Debt without Growth

Much has been made of the fact that the last seven years have seen one of the weakest economic recoveries from recession on record. Not only has real growth been relatively low in this recovery but inflation has also remained consistently low. The two together comprise nominal (or money) GDP, which is the growth rate of the economy in actual money terms, and is what businesses and consumers experience directly. In the UK real growth of 1.5-2.0% is coinciding with inflation of near zero, so that nominal growth has been less than 2%. This compares with typical nominal growth rates of 5-6% before 2007.

This appears to be following a worryingly similar pattern to the Japanese economy which since the early 1990s has seen average real growth of about 1% and inflation of minus 1% giving zero nominal growth over the last twenty-plus years. Such stagnant nominal economic growth, if it goes on too long, affects expectations about the economy. When companies and households expect no or very little nominal growth, they lose confidence in future economic opportunities and do not seek to invest to benefit from such growth or seek to spend since there is a fair chance that purchasing anything will be cheaper in the future and they have little confidence that their revenues or pay are likely to rise in the future.

In such conditions debt becomes a huge burden as it is a fixed nominal sum. If it was taken on with expectations of nominal growth of 5% per annum, but in fact there is very little nominal growth, the cash flow to service the debt is harder to find. The rational behaviour of economic agents is thus to save and pay down debt, further constraining the level of demand in the economy and creating a negative feedback loop.

This process terrifies central bankers for while they all know how to get inflation to fall if it is too high, they do not possess safe tools to get inflation to rise when it is too low. Thus we have been in a world of first low interest rates, then zero interest rates and now negative interest rates and several rounds of QE where money has been pushed into the financial system. By and large these have failed to get inflation rising again though financial market assets have seen price inflation. Since the Global Financial Crisis, government deficits have continued to lead to more debt being issued while companies have also increased debt, not to invest productively but in order to buy back equity. Debt has continued to grow but economies have not kept up

There are only three ways to get rid of any debt burden – Deflate, Default or Devalue. “Deflate” means to spend less than your income to provide the savings to repay the debt – this is fine for individual borrowers, but troublesome for the economy when pursued by governments or many borrowers at the same time. “Default” means not repaying – a terrible solution for the lenders who will reduce their own spending to compensate and also become far less keen to lend again in the future. Since the first two are very unattractive options to policymakers, their preference is usually for “Devalue”. This means apparently repaying the debt but doing so with money that has far less value. There are two routes to achieving this, first (for governments) by letting your currency fall on the foreign exchanges and second by creating inflation so that the real value of the debt repayment is much less. A good way to achieve both routes is to create a lot more supply of your own currency.

So the global economy finds itself in a real bind – weak growth has meant that the debt burden has increased and this has ensured that weak growth will continue. Policymakers have so far been unable to break free of this cycle.

For investors, the key actions are to be prepared for continued low growth and low inflation – which means low returns from all asset classes – until such time as policymakers panic and decide to get serious about creating inflation to devalue the global debt burden. At that point bonds and cash will lose a lot of real value and gold will find itself in massive demand as the inflation hedge and the only currency that politicians cannot create at their discretion.

Resurrecting the world’s first economic policy idea

The Old Testament gives specific instructions to the Israelites as to how they should organise their society. One of the most intriguing from a modern-day economist’s perspective is that of the Jubilee. Every 50th year, all debts between Israelites were to be wiped clean, all land returned to the families that owned it 50 years previously and slaves freed. In today’s parlance, it was pushing the Reset button and starting afresh. There is little evidence that the Israelites followed this revolutionary idea, most probably because those who would benefit most were the poor and downtrodden and those who would benefit least were the rich and powerful!

Recently some economists such as Stephen Green have been proposing the idea of a Modern Debt Jubilee (http://moderndebtjubilee.blogspot.co.uk/p/modern-debt-jubilee.html) as having merit for solving today’s economic problems. The world is currently experiencing a balance-sheet recession rather than a standard cyclical recession. This is where individuals, governments and especially banks believe themselves to be over-indebted and seek to reduce their liabilities (debts) – there is a much reduced desire both to borrow and to lend. This inhibits overall demand in the economy, leading to slower growth which in turn holds back confidence in companies who defer investment.

The policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) is the printing of money to make banks balance sheets more liquid and thus encourage them to lend once more. An alternative Modern Debt Jubilee policy would be to print money and use it to repay some of the debt outstanding which is inhibiting economic growth – so returning to the concept of Jubilee. For example the government could decide to give every adult in the country £10,000 in a special account, which could at first only be used for the repayment of their debts. In this way, individuals could repay their most expensive debts (typically consumer credit), and banks would become both more liquid and have smaller balance sheets. For those who do not have debts use of the money could be restricted to paying for tertiary education, for buying a home for them to live in or providing a pension – all of which can be regarded as personal long term investment.

At the cost of a large amount of money, £450bn for the UK – (compared with the £375 billion of QE so far approved by the Bank of England) this Modern Debt Jubilee policy would significantly reduce consumer debts, provide better-funded pensions and boost the amount of equity in people’s homes. Though the use of this money would be restricted to “worthy” areas, there would certainly be a consumer wealth effect both from consumers just feeling less indebted and from the boost to disposable income from reduced interest payments. Demand in the economy would pick up and if the Bank of England feared inflation then they could easily reverse the QE as banks would not need the extra liquidity as consumers repaid debts. A little inflation, however, would be rather welcome as it would break the economy out of the deflationary mindset that it has fallen into currently.

If we do need to print more money to boost the economy, then this idea is a far more powerful way of ensuring it happens than replacing government bonds with cash in the banks’ balance sheets, the current QE policy.

Jubilee – the oldest and least used economic policy idea in history is definitely worth considering today in a modern form. For those at the bottom end of the income distribution, it would rid them of debts that burden their lives thereby pushing the Reset button on their personal finances. For the middle classes it is a way of either ridding themselves of expensive debt or encouraging long term savings.

Situation Vacant – one new genius economist

There is an old joke that if you laid down all the economists in the world from end to end, you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. It is certainly a tragedy that as the western world finds itself in the biggest economic mess since the 1930s, the economics profession is unable to articulate clear policies to resolve the problems.

Up until the 1930s, politicians did not see themselves as particularly responsible for the economy. The government’s finances were managed in the same way as any other family unit, in that you made sure that spending did not exceed income, and borrowing was only acceptable to cover the cost of emergencies like wars. Foreign exchange rates were all fixed by adherence to the gold standard and it was considered a shameful act to devalue.

This went wrong in the 1930s when the 1920s financial boom led to a banking crisis the following decade. As the banking system sought to deleverage its balance sheet, asset prices fell and unemployment soared. Wages fell but economic recovery did not come because the economy was in a Depression and companies and individuals did not have the confidence to spend. It took the economic genius, John Maynard Keynes to show how capitalism could get stuck in this Depression mindset with low growth and low interest rates. His solution was that governments should take advantage of their high credit status to borrow the excess savings that were being created by the lack of confidence and go out and spend them to kick-start an economic recovery. He always expected however that once recovery had returned, then governments would seek to run budget surpluses so that the extra borrowing was repaid and hence temporary.

Post-war politicians however focussed on the ideas that (i) budget deficits were now good for the economy and (ii) they had the power to manage the economy to deliver full employment, and ignored the idea of running budget surpluses in the good times to offset the deficits that should be run when bad times hit. As the decades wore on, the politicians promised their people more goodies from public spending, budgets only got balanced in economic boom conditions and the size of the governments’ debts relative to the size of their economies rose steadily.

Recent academic work (Rheinhart & Rogoff) has shown that as the Debt to GDP ratio nears 90%, the capacity for economic growth diminishes markedly. The Western world is at or past these limits and finds itself there just as the next 1930s style banking crisis has hit it. The standard Keynesian response of government borrowing and spending is now either not available since markets are unwilling to lend to some governments because they have lost their strong credit status, or not palatable since it is likely to damage longer term economic growth prospects.

In general the right-of-centre politicians (Merkel, Cameron, Romney) stress the need to get government deficits and debt under control, so as to retain the long term confidence of financial markets. This austerity agenda does nothing for short term economic relief however. The left-of-centre politicians (Hollande, Milliband, Obama) stress the standard, Keynesian policies of spending in the short term to enable recovery to occur. The problem here is that financial markets might only provide the funds at an unacceptably high interest rate, and trigger a wider debt crisis.

The positions of both sides contain important truths, but the arguments display the divisions between economists. Japan, over the last 20 years, can be used as an example to prove each is wrong. The Keynesian response of government borrowing and spending has not led to sustainable economic recovery but has led to a Debt to GDP ratio now of over 200%. However this massive debt burden has also not led to a financial market crisis (yet), as Japanese savers have been happy to lend to their government for miniscule returns.

A Nobel Prize, a place in history and the gratitude of the world surely await the economist who can untangle all this and provide the solution to our current problems.