2
$\begingroup$

This article The Dollar Endgame is probably one of many doomsday predictions that exist, but there were a few points mentioned that were new to me and seemed scary:

  • "Debt virtually always has a yield- that yield is called interest, and that interest demands payment. Thus, any fiat money banking system MUST grow money supply at a compounding interest rate, forever, in order to remain stable."
  • "The Treasury would roll the debt by issuing new bonds to pay off maturing ones"
  • "if you combine Gross Interest Expense and Entitlements, on a base case, we are already at 110% of tax receipts"

So to summarize the story of the article: the government are already issuing more debt than they currently receive in tax (which they largely use to pay off old debt), so if interest rates go up (which they must to counter the inflation we are seeing now), the US government will have to take on monstrous levels of debt and vast amounts of QE will need to take place, all of which are short term fixes that require more debt/QE to fix down the line (and the economy growth rates required to grow out of the debt are impossible).

I'm sure this story is invalid somewhere but I'm just not quite sure where.

$\endgroup$

1 Answer 1

2
$\begingroup$

I do not think there is anyone reasonable who expects hyperinflation to occur in US in next few years or as a direct consequence to current US spending.

First, Hyperinflation does not have exact definition, but typically people consider inflation higher than 50%−100% per month a hyperinflation (e.g. see Sachs, 1987). This is several orders of magnitude higher than present rate of inflation in US.

In November 2022 (most recent data-point) monthly inflation rate was 7.1% (see statista), so monthly inflation rate would have to grow by 604.225% to be at least 50% per month.

None of the current forecasts of inflation for next 5 years show inflation getting this high. Forecasts actually show inflation getting this high (see Fed forecasts here)

Second, the claims are incorrect or irrelevant. Let's take them one by one:

"Debt virtually always has a yield- that yield is called interest, and that interest demands payment. Thus, any fiat money banking system MUST grow money supply at a compounding interest rate, forever, in order to remain stable."

This is simply wrong, a debt can be either hold by US government itself or other actors. First, treasury and Fed are both branches of the government. Interest rate that treasury pays to Fed is just recycled back to the treasury. Money supply is increased when bond is bought by Fed but not when treasury pays interest rate to Fed.

When it comes to other actors there interest rate payments would transfer funds outside the coffers of US government but this does not necessitate any new money as the interest can be paid from pre-existing money in the economy that government can tax. Government could pay for the interest rate by new money created by Fed buying government bonds or by government simply printing them via the Bureau of Engraving or Printing but its not something US has to do because of some arithmetic necessity.

"The Treasury would roll the debt by issuing new bonds to pay off maturing ones"

This is correct but irrelevant. Governments all around the world routinely roll over old debt. Governments do not just pay all debt down once bonds expire.

For example, even countries like Switzerland with extremely healthy debt to GDP ratio (of only $\approx40\%$ according to Statista), rolls over most of its relatively small debt. This is because alternative to rolling the debt over is to just pay the debt once it expires which could put too much strain on government finances in one particular year.

Even if country wants to reduce its debt its best to do it over course of multiple years and it is also completely viable for a country to just keep the debt amount constant and grow out of it by economic growth. This because absolute value of debt does not matter. \$10,000 debt is too much for someone who earns \$100 per year and absolutely nothing for someone who earns \$10,000,000 per year. What matters is the value of debt relative to income. For that reason countries can make their debt irrelevant by economic growth and just keep rolling over the old debt forever.

In either of the case above there is no reason why rolling the debt over should be inflationary per se. Rolling the debt over can be inflationary if the new debt is bought by Fed against newly created reserves (assuming the debt that was rolled over wasn't already created against Fed's reserves as in that case there wont be any net increase in high powered money).

"if you combine Gross Interest Expense and Entitlements, on a base case, we are already at 110% of tax receipts"

I wasn't able to double check that number. The source in the post is some YouTube video that does not clearly states the source for this (at least not around the time stamp it linked to). Also, it is not an academic channel but it seems to be an channel that provides and sells people financial advice. I do not want to sound like some ivory tower academic, but I personally think twice about taking advice from non-institutional and non-academic financial commentators as they they are often hyperbolic and just try to indirectly sell something to you. A good example of that are also people like Peter Schiff who always preaches financial doom (including hyperinflation as well) and advises people to buy gold, omitting that he has various businesses that sell people investment gold so his doom and gloom is actually quite self serving (which would be fine if it would not be also incorrect - see Krugman commenting on that here).

According to CBO projections US deficit will be getting better at least till around 2030. After that US budget deficit will get worse due to aging and decline in working age population and a lot of future unfunded entitlements, and that will be a problem that if left unchecked for several years or decades could lead to fairly nasty fiscal situation for US, but its not something that would result in hyperinflation now. In principle this is also fixable issue if US voters will have enough sense to elect someone willing to listen to their economic advisory council and dedicate themselves to solving this issue.

enter image description here

So to summarize the story of the article: the government are already issuing more debt than they currently receive in tax (which they largely use to pay off old debt), so if interest rates go up (which they must to counter the inflation we are seeing now), the US government will have to take on monstrous levels of debt and vast amounts of QE will need to take place, all of which are short term fixes that require more debt/QE to fix down the line (and the economy growth rates required to grow out of the debt are impossible).

This is slippery slope fallacy because the chain of events is very problematic and not very likely.

Lets take that apart:

the government are already issuing more debt than they currently receive in tax (which they largely use to pay off old debt)

Its unclear what this even means. Are you including there roll-over of the old debt (which as explained above is not that relevant)? Are you talking about budget deficit? In which case its not true that deficit is bigger than total tax revenues.

if interest rates go up (which they must to counter the inflation we are seeing now)

Interest rates already did go up and they are not projected to go much more up in the future. According to the Fed's own projections, their interest rate (which determines all other interests in the economy) won't go beyond 4.6. US debt is considered to be risk-free so US bond yields should not stray too far away from federal funds rate.

This does not mean that rising interest rates are not a problem in a long term. Peterson Institute has very good explainer on the potential threat. But the threat to US solvency according to the Peterson Institute is in far future, about three decades ahead, if nothing is done about the debt issue. There is almost no chance of US debt spiralling and becoming unsustainable in next 5 years or so. Over decades if nothing happens and US deficits get larger and larger US debt might get so large that US will have to either default or monetize it but this would require decades of further fiscal neglect.

the US government will have to take on monstrous levels of debt and vast amounts of QE will need to take place

This is not true. First, US could just default on its debt. Not that this would not lead to financial turmoil but its not like QE is the only possible or even always superior option. Second, it is theoretically always possible for US government to fix its budget by cutting spending even if that might be very painful.

In cases like Venezuela, government resorted to heavily monetary financing because it is lead by unsystematic populist party that derives their legitimacy from high levels of nominal spending on various unsystematic social programs and that lack robust institutions such as independent central bank (Kehoe and Nicolini, 2021). Think what you will of US Democrats or Republicans they are nowhere near Chavez's/Maduro's regime, and its unlikely Fed, which is government but technocratic institution, would just keep monetizing US debt without any regard for inflation.

and the economy growth rates required to grow out of the debt are impossible

Any growth rate $g$ that is larger than growth of debt $d$ is sufficient to grow out of debt. US government can always decrease its deficit spending or even run surplus in order to ensure that $g>d$ as long as interest expense itself is not larger than all US revenues. Currently interest expense is just 14% of tax revenue, which is less than it was during 2002-2013 according to data.

This is not to say that Hyperinflation could never happen in US, but there are no signs of it happening in near term. Some cataclysmic event would have to happen for it to occur in near term. If USA would mismanage its finances over 30-50 years then yes eventually it is possible but it would take decades of mismanagement.

$\endgroup$
4
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much! This is an incredibly detailed answer and as I suspected there were some large follies made in that post. So to summarise your response: Governments, whilst they have large levels of debt, really only need to service the interest payments, which they can do slowly by rolling the debt. Thus, the debt-trap is not as big of a threat as expressed. From this, it still sounds like there are major threats, like interest rate hikes (making debt rolling difficult) and entitlement overpromises but these are unlikely and a long way away respectively. $\endgroup$ Jan 10, 2023 at 17:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @benjamindeworsop yes that summarizes is pretty well. Also of course there could be some unpredictable disasters, you never know what happens - eg full blown war with china over taiwan USA loses and has to pay reparations like germany in WWI. Comet impacts north america destroys half of all productive capacity. - but you should not loose sleep over low probability catastrophes. Save for any hard to predict catastrophe the debt wont be serious issue for US next few decades $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Probably need a correction. The U.S. "monthly" inflation rate of 7.1% in 2022 November is actually a one-year inflation rate reported monthly. The monthly inflation rate was 0.1% in 2022 November, meaning that prices increased 0.1% during the month, which is far from the 50% hyperinflation threshold. Source... bls.gov/cpi $\endgroup$
    – H2ONaCl
    Jan 11, 2023 at 4:08
  • $\begingroup$ @H2ONaCl I think the literature uses yoy monthly rate, but I will double check that $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Jan 11, 2023 at 8:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.