Debt to GDP Ratios Indicate Governments Going Bankrupt

Are the Western Welfare States (the U.S., Japan, and EU nations) really going bankrupt? Things were headed that way before the credit crisis began. The Global Financial Crisis may be becoming a sovereign debt crisis and that will worsen an already bad situation.

First, let’s check out the chart below from the 2008 annual budget audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It shows that the U.S. government must roll over $3.4 trillion in debt over the next four years. This $3.4 trillion does not include any additional borrowing that may be required for other government programs (wars, healthcare, wars, school lunches).

What’s the big deal? $3.4 trillion is a small number by today’s standards, isn’t it? Not exactly.

The chart shows how incredibly interest-rate sensitive U.S. government borrowing now is. Not only is it a big ask to ask the world’s creditors to continue funding such large deficits (there are only so many savings available to borrow, after all), but the interest expense on that debt is likely to go up as the fiscal position of America deteriorates.

And if America can’t find anyone willing to finance its deficits, what then? Well, the luxury of issuing debts in the currency you also print is that you can print money to pay for them. Technically, you can never become insolvent when you enjoy this privilege. The Fed, for example, can create new money to buy debt issued by the Treasury, funding deficits ad infinitum.

But this monetisation of the debt is another way of saying that international creditors are no longer willing to pick up America’s spending tab. They will be betting against the American economy, not on it. Even if the Fed takes the unusual step of moving out further along on the yield curve to set interest rates (and keep the bond vigilantes from sending yields to the moon) this is a clear signal to owners of dollar-denominated assets and holders of dollar currency reserves to get out.

Another scenario to watch for is when creditors begin asking the U.S. to issue debts in currencies other than its own (Yuan, Euros). That would be something. In the meantime, they will look to lessen their dollar reserves.

That may not be such an orderly process. And the urgency to get out of the greenback and into something better will only pick up pace as it becomes clear the politicians in America (along with the Fed) are not likely to suddenly rediscover fiscal prudence.

You never know. The Fed may assert its independence and baulk at more quantitative easing. But we wouldn’t count on it. And we reckon tangible assets and possibly emerging market equities would be the biggest beneficiaries of capital flows out of the dollar…and into anything else.

The next chart is for you, Paul Krugman. Krugman, among others, continues to insist that larger public sector deficits are necessary if the Western world is to avoid a Japanese-style deflationary “Lost Decade.” He claims the government must increase spending as households and businesses deleverage and reduce debts.

Advocates of this idea claim that public sector deficits, as a percentage of GDP, have no real limits. And the example they cite is Japan. As you can see from the chart below, Japan’s debt to GDP ratio is nearing 200%. America’s isn’t even half of that yet (it’s about 98%, or $13 trillion). If Japan can finance a deficit at 200% of GDP, then why are we worried that U.S. deficits half that size would threaten interest rates or the dollar?

First off, it’s worth pointing out that high public sector-debt-to GDP ratios haven’t worked in Japan, if by work you mean pave the way to a stable recovery. Advocates might say-as advocates of the stimulus here in Australia often say-that the public spending made things less worse. But the opposite is true. It’s made things more bad!

Or just worse, if you prefer. We mean that the public spending has done two things, neither of which is productive, and both of which, in fact, waste capital and resources. First, public sector spending to prop up financial firms with dodgy assets prevents the needed reckoning in asset prices that would produce market clearing prices for commercial and residential real estate. You get zombie banks and a zombie economy and zombie house prices.

Secondly, there’s no indication that all the infrastructure spending in Japan has produced any kind of lasting growth for the economy. It may have built some great roads and bridges. But we wonder if it solved any of the underlying problems? What’s more, the capital and resources that went into those projects was directed by political considerations and not available for the private sector, which could have put them to some use at least designed to produce a return on the capital.

The underlying problem which deficit spending does not solve is compounded by demographics. Japan’s government is hoping that continued borrowing can be financed at low rates by pensioners who will be cashing out of their pensions but seeking safety. However, we suspect that Japanese pensioners will begin to consume their savings as they downsize their lives into their twilight years (which tend to last much longer in Japan, as the number of Japanese centenarians shows).

That means interest on Japanese bonds-which already one fifth of the Japanese budget-will consume even more of the nation’s resources, if the older population clams up with its money. And like in the U.S., you’ll see the government borrowing more and more of every new yen spent, with more of that borrowed yen going to pay a previous creditor. That’s bordering on Ponzidom.

Japan has been able to run a higher-than-average public debt-to-GDP ratio because it has had such a high personal savings rates. This kept borrowing costs low for the government. But we’d expect that to change soon. A debt-to-GDP ratio of 200% will be very difficult to finance in the world as it is-much less in a world where those rates begin to rise and when Japanese savers begin to consume their savings.

Finally, what about Europe? Our argument here is simple: Europe’s monetary union is going to come unstuck. Why? Europe has one interest rate for twelve different economies. That does not leave national governments with the flexibility to print money and inflate away political problems. This will be intolerable, the monetary union will break up.

The sign to watch for is a spike in the yields on euro-denominated debt. As the chart below (from Stratfor) shows, earlier this year bond yields did in fact begin to widen. Germany Bunds have the most stable rates, as Germany has traditionally the most stable fiscal and monetary policies in Europe (they did not go hog wild for stimulus).

But for Spain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Austria (whose banks lent large for real estate in Eastern Europe), another round of falling asset values really would show that the GFC has become a sovereign debt crisis. And will Germany bail out these nations? Can it afford to?

We don’t know the answer to those questions. But it is worth pointing out that by assuming or guaranteeing the liabilities of the financial sector, national governments have also assumed the risk. And the bond markets will be left to decide how to price this risk.

How it ends is anyone’s guess. But our take is that the Super Cycle in fiat money is at its peak. And as it unwinds, it’s going to take national governments and their financing model with it. They will be forced to adopt a new model and take a new form to survive.

This means a great deal of political and economic upheaval. It’s no coincidence that the last time the world faced such monetary upheaval was when it went off the gold standard and straight into essentially thirty-two years of military and economic conflict (1913-1945). If the world is about to become that disordered again, you’ll need a plan to deal with it.

Dan Denning
Daily Reckoning Australia

November 5, 2009