The kiss of debt

  • Business
  • Saturday, 27 Feb 2010

Ballooning fiscal deficits and rising public debt are raising investor anxiety about sovereign risk in many advanced economies.

SO the world has managed to survive the deepest and longest recession since the Big One in the early 1930s. It did so with extraordinary public policy support – fiscal and financial – the price paid to stop the global economy from falling off the precipice.

Two years on, ballooning fiscal deficits and rising public debt are raising investor anxiety about sovereign risk in many advanced economies.

Ironically, the shoe is traditionally on the other foot coming out of deep recession. Sovereign risk concerns historically reflected profligacy in emerging market economies. In the past, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Argentina were notable examples of public debt defaults. Many others (Pakistan, Ukraine, Iceland) were forced to restructure under threat of default.

To a large extent, many emerging economies have changed their ways – tightening their fiscal belt, exporting more (some from new commodity resources), lowering debt-to-GDP ratio. Basically, implementing early fiscal consolidation (often times forced on by promises of new credits). This time, severe recession and the recent financial crisis took a high toll on a good number of advanced economies in the eurozone – those with a history of fiscal problems, ignoring reforms in good times.

Today, “biggies” like the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan are made more vulnerable by weak economic (and jobless) recovery and an ageing population – both likely to add to their debt woes, made worse by the monetisation of fiscal deficits (printing money) and ready access to “costless” bank funds via quantitative easing (also printing money).

Unless properly handled, their anaemic economies could fall back into recession (double-dip) and even deflation, with often disastrous impact on their longer-term growth prospects.

PIIGS can’t fly

News over the Chinese New Year holidays was dominated largely by Greece, pressured by the market to bring on early fiscal reform. Together with the other eurozone PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) – these so-called Club Med members share common traits: weak fiscal and debt positions; weak exports; weak balance of payments; and weak productivity (too high wages) caught in a zone with a strong euro currency, which made them all the more uncompetitive.

What is often not appreciated is that the PIIGS have limited policy options as part of the European Union (EU). For them, their exchange rates are a given. By adopting the euro, they cannot depreciate since they have no currencies of their own. And the European Central Bank (ECB) is not about to weaken the euro for their sake.

They have only one way to go to restore competitiveness – fiscal retrenchment and structural reform. But the PIIGS don’t have a track record of fiscal discipline. Greece, for example, lacks the economic governance of the EU. Yet, it has to make the most of a weak hand at a three-way poker involving the EU, capital markets and potential social unrest at home. If PIIGs fall apart, the European Commission (EC) falls apart.

In my view, they can best do this under an International Moneraty Fund (IMF) programme and not in the shadow of the EC and the ECB without smelling like a bailout. The IMF gives them the best option to re-establish lost policy credibility. Moreover, the euro is not a debt union (Europe is only half-way through creating a viable monetary union); it has yet to have an emergency financial mechanism, if ever.

I must agree with Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman that the euro was adopted ahead of the readiness of all the constituent parts to effectively engage. Harvard’s Feldstein had cautioned early in 1999 that divergent economies can’t work under a single EU roof. Germany had demanded too much: (i) German aversion of debt, and (ii) an authoritarian central bank (ECB) whose excessively tight policies have since aggravated the plight of the PIIGS.

Of course, Germany benefited greatly from the euro. At the same time, Greece and the other PIIGS enjoyed a free lunch as German interest rates pulled down everyone else’s within the euro bloc. Now is payback time. Greece’s ratio of debt to GDP is nearly twice of Germany’s and is projected to hit 120% this year. Its moment of truth came for concealing a 13% budget deficit.

Overall, even the EU is not out of the woods. According to the EC, its public debt ratio could rise above 100% by 2014, i.e. costing an entire year’s output, unless firm action is taken to restore fiscal discipline. This ratio is expected at 84% this year (only 66% in 2007) and rise to 89% in 2011. Ironically, nations aspiring to be members must meet a maximum 60% target!

US and its Aaa rating

Very much like Europe, the United States is not out of the woods either. The deep recession and financial crisis have devastated the state of its public finances. Indeed, the question on most observers mind: Is the United States at (or approaching) a tipping point with global investors? It’s an issue that has become more burning with Obama’s 2010 federal budget envisaging a deficit of US$1.6 trillion, or 10.6% of GDP.

By the end of 2009, public debt had reached US$5.8 trillion or 53% of GDP. This ratio is projected to reach 72% in 2013, unprecedented in US history except when at war. Markets do have a cause to worry. So do we, especially China with very large US dollar reserves.

But for Krugman, the reality isn’t as bad as it sounds. First, the large deficit reflected counter-cyclical expansionary spending (not “runaway spending growth”) to offset the impact of the worst recession in 80 years. It’s already stimulating growth and supporting job creation.

Second, sure there is a longer-term fiscal problem. But once sustainable growth returns, the administration needs to tackle the difficult task of budget reform.

Third, there is no reason for panic. For him, what’s the big deal with projections of interest payments on debt of 3.5% of GDP? That’s what the United States paid under the elder Bush.

And fourth, the “scare tactics” are all politics.

To me, the real concern is whether the United States can stay the course and do what it takes to firmly establish a sustainable recovery, with priority centered on licking mass unemployment. This could even mean facing larger deficits now.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the United States has structural fiscal problems. Serious enough for Moody’s Investors Service to state following the Feb 1 budget release: “Unless further measures are taken to reduce the budget deficit further or the economy rebounds more vigorously than expected, the federal financial picture as presented…will at some point put pressure on the Aaa government bond rating.”

Quite obviously, this raises fresh concerns. To be fair, under the Democrats in 2007, the public debt ratio was 36% and rose to 40% within a year. It’s expected at 64% this year, 69% in 2011, and go above 70% later this decade.

Let’s not forget Moody’s ratings care more about balancing the budget. It seems to me that growth and job creation matter more, just as how nations do the balancing count. But, frankly, a rating downgrade would not be cataclysmic for the United States. In practice, borrowing costs will rise for all. This simply means more pressure on the deficit and debt.

Japan was marked down in 1998 when its debt ratio hit 115%. Stabilising debt requires some combination of faster growth, higher taxes and lower spending. The trouble is Americans want lower taxes, more lavish social safety net, and the world’s best-funded military machine – by simply piling-on debt.

Till debt do us part

Within the G-7, there is a tacit understanding to resolving the dilemma of high employment and worsening public debt: To persevere in support of growth and job creation now (even at the expense of higher deficits); and then get the budget deficit down real hard as recovery gets firmly established.

As I see it, the growth now economists point to the growing weight of evidence for first priority on the restoration of robust growth. This makes sense given the current high unemployment, debt not being out of control, and more private savings mobilised to finance the deficit (as in Japan). Moreover, an immediate accelerated fiscal cutback now would not produce offsetting private demand to “make a sustainable recovery more likely.”

Indeed, any sharp “reversal” shock can prove damaging to early firm recovery. For them, history is “littered with examples of premature withdrawal of government stimulus” gone wrong (the United States in 1937 and Japan in 1997).

No such dilemma in Asia

With the exception of Japan, most Asian economies (from India to China to South Korea) approach the piling-up of public debt with less hubris.

Even China, with one of the world’s largest stimulus programmes (up to 12% of GDP in 2009), recorded a fiscal deficit of less than 5% of GDP in 2009; its debt ratio was less than 20%. Similarly, India’s ratios were 6% and 22% respectively. Malaysia’s record is quite exemplary, with a fiscal deficit of 4.8% in 2008 and 7.4% in 2009 (expected to fall to 5.6% in 2010) in the face of substantial prime-pumping (up to 8% of GNP); its public debt ratio was 52% (foreign debt of 2%) in 2009.

Japan’s case is rather curious. In 2009, its budget deficit was 10.5% of GDP; its public debt, 200% – twice the size of the economy. This huge debt reflected years of slow growth, numerous stimulus plans, an ageing society and the impact of the global recession. Experts expect it to rise to 300% by 2020. Yet, it manages rather well. Japanese investors, including households, absorb 95% of this debt. Its long-bonds yield was 7.1% in 1990; it’s now 1.4%. The trick, I think, is high private savings in Japan.

Unlike Japan, a significant part of the US debt is financed by foreign savings from China, Japan, Europe and most of Asia. The inconvenient truth is this: the United States can easily and readily borrow as much as it wants until confidence evaporates – not unlike the US dollar.

Much of Asia’s confidence lies in its high rate of domestic savings. Malaysians’ savings are about one-third of the national income. Private savings in United States until the crisis in 2007 was zero; it now saves 6%–7%. Based on this confidence, Malaysia for example can rely on a sustainable stream of non-inflationary finance. So long as development strategies for growth are creditably conceived and designed, the domestic savings will be there to fund such public programmes to build capacity and generate sustainable growth.

Indeed, it is legitimate to ask: Why are excess Malaysian savings used (through investment in US Treasuries) to fund US spending? More so when rates are so miserably low today.

Surely, we do have worthwhile much higher return investments that warrant the use of these excess savings domestically (beyond what’s prudently needed to be set aside for the rainy day) to promote the public good. The efficient allocation of scarce financial resources must form an integral part of the New Economic Model.

● Former banker Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email:

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