The sun is shining over the global economy | Martin Wolf

From Martin Wolf at FT.com:

The world economy is enjoying a synchronised recovery. But it will prove unsustainable if investment does not pick up, especially in high-income economies. Debt mountains also threaten the recovery’s sustainability, as the OECD, the Paris-based group of mostly rich nations, argues in its latest Economic Outlook.

…..Low investment and high indebtedness are not the only constraints the world economy faces. Political risks are also high, as are threats to liberal trade. But raising investment and lowering debt are high priorities. As President John F Kennedy said in 1962, “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining”. It is essential to hack off the overhangs of unproductive private debt bequeathed by the crisis and its aftermath. The transformation will not happen overnight. But we should eliminate the incentives for such risky behaviour.

An excellent summary of the global economy’s strengths and weaknesses. I agree with Martin that low rates of capital investment (which leads to low productivity growth) and high levels of both private and public debt are the major threats to continued growth. And that the time to address it is now.

Click here to read the full article: The sun is shining over the global economy | Martin Wolf

Carl Icahn warns of ‘day of reckoning’

Reuters:

Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn ….. said he was “still very cautious” on the US stock market and there would be a “day of reckoning” unless there was some sort of fiscal stimulus.

…..Icahn, who owned 45.8 million Apple shares at the end of last year, said China’s economic slowdown and worries about how China could become more prohibitive in doing business triggered his decision to exit his position entirely.

Icahn is right about fiscal stimulus. Easy money policies implemented by central banks around the globe are an effective tool to stem the flow when financial markets are hemorrhaging but they are not a long-term solution. The only effective means of halting the long-term, downward spiral is fiscal stimulus.

The biggest obstacle to fiscal stimulus is resistance to increasing public debt. There is good reason for this as wasteful deficit spending in the past has left taxpayers with a massive debt burden and nothing to show for it. Governments ran deficits to cover a shortfall in tax revenue or an increase in expenditure without thought as to how the debt would be repaid.

But if debt is used to fund investment in productive infrastructure, revenue from the asset can be used to pay off the debt over time, or the asset can be sold to repay the loan. There is an immediate double benefit to government, with increased wages — directly from infrastructure projects and indirectly from suppliers of goods and services — boosting tax revenues while also saving on unemployment benefits. The long-term benefit is retaining and developing skills in the economy that would otherwise be lost through long-term unemployment.

Politicians have a poor track record, however, when it comes to selecting productive infrastructure projects. Instead favoring projects that will garner the most votes. This can be improved by setting up a non-partisan planning and selection process with a long time horizon. Also partnership with the private sector would eliminate projects with weak or unpredictable revenue streams.

Partnerships with the private sector also help to leverage funds raised through public debt, limit cost overruns and contain on-going running costs. But both sides must have skin in the game.

To be effective, infrastructure programs must address the long-term needs of the economy and should be carried out on a broad, even global, scale to re-invigorate the faltering global economy.

Source: Carl Icahn sells entire Apple stake on China worries, warns Wall Street of ‘day of reckoning’

Public Debt and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate | Narayana Kocherlakota

Extract from a speech by Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in Seoul, South Korea on August 19, 2015:

There has been a significant decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate in the United States over the past few years.

10-Year TIPS Yields

This decline in the long-run neutral real interest rate increases the future likelihood that the FOMC will be unable to achieve its objectives because of financial instability or because of a binding lower bound on the nominal interest rate. Plausible economic models imply that the fiscal authority can mitigate this problem by issuing more public debt, although such issuance is not without cost. It is, of course, the province of the fiscal authority to determine whether those costs are worth the benefits that I’ve emphasized…

How we got in this mess

There are two critically important price signals in the economy — the interest rate and the exchange rate. Tampering with them encourages distortions, leading to instability.

  • The Austrians were right: allow market forces of supply and demand to set a neutral interest rate.
  • The main function of regulators should be to ensure that debt growth is consistent with economic (GDP) growth else the banks can distort the supply of money by excessive debt creation.
  • The Austrians are also right about not running consistent fiscal deficits.
  • The other important element is to avoid consistent current account deficits to achieve a fair exchange rate.

None of these (in my view) sensible guidelines have been adhered to for the last half-century. Financial markets are in a real mess and Austrian “hands-off” policies are now insufficient to get us out of it. The only real alternative is to employ “hair of the dog” remedies advocated by Keynes: run fiscal deficits, increase public debt and distort real interest rates. Remember that Keynes published his General Theory in 1936 when financial markets were in an even bigger mess. Even a broken clock is right twice a day (or twice a century in Keynes case).

As for the Monetarists, Market Monetarists present the best opportunity to get us out of this “Keynesian hell” and set us on the path to Austrian (and Monetarist) utopia.

Read more of Narayana Kocherlakota’s speech at Public Debt and the Long-Run Neutral Real Interest Rate | Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Federal budget 2015: worst cumulative deficits in 60 years | Chris Joye

Chris Joye (AFR) on the budget deficit:

There are two critical differences in 2015 that make Australia’s current debt burden [42.2% of GDP] much more troubling than that serviced by previous generations. Back in the 1977 and 1983 recessions, the household debt-to-income ratio was only 34 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively. Even in the 1991 recession, it was just 48 per cent, which is one reason why home loan arrears were so benign. Yet by 2015, the household debt-to-income ratio had jumped 3.2 times to an incredible 154 per cent, which is above its pre-GFC climax because families haven’t deleveraged….

Public Debt to GDP and Household Debt to Income

Public and private debt levels are important to our economic health, but where the money is borrowed domestically it is far less serious than when it is borrowed offshore. In the former case, net debt in the economy is effectively zero — one sector runs a surplus while the other runs a deficit — but where money is borrowed offshore, the nation as a whole becomes a net debtor. Which is why short-term borrowing in international markets by Australian banks — used to fund the housing bubble in the run up to the GFC — was so dangerous.

From Greg McKenna (House & Holes) at Macrobusiness:

“….The funding gap is estimated to be $600 billion. In a speech on Friday, Westpac deputy chief executive Phil Coffey cited research from PwC which estimated the gap could grow to $1.325 trillion if there was a pick-up in credit growth.”

Here is the latest chart from the RBA showing the rising borrowing, it’s quarterly and likely lagging:

International Liabilities of Australian Banks

Notice how the article is focused entirely upon the “funding gap” as a tactical challenge in which the banks are innocent players. In reality there is no “funding gap”. Rather, our financial system is addicted to unproductive mortgage-lending and that crowds out the kind of business lending that would generate income growth and local savings. The “funding gap” is created by the banks not serviced by them.

International borrowing to fund a domestic property bubble is double trouble.

Read more at Federal budget 2015: worst cumulative deficits in 60 years | afr.com.

And at Macrobusiness: Australia ramps the risk as banks borrow abroad

Explaining Richard Koo to Paul Krugman | SNBCHF.com

George Dorgan writes:

….Prof. Steve Keen’s and Richard Koo’s recipe is to increase public debt, when the private sector is de-leveraging and to reduce public debt when the private sector is leveraging. According to Keen, the Americans are currently doing the complete opposite of what they should do. They should continue reducing private liabilities, but they should increase public spending.

The Fed wants the average American to spend, even deficit spending, while the state is doing austerity. According to Keen, the current increase of private US debt could lead to a new recession.

Read more at Explaining Richard Koo to Paul Krugman, to Austrian Economists and the SNB #Balance Sheet Recession.

High public debt impedes recovery

This graph from a FRBSF paper Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises, by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor, perfectly illustrates how high public debt levels impede the ability of an economy to recover from a financial crisis:

Figure 3……. shows that high levels of public debt can be a considerable drag on the recovery. The figure displays the path of per capita GDP in a typical recession compared with the paths under three scenarios following a financial crisis resulting from excess growth of private credit. Each of the three scenarios corresponds to a specified level of public debt at the start of the recession. The dotted line represents a low level of debt of about 15% as a ratio to GDP; the solid line represents a medium level of debt of about 50% of GDP, which is the historical average; and the dashed line represents a high level of debt of about 85% of GDP.

Recessions and Public Debt Levels

Read more at Federal Reserve Bank San Francisco | Private Credit and Public Debt in Financial Crises.

Hat tip to Barry Ritholz

Druckenmiller Sees Storm Worse Than ’08 | Bloomberg

Stan Druckenmiller, George Soros’ former partner and one of the best-performing hedge fund managers of the past three decades, warns of the real long-term threat to the US economy:

Druckenmiller, 59, said the mushrooming costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, with unfunded liabilities as high as $211 trillion, will bankrupt the nation’s youth and pose a much greater danger than the country’s $16 trillion of debt currently being debated in Congress…… unsustainable spending will eventually result in a crisis worse than the financial meltdown of 2008…

Read more at Druckenmiller Sees Storm Worse Than ’08 as Seniors Steal – Bloomberg.

Debunking austerity claims makes no difference to Europe’s monks and zealots | Telegraph Blogs

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard attacks euro-zone austerity:

Britain’s public debt was 260pc of GDP in 1816 at the end of near perma-wars: Seven Years War, American War of Independence, and the Napoleonic Wars. This was whittled down to 24pc over the next century by the magical compound effects of economic growth. The debt reached 220pc in 1945, the price for defeating fascism. This was certainly a drag on the post-War recovery, but it did not stop debt falling to 36pc by the mid-1990s.

Britain twice recovered from massive debt through a combination of growth and inflation — not necessarily in that order — but they had control of their own currency. The states of Europe are strait-jacketed by a currency dominated by the austerity-minded Bundesbank.

Read more at Debunking austerity claims makes no difference to Europe's monks and zealots – Telegraph Blogs.

Tony Robbins | The National Debt and Federal Budget Deficit Deconstructed

The $15 trillion U.S. national debt — how big is it really? And what can we do about the enormous federal budget deficit?

No End To Long-Term Unemployment – Business Insider

J BRADFORD DE LONG, professor of economics at University of California at Berkeley, argues for expansionary monetary and fiscal policy.

At its nadir in the winter of 1933, the Great Depression was a form of collective insanity. Workers were idle because firms would not hire them; firms would not hire them because they saw no market for their output; and there was no market for output because workers had no incomes to spend.

I have been arguing for four years that our business-cycle problems call for more aggressively expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, and that our biggest problems would quickly melt away were such policies to be adopted. That is still true. But, over the next two years, barring a sudden and unexpected interruption of current trends, it will become less true.

But private sector deleveraging means expansionary monetary policy is as effective as pushing on a string. And fiscal policy needs to focus on productive infrastructure investment, not just stimulus spending that runs up public liabilities without any assets to show for it on the other side of the balance sheet.

via No End To Long-Term Unemployment – Business Insider.

Three Converging Factors May Slash Economic Growth By 71% | Daniel Amerman | Safehaven.com

An excellent historical analysis of this issue can be found in the working paper, “Debt Overhangs: Past and Present”, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in April, 2012. Authored by Carmen Reinhart, Vincent Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, it examines 26 different “debt overhangs” that have occurred around the world since 1800, with “debt overhang” being defined as public debt exceeding 90% of GDP for at least five years…..What Reinhart, Reinhart and Rogoff found was that the average duration of a debt overhang was 23 years, and that the end result was a 24% reduction in the size of national economies, compared to what they would have been if they had grown at their average growth rates when not crippled by large government debts.

via Three Converging Factors May Slash Economic Growth By 71% | Daniel Amerman | Safehaven.com.

A lack of money isn’t the problem: it’s time to shrink – The Drum – ABC News

Alan Kohler: Debt was built up through 30 years of current account imbalances after currencies were finally unshackled from the gold standard in 1971, and the depression of the 70s came to an end in 1982.

Central banks, principally the Federal Reserve, complied in the process of debt build-up by holding down interest rates and allowing asset prices to rise, keeping balance sheets in the black.

The credit crisis of 2007-08 brought asset prices down rapidly and rendered banks suddenly insolvent, so they had to be recapitalised by governments. Now the governments of Europe, the US and Japan are insolvent, and the only question is when the central banks will monetise their debt – that is, print more money and buy their debts…..

via A lack of money isn’t the problem: it’s time to shrink – The Drum – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

Alan Simpson: No Solution to Debt Without Crisis – WSJ Online

Former Senator Alan Simpson, Co-Chair of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission, doesn’t believe the national debt can be solved without a financial or political crisis. He speaks with WSJ’s Alan Murray at the latest Wall Street Journal Viewpoints panel.

US public debt growing at unsustainable rate

We often blame Fed monetary policy for the GFC, with interest rates at exceptionally low levels leading to “Greenspan’s bubble.” Treasury was just as culpable, however, with the massive 2004-2005 surge in public debt flooding the market with liquidity. The repeat in 2008-2011 was more justifiable: the spike in public debt was necessary to offset the sharp decline in private (non-financial) debt which would have caused a deflationary spiral. The effect was to smooth out the fall in total domestic debt (public and private) and create a relatively “soft” landing for the economy.

Government, Domestic and Private (Non-Financial) Debt Growth

Quick Glossary

  • Domestic debt is all local debt, both government and private sector
  • Non-financial excludes the financial sector from debt calculations as it largely acts as a conduit for other sectors.
  • Government debt includes federal, state and local government borrowing
  • Private debt is all Domestic debt other than Government. It includes both Corporate and Household debt.
  • Household debt is all debt owed by private households, as opposed to the corporate sector.
  • GDP is the market value of all final (excludes intermediate) goods and services produced within a country in a given year/quarter.
  • Nominal means before adjustment for inflation.

Government and Domestic Debt Growth compared to GDP

Public debt growth is slowing but needs to fall further in order to keep the economy on a sustainable path. A rough rule of thumb is that public debt should grow no faster than GDP — so that it does not outgrow the nation’s ability to repay. With public debt growing at 8.6% and GDP at a nominal rate of 4.1%, Treasury’s ability to repay — and its credit rating — is deteriorating. Reduction of public debt growth to a rate of no higher than 4.1% is necessary. Increases in tax collections as a percentage of GDP would alter this basic equation, but are highly unpopular and act as a disincentive to further GDP growth.

It should be evident from the above chart that GDP contracts when the rate of domestic debt growth slows. If domestic debt ever had to contract (below zero growth), you can imagine the impact that it would have on GDP. That is a debt-deflation spiral and should be avoided at all costs. So, although we would all like to see a sharp reduction in debt levels, there are limitations on how quickly this can be achieved — without smashing the economy into a brick wall.

We can also see that GDP growth for the past decade has been largely debt-fueled. Only recently has GDP growth surged above the growth rate of domestic debt, reflecting an increase in productivity. That is what we (not just the US) have to strive for: to widen the positive gap between GDP and domestic debt growth, while bringing public debt growth below the nominal rate of growth in GDP.

Reducing the rate of growth in public debt will not be easy, however, with private debt growing at a miserly 0.8% compared to domestic debt at 3.0%. The difference is made up by government debt, growing at a whopping 8.6%. Private capital expenditure, however, has in many cases been brought-forward to take advantage of accelerated tax write-offs and is likely to slow in the months ahead. Even worse is household debt which is contracting at an annual rate of 0.9%. So the medium-term outlook for private debt may be near-zero growth. And further slowing of public debt growth would court another recession.

Domestic, Household and Private (Non-Financial) Debt Growth

What’s Going on With Debt in U.S.? – Real Time Economics – WSJ

The chart shows clearly the build up of debt heading into the bust, and the subsequent deleveraging. Overall public and private debt, by this measure, peaked at 302% of GDP in the first quarter of 2009. Since then, it has fallen to 279% as the economy has grown and some private players have lightened their debt loads.

US Debt by Sector as Percentage of GDP

via What’s Going on With Debt in U.S.? – Real Time Economics – WSJ.

Comment: ~ The Financial sector can be ignored as this merely acts as a conduit for, and mirrors, the other sectors. My concern is that Government debt is growing at a faster rate than the fall in Household and Nonfinancial Corporations debt. That is unsustainable and is likely to reverse after the November elections. At which point the economy will contract.

The path to recovery: how to bring the debt binge under control

The debt binge since 1975, fueled by an easy-money policy from the Fed, has landed the US economy in serious difficulties. Wall Street no doubt lobbied hard for debt expansion, because of the boost to interest margins, with little thought as to their own vulnerability. There can be no justification for debt to expand at a faster rate than GDP — a rising Debt to GDP ratio — as this feeds through into the money supply, causing asset (real estate and stocks) and/or consumer prices to balloon. What we see here is clear evidence of financial mismanagement of the US economy over several decades: the graph of debt to GDP should be a flat line.

US Domestic and Private Non-Financial Debt as Percentage of GDP

The difference between domestic and private (non-financial) debt is public debt, comprising federal, state and municipal borrowings. When we look at aggregate debt below, domestic (non-financial) debt is still rising, albeit at a slower pace than the 8.2 percent average of the previous 5 years (2004 to 2008). Public debt is ballooning in an attempt to mitigate the deflationary effect of a private debt contraction. Clearly this is an unsustainable path.

US Domestic and Private Non-Financial Debt

The economy has grown addicted to debt and any attempt to go “cold turkey” — cutting off further debt expansion — will cause pain. But there are steps that can be taken to alleviate this.

Public Debt and Infrastructure Investment

If private debt contracts, you need to expand public debt — by running a deficit — in order to counteract the deflationary effect of the contraction. The present path expands public debt rapidly in an attempt to not only offset the shrinkage in private debt levels but also to continue the expansion of overall (domestic non-financial) debt levels. This is short-sighted. You can’t borrow your way out of trouble. And encouraging the private sector to take on more debt would be asking for a repeat of the GFC. The private sector needs to deleverage but how can this be done without causing a total economic collapse? The answer lies in government spending.

Treasury cannot afford to borrow more money if this is used to meet normal government expenditure. Public debt as a percentage of GDP would sky-rocket, further destabilizing the economy. If the proceeds are invested in infrastructure projects, however, that earn a market-related return on investment — whether they be high-speed rail, toll roads or bridges, automated port facilities, airport upgrades, national broadband networks or oil pipelines — there are at least four benefits. First is the boost to employment during the construction phase, not only on the project itself but in related industries that supply equipment and materials. Second is the saving in unemployment benefits as employment is lifted. Third, the fiscal balance sheet is strengthened by addition of saleable, income-producing assets, reducing the net public debt. Lastly, and most importantly, GDP is boosted by revenues from the completed project — lowering the public debt to GDP ratio.

Public debt would still rise, and bond market funding in the current climate may not be reliable. But this is the one time that Treasury purchases (QE) by the Fed would not cause inflation. Simply because the inflationary effect of asset purchases are offset by the deflationary effect of private debt contraction. Overall (domestic non-financial) debt levels do not rise, so there is no upward pressure on prices.

Infrastructure investment should not be seen as the silver bullet, that will solve all our problems. Over-investment in infrastructure can produce diminishing marginal returns — as in bridges to nowhere — and government projects are prone to political interference, cost overruns, and mismanagement. But these negatives can be minimized through partnership with the private sector.

Projects should also not be viewed as a short-term, band-aid solution. The private sector has to increase hiring and make substantial capital investment in order to support them. All the good work would be undone if the spigot is shut off prematurely. What is needed is a 10 to 20 year program to revamp the national infrastructure, restore competitiveness and lay the foundation for future growth.

There are no quick fixes. But what the public needs is a clear path to recovery, rather than the current climate of indecision.

Private sector debt growth warns of anemic recovery

The cause of current anemic GDP growth is evident from the recently-released Z1 Flow of Funds report. GDP recovery from 2008/2009 is accompanied by only a modest rise in Domestic (Non-Financial) Debt — which is now constraining further growth.

Domestic (Non-Financial) Debt Growth Compared To GDP

Domestic (Non-Financial) Debt is made up of Government Debt and Private (Non-Financial) Debt — which can be further broken down into Household and Corporate debt. The Financial sector is excluded as it mainly acts as a conduit, channeling debt to other sectors of the economy. We can see below that Private (Non-Financial) Debt contraction was far greater than overall Domestic (Non-Financial) Debt. What saved the economy was a sharp spike in Government Debt in 2009, offsetting the fall. The massive fiscal deficit may have left a public debt hangover, but failure to offset the contraction in private borrowing would have had more serious consequences: a GDP collapse similar to the 1930s.

Index

Resumption of corporate borrowing has dragged Private (Non-Financial) Debt growth into positive territory but growth remains anemic and households continue to de-leverage. Cessation of government borrowing would cause a fall in overall Domestic (Non-Financial) Debt growth to near zero and a sharp fall in GDP. The economy needs to be gradually weaned off stimulus spending in order to minimize disruption to growth. And not before Private sector borrowing recovers. We need a clear deficit-reduction plan, over 5 to 10 years, in order to restore corporate sector confidence and encourage new capital investment.

The only alternative is further quantitative easing (QE3), where continuous deficits are funded by borrowing from the Fed. But that poses a whole new set of problems — and could lead us back to square #1.