Friday, September 7, 2012

John Cochrane for Treasury Secretary

I remember seeing this a while back and wondering who would best replace Geithner at Treasury, should Obama win and Geithner decide to leave. Recently I came across an old blog post by John Cochrane in which he laid out a series of proposals to finance the Federal debt that I find absolutely compelling.

Lets take a listen:

"I don't know who in their right mind is lending the US government money for 10 years at 1.59% and for thirty years at 2.67%. You have to believe inflation will be lower than these values just to get your money back, let alone make any real return.  (The best I can do is to opine that these are not long-term investors, and they think they can get out before rates rise. I will admit that understanding such low rates is stretching my rational-investor efficient-market prejudices.)

Well, no matter. When offered a screaming good deal, you should take it!

Restructuring US debt to longer maturities has all sorts of advantages. (Restructuring. I am not advocating stimulus!) It buys lots of insurance, very cheaply.

Think about what happens with very long term debt vs. rolling over one or two year debt, which is what the US does now.  Sooner or later, interest rates will surely rise to normal, 5-6%. If we are rolling over debt, that means the US Treasury has to come up with an extra 4-5% times the outstanding stock of debt, each year, to pay interest. 5% of $15 trillion is $750 billion, more than half our current (and already unsustainable) deficit. Oh, and by then the debt will be a lot more than $15 trillion by then. 

And that's just the "return to normal" scenario. What if the exploding euro leads bond investors to wake up that all debt of highly-indebted, sclerotic-growth, perpetual-deficit, can't-cure-runaway-entitlement governments is dubious?  Greece didn't get in trouble trying to borrow for one year -- it got in trouble trying to roll over debt. If that moment comes and the US has lots of long-term debt outstanding, it just means a mark-to-market loss for bondholders. If we are rolling over short term debt, then the debt crisis comes to the US. And there is no Germany to bail us out.

Notice how the 30 year rate plummets in 2011 and remains low. And this is on indexed debt, not just reflecting low inflation expectations! Cochrane's refinancing ideas would allow taxpayers to pay these low coupon rates for 30 years into the future, potentially saving trillions in interest costs. 
Todd goes beyond the usual 30 year Treasuries, and advocates 50 or 100 year Treasuries. Good idea! I have wilder ideas. We should think about bonds with no principal repayment at all. 30 years of coupons, or even perpetuities. These bonds never have to be rolled over -- you never have to issue new debt to pay off the principal of the old debt. Or, if we want to maximize the duration of the bonds, issue the opposite: zero-coupon 50 year bonds.  At least that puts off any problems for 50 years!  If restructuring physical debt is hard, do what the private sector does: Massive fixed-for-floating swaps could lengthen the US maturity structure very quickly without unsettling somewhat illiquid markets for seasoned bonds. 

Lots of smart money is locking in absurdly low rates. Why not the US?"

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