If Debt Was The Problem...
Confounded Interest just posted a nice summary of a McKinsey report on the growth of global debt during what some persist in calling the "great deleveraging." Turns out that since the crisis of 2008, debt has actually risen by $57 trillion, and the ratio of debt to GDP is up 17 percentage points to 286%. Meanwhile, central banks are monetizing 100% of newly-issued sovereign debt.
The obvious response to this is 1) wow, nothing has been fixed; in fact just the opposite, and 2) these stats, horrendous as they are, are incomplete because they don't include unfunded liabilities of governments and private pensions, which are just as real as any other kind of debt.
But unfunded liabilities must be getting better, what with the stocks and bonds in pension fund portfolios soaring lately. Right? Since that's an effortless Google search, that's what I did. And the results were both counterintuitive and scary. It seems that even with pension fund investment portfolios booming, obligations to future retirees are rising even faster, making these entities even more underfunded today than in 2007. Here's a sampling of the headlines just from February, in the order they appear in the search window:
Unfunded liabilities and the investment smokescreen
US teachers state pensions near $500 billion in underfunded liabilities
Teacher pensions: the math adds up to a crisis
Unfunded pension liabilities up for Pittsburgh
Cascade report exposes $26 billion unfunded liabilities
Prescott unfunded pension liability surpasses $70 million
Sacramento's 'wall of debt' grows dangerously high
Absent from this list is the US federal government's number, though that's also easy to find. From Forbes: You Think The Deficit Is Bad? Federal Unfunded Liabilities Exceed $127 Trillion. That's about 6 times the reported federal debt.
Now, easy money advocates argue that the solution to this and all other unbalanced economic equations is to borrow and spend enough new cash to get asset prices up and put people back to work. But stocks and bonds are currently at record highs and the unemployment rate is below 6% (peak-of-the-cycle kinds of numbers that have historically preceded corrections in which investment returns and tax receipts both plunge, raising unfunded liabilities).
So it looks like we've thrown our best punch and the problem is still standing there, wondering if that's all we've got. Which leaves the US and the rest of the world -- where debt and unfunded liabilities also continue to rise -- with the question: If debt was the thing that nearly destroyed the global financial system in 2008 and debt -- both narrowly and broadly defined -- is way up since then, what happens in the next downturn? The answer is who knows, because this is uncharted territory both in terms of the size of the imbalances and governments' policy responses.
The only thing that's certain is that there are more cities, states and related pension funds poised to blow up than ever before.