After recovering from a losing streak in the middle of last week, the Dow fell again on Friday – down 70. Gold rose $15.
Well, who knows? When Mr Market wants to do something, he doesn’t need a reason. He doesn’t ask permission. And he doesn’t give any ‘forward guidance’. He just does what he wants.
But the reason all the commentators are talking is the debt limit. We didn’t read about it in any detail; it seems trivial. But if Congress doesn’t get off its collective butt and pass another law, the government will have to shut down. That’s because a previous law – the debt ceiling – requires the feds to stop borrowing when they reach a certain limit.
The Financial Times described it over the weekend: “Shutdown looms over budget.”
As near as we can make out, everyone is in favour of seeing the feds continue to spend money they don’t have. The fight is over what to spend it on. The Republicans want to stop spending on Obama’s healthcare plan. The Democrats want to spend on everything.
But, unless they can agree, spending will stop on almost everything.
Here’s another headline floating around the WiFi world: “The Default Nobody Wants.”
That is surely incorrect. We would be delighted with a default. It’s precisely what should happen. Congress spends more than it brings in. It has done this for years. In a rare moment of clarity, it saw the handwriting on the wall and vowed to stop. It set a limit on how much debt the government could take on. The feds reach that level soon. So, the borrowing should stop.
And we’d like to see it happen. Not so much for the financial health of the nation, we’d just like to see the looks on their faces – all those zombies suddenly cut off from fresh blood.
But wait… who are we kidding? This is like a fat person who has decided to hold the line. He watches his weight inch up. He resolves to stop eating so much when he hits 250lbs. He feels good about himself for having taken such resolute and forthright action. Now he has his weight under control, right? His wife should be proud of him.
Then, he hits the magic number. ‘Oh my…’, he says.
That very evening, the dessert is passed around. He begins to think: what’s so special about 250lbs? Why not 260lbs? Or 270?
He could simply not eat the dessert. But it’s his favourite. So, heck, he changes the resolution! He’ll eat the cake. But, starting in the New Year, he will bring his weight down to under 250lbs again.
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And now the US Congress has the whole nation watching. Everybody wants a piece of chocolate cake! The military-industrial complex wants more planes, more drones, more tanks, more spies, more snoops, more contracts, more retirement benefits – in short, more money. So does the education industry. And the healthcare industry. And the poverty industry. And all the other industries that have got the government in their pocket.
And what about all the retirees? Haven’t they earned their Social Security? Don’t they have a right to Medicare and Medicaid and Obamacare?
Yes, everyone thinks he has a need, and a right, to a piece of cake. So, what to do? Pass another resolution!
Besides, the deficit is going down. There’s nothing more to worry about. As a percentage of GDP, it’s only 5.7%, well down from the levels of 2009-10.
Wait a minute. What kind of flim-flam is this? Colleague Simone Wapler points out that expressing debt as a percentage of GDP is nonsense. GDP is the income of the whole nation, not the income of the government itself. It would be like telling people that your excess spending was equal only to the 2% of the income of the people on your block.
The government doesn’t have everyone’s income to draw on for debt service. It only has its own tax revenues. Deficits only make sense in relation to the resources available to pay them. In the first 11 months of the fiscal year, the feds had record income of $2.4trn. But they spent $3.2 trn, or a third more. As a percentage of its own revenues, the US government deficit is running at 33%, not the 5% people are talking about.
The whole thing is vastly entertaining, provided you’re not hooked on the cake yourself. That’s why the best place to watch this farce is from the sidelines – well away from the action. Out of stocks and bonds, that is.
But is there really any chance the feds will default? Maybe they will do a symbolic default, where one side – Democrats or Republicans – will try to gain a little political advantage from it. But, the system works by paying off zombies in order to retain political power. There is no way in hell that that will come to an honourable or voluntary end.
Instead, it will come to a bitter end when the feds really do run out of money and are unable to get any more.
When will that happen? Wish we knew. It could be many years in the future. For the moment, their cash flow and their credit are still good, and they’re not likely to be seriously damaged by this debt ceiling show.
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