Debt matters as U.S. deals with highest inflation rate in 40 years

The United States’ total public debt has ballooned to nearly $30 trillion. Split among the nation’s roughly 130 million households, that is about $229,000 per household. And the bill is about to go up, as rampant inflation triggers rising interest rates.

Few in the media took notice when the nation’s debt hit the $30 trillion mark. There was little if any reaction from the denizens of D.C.’s political and policy establishment, busy as they are fighting over just about everything. Budget hawks are nowhere to be found.

Setting aside the intergovernmental debt that one part of the government owes to another part, such as what the federal government owes the Social Security Trust fund, debt held by the public is about $24 trillion. That is more than GDP, a level previously seen only at the end of World War II.

Much of the national debt owed to foreign institutions is held by the Japanese and the Chinese, who definitely want to get paid. It should not be overlooked that a growing debt burden may undermine confidence in the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, making it more difficult to finance economic activity in international markets.

But why worry about debt when vast sums of money can be created out of thin air to pay the interest on all that debt, and nominal interest rates are near zero? It’s a free lunch!

The federal government spends about $300 billion annually on interest payments on the national debt. This is the equivalent of nearly 9 percent of annual federal revenue, and more than the federal government spends on science, space, technology, transportation and education combined.

The cost of servicing debt from past spending reduces the money available for other spending programs.  Each 1 percent rise in interest rates would increase debt servicing costs by about $225 billion at today’s debt levels. This is not chopped liver.

Even in an historically low interest rate environment, the amount of debt we’ve accumulated results in daunting interest costs. It will get even more expensive when the Federal Reserve gets around to raising interest rates significantly to deal with the highest inflation in 40 years.

Who would have thought trillions in stimulus spending and money being printed by the nominally independent Federal Reserve and plowed back into the economy when companies couldn’t produce enough of what consumers wanted would drive prices higher?  More demand plus less supply equals higher prices. The Fed ignored the inflation risks inherent in monetary financing of the government deficits. After all, there is virtually no limit to money creation under a fiat monetary system.

The hard truth is that these folks were out to lunch as the cost of living for ordinary Americans was rising. Paychecks will feel tighter than usual as inflation outpaces wage increases.

Americans are then told that a key way to help relieve rising prices is to pass a $1.85 trillion collection of spending programs and tax cuts known as the Build Back Better bill, which is currently languishing in the Senate. It will deliver good economic outcomes: low inflation and low unemployment.

And now financial markets are nervous about the prospect of the steepest monetary tightening cycle since the 1990s, with markets pricing in more than five quarter-point Federal Reserve interest rate hikes in 2022.

Debt matters. Fiscal responsibility matters. The short-term pain associated with fixes that will bring long-term gains is a real challenge for politicians – especially in even-numbered years. They much prefer to kick the can down the road hoping the bill will come due on someone else’s watch.

The American public is equally culpable, electing politicians who don’t have the courage to advocate for solutions to the debt issue. Those who do are run out of office.

To paraphrase Hemingway’s words from “The Sun Also Rises,” “How do you go bankrupt? Two ways: gradually, then suddenly.”

Traditional conglomerates such as GE, J&J and Toshiba are moving in a new direction

Last November, three major conglomerates – General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and Toshiba – all revealed plans to break themselves up in an effort to maximize shareholder value. They won’t be the last to do it.

Conglomerates are large parent companies made up of smaller business units that operate across multiple markets in an effort to diversify the risk of being in a single market. The financial health of a conglomerate is difficult to discern, as the parent company reports results on a consolidated basis. Recall the key role GE Capital played for many years as the catalyst for growth and profitability at General Electric.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the biggest pharmaceutical company in the U.S. based on market cap of $435 billion, announced its intent to break off its consumer health division in the next 18 to 24 months. J&J is the 36th largest company in the U.S. based on total revenue, according to the 2021 Fortune 500 list.

It will spin off its consumer business, which includes such brands as Band-Aid, Tylenol, Nicorette, and Neutrogena, into a new publicly traded company by November 2023. Its prescription drug and medical device businesses will continue to operate under its banner.

What is behind these break-ups? There is an argument that these firms have all become too diversified, complicated and grown too challenging to manage efficiently.

The recent history of all three has also been tumultuous. General Electric was nearly taken down during the financial meltdown in 2008. J&J is facing over 20,000 lawsuits related to claims that its baby powder causes cancer and for its role in the opioid crisis. The firm took a hit when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans not receive its COVID vaccine because of adverse side effects. Toshiba is still trying to recover from a massive 2015 accounting scandal.

A different approach for Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple

At first blush it would appear that the era of the conglomerate and the notion that brilliant management can successfully run businesses in varied industries is over. While traditional industrial corporate conglomerates may be pushing up daises, the success of tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook (parent Meta), Microsoft, Apple, and Alphabet as modern-day conglomerates should be noted.

These firms are not throwbacks to the traditional conglomerate model whose main purpose was to allocate financial capital across various businesses and rebalance the portfolio through acquisitions and divestments.

Take Amazon for example. While the company does not describe itself as a conglomerate, it operates online and brick-and-mortar retail stores, sells outsourced computing services, runs global logistics operation, produces movies, and the beat goes on.

These tech conglomerates do differ from traditional industrial conglomerates. They have created platforms that knit together and support the varied businesses. Put differently, the businesses in these companies rely on a common infrastructure to provide the unifying thread.

A platform is essentially a marketplace that connects the supply side and the demand side. Amazon links shoppers and sellers, producers and consumers in high value exchanges. The company enables Prime members to order Whole Food deliveries on the Amazon website.

The spectacular growth of these businesses has been explained by network effects. The value of a platform depends in large part on the number of users on either side of the exchange. The more users a platform has, the more attractive it becomes, leading even more people to use it. This allows business to scale up quickly and creates a competitive advantage. The tech companies are exploiting the power of platforms and the relatively low capital investment they require. These network effects are the driving force behind every successful platform.