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The Fed in a Box Part 1: They Cannot Raise Interest Rates

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3 Key Takeaways

  1. The US Government has over $28 Trillion in Debt
  2. Much of the debt is short-term, making it extra sensitive to higher rates
  3. Higher Interest Rates would immediately start putting strain on the Federal Budget


The US has over $28 Trillion dollars in debt and it continues to grow at an alarming rate. Even before COVID-19, the problem was becoming unwieldy. Ironically, despite adding $4T+ in debt over the last year, the pandemic may have given the US Government a short-term reprieve as it gave the Federal Reserve a green light to drop rates back to zero.

First and foremost, this took the pressure off the Treasury as it refinanced the ballooning short-term debt outstanding at lower rates. However, even more relief occurred as the Federal Reserve absorbed +90% of the long-term debt issued since last March. This allowed more room in the private markets to purchase the issuance of new short-term Treasury Bills. Because the Fed pays interest revenue back to the Treasury, and since interest rates on Treasury Bills are sitting at 0%, this has effectively given the Treasury a $4.5T loan at 0% interest in 15 months!

While this sounds like a great deal, it comes with major risks and has now put the Fed in a box. This will be explained in detail over two articles. Part 1 will explain why the Fed can no longer raise interest rates, and Part 2 will show how the Fed is unable to taper and may even need to increase Treasury purchases to maintain control over the long end of the yield curve.

$28 Trillion and Growing

The US Government cannot stop spending money. Spending is now far in excess of what is being collected in tax revenues. The US economy continues to experience nominal increases in growth, which has increased Federal Tax receipts, but Federal Spending is growing far faster. Figure 1 below, shows this clear trend.

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Excess spending has to be paid for using debt. This massive excess in spending has led to proliferate borrowing by the Federal Government resulting in over $28T in total debt outstanding. See figure 2 below.

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For anyone struggling to wrap their mind around the size of $1T, please see this great visual. Now, multiply that by 28!

For most governments, this would be unsustainable as interest rates would rise. This puts pressure on a borrower to bring down spending. The US Government has benefited from three major advantages that are not available to most governments. First, it has the exorbitant privilege of issuing the global reserve currency (for now), which creates far more demand for dollars than would otherwise be the case. The petro-dollar should have its own dedicated article, so that will be skipped in this analysis.

It is important to highlight two other key facts that have allowed spending and borrowing to continue unabated. It has been able to borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund, and the Federal Reserve has absorbed a large chunk of debt issuance in recent years. Not only does this equate to $11T in interest-free loans (as all interest payments return back to the Treasury), but it has prevented the private markets from absorbing all new debt issuance keeping interest rates lower. As Figure 3 below shows, since Jan 2010, the private markets have “only” had to absorb $9T of the $14.5T issued.

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Since Jan 2020, the numbers are even more stark. The Treasury has issued $4.5T, of which the Fed has taken on $2.6T (Note: The Fed balance sheet has expanded by greater than $4T, but not all of this was Treasury Debt). Looking deeper into the numbers shows the Fed had an even bigger appetite for longer-dated maturities. With Short Term rates at 0%, the Treasury can sell Treasury Bills to the private sector and still have an interest-free loan. Thus, it has been critical for the Fed to absorb almost all (~90%) the long-term debt issued by the Treasury to keep interest payments low!

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The Treasury has so far avoided higher interest payments

Zooming back out, the three charts below show why the maneuvers over the last year have been so important. Take one more look at the US Debt load, this time categorized by vehicle. Non-Marketable is debt the government owes itself, Notes represent 1-10 year maturity, Bills less than 1 year, and Bonds >10 years. The two charts below show both the absolute growth in debt and how the makeup of the debt has changed. Since 2008, Notes have experienced the largest growth increasing from 25% of total outstanding to 42%. Non-Marketable went the other way, shrinking from 45% to 25% as the Social Security Trust Fund is no longer a source to borrow from.

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It is important to notice the growth in Treasury Bills above. Bills are the highest risk to the Treasury because higher interest rates will affect Bills within months, so it is important to note that in 2015 during the last rate hike cycle they accounted for only $1.4T but now make up $4.3T. This means every .25% rate hike will almost immediately add $10B to Federal spending. The chart below clearly shows the impact of the last interest rate hike cycle. The Pink line shows how Bills followed the Fed hike cycle topping out near 2.25%.

If the Fed attempted to raise rates in a similar fashion it would immediately add $100B to Federal Spending on ONLY interest due for Treasury Bills. In a scenario where the Fed shrunk its balance sheet back to $1T (no more interest free loans) AND raised interest rates back to 4%, the Treasury would incur an extra $160B in interest rates for Treasury Bills and a whopping $290B on Treasury Notes! This would not factor in any new debt added over that time, which now includes an extra $.5T a year just on interest payments!

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The chart below shows a much clearer impact of how falling interest rates have kept debt payments relatively stable for nearly 20 years. The chart shows the average weighted interest rate and the annualized monthly interest payments. The orange line (average weighted interest rate) is moving in direct opposition to the growth in debt seen above. In the last rate tightening cycle, the chart shows just how quickly higher interest rates increased the debt burden ($150B). The Fed owns very few Treasury Bills ($320B), so those interest payments are NOT returning to the Treasury.

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One final chart to consider. How do these interest payments compare to tax revenue collected by the IRS? In this context, it becomes very clear how much impact the 2015 rate cycle increases had on debt payments.

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Wrapping Up

Nothing in this article should be surprising to anyone who even closely watches the US Debt situation or follows financial markets. The charts and graphs attempted to show the trends and put hard numbers behind what most people already know anecdotally. This article does not even touch on how devastating higher interest rates would be on the housing market, corporate debt market, and consumer debt market. Instead, it only focuses on the Treasury, which just so happens to be run by the old chair of the Federal Reserve (Janet Yellen).

None of this math is overly complex, and all the data is freely available on the Treasury and Fed website. This begs the question, does the Fed realize interest rates cannot go up or are they only looking in the rear-view mirror and assuming that an increase to 2.25% will be similar to 2015 which was “only” derailed by COVID-19? To reiterate, the drop in interest rates gave the Treasury relief from the higher interest payments. Next time they might not even get halfway to 2% with the added debt burden. Unfortunately, for the Fed, their box is tighter than most realize. If the Fed hasn’t figured it out by now, even before they fail to raise interest rates, they will be unable to taper quantitative easing (debt monetization) much less shrink their balance sheet, without serious consequences. That data will be reviewed in Part 2. Stay tuned!

US Debt interactive charts and graphs can always be found on the Exploring Finance dashboard:

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