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HomeLM: Plan B (Negative)Interest on the Debt will exceed defense budget this year

Interest on the Debt will exceed defense budget this year

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The ink was barely dry on the Treaty of Paris in the year 1763 when the financial panic set in. Government ministers across Europe began taking stock of their disastrous finances… and the picture was gruesome.

The world had been at war with itself for nearly a decade. And though the conflict became officially known as the Seven Years War, it might as well have been called ‘World War Zero’ because it involved just about every major power on the planet.

France, Russia, Britain, Spain, Portugal, and Prussia in Europe, the Mughal Empire in India, and even the Ojibwe and Cherokee tribes in North America, all fought in the war. And the conflict cost everyone dearly.  Especially France.

France was still technically the West’s dominant superpower at the war’s start in 1756; however, decades of overspending had taken a toll… and French finances were showing signs of strain.

As the Seven Years War raged on, France had to borrow more and more money to pay for it. So both the national debt, as well as its annual interest bill, rose quickly.

By the end of the war, the debt had grown so much that France was spending over HALF of its annual budget just to pay interest… which means obviously they were spending more on interest than on the military.

Economic historian Niall Ferguson has famously commented on this critical milestone:

“If you really want to see when an empire is getting vulnerable, the big giveaway is when the costs of servicing the debt exceed the cost of the defense budget.”

Throughout history, several empires in decline have reached that point– including France, the Ottoman Empire, and many more. And quite disturbingly, the latest empire set to join that club will be the United States– most likely this year.

I’ve been saying this for a while. But it’s now mainstream news given that the Wall Street Journal said Friday that “Interest costs are on pace to surpass defense this year. . .”

The US national debt currently stands at $34.3 trillion, a whopping 122% of US GDP. And as I’ve written extensively, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts an additional $20+ trillion in new debt over the next decade.

That’s an absurd level of debt. But the most alarming part is how quickly the annual interest bill is increasing.

15-20 years ago, interest on the national debt was a fairly trivial portion of the federal government’s annual budget. But in 2024, as the Journal corroborates, interest will likely surpass defense spending.

And it’s just going to keep getting worse. The US government is falling into the same trap that plagued France in the 1760s and 1770s: each year America will have to borrow more money just to be able to make interest payments on the money they’ve already borrowed.

Think about it: they have to go deeper into debt just to avoid default.  Crazy, right?

And to really understand the implications, it’s critical to ask the question: where will all the new debt come from? Who exactly is going to lend the US government $20+ trillion?

Well, one potential source is the US economy itself: the government could borrow money from banks, businesses, and even individuals. But that comes at a significant opportunity cost.

Banks, for example, make constant decisions about what to do with their cash. They could make home loans, business loans, or, yes, buy US government bonds.

This means that if they buy $20 trillion worth of Treasury bonds, they’ll have $20 trillion LESS available to make home loans. And with less capital in the housing market, home prices would likely fall, and mortgage rates rise.

Investors, similarly, have tens of trillions of dollars in the stock market. So, if investors bought trillions of dollars’ worth of government bonds, they’d have to sell their stocks first, resulting in falling stock prices.

Economists call this the “crowding out” effect; the idea is that, when a government borrows tons of money, it essentially monopolizes a nation’s savings, leaving fewer resources for the productive economy to put to work. And that’s a pretty high opportunity cost.

The alternative is for the central bank (i.e. Federal Reserve) to create trillions of dollars of ‘new’ money, then use that new money to buy Treasury bonds.

This way banks can keep making housing loans. Investors can keep their money in the stock market. The Fed simply creates new money out of thin air, then loans it to the Treasury.

$20 trillion is a ton of money, more than 50% of the size of the entire US economy. So clearly if the Federal Reserve creates such a vast sum of new money, the end result would be a lot of inflation.

I’ve written about this before; we experienced a peak 9% inflation when the Fed created $5 trillion in 2020-2021. So how high will inflation be if they create $20+ trillion?

No one knows for sure, but it probably won’t be their famous 2% target.

Now, this isn’t a cause for panic. On the contrary, given that there’s such a strong case to be made for future inflation, there are plenty of sensible ways to prepare for it and potentially even benefit from it financially.

Governments and central banks, for example, are fantastic at going into debt and conjuring new money out of thin air. But they can’t summon a single barrel of oil into existence, nor clap their hands and make more productive technology appear.

In an era where politicians and central bankers have to create a tidal wave of money and debt just to avoid default, it’s sensible to have exposure to scarce, critical resources that stand the test of time.

These are known as real assets. And it just so happens that many of them are selling at historically low prices.

More on this soon.

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