Deja Vu All Over Again?

Earlier this week, the Treasury released its quarterly update about its borrowing requirements and its strategy for meeting them. I haven’t had time to review all the documents, but I did skim through the minutes of the meeting of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC), which was held on November 3.

This pair of paragraphs particularly caught my attention (my emphasis added):

The Committee then turned to a presentation by one of its members on the likely form of the Federal Reserve’s exit strategy and the implications for the Treasury’s borrowing program resulting from that strategy.

The presenting member began by noting the importance of the exit strategy for financial markets and fiscal authorities. It was noted that the near-zero interest rates driven by current Federal Reserve policy was pushing many financial entities such as pension funds, insurance companies, and endowments further out on the yield curve into longer-dated, riskier asset classes to earn incremental yield. Treasury securities have benefitted from the resultant increase in demand, but riskier assets have benefitted even more. According to the member, the greater decline in the indices for investment grade and high-yield corporate debt relative to 10-year Treasuries and current coupon mortgages display this reach for yield. A critical issue will be the impact on the riskier asset classes as market interest rates move away from zero.

Yes, our old friend the reach for yield. Back in pre-crisis days, the reach for yield would often be viewed as evidence that the monetary transmission mechanism was working well, with low short-term rates providing a real boost to the economy. Now, however, we are all-too-familiar with the downside of the reach for yield: unsustainable booms in longer-term assets.

Is this deja vu all over again? I don’t know. But those paragraphs certainly didn’t make me feel more comfortable about our recovery.

P.S. I should also note that the TBAC endorsed greater reliance on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), as well as moving from 20-year TIPS to 30-year TIPS. These recommendations paralleled some similar ones released back in September by the GAO.

More TIPS to Finance Our Growing Debt?

As you may noticed, the U.S. needs to borrow vast amounts of money. Which raises an interesting question: how should we finance that debt?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has taken note of this question and has begun a series of reports on debt management. In its first report, released today, the GAO provides a ringing endorsement of inflation-indexed bonds, aka TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities). The title of the report pretty much summarizes its conclusions: “Treasury Inflation Protected Securities Should Play a Heightened Role in Addressing Debt Management Challenges.”

The report provides a nice history of the TIPS program, which dates back to 1997, and the challenges it has faced. The number one challenge? Liquidity. Regular Treasury securities are the most liquid in the world and, as a result, investors are willing to pay a premium to own them. U.S. taxpayers thus benefit from the low interest rates our government has to pay on its debt. Unfortunately, TIPS are much less liquid and thus don’t enjoy the same benefit. GAO thus suggests that actions to improve liquidity (e.g., more frequent auctions) could help bring down interest costs.

GAO also recommends that longer-dated TIPS be issued as the U.S. moves to lengthen the maturity of its debt. As noted in the following chart, the current maturity structure of U.S. debt is heavily skewed to short maturities:

GAO - Debt Issuance

More than $3 trillion of U.S. debt will come due by the end of 2010 alone.

The reliance on short-term debt makes sense when near-term interest rates are incredibly low, as they have been lately. But interest rates will rise again one day (perhaps sooner than many anticipate according to a recent op-ed by Fed Governor Kevin Warsh), and the government should therefore be evaluating how it will lengthen maturities. GAO believes that TIPS should be part of that.

Is It Possible to Tame the Deficit? Yes.

The fiscal outlook for the United States is grim. This year’s deficit will be around $1.4 trillion, about 10% of GDP, and the Obama Administration projects that deficits in the next ten years will total about $9 billion. Under those projections, the ratio of publicly held debt to GDP will be approaching 77% by the end of 2019, up from 41% just a year ago.

Those figures are daunting. We are in a deep fiscal hole. But we shouldn’t give up hope just yet.

As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes in a new report, numerous countries have faced gigantic deficits and found the political will to change course. A few examples:

Finland (1992–2000): Following a major banking crisis, Finland faced large deficits (around 8 percent of GDP) and a rapidly rising debt (58 percent of GDP). Prior to the crisis, Finland was running surpluses of around 6 percent of GDP. Motivated by strong political support to get its house in order to qualify for eurozone participation and by the need to address external financing concerns, the government pursued a fiscal consolidation program. A medium-term budget framework, entitlement reforms, spending cuts and tax reform were part of the program. By 2000, the debt/GDP ratio was under 45 percent. The cyclically adjusted primary fiscal balance improved cumulatively by 10 percent of GDP from 1992.

Spain (1993–97): Spain’s fiscal position had been deteriorating since the late 1980s. By 1995, its fiscal deficit exceeded 7 percent of GDP. Its public debt exceeded 70 percent of GDP. Facing external financing concerns and strong public support to adopt fiscal disciplinary measures to prepare for euro area membership, the government adopted a fiscal consolidation plan that emphasized spending (including cuts in social transfers, government wages and health care spending) but also included tax reform. Fiscal balances improved, cumulatively by around 4 percent of GDP since 1993.

Sweden (1994–2000): Sweden’s fiscal situation deteriorated severely in the early 1990s as a result of a banking and economic crisis. In the midst of a recession, the government adopted a fiscal consolidation program to achieve fiscal balance through a tightening up on household transfer payments and an increase in various taxes. As a result of its fiscal consolidation efforts, the fiscal position shifted from a deficit of over 11 percent of GDP to a surplus of 5 percent of GDP and the debt/GDP ratio was reduced from 72 percent to 55 percent in 2000.

The CRFB report draws some interesting lessons from these episodes (e.g., Lesson 6: “It is preferable to make fiscal adjustments on your own terms before they are forced upon you by creditors.”)

But my point today is much simpler: Just as we were hardly the first developed economy to face a major financial crisis, we also are not the first to face a looming fiscal crisis. Indeed, as the examples of Finland and Sweden show, we aren’t even the first developed economy to face a potential fiscal crisis in the aftermath of a financial crisis.

As we prepare (I hope) to address our looming deficits, we can take heart from the fact that some other nations have successfully faced similar challenges.

Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?

I was flipping through a report from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) recently (ht Torsten Slok) and came across this fascinating six-pack of charts:

BIS Debt Spreads

The charts show how much banks have had to pay in interest on their senior, subordinated, and guaranteed debt, relative to the interest rates of comparable government bonds. For example, the chart shows that banks in the United Kingdom have recently had to pay about 250 basis points (i.e., 2.5 percentage points) more on their senior debt than the UK government pays on its debt.

There are many interesting stories spread across these charts. For example, the red lines suggest that the first wave of investors in guaranteed bank debt in the United States and France did well for themselves (since the decline in yields implies an increase in bond prices).

But the thing that really caught my eye was the behavior of the senior debt (green) and sub-debt (blue) lines. In the five European countries, you see what you might expect: the sub-debt trades at a higher spread than the senior debt. That makes sense, since the sub-debt faces greater risk of losses. Investors demand compensation — a higher yield — for bearing that risk.

And then there’s the United States.

Continue reading “Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?”

Treasury: More Borrowing, Less Short-Term

The Treasury released its quarterly update on its borrowing needs yesterday. The headline is that Treasury expects to borrow $406 billion during July, August, and September. That’s a gigantic figure, but it is down from the roughly $530 billion that Treasury borrowed during those three months last year.

When combined with $1.4 trillion in borrowing during the previous nine months, the $406 billion will bring total borrowing to $1.8 trillion during this fiscal year (Oct. 2008 to Sept. 2009).

The Treasury release includes a number of fascinating charts about the size and composition of our nation’s debt. One that particularly caught my eye was this chart showing the percentage of outstanding debt that is scheduled to mature in the next 12, 24, or 36 months:

Debt MaturitiesAs you can see, Treasury has relied heavily on very short-term maturities to finance the recent burst of borrowing. Most notably, the fraction of debt that matures within 12 months (the blue line) reversed its decline and rose to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

Students of financial crises, past and present, will recall that over-reliance on short-term debt is a classic precursor of financial distress. Think, for example, of the major financial firms that had to roll over significant fractions of their financing every week … or even every day.

Continue reading “Treasury: More Borrowing, Less Short-Term”