Friday, May 08, 2009

Why Treasury Auctions Should Matter To You

Yesterday, the US Treasury had to offer more interest than they were expecting to sell their 30-year bonds.

Now, I'm not a financial whiz, and I'll be happy to hear from anyone who is in the bond-trading business about the significance of this event. But a similar thing happened to Great Britain earlier this year, for the first time since 2002 they didn't sell the entire stock of government bonds that they intended.

Why this is important is that in the last few months of 2008 and early 2009 the spending that the Obama Administration intended to accomplish seemed reasonable if only for the fact that people around the world seemingly couldn't get enough of the Treasury bill. T-bills are offered at a given interest rate, and then they can be traded afterward. If the price of a $1,000 T-bill offering 10% interest goes up, then the yield (interest relative to the price of the bond) decreases, and vice-versa. If you pay $500 for a $1000 bond that pays 10%, then your effective yield is 20%, because you're getting $100 in interest for a cost of $500. Government bond prices generally don't swing this much, but you can get some corporate bonds (GM for instance) at well less than face value now, with an astronomical yield, in part because the people who bought GM bonds originally don't believe they'll get either their money back or even their interest.

If you paid $1200 for a $1000 bond with a rate of 10%, you're actually seeing negative yield, it costs you more to own the bond than you're receiving in interest. For a while in 2008, the credit and investment markets were in such a tizzy that the T-bill was showing a negative yield -- people didn't mind losing a little money if they knew they would get the bulk of their money back. The private equity market was in disarray, and the government equity market was the place to be.

If you're a statist looking to expand the power of government, this latest credit crisis is a self-licking ice cream cone. Private equity is discredited, so people have a great appetite for government debt they feel they can trust. With people lining up to buy your debt, your government spending can increase because they are giving you cash in return for promises, cash you can turn around and spend on what you see as places for the government to "invest". What's more, people are so frantic for government debt that the bidding process keeps the interest rates low, so the cost of incurring debt isn't nearly as great as if you tried to borrow huge amounts of money under normal circumstances. It's a perfect storm blowing in your favor.

But all parties come to an end, and funny enough for the statists, it's good economic news that is now the problem. The latest jobs report that came out this (Friday) morning showed that only 539,000 people lost their jobs last month, rather than the 600,000+ in the preceeding few months, and there are private-sector folks who track this kind of thing so that the lower first-time unemployment number was known. Now, I don't presume to speak to the minds of Treasury auction participants, but reporters seem to feel that the expectation of slight economic improvement led the bidders for 30-year T-bills to ask for more interest (bid less money) for the T-bills on offer yesterday. This is plausible. When the economy is improving, the T-bill is no longer the only lifeboat, and negative yields may lose less than the market in 2008, but if the market is better in 2009 then money managers will need to get better than negative yields themselves.

Other plausible reasons for the Treasury unexpectedly having to offer higher interest yields include the Chinese not buying as much as they used to, meaning more were available and demand was down. As well, investment banks looking at the huge amount of money that has been promised by the government and lent by the Federal Reserve may be asking themselves when the inflation is going to hit, and wanting a higher yield to compensate for the increased risk of inflation.

In any event, this is a sign that the days of the private market being happy to lend to the Federal Government at record-low rates of return and fund masssive government expenditures may be drawing to a close. The auction didn't fail the way the British auction did, the Treasury was still able to raise the requisite amount of money albeit at a slightly higher cost down the road to the taxpayer. But the increased cost of borrowing and the failure of the British bond sale earlier this year does beg the question, "What happens if the government finds it harder and harder to borrow money?" There is not an infinite appetite domestically and abroad for US public debt, so there is an upper bound to the amount of borrowing that can occur.

Being a sovreign nation with a fiat currency, the United States has as many dollars at is says that it has, and the Federal Reserve System is allowed to expand or contract the monetary supply (the total number of dollars) as financial demands require. If the government cannot sell its debt, it can simply ask the Federal Reserve to "print" more money.

As an aside, I wish the presses were running full-tilt cranking out sheets of $100 bills to fund this government expansion, but I doubt the money could be physically printed fast enough to fullfill the requirements of just the amount of money passed out to banks, car manufacturers and expanded government programs since this past October. A trillion dollars is ten BILLION $100 bills. At a gram per bill, that's ten million kilograms of currency, about 22 million pounds of nothing but $100 bills.

This dump truck, the Caterpillar 797B, can carry 380 tons and is used in mining operations.

It would take just under 29 of them to hold a trillion dollars worth of $100 bills. It would take roughly 100 of these trucks, filled with their maximum load of 380 tons of $100 bills, to haul away the federal budget this year -- but hey, only half of that is debt, right?

That trillion dollars can be created in a computer system by the declaration of the Federal Reserve. It most recently happened on March 18, 2009. The Federal Reserve bought $1 trillion in T-bills and mortgage-backed securities with this money, though no 380-ton dumptrucks were reported in the streets of Washington, DC. The computer at the Fed got another 1 followed by 12 zeroes, and shortly thereafter the accounts listing "T-bills held by Federal Reserve" jumped up, and so did the account balance of the Treasury.

If you're getting a mental image of a snake eating its own tail for the nutrient value, then you're pretty much right on as to what is happening. This is of course legal, I'm not decrying it as something evil or nefarious, but everything has consequences. And it's the consequences that are my chief concern when the Treasury has problems selling their T-bills, because the Federal Reserve can always buy them with currency they create not based on items of intrinsic value, like gold or food, or based even on paper currency, but by the declaration of the Federal Reserve. Thus, there are more dollars in the system, and as the amount of goods and services produced in the United States didn't change, by definition the value of goods and services per dollar will decrease. This is called inflation.

When the US Government can no longer exchange its debt obligations to fund government operations, it must turn to making more currency. It's possible the Federal Reserve will tell President Obama that the till is closed, that the risk of inflation is too high. They will do this in part by making it more expensive for everyone to borrow money, by raising interest rates. This not only affects the federal government, it also affects everyone whose ARM resets and leads to higher mortgage costs. It affects anyone buying a car, which is something the auto industry really doesn't need. It affects anyone trying to borrow money to build or expand a business, increasing the costs of economic growth and employing others.

At this point, we must hope that President Obama and the Congress are "moderates" they tell us they are, and will moderate their spending appetites, which to this point exceed that of any Congress or Presidency in US history. I hope Ben Bernanke has the stones to tell the President that they just can't borrow what they want to borrow from the Fed, and that if more T-bill auctions end up more expensive than originally planned that Tim Geithner will pull the President aside and tell him that there is no more appetite for our debt and some serious priority-shuffling is required.

Maybe this will come in the form of significantly increased taxes, but people resist paying taxes (all people, not just wealthy people) and will move to minimize their tax burden. It's more likely that some of the more ambitious parts of the Obama agenda, like health care reform, will have to be seriously scaled back or abandoned altogether, if this happens before things like health care reform and cap-and-trade energy taxes are locked into place.

But it is also likely that what will be described as "a little" inflation is declared to be worth the goal of a "more equitable society". Of course, the inflation won't be or stay "little", and the equality of outcome will never appear, thus the need for continued government pursuit of the will o' wisp, with the inevitable "little more" inflation every year.

And meanwhile, your savings will be ground away, the cost of everyday goods will continue to increase, and we will learn the joys of inflation that has so bedeviled Zimbabwe and Argentina and other nations whose leadership was wrong-headed and felt their ends justified their citizens' increasingly-humble means.

So keep an eye out for news of more T-bill sales going unexpectedly south. I expected this, just not so soon. This current event is minor, and may not happen again for months, but when a T-bill auction doesn't sell out, that will be time to see how much gold you have on hand, because your next set of groceries may be costing considerably more than the last.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

How I Spent My First Billion

I was born wealthy. I had nothing to do with this bequest of good fortune, and I'm not feeling guilty about it as some would have me do. Much of the wealth I had I can only appreciate looking back over my life. I can say that it truly is the experiences that stand out more so than the material things, but I had those, too.

I had houses in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Iowa and several in Texas. I even spent some time living abroad, it's one of the things you can do when you have the means. I (like many wealthy people) had two families, but they get along exceptionally well. Spending liberally on both of them keeps things on an even keel. In my family, my parents know about spending -- they've each spent over TWO billion.

Rather than being idle with my wealth, I spent quite a bit of the first billion on education. Several schools in several places, sampling what I could learn. I even got a doctorate, and a career to keep me busy. Doing nothing with the wealth you've been given is just wrong, isn't it?

And I spent, boy did I spend. Looking back, it's hard to imagine that I spent on average around eighty-six thousand a day. I even spent my wealth when I was sleeping, but the sleep was worth it. It's funny, when I was younger the wealth seemed more valuable somehow, but now having spent so much I have the memories to show for that billion. In the process of burning through my first billion I found a wonderful, thoughtful, capable lady who really wanted to help me spend it well, and we have three really funny, intelligent children, all of whom have their own fortunes to spend or (so we hope).

I made a lot of good, genuine friends. It's hard for some people to know whether it's their wealth that brings friends to them, or they themselves, but either way I met and befriended hundreds of people while I was spending my fortune. I have friends from nearly everywhere I lived, much like families, when you spend on people they tend to remember it, and appreciate it. People say you can't buy friends, but those people just don't spend the right way.

The end of my first billion I didn't even recognize, to be honest. I was working my first real Big Boy job, living in a great little town, father of two and planning to have Lasik in a couple of months. Best I can figure on August 9th, 1999, at about 5:30 in the morning I spent the last of my first billion.

I turned 31.7 years old. And in my sleep, I started spending my second billion.


The billion I had wasn't in dollars. I had spent a billion seconds of my life to achieve all those things. My two families were my brother, sister, mother and father, and then my own family with my wife. I lived in all those places mostly because I was a kid moving around with my parents. I "bought" friends the way we all do -- with our time, our greatest investment in others.

I found out that I had spent a billion seconds already when I recently read Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzalez, an excellent meditation on life, people and energy disposition. It was about that time that we were talking about these huge budget deficits, when the phrase "billions" was casually discarded in favor of "trillions", and it struck me how little we understand and relate to large numbers like that. A billion seconds is three-quarters of my life to this point, almost. We consider people who've had three billion seconds of life to be quite old. When people start talking about a $787 billion stimulus bill, that's a little over $86,000 a day for roughly 200 lifetimes.

And when they talk about a trillion -- that's a whole order of magnitude (well, three orders of magnitude) more. A trillion seconds ago was 30,000 years ago. These numbers are staggeringly large, and it sort of makes my mouth go dry a bit to consider that those numbers are debt, money that is intended to be repaid. Statistically speaking, I've worked for 15 years, and spent four months per year working just to pay the taxes I've owed. Doing the math, that's:

60 months
240 weeks
1200 workdays
9600 working hours
34,560,000 seconds

In my next billion seconds I'll probably be working the whole time. Assuming no increase in income tax rates, that's going to mean the income taxes I'm paying will consume 6.9% of my life. That doesn't even count the repayment of debt, the debt this year alone is nearly half of the budget, meaning that if we all spent 13.8% of our lives doing nothing but working to pay taxes we'd break even...this year. This assumes no inflation and no increase in interest on existing or future debt, both of which are exceptionally unlikely.

This is why the debt bothers me: because my kids will be spending a little over a tenth of their adult lives working to pay income taxes just to keep pace with the debt, not to even begin eliminating it. Once you add in the anticipated shortfalls from Social Security and Medicare, they're trillons of more dollars in the hole.

They're kids, and I'm not going to explain this to them until they ask me. Right now, they have a wealth of time they need to spend developing themselves, their skills and abilities. Right now, I'm the adult with the wider view of the world and what's going on, and it's my responsibility to change this. It's the responsibility of all of us who have the skills to do basic math to let our representatives know how much we dislike this level of spending.

It's not just your dollars they're taking. It's your real wealth that's being spent.