The horrifying AAA debt-issuance chart

By Felix Salmon
July 15, 2011
This is why I love FT Alphaville in general and Tracy Alloway in particular: she'll dutifully read 14 pages into something entitled "The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision Joint Forum Report on Asset Securitisation Incentives" before coming across this chart and immediately realizing just how important it is.

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This is why I love FT Alphaville in general and Tracy Alloway in particular: she’ll dutifully read 14 pages into something entitled “The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision Joint Forum Report on Asset Securitisation Incentives” before coming across this chart and immediately realizing just how important it is.

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I’ve put a bigger version here for people who want to pass it around in all its horrifying glory, but it’s also worth spelling things out, because it might not be immediately obvious.

The big-picture thing to remember when looking at this chart is something which I’ve said many times before — that it wasn’t an excess of greed and speculation which led to the financial crisis, but rather an excess of overcaution, with an attendant surge in demand for triple-A-rated bonds. On a micro level, triple-A securities are safer than any other securities. But on a macro level, they’re much more dangerous, precisely because they’re considered risk-free. They breed complacency and regulatory arbitrage, and they are a key ingredient in the cause of all big crises, which is leverage.

At the left-hand side of the chart we see that global issuance of triple-A bonds was more or less nonexistent back in the early 90s. All those Treasury bonds, all those agency securities from Fannie and Freddie, all that Japanese debt — add it all up, and it still comes to essentially zero by the standards of what seems normal today. Check out the left-hand y-axis: it goes up in $1 trillion increments. And we’re not talking stock, here, we’re talking flows: this chart is issuance per year.

(It’s pretty easy to see, looking at this chart, how a company like Pimco can find itself with over $1 trillion in assets under management: that’s now just a small fraction of the bonds issued each year.)

Now zoom back, and look at the chart as a whole: it’s going up and to the right, which says two things. Firstly, the amount of debt in the world is soaring. That’s a bad thing, because debt is much more systemically dangerous than equity. And secondly, the amount of triple-A debt in the world is soaring as well. Which is a worse thing, because triple-A debt is much more systemically dangerous than most other debt.

Then look at the green line. Triple-A debt wasn’t a huge part of the bond market back in the early 90s, but for the past decade it has invariably accounted for somewhere between 50% and 60% of total global fixed income issuance. That’s possibly the most horrifying bit of all: it simply defies credulity for anybody to be asked to believe that more than half the bonds issued in any given year are essentially free of any credit risk.

Finally, look at the way that the maroon bars — structured products, basically — have given way to a scarily large purple bar at the far right of the chart. That’s sovereign debt, and it tells you all you need to know about where the next crisis is likely to come from.

In a nutshell, triple-A debt is dangerous; there’s far too much of it; its growth seems out of control; and the triple-A problem has now become a sovereign-debt problem, in a world where sovereign-debt crises are the most damaging crises of all.

All that said, there are two things worth bearing in mind which make the chart slightly less horrific. The first is that for reasons I don’t understand, the chart ends in 2009, a crisis year when sovereigns pulled out all the stops in their attempt to prevent a global Depression. We’re more than halfway into 2011 at this point, there’s no good reason why the chart couldn’t include 2010 as well. And that might show 2009 as being a bit of an aberration. Does anybody have the numbers for total triple-A bond issuance in 2010, and how much of that was sovereign?

And secondly, any kind of debt-issuance chart is likely to go up and to the right to some extent, just because borrowing needs never go away, and old debt needs to get rolled over. The total stock of triple-A debt isn’t increasing by this many trillions of dollars per year, and it would be great to see a second chart of how much that is increasing, and how much of it is sovereign.

Still, flows matter. If sovereigns start being downgraded from triple-A status, debt is going to get a lot more expensive, and those rollovers — which cost very little in the current interest-rate environment — will really start to bite. And the invidious thing about debt is that it doesn’t go away. Deleveraging is painful, and is often accompanied by inflation or default. And the more debt you have to start with, the more painful deleveraging is going to be. Prepare yourselves.

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