One business story these days is how companies are crashing the debt markets to raise money at today's bargain rates. The same goes for the world's biggest borrower, Uncle Sam, which is also quietly benefitting from historically low interest rates that cannot last. The latter deserves more attention because the next President and Congress are likely to be stuck paying the bill when rates inevitably rise.
***First, a couple facts: the U.S. Treasury currently has $10.7 trillion in outstanding publicly-held debt, and more than $8 trillion of it must be repaid within the next seven years. More than $5 trillion falls due within the next 36 months.This relatively short-term debt sheet is no accident. Like a subprime borrower opting for a low teaser rate, the government has structured its debt to keep current interest payments low. This is a political temptation for every Administration because it means lower budget deficits on its watch.The Obama Administration has added close to $5 trillion to the U.S. debt. So it much prefers to finance all of this at a rate, say, of 0.3% in two-year notes than at 2% in 10-year notes. The nearby charts show how federal debt has soared during the Obama years, yet net federal interest payments are lower than they were in 2007 and lower than they were in nominal dollars even in 1997 when public debt was a mere $3.8 trillion. This year the debt is expected to reach $11.58 trillion.The problem is that this disguises the magnitude of the debt threat and stores up trouble for future Presidents and taxpayers. And maybe not far in the future.The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for example, forecasts that in the period 2014-2017 the average rates on three-month Treasury bills will rise to 2% from less than 0.1% today. CBO expects average rates on 10-year Treasury notes to climb to 3.8%, from 2.03% now. CBO adds that every 100 basis-point rise in government borrowing costs over the next decade will trigger almost $1 trillion in new federal debt
Review & Outlook: Uncle Sam's Teaser Rate - WSJ.com