have to refinance too often.
So in gratitude, I offered the U.S. officials some counsel of my own.
I told them they should follow their own counsel and lengthen the U.S. Treasury’s average debt maturities, then about six years.
The Treasury officials should have taken my advice. But instead they ignored me and did the exact opposite.
The upshot: Today the United States’ debt maturities are among the shortest in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and U.S. refinancing costs are exceptionally large.
So if you’re already worried about soaring budget deficits and the solvency of the United States, brace yourself – it’s only going to get worse.
The U.S. Treasury had more than one opportunity to follow my advice. At the time we opted to extend Croatia’s debt maturities, other countries went the other way – with devastating fallout.
For instance, the Ukrainian hryvnia Treasury bill program – where the vast public deficit was financed with 18-month T-bills sold to greedy Merrill Lynch and other foreigners at interest rates above 15% – was one of the major disasters of the 1997-98 crash.
In spite of that outcome, and despite my advice, the U.S. Treasury took the opposite tact by abolishing the 30-year bond issue in 2001. The belief at the time was that Treasury surpluses were so assured that there was no longer any need for 30-year money.
There are two problems with this: First, when interest rates rise, their additional cost will feed through to the budget remarkably quickly, making the financing problem even worse. Second, it increases the risk that at some stage, the U.S. Treasury may not be able to raise the money.
Average Treasury bond maturities reached a low of 50 months in 2009. They’ve since been lengthened a bit to 62 months, but that still leaves the U.S. Treasury with a major refinancing risk. The Treasury will have to refinance some $2 trillion of outstanding debt in the next year – and that’s in addition to the $1.5 trillion of new debt it’s going to have to issue in that time.
That doesn’t leave much room to maneuver if markets get sticky. It also leaves a serious potential budget hole.
Five-year Treasuries currently yield 1.12%. Since consumer price inflation is currently 3.8%, a more normal yield would be close to 6%, or 2% above the rate of inflation.
However, that implies an average 5% rise in interest rates for Treasuries with an average maturity of 62 months. With $3.5 trillion of Treasuries being issued every year, such an increase would boost interest costs by $175 billion in the first year, $350 billion in the second year, and so on up to $825 billion in the fifth year. And by that time, with the U.S. financial position getting steadily more dire, interest rates would probably have risen further.
The conclusion is inescapable.
When interest rates rise – and I very much doubt U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will be able to hold them flat until 2013 – the deficit increases from the Treasury’s refinancing will dwarf any feeble attempts by Congress to tame the country’s debt.
That means the current $1.5 trillion deficits will quickly rise to $2.5 trillion, and the debt levels will spiral out of control.
U.S. Treasury bulls frequently tell us how superior the U.S. position is to that of Japan. Japan currently has debt level of more than 200% of gross domestic product (GDP), compared to roughly 90% for the United States, when you include Social Security trust funds.
But what these bulls are forgetting is that Japan sells most of its debt to domestic investors and banks, so it has to worry much less about a failure to find new support.
More importantly, the Japanese government has been increasing its issuance of “super-long-term bonds” of 30-year and 40-year maturity. Its average issue maturity now is 93 months, fully 50% longer than in the United States – thus its annual refinancing needs are one-third less, in relation to the size of its debt.
If interest rates rise, it is the U.S. government debt managers, not the Japanese authorities, who will be committing hara-kiri.
Related: SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE:GLD), iShares Silver Trust (NYSE:SLV), iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury ETF (NYSE:TLT), ProShares UltraShort 20+ Year Treasury ETF (NYSE:TBT), Direxion Daily Small Cap Bear 3X Shares ETF (NYSE:TZA).
Martin is a Contributing Editor to both the Money Map Report and Money Morning. An investment banker with more than 25 years’ experience, Hutchinson has worked on both Wall Street and Fleet Street and is a leading expert on the international financial markets. At Creditanstalt-Bankverein, Hutchinson was a Senior Vice President in charge of the institution’s derivative operations, one of the most challenging units to run. He also served as a director of Gestion Integral de Negocios, a Spanish private-equity firm, and as an advisor to the Korean conglomerate, Sunkyong Corp. In February 2000, as part of the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, Hutchinson became an advisor to the Republic of Macedonia, working directly with Minister of Finance Nikola Gruevski (now that country’s Prime Minister). The nation had been staggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia – in which 800,000 Macedonians lost their life savings – and then the Kosovo War. Under Hutchinson’s guidance, the country issued 12-year bonds, and created a market for the bonds to trade. The bottom line: Macedonians were able to sell their bonds for cash, and many recouped more than three-quarters of what they’d lost – to the tune of about $1 billion. Hutchinson earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Harvard University. He lives near Washington, D.C.
If you don’t have the ability or the buy-in capital for foreign currencies, you may want to consider an investment strategy that can prosper through a crashing dollar. To learn more about one such plan, click here for the latest presentation.