The Incomprehensibly Large Deficit and You

A little while back the Wall Street Journal ran a pair of articles about things we should do in preparation for the inevitable effects of the federal budget deficit. Brett Arends led off on February 4 with The Deficit: How to Protect Yourself and then on the 6th we got a round up of advice from most of the rest of the WSJ staff in Protecting Yourself from the Giant New Deficit: How to Keep the Scary U.S. Debt From Eating Up Your Assets.1981 treasury bond Crop

To a degree, items like these almost comically miss the big picture. They remind me of pieces popular a while back that said that in anticipation of global warming we should all buy land in the Canadian interior. If the government continues on its present course, and I for one am not ready to concede that that is a certainty, it will be an economic calamity that will make us all drastically worse off. The best thing a person can do about the deficit is to vote for leaders willing to do the ugly and unpopular things necessary to reduce it.

But if you can ignore the big picture and focus on only the near term effects of the current and upcoming deficits, it is possible to come up with some coherent advice. Not that the crew at the WSJ consistently do this.

There are basically only two predicted effects of the deficit, higher taxes and higher inflation. To a naive observer, higher taxes would seem to be an obvious certainty. Laura Saunders, who wrote the Journal’s bit on taxes, tells us that "It’s just a matter of how soon they rise and by how much."

If only government worked so reasonably. Even the Democrats don’t have the political will to increase taxes in a meaningful way. Obama’s budget only "raises" taxes on the "rich" by allowing existing legislation to run its course. The non-rich get tax cuts. And Congressional resolve will not be increased after November. Trust me.

Which leaves inflation. If you are my age, you can remember high inflation being a big deal when you were in school, but the details are hazy. If you are any younger, it is a strictly historical phenomenon you read about in books.

The WSJ gang seems to be firmly in the hazy history camp. The often erudite Jason Zweig tells us that the deficit "could set off a surge in inflation and push down the dollar" as if those were two different effects. And the rarely erudite Brett Arends gives us this gem, discussing long term Treasury bonds.

Embedded in the market is a long-term inflation forecast of about 2.5 percent. I call that a dangerous complacency. (I usually recommend inflation-protected government bonds, but right now they are looking a little pricey).

Regular longer term Treasuries currently yield around 4.5%. Their inflation-protected equivalents (TIPS) currently pay inflation plus about 2%, hence the embedded 2.5% inflation forecast. If you thought that 2.5% was dangerously complacent, i.e. way too low, and you understood algebra, you would have to believe that TIPS were a compelling bargain, not "too pricey."

The WSJ is also vague on how, exactly, the deficits will translate into inflation. Jane Kim explains that "Heavy government borrowing means more dollars sloshing around the economy, which is a key prerequisite for inflation."

First, possibly depending on how you define "sloshing," more dollars is not merely a prerequisite for inflation but is arguably the one and only cause of it.

Second, government borrowing does not increase the sloshing dollar count. In fact, taken literally, it decreases it, sucking up dollars that might otherwise be spent or invested. When we say that we expect huge deficits to lead to inflation (and I do say that, BTW) we do not mean that we fear that the government will borrow all that money. Quite the opposite. We fear that some of the deficit won’t be borrowed.

The worry is that, one way or another, Washington will "monetize" some of those deficits, that is, print more money. Printing money has two nice effects for the government. The immediate and obvious one is that another billion dollars in circulation is an extra billion the Treasury can spend.

The more significant effect is that when the increased money supply causes inflation, as it certainly will, that inflation will decrease the real value of outstanding government debt. In other words, although the government will owe the same number of dollars, those dollars will be worth less, so the government will owe less. There are some nasty long-term side effects of this trick, but the benefits are so compelling it seems implausible that it will be resisted.

So if you were expecting a multi-year round of inflation, at a level high enough to make a 2.5% prediction seem complacent, what would you do? The basic strategy is not complicated, although after reading the WSJ you might think so.

If you expect inflation, that is, if you expect the value of the dollar to drop, then you want to avoid owning dollars. More importantly, you particularly want to avoid being owed dollars. Giving somebody dollars today in exchange for being paid less valuable dollars in the future, that is, making a loan or buying a bond, is a bad idea. (TIPS, of course, being a special case exception.)

What you want to invest in is not bonds but real assets, the ownership of things that are not denominated in dollars. Real estate is a good example. So are stocks. Historically periods of high inflation have been bad times for stocks, but do not let that mislead you. When you own stocks you own shares in companies, and companies own things of value, factories, patents, inventory and the like, which will go up in value with inflation. Stocks tend to do badly in high inflation years because high inflation years tend also to be times of economic stress. And as bad as the 1970s were for stocks, that decade was much worse for bonds.

Of course, the flip side to it being a bad idea to lend money when you expect inflation is that it is a good idea to borrow it. Borrowing money at an interest rate below inflation means that you will actually make a profit in real terms, since you will pay back less real value than you borrowed. Borrowing now to buy a large real asset will turn out to be a smart move if inflation arrives. The value of the asset will go up with inflation but the size of the debt will not.

For many people, the obvious way to implement this strategy would be to buy a nice big house with as much borrowed money as the bank will allow. And this would seem like the perfect time for that maneuver: inflation is expected, house prices are down but stable, and interest rates are, for the moment, freakishly low.

There is a delicious irony here. Inflation is a worry because of huge government deficits, which are largely due to the economic crisis, which was largely due to too many people buying big houses with borrowed money. And the possibly smart move now? Buy a large house with borrowed money.

No Comments

  • By bex, February 16, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    good advice… as long as you have a stable job, or otherwise sufficient collateral to not lose sleep over a big debt!

    How about investing in real estate trusts? Would this be a way to invest less than what you’d need for a big huge house?

  • By jim, February 16, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    I’m puzzled why today the debt is ‘scary’ all the sudden. Wasn’t the debt as scary 5, 10, 15 or 20 years ago? Our national debt tripled in the 1980′s, did the sky fall then too? DId taxes skyrocket cause of that?

    Maybe it was hitting the magical $10 trillion mark for total debt that made people scared.

    Theres been no correlation between the trend of our national debt and tax levels in the past. I agree its not a given that taxes will increase in general due to the debt. And I don’t see much of any sign our politicians are going to raise taxes in significant ways to pay the bill off any time soon.

  • By Quints, February 17, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    Borrow in dollars and buy a valuable asset – Yes. Buy a big house? – No. There is a huge overhang of real estate even if the government is buying up every mortgage around to keep prices and financing rates stable. Also, a house is a target for governments to tax. If your house appreciates in value, they can raise your taxes. That puts you in a negative cash flow, and decreases the attractiveness of your house if you want to sell it. Better to borrow big and buy an asset that produces some cashflow…

  • By bex, February 17, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    @quints: wouldn’t an “asset that produces cashflow” be too similar to a bond? Are you talking about buying a business that’s down on it’s luck?

    @jim: the problem isn’t just the national debt and deficit… it’s the TOTAL amount of debt that Americans owe. Some of it is payable to other Americans (house loans, etc.), some of it not. The current federal debt-to-gdp ratio is under 100%… but the TOTAL debt to GDP ratio is a very scary 375% :

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, February 17, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I’d suggest having the government build condos on the moon and selling them for considerably above cost. It’s a profit deal.

  • By jim, February 17, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    Bex, what exactly does the ‘total debt’ incompass?

    High debt is undoubtedly a problem. I’m just puzzle why everyone seems to be panicking about it today and it wasn’t making such news 5, or 10 or 20 years ago. Did we pass a magic threshold? Did people not see the slope and project the trend line?

  • By bex, February 19, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    @jim: yes, we did pass a threshold…

    Total debt to GDP is 375%. This means total Federal debt, State debt, and personal debt owed by American citizens is almost FOUR TIMES what the country makes in a year.

    This is a level not seen since the great depression, and a number commonly considered the “danger zone” for international bankers. Countries tend to go into default at this point…

    Also, two weeks ago Moody’s warned the US that their AAA bond rating is at risk if they don’t do *something* to address the deficit:

  • By Craig, February 22, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    The road to default for the United States is a very, very long one. We’d have to borrow something other than dollars, probably. And we won’t borrow in another currency unless our standing dramtically declines relative to the rest of the world. It’s just hard to see that coming in the next few decades, absent some science fiction scenario like the “Deep Impact” asteroid destroying the Eastern Seaboard.

    But then, one of the intersting things you’re starting to hear a bit is the goldbugs and other anti-government lunatics actually _agitating_ for a default, becuase they think it would advantage them personally and politically. That’s worth paying some attention to.

  • By Marsha Killington, Colonial Heights VA, May 14, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

    The best thing a person can do about the deficit is to vote for leaders willing to do the ugly and unpopular things necessary to reduce it.

    Only if everyone else (or at least a clear majority) does the same thing. Otherwise you’re wasting time and energy that could be spent on something likely to improve your condition.

  • By Marsha Killington, Colonial Heights VA, May 14, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    I’m puzzled why today the debt is ‘scary’ all the sudden. Wasn’t the debt as scary 5, 10, 15 or 20 years ago? Our national debt tripled in the 1980′s, did the sky fall then too? DId taxes skyrocket cause of that?

    It’s all about which party is in power. The National Debt tripled under Reagan-Bush I and then doubled again under Bush II. But it didn’t become a serious problem requiring our undivided attention until January 20, 2009, just before lunchtime.

  • By ustka, August 22, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    Hey very nice web site!! Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your website and take the feeds also…I am happy to find so many useful information here in the post, we need develop more techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

  • By Carmelo Sorgi, October 27, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

    I must voice my admiration for your generosity giving support to women who should have assistance with this one question. Your special commitment to getting the message throughout was especially advantageous and has specifically allowed women just like me to attain their desired goals. Your amazing important key points means a whole lot a person like me and still more to my peers. With thanks; from all of us.

  • By, June 16, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    Have you ever considered writing an ebook or guest authoring
    on other blogs? I have a blog based on the same subjects
    you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information.

    I know my readers would enjoy your work. If
    you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

  • By raspberry ketone reviews dr oz, June 16, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    Simply desire to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in your put up is simply nice and i could think you are a professional on this subject.

    Well along with your permission allow me to grasp your RSS feed to stay updated with impending
    post. Thank you one million and please continue the enjoyable work.

  • By raspberry ketone reviews amazon, June 17, 2013 @ 6:20 am

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the page layout of your site?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.

    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  • By bio nutrition raspberry ketone diet, June 17, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

    Excellent article. I definitely appreciate this site.
    Keep it up!

  • By us cash advance loans, July 8, 2013 @ 5:07 am

    Its such as you learn my thoughts! You seem to know a lot about this, such as you wrote the ebook in
    it or something. I feel that you could do with some % to
    force the message house a bit, however other than that, that
    is wonderful blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

  • By sleeping tablets, July 14, 2013 @ 7:47 pm

    Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve understand your stuff previous to and you’re just extremely wonderful.
    I actually like what you’ve acquired here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way in
    which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still take care
    of to keep it smart. I cant wait to read much more from you.
    This is actually a tremendous web site.

Other Links to this Post

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes