While Greece continues to inch its way towards a [now completed] deal with its EU partners, the creditors of a much-larger debtor, the US government, appear to be untroubled. Ten-year Treasury bonds still yield just 2%. But the issue of how the US addresses its long-term fiscal problems is, as yet, unresolved. A series of papers from the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University in Washington DC, called “Tipping Point Scenarios and Crash Dynamics” attempts to address the issue.
Perhaps the most provocative paper comes from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel who reasons that default is virtually inevitable because a) federal tax revenue will never consistently rise much above 20% of GDP, b) politicians have little incentive to come up with the requisite expenditure cuts in time and c) monetary expansion and its accompanying inflation will no more be able to close the fiscal gap than would an excise tax on chewing gum. Most controversially, he argues that “the long-term consequences (of default), both economic and political, could be beneficial, and the more complete the repudiation, the greater the benefits.”
Why does he take this view? Allowing for the Treasuries owned by the Fed, the trust funds and foreigners, total default could cost the US private sector about $4 trillion. In contrast, the fall in the stockmarket from 2007 to 2008 cost around $10 trillion. In compensation, however, the US taxpayer would no longer have to service the debt; their future liabilities would be lower.
It’s nice to know I’m not just one lone voice in the wilderness. But I think most readers already knew most of this. There is significant empirical evidence that when the problem is excessive systemic debt, neither austerity nor inflation are sufficient tools to really reduce the debt. Austerity tends to bring the problem to a head, while inflation tends to kick the can down the road. The latter may stabilise the system, but as we have seen in Japan, this does not necessitate recovery. If we want real debt erasure, we need measures that really erase debt.
By building a new system we can open a window onto whole new world of possibilities for reform. One possibility is the return of Glass-Steagall-style separation between investment and retail banking, and a complete ban on complex derivatives contracts.
And there is nothing morally wrong with default. Investors in government debt should do their due diligence, and be aware that for all the political bleating and obsequious promises from politicians, ratings agencies and Warren Buffet there is always a risk of default with sovereign debt. Debt is only ever as good as its issuers ability to generate sufficient revenues.
There was never any guarantee that this era of unrestrained credit creation, globalisation, job migration and American imperialism could go on forever.