Does Anybody Understand Debt?

Does anybody understand debt?  Some – but not many.  Today’s post is less of my normal extended prose and more of an outline.  I’ve been invited to speak at some writing classes here at the college and this is intended to serve as my speaking notes.


Background: What have you heard?

Krugman in New York Times

Harvey in Forbes

Background Info on U.S. National Debt

Brazelton:  The US CANNOT Go Broke


Numbers, Metaphors, and Stories


Get the terms right

Debt, Deficit, and tr/b/m-illions

$1,000,000,000,000

$1,000,000,000

$1,000,000

$1 trillion =  1 million times $1 million

Debt


Deficit

1984-present U.S. Federal Budget


Measuring the Debt

Counting Absolute Dollars of Debt Deceives. It's All Relative.


Three Bad Metaphors


Government is NOT a Household

Government is NOT like a Household!

Econproph: Once Again, Government is Not Like  a Household


 Govt Debt is NOT a Burden on future generations


Private Debt is NOT like Government Debt

Federal Reserve Breakdown of Household Debt

Foreigners Don’t Control


So…

A Sovereign Government Cannot “Go Broke”


Eurozone Countries Can “Go Broke”


Government Debt is Like Money that Pays Interest


But What About Inflation?  Printing money?

Inflation involves real demand vs. real supply, not just $


Test on Debt:  Interest Rates

Rates are historically low and staying low.


Are Gov. Deficits Necessary?

Yes, if you want to save money.

Forever?   Yes.

Econproph: But What About National Debt-to-GDP Ratio? Not a Problem, Really


Are There Limits to Deficits?

Yes, but related to full employment and capacity.


In Practice, Nobody Understands Money.

Well they understand yesterday’s money, not modern money.

That’s why they don’t understand debt.

US Government Bond Market & Interest Rate Watch – No Signs of Worry Over Deficits, Inflation, or Default

Just a quickie to bring your attention to this, yesterday’s close on the U.S. Government bond market as reported by Google Finance. Note the 10 year bond – less than 2%.

Bond Maturity Yield (effective interest rate) change in points(percent)
3 Month 0.01% 0.00 (0.00%)
6 Month 0.04% +0.01 (33.33%)
2 Year 0.19% +0.01 (5.56%)
5 Year 0.86% 0.00 (0.00%)
10 Year 1.99% -0.07 (-3.40%)
30 Year 3.30% -0.11 (-3.23%)

Why does this matter?

There’s two reasons.  First, the politicians and economists who have been opposed to stimulus efforts, either deficit spending increases or monetary stimulus, have been screaming for well over three years now that  these policies were “reckless” and going to lead to inflation.  Some of the more shrill have been seeing “hyperinflation just around the corner”.  They’ve been saying this for a long time but the inflation and hyperinflation simply aren’t happening.  Why?  Well they’ve argued this because they subscribe to economic theories such as quantity theory of money, crowding out, efficient markets, and a whole host of other neo-classical/neo-liberal theories.  These are the same people that claim Keynesian or post-Keynesian or Modern Monetary Theory is totally wrong.  But the data disagree.  These same critics were the ones pushing Washington to cut the budget and not raise the debt-ceiling limit.  They put concerns about the deficit ahead of concerns about jobs or growth rates despite having over 9% unemployment and over 16% slack in the system. They’re wrong. The data and investors in markets are showing them wrong.  Bond buyers aren’t worried about the U.S. becoming another Greece because they know it’s not possible.  Instead the big money is worried about the lack of economic growth and the potential for banking failures in Europe, and that leads them to want to park their money in the safest thing around: U.S. bonds.

The second reason is because these rates are so low, it’s foolish for the government to not borrow more money and invest it in the country’s future. Readers of this blog and my students should know that the U.S. government is not like a household and doesn’t  face the same budget constraints.  But even if you do believe that, why wouldn’t you borrow money at less than 2% and invest it in projects like infrastructure, innovation, and education that bring a rate of return well above that?  There’s no evidence that the private sector is doing any of this investing and the nation has plenty of idle capacity and idle workers that the private sector has shown it won’t hire.  Why shouldn’t a rational government borrow and invest in growing future GDP?  There’s no reason not to as long as you are sincerely committed to economic growth.

If we consider the real rate of interest (the nominal or face rate of interest minus the expected inflation rate) we get pretty much 0%.  The money is being offered to the government essentially for free, yet opponents of stimulus don’t want to borrow it. Proof of this is that TIPS bonds, which are a variety of U.S. government bond where the interest payments and principle is indexed for inflation, are trading with a negative interest rate these days.  The ironic part is that the very people opposed to government borrowing in this environment are often the same people who claim government should act more like a business.  Any rational business that had profitable investment opportunities and also had access to borrow at essentially 0% would rush to say “where do I sign to borrow?”

The Market Shrugs Off Rating Downgrade, Market Is Worried About Real Economy.

It’s now Monday morning, Aug 8.  It’s been roughly 60 hours since S&P downgraded the rating on U.S. government bonds.  In that 60 hours the media, particularly TV talking head channels, have been breathlessly awaiting what they felt was a certain market panic on Monday. Clearly interest rates would go up they said.

They were wrong.  The early results are in.   U.S. government bond prices have  gone up this morning!  That means government bond yields (interest rates) have actually gone down!  The 10 year bond actually dropped from 2.6% yield on Friday’s close to 2.48% at 9:30 am ET on Monday.

It’s really no surprise if you pay attention to real economic events and not listen to the TV media types who think talking in serious tones is a substitute for actually understanding economics.  First, serious investors, the ones who vote with their money in the market already know everything that S&P knows.  In fact, they know S&P has a really bad track record. So the rating doesn’t mean much to them.

What does matter is what choices or alternatives they have for investing their money.  Right now, the signs from the real economy in both the U.S. and Europe are grim.  Europe is struggling to achieve any growth outside Germany with several major economies actually declining due to their governments’ embrace of budgetary austerity.  The U.K. is on the ragged edge of another recession, again due to government cutbacks. The U.S. is barely registering postive growth with only 0.8% growth rate in the first half of 2011.  It’s clear, too, from the debt ceiling debate that the U.S. won’t be seeing much stimulus anytime soon and likely will join the Europeans in austerity budget cutting. Cutting that will only slow the economy further and possibly drive another recession.  So what theses investors know is that economic growth isn’t likely and that’s bad for stocks.  Stock markets aren’t the place to be now.

Further, Europe is continuing it’s slow-motion debt default crisis issues.  In the past week or so the crisis has spread beyond Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. Now it’s Italy and Spain too.  Even AAA-rated France is finding it’s bonds trading at significantly raised interest rates.  Now the debt crises in Europe are real problems because the nations inside the Euro zone don’t have control over their own currency, they don’t have a central bank, and they borrow in some other currency (Euro) rather than one of their own.  This is unlike the U.S.  The problem is the uncertainty the debt crises in Europe are creating.  The global financial and economic system is once again showing great signs of weakness, fragility, and uncertainty – just like 2007 and 2008.

When uncertainty abounds and about the only sure thing is that growth will be weak at best, it’s time to put your money in something safe and wait it out.  The safest thing in the world (in any volume) is still U.S. government bonds.  So what we have is investors moving into U.S. government bonds because they don’t want to be in anything else.  Everything else is too risky.  So we get increased demand for U.S. bonds and that lowers interest rates on those bonds. This is what financial analysts and economists call a “flight to safety”.

The S and P Downgrade Decision Stinks of Politics and Corruption.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism (an unusually good source of very in-depth, timely commentary) offers some strong evidence and analysis of how the S&P decision to downgrade the U.S. debt stinks.  I’ve already talked about how it’s really irrelevant at the economic level and how it’s not likely to change things substantially.  I’ve also written about how S&P doesn’t have a very good track record.

But Yves, who has extensive connections on Wall Street and in the trading/banking community, brings two other aspects to light. First, this downgrade, along with the threatened downgrade of a few state governments earlier this past week, was leaked before the announcement.  The proper procedure is to make such announcements after the close of markets and to not allow any leaks.  Leaks constitute insider information.  They let selected individuals make profits because they know what’s coming.  For example, as Yves suggests, if some traders or banks or others were told in advance, even just a few hours ahead that a downgrade announcement would be made, they could make millions.  How?  They could either place orders, particularly using derivatives, in anticipation of the move.  After the prices of bonds change due to the announcement, you sell.  But there’s a simpler way.  Just place an investment bet using the derivatives that based on the volume of trading.  Any announcement is certain to trigger a higher volume of trading.  Leaking news of announcements is an easy way for S&P to enrich it’s favorite friends. Yves notes:

Treasury yields fell 50 basis points last week despite the risk of a downgrade being very well telegraphed. S&P had asked for $4 trillion in deficit reductions (it tried disavowing that number) and made it clear it was going off to brood and might take action. And this market response took place with S&P leaking like a sieve. Not only was Twitter alight early on Friday with rumors of the downgrade, but some parties purportedly got the memo earlier in the week. From a credible source via e-mail:

Good friend passed on a note from a hedge-funder who thinks the S&P not only fudged its figures for today’s downgrade, but leaked it in-advance earlier this week to a few hedge fund insiders who made a killing off it. That would square with the fake “states face bankruptcy” panic scam earlier this year, which made a few people a lot of fast money.

I assume they did not make a directional bet but went long vol.

So what if bond yields go up 50 basis points on Monday, which is normally a monster move? It just puts us back to where we were last Monday.

So why didn’t investors dump Treasuries with this threat hanging over the market’s head? Maybe investors have wised up and realize the ratings are worthless (more on that shortly).

Yves goes on to explain a bigger, stinkier aspect to the downgrade.  It’s politics and a possible we’ll-help-Republicans-if-they-protect-us deal between Republicans and S&P.

Jane Hamsher highlights the hypocrisy of the S&P rating, since it shifted from its 2010 rationale of demographic stress to a February 2011 focus on entitlements. And it didn’t bat an eye at the $2.6 trillion deficit-increasing Bush tax cut extension at year end 2010. More from Hamsher:

Neither Moody’s nor Fitch downgraded US debt at this time. And S&P can’t quite come up with a consistent answer about why they are out there by themselves. It’s like they looked at a public opinion poll, decided that there was no way anyone would argue with “partisan bickering” as a justification, and crossed their fingers that nobody would actually question what it is that they were justifying.

S&P is playing footsie with the Republicans, who are passing bills to relieve them of the legal liabilities that Dodd-Frank exposes them to — even as the SEC is investigating S&P for fraud in the mortgage meltdown.

Some said that S&P wouldn’t dare downgrade the US debt. But it was all over four days ago when Pimco’s Mohammed El-Erian said that S&P was “under pressure” on the US rating.

If you didn’t happen to catch Devan Sharma’s testimony before the House Financial Services Committee last week, this was what he said:

As Dodd-Frank rulemaking progresses, we believe it is critical that new regulations preserve the ability of NRSROs to make their own analytical decisions without fear that those decisions will be later second-guessed if the future does not turn out to be as anticipate or that in publishing a potential controversial view, they will expose themselves to regulatory retaliation.

Pressures of that sort could only undermine the significant progress we believe has been made over the years by rating agencies and regulators alike to provide the market with transparent, quality and generally independent views about the credit-worthiness of issuers and their securities. I thank you for the opportunity to participate in the hearing and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

“Pressure.”

That’s what Rep. Randy Neugebauer, chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee said on April 29, when he requested documents from the administration: Treasury officials “may have exerted too much pressure on S&P.” The Republicans were already laying the tracks for S&P’s defense in April.

Here are a few more dots to connect the timeline:

April 18: Mitt Romney: “The Obama presidency was downgraded today.”
April 20: Mitt Romney: “Standard & Poor’s, one of the rating agencies, just downgraded their view of the future for America…If you will, they downgraded the Obama presidency.”
July 15: WSJ — “The Obama downgrade.”

They’ve been cooking this one for a while. S&P will defend themselves from the accusation of overt partisan manipulation by claiming the Treasury “pressured” them not to downgrade US debt. The media will focus on what Geithner did or didn’t say during his meetings with S&P in March and April. Nobody will ask about the ridiculous excuses S&P has made for the downgrades, or the fact that they are trying to wreck the American economy just as they did the British economy by playing God with their austerity prescriptions.

People are focused on the market implications of the downgrade, but that isn’t what this is about. It’s about a President who will now be relentlessly tagged with responsibility for a rating given by a disgraced organization whose victims should have liquidated them long ago.

As Politico reported, White House officials feared a downgrade more than they feared default.

This stinks.  I have only quoted the a small part of this story.  I urge readers to go to nakedCapitalism and read the whole article.  This whole downgrade by S&P is politics.  S&P is being used (quite enthusiastically with their cooperation) by bankers and politicians who desire to dismantle the social democratic state.

 

 

 

U.S. Government Debt Downgraded by S&P. What a Farce. And Non-Issue.

Yesterday after the U.S. markets closed, Standard & Poor’s downgraded their credit rating on U.S. government bonds.  Previously, the U.S. government had enjoyed for over 70 years the highest possible rating:  AAA.  Now it is “only” going to be AA+.  We should note that the other two major bond-ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch’s still rate U.S. debt as AAA.  So what does this mean?  Does it reflect poorly on the U.S.?  Not really. It’s all a farce and it reflects poorly on Standard & Poor’s.

There are many reports in the news, especially in local newspapers and by non-economics reporters, to the effect that this downgrade means higher interest rates.  Some have even suggested that everyone in the U.S. including individuals and corporations and states will pay higher interest rates.  That’s all nonsense.  Not only is a national government not like a household or firm, but bond ratings for governments don’t work like credit ratings for individuals. If you credit score as an individual (those things called FICO scores), then when your credit rating is downgraded you pay higher interest rates for car loans, mortgages, and credit cards.  When governments get downgraded, especially from AAA to only AA+, it doesn’t directly affect interest rates.  Government debt interest rates aren’t really “set” by anybody.  Government debt interest rates are the result of market auctions of the bonds.  If demand for the bonds increases, then prices rise.  In bonds, prices are the inverse of the yield, or interest rate.  When prices go up, then interest rates have effectively gone down.

Lately U.S. Treasury yields (interest rates) have been dropping.  They’ve been dropping regardless of whether you compare now to 3 months ago or just 2 weeks ago.  They’ve been dropping regardless of which maturity (3 month, 6 mo, 2, 5, 10,or 30 year) you look at.  This means that bond prices have been rising. That means there is more demand for U.S. Treasuries.  Not exactly the story of default and risk that S&P maintains, right?  Right.

U.S. Treasury Yields

Maturity Last
Yield
Previous
Yield
3 Month 0.01% 0.01%
2 Year 0.22% 0.25%
5 Year 1.25% 1.13%
10 Year 2.56% 2.46%
30 Year 3.82% 3.72%
Data as of Aug 5 via http://money.cnn.com/data/bonds
So what does this really mean?  The best, clearest, most direct answers I’ve seen are from Wall Street Journal blogger Mark Gongloff.  Here are some of his answers to questions:

Q:What’s the difference between AAA and AA+? That doesn’t sound so bad.

A: It’s not so bad — and there’s not much difference. Technically, AA+ is considered “high grade” credit, while AAA is “prime.” The likelihood of getting paid back by a AA+ credit is considered “very strong,” while a AAA credit’s likelihood of paying you back is “extremely strong.” See the difference? Me neither.

And the U.S. is a special case, given its status as the world’s largest economy and printer of the world’s reserve currency. If your personal credit score falls, then you will almost certainly have to pay more to borrow. The U.S. can get away with a slight credit-rating downgrade without having to pay more to borrow. In fact, many other large, developed economies, including Japan, Canada and Australia, have lost AAA ratings in the past and not had to pay more to borrow in the long run.

Q:Luxembourg is rated AAA. Is the U.S. really a worse credit risk than Luxembourg?

A: No way. Luxembourg is a great country and a perfectly sound credit risk, but it lacks many of the advantages of the U.S., including the aforementioned economy and reserve currency, along with a very large printing press for that currency. If anything, this downgrade exposes some of the other discrepancies in ratings around the world. Should bonds issued by the European Financial Stability Facility, the entity set up to help bail out European sovereigns, really have a AAA credit rating, for example?

Q:Won’t some investors be forced to sell because of even this small downgrade?

A: Maybe, but not very many. Given the liquidity and relative safety of Treasurys, many regulators and money managers put Treasurys in a special category apart from rating considerations. Other managers are considering tweaking their rules to allow them to keep Treasurys.

U.S. banking regulators have confirmed that the downgrade will not force banks, which have big Treasury holdings, to raise any more capital as a cushion against losses. Short-term Treasury ratings weren’t affected, so money-market funds won’t have to sell

Q:What about foreign investors? Surely they’ll sell.

A: Probably, but they may not sell much. They’ve been trying to diversify their holdings for years, but they keep running up against an impregnable hurdle: They’ve got nowhere else to go. For better or worse, Treasurys are the largest fixed-income asset class in the world, by far, and the likelihood of default is next to nothing. The dollar is, for now at least, the world’s reserve currency, meaning foreign central banks will have to keep buying Treasurys. There’s really no other alternative available.

Q:What is the likely effect on interest rates, then?

A: Very hard to say, given all the cross-currents affecting markets right now. In a perverse sense, this downgrade has come at just about the best possible time for the U.S., despite the turmoil in the markets and anxiety about the economy. Those very uncertainties have driven investors around the world — including foreign central banks — to the safety of U.S. Treasurys, pushing U.S. borrowing costs to nearly their lowest levels in generations. So any increase in rates will come off a very low base. If interest rates rise half a percentage point, for example, that might put 10-year Treasury yields at 3% — still an extraordinarily low rate.

What’s more, the market has been bracing for this downgrade for a while, particularly on Friday, when rumors of it were widespread. It’s possible that most of the increase in yields has already happened. In any event, the history of Japan, et al, suggests that a downgrade might have no long-term impact on borrowing costs at all. Investors will likely respond more to inflation pressures, the direction of short-term interest rates and economic growth than to what one or more rating agencies say.

Remember that S&P are the same folks that told us that bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages were AAA a few years ago.  They are the same people that rated Lehman Brothers debt as “A” the night before Lehman declared bankruptcy. They are the same people that downgraded Japan over 10 years ago and yet Japan still pays lower interest rates on government debt than the U.S. despite having a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 200%, more than twice the U.S.  S&P has no special knowledge of the U.S.’s financial position that you don’t have access to.  They get all their data from the news too.

I really do not expect much direct impact from S&P’s decision on financial markets.  It may cause some temporary churn and increase volatility as a few funds might find they are legally required to sell because they must legally only own AAA bonds, but event that’s not likely.  I’m not alone in my prediction here either. Yves Smith at NakedCapitalism and others share my view.  Fortunately banks have been told that the rating change will not affect how bank capital requirements are calculated. Quoting the Wall Street Journal:

Late Friday, federal regulators said the downgrade wouldn’t affect risk-based capital requirements for U.S. banks—the cushion banks must hold to protect against losses. The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other federal banking regulators said in a statement the lowering “will not change” the risk weights for Treasury securities and other securities issued or guaranteed by the U.S. government or government agencies.

If you believe S&P, then you must believe that Luxembourg and Leichtenstein are more secure, more powerful economies with a brighter future than the United States.

But What About National Debt-to-GDP Ratio? Not a Problem, Really

In the comments to my post on the extraordinarily weak 2nd qtr 2011 GDP numbers a reader asks for my thoughts about debt-to-GDP ratio and “how can we afford more stimulus”?  Since my response will be a little long and others might be interested, I’ll post it here.

Reader AZLeader asks:

Here are some other GDP indicators I’d value your comments on…

Government spending now is somewhere around 28% of GDP, well above the 60 year average of 18.6% or so.

Spending as a % of GDP is indeed up, but it’s not primarily as a result of discretionary spending going up.  In other words, the so-called Stimulus spending bill didn’t do the damage.  The ratio is up in large part because the denominator (GDP) shrunk.  We lost a huge chunk of GDP.  That has a double effect on the ratio.  When the economy goes into recession and doesn’t recover it reduces the denominator by a big chunk.  But a recession also automatically increases government spending through automatic stabilizers.  Spending on unemployment compensation, welfare, Medicaid, SS disability claims, etc. automatically increases, thus increasing the numerator as well.

Krugman shows this graph from the St.Louis Fed using non-partisan Congressional Budget Office data that compares the changes in spending to changes in the potential GDP over 60+ years.  Potential GDP is the GDP that would be produced if we were at full employment.  It indicates our capacity to produce if we choose to put all our resources (labor) to work.  Any value that’s above 1.0 indicates that spending is rising faster than potential GDP. A value less than 1.0 indicates that spending is might be increasing in total dollars, but it’s increasing less than what the potential GDP is.  When the value is less than 1.0 it means that government spending is having a contractionary effect on the economy. As you can see, the issue in the last few years is that despite the increase in dollars of spending, it’s been peanuts compared to the damage done by the banks’ financial crisis and the ensuing recession with high unemployment.  This part of the reason why I’ve (and a lot  of others) have said the stimulus program was too little and too short.

Government deficit spending last year was about 10.9% of GDP, way over the sustainable comfort level of 2.6%.

There’s two issues here.  First, There’s nothing that says 2.6% deficit as % of actual GDP is “sustainable” and greater than that isn’t.  “Sustainable” in the sense that we can operate at that level indefinitely might be less than 2.6% or it might be greater than 2.6%.  For private sector entities (you,me, households, corporations, state governments) there’s a real meaning to “sustainable”.  But that’s because ultimately our spending ability is limited by the combination of our earning and borrowing ability.  Borrow too much and eventually lenders say “I don’t think you can pay it back, so pay higher interest rates, the debt begins to spiral up, etc.”.  But for a sovereign national government that creates it’s own currency, borrows using bonds denominated in that currency, and doesn’t strap itself to some fixed exchange rate system (like gold standard), there is no financial limit to the borrowing.  All of the nations that are having debt crises now (or in the past) have either strapped themselves to somebody else’s currency (Greece & Ireland with the Euro, Argentina in 2000 with the dollar) OR they borrowed their money in somebody else’s currency (less developed countries borrow in $ not their own currencies) OR they have  a fixed exchange rate (under the old gold standard 80 years ago).

What matters for “sustainability” is the ability of the economy to produce.  Does it have the  real resources to produce what the government is willing to spend on?  In this sense we see that even a 1-2% deficit-to-GDP ratio might be too high if we were at full employment and had no excess resources.  But the U.S. today has more than 10% of it’s labor force (even more since many would be workers aren’t looking) sitting on it’s hands doing nothing.

Another way of looking at the sustainability and desirability of deficit spending is to compare the interest rate the government has to pay to borrow now vs. the long-term growth rate of the economy.  If interest rates on government bonds were in the 6-8% range or higher (like in Greece and Italy), then large deficit spending might not be sustainable. But the U.S. is borrowing at near record low interest rates, less than 1% for a year.   Borrow at low rates, spend to invest in those things that grow your economy and get paid back later in larger GDP.

That brings me to my second point on “sustainability”.  The budget, government spending, is dynamic.  What GDP is the greatest determinant of what the deficit actually ends up being.  The budget discussions in Washington about 10 year projections are usually static projections.  They assume they can change the spending amounts while keeping the projected path of GDP the same.  Doesn’t work that way.  Running a large deficit relative to GDP, the kind of stimulus I think we need, will raise the deficit-to-GDP number immediately, but the ratio will then automatically decline. Again it’s the automatic stabilizers mentioned earlier.  As people go back to work and unemployment declines, the GDP rises faster.  Those people also pay taxes, so government revenues increase.  Spending in the form of unemployment comp, welfare, disability payments, Medicaid, etc all drop as people go back to work.  The deficit automatically shrinks relative to GDP.  This was how Clinton managed to produce a narrow government surplus at the end of this second term.  He eliminated the deficit completely.  It wasn’t by cutting spending. It was because the economy grew enough to reach full employment.

Government debt is just under 100% of GDP, the highest level in our economy that we’ve seen since WWII where it briefly spiked well above that.

Yeah, so what? Japan’s debt is around 200% of GDP and has been for over a decade.  Government debt is not like private debt.  It doesn’t have to be paid off. Government bonds are really just like government issued paper currency that pays interest.  This is why banks and investors love government bonds.  It’s a way to hold large amounts of cash and still earn interest.  A growing economy also needs a growing money supply and a growing supply of government bonds.  In the early part of this past decade (I forget the year), Australia was running a surplus for a few years.  It was paying down it’s national debt.  The bankers went to the Australian Treasury and the Australian central bank and asked the government to borrow and issue bonds anyway because they needed a larger volume of bonds in existence in order to run the banks.

Through “Intergovernmental Holdings” the U.S. government owns about 1/3rd of its own debt.

Yes.  $4.6 trillion, approximately 1/3,  of the $14.3 trillion total US government debt is “owned” by various other parts of the government.  The biggest chunk is the Social Security trust fund, $2.7 trillion.  The rest is in various other government “trust funds” such as Railroad employees retirement fund, government employees pension plans, highway building trust fund (paid by gas taxes), etc.  These funds reflect special taxes or fees that have been collected that are by law dedicated to a particular purpose, but the government hasn’t spent the money on that purpose  yet.  The accumulation of money in these funds (think of them as pre-payments of special taxes) must by law then be “invested” in the safest interest bearing assets available, which happen to be U.S. government bonds.  Let’s take a brief look at one of these funds: the Social Security trust fund.  The way SS works, dedicated SS payroll taxes are collected each month to pay for this month’s benefits.  (FICA taxes).  Obviously we want benefits to be relatively constant month-by-month.  Grandma wants to know just how much her check will be next month.  But the payroll taxes collected each month vary greatly. So, by the original law, SS Admin was supposed to make sure it always had enough liquid cash on hand to pay 1 year’s anticipated benefits.  This is the trust fund.  In the 1980’s the trust fund was too low – nearly depleted because benefits had been increased.  So payroll taxes were increased.  When the trust fund had fully recovered (circa 1991), the decision was made to continue to collect extra payroll taxes from workers in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in anticipation of the baby boom.  The current $2.7 trillion trust fund represents way more than the law said was necessary.  It represents the baby boomers having already pre-paid their own retirements.

These intra-governmental bonds cannot be traded on the public market, but they are regular debt obligations of the Treasury nonetheless.  To not pay these bonds is to renege on previous promises that people have relied upon.  It also might not be legal, although that is outside my experise.

In addition to the $4.3 intragovernmental holdings, there’s $1.6 trillion in government bonds held by The Federal Reserve.  These are ordinary bonds that The Fed bought from banks (that’s where banks get reserves).  Any interest paid on these bonds goes to The Fed who then sends it back to the Treasury as Fed profits.  This amount could easily be reduced by maybe 1/2 without consequences.

Given these constraints, where can we get the money to fund spending programs like the “stimulus” to create jobs and recover the economy?

As I attempted to describe above, it’s a fallacy to think of the government as having a financial constraint on it’s resources.  Government (again, a sovereign, fiat money, floating exchange rate, government that borrows in it’s own currency) faces no financial constraint.  Government is not like a household no matter how often misguided politicians say it.  You, I, households, firms, corporations, and state and local governments must obtain cash from either income or borrowing before we spend it.  Government does not face that constraint.  Government defines and creates the reserves that can become our spending money.  It has a monopoly on the creation of money.  And money today can be created as fast a somebody at the central bank can type (although we may not want to create it that fast).

Let’s consider what actually happens when the government spends.  The Treasury writes a check and sends it to a contractor, or SS beneficiary, or someone.  That check is drawn on an account at The Fed Reserve bank.  Let’s suppose you get the check.  You got income from the government. You take the check to your bank, let’s say it’s Chase.  You deposit it in your checking account.  You go out and spend the money by using your debit card to buy dinner, thereby helping to create a job and employ a waiter and kitchen staff.  But what happens at the bank?  Chase takes your check and sends it to The Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve takes the government check and credits Chase’s account at The Fed.  This creates bank reserves.  The Federal Reserve has no limit on how much bank reserves they can create.  They can create all they want.  In the barbarous old days of the gold standard (before 1971), The Fed would have had to make sure it had enough gold on hand before issuing any reserves.  No such limit now.

So why doesn’t the government just spend endlessly with no limit?  Well, there’s no financial constraint on the government spending, but there’s a real resource constraint.  When the government attempts to increase deficit spending it is in effect placing orders for work to be done, things to be produced, and people to be employed (you do the same thing when you spend).  As long as there are unemployed resources to be put to work, the deficit spending is OK.  It stimulates more activity.  But if there are no idle resources then increased deficit spending will produce inflation because the government would be bidding against everybody else for resources.  At nearly 10% unemployment we have plenty of idle resources and that’s why there’s no threat of inflation despite the worries of those who don’t understand the gold standard ended 40 years ago.

There’s one other aspect of deficit spending that’s important.  This is not the result of theory, but rather is pure accounting.  I’ll just give a very brief mention of it here, but there’s a full tutorial here by Randall Wray.  A one page view of this idea is here.  Basically, government deficits are the mirror of the private sector.  There’s three “balances” that must add up to zero.  There’s the government spending vs. taxes balance, called the budget deficit.  There’s the question of whether the private sector (all households and firms together) are accumulating financial assets.  This is called “net private financial wealth”.  It’s the difference between what our private incomes each year and our private spending.  If we spend less than our income, then we are accumulating net financial assets, or in plain language, we’re putting money away in our bank accounts and investment accounts.  There’s a third balance which is the external capital account balance.  Basically it’s like the private net financial asset accumulation except it records how much foreigners are accumulating U.S. denominated financial assets.  If imports are greater than exports (trade deficit), then foreigners are collecting U.S. financial assets, typically government bonds.

Now there’s no way the private sector can create net any new financial assets. If I loan money to you, yes, I create a financial asset on my books.  But you’ve created an exactly offsetting private debt on your books.  In aggregate, the private sector cannot create new financial assets.  That’s because financial assets are things like money, currency, and bonds.  And they can only be  created by government. They can also be gotten from foreigners by selling more exports than imports, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.  By accounting, these three balances must equal zero.  This means that when the government runs a deficit it creates net financial assets that the private sector can accumulate.  If the government creates a surplus.

In simple language, this means that, assuming we run a trade deficit, that a government deficit means the private sector can accumulate financial assets.  If the government runs a surplus, though, it means the private sector must go deeper into debt itself.  See the answer to question 1 here for another explanation. There’s a dramatic historical graph that beautifully illustrates this relationship over the last 60 years.  Unfortunately, I can’t put my hands (mouse, really) on it right now.  When I find it again I’ll update.  The point is that government surpluses, the kind that the Tea Party and many Republicans claim they want as being responsible, can only happen if the private sector as a whole goes deeper into debt.  It’s private debt that got us into the Great Recession/Financial Crisis, not public debt.  In fact, the Clinton surpluses were a small part of it because to create those Clinton surpluses the private sector had to go deeper into private debt – which we did. It was called mortgages, corporate debt, credit cards, student loans, etc.

A long response, but I hope it was worth it and helps.