Monday, July 14, 2014

Why We're Doomed: Interest and Debt

Even if the economy were growing at a faster pace, it wouldn't come close to offsetting the interest payments on our ever-expanding debt.

If you want to know why the Status Quo is unsustainable, just look at interest and debt. These are not difficult to understand: debt is a loan that must be paid back or discharged/written off and the loss absorbed by the lender. Interest is paid on the debt to compensate the owner of the money for the risk of loaning it to a borrower.

It's easy to see what's happening with debt and the real economy (as measured by GDP, gross domestic product): debt is skyrocketing while real growth is stagnant. Put another way--we have to create a ton of debt to get a pound of growth.

There is no other way to interpret this chart.


source: Acting Man


The Status Quo has only survived this crushing expansion of debt by dropping interest rates to historic lows. This is a chart of the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond, which reflects the extraordinary decline in interest rates over the past two decades.

The Federal Reserve has pegged rates at essentially 0% for years. That means the strategy of lowering interest rates to enable more debt has run out of oxygen: rates can't drop any lower, and so they can either stay at current levels or rise.




Near-zero interest rates for banks borrowing from the Fed doesn't mean conventional borrowers get near-zero rates: auto loans are around 4%, credit cards are still typically 16% to 25%, garden-variety student loans are around 8% and conventional mortgages are about 4.25% to 4.5% for 30-year fixed-rate home loans.

This decline in interest rates means households can borrow more money while paying the same amount in interest.

So the interest payment on a $30,000 car today is actually less than the payment on a $15,000 auto loan back in 2000.


source: The Born Again Debtor


The monthly payment on a $400,000 home mortgage is roughly the same as the payment at much higher rates on a $200,000 home loan 15 years ago.

So dropping the interest rates has enabled a broad-based expansion of debt across the entire economy. Notice how debt has exploded higher in every segment of the economy: household, finance, government, business.


source: The Born Again Debtor


The other half of the debt/interest rate equation is household income: if income is stagnant and declining, the household cannot afford to take on more debt and pay more interest. With real (adjusted for inflation) household income declining for all but the top 10%, households cannot take on more debt unless rates drop significantly.



Now that rates are at historic lows, there is no more room to lower rates further to enable more debt. That gambit has run its course.

Many financial pundits claim private debts can simply be transferred to the government and the problem goes away. Unfortunately, they're dead-wrong. As economist Michael Pettis explains, bad debt cannot simply be “socialized”:

Remember that the only way debt can be resolved is by assigning the losses, either during the period in which the losses occurred or during the subsequent amortization period. There is no other way to “resolve” bad debt – the loss must be assigned, today or tomorrow, to some sector of the economy. “Socializing” the debt, or transferring the debt from one entity to another, does not change this. 
There are three sectors to whom the cost can be assigned: households, businesses, or the government. 
Earlier losses are still unrecognized and hidden in the country’s various balance sheets. These losses will either be explicitly recognized or they will be implicitly amortized. The only interesting question, as I see it, is which sector will effectively be assigned the losses. This is a political question above all....
In other words, when marginal borrowers--households, students, businesses, local government agencies, etc.--start defaulting, the losses will have to be taken by somebody. This is true of every indebted nation: Japan, the European nations, China and the U.S.

The idea that we can transfer the debt to the government or central bank and the losses magically vanish is simply wrong.

Even if you drop interest rates, if debt keeps soaring the interest soon becomes crushing. Even at historically low rates, the interest on Federal debt will soon double. That means some other spending must be cut or taxes must be increased to pay the higher interest costs. Either action reduces spending and thus growth.

If rates actually normalize, i.e. rise back toward historic norms, interest payments could triple.


source: Federal Spending by the Numbers, 2013: Government Spending Trends in Graphics, Tables, and Key Points


Here's one way to understand how reliance on ever-expanding debt hollows out the economy. Let's say the average interest on the $60 trillion in total debt is 4%. (Recall that charge-offs for defaulted loans must be included as debt-related expenses. The interest paid to lenders is only one expense in the debt system; the other is the losses taken by lenders for defaulted credit card loans, mortgages, etc.)

That comes to $2.4 trillion annually.

Now take the $16 trillion U.S. economy and reckon that real growth in gross domestic product (GDP), even with questionable hedonic adjustments and understated inflation, is about 1.5% annually. That's an increase of $240 billion annually.

That means we're eating over $2 trillion every year of our real wealth, i.e. our seed corn, to support an ever-increasing mountain of debt. That is not sustainable. Even if the economy were growing at a faster pace, it wouldn't come close to offsetting the interest payments on our ever-expanding debt.
This leaves the entire Status Quo increasingly vulnerable to any sort of credit shock; either rising rates or a decline in the rate of debt expansion will cause the system to implode.










Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy(Kindle, $9.95)(print, $20)
go to Kindle edition
Are you like me?

Ever since my first summer job decades ago, I've been chasing financial security. Not win-the-lottery, Bill Gates riches (although it would be nice!), but simply a feeling of financial control. I want my financial worries to if not disappear at least be manageable and comprehensible.

And like most of you, the way I've moved toward my goal has always hinged not just on having a job but a career.

You don't have to be a financial blogger to know that "having a job" and "having a career" do not mean the same thing today as they did when I first started swinging a hammer for a paycheck.

Even the basic concept "getting a job" has changed so radically that jobs--getting and keeping them, and the perceived lack of them--is the number one financial topic among friends, family and for that matter, complete strangers.

So I sat down and wrote this book: Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

It details everything I've verified about employment and the economy, and lays out an action plan to get you employed.

I am proud of this book. It is the culmination of both my practical work experiences and my financial analysis, and it is a useful, practical, and clarifying read.

Test drive the first section and see for yourself.     Kindle, $9.95     print, $20

"I want to thank you for creating your book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy. It is rare to find a person with a mind like yours, who can take a holistic systems view of things without being captured by specific perspectives or agendas. Your contribution to humanity is much appreciated."
Laura Y.

Gordon Long and I discuss The New Nature of Work: Jobs, Occupations & Careers (25 minutes, YouTube) 


NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.


Thank you, Harry B. ($10/month), for your outstandingly generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.Thank you, Jeff M. ($25), for your wondrously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.


Terms of Service

All content on this blog is provided by Trewe LLC for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.


Our Privacy Policy:
Correspondents' email is strictly confidential. The third-party advertising placed by Adsense, Investing Channel and/or other ad networks may collect information for ad targeting. Links for commercial sites are paid advertisements. Blog links on the site are posted at my discretion.


Our Commission Policy:
Though I earn a small commission on Amazon.com books and gift certificates purchased via links on my site, I receive no fees or compensation for any other non-advertising links or content posted on my site.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper III by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP