The financial media and Washington have been telling us for a couple months about a crisis that would occur if the Bush era tax cuts expired and automatic spending increases took place. They labeled this event the "fiscal cliff" and left it up to our "heroic" Congress to save us from falling off it. Fortunately for us, the problem that was initially created by Congress was fixed by them at the very last minute on Jan. 1. And so it appears that the American people have been saved from the pain of going off the cliff. Or have they?
I know it sounds political to say that "America doesn't have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem", but please allow the facts to guide our discussion. Since 2009, the federal government has continuously spent over $1 trillion more than it received in yearly revenue. That's irresponsible fiscal behavior. No stream of increased revenue could have made up that difference...even a 100 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans.
In fiscal year 2009, we experienced an economy moving into a recessionary period. As economic activity receded, so did revenues. What needed to happen that year was an equal decrease in government spending. However, the opposite occurred. Under the Presidencies of both George W. Bush (autumn of 2008) and Barack Obama (spring of 2009), the federal government grew by 18 percent, due in large part to the TARP program and the expensive stimulus plan of Obama and Congressional Democrats. In that fiscal year, we also saw a decrease of 17 percent of revenues (something that was a result of the recession as mentioned above).
Deficits are not just fancy words without tangible meaning. Deficits are taxes. Or more appropriately: future taxpayer liabilities. There is no magical solution to overspending that does not come back and harm the taxpayer. If the government sells its debt (treasuries) in the marketplace, the debt must be repaid at some point in the future. Conversely, if the debt is monetized (printed by the Federal Reserve, i.e. quantitative easing) the debt is repaid through inflation. This generally means a loss of purchasing power with our consumer dollars, but also may mean a reduced interest rate on our savings and investments.
It's quite evident that what I'm detailing in this article was not part of the "fiscal cliff" solution. The president and Congress ended up raising tax rates on some Americans and, get this, increasing spending in order to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. What they should have done was voted against raising the debt ceiling, thus ending the long practice of deficit spending. If politicians honestly cared about the taxpayer, they would have balanced the budget now.
The phrase "kicking the can down the road" has become quite popular in today's public discourse. But that phrase has a very serious meaning to financial professionals like me. My job more often now has little to do with making my clients money in the near term, but how to protect their wealth at some point in the future. I believe an event is going to occur that will lead to the loss of America's economic superpower status.
Our federal government's debt (currently at $16.4 trillion) is a ticking time bomb. Our cost of financing this debt is relatively low compared to revenues (roughly 11 percent). But similar to countries like Greece, there comes a point where the marketplace demands a higher rate of return for the risk of investing in the debt. When rates on our treasuries start to climb, we will encounter a real fiscal cliff. Each year, about $2-3 trillion in debt matures or accumulates through deficit spending, which will fall prey to new interest rates. That means the financing of the debt will grow rapidly and start consuming a much larger share of the government's revenues.
Congress and the president may have saved us from a visible tax increase this year, but I can assure you their reckless spending will be a burden to us all in the future. Unless we change things now, I can assure you this country is facing a fiscal cliff far greater than the one we supposedly just avoided.
Duesenberg is a Woodbury resident and a local investment adviser