In 1995 the total debt of our government was an impressive $4.9 trillion. It has, of course, become much more impressive since. Gross government debt at the end of 2015 was nearly 4 times higher, $18.1 trillion.
But that’s not the truly magical part of the federal debt story. In 1995 the net interest cost of government debt was a whopping $232 billion. Twenty years later, even with debt nearly 4 times higher, the net interest cost was slightly lower, $223 billion.
Yes, the interest cost of government debt today is less than it was twenty years ago. That’s nothing short of amazing. No doubt some would argue that the U.S. Treasury has “saved” the $9 billion difference.
We all know how this was done. It was quite simple, really. Lower interest rates mean lower interest costs. So our government has avoided a major problem by doing its best to reduce interest rates. You can follow the month-by-month reduction in government interest costs in a handy online tool from the U.S. Treasury, treasurydirect.gov.
It shows that the average cost of government debt declined from 6.537 percent in January 2000 to 2.267 percent this June. Consider the impact of inflation and the Treasury will be returning less purchasing power to lenders than it received. Debt is free.
Equally important, our government hasn’t been the only beneficiary. Anyone who had a debt that could be refinanced benefited. It was great for homeowners. Refinancing home mortgages has become a hefty industry. Today, refi gurus suggest you can benefit anytime you can cut your mortgage interest rate by 75 basis points, or 0.75 percent.
Borrowing new money has been pretty good, too. Today you can borrow to buy a new car and pay less than 2 percent a year for five years. You might not get that rate at a bank, but you can certainly get it at a credit union. Even at today’s low inflation rate, borrowed money is basically free when measured by purchasing power returned to the lender.
Lower interest rates were pretty good for asset holders, too. They had the effect of raising asset prices. We’ve had a bull market in bonds. Stocks haven’t done so badly either--- provided you have a strong stomach for ups and downs. And home values have risen to levels close to the insanity of 2006. What’s not to like?
All in all, it seems lower interest rates have been a good thing. Solvent seniors suffer, of course, but let’s get real. They’re old. Besides, complaining about having no yield on your savings is a bit like complaining that you have no shoes to a gathering of people who have no feet.
It’s the same for corporate and state pension funds, for insurance companies with life annuities to pay out, and for long-term-care insurance providers who were counting on higher portfolio earnings to sustain promised benefits. They can complain, but they can’t vote, so who cares?
In fact, lower interest rates for governments are what the old Veg-O-Matic was to everyone’s kitchen. It was the tool no one could live without it because it could do everything. So it should come as no surprise that governments around the world have discovered the wonders of low interest rates. Japan is blazing the path.
The trick is getting back to “normal” since people and institutions with savings aren’t going to accept the depreciation of their money forever.
So let’s ask a rude question: What would a return to normal do?
If the average cost of government debt returned to 2000 levels, interest expense would nearly triple to $643 billion. That’s a whopping $420 billion difference. To put that $420 billion in perspective, the cost of running every governmental department plus both the legislative and judicial branches of government (but excluding the Department of Defense) was $473 billion in 2015.
To be sure, returning to normal interest rates wouldn’t happen overnight. And the interest rates of 2000 were higher than the historical average. But the prospect is for years, perhaps decades, of rising interest payments “crowding out” other government spending, including the inevitable new and innovative notions that might come from either political party.
When it comes to future government spending, the future has already been written: rising interest costs will consume increases in federal revenue.