The Dangerous Negative Feedback Loop
Global Balance Sheet Recessions
Global governments are carrying more debt than ever and raising question as to whether or not a second — and perhaps even more dangerous credit crisis — is inevitable. The clock is ticking and every second, the world takes on more debt. In 2001, global government debt totaled $18.2 trillion. Fast-forward a decade, and the figure now totals nearly $44 trillion, an increase of 140 percent (more than 9.0% a year). The chart below depicts the countries with the highest and lowest debt levels.
According to The Economist, global sovereign debt is forecasted to grow an additional 7% in 2012 reaching a historical high of $47 trillion. Measuring debt against gross domestic product (GDP), the global debt-to-GDP ratio at the end of 2010 reached approximately 80%. While the heaviest balance sheet offenders include troubled European countries like Italy, Greece and Portugal (See Figure 1 below), the United States isn’t far behind with $15 trillion in debt and a debt-to GDP ratio topping 100%. And tipping the scale at over 200% at the end of 2010 was Japan. The result of this rising debt means more government interference, a further slowdown in the already debilitated economic environment and the possibility of further citizen uprisings.
One of the problems with economic crises is that mainstream economists and financial advisors either don’t see them coming or simply won’t admit to them. That’s exactly what happened in the fall of 2008, when the financial crisis kicked off in the United States. Since that time, governments have continued to spend, all while production has slowed and unemployment has skyrocketed. As we enter the fourth year of the post-crisis environment, there is no sign of growth that is impressive enough to get us out of the negative feedback loop in which governments have continued to operate. A negative feedback loop takes hold when massive government debt loads, a weakening financial system and a slowing economy feed off each other, interrupted by Federal Reserve and other central bank reflationary attempts. As shown in the chart below, rising debts become unsustainable and trigger austerity measures designed to reduce spending and/or increase taxes or other revenue sources to try and reduce debt. In significantly depressed economies, the drag continues and a recession or even depression like conditions hit. The more production and employment falter, the more lending contracts, causing further harm to the economy, missed budgets and higher bond yields. The result is a downward spiral of business and financial activity and a banking crisis usually ensues. Under pressure to stimulate the market, the Federal Reserve and other central banks carryout band aid fixes by printing money and governments implement additional austerity measures which starts the vicious cycle of the feedback loop all over again.
Negative Feedback Loop
In the center of the feedback loop is what we call Euphoric Mania. This is when the Federal Reserve and central banks step in to help with their band-aids whether it’s printing money, lowering rates, coordinating central bank action, or expanding the balance sheet by trillions. But, like any high, the lift is temporary and doesn’t take hold. In no time at all, we are back to where we were at the top of the loop, because without sustainable economic growth, the band aids don’t solve the problem.
Roger Nightingale, well-known European economist and strategist at RDN Associates, believes a 2012 global recession is a 65 to 75 percent probability and that further deterioration into a lengthy depression is possible. So what does this mean in terms of a growth outlook? Nightingale offered this forecast:
“The peak rate of growth for the world's economy occurred more than 12 months ago. We are probably going into negative territory around spring of next year; it is not for certain, but that is the most likely scenario… should recession kick in; the global economy might be too weak to generate any GDP growth for years, or even decades. When the downturn ends, and when the upturn begins, will it be powerful enough to take us into some sort of growth again? Or are we going to find ourselves in a protracted depression-type scenario?"
The fix needs to come from a unified front, not just a single country or continent. When we look at the three global pillars of the world economy — the United States, Europe and China — sure, each has its own problems, but each one’s fiscal choices impact the globe as a whole. And really, it’s four pillars when we add the Federal Reserve. We are a four-legged intertwined economic and financial system that relies heavily on each other for banking resources, government debt issuance, investments and exports. The feedback loops are never ending. And when economic growth stalls, debt accumulation increases. Without taking tough, systemic and coordinated economic measures including fiscal consolidation and a commitment by governments to cut rising deficits and reduce what are, in some cases, dangerous levels of national indebtedness, a second crisis may indeed be inevitable. The world is trying to recover from the worst financial crisis in 70-years and is suffering from debts levels not seen in decades and the crisis continues to intensify. And, as the graph below shows, with the exception of Ireland, countries need just as much, if not more, financing to cover debts in 2011 compared to 2010. Nothing has changed.
Read the full analysis (pdf)