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U.S. Debt To Hit $20 Trillion, Poverty Remains Rampant

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
November 10, 2015

IN THIS ISSUE

1. October Unemployment Rate Plunges to 7-Year Low

2. $20 Trillion Man: Debt to Double Under President Obama

3. Debt Held by the Public vs. Intragovernmental Debt

4. Poverty in America Remains Near a Record High

5. Americans on Food Stamps Also Near Record High

6. Americans on Disability Insurance Near Record High

Overview

As long-time clients and readers are well aware, the explosion in our national debt has been one of my continuing themes over the last 30+ years, under both Republican and Democrat presidents. So today’s discussion is not a political issue, and it should worry us all.

By the time President Obama leaves office in January 2017, the US national debt is projected to have almost doubled during his eight years in office. Put differently, Obama will have added as much to the national debt as all presidents before him combined. That is simply staggering!

Throughout history, no major nation that has accumulated debt of more than 100% of Gross Domestic Product has ever paid it back. Instead, they have defaulted. So will we at some point if we don’t reverse course, which seems very unlikely.  As such, the question is when will the US default and what will trigger it?

Saddest of all is the fact that, despite almost doubling the national debt over the last seven years, with much of the spending on social programs, the poverty rate in the US is near an all-time high; ditto for those living on food stamps. You would think that doubling the national debt and increasing entitlements should have dramatically lowered poverty and those living on food stamps. It didn’t.

Over the last decade, we’ve also seen an explosion in the number of Americans who receive disability benefits. Unfortunately, Congress has watered-down the requirements to receive disability payments to the point that many able-bodied Americans are no longer working.

The above is what we’ll talk about today.  But first, let’s take a quick look at last Friday’s very strong jobs report.

October Unemployment Rate Plunges to 7-Year Low

The Labor Department reported on Friday that the US unemployment rate fell to 5.0% last month, the lowest level since 2008, and down from 5.1% in September. The economy added 271,000 jobs last month versus the pre-report consensus of just 181,000.

A broader measure of unemployment that includes those who have stopped looking for work, as well as those working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, declined to 9.8%, the first time it’s been below 10% since May 2008.

Perhaps more important than the headline number was the growth in average hourly earnings, which jumped 9 cents, representing a monthly gain of 0.6% and an annualized increase of 2.5%. That was the best monthly gain this year. The only disappointments in Friday’s report were the average work week which did not increase and held steady at 34.5 hours, and the labor force participation rate was unchanged at 62.4%, a 38-year low.

The October jobs report was a very positive surprise. As you would expect, the conversation quickly turned to whether or not the strong jobs report would cause the Fed to raise rates in December. I continue to believe the Fed’s decision will depend on other economic reports between now and December 16 when the next Fed meeting ends.

$20 Trillion Man: Debt to Double Under President Obama

When the president signed into law the latest two-year budget deal on Monday of last week, our national debt immediately swelled by $339 billion. These were bills that had piled up after we hit the debt ceiling. Our national debt went from $18.15 trillion to a new record of $18.49 trillion, all in one day.

The new budget deal authorizes the Treasury to borrow another $1.5 trillion between now and March 2017, which means our national debt will be nearing $20 trillion (if not more) around the time Mr. Obama leaves office. He will be the “$20 Trillion Man.”

When Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, the total national debt stood at $10.5 trillion. That means the debt will have very nearly doubled during his eight years in office, and there is much more debt ahead with the budget deal’s abandonment of “sequestration” spending caps enacted in 2011. The National Taxpayers Union had this to say:

“Congress and the president have just agreed to undo one of the only successful fiscal restraint mechanisms in a generation. The progress on reducing spending and the deficit has just become much more problematic.”

If you recall, the new budget deal increased federal spending by $80 billion over the next two years. If that weren’t bad enough, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimated that only about half of the increased spending in the budget deal is paid for.

Rather than a spending increase of $80 billion over two years, the nonprofit group said, the actual spending hike is $154 billion – almost  twice as much – when interest costs and bogus budget gimmicks are factored into the equation.

Then there’s the issue of the debt ceiling. Rather than raising the debt limit by some specific amount, as is usually the case, Speaker Boehner agreed to simply “suspend the debt ceiling.” That means there is no debt limit for the next two years. Here’s what Senator Rand Paul, who opposed the budget deal, said:

“We will be giving President Obama a free pass to borrow as much money as he can borrow in the last year of his office. No limit, no dollar limit. Here you go, President Obama. Spend what you want.”

Given this ridiculous cave-in to Obama, there is little doubt that he will become the $20 Trillion Man by the time he leaves office. The only question now is, will the bond market stand for it? I’ll have more on that scary question at a later date.

Debt Held by the Public vs. Intragovernmental Debt

As discussed above, our national debt swelled to $18.49 trillion when President Obama signed the new budget deal last week. The national debt is comprised of two components: 1) “Debt Held by the Public;” and 2) “Intragovernmental Debt.”

There has long been a debate, mostly in liberal circles, that the Intragovernmental Debt shouldn’t be counted toward the national debt since, they argue, this is money we owe ourselves. This argument is ridiculous, and I have debunked it for years. Yet with our debt headed for $20 trillion by early 2017, it is time to debunk it again.

I’ll begin by explaining the difference between Debt Held by the Public and Intragovernmental Debt.

Debt Held by the Public is all federal debt held by individuals, corporations, state or local governments, Federal Reserve Banks, foreign governments, and other entities outside the United States government.

Intragovernmental Debt consists of debt securities held by various government trust funds (including Social Security), revolving funds, special funds and Federal Financing Bank securities.

To keep this discussion brief, let’s go back to when the national debt first reached $18 trillion. As you can see in the chart below, of the total debt of $18 trillion, apprx. $13 trillion was Debt Held by the Public and apprx. $5 trillion was Intragovernmental Debt

The National Debt

The bulk of Intragovernmental Debt is owed to the Social Security Trust Fund and the Medicare Trust Funds, with the balance owed to other government trust funds.  Most of these trust funds have run surpluses for many years, as planned, yet the government has chosen to borrow and spend these surpluses and replace them with Treasury IOUs.

Some argue that the roughly $5 trillion in such debt should not count toward the national debt since this is money “we owe ourselves.” Here’s why that argument doesn’t hold water. Intragovernmental Debt, just like Debt Held by the Public, has to be rolled over periodically and replaced with new securities. Debt is debt.

Put differently, does anyone doubt that the trillions of dollars Uncle Sam has borrowed from Social Security will have to be repaid at some point? Of course it will have to be repaid in one form or another as the SS bills come due, lest the government default.

The bottom line is that it is ridiculous for liberals to argue that Intragovernmental Debt should not count toward the national debt. This debt must be repaid at some point just like Debt Held by the Public.

The national debt is now almost $18.5 trillion, not $13 trillion or so, as many progressives would like us to believe. And as discussed above, we’re on our way to almost $20 trillion in debt by the time Mr. Obama leaves office in early 2017.

Poverty in America Remains Near a Record High

You would think that the wealthiest country on the planet, a country that will have borrowed almost $10 trillion during Obama’s eight years in office, would not have a big poverty problem. Surely the government could find enough money in that $10 trillion to care for the poor.

Yet the latest figures from the Census Bureau released in September showed that a near record 47 million Americans (or almost 15% of the population) were living at or below the poverty threshold of $24,250 for a family of four at the end of 2014 (latest data available).

While the average poverty rate was 14.9% nationally last year, the numbers were considerably worse for minorities and women. While Whites and Asians had poverty rates of 10% and 12%, respectively last year, Hispanics and Blacks had poverty rates of 23.6% and 26.2%, respectively.

Poverty Rate by Race

The chart above did not include the poverty figures for women, and they are grim. More than one in seven women, over 18 million, lived in poverty in 2014. The poverty rate among adult women was 14.7% last year, as compared to the poverty rate of 10.9% for adult men.

Poverty rates were particularly high for women who head families (39.8%), African American women (25.0%), Hispanic women (22.8%) and women 65 and older living alone (19.7%). The poverty rate for all women 65 and older was 12.1% in 2014, compared to 7.4% for their male counterparts. More than two-thirds (68.1%) of the elderly poor are women.

More than half (56.7%) of poor children in America lived in female-headed families in 2014. Fatherless households are an epidemic.

Americans on Food Stamps Also Near Record High

Fourteen percent of US households lacked access to enough good food at some point last year, according to the latest annual report in September from the USDA, which operates the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

Actually, the 14% number for 2014 was down slightly from 14.3% in 2013. Despite the slight improvement, the number of Americans that have to rely on government assistance to eat is woefully too high.

The number of Americans on food stamps peaked in 2013 at 47.6 million people. It has since fallen slightly and some estimate it will dip below 46 million for 2015. Still, despite an improving economy, the rate was almost double what it was in 2007 before the Great Recession.

Americans on Food Stamps

James Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, said in an interview earlier this year: “It’s just appalling that in this country – when at least from a GDP point of view we have a larger economy than we did before the recession – we have millions more people struggling with hunger.” This is very sad.

Americans on Disability Insurance Also Near Record High

America’s healthcare entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare – are the largest drivers of our exploding federal debt. Yet there is a fourth entitlement program that pays disability benefits through the Social Security Administration, which is also growing at an alarming pace.

At the end of 2014, there were 10.93 million Americans receiving disability benefits, down slightly from 10.99 million at the end of 2013. The number of people receiving disability benefits has skyrocketed since the year 2000 when the number was only 6.67 million.

While part of that growth can be explained by the aging of the US population, the largest factor in the proliferation of disability spending comes from the fact that Congress has dramatically expanded the definition of who gets called “disabled.” As a result, many able-bodied Americans have been granted government paychecks for years, crowding out our ability to direct needed resources to the genuinely disabled.

The story of the growth in federal disability spending has been percolating for years. The Great Recession of 2008 led to a spike in unemployment. Many people who had difficulty finding work discovered that they might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, benefits that would replace a significant portion of their previously earned wages.

Today, the United States spends around $200 billion a year, literally paying many able-bodied Americans not to work. Sadly, the number of Americans collecting disability payments, at just under 11 million, is larger than the entire population of several countries, as shown below.

U.S. Disability Beneficiaries Exceed population of Tunisia

As you can see, the number of Americans receiving disability payments is larger than the entire population of Tunisia and Portugal and more than double that of Bolivia.

Potomac Fund Management WEBINAR Recording Now Available

A recording of last week’s webinar with Potomac Fund Management, including both the presentation and the lively Q&A session afterward, is now available on our website. As a reminder, we have continuously recommended Potomac to our clients for almost 20 years. CLICK HERE to download the webinar.

Best regards,

Gary D. Halbert

 

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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, Halbert Wealth Management, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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