The Fed in a Box Part 1: They cannot raise interest rates

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by Peter Schiff, Schiff Gold:

3 Key Takeaways
  1. The US Government has over $28 Trillion in Debt
  2. Much of the debt is short-term, making it extra sensitive to higher rates
  3. Higher Interest Rates would immediately start putting strain on the Federal Budget
Introduction

The US has over $28 Trillion dollars in debt and it continues to grow at an alarming rate. Even before COVID-19, the problem was becoming unwieldy. Ironically, despite adding $4T+ in debt over the last year, the pandemic may have given the US Government short-term reprieve as it gave the Federal Reserve a green light to drop rates back to zero.

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First and foremost, this took pressure off the Treasury as it refinanced the ballooning short-term debt outstanding at lower rates. However, even more relief occurred as the Federal Reserve absorbed +90% of the long term debt issued since last March. This allowed more room in the private markets to purchase the issuance of new short-term Treasury Bills. Because the Fed pays interest revenue back to the Treasury, and since interest rates on Treasury Bills are sitting at 0%, this has effectively given the Treasury a $4.5T loan at 0% interest in 15 months!

While this sounds like a great deal, it comes with major risks and has now put the Fed in a box. This will be explained in detail over two articles. Part 1 will explain why the Fed can no longer raise interest rates, and Part 2 will show how the Fed is unable to taper and may even need to increase Treasury purchases to maintain control over the long end of the yield curve.

$28 Trillion and Growing

The US Government cannot stop spending money. Spending is now far in excess of what is being collected in tax revenues. The US economy continues to experience nominal increases in growth, which has increased Federal Tax receipts, but Federal Spending is growing far faster. Figure 1 below, shows this clear trend.

Source – Treasurydirect.gov

Excess spending has to be paid for using debt. This massive excess in spending has led to proliferate borrowing by the Federal Government resulting in over $28T in total debt outstanding. See figure 2 below.

Source – Treasurydirect.gov

For anyone struggling to wrap their mind around the size of $1T, please see this great visual. Now, multiply that by 28!

For most governments, this would be unsustainable as interest rates would rise. This puts pressure on a borrower to bring down spending. The US Government has benefited from three major advantages that are not available to most governments. First, it has the exorbitant privilege of issuing the global reserve currency (for now), which creates far more demand for dollars than would otherwise be the case. The petro-dollar should have its own dedicated article, so that will be skipped in this analysis.

It is important to highlight two other key facts that have allowed spending and borrowing to continue unabated. It has been able to borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund, and the Federal Reserve has absorbed a large chunk of debt issuance in recent years. Not only does this equate to $11T in interest-free loans (as all interest payments return back to the Treasury), but it has prevented the private markets from absorbing all new debt issuance keeping interest rates lower. As Figure 3 below shows, since Jan 2010, the private markets have “only” had to absorb $9T of the $14.5T issued.

Source – Treasurydirect.gov and https://fred.stlouisfed.org/

Since Jan 2020, the numbers are even more stark. The Treasury has issued $4.5T, of which the Fed has taken on $2.6T (Note: The Fed balance sheet has expanded by greater than $4T, but not all of this was Treasury Debt). Looking deeper into the numbers shows the Fed had an even bigger appetite for longer-dated maturities. With Short Term rates at 0%, the Treasury can sell Treasury Bills to the private sector and still have an interest-free loan. Thus, it has been critical for the Fed to absorb almost all (~90%) the long-term debt issued by the Treasury to keep interest payments low!

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