"Down To The Wire": Oaktree's Howard Marks Takes On The US Debt Ceiling

While it is always good to hear grizzled veterans explain what we all know, namely that the US debt situation is untenable and America will eventually collapse under the weight of its obligations, we wonder: where were these same people while the debt was being accumulated and everyone was shiny and happy (there is a reason why the correlation between US GDP and debt is about as close to 1 as they come) and without a care in the world about America's long term solvency?  Yes: we do enjoy the writings of Oaktree's Howard Marks who has chosen to dissect the US debt ceiling and more specifically America's untenable deficit spending as the topic of his latest letter, although we can't help but wonder: why now? Why not a year ago? Or, better yet, a decade ago? Furthermore, as last night's explosive announcements by the president and Boehner demonstrated the debt hike story has so many moving parts that staying on top of it is virtually meaningless. Indeed, it would have been much more useful for America if financial luminaries as Marks had actually spoken up while the US Treasury was accumulating trillions in debt, instead of all the Monday Morning quarterbacking we seem to be getting each and every day from all the "fiscally prudent" ones who rode the train of America's "great moderation" runaway debt to stratospheric wealth and were all very silent then...

So crticism aside, here is one of the better analyses of where we are vis-a-vis America's debt situation.

From Marks' essay:

For the last several years, as I’ve visited with clients around the world, I’ve described the typical American as follows (exaggerating for effect, of course): He has $1,000 in the bank, owes $10,000 on his credit card, makes $20,000 a year after tax, and spends $22,000. And what do lenders do about this? They mail him additional credit cards.

Most people laugh – perhaps uncomfortably – when they hear this. But no one says it’s inaccurate or benign. The bottom line is that consumer credit has been extended without any thought for how the full balance might ever be paid off. As long as the borrower is able to make monthly payments covering the interest and a tiny bit of principal, the situation is considered acceptable. But that’s not my version of fiscal health.

So now let’s jump from the top of the above list of developments to the bottom. In much the same way, credit has been available to governments deemed creditworthy without limit and without concern for the fact that:

  • Countries were constantly spending more than they were taking in.
  • Their deficits were growing non-stop relative to GDP.
  • Their national debts likewise were expanding relative to GDP.
  • In other words, repayment of principal was absolutely unimaginable.

One of the most striking aspects of debt in the modern era is that little if any attention is paid to repayment of principal. No one pays off their debt. They merely roll it over . . . and add to it. Thus credit ratings are highly deficient (shocker!) in a way that few people talk about. What ratings describe isn’t the borrower’s ability to repay principal, but its ability to make interest payments and refinance principal. But the assessment of their ability to roll their debt – likewise – isn’t based on an ability to repay, but rather to refinance again. So ultimately the security of capital providers stems not from the borrower, but from the continued willingness of other capital providers to roll debts in the future. (It was their occasional refusal in 2007-08 that caused the worst moments of the financial crisis.)

With no one asking how debt could be repaid, nations were allowed for decades to increase their deficits and debt non-stop relative to their GDP. And then, in the first quarter of 2010, the little boy stepped out from the crowd, took note of the emperor’s non-existent new clothes, and said “Hey, wait a minute: Greece will never be able to repay even the debt it has, forgetting that it takes on more all the time. Its economy is non-competitive and stagnant, and tax compliance is non-existent. They shouldn’t be able to borrow.”

That’s all it took. Greece was denied further credit. And then people took a look around peripheral Europe and saw more of the same. Today, although the situation is nowhere as dire, they’re also looking at the U.S. and some of its states.


The problem isn’t the ceiling, it’s our behavior. The debt ceiling merely imposes a discipline that our national leaders should provide but generally haven’t. On this note, in his press conference on July 15, when asked about conservatives’ insistence on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, President Obama replied, “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do that [balance the budget]; what we need to do is to do our jobs.” But clearly we do need some enforced discipline, because the years in which we haven’t run a deficit have been by far the exception of late, not the rule.

It seems apparent that in recent decades, politics has become more partisan, and solving the nation’s problems has taken a back seat to adhering to ideology and getting re-elected. And what gets people elected? Promises of more: more benefits without increased taxation, and more take-home pay without reduced largesse. Only recently have large numbers of politicians begun to face the music, admitting that the government has to either do less or charge people more or both.

His conclusion:

The world has awakened to the undesirability of ever-growing government debt. Repairing the situation will require difficult decisions and great sacrifices, especially on the part of lawmakers required to vote for unpopular solutions. This would be a great time to start taking positive steps.

Much more in the Full letter below

Howard Marks Debt Ceiling