Digging a Debt Hole
Little did I know when I signed up for a recent “distressed” debt summit (see previous article) that a federal official and state treasurer would be presenting as keynote speakers? After all, this conference was supposed to be catering to those professionals interested in high risk securities. Technically, California and the U.S. government are not classified as distressed yet, but nonetheless government heavy-hitters Matthew Rutherford (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Federal Finance at the U.S. Department of Treasury), and Bill Lockyer (Treasurer for the State of California) shared their perspectives on government debt and associated economic factors.
Why have government officials present at a distressed debt conference? After questioning a few organizers and attendees, I was relieved to discover the keynote speaker selections were made more as a function as a sign of challenging economic times, rather than to panic participants toward debt default expectations. As it turns out, the conference organizers packaged three separate conferences into one event – presumably for cost efficiencies (Distressed Investments Summit + Public Funds Summit + California Municipal Finance Conference).
The U.S. Treasury Balancing Act
Effectively operating as the country’s piggy bank, the Treasury has a very complex job of constantly filling the bank to meet our country’s expenditures. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Rutherford launched the event by speaking to domestic debt levels and deficits along with some the global economic trends impacting the U.S.
- Task at Hand: Rutherford spoke to the Treasury’s three main goals as part of its debt management strategy, which includes: 1) Cash management (to pay the government bills); 2) Attempt to secure low cost financing; and 3) Promote efficient markets. With more than a few hundred auctions held each year, the Treasury manages an extremely difficult balancing act.
- Debt Limit Increased: The recent $1.9 trillion ballooning in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion gives the Treasury some flexibility in meeting the country’s near-term funding needs. The Treasury expects to raise another $1.5 trillion in debt in 2010 (from $1.3 trillion in ’09) to fund our government initiatives, but that number is expected to decline to $1.0 – $1.1 trillion in 2011.
- Funding Trillions at 0.16%: Thanks to abnormally low interest rates, an investor shift to short-term safety (liquidity), and a temporary rush to the dollar, the U.S. Treasury was able to finance their borrowing needs at a mere 16 basis points. Clearly, servicing the U.S.’ massive debt load at these extremely attractive rates is not sustainable forever, and the Treasury is doing its best to move out on the yield curve (extend auctions to lengthier maturities) to lock in lower rates and limit the government’s funding risk should short-term rates spike.
- Chinese Demand Not Waning: Contrary to recent TIC (Treasury International Capital) data that showed Japan jumping to the #1 spot of U.S. treasury holders, Rutherford firmly asserted that China remains at the top by a significant margin of $140 billion, if you adjust certain appropriate benchmarks. He believes foreign ownership at over 50% (June 2009) remains healthy and steady despite our country’s fiscal problems.
- TIPS Demand on the Rise: Appetite for Treasury Inflation Protection Securities is on the rise, therefore the Treasury has its eye on expanding its TIP offerings into longer maturities, just last week they handled their first 3-year TIPS auction.
There is no “CA” in Greece
State of California Treasurer Bill Lockyer did not sugarcoat California’s fiscal problems, but he was quick to defend some of the comparisons made between Greece and California. First of all, California’s budget deficit represents less than 1% of the state’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) versus 13% for Greece. Greece’s accumulated debt stands at 109% of GDP – for California debt only represents 4% of the state’s GDP. What’s more, since 1800 Greece has arguably been in default more than not, where as California has never in its history defaulted on an obligation.
The current California picture isn’t pretty though. This year’s fiscal budget deficit is estimated at $6 billion, leaping to $12 billion next year, and soaring to $20 billion per year longer term.
Legislative political bickering is at the core of the problem due to the constitutional inflexibility of a 2/3 majority vote requirement to get state laws passed. The vast bulk of states require a simple majority vote (> than 50%) – California holds the unique super-majority honor with only Arkansas and Rhode Island. Beyond mitigating partisan bickering, Lockyer made it clear no real progress would be made in budget cuts until core expenditures like education, healthcare, and prisons are attacked.
On the subject of bloatedness, depending on how you define government spending per capita, California ranks #2 or #4 lowest out of all states. Economies of scale help in a state representing 13% of the U.S.’ GDP, but Lockyer acknowledged the state could just be less fat than the other inefficient states.
Lockyer also tried to defend the state’s 10.5% blended tax rate (versus the national median of 9.8%), saying the disparity is not as severe as characterized by the media. He even implied there could be a little room to creep that rate upwards.
Finishing on an upbeat note, Lockyer recognized the January state revenues came in above expectations, but did not concede victory until a multi-month trend is established.
After filtering through several days of meetings regarding debt, you quickly realize how the debt culture (see D-E-B-T article), thanks to cheap money, led to a glut across federal governments, state governments, corporations, and consumers. Hopefully we have learned our lesson, and we are ready to climb out of this self created hole…before we get buried alive with risky debt.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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Entry filed under: Fixed Income (Bonds), Government, Politics. Tags: Bill Lockyer, California, debt, default, deficit, distressed debt, distressed investment summit, Greece, Matthew Rutherford, treasurer, U.S. Treasury.