10 October 2013

A Dangerous Game

Let's start with some basic principles.

Basic principle #1: If you borrow $100 for 1 year at 2% interest per annum, you will be required to pay $102 back at the end of the term. This is basic finance.

Basic principle #2: The United States government borrows money to meet its obligations by issuing Treasury Bonds at a certain price yielding a certain interest rate for a certain term. They are considered as good as, or even better than, gold.

A quick word about the pricing of these debt instruments. As the price of a Treasury Bond goes up, the interest rate goes down. Conversely, as the Bond's price goes down, the rate it pays goes up.

This seems counterintuitive. It seems like it should be the case that if the interest rate goes up then the price should go up. Like someone would pay more for a bond with higher interest. But that is not the case. Pricing of bonds has to do with volatility and security. The stabler and more secure the company/country which issues a bond, the lower the interest rate the borrower is required to pay.

Currently, U.S. Treasury bonds pay negative interest. You read that right: negative interest! Try to buy one. That means lenders actually pay money to loan the United States money. The U.S. can borrow $100 for 1 year at approximately -1% interest. That means that after the term, the U.S. only has to pay back $99 of the $100 it borrowed. That's how stable and secure the rest of the planet views the U.S. and its debt offerings.

Basic principle #3: As a borrower, it's always better to pay it back with cheaper money. That is to say, for debtors, inflation is actually a good thing. If dollars are cheaper at the end of the term, then the borrower can actually earn even more money by going into debt.

For example, let's say on Jan. 1, I borrow $100 for a term of one year. Further, that same  $100 will buy me 50 ingots of unobtainium on Jan. 1. Now imagine that by Dec. 31, the day I have to repay that loan, inflation has hit, the dollar has devalued, and that same $100 will now buy only 49 unobtainium ingots. That is to say, if on Jan. 1 I borrow $100 and buy 50 ingots then on Dec. 31 I only have to sell 49 of those same ingots to repay the loan. I've made a profit of 1 ingot on my money. And that's not even factoring in interest—which, if it's negative, further increases my earnings AS A BORROWER.

Now, when you ramp up these principles to a national scale, borrowing trillions of dollars, you get a sense of the stakes in the current debt ceiling issue.

The U.S. is indebted to China to the tune of trillions of dollars. The Chinese have been investing in Treasuries, loaning us money, parking their money in the safest instruments in the world.

We are paying interest to the Chinese for all the money we've borrowed since 2002 when Pres. Geo. W. Bush re-started issuing U.S. bonds to pay for his Afghanistan and Iraq adventures, his tax cuts, his reorganization and expansion of Federal government (esp. Homeland Security), his increasing use of government contractors, and his Medicare prescription drug reform, among other things. Recall, after Pres. Bill Clinton balanced the budget, the U.S. government stopped borrowing money, i.e., stopped issuing Treasuries, in or around 1997. Did you know that?

If the U.S. threatens to default on its loans by Congressional failure to raise the debt ceiling, it will cause the markets to perceive more volatility and insecurity in its obligations. The U.S. will cease paying interest on its debt. As noted, this will cause the interest rate on future issues of U.S. Treasury Bonds to increase and, concomitantly, the price of their issuance to decline. In other words, the U.S. will be selling its debt for less while at the same time having to pay a higher rate of interest. Rating agencies will downgrade the U.S.'s bond rating.

Disaster, right? Not necessarily.

This happened the last time this threat presented, so we have a precedent upon which to draw. It wasn't as disastrous as it could have because the volatility and insecurity in the rest of the world (competing credit markets) was even greater due to, among other things, the vicious world-wide recession at the time. The world markets turned to U.S. credit despite its increased volatility and instability only because of its stability and security with respect to the rest of the market. That was one mitigating factor at the time and may come into play this time. That 'flight-to-safety' effect, however, cannot be assumed.

You don't have to read far or deeply into the news to discover the sorts of disastrous results a U.S. debt default from failing to raise the debt ceiling could have on both the domestic and global economies. Some economists say it could dwarf the effects of Hurricane Sandy, Lehman Brothers' collapse, and even 9/11. And then there are always the 'unknown unknowns', the unintended consequences that even the greatest economic strategists cannot foresee.

But something ailing, generous blogbuddy BDR said a few days back struck a chord. Quoting Star Trek, he wrote: "But it is true that I will miss the arguments. They were, finally, all that we had." All we have is the argument.

Is there some benefit to be gained from this constant bickering over this debt ceiling—and, in fact, the government shutdown?

"How can that be?" you might well ask. Well, factor this into your calculations: The number one customer of U.S. debt is not the Chinese, it is we, the U.S.A. Americans. An enormous proportion of U.S. debt is owed from the Treasury, which issues debt, to the Federal Reserve and the Social Security trust, among others. This is the policy called 'quantitative easing'.
"[All told] Foreign governments and investors hold 48% of the nation's public debt. The next largest part (21%) is held by other [U.S.] governmental entities, like the Federal Reserve and state and local governments. Fifteen percent is held by mutual funds, private pension funds, savings bonds or individual Treasury notes. The rest (16%) is held by businesses, like banks, and insurance companies and a mish-mash of trusts, businesses and investors."
Bet you didn't know that!

What does that mean? If interest rates go up and the price of Treasuries declines as a result of threats of a default, the U.S. Treasury will be forced to borrow money at a higher interest rate and sell its bonds at a lower price. But, as by far the largest single purchaser, other areas of our government—the Fed, Social Security, etc.—will be paying a lower price for those same instruments and receiving a higher rate of interest. 

We, as both borrower and lender, stand to gain on either side of the equation. It will balance out domestically. Our foreign creditors, the Chinese and Japanese, do not stand to be so 'lucky'.

Also inflation. As interest rates go up, it will have an inflationary effect on the U.S. dollar. That is to say, we will be paying back our foreign creditors, in particular, the Chinese, in cheaper dollars—giving them the equivalent of fewer unobtainium ingots. Thereby further reducing Chinese leverage over our economy.

So, is all this wrangling and posturing merely a grand kabuki (or its Chinese equivalent) on the part of both parties intended to talk down our foreign debt?

I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, mind you. But the interests of the U.S. government are paramount for both the executive and legislative branches. Their actions may, in fact, be furthering those interests. Meaning, of course, even in its dysfunction, the government is actually somehow managing to further its own interests.

Of course, U.S. debt is the gold standard for world finance. And this chaos in the Treasury markets could roil the world economy. That could have other and possibly unintended consequences which I am in no position to evaluate. I am, after all, no economist.

But the question remains—assuming the panjandrums have gamed the whole thing out—do the dire consequences to the world economy outweigh the potential domestic advantage to be gained by all these money-juggling monkeyshines in reducing Chinese leverage over our economy?

It's a dangerous game. Gambling on the stability of the world economy. Threatening a global collapse of potentially catastrophic proportions. Worrying that the partisan adversaries will know when and how to stop the game of chicken once the finances and economics have been sufficiently economically jiggered. But it might just explain this whole "seeming" fiasco.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I have a link.

And another link.

The game?

Our President wants to win $100 million for screwing his base. Just like Bill Clinton did.

The goopers are willfully ignorant shitbags who might lose their House seats only if the Koch brothers finance (even further) right-wing challengers.

In summary, the plutocrats own this country are short-sighted assholes who will keep killing the geese that lay the golden eggs until said geese are extinct.

Jim H. said...

I can't say whether I agree or disagree. I'm not privy to Obama's wants and desires. Lots of people claim they know exactly what he wants. I can't. I hope it's not true, though.

I don't get the $100 million game. Where does that come from? Is that personal retirement money? Money for ACA? And how is he wanting to screw the base? What are you referring to by 'screw the base'? Is this something he wants to do or something he has already done? And who is this base that has he betrayed?

I can say I want $100 million, too, and do everything in my power to get it. But I'm pretty sure there're a ton of obstacles in my way, any one of which could derail my desire. In his case, there's a bunch of hardline opposition party members lined up against him every step of the way who would love nothing better than to bring that uppity so-and-so down.

To me, that's one of those statements that're neither demonstrably true nor false (see my previous post about Wittgenstein). As I said, I'd like to believe it's not true.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Jim, the $100 million refers to what Bill Clinton has made since he finished presidentin'.

And how is he wanting to screw the base?

Many ways, let's start with one that happened even before Obama was sworn in: cramdown. Which is related to HAMP, a program alleged to help homeowners but was in fact just more aid for the big banks.

And then there's the NAFTA and the TPP.

Here's Obama, trying to link Hillary to NAFTA during the 2008 primary. Would that not indicate to you that he knew NAFTA was bad? So what do you make of him secretly resuming negotiations on the G.W. Bush-begun TPP late in 2009?

Unemployment has been at 7.3% or above every single month of Obama's terms in office. Do you think the TPP will help?

Frankly, I do not think the issue o whether Obama has sold out his base falls under the category of your previous post about Wittgenstein. (And there are many more, such as his repeated attempts to cut Social Security, which predate the GOP retaking the House).

You know there are people on the right who refuse to believe that man-made global warming exists, preferring to believe it is an unproven theory at best.

The evidence that supports anthropogenic global warming is great, and it is growing. And so is the evidence that Obama is serving America's large banks and multinational corporations, at the expense of the people who voted him into office. I can't let you use the "Republicans made him do it" excuse for things that he was doing when he had the largest Congressional majorities in recent history.

Jim H. said...

Doesn't the Big Dog also bring in some bucks as head of the C Global Initiative which, from what I can tell means he's doing well by doing good on the kind of global scale only an ex-Pres can.

As for the base, you know as well as I that the base of the Democratic Party is comprised of Wall Streeters as well as libtards. It's a bigger tent than the Pubbies. It's not just Obama. So, just like the other guys, there are competing interests at the base. ACA was a compromise b/w traditional, middle-class Dems who've wanted health care legislation for generations and the insurance side of the Wall Street base. (There are many, competing factions on WS. Bond-holders tending to be the most conservative, e.g.) If it had been pure, ACA would've been single-payer. However, nothing would've come about if Republicans had any say. Even this step forward came with a price. Whether that was selling out the base, or getting what could be got, I guess, has to remain open for discussion.

So, yeah, serving banks and multinationals is one way of looking at it. But bringing them into the process and giving them some say on progressive legislation like ACA is better than the alternative—which is nothing.

And I suspect that SS, etc. negotiations were just that, negotiations. Seeing what could be gotten by dangling bait before the opposition's eyes. Seeing that nothing could be gained, it quickly got taken off the table.

I wish I knew enough about NAFTA and TPP to comment. I do know that any treaty has to be approved by the Senate. I don't know whether filibustering is allowed, but I suspect it is b/c tons of treaties signed by bunches of Pres's are still languishing and unstamped. So, Sanders!