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How European Contagion Could Bring Down the US Treasury Market

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Someday, perhaps within a matter of months but more likely in a year or two, the US Treasury market will fall apart as certainly as Greece's did. Here's how that might happen.

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While there are certain to be a lot of false starts and unpredictable twists and turns along the way, eventually the precarious fiscal situation of the US will reach a critical mass of recognition. Before that date, the US will be perceived as a bastion of financial safety, and afterward everyone will wonder how anyone could have really held that view.

A good recent example of how swiftly sovereign fortunes can change: One day, everything was fine in Greece, which enjoyed paying interest rates on its national debt that were a few skinny basis points (hundredths of a percent) above Germany's. A few short months later, Greece was paying over 150% interest on its one-year paper.

What I am asking is this: What happens when the same sweep of recognition visits the US Treasury markets? Is such a turn of events even possible or thinkable? Here's one scenario.

How Contagion Will Spread to the US

My belief is that someday, perhaps within a matter of months but more likely in a year or two, the US Treasury market will fall apart as certainly and as magnificently as did Greece's. Here's how that might happen:

Step 1: As the global growth story frays, global trade decelerates, and the sovereign and total debt burdens of various countries drag at economic growth, fewer and fewer dollars will be accumulated and stored by various foreign central banks. The typical way dollars are stored is in the form of Treasury holdings. Because of this, several years of record-breaking Treasury accumulation by these foreign banks will grind to a halt and foreign Treasury holdings will begin to decline.

Step 2: The US government, thinking that foreign lending had somehow become a permanent feature of life and having consequently ramped up spending and borrowing to record levels, will find itself unable to adjust quickly, especially with an election year in sight. Federal borrowing continues amidst a sea of squabbling over meaningless, barely symbolic cuts to spending, even as official foreign demand for Treasurys wanes.

Step 3: After it is recognized that the central banks are taking a breather from more Treasury accumulation, private participation in Treasury auctions begin to wane, with the bid-to-cover declining and eventually approaching dangerously thin levels. In parallel, Treasurys traded on the open market begin to creep up in yield, indicating that more sellers than buyers exist.

Step 4: The Federal Reserve, having publicly committed itself to maintaining a zero Fed Funds interest rate through 2013 and therefore finding itself in the awkward position of having to save face, will be forced to funnel more money into the Treasury market. But because it is already committed to selling short-maturity paper in favor of long-dated paper, it does this by announcing another round of quantitative easing (QE) in some other asset class held by the sorts of financial institutions that will have no choice but to immediately park that thin-air money into Treasurys. The holdings of money market funds come to mind.

Step 5: The rest of the developing world, especially China, takes an increasingly dim view of the US reserving for itself the right to print money to buy government debt while admonishing other countries for doing the same. First, there are just verbal protests, but then more and more Treasury selling begins to hit the market. Wall Street, happy enough to make a few bucks by flipping Treasurys at the Fed's bequest, now sees that there's a lot more money to be made by selling Treasurys and even more to be lost by holding them. Selling of Treasurys, pushed by a shift in foreign perception of safety (and utility), begins to pick up.

Step 6: As the selling picks up, the rate of interest that the US government has to offer in order to attract sufficient buyers to new Treasury auctions continues to increase. Forced by this circumstance, the Fed has to raise rates in order to appear as if they are in control of the process, when, in fact, they are (once again) merely following the markets.

Step 7: As interest rates spiral higher, the amount of money that the US government (as well as state and local governments) must borrow in order to service rising interest costs creeps higher and higher. In other words, the more money the US government has to borrow, the higher the rate of interest they have to pay, which serves to force more borrowing, which makes the rate of interest go higher...and higher...and higher...each feeding the other in a classic debt spiral. This is the same dynamic that Greece is currently suffering through.

Step 8: The interest rate spiral creates a fiscal emergency for the US government, where the only choices are between slashing spending enormously (which would serve to crush the economy, perhaps by 10%-20%, and driving tax receipts down, sharply creating its own dynamic of pain), or running out of money and defaulting on its bills, or printing money and accepting a steep fall in the international value of the dollar. Because slashing spending is a delicate and politically painful process, by default it almost certainly will not happen in time to prevent the interest rate spiral from occurring. As to the idea of running out of money, that is deemed an unthinkable option, which leaves money printing as the most likely option.

Step 9: While it is the politically easier solution, money printing leads to the abandonment of the US dollar as the main reserve currency of the world. This does not happen very quickly, but neither is it a linear process. It proceeds in fits and starts, but the end result is that the US can no longer export dollars in exchange for things, and this alone changes everything. Long accustomed to being able to export dollars and import things, the US grew to view this historical oddity as an entitlement. But instead, it was a relic of circumstances, first of the relative position of the US after World War II, and second due to the temporary requirement that all oil purchases must be made in dollars. This 'petro-dollar' feature meant that any country wishing to buy oil first had to accumulate a dollar surplus. In short, this meant having to run a trade surplus, if not with the US, then with a country that had one itself. This allowed the US to export dollars while other countries had to export real things.

The Importance of Exercising Vigilance

Keeping a close eye on the data is the key to determining whether or not this projected progression is underway or even likely. Of growing interest (and concern) to me is that we are indeed beginning to see several of the earlier indicators predicted above – notably, a decline in US Treasuries held by foreigners and growing signals that more government borrowing/money printing is on the way soon.

Editor's Note: Chris Martenson is an economic researcher and futurist specializing in energy and resource depletion.


No positions in stocks mentioned.

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