“According to Hoisington, debt in the U.S., that has jumped from 200% in 1987 to about 370% now. In the euro zone, it has gone from about 300% of GDP in 1999 to more than 460%. Japan’s debt stands at a monstrous 650% of GDP, while China’s total debt has quadrupled since 2008, to 300% of GDP.”
Barrons, 20th of february 2016
Using various statistics, Paul Singer recently summarized the total nominal value of global debt at 161 trillion, while global market cap., as defined by the World Federation of Exchanges, comparatively floats just above the 64 trillion mark. Sobering numbers. It pays to refocus every now and then, on what really matters. Like debt. In fact, I think it is an indispensable obligation. The stream of social, economic and market events of late flows faster and faster yet -in a seemingly unstoppable acceleration. QEs, LTROs, ZIRPs, NIRPs, CoCos, and a large list of acronyms, speak for the financial revolution taking place worldwide. It is easy to get lost in the media narrative, if not in the details. The devil lives there, and if you lose sight of the big picture you are lost (regardless of translation or not). Now is not the time for bottom-up approaches. The big picture is overwhelming.
Ubiquitous debt is the name of the disease, and most of the pathology in actual global economic performance is caused, directly or remotely, by the debt overhang. Too simple? I am cognizant of the limits to simplification. Einstein constantly mentioned that processes and realities ought to be outlined as simply as possible, but no more. The debt overhang is, of course, not a simple stand-alone concept (nothing in economics is), and is deeply rooted in the easy money policies of the last 25 years, regardless of Keynesian denial.
In truth, it is fair to say that easy money in itself can not affect the real economy negatively (or positively), if it has not morphed into asset bubbles, malinvestments, or altered inflation levels. Krugman has been fast to vindicate his success, regardless of belatedly allowing for a questionable efficiency of the monetary policy he endorsed over the last couple of years, those policies did no harm -conveniently forgetting the second round effects of those policies. Ain’t he smart! Somehow, miraculously, Keynesian priests never seem to be at fault.
Excess money is then, apparently, only a benign malfunction of the system. Hence, at the end of the day, it has to be something else (and not the Princeton doctrine) that spoils the party.
Like debt accumulation or inflation. Up to know, the former has indeed played the primary role as a GDP growth buster, but the role of inflation might be upgraded if easy money persists -and relentless printing to support the “statu-quo” ensues. At some point (not linear and thus impossible to predict accurately) it will alter the equilibriums in the economic system. Not likely in the short term, but not to be discarded lightly for the longer run. Stanley Fisher keeps on mentioning the issue, and I think he is one of the few central bankers to deserve our respect.
Or like asset bubbles or malinvestments. They are, of course, the sole cause of the problem. Helicopters, printing presses, and their respective pilots and maintenance engineers are not to be blamed for that. After all, according to Ben, literally, Monetary Policy is too blunt a tool to prevent them. Even if it is now crystal clear that monetary recipes did not work as expected (something we have for years been arrogantly stating was sure to happen), Keynesian priests are not to be blamed: all their zirping, printing and, late nirping, did no direct harm to the real economy. Have Keynesian priests never read Frederic Bastiat?
“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”
Debt matters and monetary policy has notorious side effects. “Malheureusement“, for as long as we keep the debt overhang growing, the only way to stabilize the system is pervasive monetary debasement. Options for that questionable end are: printing in the reserve currency (the most effective stabilizer), printing in other currencies (inconveniently it generates USD strength), or nirping away the value of the currency kept as long term savings. Not to mention the permanent and constant redistribution of income from savers to debtors, and all the economic inconvenient it generates (moral issues aside). It is for that main reason (and some others) that I am totally confident that reigniting growth is incompatible with the maintenance of the debt overhang. Japan showed us the way. At best, we will muddle through, with low growth and deteriorating debt ratios, and increasingly unfunded entitlement contingencies.
On a different note, markets just moved up dramatically, and I have been adamant about the continuation of the downward moves in equities and credit spreads (particularly in the low to below investment-grade universe of debt securities). The market has proved me wrong. “Mea culpa”. Maybe I should refrain from further Keynesian bashing while my reputation is at stake. I ought to Forget Paul and Ben, and try to make money -and help my readers make money. What about equity prices? What’s going on? Continue reading