By Satyajit Das, a risk consultant and author of Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2010, FT-Prentice Hall).
From late 2008 onwards, Governments have spent aggressively, going into or increasing deficits, to increase demand within the economy to offset weak private sector consumption and investment.
Financing these initiatives presents significant challenges. In the five quarters ending 30 September, 2009, U.S. Treasury borrowing increased by $2.8 trillion, a rise of around three times from the level of previous years. The U.K. and European countries increased public debt by similar or higher amounts (in percentage terms).
In 2009, investors readily bought large new issues of government debt, despite relatively low interest rates. Rating agencies maintained sovereign debt ratings, especially for major countries despite deteriorating public finances.
Central bank purchases under ‘quantitative easing’(“QE”) (read printing money) programs helped the market absorb the volume of new issuance. According to estimates by Morgan Stanley, Fed purchases of assets, QE programs and other liquidity support programs reduced private sector net purchases of new Treasury issues to $200 billion in 2009. In 2010, in the absence of continued Fed support, private buyers will have to absorb $2,000 billion.
If buyers of sovereign debt pull back, Ireland, Greece and Spain provide an insight into the actions necessary. In order to restore fiscal stability, the Irish government introduced a special 7% pension levy and implemented the toughest budget in the country’s history. Public sector salaries were cut between 5-15%. Unemployment and welfare benefits were also cut. More recently Greece and Spain proposed a program of similar budgetary austerity.
Focus in the short run will be on the ‘PIGS’ (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) but in the longer term it will shift to major economies with high levels of government debt – the ‘FIBS’ (France, Italy, Britain, States). At least, Japan has its very large pool of domestic savings.
The need to maintain the confidence of rating agencies and investors as well as access to markets may ultimately force the required disciplines. As James Carville famously observed: “I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.” Politicians everywhere will learn the reality in Thatcher’s terms: “You can’t buck the markets.”
The need to reduce the overall level of debt in certain economies has not been fully addressed. Public debt has been substituted for private debt. As his friend Dink tells author Joe Bageant in Deer Hunting with Jesus: Despatches from America’s Class War: “Sounds like a piss-poor solution to me, cause they’re just throwing money we ain’t got at the big dogs who already got plenty. But hell what do I know?”
The last few decades have seen an economic experiment where increasing levels of debt have been used to promote high growth. This policy had the unintended consequence of increasing risk in the global economy, which was not fully understood by the individual entities taking this risk or regulators and governments. This experiment is now coming to an end.
The real risk is of long-term economic stagnation. A period of low growth, high unemployment or underemployment and over capacity is possible while individuals, firms and governments repair balance sheets.
Governments and central banks continue to inject liberal amounts of botox to cover up problems, at least, while supplies exist. In absence of any definite solutions, policymakers are deferring dealing with the problems, rolling them forward. In the words of David Bowers of Absolute Strategy Research: “It’s the last game of pass the parcel. When the tech bubble burst, balance sheet problems were passed to the household sector [through mortgages]. This time they are being passed to the public sector [through governments’ assumption of banks’ debts]. There’s nobody left to pass it to in the future.”
The summary of 2009 and the outlook for 2010 may be the logo on a black T-shirt worn by Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “Armageddon was yesterday – Today we have a serious problem.”