Mostly rational politics, with occasional rants about how a few crazy Republicans are ruining the country.
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Monday, October 02, 2006
U.S. Debt: Risk Free?
The so-called "risk free rate of return" is whatever US Treasury Notes are yielding... these days around 5%. But I'm starting (actually, more like continuing) to worry that if things continue the way they are now, the U.S. government may not always be viewed as a risk-free investment. Take Jim Jubak's analysis:
Is U.S. nearing financial avalanche? In July, the United States may have reached a tipping point, one of those moments when all the snow that has been building up in the mountains suddenly becomes an avalanche. We've been spending more than we take in with both hands for a while now. But only recently has paying the interest on all that debt really started to cost us very much money.
The United States has piled up a string of monthly trade-deficit records recently. The July 2006 deficit of $68.04 billion, for example, erased the October 2005 deficit of $66.6 billion. For all of 2005, the United States spent $717 billion more on goods and services than it took in -- also a record. So far, 2006 is on a pace to handily surpass that deficit: The January-July 2006 deficit hit $453 billion, way ahead of the $398 billion deficit in the corresponding period of 2005.
At the same time, the U.S. government has been spending more than it took in. Since 2001, the federal government, certainly not the only layer of government practicing deficit financing, has borrowed $1.3 trillion to pay for tax breaks, new Medicare drug benefits and the war in Iraq.
Foreigners make U.S. deficits possible Foreigners have picked up the tab for most of those twin deficits. Foreign investors have purchased U.S. government bonds that the federal government has used to finance its spend-now, pay-later policies. The dollars we sent overseas to pay for everything from oil to electronics to textiles to toys have been recycled by foreign investors into U.S. government bonds, corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities (a form of debt backed by the mortgages on U.S. homes). My MSN Money colleague Bill Fleckenstein has railed against the way that we turned our homes into ATMs during the real-estate boom. Well, it was foreign investors buying bundles of mortgages on U.S. real estate who kept those ATMs stocked with cash.
By the end of 2005, overseas investors held $13.6 trillion in U.S. stocks, bonds, real estate, businesses and other assets. Subtract the $11.1 trillion in assets owned by U.S. residents and companies, and the U.S. had a net negative balance of $2.5 trillion. That's about $23,000 for each of the 110 million households in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It's almost incomprehensible to think of the U.S. government defaulting on its debt. That happens in Argentina and Russia, not here in the good ole U.S. of A. But how long will we get a free pass? If we were a developing nation running up the kind of debts we are today, the IMF and World Bank would be swarming!