Turn on the TV and this is what you'll hear: The US budget is heading for a fiscal cliff. If a deal isn't reaching in Congress by the end of this year, a combination of automatic tax hikes and budget cuts will sink America into economic depression. There is no escape.
Of course, my readers know that the fiscal cliff is merely an example of the piper having to be paid. The problem isn't the bill, but that we ran it up so high in the first place. Any deal to avoid the cliff by borrowing even more money may allow the piper to keep playing a while longer, but when the music finally stops, the next fiscal cliff will be that much larger.
My readers also know that there are several ways for investors to avoid the cliff altogether. Perhaps the most secure is buying precious metals. However, given what we know, it may seem confusing that the spot prices of gold and silver have been moving sideways.
However, these headline prices have largely concealed a more important indicator: physical bullion sales are booming.
An Under-the-Radar Rally
The figures are astounding. For US Gold Eagle coins, mint sales are up some 150% from the QE3 announcement on September 13th. Despite what the spot prices show, there has been a tremendous surge in people buying physical gold.
But why hasn't this translated into higher spot prices?
It seems clear that the spot prices of both gold and silver are being driven right now by a large pool of institutional capital moving into and out of instruments like commodity ETFs. The movements have been predictable: When there is a sign of a deal coming out of Washington, the spot prices move up. If negotiations are faltering, there is instead a major selloff.
Physical bullion investors are a different breed. We are in this market for the long haul. When I increase my physical gold and silver holdings, I do it because I see the long-term fundamental picture for the US getting worse.
Getting a Read on the Bullion Bull
While the ETF speculators are trying to anticipate the market's - and each other's - immediate reaction to whatever 11th hour deal is struck, I believe physical bullion investors are sending a clear signal: this whole debate is out of order.
A J.P. Morgan study concluded that 82% of the hit to GDP if we go over the fiscal cliff would be related to tax increases, not spending cuts. And if the legislators reach a deal? It will only result in more tax increases and much fewer spending cuts. These guys just don't get it.
Looking back to the debt ceiling debate of August 2011, we saw big movements into physical gold there as well. What investors are concluding as they hear these grand debates is that whatever the result, the budget, the dollar, and the taxpayer will lose.
They are deciding to get off this runaway train. Because the real fiscal cliff isn't coming on December 31st - it is coming when there is a global flight from the US dollar.
The Real Fiscal Cliff
The Democrats are complaining that the fiscal cliff imposes too steep demands on those who receive entitlements. Republicans are trying to protect the military budget. What no one seems to want to address is what happens as foreign creditors increasingly decide to stop financing this bonanza.
To a large extent, this is already happening. China has already become a net-seller of Treasuries and is diverting more of its reserves into gold. The Chinese government recently approved banks holding gold as a reserve asset and made it easier for banks to trade gold amongst themselves.
While Japan and other Keynes-drunk governments have filled some of the gap with increased purchases, a supermajority of new issues are being bought directly by the Fed. That was the idea behind QE3 Plus, as described in last month's commentary.
Because of the acute trauma in Europe and certain institutional mandates to hold Treasuries, much of this new inflation is being absorbed. This has caused what may be the most dangerous of situations. It has allowed the inflationists to paint people like me as the boy who cried wolf. It seems to them that no matter how irresponsible Congress and the Fed are, we are immune from economic consequences.
In reality, all this money printing is like pulling back a spring. Pent up inflationary forces are building, and when they are unleashed, the debate will be over faster than they can say "oops."
The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play
Those buying into physical gold and silver see this inevitability and are getting prepared. We believe there is no sense playing Russian roulette with our savings. Every time Washington raises that debt ceiling or announces another stimulus, it's like one more click of the trigger.
When the global markets finally wrap their heads around the scale of US insolvency, the response will be as fierce as it is rapid. In such a once-in-a-century scenario, physical gold and silver are among the few assets without counterparty risk. From the looks of the physical bullion sales charts, I'm not the only investor who has figured this out.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made news last week by proposing to transfer the Congressional prerogative to raise the debt ceiling to the President. The change would essentially do away with the meaningless debt ceiling debates that have become ritual kabuki in Washington over the past few generations. Most Republicans have dismissed the proposal as a blatant executive power grab that will significantly weaken both the Congress and the minority party. While this is certainly true, Congress will only lose a power that it has never shown the slightest courage to actually use. But in truth, the proposal has the merit of refreshing honesty. By telling U.S. taxpayers, and the world in general, that the U.S. government has no intention of ever balancing its budget or limiting its accumulation of unsustainable debt, then perhaps we can begin to have an honest discussion about our economic future.
Congress has always decided how much money the U.S. government will spend and how it will tax the citizenry to meet those obligations. Geithner's proposal will change none of that. The debt ceiling debates have been simply to authorize the U.S. Treasury to issue debt to cover the ever widening gap between what Congress spends and what it taxes. As a result, these debates have become nothing more than exercises in feigned outrage. If Congress wants to control the debt, let them do so. If they don't care, just continue on the current path. Dropping the pretense is at least more honest.
The move will also help blunt the ridiculous assertions made by those in favor of lifting the debt ceiling that doing so somehow means that the United States is taking the prudent and moral step of "paying its bills." In a press conference this week, Obama Administration Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed that by raising the ceiling, U.S. creditors will know that our government will meet its obligations. That is taking Orwellian doublethink to new heights of absurdity.
It is impossible to "pay" one's bills by borrowing more. Taking out new loans to retire existing debt may replace old creditors with newer, larger, creditors, but it can never be described as a real pay down. It's like paying off your Visa card with a Master Card. Paying one's bills requires that outstanding debt be diminished. In direct opposition to Carney's and Geithner's statements, the only way to force the government to actually pay its bills is to not raise the debt ceiling. But a fictitious debt limit is worse because it allows Congress to pretend that its atrocious budgeting decisions are not to blame.
Both Congress and the President readily admit that without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government will default on its obligations. This is tantamount to an admission that we lack the capacity or political will to actually repay what we have borrowed. Yet despite this, our creditors continue to loan us more money. As existing treasury bonds mature, we not only borrow the money necessary to redeem them, but we borrow it from the very people cashing them in. So it's not really like paying our Visa bill with our MasterCard, it's like paying our Visa with our Visa.
The debt ceiling itself is both an ill-conceived compromise and a relic of past governmental integrity. For its first 128 years as a republic, the United States was able to function without a debt ceiling. This was possible for the simple reason that U.S. government had no central bank and could not borrow beyond its ability to repay through taxation. And since the ability to tax is always limited by taxpayers' assets (and their extreme hostility to those who want to take them), legal gimmicks were not needed to prevent Congress from spending too freely. But the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 gave the Federal Government a potential means to borrow indefinitely by having the new bank buy its debt. Sensing this danger, the original Federal Reserve Act of 1913 prohibited the Fed from buying or holding government debt.
But just four years later the United States needed a means to raise money quickly to pay for its efforts in the First World War. The government passed an amendment to the charter to allow the Fed to purchase Treasury Bonds. Fearing (correctly) that this would create a mechanism for perpetual debt expansion, conservative lawmakers insisted that the amendment include a "debt ceiling" provision that would cap the amount that the government could borrow.
What these otherwise forward looking politicians somehow failed to grasp was that such a statutory limit was wholly meaningless, as it could be perpetually raised by future legislative action. This is exactly what has happened. The debt ceiling has been raised, with varying degrees of fanfare, every time it has been hit. This renders the law completely meaningless.
Now of course, under the pretense of fiscal responsibility, the President wants to do the most fiscally irresponsible thing imaginable -- eliminate the ceiling entirely. He hopes that doing so will send a clear and unequivocal message that America will never default on its debts. However, the message may not resonate the way the President hopes. What our creditors may actually hear is that nothing will stand in the way of America's accumulation of more debt. Such a development may be the shock therapy our creditors need to finally cut us off for good. If that occurs, interest rates in the United States could finally rise to more rational levels. A significant increase in the cost of borrowing will create the mother of all fiscal cliffs. It's too bad that Tim Geithner can't see that one coming.
Despite the breathless post-election “think pieces” that have drawn sweeping and deeply considered conclusions about the political drift of the country, at its core President Obama’s re-election is easy to understand. He essentially promised millions of middle and working class voters that if he were to be re-elected, they would receive benefits paid for by the rich. You don’t need to read a Time Magazine cover story to untangle this political strategy. Now that he has been given a second term, Obama needs to deliver the goods by raising taxes on the rich and only the rich. He will be “asking” them to pay their “fair share,” (as if “asking” and “fairness” have anything to do with it). In reality the wealthy already pay taxes at a much higher rate than average Americans and in many cases will now have to pay more than half of their income in federal, state, and local taxes.
While most people would assume that the wealthy would chafe at such a heavy burden, some affluent individuals have apparently organized spontaneously to express their willingness to help the country. In interviews and articles, these self described “Patriotic Millionaires” have implored Congress and the President to raise their taxes. They claim they can easily afford to pay a little more to save the nation from fiscal insolvency.
Conservative economists believe that an economy is most vibrant when as much money as possible is left in the private sector where it can be used for business investment and job growth. Left wing economists believe that government spending, which they term “investment,” does more good. Through this lens, it’s tempting to see the Patriotic Millionaires as well meaning Americans who have simply subscribed to a misguided economic philosophy. However, the reality may be far more sinister.
Daniel Berger, a spokesperson for the group, joined me last week on my radio show. Based on that highly charged and polarized discussion, it would be logical to conclude that the group is simply comprised of Democrat shills masquerading as patriots. Time and again Mr. Berger regurgitated Democratic talking points without the slightest ability to critically analyze his own positions. His goal was to simply create the impression that paying high taxes is patriotic. His hypocrisy was not hard to uncover.
He admitted on the show that he used an accountant to prepare his own taxes primarily to ensure that all the forms were filled out properly. Mr. Berger is a highly successful attorney purportedly earning over one million dollars per year. But apparently even that level of expertise does not qualify him to confidently fill out a 1040. Of course, the real reason he hires an accountant is to minimize his taxes. He, like every other American with an ounce of honesty, wants to make sure that he pays as little tax as the law allows. He hires an accountant to make sure no deductions or loopholes go unexploited. Under normal circumstances, there would be nothing wrong with that. But when you publicly claim that it’s your patriotic duty to pay more taxes, it’s hypocritical to simultaneous pay an accountant to make sure that you actually pay as little tax as legally permissible!
He revealed to me that it wasn’t so much his own taxes that concerned him but other millionaires that he is convinced unfairly pay a lower rate than he does. As a lawyer, his income comes in the form of fees. Therefore he pays most of his federal taxes at the 35% rate (plus Medicare). However he seemed disturbed that other millionaires, who may rely on dividends and capital gains for much of their income, pay only 15%. When I explained that corporate stockholders have already paid a 35% tax on their share of corporate income before they received any personal dividends or capital gains, he claimed that corporate income taxes have no impact on either dividends or share prices. Really?
I suppose being a high powered lawyer and tax-loving patriot doesn’t necessarily involve a basic understanding of finance or accounting. A corporation’s stock price and its ability to pay dividends are a function of its after-tax earnings. The higher the tax rate, the less the company is worth and the lower the dividend it can pay. So gains and dividends have already been significantly diminished by corporate taxes before the millionaires ever receive them. The shareholder ultimately bears the full burden of these taxes.
In his analysis of these issues, Mr. Berger sounded more like an Occupy Wall Street protestor than a patriot or an accomplished lawyer. Given the simplicity of his message and his dogged repetition of talking points, I had to conclude that his group was created by professional political forces as a facet of a much wider presidential campaign.
The elevation of taxpaying into an act of patriotism seems a stretch for most Americans. After all, the original patriots fought a revolution over their desire not to pay what by modern standards amounted to a trivial amount of taxes. To me, a true patriot wants to keep as much of his hard earned money as possible. America is supposed to be, after all, the land of the free. The more taxes we pay, the less freedom we enjoy. Plus, the income that is retained by those who earn it will lead to more wealth creation and, ultimately, to higher living standards for all Americans.
Unaddressed by Mr. Berger is the likelihood that higher tax rates on the rich may actually reduce tax revenue. Higher taxes will mean that the rich have less money to save and invest, a greater incentive to avoid taxes, and a reduced incentive to work or take risk. As a result, growth and job creation will suffer and the government will not only lose tax revenue from the rich, but also from the newly unemployed middle class workers that they no longer employ.
The best thing the government can do for the nation is to slash spending and free up resources for more productive private sector use. Government spending is not “investment” as Mr. Berger suggests but is simply wealth redistribution that creates political rather than economic benefits.
If spending is not reduced, raising taxes on everyone is better than only raising them on the rich. Taxing the middle class is largely a means to substitute public for private consumption. On the other hand, taxing the rich typically converts savings and investment into government spending. Such an exchange actually inflicts more damage. That may be a nearly impossible point to make politically, but sometimes the truth is not pretty. If middle-class voters realize that they will likely have to pay for all the free stuff promised by government, they may decide that they no longer want it.
President Obama promotes the myth that everyone must go to college. That if you don't go, your life will be ruined -- that you will end up waiting tables, or trapped in some other mundane occupation. The truth is, even with a college degree, you may still end up waiting tables, you'll just begin your "career" four or five years later, tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
Here is an example of some of the plumb jobs college grads were able to land during the Obama administration. Not just liberal arts majors mind you, but graduates with degrees in mathematics, robotics, neuroscience, engineering, accounting, business administration, economics, biology, communications, graphic design, marketing, and linguistics.
Of course when it comes to education, it's not just the Obama administration that deserves a failing grade. For years, politicians of both parties have pandered to students by promising more aid in the form of direct or subsidized student loans. As a result, colleges and universities are freed from competitive forces that would otherwise keep tuition low. Easy access to cheap credit enables students to bid up tuition, benefiting the educational establishment at their expense. Politicians secure student's votes by promising relief from skyrocketing tuition by providing even more loans. Ironically, the loans themselves are the very reason tuition is so high in the first place.
Before the Federal Government got involved, college degrees were much more affordable, and ambitious students from poorer families could easily work their way through. In addition, as fewer high school graduates actually went on to college, not only were college degrees much less expensive to obtain, they were far more valuable to have. With so many high school grads going on to college, a college degree is actually less valuable in today's job market, despite its inflated price tag, than was a high school diploma in the 1950s. The only solution is to get the Federal Government completely out of higher education, and let the free market fix what the government broke!
For those of you who feel a college degree is essential to financial success consider John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller dropped out of high school and began working full-time at age 16. Carnegie didn't even go to high school and began working full-time at age 13. Both men were born poor and became self-made billionaires, with estimated net worths at their deaths (in today's dollars) of $670 and $300 billion respectively. To put those numbers into perspective, the richest living American, Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard during his sophomore year, has an estimated net worth of just $65 billion.
President Obama today announced a plan that willensurestudents are able to commit to higher levels of federally backed student loans. By limiting student obligations to repay, and by passing more of the repayment burden onto taxpayers, colleges and universities will be able to continue to raise tuitions at a rate that outpaces nearly every other cost center in the American economy. The move will come as a great relief to an education establishment increasingly concerned that students might no longer be able to afford skyrocketing tuition rates.
The AP reported today that state support for higher education has fallen 23% after accounting for inflation over the last ten years, even as tuitions have risen 5.6% faster than CPI. This gap has been bridged by a whopping 57% increase in federal student loans over the same time period due to the increased cost of tuition and number of student enrollment.
The Obama plan limits repayment obligations on those federal loans to just 10% of "discretionary income" which it defines as total income above 150% of the federal poverty level - currently translating to about $16,000 for an individual, or $33,500 for a family of four. The plan also limits the term of obligation to 20 years. These terms represent a substantial easing and acceleration of the terms in Obama's "Pay as You Earn Plan," which was just announced last year (see my April 2010 response to that plan).
That plan, which was scheduled to begin in 2014, represented the first time the government had imposed any limits on repayment obligations. It had capped repayments at 15% of discretionary income for 25 years.
Assuming that a successful college graduate would earn, on average, $80,000 per year over the course of the 20-year obligation period, the repayment burden under the new plan will total somewhere around $4,500 per year, or $90,000 for the life of the loan. A less successful graduate who earns say $50,000 per year, on average over the 20-year obligation period, would have a repayment burden of just $1,500 per year, or just $30,000 over the life of the loan. Any loan amounts above those totals will be forgiven.
As a result, students need not fear the inability to repay large loans. They need not worry about future interest rate increases, which could raise their payments. More importantly, students will feel diminished pressure to obtain high paying jobs. In fact, the less a graduate earns, the greater the amount of loan forgiveness. For the majority of students, who don't become very high earners, it will make little difference if loan amounts are $90,000, $180,000 or even more. As the repayment burden will be capped to a percentage of average income, loan repayments will be the same for any loan beyond a certain threshold.
These policies could remove all barriers for larger and larger loans, which will then allow universities to charge higher and higher tuitions. This will permit them to maintain their bloated administration infrastructures and will allow them to continue loading up their campuses with even fancier facilities such as gymnasiums, performing arts centers, food courts, and health centers. The day of reckoning in which the higher education system would have had to offer programs that fit into the budget of average Americans has been postponed, if not entirely eliminated.
Of course the losers in this new arrangement will be American taxpayers who will be on the hook for the unpaid balances. Recently, college loan debt passed credit card debt as the largest, non-mortgage, source of debt in the United States. The balance of these unpaid student loans will be thrown onto the pile of America's escalating unfunded debt. Of course, the moral hazard implicit in the program means these liabilities will now pile up even faster. In addition, the program substantially increases the interest rate risk to which taxpayers are already over-exposed due to the short maturities of the national debt. The higher student loan interest rates rise, the larger the unpaid balances that taxpayers will be forced to assume.
Obama's move is likely to set off a student loan forgiveness arms race in which politicians may continue to ease and cap loan repayment obligations. With nearly a trillion dollars of outstanding college debt rapidly increasing, debt forgiveness for the young could be the political equivalent of protecting social security for the elderly. If college students were willing to rack up this much debt under the assumption they would have to actually pay it back, imagine how much debt they will be willing to amass now that they realize they do not? As a result, expect college tuition increases to not only continue but to accelerate.
In a way, Obama would be turning higher education in to a third-party payer system (not too dissimilar from our current health care system - which is also characterized by outsized cost increases). Under this new system, colleges might charge whatever they want because their customers simply turn the bill over to the U.S. taxpayer who has no say in the transaction. Under such a system what incentive would a kid have to live at home and go to a community college? Why not attend the most expensive university that taxpayer money will allow? I suppose Obama was so impressed with how this dynamic works with health care that he decided education could use some of the same medicine.
Nothing discussed on the show is an offer to buy or sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell any security or instrument or to participate in any particular investing strategy. All securities involve varying amounts of risk, and their values will fluctuate, and the fluctuation of foreign currency exchange rates will also impact your investment returns if measured in U.S. Dollars. Dividend yields change as stock prices change, and companies may change or cancel dividend payments in the future. Investments may increase or decrease in value and you may lose money. International investing may not be suitable for all investors.