I am always pleasantly surprised when I find a mainstream media article that displays a healthy dose of common sense when it comes to fiscal stimulus and debt.
Philip Coggan's special report Repent at Leisure, in The Economist manages to do just that.
Like alcohol, a debt boom tends to induce euphoria. Traders and investors saw the asset-price rises it brought with it as proof of their brilliance; central banks and governments thought that rising markets and higher tax revenues attested to the soundness of their policies.
The answer to all problems seemed to be more debt. Depressed? Use your credit card for a shopping spree "because you're worth it". Want to get rich quick? Work for a private-equity or hedge-fund firm, using borrowed money to enhance returns. Looking for faster growth for your company? Borrow money and make an acquisition.
Debt increased at every level, from consumers to companies to banks to whole countries. The effect varied from country to country, but a survey by the McKinsey Global Institute found that average total debt (private and public sector combined) in ten mature economies rose from 200% of GDP in 1995 to 300% in 2008 (see chart 1 for a breakdown by country).
There were even more startling rises in Iceland and Ireland, where debt-to-GDP ratios reached 1,200% and 700% respectively. The burdens proved too much for those two countries, plunging them into financial crisis. Such turmoil is a sign that debt is not the instant solution it was made out to be. The market cheer that greeted the EU package for Greece lasted just one day before the doubts resurfaced.
From early 2007 onwards there were signs that economies were reaching the limit of their ability to absorb more borrowing. The growth-boosting potential of debt seemed to peter out. According to Leigh Skene of Lombard Street Research, each additional dollar of debt was associated with less and less growth (see chart 2).
Stopping the debt supercycle
Rising government debt is a Ponzi scheme that requires an ever-growing population to assume the burden -- unless some deus ex machina, such as a technological breakthrough, can boost growth. As Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank, puts it: "Can the West, with its regulated industry, uncompetitive labour and large government, afford its borrowing-funded living standards and increasingly expensive public sectors?"
During the credit boom of the early 1990s and 2000s the conventional view was that it did not matter. Not only were asset prices rising even faster than debt but the use of derivatives was spreading risk across the system and, in particular, away from the banks, which had capital ratios well above the regulatory minimum.
The problem with debt, though, is the need to repay it.
Another reason why debt matters is to do with the role of banks in the economy. By their nature, banks borrow short (from depositors or the wholesale markets) and lend long. The business depends on confidence; no bank can survive if its depositors (or its wholesale lenders) all want their money back at once. If banks struggle to meet their own debts, they have no choice but to reduce their lending. If this happens on a large scale, as it did in the 1930s, the ripple effect for the economy as a whole can be devastating.
If the Western world faces an era of austerity as debts are paid down, how will that affect day-to-day life? Clearly a society built on consumption will have to pay more attention to saving. The idea that using borrowed money to buy assets is the smart road to riches might lose currency, changing attitudes to home ownership as well as to parts of the finance sector such as private equity.
This special report will argue that, for the developed world, the debt-financed model has reached its limit. Most of the options for dealing with the debt overhang are unpalatable. As has already been seen in Greece and Ireland, each government will have to find its own way of reducing the burden. The battle between borrowers and creditors may be the defining struggle of the next generation.
There is much more in the article so inquiring minds will want to give it a closer look.
Interactive Map of World Debt
Please click here to see an Interactive Map of World Debt
Interview with Philip Coggan's on the Economist Special Report on Debt
Philip Coggan's arguments regarding the Limits of Debt are similar to the viewpoint I expressed in Peak Credit on June 25, 2008.
Secular Attitude Change Underway
There is a secular attitude change happening right now. Boomers close to retirement are now (finally) scared to death as the equity in their houses has been vaporized. School age children are seeing homes foreclosed, and families destroyed over debt. The American consumer, who nearly everyone thinks will be back as soon as the economy picks up are mistaken.
Secular shifts like these come once in a lifetime. Sadly it's too late for many cash strapped boomers counting on equity in their houses for retirement.
Lessons Of The Great Depression Forgotten
The lessons of their great grandfathers who lived in the great depression era were forgotten. Over time, everyone learned to ignore the dangers of debt, risk, and leverage. Belief in the Fed and the government to bail out any problem are ingrained. Bank failures are distant memories.
Anyone and everyone who wanted credit got it, and on the easiest of terms: subprime, pay option arms, reckless leverage, and covenant lite debt and toggle bonds that allowed debt to be paid back with more debt. That's what it takes to hit a peak.
Peak credit has been reached. That final wave of consumer recklessness created the exact conditions required for its own destruction. The housing bubble orgy was the last hurrah. It is not coming back and there will be no bigger bubble to replace it. Consumers and banks have both been burnt, and attitudes have changed.
It took nearly 80 years for people to get as reckless as they did in 1929. 80 years! Few are still alive that went through the great depression. No one listened to them. That is the nature of the game. The odds of a significant bout of inflation now are about the same as they were in 1929. Next to none.
Children whose parents are being destroyed by debt now, will keep those memories for a long time.
The Lessons of Greece
Keynesian fiscal stimulus is nothing but a Ponzi scheme and all Ponzi schemes come to an end.
Such revelations will not stop the Keynesian fanatics from preaching because No policy ever performs badly enough to cause its disciples to abandon it.
However, the lesson from Greece are ...
1: Deficits do matter.
2: Eventually the market will force austerity whether the Keynesian and Monetarist clowns like it or not.