Much attention has been focused on the size of the national debt as a whole; roughly $14.4 trillion. That number is astonishing, but the sheer size of the debt actually hides the true horror which is in store for the economy and future generations.
The debt has many component categories, the largest of which is called Marketable Debt. That means the portion of the debt that was issued in treasury securities that can be sold in the secondary bond market, and it is around $9.2 trillion. The rest is Non-marketable, and held mainly by the Social Security Administration through bonds that cannot be sold.
The Marketable Debt also has its own sub-components, based on the type of security that was sold to incur the debt in the first place. Treasury Bills mature in 1 year or less and accrue interest; Treasury Notes mature in 2, 3, 5, 7 or 10 years, and Bonds mature in 30 years – and the Notes and Bonds pay coupon interest every six months. Each bond is sold at the prevailing interest rate at the time of the sale.
Here is the part that is frightening: Starting under President Clinton, expanding under Bush, and exploding under Obama, the federal government has shifted its borrowing from traditional 30-year Bonds to the shorter term securities.
According to the US Department of the Treasuryâ€™s Monthly Statement of Public Debt dated May 31, 2011 , of the $9.2 trillion dollars of Marketable Debt, only about $965 billion are 30-year Bonds. More than $6 trillion are on Notes, with maturities ranging from 2 to 10 years, and a whopping $1.5 trillion are on 1-year Bills.
We are running record deficits, so we arenâ€™t paying any of these off when they mature – we just roll them over onto new securities. Weâ€™re also adding another $1.6 trillion on to the pile.
Right now the Federal Reserve is fixing interest rates at levels so low that they cannot be maintained forever. When the Fed raised interest rates to more than 20% back in the 1979-82 recession, the Treasury actually sold some bonds at interest rates of 20% or higher. Imagine if interest rates went up to just 10% today, and stayed there for a couple of years. All of those Bills and Notes that mature and are rolled over will roll over to higher interest rates.
The interest payments alone will easily top $700 billion dollars a year, and since the debt is likely to grow further as interest rates go up, the country is likely to pay well over $1 trillion per year in coupon interest alone -which will be financed by the issuance of new Treasury Notes.
Imagine a world where the Army is disbanded, Medicare covers only critical care needs, the Social Security age is retroactively raised to 75, and the all retired government officials lose their pensions because the United States needs to dedicate so much of its budget to paying the interest on the debt. These are politically impossible measures.
The only other way to avoid direct default is to print money – destroying the nationâ€™s economy with hyperinflation but technically making the interest payments, albeit with dollars devalued to near worthlessness. Thatâ€™s how the Federal Reserve managed to keep interest rates so low up to this point – by buying Treasuries at artificially low interest rates with printed money. That is why Bill Gross of PIMCO dumped every piece of US Treasury paper his hedge fund owned – the returns on these bonds would have been eaten up by inflation.
There it is – either we ruin the dollar or we default. Default is by far the better option; we can restructure our debts to something more manageable. This will ruin our credit rating forever, so future politicians will not be able to run deficits for vote-buying projects and illegal â€œKinetic Military Actions,â€ whatever those are. There are silver linings everywhere.