The Shape of the Debt Reset

I was asked recently by Max Keiser who benefits in the case of a debt reset, and when we should expect such an event to occur.

I don’t think I answered it as comprehensively as I should have. I talked a little about the fact that events leading up to such an event could be extremely messy and its impact unpredictable, and so it is hard to say who will benefit, although we can expect the powers-that-be  — and particularly the Wall Street TBTF banks — to try and leverage events for political and financial gain. And of course, all three kinds of debt reset — heavy inflation, liquidation or an orderly debt jubilee — would look very different.

Here’s the problem:

The crisis in 2008 was one fuelled by excessive total debt. As society became more and more indebted the costs of servicing debt became proportionally higher, which has made it harder for countries to grow. Instead of individuals and businesses investing their income or growing their business, a higher and higher proportion of income becomes taken up by the costs of paying down debt.

Historically in a free market system, these kinds of credit bubbles have ended in liquidation of the entire bubble and all the bad debt. However the Fed’s money printing since 2008 (much like the Bank of Japan’s money printing in the 90s) has done just enough to keep the debt load serviceable.

The worrying thing is that Japan — which experienced a very similar series of events in the 1990s — remains in a high-debt, low-growth deleveraging trap. While the USA has managed a small decrease in indebtedness since 2008, it could take a very, very long time — Steve Keen estimates up to 15 or 20 years — for the debt level to fall to a level where strong organic GDP and employment growth is possible again. In my view, it is more likely (especially considering the Japanese example) that (with continued central bank assistance) there may be no long-run deleveraging at all, and that we may have entered a zombie cycle of reinflationary QE followed by market decline and deflation, followed by more reinflationary QE, etc. 

The point that I didn’t really emphasise to Max Keiser is just how beneficial a debt reset — so long as society comes out of it in one piece — will be in the long run. As both Friedrich Hayek and Hyman Minsky saw it, with the weight of excessive debt and the costs of deleveraging either reduced or removed, long-depressed-economies would be able to grow organically again. Yet after years of stagnation, a disorderly liquidation or inflation would surely be accompanied by financial, social and political chaos. And the cost of kicking the can and remaining in a deleveraging trap — as Japan has done (and as the US is now doing) — can have serious social consequences, such as elevated long-term unemployment, a deterioration in skills, diminished innovation and decreased entrepreneurialism.

I think this underlines the importance of trying to achieve the effects of a debt reset in an orderly way before nature forces it upon us again, and before we have spent a long time stuck in the deleveraging trap with a huge debt load relative to GDP, elevated unemployment, and very low growth. The least unfair way of doing this would seem to be the modern debt jubilee advocated by Steve Keen — print money, and instead of pumping it into the financial system as per QE, use it to write down a portion (say, $6,000) of each person’s debt load, and send out cheques up to an equal amount to those who are not indebted. Unlike with quantitative easing, because everyone gets the same quantity of new money, nobody receives a disproportionate transfer of purchasing power via the Cantillon effect, as happens not only with quantitative easing but also with more traditional monetary policy operations such as interest rate cuts, which are strongly correlated with disproportionately strong growth in the financial sector and bank assets. And the inflationary impact of the new money would be shared equally by everyone — rather than screwing pensioners or savers — because everyone would receive the same amount.

This is obviously not ideal, but it is surely better than remaining in a Japanese-style deleveraging trap.

Yet while most of the economic establishment remain convinced that the real problem is one of aggregate demand, and not excessive total debt, such a prospect still remains distant. The most likely pathway continues to be one of stagnation, with central banks printing just enough money to keep the debt serviceable (and handing it to the financial sector, which will surely continue to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else). This is a painful and unsustainable status quo and the debt reset — and without an economic miracle, it will eventually arrive — will in the long run likely prove a welcome development for the vast majority of people and businesses.

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No! Currency Wars Are Not Good!

Matthew O’Brien claims that competitive debasement is good for the global economy:

Currency wars get a bad rap. The trouble starts with that second word. Wars, as we all know, are very bad. And a currency war — where countries compete to lower their exchange rate to boost their exports — reminds people of the kind of trade protectionism that killed some economies in the 1930s. But currency wars are the best kind of war. Nobody dies. Everybody can profit. In fact, currency wars didn’t contribute to the Great Depression. They ended it.

The downside of devaluation is that no country gains a real trade advantage, and weaker currencies means the prices of commodities like oil shoot. But — and here’s the really important part — devaluing means printing money. There isn’t enough money in the world. That’s the simple and true reason why the global economy fell into crisis and has been so slow to recover. It’s also the simple and true reason why the Great Depression was so devastating. We know from the 1930s that such competitive devaluation can turn things around.

The world needs more money. Currency wars create money. It’s time for policymakers to forget the wrong lessons from history, get competitive, and start pushing down their currencies.

Since the last recession every major central bank in the world has fluffed up its balance sheet with purchases, pushing out new money into the system, and driving down exchange rates. So we already have a currency war.

The most obvious point is that the last thing the global geopolitical system — already knotted and twisted — needs is more strain, or more abrasions, and to some degree a currency war could strain relations. The biggest players in the developing world — China, Brazil, Argentina, India — are already experiencing elevated inflation. China and Russia and Brazil have all recently expressed deep unease at America’s policy.

Under such conditions, is it not reasonable to foresee that greater competitive debasement might lead to a full-blown trade war? An easy means for developing nations to stanch the decline in dollar-denominated holdings (FOREX, Treasuries, etc) would be to constrain the flow of dollars coming into their nations. How might that be done? Export quotas, and capital controls. I have long been of the view that the hyper-productive Eurasian nations do not “need” American consumption when they already have a big enough dollar hoard to recycle in domestic and regional consumption. America’s real economy is not being sustained by The Fed (that is sustaining the financial system), but rather by the ongoing free flow of goods and resources and energy from the developing nations to America. That’s the main reason why America spends so much money policing the world, to keep global trade flowing, and goods flowing into America. America consumes far more than she produces in terms of energy, in terms of finished goods, and in terms of components.

Simply, America has enjoyed a humungous free lunch on the back of the dollar’s reserve currency status. Nations throughout the world were willing to trade out their productivity, their resources and their energy for dollars, the international medium of exchange. America could sit back and diversify out of domestic productivity and into unproductive but nominally-higher-yielding financial services, consultancy, communications and entertainment. But dollars are no longer in such short supply; America has traded trillions and billions of them away. So some nations appear to be asking: Why do we need dollars? Why should we subsidise the Americans, when our own people go without? And of course, the Eurasian ASEAN bloc — and all the various new bilateral currency agreements, where Eurasian nations have agreed to ditch the dollar, and instead trade in their respective national currencies — is growing precisely to further this end, to diminish the American economic hegemony, and end the American free lunch. A series of currency wars could very easily be the thing that pushes the system into chaos.

Death by Hawkery?

Joe Wiesenthal presents an interesting case study:

These two charts basically explain everything.

The first chart shows the yield on the Swedish 5-year bond.

As you can see, it’s absolutely plummeting right now.

chart

Image: Bloomberg

Now here’s a look at its neighbor, Finland, and the yields on its 5-year bond.

chart

Image: Bloomberg

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM. Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two: Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

This is a narrow version of something that much of the media picks up on earlier last week that UK gilts were trading with a lower yield that German bonds, a reflection of the same principle: In UK the government can print. In Germany, it can’t.

Yes — investors are happier with the idea of buying bonds which may be debased by money printing, than they are with the idea of buying bonds which may be defaulted on because the sovereign cannot print. But there is another element at play here, which may be much bigger.

Easing, of any sort won’t solve the underlying global problem — as explained by Reinhart and Rogoff in better detail than I have ever done — of excessive debt levels. By conducting QE (i.e. taking sovereign debt out of the market) governments are simply artificially contracting the supply, and in my view pumping up a debt bubble.

It’s important to consider Japan here — yields in Japan are as low as ever, and creditors are still taking their pound of flesh. That can’t be a bubble, can it? Creditors aren’t losing their money? Well, it depends how you define return on investment. Investors in Japanese bonds may be getting their money back, but Japanese society is slowly being strangled by a lack of organic growth and a lack of any real kind of creative destruction. Wages and living standards fall while unemployment rises. So Japan has become zombified, and in theory similar cases like the United States and Britain should follow down the path of death by slow Keynesianism (they won’t, because they are far more combustible societies than Japan, but that is another story for another day).

In light of all that, while the Teutonic monetarist hawkery may superficially look stupid, if we look at the resulting Euro-implosion as a potential trigger to crash global markets, burst the global bond bubble, trigger a cascade of AIG -esque events, culminating in the breakdown of the global financial system, a debt reset, and a new global financial order well then it’s really quite clever. Ultimately, a debt reset is what is needed to effectuate new organic growth and new jobs, and to clear out the withered remains of umpteen bubbles that have been created in the last twenty years through easy money.

I doubt that the stern bureaucrats at the ECB are anywhere near as clever or far-sighted as this (their most significant concern appears to be sound monetarist economics) but there is quite possibly genius in this stupidity.

So — rather than death by hawkery, I foresee rebirth.

Of course, on the other hand the “hawks” may just end up printing like their American counterparts.