The “Bernie” Madoff name became famous while the stock market was falling during the credit and financial crisis. He was responsible for running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history—if I recall correctly, it was a $65.0-billion scheme. But as the scam got bigger, Madoff couldn’t go on. He was caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to more than 100 years in jail.
What did we learn from the Madoff ordeal? At the very least, we learned Ponzi schemes eventually become impossible to hide, no matter how smart and cunning the perpetrator.
Wednesday of this week, we learned that the Federal Reserve’s Ponzi scheme of printing paper money and giving it to the government via the purchase of U.S. Treasuries will go on.
While the Fed says it wants to keep the “stimulus” going until the economy gets better, as I have written in these pages many times, the Fed cannot stop printing because if it did stop, three things would happen: 1) the stock market would collapse; 2) housing prices would fall; and 3) the government would have no real buyer for its debt (especially in light of China and Japan pulling back on buying U.S. Treasuries).
Madoff’s $65.0-billion Ponzi scheme is nothing when I look at the U.S. national debt figures. While it looks like we are beyond the point of no return, our national debt level would have to double from $17.0 trillion to $34.0 trillion before our debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio matches that of Japan. (And don’t for a moment think that’s not going to happen!)
In 2011, only two years ago, we heard Congress debate whether they should increase our national debt limit or not. The theater of a government shutdown was on for a while; it drove key stock indices lower and bond yields higher. Now we’re at square one again. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew sent a letter requesting an increase in our national debt limit by October, or the U.S. economy would face a risk of default.
The bottom line, dear reader, is that the U.S. government is broke. To keep the government afloat from now until Congress passes a new national debt limit, the government has stopped investing into the pensions of federal government workers.
I don’t for a second doubt that Congress won’t raise the national debt limit—it will; it has done just that 78 times since 1960. Why would this time be any different?
The chart below shows how the national debt of the U.S. economy has skyrocketed since 1966.
What has happened so far—the massive printing of paper money—is just one part of the puzzle. The Ponzi scheme is complex and has many moving parts. The government’s failure to clamp down on spending is the main problem.
In the 11 months of the fiscal 2013 year, the U.S. government has incurred a budget deficit of $755 billon, according to the Bureau of Fiscal Services. (So much for those estimates that said the U.S. government budget deficit would be below $700 billion this year!)
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects the U.S. government to continue posting budget deficits until 2015, when it says the annual budget deficit will equal two percent of the gross domestic product of the U.S. economy. (Source: Congressional Budget Office, September 17, 2013.) I don’t buy that prediction for a moment. Interest costs on the national debt alone could be a huge problem going forward.
For the government’s fiscal year ending this September 30, the U.S. government expects to have incurred $414 billion in interest payments alone. Assuming a national debt of $16.7 trillion, this equates to an interest rate of about 2.5%. But interest rates are rising!
And the more the national debt increases, the higher the interest payment. Think what will happen once interest rates in the U.S. economy start to climb higher, and when creditors start asking for higher returns due to our massive amount of national debt. Even if our national debt doesn’t change and interest rates go back to normal (it’s going to happen), the interest payments on the national debt would rise to over $900 billion a year!
Bring Social Security liabilities into the picture, and the future looks even more gruesome. According to the Pew Research Center, every day 10,000 Americans reach retirement age. (Source: Pew Research Center, December 29, 2010.) With the financial crisis having placed pressure on retirement savings, retirees are now relying on Social Security more than ever.
Right now we are seeing the government hoping investors will keep re-investing in U.S. bonds while the Fed picks up the slack. But what happens when they say, “We want our money back?” It will make Madoff’s Ponzi scheme look like a joke.