Clear Fog Blog

Political musings from Warren E. Peterson

The Deficits: Bush vs. Obama

Posted by Warren Peterson on July 13, 2009

Thanks to Jay A. for sending me the below Heritage Foundation link. It is Halloween early, only more frightening. How easily we have slipped from concern about billions to everyday acceptance of trillions. The President, Congress, the media, is anyone sounding an alarm?

Heritage Foundation


One Response to “The Deficits: Bush vs. Obama”

  1. Fred Churchill said

    The HERITAGE article puts a political, partisan twist on an issue that could bring the US to its knees in the next 10 years. If, in that time frame, the DOW is at 3500 and 50% of the budget is debt service, Republicans AND Democrats better be putting on their life jackets. Depression time.

    John Mauldin is a very bright guy who writes a Wall Street financial blog, and I have copied a portion of his recent news letter (minus charts that did not copy)on global finance, with a focus on Japan. Mauldin suggests you pour yourself an alcoholic beverage and remove all sharp objects from your reach as you read this. The parallels between Japan and the US are frightening, but Mauldin’s view of the global situation is even scarier. Here’s the article:

    “The Land of the Setting Sun”

    “Over the years, I have written about Japan often. Its economy is very important to the world, and its banks have funded and loaned a great deal to companies outside of Japan. Global growth would have been a lot slower without the Japanese. Up until recently, their population has saved a great deal of its disposable income, and those savings have allowed the Japanese government to run massive deficits.

    And we are talking truly massive. Over the last ten years, the government has seen the level of debt-to-GDP rise from 99% to over 170%, not including local governments. They ran those deficits to try and pull themselves out of the doldrums of their Lost Decade of the ’90s, following the crash of their real estate and stock markets, starting in 1989. They built bridges and roads to nowhere, all sorts of programs, quantitative easing, etc. Sound familiar?

    Of course, they were coming out of two really large bubbles, far larger than those recently in the US. I think I remember reading that at one point the land on which the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is built was valued at more than all of the real estate in California. Why not buy Pebble Beach or a few iconic buildings in New York, when they were so cheap? Today, Japanese real estate is still massively down (on the order of 50-80%, depending on location). And the Nikkei is still down roughly 75%, 20 years later. Do you think the Dow will be at 3,500 in 12 years?

    As late as 1999, personal savings plus pensions were running at 12% and had been as high as 16%. And much of those savings went into government debt. The government kept borrowing, and rates stayed in the area of 1%. Today, a ten-year bond yields 1.3% in Japan, so they could run up a very large debt and the interest-rate cost was not a big factor in the budget.

    But now things are changing. Demography is starting to change the landscape. Japan is a rapidly aging nation. The population is shrinking, and the birth rate is among the lowest in the world. And the dependency ratio is starting to rise. There are currently 1.2 nonproductive citizens (under 15 years old and over 64) for every productive Japanese; the ratio will reach 2.0 by 2020 and will continue to grow thereafter. (See chart below.)


    This also means that the ability to save is dropping, since so many retirees now need to dip into savings to live. Notice in the chart below that savings have dropped from 18% to 1.8%. Also notice that annual net savings is now down to 5 trillion yen.


    But this year, the Japanese will want to issue roughly 33 trillion yen in debt! Also note that the national pension fund has informed the government that this year they will for the first time be net sellers of debt. Look at the chart below. Notice that as debt was increasing through 2006, actual interest-rate expense for government debt was decreasing, because rates were dropping, getting to 0.1% in 2001. Yet with no more room to cut rates, interest-rate expenses have started to rise. Total government debt is now close to 900 trillion yen.


    Interest-rate expense is now about 18% of the Japanese government budget. What if rates went to a lofty 2%? That would over time double the interest-rate expense. And the Japanese are borrowing between 30-40% of their annual budget. The total debt is rising rapidly.

    Ok, let’s go over these points:

    Japan’s population is shrinking, and the number of workers per retiree is rising. Japan has the highest ratio of debt to GDP in the developed world. And that debt is growing by 7-8% a year, and does not include local debt. Interest rates cannot go lower. Savings are falling rapidly and will not be able to cover the need for new debt issuance, by a long shot. Within a few years, because of the aging of the population, savings will go negative. Social security payments are rising. GDP is shrinking, and export trade is off about 30-40%, depending on the industry. Machine tools are down 80%!

    If rates were to go up by 1%, let alone 2%, over time Japan’s percentage of tax revenue dedicated to interest payments would double to 18% and then to 40% and then just keep going up. It is conceivable that it will take 100% of tax revenues in less than ten years, at the current trajectory. Why? Because Japan is going to have to start to compete with the rest of the world to sell its bonds. Who but the Japanese would buy a Japanese bond at 1.3%? From a country that is rapidly going to 200% of debt-to-GDP? Doesn’t really seem like a smart trade to me. And as the data shows, the ability of the Japanese consumer to buy more debt is rapidly waning.

    The Japanese government is coming to a crossroads with no good exits. Cut the budget drastically in the face of a deflationary recession? Monetize the debt and let the yen go the way of all fiat currencies? Can someone say Zimbabwe? Increase already high taxes in a very weak economy?

    And yet the yen has been getting stronger over the last month. It is now at 92 to the dollar, up from 120 just two years ago. Why would a country with such bad fundamentals have such a strong currency? Shouldn’t the yen be a screaming short?


    Let me offer two speculations that are mine alone. First, it is well-known that the Japanese are very involved in the reverse carry trade. That is, since they can’t find yield in Japan, they convert to another higher-yielding currency for income. So, maybe the retirees actually need to spend some of that money they have outside of Japan to live, so they have to convert to yen.

    Second, Japanese corporations are getting hammered. Could it be that they are bringing yen home to pay for current transactions like rent and payroll? Japanese corporations dependent on exports desperately need the yen to fall, yet the central bank can’t seem to engineer a falling yen. I wrote about five years ago that the Japanese Central Bank has to rank as one of the most incompetent of all central banks, because they can’t even destroy their own currency.

    But I think the central bank is going to figure it out. If they do not monetize the debt, rates will have to rise over time (say the next 2-3 years), and that is most definitely a problem. Monetizing the debt would mean the yen would fall in value, which is something they actually want to happen. How much monetization? When? I don’t know, and I doubt they do. If I were the head of the central bank or the government, I would not sleep easy.

    Japan is the second largest economy in the world. There is a rule in economics: “If something can’t continue, then it won’t.” Japan can’t continue down this path. All the trends are going against them. Sadly, Japan is going to hit the wall, maybe some time in the next few years. This will be very bad for the world, as they have financed much of Asian growth. They do in fact buy a lot of world goods, and their buying power is going to fall. This is going to mean fewer US and European jobs. Not to mention fewer jobs in the countries that are Japan’s neighbors.

    And unless we change things in the US, this will be us in less than ten years. As in hit the wall, serious depression, etc. I am hopeful that we can actually get our act together. But then I am an eternal optimist.
    Buddy, Can You Spare $5 Trillion?

    I have been writing for months that I don’t think the US can find $2 trillion dollars this year and then come back to the well for another $1.5 trillion next year without serious disruption in the markets. Where do you find that much money when all the rest of the world also wants to borrow massive amounts? How much are we talking about?
    The graph shows the US will need to issue $3 trillion in debt. “Wait,” I asked, “I thought it was only 1.85” The answer is that the number has grown to almost $2 trillion (as I wrote it would). Then you need to add in off-budget items like TARP, state and municipal debt, etc. Pretty soon it adds up to another trillion. All told, estimates are that the world will need to find $5.3 trillion in NEW government financing. Never mind the needs of corporations or individuals or commercial mortgages, etc.

    I am still trying to get my head around this. Let’s hopefully assume that they made a mistake and it is “only” $4 trillion. Where do you find that kind of money in a global deleveraging recession?


    The World Bank says that total world GDP in 2008 was $60 trillion (

    That means we need to find almost 9% of world GDP to fund the new government debt. Gentle reader, this is a serious problem. And now the next chart. Remove sharp objects or take another drink.

    This one is titled “The Potential Shortage of Capital to Fund Treasuries.” They take into account the need for corporate borrowing, new corporate equity issuance, real estate debt, capital inflows and outflows, household savings, etc.

    Bottom line? There is simply not enough available capital under current conditions to do it all. Something has to give. More household savings? More foreign investment (flight to safety, as the rest of the world looks even worse)? Reduced corporate borrowing and thus less GDP growth? Higher rates to attract more foreign and US investment?

    The combinations are infinite, but none of them bode well. Increased household savings means less consumer spending. To attract more foreign investment (in the amounts that will be needed) will mean higher rates. And this is 2009. What happens in 2010? And 2011?

    One trillion dollars is 7% of US GDP. And we will be running trillion-dollar deficits for a very long time.


    Just a thought: Do you want to be a senator or congressman running for office next year with unemployment nearing 11% (my estimate), with all of the problems mentioned above, and with a record of having voted for the largest unfunded deficits in history? It is going to be a very interesting election cycle.

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