The stock market is zooming this morning on the news that only 5.7 million people in Florida will have to do without air conditioning, hot showers, and Keurig mochachinos at dawn’s early light Monday, Sept 11, 2017. I’m mindful that the news cycle right after a hurricane goes kind of blank for a day or more as dazed and confused citizens venture out to assess the damage. For now, there is very little hard information on the Web waves. Does Key West still exist? Hard to tell. We’ll know more this evening.
The one-two punch of Harvey and Irma did afford the folks-in-charge of the nation’s affairs a sly opportunity to get rid of that annoying debt ceiling problem. This is the law that established a limit on how much debt the Federal Reserve could “buy” from the national government. Some of you may be thinking: buy debt? Why would anybody want to buy somebody’s debt? Well, you see, this is securitized debt, i.e. bonds issued by the US Treasury, which pay interest, and so there is the incentive to buy it. Anyway, there used to — back in the days when the real interest rate stayed positive after deducting the percent of running inflation. This is where the situation gets interesting.
The debt ceiling law supposedly set limits on how much bonded debt the government could issue (how much it could borrow) so it wouldn’t go hog wild spending money it didn’t have. Which is exactly what happened despite the debt limit because the “ceiling” got raised about a hundred times though the 20th century into the 21st so that the accumulated debt stands around $20 trillion.
Rational people recognize this $20 trillion for the supernatural scale of obligation it represents, and understand that it will never be paid back, so, what the hell? Why not just drop the pretense, but keep on working this racket of the government borrowing as much money was it wants, and the Federal Reserve creating that money (or “money”) on its computers to infinity. Seems to work so far.
Rational people would also suspect that at some point, something might have to give. For instance, the value of the dollars that the debt is issued in. If the value of dollars goes down, then the real value of the bonds issued in dollars goes down, and as that happens the many various holders of bonds already issued — individuals, pension funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds of foreign countries — will have a strong incentive to dump the bonds as fast as possible. Especially if backstage magic by the Fed and its handmaidens, the “primary dealer” banks, keeps working to suppress the interest rates of these bonds at all costs.
Would the Federal Reserve then vacuum up every bond that others are dumping on the market? They would certainly try. The Bank of Japan has been doing just that with its own government’s bonds to no apparent ill effect, though you kind of wonder what happens when a snake eating its own tail finally reaches its head. What’s left, exactly, after it eats that, too? My own guess would be three words: you go medieval. I mean literally. No more engines, electric lights, central heating….
In this land, we face a situation in which both the value of money and the cost of borrowing money would be, at last, completely detached from reality - reality being the real cost and value of all goods and services exchanged for money. Voila: a king-hell currency crisis and the disruption of trade on the most macro level imaginable. Also, surely, a massive disruption in government services, including social security and medicare, but extending way beyond that. And then we go medieval, too. The mule replaces the Ford F-150. And The New York Times finds something to write about besides Russia and trannies.
The value of money and the cost of borrowing it is about as fundamental as it gets in a so-called advanced economy. You can screw around with a lot of things running a society, but when that goes, you’re flirting seriously with anarchy. In the meantime, we’ll see how the social glue holds things together in those parts of Florida that are entering a preview of medieval attractions in the electrical blackout days ahead.