Private Sector Debt Burden About to Get More Burdensome

Guess what happened yesterday?

Nothing. The Dow rose 6 points. Gold fell $7.

Investors are holding their breath. Why? Because Ben Bernanke is scheduled to make history on Wednesday. Everyone sits on the edge of his chair and wants to know what kind of history he’ll make.

“Some Enchanted Easing,” is how The Financial Times describes it.

The FT thinks the latest quarterly growth figures – 2% – are simply too low for the nation to live with.

“US recovery remains sluggish,” was their headline. “Case for fresh quantitative easing cemented.”

The problem with 2% growth is that it is not enough to lift employment rates. The economy needs to create about 50,000 jobs per month just to keep up with population growth. That’s about what you can do at 2% GDP growth.

But when you’re at nearly 10% unemployment, you need to do better than that. It’s not enough to stay even. Otherwise, you have to live with the drag caused by millions of people without work. These jobless people need to be housed, and fed, and medicated. So you end up with an economy that actually gets poorer.

Yes, that’s part of the problem. The way the economy is rigged up, the private sector has to support a big public section…one that gets heavier every day. If growth is sluggish, the whole economy slips, even with positive GDP numbers. Without powerful growth the feds don’t collect much in taxes…and run huge deficits. This increases the debt burden on the few people who are carrying all the load – people working in the private sector at non-zombie, wealth-producing activities.

And here’s a shocker… The debt level per private sector worker – the people who have to pay the bills – will nearly double between 2007 and 2015. Yes, a new study done by a former IMF economist found that government debt levels are soaring – in the “rich” nations. They are soaring at a particularly fast rate in the USA, which will go from the 11th heaviest debt per private sector employee in 2007 to the third heaviest by 2015.

What’s going on? The Baby Boomers are retiring. They’re making a big transition from being a source of financing to becoming a source of spending. Instead of paying the bills, in other words, they’re becoming the people for whom the bills are paid.

And that will leave the typical private sector worker in 2015 with $68,500 as his share of the government debt. We’re not talking fiscal gap here. This is debt…interest bearing debt.

It doesn’t include, for example, state level pension liabilities…which now tote to over $5 trillion alone. Nor does it include all the other unfunded liabilities and promises of state, local and federal governments – which, according to Laurence Kotlikoff – come to more than $200 trillion.

Without robust “growth”…those liabilities too are going to come crashing down on the heads of the feds…and everyone else.

Which brings us back to poor Ben Bernanke. His seat must be so hot it scorches his derriere.

“Fed poised for biggest decisions in decades,” says another FT headline.

“Given the committee’s objectives, there would appear, all else being equal to be a case for further action,” Ben Bernanke said himself a few weeks ago.

And so, he’s going to go for it. How much? Probably open-ended. How soon? Probably right away. How effective? Whew…you’re asking too much, dear reader.

But what the heck, we’ll take the bait. How effective will the Fed’s new money-printing be?

It will be a total failure. A disaster.

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning