Should we be worried about debt?


According to Bank Negara’s Financial Stability Review report for the first half of 2021, Malaysia’s household debt to GDP has declined to 89.6% from 93.2% as at end of last year. Although a small achievement, the household debt level remains elevated.

IN recent weeks, global markets were roiled by the mere mention of a four-letter word, debt. From China’s Evergrande Group’s near collapse, as it sat on a mountain of liabilities, to the United States government’s need to raise its debt ceiling.

In Malaysia’s case, we too have not much choice either but to raise our debt ceiling as we look at ways to re-generate the economy with a higher debt room of 65% of gross domestic product (GDP) from 60% currently.

It seems like debt has become one dirty word for investors for the time being, as we all know there is a price to pay when it comes to debt as there is no such thing as a free lunch.

For the US, there is no doubt that they have constantly raised their debt ceiling over the years to ensure they do not default on their obligations.

According to the US Treasury website, since 1960, Congress has acted 78 separate times to permanently raise, temporarily extend, or revise the definition of the nation’s debt limit.

Currently suspended, the US debt ceiling was reset on Aug 1, 2021, to US$28.4 trillion (RM118.9 trillion). For the US, failure is not an option as it will lead to a catastrophic chain reaction to not only the financial market but to the economy as a whole.

According to Treasury Secretary and the former Federal Reserve (Fed) chairperson, Janet Yellen, (pic) the US has never defaulted on its debt before and she was “confident” that the issue would be addressed, despite warning the Congress that the deadline for the debt ceiling is “around Oct 18”.According to Treasury Secretary and the former Federal Reserve (Fed) chairperson, Janet Yellen, (pic) the US has never defaulted on its debt before and she was “confident” that the issue would be addressed, despite warning the Congress that the deadline for the debt ceiling is “around Oct 18”.

According to Treasury Secretary and the former Federal Reserve (Fed) chairperson, Janet Yellen, the US has never defaulted on its debt before and she was “confident” that the issue would be addressed, despite warning the Congress that the deadline for the debt ceiling is “around Oct 18”.

For now, while a nine-week stopgap funding bill has been endorsed by the President on Thursday, which in all likelihood will avoid a government shutdown at least up to Dec 3, 2021, the threat of a US defaulting on its debts remains.

While the US is able to continue to print money by simply passing the law to keep borrowing, the US, just like any other country, cannot go on borrowing forever. With a greater supply of money, sooner or later, interest rates will have to rise as the increase in money supply will likely fuel inflation.

After all, the Fed too expects rates to start rising in 2022 and much more in 2023 onwards.

Since the last Federal Open Market Committee just over a week ago, the 10-year and 30-year US benchmark rates have already moved 17 basis points (bps) and 21 bps to 1.50% and 2.06% respectively – as the market begins to price in expectations of the Fed’s tapering move as well as worries if there is going to be lengthy impasse between the Democrats and the Republican or grand old party (GOP) to raise the debt ceiling.

Having said that, as the US has been running budget deficits for the longest time, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that given time, the US will need to raise the debt ceiling yet again in the future.

Hence it was also of no surprise when Yellen commented on Thursday that the debt ceiling ought to be permanently abolished.

In any government’s financial management, it’s either shortfall or revenue, mainly due to inadequate tax collections or excessive spending, which are also a function of debt service charges, and to a certain extent, over-priced development spending or operating expenditures.

With a current debt-to-GDP of about 125%, the US is not the only country with a huge mountain of debts.

So is the rest of the world. In fact, according to the Institute of International Finance (IIF) in its Global Debt Monitor report published on Sept 14, 2021, global debt, which includes government, household and corporate, and bank debt increased by US$4.8 trillion (RM20 trillion) to reach a new all-time high of US$296 trillion (RM1.24 quadrillion).

In essence, over the past six quarters, as the pandemic has caused significant damage to the global economy and unprecedented response from governments, total global debt has expanded by US$36 trillion (RM150.7 trillion) or 13.6% from just about US$260 trillion (RM1.09 quadrillion) as at end of 2019.

Money has to go somewhere

When a debt is raised, be it by the government, a company, or a household, it has to go somewhere. For most governments, debts are mainly raised for development expenditure, and if it is allowed by the constitution, on operating expenditure too.

Debts raised due to the pandemic perhaps has become the norm globally as well, as the government has no choice but to raise the required funding to support the economy.

In the US, the Fed also buys US treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities and this effectively makes its way into the financial markets.

So while the Fed has expanded its balance sheet by more than 100% since the pandemic, the liquidity it has provided has caused significant gain not only in traditional asset classes but into everything else. Home prices are rising, commodities have boomed and markets are buoyant and cryptos have soared.

In the case of Evergrande Group, many are left wondering if it was a case of a “too-big-to-fail” company. Evergrande became a property developer largely by borrowing.

As a group, they also ventured into other businesses, which among others include electric vehicles, Internet and media production, theme park, football club, and even into mineral water and food production.

Evergrande’s massive business empire, grown out of debt means, while it has substantial assets, it also had huge liabilities. As Beijing has been strong in putting its house in order in the form of new regulations and guidelines for many industries, Evergrande too was not spared.

As early as August last year, the Chinese government had introduced a “three red lines” test for developers to meet if they wanted to borrow more.

This was firstly, liability to asset ratio of not more than 70%; secondly, net debt to equity ratio of not more than 100%; and thirdly cash to short-term debt ratio of more than 1.0.

Hence, the writings were already on the wall on Chinese developers more than a year ago that the regulators were serious in addressing debt-driven growth pursued by these companies. In Evergrande’s case, the debt hit the ceiling.

Why do we go into debt?

Debts taken by individuals are rather straightforward. Of course, there are good debts and bad debts. For most of us, it is for the purchase of big-ticket items like a roof over the head, and for mobility purposes, where most of us own a car.

Of course, we also indulge ourselves with material stuff, either from our savings or credit cards that we will pay off when the time comes. Some of us, due to lack of income or due to financial mismanagement, take on bad debts and that’s where the trouble starts as we are unaware of the consequences of rising personal debts and high-interest cost.

Stories of debts owed to money lenders are common within our society while Bank Negara statistics also show that one of the fastest-growing debt profiles among individuals is personal loans.

This has remained relatively high and has increased by 87.4% over the last five years alone to about RM73.7bil as at end of August 2021, while its share of the banking system loans outstanding has increased from 2.7% to as much as 4.0% now.

According to Bank Negara’s Financial Stability Review report for the first half of 2021, Malaysia’s household debt to GDP has declined to 89.6% from 93.2% as at end of last year. Although a small achievement, the household debt level remains elevated.

For a company, debts should be part of capital management as companies need to not only sustain their business operations but look at opportunities to grow and expand their market share, either via acquisition or via borrowings. However, similar to what we have seen in Evergrande’s case, companies too must observe their own “three-red-lines” to ensure they have the right mix and remain vigilant of its exposure.

Does Malaysia have the room to borrow more?

For Malaysia, with a higher debt ceiling of 65%, the government is effectively allowing itself to have some headway to borrow an additional RM75bil to support the recovery momentum that most economists now expect will be much stronger in this fourth quarter period and 2022 and as we prepare ourselves for the post-pandemic period.

While we have created this room to enable us to borrow more, we must be mindful to borrow responsibly as debts that are taken today will be borne by future generations.

We also need to chart our way out of this debt-dependency black hole that we have been in since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998 and get out of this conundrum.

While debt-to-GDP is just a denominator that is divided by a numerator that is steadily growing, we must find ways to manage our overall federal government debt and plan to reduce them post-pandemic.

That is a whole new topic altogether, and next week, this column will explore strategies that Malaysia can deploy to reduce its debt dependency.

Pankaj C Kumar is a long-time investment analyst. The views expressed here are his own.

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