US and UK on brink of debt disaster
20 Jan 2009, 0419 hrs
LONDON: The United States and the United Kingdom stand on the brink of the largest debt crisis in history.
While both governments experiment with quantitative easing, bad banks to absorb non-performing loans, and state guarantees to restart bank lending, the only real way out is some combination of widespread corporate default, debt write-downs and inflation to reduce the burden of debt to more manageable levels. Everything else is window-dressing.
The proximate trigger of the debt crisis was the deterioration in lending standards and rise in default rates on subprime mortgage loans. But the widening divergence revealed in the charts suggests a crisis had become inevitable sooner or later. If not subprime lending, there would have been some other trigger.
The charts strongly suggest the necessary condition for resolving the debt crisis is a reduction in the outstanding volume of debt, an increase in nominal GDP, or some combination of the two, to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio to a more sustainable level.
From this perspective, it is clear many of the existing policies being pursued in the United States and the United Kingdom will not resolve the crisis because they do not lower the debt ratio.
In particular, having governments buy distressed assets from the banks, or provide loan guarantees, is not an effective solution. It does not reduce the volume of debt, or force recognition of losses. It merely re-denominates private sector obligations to be met by households and firms as public ones to be met by the taxpayer.
BANKRUPTCY OR INFLATION
The solution must be some combination of policies to reduce the level of debt or raise nominal GDP. The simplest way to reduce debt is through bankruptcy, in which some or all of debts are deemed unrecoverable and are simply extinguished, ceasing to exist.
Bankruptcy would ensure the cost of resolving the debt crisis falls where it belongs. Investor portfolios and pension funds would take a severe but one-time hit. Healthy businesses would survive, minus the encumbrance of debt.