I am going to break from regular market commentary to step back and think about the big picture as it relates to debt and inflation. Let’s call it philosophical Friday. But don’t worry, there will be no bearded left-wing rants. This will definitely be a market-based exploration of the bigger forces that affect our economy.
One of the greatest debates within the financial community centres around debt and its effect on inflation and economic prosperity. The common narrative is that government deficits (and the ensuing debt) are bad. It steals from future generations and merely brings forward future consumption. In the long run, it creates distortions, and the quicker we return to balancing our books, the better off we will all be.
I will not bother arguing about this logic. Chances are you have your own views about how important it is to balance the books, and no matter my argument, you won’t change your opinion. I will say this though. I am no disciple of the Krugman “any stimulus is good stimulus” logic.
The broken window fallacy is real and digging ditches to fill them back in is a net drain on the economy. Full stop. You won’t hear any complaints from me there.
Yet, the obsession with balancing the government’s budget is equally damaging. In a balance sheet challenged economy the government is often the last resort for creating demand. Trying to balance a government deficit in this environment (like the Troika imposed on Greece during the recent Euro-crisis) is a disaster waiting to happen.
Have a look at these charts from the NY Times outlining the similarity of the Greece depression to the American Great Depression of the 1930s.
Now you might look at these charts and say, “Greece spent too much and suffered the consequences. Ultimately they will be better off taking the hit and reorganizing in a more productive economic fashion.” If so, you probably also still have this poster hanging in your room at your parent’s house where you grew up.
Personally, I don’t want to even bother discussing the possibility of this sort of Austrian-style-rebalancing coming to Western democracies. Yeah, it might be your dream, but it’s just a dream. I have Salma Hayek on my freebie list, but what do I think of my chances? About as close to zero without actually ticking at the perfect zero level. It’s not a “can’t happen,” but it’s certainly a “it’s not going to happen in a million years.”
Governments were faced with a choice during the 2008 Great Financial Crisis. Credit was naturally contracting, and the economy wanted to go through a cleansing economic rebalancing where debt would be destroyed through a severe recession. Yet, governments had practically zero appetite to allow this sort of cathartic cleansing to happen. Instead, they stepped up and stopped the credit contraction through government spending and quantitative easing.
I believe that government spending is not all bad, and at times, it plays an important role in our economy. I am a huge fan of Richard Koo’s work. When economies’ interest-rate policies become zero bound, governments are crucial in engaging in anti-cyclical spending. All debt is not bad. Take debt your company might issue for instance. Borrowing a million dollars to invest in capital equipment to make your firm more productive is a much different prospect than taking out a loan to engage in a Krugman-inspired-all-you-can-drink-party-headlined-by-the-Killers. Sure, the party sounds like fun, but it’s not going to benefit your firm past one night of excitement. Governments shouldn’t perpetuate unproductive pension grabs by workers, but instead actually spend money on infrastructure that will make the economy more productive. During the 1950s Eisenhower invested in the American highway system, helping America secure its place as the world’s most economically dominant country. Today that sort of infrastructure spending would be shouted down as irresponsible. Well, not continuing to invest in your country’s productive capacity is the irresponsible part.
The point is that not all spending is bad, but nor is all spending good. And even more importantly, government spending should be anti-cyclical. No sense spending more when your economy is rocking. Better to save the bullets to ebb the natural flow of the business cycle.
But I digress. Let’s get back to debt.
Creating debt is inflationary, while paying down debt is deflationary. That’s pretty basic.
The easiest way for me to demonstrate this fact is to look at an area where debt has been created for spending in a specific area. No better example than student loans.
Over the past fifteen years, inflation in college tuition has exploded. It’s been absolutely bonkers. Here is the chart of regular CPI versus tuition CPI.
But it should really be no surprise. If we add the student loan debt versus Federal debt series, it becomes clear that a tremendous amount of credit has been extended to students.
So let’s agree that credit creation is inflationary, and by definition, credit destruction should be deflationary.
Therefore when the market pundits that I like to affectionately call deflationistas argue that this next chart is ultimately deflationary, I understand where they are coming from.
If you assume that this debt needs to be paid back, then it’s easy to understand their argument. When debt starts to contract and this chart heads lower, this will be deflationary. And if you assume that governments start to balance their books, then there is every reason to expect that future deflation is the worry, not inflation. After all, the money has already been spent. The inflation from that spending is already in the system.
I can already hear the deflationistas argument - over 100% of GDP is unsustainable therefore credit growth will at worst go sideways, but most likely actually contract in coming years.
Really? How about Japan?
The same argument was made at the turn of the century when Japan was running a debt that was over 150% of GDP, yet they somehow managed to push that up another 80% to 230% without causing some sort of apocalyptic collapse.
Now before you send me an angry email about the moral irresponsibility of suggesting debt can go higher, save your clicks. I understand your argument. I am not interested in debating what should be done, but rather I am trying to determine what will be done. You might believe governments and Central Banks will gain religion and start conducting prudent and responsible policies. So be it. If you believe that, then by all means - load up on long-dated sovereign bonds as they will continue to be the trade of the century.
I, on the other hand, believe that Central Banks will continue printing until, as my favourite West Coast skeptic Bill Fleckenstein says, “the bond market takes away the keys.” And even when Central Banks are mildly responsible, politicians are sitting in the wings waiting to spend at any chance they get. Take Trump’s recent stimulus program. We are now more than eight years into an economic recovery, and he just pushed through one of the most stimulative fiscal policies of the past couple of decades. Regardless of where you stand politically regarding these tax cuts, there can be no denying they were much more needed in 2008 than today.
This is a long-winded way of saying that although I agree that the creation of debt is inflationary, and that the destruction of debt is deflationary, I don’t buy the argument that any sort of absolute amount of debt means the trend has to change. I don’t look at the 100% debt-to-GDP figure and worry that the US government will somehow institute deflationary policies to pay that back. Nope, I don’t see anything but a sea of growing deficits and debts. And in fact, the larger debts grow, the less likely they are to be paid back.
How will Japan pay back their debt that is 230% of GDP? The answer is that they can’t. It will be inflated away.
It’s foolish to believe that the end-game is anything but inflation. And even though increasing debt seems scary, if there is one thing that I am sure of, it’s that they will figure out a way to make even more of it.
Rant over. And no more big picture philosophy for a while - I promise.