The Elephant In The Room

One of the big problems with the present economic crisis is that we really do not know how big the problem is. We know that our problems have been caused by the creation, then over-leveraging of debt. But we don’t know how much debt was created, then sliced into derivatives multiple times which were then sold on to financial institutions all over the world.

But no one knows how much debt, then derivatives, were created by this whole process. That is the big elephant in the room which no one wants to talk about.

That makes it a good reason for me to talk about it.

We now know that a great deal of what passed for growth in the US over the past 20 years, starting with the Reagan administration, was financed by the creation of debt. Debt, by itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it is needed for healthy growth. Companies, and countries, frequently reach stages in their growth when they need to borrow in order to reach another level of growth. When they get return from this new level of growth, they pay back and retire the debt. That is the way debt is supposed to be used.

Now, the problem which started in the US is that there was no intention to retire the debt. This was why the US Republican party pushed “deregulation” to get votes. Without deregulation, and a necessary amount of fraud, this debt mountain would not have grown as fast as they needed it to grow. Instead, the debt was sliced to ever finer parts, and sold into the global economy. Wall Street, especially its investment banks, became a mechanism for the creation, processing and sale of ever newer varieties of debt into the global economy. As long as there was growth, the system worked fine. And this is where the problem comes in: any system which can only survive when there is “growth” and cannot withstand changes and reverses in market conditions is effectively a Ponzi scheme. “Growth” becomes a means to its own ends, and becomes a necessity. When the “growth” conditions end, the system collapses.

Which is what we are going through now.

What we are going through right now is the great unwinding or deleveraging of what has happened over the past 25 years. In simple terms, the investment bank firms, and now hedge funds, and so much of the US financial industry became addicted to leveraging. Now they cannot leverage anymore, and their business model no longer works.

This raises a very interesting question which I have not seen others ask yet. That is “If debt financing and leveraging did not happen in the US, then how big would the US and global economy be?” In dollar numbers, it would be much smaller, and financial services and outsourcing would be much less important features of the US economy. There would be more manufacturing, and China would not have grown as quickly because it would not have had such a huge US export market to sell its products to. Without such fast economic growth, it is likely that the Chinese government would have had to look at social and political reforms sooner rather than later. Faster growth would have been replaced by slower more solid and more balanced growth.

China has made this problem bigger because it insisted on keeping the yuan at a lower exchange rate in order to protect its main export market, the US, addicted to Chinese exports. As I have said earlier on this blog, China and the US are two sides of the same coin. But right now, the two sides do not enjoy the same interests. The Ponzi scheme which served both sides so well no longer exists. This means that there will be recrimination and anger as each side seeks to pin the blame on the other side.

If we are ruthlessly honest about unwinding the overleveraging, I suspect that much of the world’s growth (60-75% + compounding) since the late 70s would not exist. Obviously, that is an outcome none of the world’s governments would have an interest in.

The main problem in economics is: “What is productivity, and how do we measure it?” I do not pretend to have an answer to that very challenging question, but I suspect that most of the improvements in production over the past 30 years come from improvements in information technology. These improvements in productivity mean that it is possible to create more with less people.

The real problem now is there are too many people, and most of them are not very productive in terms of adding value to an economy.

My guess is that as the unwinding continues, people will get angrier as their standards of living fall. When this happens, governments will have to choose which is worst, deflation (caused by unwinding) or inflation. Inflation has the advantage in that it can hide the real fall in living standards by gradually debasing and eroding the value the currency, but making the general populace think that they are making more money. The downside is that inflation is notoriously difficult to control. In a worst case scenario, it turns a country into an Argentinian or Brazilian basket case, where inflation becomes a routine tool for controlling the masses. More darkly, it drives the entrepreneurial class to other countries where they can make a better living for themselves and for their children.

When it does go out of control, it becomes the most powerful and deadly destroyer of wealth there is.

And that is the current situation where we are…

In my next article, I will talk about the businesses which will do well during The Great Unwinding.