“To be, or not to be, that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.” Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.
It seems, after nearly 30 years of deregulated markets, that we face a sea of troubles ourselves. An extreme global debt deleveraging is upon us, the numbers too outrageous to even consider. Not only have we consumed beyond our means, we have mortgaged our future. Whereas once credit was difficult to come by and banks conservative in their lending (can you pay this back?), the brave new world brought us access to unlimited treasures, all paid for on a credit system, which had limited restraint.
As financial models became more complex and debt could be packaged, securitised and sold off, all sense of restraint was lost. Who owed whom was lost in a parallel universe of metaphor: swap, hedge, collateral, obligation, repurchase. Repaying principal and interest, in the old fashioned sense was put to one side. Can you afford the interest? Don’t worry about the principal, that will pay itself off as the price rises! Can’t afford the interest? Don’t worry, we’ll lend that to you as well, or have a holiday (from interest that is….keeps charging but pay it some other time). Tick, tock, tick, tock.
Maybe Hamlet wasn’t as crazy as he sounded.
As I explained in a previous post on the Euro, deleveraging debt is a painful process. As debts are written off, the money supply contracts, causing a contraction in the general economy. This creates a spiral where demand for new credit drops and this causes further losses to business, resulting in more job losses and so on. Traditionally, this has been dealt with by the lowering of interest rates, which hopefully stimulate demand for credit and reduce interest burdens. Sadly, this doesn’t work until the overhanging debt has been cleared out, by which time unemployment has risen and economic output has contracted to severe levels.
The road to austerity is a self-fulfilling process. Clearing the debt mountain will take many years and, perhaps, like Japan, it could be a decade or more. During that time people will be unemployed, machines will sit idle and resources will be untouched. In the 1930s governments stood back, waiting for the miracle of the market. None came. That is not a road we want to travel down.
As the shadow banking system starts to fall apart, it is time to plan and look forward to building a stable and local supply of money to see us through the hard times. Continuing to rely on overseas capital and ever increasing borrowing is a road to ruin. Our gross debt will hit $90 billion by 2016, according to Treasury forecasts. The government talks of returning to surplus by 2015 but that is very optimistic. Even then we will still carry this debt for many years to come.
So is printing new money and spending it directly into the economy a better idea? I talked about this in a recent interview with Kim Hill and Radio NZ National, which you can catch here.
I have had an incredible amount of positive feedback since the interview and, interestingly, from a very wide range of people. There were a few comments about “funny money”, including a little pop from Nevil Gibson at the NBR. My answer to that is if you think this is funny money, try explaining the nearly $4 trillion that’s been used to buy debt off US banks! The feedback has confirmed the following: that there needs to be a clearer explanation on how the money creation process actually works (even though the RB has published on this here), that inflation needs to be better understood and that people are extremely concerned about the way the financial system is structured. We will be working on producing a simpler explanation to those issues.
In the meantime, around the world, there is a lot of new work being undertaken around the quantitative easing process and how that is not really working. Sushil Wadhwani (Goldman Sachs and MPC member in the UK) and economist (and former colleague of mine) Michael Dicks have looked at more direct interventions into the economy, noting that QE is a very roundabout way of trying to stimulate an economy. They look at directing lending to companies from the central bank and, more interestingly, at simply giving households a voucher to spend. You can read the brief paper here. Their proposals are in the right direction but do not go far enough. Nouriel Roubini recently wrote that direct spending on new infrastructure in the US would be much more useful than simply buying toxic bonds off failing banks.
What’s clear is that more and more economists and policy analysts are realising that QE is a sop to the banks, boosting their balance sheets and stock prices, at the expense of the taxpayer. Clearly this is a misallocation (and perhaps misappropriation) of taxpayer funds. Furthermore, even with trillions of $ of QE, there has been no inflationary effects at all. This is important to note when considering the direct injection of new money, as we have proposed, for the Christchurch rebuild.
As I noted in this recent piece for ChangeNZ, as long as there is surplus labour and resources, there will be no inflationary effects from new money. This has been confirmed from business sources, who note the economy is limping along at between 33-50% of capacity. So there is little concern over the direct effects of the new money in raising prices. The indirect effects through the banking system are also likely to be minimal, given a very low demand for credit across the economy. Indeed, with debt deleveraging in full swing, we are likely to see further reductions in debt, offsetting any new potential demand for credit. Still, credit numbers will need to be watched carefully and, at the same time, it’s important to note that the amount we are suggesting is only $5 billion. Ultimately the goal is a strong and locally managed financial system with price stability. That is something we have not had, despite the continuing myth of a central bank induced low inflationary environment. The time is right to consider an alternative way forward.
Perhaps we should leave the final words to Hamlet, as we ponder the road ahead:
“The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action..…”