America's Bills Are Coming Due

03/15/2017 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

Once upon a time, the United States was the wealthiest and most generous nation in the world — rebuilding countries after wars, supplying aid in natural disasters, and supporting allies and emerging democracies. We did all this and also built roads and airports at home.

We are still the wealthiest and most generous nation in the world. But in the past few decades we have come to realize that we can’t pay for everything — even by going into debt. And it has taken us $20 trillion in debt to come to that conclusion.

In just recent weeks, we have seen these headlines — financial, not political.

—America’s infrastructure gets a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which estimates it will cost nearly $4.6 trillion to bring the roads, bridges and dams back to a safe, functioning level.

—America’s defense budget needs an additional $54 billion, according to President Trump’s proposed budget.

—In 18 years, according to the Social Security trustees, the main trust fund will have only enough money to pay about 80 percent of promised benefits, absent some changes.

—The National Flood Insurance Program, which provides below-cost insurance to homeowners in flood plains has a deficit of $24.6 billion, so premiums must be raised or government subsidies increased.

—The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which insures pensions of failed corporations and multi-employer union plans, is projected to run out of money within the next 10 years — without considering additional responsibilities for future failing pension funds.

—The Government Accountability Office says the U.S. Postal Service’s tenuous financial situation makes it “unlikely” that it “will be able to fully make its required retiree health and pension payments in the near future.”

And the list goes on. America is running out of “tomorrows” to pay for “todays.”

Even with a soaring stock market, the liabilities are mounting. And borrowing is about to get a lot more expensive amid predictions of at least three Fed rate increases this year, and likely more to follow in coming years.

Interest on the national debt is the third largest component of our annual federal budget, after non-discretionary social programs and military spending. In the most recent fiscal year, we paid $240 billion in interest on the national debt. That has been a relatively low cost, because the Fed has kept interest rates artificially low for years — as savers can attest.

Now, with the Fed hiking rates, interest costs are set to soar. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every one percentage point hike in rates will cost $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years! And that’s without adding to the debt itself every year by running budget deficits.

Which brings us to the current headline: The Debt Ceiling! We are once again running up against a nearly $21 trillion national debt ceiling.

You may remember that the issue of raising the debt ceiling was enough to shut down the government in 1995, and it almost happened again in July 2011. The ceiling was again reached in early 2013, triggering a previously enacted “sequester” deal to cut spending. The painful debt ceiling fight continued all summer, and on October 1, 2013, the government went into a partial shutdown for two weeks. Ultimately, a deal was made and the debt ceiling was raised. Since then, every time the budget deficit bumped up against the debt ceiling, some form of accommodation has been reached to push the issue into the future.

And now the debt ceiling issue is upon us again. I make no political predictions. But it is safe to say this issue will roil the markets.

So before that moment my advice is to look at your personal debt ceiling — and your investment portfolio — to see if you can withstand both higher rates and market turmoil. Unlike Congress, which never looks at reality, you’ll be glad you did. And that’s The Savage Truth.

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