The Deleveraging Trap

Hayekians and Minskians agree on one key thing: an increase in debt beyond the underlying productive economy is unsustainable.

In my view, the key figures in defining this are total debt as a percentage of GDP, and its relationship with industrial production. Debt as a percentage of GDP tracks how much debt there is relative to one measure of economic activity, GDP. Yet GDP is a very limited tool of measurement; all GDP really tracks is the circulation of money. To get a clearer sense of the true relationship with underlying productivity, it is useful to compare the ratio of debt-to-GDP with the level of industrial production.

Up ’til the ’70s, debt-to-GDP grew more slowly than industrial production. That is healthy and sustainable. While the total market debt may grow in tandem with GDP, and with industrial production — indeed, this can be the case even under a gold exchange standard (as the gold supply increases) — there is no sensible reason for the ratio of debt-to-GDP to grow faster than industrial production. Indeed, this is symptomatic of just one thing — consumption without income, enjoyment without effort, living beyond the means of productivity. This is just an unsustainable bubble.

As the ’90s turned to the ’00s and the United States gains in industrial production ceased to accumulate, while GDP and most concerningly (and hilariously) while the debt-to-GDP ratio continued to increase. This was classical bubble behaviour, and the end came very poetically; the recession and the industrial production collapse hit just as growth in the debt to GDP ratio (as indexed against 1953 levels) finally surpassed growth in industrial production. Indeed, I hypothesise that a very strong indicator of a Minsky moment — when excessive indebtedness forces systemic deleveraging, leading to price falls, leading to widespread economic contraction — is the point when long-term growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds long-term growth in industrial output.

The debt-to-GDP ratio is gradually falling, yet it is still at a far higher level than the historical average, and it is still proportionately higher than industrial output. And at the same time, consumers are re-leveraging, and government debt is soaring. And industrial production is barely above where it it was a decade ago, and far below its pre-2000 trend line. We have barely started, and already this has been a slow and grinding deleveraging; rather than the quick and brutal liquidation like that seen in 1907 where the banking system was effectively forced into bailing itself out, the stimulationist policies of low rates, quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus have kept in business zombie companies and institutions carrying absurd debt loads. Like Japan who experienced a similar debt-driven bubble in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we in the West appear to have embarked on a low-growth, high-unemployment period of deleveraging; and like Japan, we appear to be simply transferring the bulk of the debt load from the private sector to the public, without making any real impact in the total debt level, or any serious reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio. 

Cutting spending — for both the private sector and public sector — is problematic. My spending is your income; as spending falls, income falls, which leads to more consumers, producers and governments attempting to deleverage. This leads to more monetary easing, simply to keep the zombie system stable, and keep the zombie debt serviceable. More consumers and producers can take on debt, at least for a time, but the high residual debt level makes any great expansion of productivity or growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load. It is a vicious cycle.

Quantitative easing does not even tackle the main challenge: reducing the debt load. In fact, it is targeted at precisely the opposite — increasing the debt load, by encouraging lendingBut lending into a society that is already heavily indebted leads to no great uptick in productivity, because consumers and producers are already over-indebted to begin with, so few can afford new debt. And banks — flush with cash — have no real incentive to lend; the less they lend, the more deflationary conditions are prone to become, increasing the purchasing power of their excess reserves (on which the central bank already pays interest). The outcome is greater economic stagnation, ’til the next round of monetary easing which leads to a brief uptick, and then further stagnation.

To break out of the deleveraging trap, the debt load needs to be drastically reduced. In my mind there are three potential pathways there, each with various drawbacks and advantages:

  1. Liquidation; when a debt-driven crash happens, the central bank stands back and lets it happen, as happened in 1907. Prices will drastically fall, many companies and banks and debt will be liquidated, until the point at which prices have fallen to a sustainable level. But we may have missed the boat — the crash already happened, the system has already been bailed out, and the financial system today has already become zombified. And under a system where the central bank determines the availability of money and the level of interest rates this approach has in the past led to excessive central-bank-enforced liquidation, from which the economy may struggle to recover, as happened after 1929.
  2. (Hyper)inflation; the central bank prints money and injects it into the economy via the banking system. Prices rise, wages rise, and the nominal debt remains the same, thus reducing the debt burden. While most economists who advocate such an approach advocate a slightly elevated level of inflation, the higher the rate of inflation, the more the residual debt load will be devalued; under a Weimar-style regime, mortgages could be repaid in a week. Unfortunately inflation is nonuniform; whoever gets the money first (i.e. banks) can buy up assets on the cheap, and pass the cost of the inflation down the chain of transactions. As Keynes himself noted: “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Inflation discourages savings and capital formation, which are necessary for new growth. And most significantly — as the Fed’s experiment with QE shows — inflation unless it is very severe will not even necessarily have much bearing on reducing the debt-to-GDP load. The results of a severe (hyper)inflation could be very chaotic and dangerous.
  3. Debt Jubilee; the central bank prints money, and injects it into the economy via the citizens, with the explicit condition that they use it to clear their debts. This will have the desirable effect of directly reducing debt levels, and lifting over-indebted consumers and producers out of the deleveraging trap. Additionally, the inflation would be uniform and so not to the advantage of the banks or the financial elite. However introducing a large quantity of money to the system — even directly as a medium for debt-cancellation — does itself carry a high inflationary potential.

Certainly, the current status quo of high unemployment, low growth, sustained over-indebtedness and zombie banks and corporations surviving on government handouts is not sustainable in the long run. We shall see which route out of the deleveraging trap we take. Liquidationism seems unlikely, as central banks are afraid of the concept. Inflation (or its unintentional corollary, currency collapse) seems risky and dangerous. A debt jubilee would at least address the real problem of excessive debt, although it is in modern times uncharted territory, and would surely face much political opposition.

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The Face of Genocidal Eco-Fascism

I am not exaggerating.

This is Finnish writer Pentti Linkola — a man who demands that the human population reduce its size to around 500 million and abandon modern technology and the pursuit of economic growth — in his own words.

He likens Earth today to an overflowing lifeboat:

What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.

He sees America as the root of the problem:

The United States symbolises the worst ideologies in the world: growth and freedom.

He unapologetically advocates bloodthirsty dictatorship:

Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent a dictator that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. The best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and where government would prevent any economical growth.

We will have to learn from the history of revolutionary movements — the national socialists, the Finnish Stalinists, from the many stages of the Russian revolution, from the methods of the Red Brigades — and forget our narcissistic selves.

A fundamental, devastating error is to set up a political system based on desire. Society and life have been organized on the basis of what an individual wants, not on what is good for him or her.

As is often the way with extremist central planners Linkola believes he knows what is best for each and every individual, as well as society as a whole:

Just as only one out of 100,000 has the talent to be an engineer or an acrobat, only a few are those truly capable of managing the matters of a nation or mankind as a whole. In this time and this part of the World we are headlessly hanging on democracy and the parliamentary system, even though these are the most mindless and desperate experiments of mankind. In democratic coutries the destruction of nature and sum of ecological disasters has accumulated most. Our only hope lies in strong central government and uncompromising control of the individual citizen.

In that sense, Linkola’s agenda is really nothing new; it is as old as humans. And I am barely scratching the surface; Linkola has called for “some trans-national body like the UN” to reduce the population “via nuclear weapons” or with “bacteriological and chemical attacks”.

But really he is just another freedom-hating authoritarian — like the Nazis and Stalinists he so admires — who desires control over his fellow humans. Ecology, I think, is window-dressing. Certainly, he seems to have no real admiration or even concept of nature as a self-sustaining, self-organising mechanism, or faith that nature will be able to overcome whatever humanity throws at it. Nor does he seem to have any appreciation for the concept that humans are a product of and part of nature; if nature did not want us doing what we do nature would never have produced us. Nature is greater and smarter than we will probably ever be. I trust nature; Linkola seems to think he knows better. As George Carlin noted:

We’re so self-important. Everybody’s gonna save something now. Save the trees. Save the bees. Save the whales. Save those snails. And the greatest arrogance of all, save the planet. What? Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned how to care for one another and we’re gonna save the fucking planet?

There is nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Difference. The planet is fine.

Linkola and similar thinkers seem to have no real interest in meeting the challenges of life on Earth. Their platform seems less about the environment and more about exerting control over the rest of humanity. Linkola glories in brutality, suffering and mass-murder.

Now Linkola is just one fringe voice. But he embodies the key characteristic of the environmental movement today: the belief that human beings are a threat to their environment, and in order for that threat to be neutralised, governments must take away our rights to make our own decisions and implement some form of central planning. Linkola, of course, advocates an extreme and vile form of Malthusianism including genocide, forced abortion and eugenics.

But all forms of central planning are a dead end and lead inexorably toward breakdown; as Hayek demonstrated conclusively in the 1930s central planners have always had a horrible track record in decision making, because their decisions lack the dynamic feedback mechanism present in the market.  This means that capital and labour are misallocated, and anyone who has studied even a cursory history of the USSR or Maoist China knows the kinds of outcomes that this has lead to: at best the rotting ghost cities of China today, and at worst the mass starvation of the Great Leap Forward resulting in millions of deaths and untold misery.

Environmentalists should instead pursue ideas that respect individual liberty and markets. There is more potential in developing technical solutions to environmental challenges than there is in implementing central planning.

If we are emitting excessive quantities of CO2 we don’t have to resort to authoritarian solutions. It’s far easier to develop and market technologies (that already exist today) like carbon scrubbing trees that can literally strip CO2 out of the air than it is to try and develop and enforce top-down controlling rules and regulations on individual carbon output. Or (even more simply), plant lots of trees and other such foliage (e.g. algae).

If the dangers of non-biodegradable plastic threaten our oceans, then develop and market processes (that already exist today) to clean up these plastics.

Worried about resource depletion? Asteroid mining can give us access to thousands of tonnes of metals, water, and even hydrocarbons (methane, etc). For more bountiful energy, synthetic oil technology exists today. And of course, more capturable solar energy hits the Earth in sunlight in a single day than we use in a year.

The real problem with centrally-planned Malthusian population reduction programs is that they greatly underestimate the value of human beings.

More people means more potential output — both in economic terms, as well as in terms of ideas. Simply, the more people on the planet, the more hours and brainpower we have to create technical solutions to these challenges. After all, the expansion of human capacity through technical development was precisely how humanity overcame the short-sighted and foolish apocalypticism of Thomas Malthus who wrongly predicted an imminent population crash in the 19th century.

My suggestion for all such thinkers is that if they want to reduce the global population they should measure up to their words and go first.