The escalating US level of public debt.

US debt level pushing fast towards $US22 trillion, and a look into Fed deliberations

On my way through a selection of economic articles & announcements this week, I looked at the US Debt Clock website a couple of times, and pondered how long it would be until the US clocked up $US22 trillion of national debt.

In addition, the US Federal Reserve open market committee issued the minutes yesterday from its 8 November meeting, showing there was considerably more discussion about future interest rate strategy than blunt headlines of up versus hold indicated.

According to the St Louis Federal Reserve Bank in its latest quarterly calculations, also out yesterday, total US public debt at 30 June was $US21.195 trillion – a long way off $US22 trillion, but rising fast.

After a debt crisis in early 2013, the legislated debt ceiling was raised to $US16.699 trillion in May 2013. President Donald Trump again suspended the debt ceiling on February 9 this year, through to 1 March 2019.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated public debt would hit $US22 trillion in March 2019, but it could happen earlier.

Total public debt went through $US21 trillion on 15 March 2018 and was closing in on $US21.8 trillion this morning. It’s quite hard to run a stopwatch on it, but the debt rises by $US1 million about every 36 seconds. At that rate it should hit $US22 trillion in 84 days – 23 February 2019.

This is a debt picture which makes US President Donald Trump – and plenty of others – keen to hold interest rates down. The US Federal Reserve had begun to raise its federal cashrate, increasing the target range for the federal funds rate to 2-2.25% in September but holding it at that level on 8 November.

US national public debt:gdp.

The St Louis Fed showed federal debt (total public debt) as a percentage of gross domestic product, seasonally adjusted, was 103.84% at the end of the second quarter of 2018, down from 105.23% in the previous quarter and 105.26% in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Debt caution evaporates

Despite those high ratios, now that Barack Obama’s out of office the Republicans don’t seem to have the same caution about rising debt as they used to. They’ve been aided in this reinterpretation of sound policy by having a new president who’s built his business empire on debt, and is keen to lift spending in some sectors, particularly the military budget.

Among interpretations of the Fed open market committee’s November minutes, one view was that the US central bank would hold back from raising its funds rate, which gave the US sharemarkets a boost.

The minutes show the committee went well beyond a yes/no on specific rates, holding a debate on various aspects of policy, including the levels of reserves it would require in an environment where banks had built up reserves as a precaution, making money market rates less sensitive to small fluctuations in the demand for & supply of reserves.

Fed staff also briefed the committee on alternative policy rates. The minutes showed no decision following that discussion, except to continue the discussion on options for long-run implementation frameworks.

The overall federal debt level, and the absence or re-imposing of a debt ceiling, weren’t factors leading the discussion.

Fed surveys strategy options

An examination of market behaviour & market movers’ expectations didn’t disclose any favouring of one policy likelihood over another: “On balance, the turbulence in equity markets did not leave much imprint on near-term US monetary policy expectations. Respondents to the open market desk’s recent survey of primary dealers and survey of market participants indicated that respondents placed high odds on a further quarter-point increase in the target range for the federal funds rate at the December open market committee meeting.

“That expectation also seemed to be embedded in federal funds futures quotes. Further out, the median of survey respondents’ modal expectations for the path of the federal funds rate pointed to about 3 additional policy firmings next year, while futures quotes appeared to be pricing in a somewhat flatter trajectory.”

Later in the minutes, the committee noted: “Almost all participants [staff, advisors & committee members] reaffirmed the view that further gradual increases in the target range for the federal funds rate would likely be consistent with sustaining the committee’s objectives of maximum employment & price stability.”

That read like a ‘We can keep raising the rate and blame somebody else, or blame everybody’ response – perhaps handy, knowing that President Trump wants no rate rise.

The discussion points that followed represented up, down & no change, giving Fed chair Jerome Powell the ability to acquiesce with the president’s preference, or push ahead with lifting the funds rate to a level where it’s closer to the long-term average and allows for easing if conditions worsen: “Consistent with their judgment that a gradual approach to policy normalisation remained appropriate, almost all participants expressed the view that another increase in the target range for the federal funds rate was likely to be warranted fairly soon if incoming information on the labour market & inflation was in line with or stronger than their current expectations.

“However, a few participants, while viewing further gradual increases in the target range of the federal funds rate as likely to be appropriate, expressed uncertainty about the timing of such increases. A couple of participants noted that the federal funds rate might currently be near its neutral level and that further increases in the federal funds rate could unduly slow the expansion of economic activity and put downward pressure on inflation & inflation expectations.”

There was also concern that the committee was signalling intentions – that it would raise rates at stipulated intervals or frequency – and that it would be better to be vague, basing rate changes on new data rather than a programme seen as being set in place.

Quantitative tightening

One aspect of the Fed deliberations that’s been emphasised less is the now-continual withdrawal of maturing Treasury securities from the market at the rate of $US30 billion/month, and agency debt & mortgage-backed securities at $US20 billion/month (assuming that much in each category matures in a month).

Fed view on China

Among global considerations, the US Fed committee’s markets had this to say on China: “In China, investors were concerned about the apparent slowing of economic expansion and the implications of continued trade tensions with the US.

“Chinese stock price indexes declined further over the inter-meeting period and were off nearly 20% on the year to date. The renminbi continued to depreciate, moving closer to 7.0 renminbi/$US – a level that some market participants viewed as a possible trigger for intensifying depreciation pressures. Anecdotal reports suggested that Chinese authorities had intervened to support the renminbi.”

Half-pie view on affordability

The committee minutes surprised me on one issue which is international – the relationship between house prices & interest rates: “Real residential investment declined further in the third quarter, likely reflecting a range of factors including the continued effects of rising mortgage interest rates on the affordability of housing.

“Starts of both new single-family homes & multifamily units decreased last quarter, but building permit issuance for new single-family homes – which tends to be a good indicator of the underlying trend in construction of such homes – was little changed on net. Sales of both new & existing homes declined again in the third quarter, while pending home sales edged up in September.”

The first surprise was the lack of comment on mortgage rates rising despite minimal movement in the base federal funds rate. The second surprise was that the Fed should see higher borrowing costs as affecting “affordability” – presumably the affordability of paying for what’s already bought – without comment on whether this would also bring pressure on house prices, which is a second segment of the affordability question.

Comments on volume alone, without factoring in price movements, leave the question open on whether supply will slump, thus maintaining price levels, or suppliers will agree to lower returns.

This issue is playing out in Australia at the moment, particularly in Sydney, where oversupply based on investor (and especially foreign investor) ambitions & high immigration is being followed by a sharp decline in values.

Different price/mortgage issues will arise in Auckland as immigration declines further, barring of foreign investors takes effect and supply of townhouses & standalone homes rises.

US Debt Clock
Federal Reserve open market committee minutes 8 November 2018
St Louis Federal Reserve Bank, total US public debt
St Louis Federal Reserve Bank, federal debt as percentage of gdp
The Balance, 1 August 2018: US debt ceiling & its current status

Attribution: Federal Reserve, St Louis Federal Reserve Bank, US Debt Clock, The Balance.

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