Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.

crowding-out_11

Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.

crowding-out_3

Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.

crowding-out_21

Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”

Ferguson:

One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

100 responses so far

100 Responses to “The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained”

  1. cbowieon 12 Mar 2014 at 2:41 am

    4.In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?
    Government deficit and debt will have to be paid back someday, and if this does not start soon, the responsibility of this will fall on the next generation. Also, if the government keeps borrowing at the rate it is now, federal debt will eventually become too big to handle, which will have serious implications on the next generation.

  2. munwinon 25 Mar 2014 at 12:20 am

    Why do you think the American government has such a huge budget deficit this year? Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.

    I think that the new fiscal policy is why the American government has such a huge budget deficit this year. Obama’s plan is to spend $880 billion of government money from the bond market to fill America’s recessionary gap. This may not even be enough to actually fill the gap and yet it still puts America’s government into a huge budget deficit, which is bad for the economy as a whole because it leads to sustainability issues.

    How does the issuance of new bonds by the American government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?

    The American government supplies bonds and the public, commercial banks and foreigners buy them. Due to the fact that the American government’s new plan uses these bonds, there are less bonds available to private households and firms and hence less money available to them too.

    Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in American government bonds? Why/why not?

    I definitely think that this is a possibility. I think this because the American government has acted somewhat carelessly and irrationally by implementing this new fiscal policy and investors will therefore be hesitant to buy bonds due to their inconsistent availability. They will therefore eventually completely lose faith in the American government’s bonds if the government continues to act in the way that it is currently.

    In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

    The budget deficit will not create that many problems now because the recessionary gap will be substantially filled but more problems will come about in the future when the economy is unsustainable due to a lack of funds available and future economic problems will therefore be more difficult to fix. By the time that these issues come into play, today’s teenagers will be responsible for running the economy and will be politicians and investors in the equation and they will therefore be the ones who have to deal with the problems that were created by the current American government.

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