Posts Tagged ‘government debt’

Next phase of GFC is when governments go bust

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

10 months have passed since the Panic of 2008 brought global stock markets to a low in March 2009. Since then, we had the “green shoots” of recovery (where economies were getting from worse to bad) and hopes of recovery. By today, we have some semblance of ‘recovery.’ But this ‘recovery’ is very uneven. For example, unemployment is not turning around yet in the United States. Much of Europe and Japan are still in the doldrums. Australia, on the other hand seems to be recovering and China is roaring ahead with an expected growth of 10% in 2010.

During the Panic of 2008, we had financial institutions and businesses going bust like dominoes, threatening to pull the world down into a Greater Depression. Governments all over the world suddenly became Keynesians and switched on their massive money printing press to bailout, rescue and spend, spend, spend in the name of ‘stimulating’ their economies. But as we said before in Will governments be forced to exit from ?stimulus??,

In fact, the word ?stimulus? is the most misleading word in economics lexicon because it conveys the idea of a surgeon ?stimulating? a heart into self-sustained beating. In reality, what government interventions did was to put the economy on a crutch. The longer the economy leans on the government crutch, the more dependent it will be on the government. Eventually, the government will become the economy. For those who haven?t already, we encourage you to read Preserving jobs at all costs leads to economic stagnation and Are governments mad with ?stimulating??.

So, with economies seemingly on the path to ‘recovery’ (especially in Australia and China) from a near death experience, this looks like a free lunch from the government isn’t it?

Unfortunately, the answer is “No!” Then what is the risk of governments putting economies on a crutch for an extended period of time?

As we quoted the BIS in July 2009 at Bank for International Settlements (BIS) warning on stimulus spendings,

Perhaps the largest short-term risk associated with the expansionary policies is the possibility of a forced exit. Monetary and fiscal authorities of the major economies have so far been relatively unconstrained in their ability to follow expansionary policies. This need not last. An extended period of stagnating economic activity could undermine the credibility of the policies in place. Governments may find it hard to place debt if market participants expect the underlying balance to remain negative for years to come. Under such circumstances, funding costs could rise suddenly, forcing them to cut spending or raise taxes significantly.

As we said before, during the Panic of 2008, we had financial institutions and businesses going bust like dominoes. This time round, governments will be going bust like dominoes. Today, if you read the financial press, you will find this disturbing trend: credit rating agencies are downgrading and threatening to downgrade the credit ratings of government debts.

While we do not trust credit rating agencies (since they are the ones who gave sub-prime CDOs triple-A ratings), we will treat their ratings as overly-optimistic in the first place. For investors, what is significant is not the ratings themselves. Rather, it is the pervasive trend of more and more downgrades that is much more indicative. As this article compiled a non-exhaustive list of news excerpt of sovereign debt downgrades, we noticed a very disturbing fact- a large number of countries (some of them are major countries) are involved.

Can this trend turn around (i.e. governments become more prudent in their fiscal management)?

We doubt so. As we said before, the word “stimulus” is a weasel word that is misleading and deceptive. Economies suffering from debt deflation cannot be ‘stimulated’ into self-sustaining growth. A better word is “crutch.” The problem with using crutches to prop up economies is that the longer they are in place, the more dependent economies are on them. Eventually, if they are in place for too long, the economy will descend into stagflation (see Supplying never-ending drugs till stagflation). Once you understand this, you will be able to read between the lines of this BBC article,

The International Monetary Fund head has warned that the global economy could experience another downturn – a so-called double dip recession.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn said countries should not exit from stimulus packages that have bolstered growth through huge amounts of government spending.

The longer governments delay from removing economic crutches, the bigger government debts will become. That, along with Medicare and social security liabilities for the growing ranks of retirees and shrinking rank of workers means that eventually, governments will become insolvent (not technically because they can resort to printing money).

Consider these countries:

  1. Japan, the world’s second largest economy, is a welfare superpower with a rapidly ageing population. Twenty years of economic ‘stimulus’ under debt deflation has resulted in government debt of almost 200 percent of GDP.
  2. The US government is the next to arrive, as they are currently where Japan is 20 years ago, with an unfunded Medicare and social security liabilities looming (see America?s balance sheet).
  3. As this Financial Times article warned,

    After crunching the data, McKinsey estimates that the gross level of British private and public debt is now 449 per cent of GDP ? up from 350 per cent at the start of the decade.

    And even excluding the liabilities of foreign banks based in the UK, the ratio still runs at 380 per cent ? higher than any country except Japan (closely followed by Spain where debt has also spiralled dramatically, according to a McKinsey report issued today.)

  4. Then we have the PIIGS countries, namely Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, where Marc Faber warned that one or more of these governments will likely blow up in the next couple of years. This will plunge the viability of the Euro as a currency in grave doubt. Will a default trigger a derivative meltdown?
  5. Then we have the other European countries like Latvia and Ukraine…

When governments go bust, we will have currency crisis. How do you protect yourself against this? Keep in tune!

First steps towards currency and trade blocs?

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By conventional wisdom, government debt is supposed to be the safest form of debt because governments cannot default on debt repayment due to their powers of taxation and monopoly on creation of money (out of thin air). Conventional wisdom also dictates that the US government debt is the safest of all government debts because the US dollar is the world reserve currency. Since most of the debt accrued by the US is denominated in their own currency (a luxury that no other nation can enjoy), there is no way it can default.

Well, in reality, governments do default on their debt. Russia did in 1998. Many banana nations did as well. But a nation as prestigious as the United States? Today, even the mainstream news media is toying with the heretical idea that the United States government may go bust (see Is sovereign debt the new sub-prime?). Will the US government debt become sub-prime?

If the world’s ultra safest debts becomes bad debts (whether via monetary inflation or outright default), what hope will there be for other debts?

As we wrote in Permanently low interest rates for Uncle Sam?, it is very difficult for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. Not only that, the current yields on the US government debt are ridiculously low (some of the yields are even negative). As we said before in What will be the next market panic?, this will piss off America’s creditors immensely. Some Chinese officials, whether fairly or not, are already accusing the US monetary policy as the culprit for price inflation and asset price bubbles in China. Some US officials, on the other hand, will point their finger at the Chinese’s ‘manipulation’ of their currency exchange rate as the cause of the bubbles, thus implying that it’s the Chineses’ fault. Also, as we speak, both the US and China are engaging in low-level trade war, with import restrictions on Chinese tyres and American chickens as the first step. We can see that trade restrictions between the two sides will gradually increase as time goes by.

On top of all that, Asian nations are considering capital controls to stem the danger of asset price bubbles in their home countries (see Asia Considers Capital Controls to Stem Bubble Danger). Assuming that US interest rates are going to remain negative in real terms for an extended period time, the considerations will eventually become a reality.

All these are happening in the context of increasing trade ties between Asian nations and reduce trade ties between the East and the West. All these may be a precursor to currency and trade blocs in the long term. As we quoted Murray Rothbard in our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion, between 1931 and 1945,

The international economic order had disintegrated into the chaos of clean and dirty floating exchange rates, competing devaluations, exchange controls, and trade barriers; international economic and monetary warfare raged between currencies and currency blocs. International trade and investment came to a virtual standstill; and trade was conducted through barter agreements conducted by governments competing and conflicting with one another. Secretary of State Cordell Hull repeatedly pointed out that these monetary and economic conflicts of the 1930s were the major cause of World War II.

Permanently low interest rates for Uncle Sam?

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Imagine you owe a lot of credit card debt. And also imagine you have a prodigal son who blew lots of money away in gambling debts and asked you for a bailout. So, you borrow more from your credit card to help bail out your son. Also, your yearly expenditure is projected to keep on rising.

As you borrow more, more and more of your yearly income is spent on debt repayment. What if, in 5 to 10 years time, half of your annual income has to be set aside for the interest payments alone for your debt? In addition to that, what if you have already made promises to your aged parents that you will be responsible for their aged care expense in that time? Eventually, it will come a time when you have to borrow more and more money to pay the interests on your debt. When that day comes, your debt will explode exponentially.

Well, this is the situation of the United States government. In this story, the prodigal son is Wall Street. The aged parents is the coming unfunded social security and Medicare liability of the US government. As the graph from this news article showed,

Interests on US debt

Interests on US debt

Now, what if you can choose the interest rates of your debt repayment. Obviously, you will select the lowest possible rates in order to reduce your debt burden. This is what the Federal Reserve will have to do. As we quoted Marc Faber in Marc Faber vs Steve Keen in inflation/deflation debate- Part 2: Marc Faber?s view,

By keeping short term rates artificially low and by monetizing the growing fiscal deficits a central bank digs its own grave in terms of its ability to pursue tight monetary policies when such policies become necessary.

The Fed controls the short-term interest rates. It has keep the rates low because by pursuing tight monetary policy now, the short-run cost of servicing the US government’s debt will be significantly increased. As this?news article reported,

A Treasury borrowing advisory committee reported in early November that “approximately 40 percent of the debt will need to be refinanced in less than one year.

If the US wants to pursue tight monetary policy soon, it will have to deal with the short-term government. One way to deal with it is to refinance the government debt with more expensive longer-term treasury bonds. But the further the term of the government debt, the less the Fed has control on the interest rates.

What if, the free market insists that the US government pay higher interest rates? In that case, the Fed will have to buy up the government debt (i.e. print money), which artificially pushes up the government bond prices (i.e. push down the yield on the government debt). This is highly price inflationary, which in turn will make the government debt even more undesirable by the free market. That will result in the Fed having to print even more!