National Debt and Rates of Return

Over the past few weeks it has been clear that another exploration of deflationary risk is in order. Having already published Inflation vs. Deflation (3-15-10) and Avoiding Global Deflation (7-18-10), as well as The China Bubble (6-8-10) there seemed no point in compiling additional alarming, but anecdotal information. Nothing has changed. Debt is too high almost everywhere, certainly in the U.S. and the Eurozone, and even if Chinese debt ratios appear low, the information available could be misleading because China’s banking system is opaque, and much of their collateral may be grossly overvalued.

Because for the past thirty years the global economy has relied on rising debt to fuel rapid economic growth, as debt levels become unsustainable, economic growth slows. When that occurs, asset values drop, meaning that outstanding loans are no longer backed by sufficient collateral. Even in a mildly deflationary environment – which for now, thankfully, is all we are dealing with – real rates of return on large investment funds cannot realistically be projected at levels that cause total interest payments to consume an inordinate percentage of GDP. The more debt exists as a percentage of GDP, the more a burden interest payments become, and the more imperative it becomes to keep interest rates low to maintain solvency – whether that is solvency of government, business, or household entities.

As an aside, when considering levels of debt, what level is deemed sustainable [...] Read More

The Razor’s Edge – Inflation vs. Deflation

Deficit spending has been touted as a potential driver of inflation, because only with devalued (inflated) currency can we hope to erode the real value of our mounting levels of government debt. Continuing to print U.S. dollars, it is claimed, can only lead to too many dollars in the system, and hence a devalued dollar. We should be so lucky.

A few years ago, in Sept. 2007, in a post entitled “Inflation vs. Deflation,” I cited a recent (at the time) quote from Paul Kasriel, an economist with The Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. He explained the danger of deflation quite well, describing what happened in Japan:

“Japan experienced a deflation in recent years because the bursting of its asset-price bubble in the early 1990s created huge losses in its banking system. The Japanese banks had financed the asset-price bubble. When it burst, the debtors could not keep current on their loans to the banks and therefore were forced to turn back the collateral to the banks. The market value of the collateral, of course, was less than the amount of the loans outstanding, thereby inflicting huge losses of capital to the Japanese banks. With the decline in bank capital, the Japanese banks could not extend new credit to the private sector even though the Bank of Japan was offering credit to the banks at very low nominal rates of interest.”

Another way to put this is as follows: Liquidity is a function of two [...] Read More