desperation stage, I would not rule out government seizure of most or all IRA, 401(k) and pension assets.


        Our final post in this series (next week) addresses the ultimate question of whether or not a spending crisis catastrophe can be averted. Don’t miss it.

Spending Crisis – Part II

Official government data are frightening – despite being wildly optimistic.
Spending Crisis – Part II
Analyzing the Data
By: George Noga – May 5, 2019

       This is the second of four posts on the spending crisis. The entire series is available on our website: www.mllg.us. Parts III and IV will be distributed on May 12 and 19 respectively. We begin with some data. The current public debt to GDP ratio is 78% and is increasing rapidly. GDP has been growing at 2.5% (with no recessions); we assume it continues to grow at 2.5% in the future, but at a net rate of 2.0% after taking into account the inevitable periodic recessions. The debt is now growing at 5.25%; we assume it grows at 6% until 2025, 8% to 2028 and 10% thereafter – again net of recessions. This assumption is consistent with projected deficits and demographics. These are conservative assumptions and actual results are likely to be worse.

          Based on the assumptions supra, the US will exceed a 90% ratio in 2022 and a 100% ratio in 2025. After 2025 it gets really ugly, with the ratio approaching 150% by 2030. Social Security is now devouring its reserves, Medicare exceeds its funding in a few years and interest on the debt skyrockets. Deficits will average $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. The deficit easily will exceed $2 trillion during the next recession and it would not be shocking for it to be as high as $2.5 trillion, or even $3.0 trillion.

          The really bad news is that the above data (mostly from government sources) are wildly optimistic. For example, CBO projected in 2018 that the deficit would not go above $1 trillion until 2022, but now is expected to exceed that in FY 2019-2020. CBO is touted as being non-political, but it really isn’t; it is required to follow the rules established by Congress. Hence, CBO is severely constrained and its data are neither objective nor accurate. MLLG’s data have proven to be far more accurate.

Caution: Don’t get hung up on the source of the numbers or the specific timing. There is no significant difference whether you use CBO, MLLG or other data; they all lead to the same ultimate outcome, only the timing differs slightly

Significance of a 90% Public Debt to GDP Ratio

          The 90% ratio is not arbitrarily plucked from the ether. Governments have been borrowing money for 600 years and there is no example of recovery from a 90% ratio without social and economic upheaval, usually accompanied by a lost generation until excess debt is purged. The 90% ratio is valid because beyond 90% the mathematics of interest and compounding results in an economic death spiral. Note: The World Bank asserts the tipping point is reached at 77%, which the US already has exceeded.

          The crisis doesn’t begin on cue when the debt ratio hits 90%; that just represents the point-of-no-return. The crisis may not begin until years later when the ratio reaches 125%, or even higher. The 90% ratio is analogous to Titanic hitting the iceberg. The ship remained afloat for quite some time after the iceberg encounter and no crisis was immediately evident to passengers. Nonetheless, the moment Titanic hit the iceberg its fate was irreversible as is a nation’s fate once its debt exceeds 90% of its GDP.

The Mathematics of a 100% Public Debt to GDP Ratio

          When GDP and the debt are equal, i.e. the ratio is 100%, it is much easier to grasp the mathematics of the death spiral. At a 100% ratio, the economy (GDP) must grow as fast as the debt to prevent a meltdown. Herein we assume that GDP grows at a sustained 2% rate net of recessions and in 2025 debt grows at 8%. The differential between the growth of the economy and the debt is then 6% per year; debt grows $2.0 trillion while GDP grows $400 billion. The annual addition to the debt now is up to $2.0 trillion and increasing; soon thereafter, the debt reaches critical mass.

           Clearly, our debt is growing at a much faster rate than our means to discharge it. This is readily apparent to creditors who are likely to demand much higher interest rates. If interest on the debt simply reverted to its historic level of a composite 6%, it would amount to $1.5 trillion a year in 2025, equal to about 25% of the budget. Long before America reaches that point, the spending crisis will be in full bloom.

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Next on May 12th – Part III: Possible solutions to the spending crisis.

Spending Crisis – Part I

At root, the spending crisis is moral rather than economic.
Spending Crisis – Part I
Introduction and Background

By: George Noga – April 28, 2019

           This is the first post in our series about the spending crisis. It is a spending crisis and not a debt or deficit crisis because it is the spending that drives both the debt and deficits. It is a moral rather than an economic crisis because preventing the crisis requires only summoning the national will to control spending. It is about who we are as a people, what kind of country we bequeath to our children and our national security and survival. I have marshalled all the facts, logic and wordsmithery I possess to explain this crisis in an objective and non-political manner.

Our series is in four parts. Part II, Analyzing the Data, will be distributed May 5, Part III, Possible Solutions, on May 12, and Part IV, Can Catastrophe Be Averted?, on May 19. The full series is now on our website www.mllg.us. The series was reviewed in advance by three experts with diverse viewpoints. I carefully considered all their feedback, incorporated much of it and offered to publish any dissenting opinions.

         In addition to my MBA, CPA background, I have studied economics for 50 years. I devoted much of one summer in Montana to constructing a quantitative model of the US economy, including the deficit, which has proven to be highly accurate. I have been writing about the crisis of spending, debt and deficits for over a decade.

Background Information

         US GDP now is $21.0 trillion; the public debt is $16.3 trillion, while the total debt is $22.2 trillion. This results in a public debt to GDP ratio of 77.6% and a total debt to GDP ratio of 105.7%. The $5.9 trillion difference between the total debt and the public debt consists of intragovernmental debt, which mostly is money owed to Social Security and, to a lesser extent, to FHA and other agencies. For example, when Treasury spent the Social Security surplus, it issued special non-negotiable bonds.

        Throughout this series we use the public debt ratio and not the total debt ratio because intragovernmental debt is notional, with interest accrued and not paid in cash. It is analogous to writing yourself an IOU. Most who cite the higher total debt ratio do so out of ignorance or as a scare tactic. However, there are some credible sources who believe total debt is more relevant than public debt. If they are right, our debt ratio is 105.7% and not 77.6% and America is much worse off than described in this series.

           There are some who minimize the seriousness of the current ratio because it was higher (115%) in the aftermath of WWII (the only time prior to 2009 it was above 50%) and America easily recovered. However, the WWII deficit saved America from totalitarianism and was transitory. Afterward, war expenses ceased, Social Security ran surpluses, Medicare didn’t exist and demographics were favorable. Now, the deficit is structural; Social Security, Medicare and pensions run huge deficits and demographics are bleak. We are in the tenth year of an economic expansion and growth is 3%; yet, the FY 2019-2020 deficit will be $1.1 trillion and increasing each year thereafter.

       It must be noted that many states, counties and cities also are in serious debt trouble and will, at some point, require federal government bailouts. Private debt is hovering at an all-time high. The world debt to GWP (Gross World Product) ratio currently is 84% and spiraling upward. Global debt (public and private) is $230 trillion and is over 300% of GWP. Although these issues are beyond the scope of this spending crisis series, they deserve at least some recognition.

          We close with some examples that seem to defy expectations. Japan’s debt ratio is 250%, but dedicated pension assets lower the effective ratio to 110%. The NIKKEI index is down 46% from 1989 and economic growth is 1% amidst chronic deflation. Greece’s ratio hit 180%; it avoided default due to its small size and bailout by the EU. It’s economy contracted, pensions were halved and there was social and political upheaval. Italy, with a 130% ratio, is following in Greece’s tracks. Even though they avoided default, Japan, Greece and Italy did not escape the consequences of massive debt; they all have suffered lost generations and their crises are far from resolved.


Next on May 5th is Part II of our series about the spending crisis.

Financial Repression

At the darkest hour of the crisis, I can see the state confiscating all IRA, 401(k) and private/corporate pension assets and transferring them into Social Security.
Financial Repression
By: George Noga – November 11, 2018

     If the term financial repression is new to you, get used to it! You already are experiencing it and it will get much worse as the spending crisis ratchets up. Financial repression is government action that insidiously transfers wealth from the private to the public sector and, in particular, facilitates government financing of its massive debt.

        Repression is already here; thus far, we have seen only less virulent forms: (1) artificially low (zero) interest rates that savaged savings and deferred the consequences of the government’s debt binge; (2) multiple bouts of quantitative easing, driving up prices of government bonds and suppressing interest rates; (3) regulations for banks to hold more government bonds to meet capital requirements; (4) increases in bank reserve requirements; and (5) early salvos in the war on cash. Following are the top five forms of repression you can expect as the spending crisis goes thermonuclear.

1.  Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash  These go hand-in-hand; negative rates won’t work if citizens can hold cash as they are much better off with cash than negative rates. In Japan, the sale of safes soared when rates went negative. Europe wants to ban the 500 Euro note and the US the $100 bill. Canada, Singapore and many other countries have phased out large denomination notes. Cash can protect citizens from an overpowering state and that is precisely why the state has declared war on cash.

2. Currency and Capital Controls  As the spending crisis heats up, citizens are better off moving all or some of their funds to other countries. There is no doubt the government will put a stop to this with currency controls – as have all other nations in similar straits. Government also will regulate the flow of capital and capital markets by various means including taxation, regulation, prohibitions and mandates.

3. Bail-Ins During the spending crisis, banks will fail. Governments have established bail-in provisions requiring depositors of such banks to make the banks solvent by confiscating a portion of their deposits. Recently, Cyprus proposed taking 9.9% from every depositor. The state may palliate this by proffering worthless equity or bonds in the failed bank as compensation. Again, this ties into the war on cash; bail-ins won’t work unless citizens are forced to keep their money in banks or other institutions.

4. Seizure of IRA, 401(k) and Pension Assets Throughout history, pension funds have proven the quickest and easiest for politicians to steal. In recent years, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ireland and France have, through one artifice or another, seized money from personal, company and/or public pension accounts. Currently, there is $30 trillion of pension assets in the US; if you believe these are safe, you also believe in the Tooth Fairy. The Obama Administration once prepared a working paper outlining how government could seize 25% of Americans’ assets in IRA and 401(k) accounts.

5. Debt Restructure The state can forcibly restructure its debt, which can take many (or multiple) forms: (1) lengthen maturities; (2) impose a haircut, i.e. writedown of principal; (3) lower the interest rate – even to a negative rate; (4) require rollover; (5) delay or prevent redemption; (6) conversion to other securities; and (7) repudiation.

         Opportunities for financial repression are limited only by the imagination. More than likely, government will use all five of the forms of repression listed supra. I can see the state requiring IRA, 401(k) and private/corporate pension plans to own a mandated amount of government debt. At the darkest hour of the crisis, I can see the state taking over all (by then $50 trillion) private pension assets and converting them into highly politicized government pensions that revert to the state upon death.

       Government created this problem. Its ham-handed attempts to fix it will destroy America as we know it and create a lost generation of unfathomable desperation. That is why we passionately believe America needs more liberty and less government!


Don’t miss our special Thanksgiving posting – next from MLLG.

Balanced Budget Amendment and Spending Cap

The debt crisis is misnamed. At root, it is not an economic crisis, it is a moral crisis and it is not a debt crisis, it is a spending crisis.
MLLG’s Continuing Series About the Spending Crisis
Balanced Budget Amendment and Spending Cap
By: George Noga – September 23, 2018

        This is the latest in MLLG’s ongoing series about the US spending crisis. I will publish regular, periodic (non-consecutive) posts as the runaway debt train hurtles toward the cliff. I have been inundated with requests to write about what actions can be taken to protect you and your family against (or to profit from) the greatest and most predictable crisis of our time. I listened and in October I will publish such a post.

        Americans overwhelmingly (80%) favor a balanced budget amendment (“BBA”) in the belief it will force fiscal discipline on the government. However, a BBA is doomed to fail and the following list identifies twenty one of its numerous flaws.

  1. Writing a BBA is tough; how do we define budget; what does balanced mean?
  2. How do we deal with economic cycles; do we balance annually or over a cycle?
  3. What about exceptions/waivers for wars or disasters; how are they defined?
  4. Lawsuits will challenge the BBA and judges will wield enormous influence.
  5. Do we distinguish annual expenses from capital; how?
  6. How do we deal with off budget spending such as Fannie, Freddie and USPS?
  7. Is interest on the debt exempt; what happens if interest rates skyrocket?
  8. How about special taxing districts of which there are 50,000 nationwide?
  9. Are entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and pensions included?
  10. Are there restraints on user fees? If not, watch out for  outrageous new fees.
  11. Loan guarantees can be used to fund programs off budget. Isn’t this spending?
  12. Regulations can be used instead of taxes for de facto government spending.
  13. California, Illinois and New Jersey have BBAs; what does that tell you?
  14. Greece, Italy and France have anti-deficit laws but are in or near bankruptcy.
  15. A BBA would be the only part of the Constitution subject to waiver/exception.
  16. The tax code can be larded with tax expenditures, incentives and earmarks.
  17. Don’t forget mandates; the Obamacare mandate survived judicial scrutiny.
  18. A budget can be balanced via tax increases instead of spending cuts.
  19. You can’t take the politics out of politics. Watch for unintended consequences.
  20. There are myriad paths around, through, over and under a BBA to eviscerate it.
  21. A BBA would beguile us into falsely believing the crisis is permanently solved.

The debt crisis is misunderstood. At its heart, it is a moral crisis, not an economic crisis. The debt crisis also is misnamed. It is a spending crisis not a deficit or debt crisis and in the future MLLG always will refer to it as the spending crisis. It can’t be solved by artifices like a BBA. It can’t be solved until the American people make some incredibly difficult and painful choices, which they are not yet prepared to make. Moreover, the USA has, in all likelihood, already passed the point of no return.

If a BBA can’t work, can anything else work? Since we really are in a spendingcrisis, a hard constitutional spending cap is a better alternative. Switzerland (Article 126) and Hong Kong (Article 107) have constitutional spending caps that work as did Colorado (TABOR) for many years until voters opted for a “time out” in 2005. A hard spending cap takes tax increases off the table and is much better than a BBA; however, spending caps are subject to most of the same 21 problems noted supra for BBAs.

The ineluctable and bitter truth is nothing will work because we have dug the hole too deep and are blissfully continuing to dig it deeper. Also, there isn’t enough time. Simply to freeze the debt ratio at its present level requires permanent spending cuts of $1.25 trillion a year, equal to over 25% of federal government spending, most of which must come from entitlements. This is impossible politically and absolutely nothing will happen until America is deeply enmeshed in the worst crisis of our time.


Our next post on September 30th declares victory in America’s war on poverty.

Debt Crisis Timetable Accelerating

When Titanic struck the iceberg, it remained afloat and the disaster was not yet apparent. However, its fate was irreversible from that moment; so it is with a 90%  debt/GDP ratio.
Debt Crisis Timetable Accelerating
By: George Noga – August 1, 2018

       I have a recurrent nightmare about an endless train, brimming with passengers and priceless cargo, slowly but inexorably hurtling along its tracks toward a bottomless abyss. The engineers, conductors, passengers and observers all know the train is going over the cliff; however, instead of trying to stop the train they are opening the throttle to speed it up. When I awake, I realize it is no nightmare; it is happening right now to the United States of America. Following are data just released by CBO and SS.

  • Social Security begins devouring reserves this year, 4 years earlier than projected last year. Reserves will be depleted in 15 years and benefits would require a 25% cut.

 

  • Medicare will be unable to pay scheduled benefits in 8 years; just during the past year this shortened by 3 years. What does that say about the integrity of the data?

 

  • Deficits average $1.5 trillion (total $15 trillion) over the next 10 years (based on current policy), raising the public debt/GDP ratio to 105% per the latest CBO estimate.

 

  • Interest on the debt will triple to just under $1 trillion per year within 10 years per the June 2018 CBO report. Debt service will soon overtake defense spending.

 

  • The really bad news is that the projections cited above, by government agencies, are wildly optimistic. None assumes a recession during the coming decade, while it is nearly certain there will be one or possibly even two. Recent projections made by private sector economists (Fortune Magazine, Cato Institute) are much worse.

       No one cares! For most Americans the problem is too abstruse; they are tired of hearing pundits cry wolf; and there is no discernable impact on their daily lives. For politicians, tackling the issue has no upside; it is all downside, including possible electoral loss. No constituency exists for reining in benefits, cutting spending or raising taxes; the political apparat favors the opposite. Each year that we dithered, the problem became more intractable and costly; now, finding a solution is virtually hopeless.

        Economists believe the point-of-no-return is a public debt to GDP ratio >90%; the World Bank says 77%. The US already is at 77% and will reach 90% much earlier than believed only months ago. The crisis doesn’t begin when we exceed 90%; it just means there is no going back. The Titanic remained afloat a long while after it struck the iceberg and the crisis was not immediately evident to those aboard. Nonetheless, the moment Titanic hit the iceberg, its fate became irreversible; so it is with a 90% ratio.

       As my nightmare continues, nothing happens until after the train goes over the cliff and we are subsumed by crisis. Panicked politicians impose a VAT, modest at first, but rapidly ramped up to European levels of 20+%. Income taxes skyrocket. Only token changes are made to entitlements. Economic growth tanks. Defense is compromised. There is a 15-25 year lost generation as we morph into a European-style welfare state. People lead lives of quiet desperation and the USA, as we know it, ceases to exist.

      There are two certainties about the impending debt crisis: (1) if something cannot go on forever, it won’t; and (2) excess debt ultimately must be purged from the system. The debt can be purged only via higher taxes, less spending (especially entitlement spending), hyperinflation or repudiation; there are no other options.

      By the time the crisis hits, a combination of new and higher taxes and spending cuts totalling $1.25 trillion per year in today’s dollars (25% of the budget) for 15 straight years will be needed just to get back to today’s 77% debt/GDP ratio. That should give you some perspective about the devastation that purging the debt will wreak on America – as well as the reason for my recurrent nightmares.


Our next post on August 10th documents great causes turning into rackets.

The Debt Crisis Revisited

Many readers responded to my assertions that the US has crossed the point of no return on the debt crisis and that it is Gotterdammerung for America.
The Debt Crisis Revisited
By: George Noga – March 25, 2018

      Wow! My recent posts about the debt crisis Point of No Return (February 18) and Gotterdammerung for America (February 25) (available at www.mllg.us) elicited many questions and comments from readers. Following are my responses.

Question: Your current position differs from what you wrote in the past; explain.

Some readers have long memories. I wrote in 2010 and 2011 that the debt crisis would arrive in the early 2020s and possibly sooner. Now, I project it will arrive in the mid 2020s, maybe sooner. The difference is entirely explainable by (1) the budget sequester passed in 2013; (2) nine years without a recession; and (3) the lowest interest rates in history. There is another key difference: in earlier years I believed the crisis was still avoidable; now I believe we have crossed the point of no return. Fundamentally, nothing has changed except the timeline – thanks mainly to the sequester.

Question: What about Japan; isn’t its Debt/GDP ratio above 200%?

Japan’s ratio is 235%; however, it has pension and other assets, which partially offset the debt part of the equation and lower the ratio to around 100%. The NIKKEI 225 stock index nearly hit 40,000 in 1989; currently, it is around 21,200 – a drop of 47% that has persisted for 28 years and counting. Economic growth has barely averaged 1%; they have chronic deflation and now more deaths than births each year. They have avoided default mainly because Japanese citizens are willing to buy government bonds to finance the deficit. However, Japan has paid a steep price for its debt crisis.

Question: Hasn’t Greece avoided default despite a ratio way above 90%?

Greece’s ratio is around 175%. It has staved off default because it is small (GDP size of Massachusetts) and was bailed out by the EU, which imposed severe austerity in exchange for the bailouts. The US is far too big to be bailed out and if we go under, we drag the rest of the world with us. If Greece were on its own, it would have defaulted and would now be a third world country. Moreover, Greece has suffered; its economy has shrunk, pensions have been cut nearly in half and there is societal upheaval.

Question: Isn’t the US okay as long as people keep buying Treasury bonds?

Yes, witness the situation with Japan – which likely is unique to that country. When US debt reaches a level where it can’t be repaid, why would anyone buy more bonds? The very nature of a debt crisis means the debt can’t be repaid without default, devaluation or financial repression that forces bondholders to accept less than full value.

Question: Is a soft landing possible?

Translation: can we suffer a debt crisis with minimum pain and disruption? The debt ultimately must be reduced via: (1) less spending; (2) higher taxes; (3) inflation; (4) repudiation; or (5) a combination. However, the magnitude of the spending cuts or new taxes would be devastating. A crisis could take the form of a sudden cataclysm or a slow motion train wreck. One way or another, the debt must be purged and every possible method results in a crisis that will fundamentally reshape America.

Question: What do you really believe will happen and when?

If something cannot go on forever, it won’t. No nation has recovered from 90% without economic and social upheaval. The US will surpass 90% within a few years and the ratio will continue to skyrocket after that. The point of no return is 90%; that does not mean the crisis begins the day we reach 90%; it only means disaster can’t be avoided. The ratio may hit 125% or even 150% before the bottom falls out. Government will attempt fixes but they will be too little, too late. A painful readjustment process will purge the excess debt from the system. When it is all over, America will be a different country. Some readers have expressed a more sanguine outlook; I hope they are right.


Our next post on April 1st focuses on a serious environmental problem.

Gotterdammerung for America

Recent developments have sealed America’s fate; it is only a matter of time until some event (perhaps minor) triggers a crisis – forever changing the United States.
Gotterdammerung for America
By: George Noga – February 25, 2018
      Gotterdammerung is the final opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It means twilight of the gods and is marked by a catastrophic and violent societal collapse. It was the final performance of the Berlin Philharmonic on April 12, 1945. It is an apt choice for the above headline because, for the first time ever, I believe America has crossed the point of no return on its way to gotterdammerung. The climax of the crisis  is years away but we have crossed the Rubicon and jacta alea est – the die is cast.
       I was not this apocalyptic when I wrote the February 11 and 18 posts. The February 11 post identified the three root causes of the fiscal crisis as health care, Social Security (pensions) and interest on the debt. Because of recent developments, these root causes plus defense now will suck up the entire federal budget (and then some) by 2020 – much earlier than I believed scant weeks ago.
       The February 18 post showed the public debt/GDP ratio surpassing 90% within 5 years. No nation has escaped from a ratio that high without societal upheaval and a lost generation. Subsequent to that post, things have gotten worse. Congress’ budget deal increased spending $150 billion/year and permanently raised the baseline for all future spending. Add another $200 billion for infrastructure plus billions more for higher interest on the debt and there are trillion dollar (and bigger) deficits forever. The US now will reach the critical 90% ratio much earlier than I believed on February 11th.
       We were lucky until recently. The 2013 budget sequester restrained spending; we are in the ninth year of an economic expansion; and interest rates have been at historic lows. These factors delayed our fiscal death march to Gomorrah. Meanwhile, the demographic time bomb keeps ticking as health care and pensions spiral out of control. Now, the sequester is busted, interest rates are exploding and a recession is due soon.
       There is no way out of this fiscal rathole. Slashing spending requires cuts of 25% and must include health care and pensions – sowing the clouds of civil unrest. Raising taxes also requires a 25% increase and kills economic growth leading to stagnation and lives of quiet desperation. Other possibilities such as runaway inflation and repudiation of the debt also would rent the country’s fabric. All possible solutions are nihilistic.
       Most politicians, however venal, are not stupid. They fully understand everything in this post. They do not attempt to halt America’s entropy because they know voters will not support drastic action unless there is an existential crisis. Speaker Ryan wanted to tackle entitlements but he would be demagogued to death merely for trying. Nothing will happen until it is far too late and then it will be only quarter-measures.
     Charles Murray, one of the titans of our time, recently said: “the American experiment in self-government is essentially over“. Hamilton said it well: “The only path to a subversion of our country is by flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their passions, jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion  and bring about civil discord.” That describes America today, dithering over identity politics and playing to peoples’ fears and prejudices, while ignoring existential threats.
       With profound regret, I now must concur with Charles Murray. I fear our beloved republic of 230 years has passed the point of no return; I hope and pray I’m wrong.

Next in 3 days: Special Posting on the Parkland school shooting

Point of No Return: 90% Debt/GDP

When a nation’s debt reaches 90% of its GDP, it crosses a bright red line after which recovery is nigh impossible. We explain why that is true.
Point of No Return: 90% Debt/GDP
By: George Noga – February 18, 2018

       Our last post (Fiscal Gorillas) was a lead-in; if you missed it, try to read it first here. It is accepted economic wisdom that once a nation’s debt exceeds 90% of its GDP, there is no recovery. Is 90% an arbitrary ratio plucked from the ether? No. Governments have been borrowing money for 600 years and not one has recovered from a 90% ratio without experiencing social and economic upheaval and a lost generation. Why is this so and why is 90% the magic threshold?

       We begin with some numbers. The US public debt is now $14.8 trillion (total debt is $20.5 trillion) and GDP is $19.7 trillion. This makes the public Debt/GDP ratio 75%. The total Debt/GDP ratio is 104%, but that is not the relevant metric, as the $5.7 trillion difference between public and total debt consists mainly of non-interest bearing intra-government debt. If GDP grows at 2% (it is growing faster, but we must factor in recessions) and if debt grows at 5% (its current rate), the ratio will reach 90% in 2023 and 100% in 2027. Even if my assumptions are off, it is clear the US is on a trajectory to breech 90% and then 100%  in about 5 and 10 years respectively.

Mathematics of a 100% Debt /GDP Ratio

      I discovered a simple but gripping way to look at the Debt/GDP ratio. When the ratio is at 100%, i.e. debt and GDP are equal, it is easier to grasp the crisis. In 2027 both GDP and public debt are projected to be $24 trillion. When these metrics are equal, the economy must grow at an identical rate as the debt to prevent a death spiral.

     If GDP increased only 2%, we would have to limit the debt increase to the same 2% merely to maintain the ratio at 100%. However, if debt continues to grow 5%, there would be added debt of $720 billion per year (compounded) and the ratio would skyrocket. Given our aging demographic, out of control Social Security and pensions along with exploding health care costs, we will be lucky if debt grows only 5%.

     GDP historically has grown about 3% – but much less in recent years. The debt is growing at 5% and that is under highly sanguine economic conditions. When we have the inevitable recession (we are now in the 9th year of an expansion), GDP growth will turn negative and debt will balloon to 8% of GDP or even higher. It doesn’t take advanced econometrics to quickly see this is a recipe for disaster.

      Then there is the matter of interest rates on the national debt. As the US slouches toward a 100% Debt/GDP ratio, buyers of Treasury bonds will require ever higher interest rates to compensate for the greater peril. The historic average composite rate (across all maturities) on Treasury debt is 6%; if that went to just 7.5%, it would mean interest on the debt would constitute $1.75 trillion per year, or over 30% of the budget. Long before that happened, the Minsky Moment (point of no return) would have passed and the United states would begin to resemble Greece, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

      The only possible ways to avert default are: (1) massive spending cuts on the order of 30% which would shatter the social contract; (2) draconian tax increases which would halt economic growth; (3) runaway inflation, the cruelest tax of all; and (4) repudiation of the debt. The ensuing crisis would not be limited to the economy. We will be lucky to maintain the rule of law and America as we know it will disappear.

    The World Bank asserts that the Debt/GDP tipping point is reached at 77%. No nation has ever escaped a 90% ratio. The United States of America today stands at 75% and will reach 90% circa 2023. The clock is ticking but the band plays on.


Our next post February 25th revisits Antifa and fascism.