Monetizing our Debt

by Robert Maynard

According to the Independent Institute’s “Government Cost Calculator,” the Fed has monetized 50% of our debt since 2009.  To get an idea of how big of a problem this is, it might be useful to turn to Jerry Bowyer’s March 29 2012 article in Forbes online entitled “Gold, Money Creation, and the Monetization of Debt.”  In searching for an explanation of why the price of gold was rising so quickly, Bowyer zeroed in on the problems being created by monetizing out debt:

It seems that gold investors are not just concerned about how much money the Fed has created, nor are they principally concerned about how much money the Fed-wannabes around the world have created; they are worried about something else, and they might have good reason to be. What they are worried about, and what seems to be driving current gold prices, is that public debt levels have risen to the point where the debt will be paid off in highly debased currency. In other words, they’re afraid of what is called ‘debt monetization’.

Debts are monetized when governments decide to use their monetary authorities (in the U.S. context, that is the Fed) to create new money which is then lent to the government. This tends to happen when the government has borrowed up to its capacity and decides to continue borrowing above its credit capacity. When that happens, private lenders are no longer willing to take the chance of lending to an over-indebted government. At that point, governments often attempt to verbally intimidate private lenders, especially banks which are subject to very high levels of government oversight. Sellers of bonds are verbally assaulted as vigilantes and speculators, and in more extreme cases attacked for their ethnicity or religion. Jews have been frequent targets of this type of attack.

In some cases regulators require financial institutions to lend to the government anyway, often for reasons other than the stated ones. For example, recent changes in regulation associated with Dodd-Frank and the Basel Accords purport to act in the interest of financial stability by requiring banks to hold larger proportions of ‘Tier 1 capital’, such as Treasury Bonds, for the purpose of risk reduction. But the problem is that this public Tier 1 capital is in many cases riskier than, for example, the corporate bonds which it replaces. That’s one reason why the European sovereign debt crisis has been so devastating to the private banking system, because earlier versions of risk reduction forced extremely risky public bonds down the throats of the private system. What’s even more maddening is that after suffering through all of that, we still have to sit through political sermonizing about market failure in the banking system.

So, once private lenders have been brow-beaten, and then eventually law-beaten into buying as much public debt as they can possible stand, the rapacious public spending beast’s hunger remains un-slaked. That’s where monetization comes into play. Gigantic piles of money are simply created and then shoveled into the mouth of the Leviathan.

Our debt problem is serious and monetizing it only makes it worse.

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