In the recent aftermath of the US just concluding its fourth consecutive fiscal year with a $1 trillion+ deficit, we have been flooded with requests to show how the current fiscal situation stacks up in a big picture context. Very big picture context. For all those requests, we present the following chart showing total US Federal debt/GDP as well as Deficit/(Surplus)/GDP since inception, or in this case as close as feasible, or 1792, which appears to be the first recorded year of historical fiscal data. We can see why readers have been so eager to see the "real big picture" - the chart is nothing short of stunning.
- Beginning with the Anglo-American war of 1812, and continuing through the US civil war, World War I and World War II, the major military shocks to the US fiscal system are clearly obvious.
- Just as obvious is the impact of not only The Great Moderation which started in the early 1980s just before the 1987 arrival of Alan Greenspan at the helm of the Fed, which allowed the US to exchange fiscal prudence for ever cheaper debt which could and would be used to fund an ever greater budget deficit, and lead to a surge in the Federal debt.
- The increasingly more unstable system, which saw the additional layering of another $23 trillion in shadow banking debt at its peak in 2008, as well as countless trillions in household, corporate and financial debt, as well as hundreds of trillions in underfunded welfare liabilities, led first to the Internet bubble, then the Housing and Credit bubble, and finally, to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 which climaxed with the failure of Lehman brothers, and resulted in the central bank bailout of every developed bank, and shortly thereafter, the backstop of every peripheral country in Europe.
- The gravity and impact of the Great Financial Crisis on the US economy is stark, very visible, and can only be compared to previous instances of destructive military conflict in terms of lost output and impact on the US economy.
- Total US Debt/GDP is currently just over 103%. This number is expected to rise to 125% by the end of 2016, which will eclipse the peak debt/GDP seen in World War II, and be the highest in US history.
- Whereas in the past episodes of fiscal catastrophe were accompanied not only by a surge in debt (black line), but by a parallel explosion in fiscal deficits (red bars), this time the deficit spike has been more modest (peaking at about 10% of GDP), but more protracted, with even the CBO expecting deficits of around $1 trillion to last for the next several years.
- One possible interpretation is that due to the Fed's relentless interest rates intervention, the polarized US government feels no burning desire to promptly balance its budget, and even overshoot, and through a combination of aggressive spending cuts and/or revenue increases, result in a much needed surplus which would be used to reduce the sovereign debt. This is graphically seen in the ongoing Fiscal Cliff debate, when any proposal for substantial spending cuts - the true problem at the core of America's deficit habituation and welfare statism - is greeted with shrieks of Mutual Assured Destruction.
- This is not a political issue: politicians on both sides of the aisle are perfectly aware that setting the US on a sustainable fiscal course would mean massive pain for the common citizen, and an immediate termination of all existing political careers: after all the myth of the welfare state is at stake. It is in everyone's interest - both GOP and Democrat - to perpetuate the unsustainable deficit status quo indefinitely. Any theatrics out of the GOP demanding fiscal conservatism are therefore just that - theatrics.
- There is no question that it is unsustainable: US GDP is currently growing at a pace of 1.5%-2.5% at best. Total 2012 US debt will have risen at a rate of 8%, and will continue rising in the 6%-8% range.
- More disturbing is the influence of the Fed, whose policy of ZIRP and outright debt monetization (recall even JPM has now admitted the Fed will monetize all US debt issuance in 2013) is the only permissive factor that has allowed the US to delay the inevitable moment of reckoning as long it has.
- Indicatively, a modest rise in the average US interest rate, which is currently at all time blended lows, to just 5%, would mean that in 3 years the US would spend, pro forma, $1 trillion in cash interest each year. At that point the US will approach Japan status, where the government needs to borrow just to fund interest outlays. Actually, instead of Japan, Weimar would be a better analogy.
- Finally, on all previous historical occasions, there was at least one backstop of last reserve, a central bank, standing ready to step in and provide the necessary liquidity, and monetize the needed debt to keep the show running. Since 2009, all the central banks have also gone all in on the Keynesian endgame: at this point the next shock to the status quo system will be the last, as there is no more backstops.
- At that point the only two options will be outright monetary devaluation, though not relative in the closed monetary loop of modern monetarism, but absolute, where every currency is concurrently devalued against a hard asset (potentially with the forceful concurrent confiscation of said hard asset by the host government, think Executive Order 6102), in order to generate a terminal currency and debt debasement, or outright global debt moratoria, and the end of the modern financial system as we know it (but not before the financial "leaders" of our time have converted enough of their paper wealth into hard asset format and transferred it to more peaceful, more "gun-controlled", non-extradition territories).
And there you have it.
Oh, and whoever said the advent of the Federal Reserve, or the end of "hard money" standard courtesy of Richard Nixon, made catastrophic or systematically shocking events less frequent, probably should have their head examined.