Sovereign Defaults Past And Present In One Chart

When a sovereign nation accumulates too much debt, far more than its economic growth can sustain, there are only two ways out: inflating the debt away, or defaulting. The global central banks have bet not only the house but the entire $700 trillion derivative house of cards that they can generate the former in order to preserve the equity tranche (controlled by the same entities that also control the central banks) above the insurmountable global debt load, and certainly there are more than enough historic examples of instances where a nation literally destroyed its currency by hyperinflation in order to eliminate the debt overhang. Because when it comes to getting the Goldilocks outcome of just enough inflation to slowly grind the debt away, the track record of the world's central planners is simply woeful.

The flipside to the great reflation operation is that while Bernanke and company try year after year to bring enough base money into the system to generate the "virtuous" inflationary cycle, they are increasingly hitting against the statutory limit, which in this case is the amount of debt in the system that keeps on rising year after year, until one day the central banks will have run out of time. This is the moment when global debt - both at the individual sovereign level and consolidated - is so vast, default is the only option. In other words, one can only attempt to reflate so many times before the time runs out.

As the chart below shows, in some 200 years of history, when expressed as a ratio of total sovereign debt to tax revenues, the empirical data as compiled by Reinhart and Rogoff ranges from 2x to 16x. This is shown by the blue bars in the chart below.

So where are we in this cycle as the debt clock counts down?

As the red bars show, we are in a very uncomfortable place, with Japan now at the highest such ratio in history, well above the highest recorded which always ended up in default, while the US, whose such ratio is over 600%, is above the long-term average of circa 520% in default triggering public debt/revenue. The problem is that every current and subsequent attempt to reflate merely pushes both of these higher, until one day the marginal growth creation of every dollar in new debt becomes negative.

How much higher can consolidated global debt go before global GDP is not only no longer growing, but every incremental dollar in debt has a negative impact on GDP, as was the case for the US in the fourth quarter? Keep an eye on global economic growth: if and when the world enters outright recession: the most feared outcome by all central bankers who realize they are out of weapons and their only recourse is much more of the same, that may be cue to quietly leave town.

And some further thoughts on this issue, courtesy of none other than Dylan Grice, circa precisely three years ago:

As is the case for today’s central bankers, Von Havenstein was faced with horrible fiscal problems; as is the case with today’s central bankers, the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy had blurred; as is the case for today’s central bankers, the political difficulty of deflating was daunting; and, as is the case for today’s QE-enthralled central bankers, apparently respectable economic theory reassured him that he was doing the right thing.


One might think that the big difference is that today we have a greater expertise. Surely we understand what happens when deficits are financed with printed money, and that it is only backward and corrupt states that don’t know any better, like Bolivia and Zimbabwe? But just a few years ago didn’t we think that it was only backward and corrupt states that suffered banking crises too?


And anyway, how could Von Havenstein not have known that the continued and escalating printing of money to fund government deficits would cause inflation? The United States experience of unrestrained money printing during the Civil War has been well documented, as had the hyperinflation of revolutionary France in the late 18th century. Isn’t it possible that, like today, he was overconfident in his ability to control his creation and in the economic theory which told him such control was possible? Certainly, in an article in the New York Times on the eve of the First World War, again from Liaquat Ahamed’s book, there seems to have been evidence of the general optimism that there would be no “unlimited issue of paper money and its steady depreciation … since monetary science is better understood at the present time than in those days.”


The fact is we do understand the economics of inflation. Despite what economists everywhere say about being in ‘uncharted territory’ with QE, we know that if you keep monetizing deficits eventually you get inflation, and we know that once you’re on that path it can be extremely difficult to get off it. But we knew that then. Despite what economists everywhere say about being in "uncharted territory" with QE, we know that if you keep monetizing deficits eventually you get inflation, and we know that once you're on that path it can be extremely difficult to get off it. But we knew that then. The real problem is that inflation is an inherently political variable and that concern over debt sustainability and unfunded welfare obligations leaves us more dependent on politicians than we have been in many decades. Frank Graham concluded his 1930 study of the Weimar hyperinflation with the following observation, which I think is as ominous as it is apt today:


"The mills of international finance grind slowly but their capacity is great. It is also flexible. The one condition is that the hoppers be not unduly loaded in the effort to get the whole grist from a single grinding. So much for the economics of the question. What politics has in store is, however, an inscrutable mystery. It can only be said that such financial difficulties as may occur will almost certainly arise from political rather than from economic sources."


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