Courtesy Reuters

The Impending Squeeze

By Tim W. Ferguson, Charles B. Heck, and Mitchell W. Hedstrom

To the Editor:

Roger Altman and Richard Haass ("American Profligacy and American Power," November/December 2010) persuasively argue that continued American profligacy promises to undermine American power. But the situation is even more urgent than they suggest.

Although Altman and Haass expect markets to remain calm "possibly for two or three years," the rising price of gold suggests otherwise. Gold has risen from $460 per ounce to $1,400 per ounce in the last five years -- representing a 67 percent devaluation of the U.S. dollar per unit of gold. As former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan has said, gold is "the ultimate means of payment."

Moreover, on top of new government debt over the next several years, maturing existing debt will need to be refinanced. At 4.6 years, the average maturity of the U.S. federal debt held by the public (debt that now totals $9.1 trillion) is tight relative to, for instance, the average maturity of 13.5 years for British government debt. According to the International Monetary Fund, the maturing debt of the U.S. government will equal 18.1 percent of U.S. GDP during 2011 alone.

Altman and Haass rightly note that the U.S. government's annual interest expense will rise dramatically as its stock of debt increases and interest rates inevitably rise. Further debt increases would substantially darken the fiscal outlook for the federal government. And even a relatively small rise in interest rates would have a significant impact.

TIM W. FERGUSON
Editor, Forbes Asia

CHARLES B. HECK
Former North American Director, Trilateral Commission

MITCHELL W. HEDSTROM
Managing Director, TIAA-CREF

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