May 24, 2010

There’s an old story variously ascribed to any number of inscrutable Chinese men: how do you get the cat to bite a hot pepper? Zhou En Lai (or Mao, Chiang Kai Chek, or possibly that bloke who taught Grasshopper on the TV) asks his students. Fool 1 (for such stories always require at least two fools to counterpoint the intelligence of the Master) says that you simply force it down his throat.

Ah, no, you cannot use force—so Fool 2 says—mix it in with the cat meat (no, no, the meat meant for cats, not the meat of cats, despite this being a Chinese story) and is told that no, you must not fool the cat either. The answer of course is that you shove the hot chili pepper up the cat’s bum and it’ll be glad to bite it. And now to move from mythical Chinese sages to the distinctly non-mythical Federal Government.

How do you get Americans to buy lots of Treasury Bonds? We have deficits as far into the future as the eye can see. Someone, somewhere, has to keep buying the debt so that no politician ever has to feel a cold wind around his reelection prospects. Not everyone in government is actually a fool (it’s the elected part where incidence is higher than that in the general population, not the bureaucracy) so they’ve noted that there’s a few trillion dollars in the 401(k) accounts of the nation. So how can we get that money “invested” in Treasury Bonds rather than in something productive?

We can’t force people to do it, that would cause a revolution, despite what some people think is being mooted. We also cannot fool the people as others seem to think will happen. So we’re not going to confiscate the 401(k)s in return for a federal pension, nor are we going fool people into thinking that such would be a good idea. What we’re going to do is to make everyone want to buy Treasury Bonds with their hard-earned pension savings.

We’ll start with a note in the Federal Register. Much wise chin-stroking about how not enough people convert their capital into annuities as they age. I can tell you how the next stages go because this is what has been done in my native Britain over the past 15 years or so.

“The end result is that we’ve convinced the cat that it wants to bite the chili pepper, that our pensions, our savings we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating, will now have Joe Biden only a heartbeat away from determining their value.”

Bring in a rule that the majority (75 percent in the UK) of pension savings must be converted to an annuity by a certain age (75 years). Annuities are of course sold by insurance companies and the like, separately, and a few years apart so that no one really notices. Then change the rules on what said companies selling annuities can use to fund them. Instead of the long sufficient mix of a broad range of financial instruments, insist that they use bonds matching the expected payout maturities of the annuities. Then, again a little later, slip in an insistence that the bonds being used must be safe. Triple A, “AAA” for example. And who is it left that actually has AAA bonds? Yes, that’s right, in the UK it’s pretty much the Government itself and alone. In the US it’s the Feds who are the last people left standing.

Just to really hammer the point home you then insist that there should be no foreign currency risk either: such annuities must be supported by AAA bonds in the currency which the annuities are paid out in. Therefore, the only thing left for the insurance companies to invest in to produce the annuities are long term government bonds. We’ve managed to get another $2.5 trillion or so, which must be invested in them without at any point actually saying that your pension now depends upon the size of the US deficit, and what the size of the national debt does to inflation and the dollar.

It should be said that there’s nothing particularly or specifically wrong with any of these individual steps: annuities are good things, bonds are better than more volatile investments to fund annuities, yes, top quality bonds are better than lower quality. But the end result is that we’ve convinced the cat that it wants to bite the chili pepper, that our pensions, our savings we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating, will now have Joe Biden only a heartbeat away from determining their value.

Yes, as with the cat desperately gnawing it’s own entrails out, the relationship between our money and the government is basic and fundamental. We are once again being asked to drop our trousers, grab our ankles, and brace ourselves for the reaming that is to come. But by framing the rules properly the rapists will be able to show that we really did ask for it.


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