Posts tagged ‘government debt’

USA Inc.: Buy, Hold or Sell?

If the U.S. was a company, would you buy, hold, or sell the stock? A voluminous report put out last year by Mary Meeker sought to answer that very question. Since we’re in the thick of the presidential elections, why not review the important financial state of our great nation.

For those of you who may not know who she is, Mary Meeker is the well-known partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who is also affectionately known as the “Queen of Internet.” Apparently, beyond her renowned expertise in analyzing and valuing tech companies and start-ups, she also has the knack of dissecting government statistics and distilling wonky numbers down to understandable terms for the masses. “Distilling” may be a generous term, given the massive size of her 460-page report, USA Inc., but nevertheless, I am going to attempt to synthesize this gargantuan report even further.

As a visual learner, I think some key cherry-picked slides from her report will help put our multi-trillion debts and deficits in context, so here goes…

The Scope of the Problem

If one spends a few hundred billion dollars here, and a few hundred billion dollars there, before you know it, a trillion dollars will have piled up. Currently our government has run $1 trillion+ budget deficits for three years, and the estimated deficit is for another trillion dollar deficit this fiscal year. If you have ever wondered how many football fields it takes to fill with a trillion dollars of cash, then today is your lucky day. The answer: 217 football fields.

Financial Statements: The Health Thermometer

In order to determine the relative health of USA Inc., Meeker created financial statements for our country, starting with the income statement. As you can see from the chart below, unfortunately USA Inc.’s expenses have been significantly larger than its revenues, creating a “discouraging” trend of negative cash flows (deficits). An entity that takes in $2.2 trillion in revenue and spends $3.5 trillion, cannot sustainably continue this trend for long, before significant financial problems arise. The largest contributing factor to our country’s losses (deficits) has been the exploding costs of entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

As the pie chart shows, the major categories of entitlements comprise a whopping 58% of USA Inc.’s 2010 total expenditures.

Trillion dollar deficits have been the norm over the last three years.

Why Entitlement Spending is a Problem

Why are entitlements such a massive problem? The plain and simple answer to why entitlements are a major issue is that government expenditures are growing too fast. You can’t have expenses growing significantly faster than revenues for 45 years and expect to be in happy financial place.

Another reason for the abysmal spending record is due to politicians horrendous forecasting abilities. Future promises are made by politicians to garner votes today, and when they make overly rosy estimates about the costs of those promises, future generations are left holding the underfunded bag. Meeker points out that when Medicare was instituted in 1966, total future spending  of $110 billion turned out to be about 10x more expensive (see chart below) than originally planned…ouch!

No Defense for Defense

Trillion dollar deficits and debts can’t be solely blamed on entitlements, but $700 billion in annual defense expenditures is not exactly chump change. The inopportune timing of the financial crisis in 2008-2009 didn’t help either, while two unfunded wars were being fought. Even if you strip out the wars, defense spending is still obscenely high. Given our poor state of financial affairs, we cannot afford to be the globe’s babysitter (see Impoverished Global Babysitter). Legacy Cold War spending on obsolete ground warfare needs to be reprioritized to 21st Century threats (i.e. focus on unmanned drones and coordinated intelligence). When a government spends more than the top 25 countries combined (see chart below), that country can certainly find some defense fat to trim.

Demographic Headwinds

The out-of-control gluttonous government spending is a threat to our national security, and although I wish I could say time alone will heal our fiscal wounds, unfortunately the opposite is true. Time is our enemy because the ticking demographic time bomb is about to explode, unless government acts to solve our spending problems. For starters, Americans are living longer, which means entitlement spending has accelerated faster than revenues collected, and life expectancy consistently continues to rise. As you can see below, life expectancy has outpaced Social Security age adjustments by +23% over a 74 year period.

Another self inflicted problem contributing to our colossal health care costs is the obesity epidemic. Over an 18 year period, the rate of obesity more than doubled to 32%. Individuals can and should shoulder more of the burden for these belt-busting costs, and government should spend more on prevention and education in this area. Bad drivers pay higher premiums for their auto insurance, so why not have bad eaters pay higher premiums? Genetics certainly can play a role in obesity, but so to do eating habits. The same accountability principle should be applied to smokers who overly burden our healthcare system too.

The USA spends more on healthcare than all OECD countries combined and 3x the OECD per capita average, yet as you can see from the chart below, the USA is not getting a life expectancy bang for its buck. The argument that the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world may be true in some instances, but the overall data doesn’t support that assertion.

The Rubber Hits the Road

The problem is easy to identify: Government spending going out the door is running faster than the revenues coming in via taxes. The solution is easy to identify too: Politicians need to cut spending, increase taxes, and/or do a combination of the two options. Like dieting, the solutions are easy to identify but difficult to execute.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit – Scott Grannis

Almost everyone wants the government to spend less, but at the same time nobody wants their benefits cut. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Citing two different studies, Meeker shows how 80% of Americans want a balanced budget as a national priority, but only 12% are willing to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security.

The rubber will hit the road in the next few months when politicians in a post-presidential election period will be forced to face these difficult “Fiscal Cliff” choices – $700 billion+ in tax hikes and spending increases that  jeopardize the current recovery and our fiscal future.

Source: PIMCO

As market maven Mary Meeker recognizes, our fiscal situation is quite “discouraging”. With that said, although USA Inc. may have earned a current “Sell” rating, Meeker acknowledges that our country can become a positive turnaround situation. If voters actively push politicians to making difficult but necessary financial decisions to lower deficits and debt, investors around the globe will be ready to “Buy” USA Inc.’s stock.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

 

 

 

October 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm 1 comment

Debt: The New Four-Letter Word

Debt-GDP

D-E-B-T, our country’s new four-letter word, used to be a fun toy the masses played and danced with to buy all kinds of goods and services.  Debt was creatively utilized for all types of things, including, our super-sized McMansions purchased with Option ARM (Adjustable Rate Mortgage) Countrywide loans; our 0% financing car binges (thanks to now-bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors); and our no-payment-for-two-years, big screen plasma TVs (financed at now-bankrupt Circuit City). Eventually consumers, corporations, and governments realized excessive debt creates all kinds of lingering problems – especially in recessionary periods. We are by no means out of the woods yet, but consumers are now spending less than they are taking in, as evidenced by a positive and rising savings rate. This slowdown in spending is bad for short-term demand, but eventually these savings will be recycled into our economy leading to productive and innovative value creating jobs that will jumpstart the economy back on a path to sustainable growth.

Click Here For Excellent Article from the Peterson Foundation

In our hot-cold society, where the pendulum of greed and fear swing dramatically from one side to the next, we are also observing an unhealthy level of risk aversion by financial institutions. This excessive caution is unfortunately choking off the health of legitimate businesses that need capital/debt in order to survive.  As we continue to see a pickup in the leading indicators for an economic recovery, banks should loosen up the credit purse strings to provide capital for profitable, growing businesses – even if there are hiccups along the way.

National Debt “Blob” Must Be Slowed

Federal  Budget Pie

In the famous 1958 sci-fi horror film, “The Blob”, a gelatinous, ever-growing creature from outer space threatens to take over the town of Downingtown, Pennsylvania by methodically engulfing everything in its path. Steve McQueen eventually learns that freezing the Blob will halt its progression. In our country, entitlements, in the form of Medicare and Social Security, serve as our 21st century Blob. As the chart above shows, entitlements have expanded dramatically over the last 40 years and stand to expand faster, as the 76 million Baby Boomers reach retirement and demand more Social Security and Medicare benefits. Clearly the current path we are travelling on is not sustainable, and beyond breakthroughs in technology, the only way we can suitably address this problem is by cutting benefits or raising taxes. We only dug ourselves in a deeper financial hole with the enactment of Medicare Part D (prescription drug benefits for Medicare participants).  I must admit I have great difficulty in understanding how we are going to expand health care coverage for the vast majority of Americans in the face of exploding deficits and debt burdens.  I eagerly await specifics.

With an enlarging national debt burden and widening deficits, the U.S. is only becoming more reliant on foreign investors to finance our shortcomings. This trend too cannot last forever (see chart below). At some point, foreigners will either balk by not providing us the financing, or demanding prohibitively high interest rates on any funding we request – thereby negatively escalating our already high interest payment streams to bondholders.

Foreign Debt OwnershipRegardless of your political view, the problem pretty simply boils down to elementary school math. The government either needs to cut expenses or raise revenue (taxes or growth initiatives). Politically, the stimulative spending path is easier to rationalize, but as we see in California, eventually the game ends and tough cuts are forced to be made.

Let’s hope the painful lessons learned from this financial crisis will steer us back on path to more responsible borrowing – a point where D-E-B-T is no longer considered a dirty four-letter word.

June 10, 2009 at 5:30 am 7 comments


Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,815 other followers

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

More on Sidoxia Services

Recognition

Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View | Kitces.com

Wade on Twitter…

  • RT @NPR: Today, more than 170 colleges and universities offer esports. And there's money on the table — more than $16 million in college sc… 1 day ago
  • RT @CNNBusiness: The three major differences between 4G and 5G are faster speeds, higher bandwidth and lower latency. But those perks are g… 1 day ago

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Blog RSS

Monthly Archives