Could England be headed for a “sudden stop?”

Nov 21, 2009 17:41 UTC

From Landon Thomas at NYT: In Britain, visions of Japan’s decade of stagnation

Britain may finally be emerging from recession, but many analysts warn that it is a false dawn. In fact, they argue, the economy here is so ravaged by growing debts and ruined banks that it could well be following in the steps of Japan’s lost decade of the 1990s.

I still don’t understand why we refer to Japan’s “lost decade,” singular. The country is now moving into its third consecutive lost decade.The Nikkei is still at 1984 levels.

But back to the UK: the NYT piece quotes the latest research from Variant Perception (no link). I got it in my inbox earlier this week and it’s a fascinating (though not pleasant) read. Notably, they talk about the outside possibility of a “sudden stop” event. As mentioned in this space before, a “sudden stop” is what happens to emerging economies when they lose access to capital markets. Confidence is lost in the government’s ability to pay back debt and everyone races to get out of the system. See Argentina.

The problem is acute for indebted emerging markets because they don’t borrow in a currency they can print. So, the argument goes, you can’t have a sudden stop in Britain, or the US, because we print the currency in which our debt is payable.

I’ll let the VP guys take it from here:

The UK’s fiscal situation is in its most precarious state for 30 years. The Bank of England has responded by cutting rates to historic lows. This has merely bought time. Debt in the household sector remains at its highs, and enormous relief has been provided to many overleveraged mortgage holders who hold tracker deals [i.e. teaser-rate mortgages]. They have been able to ride out the recession so far without defaulting. As their trackers expire and they reset to higher rates they will face acute problems.

Usually a government can quickly return to fiscal vitality after a cyclical upturn. The UK will find this difficult. Structural problems such as a heavy reliance on the business and finance sectors and a consumer that will eventually have to deleverage will provide strong headwinds to any sharp turnaround in revenues.

To pay for the shortfall in income, the UK government has stepped up bond issuance to generational highs. This is not sustainable and taxes will eventually have to rise. However, there is a belief that raising taxes will increase revenue. We believe the opposite is true, and the state will have to borrow more than is projected, for longer than is hoped.

The Bank of England has embarked upon a quantitative easing program to support the gilt market. The sheer size of the initiative raises the question of whether it will be able to reverse it in a stable and orderly manner. Any trip-ups in its unwind would raise yields considerably.

The structural problems in the domestic economy, and difficulties in other economies across the globe, will impede the prospects for sustainable growth in the UK. Debt will continue to grow, and the creditworthiness of the country will continue to weaken. Investors will be more and more reluctant to meet the borrowing needs of the UK.

If the situation continues to deteriorate there is a non-negligible possibility the UK could face a ‘sudden stop’ in capital inflows. A debt crisis would precipitate a currency crisis. This would not be especially unusual for the UK: during the postwar period, there has been one on average every 15 years. These have happened like clockwork.

The possibility of this course of events unfolding is small, but not negligible. If a new government is formed next year, perhaps they will be able to enact the policies that will reduce the deficit and restore confidence in the financers of the UK deficit. We believe, though, that to say the UK will not have a debt crisis is complacent and pays no heed to the past.

If Britain is laid low by a sudden stop event, if the BOE finds itself the only buyer of British government debt, the argument in favor of deficit spending whenever there’s an “output gap” will, in my view, suffer a fatal blow.

Also worth calling out, the VP guys note that household debt is still growing quickly in the UK:

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In order to return to health the UK, more than most countries, needs to deleverage. However, this process still seems to be in its early stages. UK consumers have so far not materially improved their balance sheets since the onset of the crisis. This is concerning: before the crisis, UK consumers were some of the most indebted in the world, and so have more urgency than most to reduce their indebtedness via deleveraging or default.

But …. household debt to GDP in the UK continues to rise. This is partly a denominator effect, as nominal GDP has fallen in the recession. However, even on a QoQ basis, household debt has barely contracted.

The US consumer, by comparison, is showing much clearer signs of reducing leverage. Over the last 2 years (to Q209), US household debt to GDP has risen by 0.7%-pts, while in the UK the same metric has risen by 4.4%-pts, more than 6 times as much.

COMMENT

One reason that the UK consumer has not begun to deleverage is that unemployment is not as high as in the US. Also, since the “safety net” has more and denser webing than in the US there is less incentive to do so.

Posted by Bob4232 | Report as abusive

Why gold if deflation is the threat?

Oct 2, 2009 03:33 UTC

Alice Schroeder wrote a great column for Bloomberg yesterday that I’m just getting to. The best stuff comes at the end, where she describes why some people are buying gold even though inflation doesn’t seem to be a big risk. (Apologies in advance for block-quoting lots of stuff in this post, but I think it’s worth it…)

In a nutshell: They aren’t playing a conventional inflation trade. They’re buying currency crisis insurance.

[Gold bugs] aren’t just betting on inflation, as is the conventional wisdom. Gold has a wicked history of being an unreliable inflation hedge. It has, though, at times been a haven against sudden currency depreciation.

In all the talk of inflation because the Treasury is printing so much money versus deflation because it may not print enough, there is one type of inflation that is rarely discussed. This is the mega-inflation caused by a sudden currency devaluation. Currency is like any financial innovation, an obligation secured by assets. When the obligation is perceived to have increased far beyond the level justifiable by the assets, which in this case make up a country’s economy, a bubble has formed.

Schroeder is describing, in much simpler terms, what economist William Buiter has called a “sudden stop” event. (I’m having trouble logging on to FT to find the right link, but the guys at Baseline Scenario have a good one here.) Let’s take a quick detour to Buiter then, writing early this year:

But as the recession deepens, and as discretionary fiscal measures in the US produce 12% to 14% of GDP general government financial deficits – figures associated historically not even with most emerging markets, but just with the basket cases among them, and with banana republics – I expect that US sovereign bond yields will begin to reflect expected inflation premia (if the markets believe that the Fed will be forced to inflate the sovereign’s way out of an unsustainable debt burden) or default risk premia….

The US is helped by the absence of ‘original sin’ – its ability to borrow abroad in securities denominated in its own currency – and the closely related status of the US dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency.  But this elastic cannot be stretched indefinitely….

The only element of a classical emerging market crisis that is missing from the US and UK experiences since August 2007 is the ’sudden stop’ – the cessation of capital inflows to both the private and public sectors. . . . But that should not be taken for granted, even for the US with its extra protection layer from the status of the US dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency.  A large fiscal stimulus from a government without fiscal credibility could be the trigger for a ’sudden stop’.

Most economists, using their conventional models, are looking at things like “output gaps” to rationalize additional borrowing to stimulate the economy. So long as people and capital are unemployed, cost-push inflation isn’t seen as a threat so stimulus is believed to be cost-free. The risk, of course, is that we can’t borrow to infinity. At a certain point — tough to say when — we’ll tap out the national credit line. Where economists get in trouble, IMHO, is they envision this nebulous period in the “medium term” when the economy will be growing again and debt can be paid back. As I argued in my column yesterday, this ignores the fact that growth, which is to say growth in spending, is no longer possible without incremental borrowing. We’ve gotten ourselves into a cycle of perpetual borrowing to, in Schroeder’s words, “pump the economy back to a high-water mark that was phony to begin with.”

To Schroeder’s conclusion:

As in any bubble, those who recognize this need to act well in advance. Historically, governments have taken action to prevent currency flight when the owners of a severely overvalued medium of exchange start selling so much that it adds to the pressure on its price. They make private purchases of gold illegal, or tax the exchange of currency.

Right now, the American economy is worth less than the value implied by the market value of its obligations. How much less, no one knows. But gold bugs will tell you, privately, that this is why they are buyers. Might as well stock up, they say, before gold becomes a controlled substance.

The bolded section is why I haven’t touched stocks in two years and don’t plan to for some time: The U.S. economy is underwater. The value of our obligations is greater than the value of our assets, which is to say the equity value of the economy is negative. The best proxy for that is the stock market.

Stocks aren’t going to zero. They have option value. But a 90% fall from the peak is what I see happening eventually. Either explicitly or priced in gold. Over what time frame, I haven’t a clue.

But that’s what happened during the Depression. Today we’re far more leveraged

COMMENT

I find I really don’t understand money all that well. I notice that gold is ceaselessly offered for sale over the airwaves. I get weary of hearing the hawkers trying to get rid of the stuff and exchange it for your greenbacks. If it were to be so valuable you would thing they would just be hoarding it. I’m not saying the dollar is secure or even safe I’m saying that to me it doesn’t add up.

Posted by gbs | Report as abusive
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