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.