Deal or no deal, debt drama is not going away
Are you tired of all the stories on Europe’s financial crisis and American politicians’ endless bickering about debt and deficits? Are you tired of weekends of hectic negotiations as policymakers rush to cobble together some agreement before markets open? If you are, you are not the only one.
Millions of people, including stressed-out policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, wish to put these issues behind them. Unfortunately, despite many announcements, they are unable to do so decisively, and for good reason.
So we better understand why, if we want to minimize the risk of collateral damage and unintended consequences.
To do so, you need only remember one rather clumsy phrase: “safe de-levering” (also known to some as “safe de-leveraging”), or the lack thereof. Consider please each word, starting with the second one.
De-levering refers to the rehabilitation of balance sheets that have gotten over-indebted to such an extent that they are unsustainable going forward. The contributing causes are usually numerous and many years in the making.
In Europe, three peripheral countries face immediate and significant de-levering pressures. Greece and Portugal are two of them. They had too many years of irresponsible government spending, inadequate taxation, weak public administration, and insufficient economic growth. The third, Ireland, was fiscally responsible but made the big mistake of using what was a relatively healthy public balance sheet to assume the massive losses of its irresponsible banks.
These three countries now face a buyers’ strike. Lenders have been resisting the renewal of their credit lines and, needless to say, have no appetite whatsoever to provide incremental funding. No wonder interest rates have soared and financing has dried up, other than official bailouts from neighboring countries, the European Central Banks and the International Monetary Fund.
The result is not just a liquidity crisis; but also a solvency one. With government gross debt burdens ranging from 100 percent of GDP in Portugal to 156 percent in Greece, these countries are now embarked on an unpleasant, forced de-levering process.
America’s case is different. Yes, it has a high budget deficit (over 10 percent of GDP) and has experienced a dramatic increase in its debt-to-GDP ratio since the global financial crisis. Yes, the fiscal outlook gets cloudier as a result of a structurally weak budget. But unlike peripheral Europe, it is nowhere near an immediate liquidity crisis.
America’s creditors are more than willing to fund the country at historically low interest rates. Rather, it is political squabbles that have dramatically brought forward medium-term fiscal challenges, and have done so through the use and misuse of the debt ceiling, an arcane but, as we have all found out, a rather lethal legislative weapon.
We should all accept that Europe and America — the former for fundamental reasons and the latter for self-inflicted ones — are now in a de-levering cycle whose consequences will be with us for many years.
The actual process of de-levering can play out rather quickly. Indeed, too fast a de-levering can be catastrophic in terms of its impact on growth, employment and poverty. So you can be sure that policymakers will do their utmost to deliver a safe, gradual process.
The best way to do so is through high economic growth. This maintains living standards and generates incremental income to pay off debt, thus providing an orderly path to medium-term debt sustainability. Unfortunately, this option is not available today to either Europe or the US as both are stuck in what PIMCO has been describing for over two years now as the bumpy journey to a new normal.
Other than some short bursts, Europe and America are unable to sustain the sort of economic recovery that would make a meaningful dent in their debt dynamics. They will remain in this regrettable situation until policymakers become more serious about a comprehensive and coordinated set of measures to remove structural impediments to sustained economic activity — including steps to improve the functioning of the housing and labor markets, better worker retooling and retraining, enhanced education systems, even more bank lending, improved productive infrastructure, etc.
If they are unable to grow out of their debt problems, countries have four other options. Two of these are also available to us as individuals: we can default, and let restructuring lower our debt burdens, albeit in a rather disorderly fashion; or we can implement austerity, spending less in order to generate cash to pay off our debt.
Because countries control the printing presses and write regulations — things that the rest of us do not have or cannot do — they have two additional alternatives. They can try to inflate their way out of the debt, or they can reduce it through years of “financial repression,” that is, paying millions of depositors and creditors much less than they deserve in order to divert funding to debt payments.
Judging from what we have seen so far, governments are opting for different mixes.
The three peripheral European governments are imposing harsh austerity on their populations — remember the riots in Greece? — and also benefiting from the willingness of their European neighbors to financially repress their citizens in order to provide additional official funding. At least one (Greece) is having to go further by also partially restructuring its debt.
America is talking about austerity, including this past weekend’s compromise fiscal framework, but using financial repression. So far, this has taken the form of the Federal Reserve maintaining interest rates at extremely low levels for an exceptionally long period of time — so much so that savers and creditors are paid interest rates that are below inflation, and in some cases, well below inflation.
This will not suffice. Look for America to intensify financial repression through regulations that forces banks and other regulated entities to hold low yielding government securities. Also, it will attempt to generate unanticipated inflation. Ultimately, it will be forced into more painful austerity involving both spending and tax measures.
The de-levering pressures will be with us for years, and governments will mix and match from the menu of options. Accordingly, periodic debt dramas and crises will not go away any time soon. Debt is simply too high and there isn’t enough economic growth to painlessly de-lever. Each response that governments decide to adopt has different implications for us, as savers, investors, debtors, home owners, and business people (the topic of a future piece).
Unfortunately, none of us have the ability to fully insulate ourselves from the collateral damage and unintended consequences. The best we can do is to understand the process, including what governments will do. In this way, we can try to minimize, though never eliminate, the adverse impact of de-levering.