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The Other US Debt Problem

US debt maturities are among the shortest of any advanced nations...

WAY BACK in the mid-1990s, I worked as a US Treasury advisor to Croatia, writes Martin Hutchinson, contributing editor to Money Morning.

During that time I met with the managers of the US Treasury's debt. In what would turn out to be terrific advice, the Treasury officials suggested that we extend Croatia's debt maturities so the Central European country wouldn't have to refinance too often. 

So in gratitude, I offered the US officials some counsel of my own. 

I told them they should follow their own counsel and lengthen the US Treasury's average debt maturities, then about six years.

The Treasury officials should have taken my advice. But instead they ignored me and did the exact opposite.

The upshot: Today the United States' debt maturities are among the shortest in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and US refinancing costs are exceptionally large.

So if you're already worried about soaring budget deficits and the solvency of the United States, brace yourself – It's only going to get worse.

The US Treasury had more than one opportunity to follow my advice. At the time we opted to extend Croatia's debt maturities, other countries went the other way – with devastating fallout.

For instance, the Ukrainian Hryvnia Treasury bill program – where the vast public deficit was financed with 18-month T-bills sold to greedy Merrill Lynch and other foreigners at interest rates above 15% – was one of the major disasters of the 1997-98 crash.

In spite of that outcome, and despite my advice, the US Treasury took the opposite tact by suspending the 30-year bond issue in 2001. The belief at the time was that Treasury surpluses were so assured that there was no longer any need for 30-year money. 

There are two problems with this: First, when interest rates rise, their additional cost will feed through to the budget remarkably quickly, making the financing problem even worse. Second, it increases the risk that at some stage, the US Treasury may not be able to raise the money.

Average Treasury bond maturities reached a low of 50 months in 2009. They've since been lengthened a bit to 62 months, but that still leaves the US Treasury with a major refinancing risk. The Treasury will have to refinance some $2 trillion of outstanding debt in the next year – and that's in addition to the $1.5 trillion of new debt it's going to have to issue in that time.

That doesn't leave much room to maneuver if markets get sticky. It also leaves a serious potential budget hole.

Five-year Treasuries currently yield 1.05%. Since consumer price inflation is currently 3.8%, a more normal yield would be close to 6%, or 2% above the rate of inflation. 

However, that implies an average 5% rise in interest rates for Treasuries with an average maturity of 62 months. With $3.5 trillion of Treasuries being issued every year, such an increase would boost interest costs by $175 billion in the first year, $350 billion in the second year, and so on up to $825 billion in the fifth year. And by that time, with the US financial position getting steadily direr, interest rates would probably have risen further.

The conclusion is inescapable. 

When interest rates rise – and I very much doubt US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will be able to hold them flat until 2013 – the deficit increases from the Treasury's refinancing will dwarf any feeble attempts by Congress to tame the country's debt.

That means the current $1.5 trillion deficits will quickly rise to $2.5 trillion, and the debt levels will spiral out of control.

US Treasury bulls frequently tell us how superior the US position is to that of Japan. Japan currently has debt level of more than 200% of gross domestic product (GDP), compared to roughly 90% for the United States, when you include Social Security trust funds. 

But what these bulls are forgetting is that Japan sells most of its debt to domestic investors and banks, so it has to worry much less about a failure to find new support. 

More importantly, the Japanese government has been increasing its issuance of "super-long-term bonds" of 30-year and 40-year maturity. Its average issue maturity now is 93 months, fully 50% longer than in the United States – thus its annual refinancing needs are one-third less, in relation to the size of its debt.

If interest rates rise, it is the US government debt managers, not the Japanese authorities, who will need to worry.

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Now a contributing editor to both the Money Map Report and Money Morning, the much-respected free daily advisory service, Martin Hutchinson is an investment banker with more than 25 years’ experience. A graduate of Cambridge and Harvard universities, he moved from working on Wall Street and in the City, as well as in Spain and South Korea, to helping the governments of Bulgaria, Croatia and Macedonia establish their Treasury bond markets in the late '90s. Business and Economics Editor at United Press International from 2000-4, and a BreakingViews editor since 2006, Hutchinson is also author of the closely-followed Bear's Lair column at the Prudent Bear website.

See full archive of Martin Hutchinson.

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