Yesterday I told you how the US federal debt level is expanding at its fastest rate since the financial crisis.
This isn’t supposed to be happening.
The financial crisis is years behind us. The economy is supposedly on solid footing. The government keeps gushing about how much tax revenue they’re collecting.
Usually when government debt expands so rapidly it’s because they’re waging war, fighting a major recession, or financing some serious infrastructure projects.
But none of these things are happening.
Think about it– yesterday I told you that the debt is now $19.5 trillion. The debt hit $18.5 trillion in November of last year… meaning that they added $1 trillion to the national debt in just 10 months.
What did you get for that $1 trillion? Did they defeat ISIS? Give everyone a massive tax rebate? Recapitalize all of their insolvent trust funds?
Nope. Nada. They made a trillion dollars vanish into thin air and have absolutely nothing to show for it.
That’s because an absolutely astonishing level of spending (and waste) is built into the system now.
Just keeping the lights on, i.e. simply paying interest on the national debt, plus all the mandatory entitlement programs, burns through almost 100% of their tax revenue.
This means that they have to go into debt to finance nearly everything we think of as government, from fake airport security to the national parks to the Internal Revenue Service.
To be fair, this approach has worked well for years. The US government has had an ample supply of lenders willing to fund its largess.
But that pipeline of suckers will soon be running dry.
In fact, according to the Treasury Department’s most recent data, two of America’s biggest foreign lenders (China and Japan) are already cutting back on their $2.37 trillion of US debt.
Then there’s the Federal Reserve, another one of the government’s major lenders, which now owns $2.46 trillion of US debt.
This is up from just $479 billion right before the financial crisis blew up in 2008. So the Fed has expanded its Treasury holdings by 5-fold (not to mention its ownership of mortgage backed securities has exploded from $0 to $1.7 trillion over the same period…)
But one of the Fed’s major challenges is that they’re nearly insolvent, with a razor-thin capital ratio of just 0.8%.
Simply put, if the Fed continues to conjure trillions of dollars out of thin air to feed the government’s insatiable appetite for debt, they’re risking a major currency crisis at a minimum.
That leaves Social Security, far and away the single largest owner of US Treasuries.
It’s been a neat little scam for decades. Workers in the United States pay a portion of their paychecks to Medicare and Social Security, some of which ends up in the pockets of retirees each month.
The rest of that tax revenue (the “Social Security surplus”) is loaned to the federal government.
Over the years, Social Security has loaned the government trillions of dollars, stockpiling entire warehouses full of IOUs from the Treasury Department.
But here’s the thing– Social Security and Medicare are rapidly running out of money.
Each year in their annual reports, in fact, their respective boards of trustees describe the programs’ financial woes in excruciating detail. They don’t pull any punches.
The Trustees themselves explain that Social Security’s two biggest trust funds will start running terminal deficits in 2020 until they are fully depleted 14 years later.
This means that in just four more years, Social Security will no longer be able to loan any more money to the federal government. Uncle Sam is about to lose his biggest lender.
What’s more, the US government is going to have to come up with trillions of dollars more to pay back Social Security in the subsequent years.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: the US government is also staring down the barrel of several trillion dollars worth of other enormous expenses that they’ll need to pay.
Major components of US infrastructure are in dire need of a facelift that is estimated to cost $1.4 trillion.
Then there are entire federal trust funds that are either insolvent or living on borrowed time–like the Highway Trust Fund that was nearly depleted last year…
… or the FDIC’s deposit insurance fund, which guarantees trillions of dollars worth of deposits in the US banking system, yet is undercapitalized and fails to meet its own insurance threshold.
Even more critical is the pension fund crisis across the United States, where private, state, and local pensions face a funding shortfall exceeding $7 trillion according to credit agency Moody’s.
Yet the federal government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which is supposed to guarantee the pensions of 30 million American workers, is itself insolvent and in need of a government bailout.
There is no end to these liabilities that the US government has been pushing off for years.
So in addition to losing its biggest lenders, they’ll need to come up with trillions of dollars more to pay for these looming obligations.
Like it or not, this party starts in just four more years.