Could this be the beginning of the end for our markets' last great bubble?
An auction today of $34 billion in 5-year U.S. government bonds didn't go over so well, fetching prices well under what analysts were expecting.
Oh I know, it may not seem like that big of a deal. The debt still got sold, unlike an unsuccessful auction for 40-year bonds in the UK. The fact that our auction resulted in yields (which move in the opposite direction of the price of bonds) of 1.849% versus the expected 1.801% seems like rather unimportant, inside-baseball type of stuff.
And if it's just one bad auction, then it may not be important (Edit: Demand for an auction of $40 billion in two-year U.S. notes Tuesday was quite strong). But if this weak demand is a signal of things to come, then we are in for a world of hurt.
In the past ten years, we have had a dot-com bubble, a housing bubble, a credit bubble and an oil bubble, but I have contended they will all pale in comparison to the government debt bubble we are now experiencing.
Think about it: The U.S. government, despite owing $10 trillion in debt, despite incurring an additional $1.3 trillion deficit in 2008 (a number which will certainly be crushed this year and likely for years to come if the Obama plan even gets partly realized), has been up until now able to sell almost as much of the debt as it wishes to at extremely low interest rates.
The Pollyannas will say that there's a good reason for the low cost of our debt, and why that situation won't change anytime soon. The big concern right now is deflation, not inflation. Other countries have at least as many problems as we do, and too much savings to boot. They need to put their money somewhere, and the U.S. markets are still the world's best, safest place to invest money. They own too much of our debt to start selling now - it would only lead to mutually assured destruction.
"This time it's different." To me, there are no four more dangerous words. It defies the laws of economics and of logic to expect that a nation awash in debt with miles and miles of higher and higher deficits on the horizon will be able to lend more money at virtually zero interest for an extended period of time.
The only question is when do the floodgates open? We've heard rumblings of complaints - notably, on the record and not anonymous - from Chinese officials about our country's economic situation and increasingly high levels of debt. We've seen budget deficit estimates from the CBO which far exceed the optimistic ones put together by the Obama team. And now we had a disappointing auction.
Of course, to a certain extent, debasing our currency is what the government wants. If we could control the pace of the move, some inflation would be a good thing since we're so heavily in debt (as the value of the dollar falls, that means debtors owe less in 'real' terms). But it is highly likely that the transition would come too fast and too quick for our economy and our policies to adjust without experiencing significant dislocations and subsequent pain.
I can almost guarantee you that if government debt is a bubble and it does pop, you won't see our foreign lenders gently exiting the market. It will be a stampede.
And what will be the implications of such a scenario? Believe it or not, they are likely far worse than anything we have seen so far. Interest rates will soar, as will inflation. Savers will be crushed. Investment will grind to a halt. An already weak economy on its knees would get weaker. We will be forced to renegotiate our obligations with foreign lenders, most notably the Chinese.
The end result could be no less than the end of U.S. hegemony.