By the purse strings

Since leaving the military, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen has spoken often about what he considers to be the biggest danger to U.S. security: the national debt.

China may be about to give us an object lesson in that assessment:

China added to bond investors’ jitters on Wednesday as traders braced for what they feared could be the end of a three-decade bull market.  Senior government officials in Beijing reviewing the nation’s foreign-exchange holdings have recommended slowing or halting purchases of U.S. Treasuries, according to people familiar with the matter.

China holds the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves, at $3.1 trillion, and regularly assesses its strategy for investing them. It isn’t clear whether the officials’ recommendations have been adopted. The market for U.S. government bonds is becoming less attractive relative to other assets, and trade tensions with the U.S. may provide a reason to slow or stop buying American debt…

Most Americans who pay attention to government spending habits are happy merely to see the deficit fall.  But even if the deficit were brought to zero (i.e. the government miraculously balanced its budget) the outstanding debt still has to be renegotiated periodically, as old bonds mature and new ones are issued.  When there is less demand for new bonds, the yield (interest) has to rise in order to become more attractive.  Thus, even with a balanced budget, our roll-over debt is a potential time bomb.

For the last decade, the U.S. has been able to take advantage of record low bond yields as the Federal Reserve held interest rates at historic lows in the wake of the mortgage debt crisis in 2008.  This, incidentally, is why your bank pays you next to nothing on your savings any more — the same policy that keeps the government’s borrowing costs low essentially robs individual savers.  Unlike taxes, people don’t immediately recognize this fiscal effect the debt has on them.

If forces beyond the government’s control — say, the largest holder of U.S. debt decided not to roll over its holdings — caused bond yields and interest rates to rise faster than desired, the results would bankrupt the U.S. Treasury overnight:

Given its sheer size, if the interest rate on that debt were to rise by even 1%, the annual federal deficit rises by $200 billion. A 2% increase in interest rate levels would up the federal deficit by $400 billion, and if rates were 5% higher, the annual federal deficit rises by a full $1 trillion per year.

The only way to begin mitigating this risk is to not just balance the budget but to start paying down the debt.  Think that will happen?

Me neither.  The day may be fast approaching when the government, in order to service its creditors, has no choice but to cut many of the programs people have become entirely dependent upon.  It may also impose confiscatory taxation, seizing the property of those who’ve managed to save and invest during these irresponsible years.  In both cases, the social consequences will be enormous.

As the Instapundit likes to say, “things that can’t go on forever, don’t.”  The exponential rise of our national debt can’t go on forever.  It’s simply a question of when an event will occur that undeniably shows the emperor has no clothes.

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