February 19, 2019
As of February 14, 2019, the United States’ federal debt was over $22 trillion and expected to grow by $1 trillion per year through 2022. It appears everyone understands that the United States has a borrowing problem, but there is a divergence of opinions on what exactly that problem is. Some think we have borrowed too much, while recently some have argued that we are not indebted enough. The latter group consists of believers in Modern Monetary Theory (“MMT”.)
For most of its history, MMT has been a dispassionate accounting theory – private flows and public cashflows must sum to $0 absent inflation. However, for our purposes, we are using the recent political description: increasing public debt to fund social projects. According to MMT, government that can print its own money cannot go bankrupt. But what if there is not a limitless appetite for U.S. Treasury-backed debt?
The chart above shows that the Treasury Department has extended the average maturity of its debt since the Great Recession. Unlike the previous examples of enterprises that failed because of a liquidity crunch, this maturity lengthening should provide a buffer for the government because it must refinance its debt less frequently. However, these numbers are skewed.
Since the advent of quantitative easing, a new funding source for our fiscal deficit has appeared: the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. The Fed currently owns 15% of our government’s total marketable debt and almost 30% of bonds due in ten or more years, but it has also committed to eventually unwinding these positions. Given the coming surge in debt issuance, which will only be exacerbated if MMT becomes mainstream economics, will the government find willing buyers at reasonable terms, or will interest rates increase and cause an unsustainable debt cycle?
We often focus these pieces on short- to medium- term actionable items. This is not one of those times. We do not foresee demand drying up in the near term, but if, as a nation, we cannot pay down the principal outstanding, perhaps it is in our interest to control its growth. As always, thank you for reading along with us and please feel free to reach out with comments or suggestions.
 Source: United States Department of the Treasury and Office of Management and Budget estimates.
 Source: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “The Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet” September 30, 2018.
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