Denial. Denial is safe. Comforting. Religiously and relentlessly abused by politicians who don't want nor can face reality. A word synonymous with "muddle through." Ah yes, that "muddle through" which so many C-grade economists and pundits believe is the long-term status quo for the US and the world just because it worked for Japan for the past three decades, or, said otherwise, "just because." Well, too bad. As the following absolutely must read report, which comes not from some trader of dubious credibility interviewed by BBC, nor even from an impassioned executive from a doomed Italian bank, but from consultancy powerhouse Boston Consulting Group confirms, the "muddle through" is dead. And now it is time to face the facts. What facts? The facts which state that between household, corporate and government debt, the developed world has $20 trillion in debt over and above the sustainable threshold by the definition of "stable" debt to GDP of 180%. The facts according to which all attempts to eliminate the excess debt have failed, and for now even the Fed's relentless pursuit of inflating our way out this insurmountable debt load have been for nothing. The facts which state that the only way to resolve the massive debt load is through a global coordinated debt restructuring (which would, among other things, push all global banks into bankruptcy) which, when all is said and done, will have to be funded by the world's financial asset holders: the middle-and upper-class, which, if BCS is right, have a ~30% one-time tax on all their assets to look forward to as the great mean reversion finally arrives and the world is set back on a viable path. But not before the biggest episode of "transitory" pain, misery and suffering in the history of mankind. Good luck, politicians and holders of financial assets, you will need it because after Denial comes Anger, and only long after does Acceptance finally arrive.
First, let's recap why BCG thinks all the alternatives have been exhausted
We believe that some politicians and central banks - in spite of protestations to the contrary - have been trying to solve the crisis by creating sizable inflation, largely because the alternatives are either not attractive or not feasible:
- Austerity - essentially saving and paying back - is probably a recipe for a long, deep recession and social unrest
- Higher growth is unachievable because of unfavorable demographic change and an inherent lack of competitiveness in some countries
- Debt restructuring is out of reach because the banking sectors are not strong enough to absorb losses
- Financial repression (holding interest rates below nominal GDP growth for many years) would be difficult to implement in a low-growth and low-inflation environment
Inflation will be the preferred option - in spite of the potential for social unrest and the difficult consequences for middle-class savers should it really take hold. However, boosting inflation has not worked so far because of the pressure to deleverage and because of the low demand for new credit. Moreover the inflation "solution" while becoming more tempting, may come to be seen as having economic and social implications that are too unpalatable. So what might the politicians and central banks do?
Since the publication of Stop Kicking The Can Down The Road, a number of readers have asked us what would happen if governments persisted in playing for time. To what measures might they have to resort? In this paper, we describe what might need to happen if the politicians muddle through for too much longer.
It is likely that wiping out the debt overhang will be at the heart of any solution. Such a course of action would not be new. In ancient Mesopotamia, debt was commonplace; individual debts were recorded on clay tablets. Periodically, upon the ascendancy of a new monarch, debts would be forgiven: in other news, the slate would be wiped clean. The challenge facing today's politicians is how clean to wipe the slates. In considering some of the potential measures likely to be required, the reader may be struck by the essential problem facing politicians: there may be only painful ways out of the crisis.
At this point BCG goes into the details of why it is long overdue for reality to be finally acknowledged. We will skip this part as any regular readers of Zero Hedge are all too aware of reality, and how it is masked constantly by the mainstream media and its agents in all walks of life. The truth is far, far uglier than anything anyone in a position of power will tell you because acknowledgment would imply the need to come up with solutions that involve more than merely extending the event horizon for a little longer. Alas, even politicians now realize there is only so far that the can can be kicked.
There is one thing we would like to bring to our readers' attention because we are confident, that one way or another, sooner or later, it will be implemented. Namely a one-time wealth tax: in other words, instead of stealth inflation, the government will be forced to proceed with over transfer of wealth. According to BCG, the amount of developed world debt between household, corporate and government that needs to be eliminated is just over $21 trillion. Which unfortunately means that there is an equity shortfall that will have to be funded with incremental cash which will have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is tax of the middle and upper classes, which are in possession of $74 trillion in financial assets, which in turn will have to be taxed at a blended rate of 28.7%.
And if the prospect that very soon a government near you will force you to hand over a third of your wealth, here is the rest of the terrifying analysis of what will happen to the world in order to get it back in order:
A Program for the United States
The situation in the U.S. is different from that of the euro zone and, in a way, would be less complicated to resolve. The U.S. has all the levers with which to address the crisis and would not need to coordinate 17 countries with divergent interest. But some facts would need to be acknowledged before decisive action could be taken:
- In spite of massive intervention by the Fed and the US government, growth remains anemic
- The deleveraging of private households will have to go on for many years
- The real estate market has not yet stabilized. About 11 million US households suffer from negative equity (their mortgage outstanding is higher than the value of their home). And the supply of homes is still in excess by 1.2 to 3.5 million (depending on the data used to estimate this number).
- The US government deficit is not sustainable and will need to be brought to acceptable levels, which will slow growth and amplify the problems of the private sector.
- In spite of a significant weakening in the dollar, the U.S. is still running a trade deficit that cannot be blamed on China alone. It reflects a lack of competitiveness in some key markets and the low proportion of manufacturing in the U.S. economy compared with countries such as Germany and Japan.
- There is a striking similarity between the US and Japan in the development of stock and real estate prices (See chart below). A correlation does not mean causality, but it is a sobering picture should Ben Bernanke and his team fail to reflate the economy.
- The interventions of the Fed, notably the programs designed to buy financial assets, have created a monetary overhang that could be the basis for sizable inflation in the future.
Addressing the debt overhang.
The US would also need to reduce the debt overhang of the government, of consumer loans besides mortgages, and of non-financial corporate sector in the same way as in Europe. As exhibit 2 shows, the total debt overhang in the US equals $11.5 trillion or 77% of GDP. In the somewhat unlikely event of the US following the same path that Europe might pursue, a one-time wealth tax of 25% of financial assets would be required. As in Europe, this would also require the following initiatives.
- Cleaning up the banking sector by calculating the losses and recapitalizing as needed – even if it means wiping out existing shareholders.
- Additional taxes on real estate, including an increased capital-gains tax to offset the support for the real-estate market.
- Creating an incentive for corporations to invest in R&D and new machinery by taxing profits not reinvested.
- A commitment by the government to restrict its debt level and to prepare for the increasing costs of an aging population by either limiting benefits or raising the retirement age.
Addressing the fundamental issues of the US Economy.
We have argued for a long time that the US economy needs to address some fundamental issues in order to become globally competitive again. In putting an end to muddling through, the government might also embark on a major restructuring of the economy:
- Reindustrialize and grow the share of the manufacturing sector from the current low of 12% of GDP to 20% of GDP . This might then allow a rebalancing of trade flows.
- Revisit income distribution. Most U.S. families cannot make up for their income shortfall with increased credit – and 41 million Americans are officially considered to be below the poverty line.
- Take action to reduce dependency on imported oil by investing in new technologies and modernizing existing infrastructure.
- As in Europe, an administration that truly bit the bullet would take a long-term view and invest more in education.
All this is still speculation. But history shows that the US economy, like no other, is capable of adjusting and implementing quite radical changes. And in our view, some of the actions described above might be pursued by the US government if things do not improve soon.
The programs we have described would be drastic. The would not be popular, and they would require broad political coordinate and leadership – something that politicians have replaced up til now with playing for time, in spite of a deteriorating outlook. Acknowledgment of the facts may be the biggest hurdle. Politicians and central bankers still do not agree on the full scale of the crisis and are therefore placing too much hope on easy solutions. We need to understand that balance sheet recessions are very different from normal recessions. The longer the politicians and bankers wait, the more necessary will be the response outlined in this paper. Unfortunately, reaching consensus on such tough action might requiring an environment last seen in the 1930s.