For me, though, instead of losing my mind, I’ve simply lost my long-term memory. It’s a damnable state of affairs for sure – losing a chance to write your autobiography and any semblance of recalling what seems to have been a rather productive life. But I must tell you – it has its benefits. Each and every day starts with a relatively clean page, a “magic slate” of sorts where you can just lift the cellophane cover and completely erase minor transgressions, slights or perceived sins of others upon a somewhat fragile humanity. I get over most things and move on rather quickly. The French writer Jules Renard once speculated that “perhaps people with a detailed memory cannot have general ideas.” If so, I may be fortunate. So there are pluses and minuses to this memory thing, and like most of us, I add them up and move on. If that be the only disadvantage on my life’s scorecard – and there cannot be many – I am a lucky man indeed.
The ring of fire
In last month’s Investment Outlook I promised to write about damage of a financial kind – the potential debt peril – the long-term fiscal cliff that waits in the shadows of a New Normal U.S. economy which many claim is not doing that badly. After all, despite approaching the edge of 2012’s fiscal cliff with our 8% of GDP deficit, the U.S. is still considered the world’s “cleanest dirty shirt.” It has federal debt/GDP less than 100%, Aaa/AA+ credit ratings, and the benefit of being the world’s reserve currency – which means that most global financial transactions are denominated in dollars and that our interest rates are structurally lower than other Aaa countries because of it. We have world-class universities, a still relatively mobile labor force and apparently remain the beacon of technology – just witness the never-ending saga of Microsoft, Google and now Apple. Obviously there are concerns, especially during election years, but are we still not sitting in the global economy’s catbird seat? How could the U.S. still not be the first destination of global capital in search of safe (although historically low) prospective returns?
Well, Armageddon is not around the corner. I don’t believe in the imminent demise of the U.S. economy and its financial markets. But I’m afraid for them. Apparently so are many others, among them the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) and the BIS (Bank of International Settlements). I hold on my lap as I write this September afternoon the recently published annual reports for each of these authoritative and mainly non-political organizations which describe the financial balance sheets and prospective budgets of a plethora of developed and developing nations. The CBO of course is perhaps closest to our domestic ground in heralding the possibility of a fiscal train wreck over the next decade, but the IMF and BIS are no amateur oracles – they lend money and monitor financial transactions in the trillions. When all of them speak, we should listen and in the latest year they’re all speaking in unison. What they’re saying is that when it comes to debt and to the prospects for future debt, the U.S. is no “clean dirty shirt.” The U.S., in fact, is a serial offender, an addict whose habit extends beyond weed or cocaine and who frequently pleasures itself with budgetary crystal meth. Uncle Sam’s habit, say these respected agencies, will be a hard (and dangerous) one to break.
What standards or guidelines do their reports use and how best to explain them? Well, the three of them all try to compute what is called a “fiscal gap,” a deficit that must be closed either with spending cuts, tax hikes or a combination of both which keeps a country’s debt/GDP ratio under control. The fiscal gap differs from the “deficit” in that it includes future estimated entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which may not show up in current expenditures. Each of the three reports target different debt/GDP ratios over varying periods of time and each has different assumptions as to a country’s real growth rate and real interest rate in future years. A reader can get confused trying to conflate the three of them into a homogeneous “fiscal gap” number. The important thing, though, from the standpoint of assessing the fiscal “damage” and a country’s relative addiction, is to view the U.S. in comparison to other countries, to view its apparently clean dirty shirt in the absence of its reserve currency status and its current financial advantages, and to point to a more distant future 10-20 years down the road at which time its debt addiction may be life, or certainly debt, threatening.
I’ve compiled all three studies into a picture chart perhaps familiar to many Investment Outlook readers. Several years ago I compared and contrasted countries from the standpoint of PIMCO’s “Ring of Fire.” It was a well-received Outlook if only because of the red flames and a reference to an old Johnny Cash song – “I fell into a burning ring of fire –I went down, down, down and the flames went higher.” Melodramatic, of course, but instructive nonetheless – perhaps prophetic. What the updated IMF, CBO and BIS “Ring” concludes is that the U.S. balance sheet, its deficit (y-axis) and its “fiscal gap” (x-axis), is in flames and that its fire department is apparently asleep at the station house.