In an opinion piece in the Financial Times a few days ago, Gillian Tett points to and expands on a comment in a Wall Street advisory committee letter to the Treasury Secretary. Although it may not have implications for financial markets today or tomorrow, it’s still worth keeping in mind, I think.
The comment concerns the changes in the income tax code the administration pushed through Congress in late 2017. Touted as “reform,” the tax bill is such only because it brings down the top domestic corporate tax rate from 35%, the highest in the world, to about average at 21%. This reduces the incentive for US-based multinationals (think: drug company “inversions”) to recognize profits abroad. But special interest tax breaks remained untouched, and tax reductions for the ultra-wealthy were tossed in for good measure. Because of this, the legislation results in a substantial reduction in tax money coming in to Uncle Sam.
Ms. Tett underlines the worry that there are no obvious buyers for the trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds that the government will have to issue over the coming years to cover the deficit the tax bill has created.
A generation ago Japan was an avid buyer of US government debt, but its economy has been dormant for a quarter-century. Over the past twenty years, China has taken up the baton, as it placed the fruits of its trade surplus in US Treasuries. But Washington is aggressively seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China; the Chinese economy, too, is starting to plateau; and Beijing, whatever its reasons, has already been trimming its Treasury holdings for some time.
Who’s left to absorb the extra supply that’s on the way? …US individuals and companies.
The obvious question is whether domestic buyers have a large enough appetite to soak up the increasing issue of Treasuries. No one really knows.
Three additional observations (by me):
–the standard (and absolutely correct, in my view) analysis of deficit spending is that it isn’t free. It is, in effect, a bill that’s passed along to be paid by future generations of Americans–diminishing the quality of life of Millennials while enhancing that of the top 0.1% of Boomers
–historically, domestic holders have been much more sensitive than foreign holders to creditworthiness-threatening developments from Washington like the Trump tax bill, and
–while foreign displeasure might be expressed mostly in currency weakness, and therefore be mostly invisible to dollar-oriented holders, domestic unhappiness would be reflected mostly in an increase in yields. And that would immediately trigger stock market weakness. If I’m correct, the decline in domestic financial markets what Washington folly would trigger implies that Washington would be on a much shorter leash than it is now.