March 29, 2010
For many decades, U.S. government securities have been the epitome of safe, dull investments. If you wanted to be absolutely positive you'd get your money back and then some, Treasury bills were the way to go. Right now, lots of Americans who put their money into big mortgages or stocks a decade ago wish they had gone the more mundane route.
But it's mundane no more. With federal budget deficits running wild, investors are growing uneasy at the idea of lending money to an institution that seems unable to stop spending beyond its means. Last month, something extraordinary happened: Two-year bonds offered by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. commanded lower yields than those offered by the U.S. government. As Bloomberg.com put it, "The bond market is saying that it's safer to lend to Warren Buffett than Barack Obama."
That may sound common-sensical — Buffett has experience at meeting payrolls, while Obama does not — but it's actually a surprising perception. Berkshire Hathaway, after all, conceivably could make so many mistakes that it runs out of money and closes down. But the U.S. government is not about to run out of money, even if it keeps overspending.
Why not? First, it can appropriate more of its citizens' earnings through the tax system. Second, and more important, it can print money to pay its bills. Warren Buffett doesn't have those options.
So it's hard to see why investors would be leery. Well, actually, it's not so hard: The federal government is digging itself deeper into debt every month and intends to keep doing so indefinitely.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office offers a prognosis: "Under the president's budget, debt held by the public would grow from $7.5 trillion (53 percent of GDP) at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion (90 percent of GDP) at the end of 2020." Interest payments would quadruple.
The long-term problem here is not that the government eventually would default on its obligations. The danger is that it would create money to make those debts payable, a course that would lead to much higher inflation. Then, yields on even impeccable corporate bonds would climb with those of T-bills.
The economy would also suffer as businesses and households scrambled to cope with the disruptive effects of soaring prices. It would suffer again if and when the government decided to curb inflation by driving up interest rates — a step that virtually guarantees a sharp downturn.
Frightened investors may be wrong to think they're less likely to get their money back from the government than from Buffett's Berkshire.
But they're not wrong to be frightened.