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The U.S. and UK Are on the Brink of Debt Disaster

Soft measures won't cut it: We need widespread corporate defaults, debt write-downs, and inflation to reduce the burden of what we all owe.
 
 
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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.

To understand the scale of the problem, and why it leaves so few options for policymakers, take a look at Chart 1, which shows the growth in the real economy (measured by nominal GDP) and the financial sector (measured by total credit market instruments outstanding) since 1952.

 

In 1952, the United States was emerging from the Second World War and the conflict in Korea with a strong economy, and fairly low debt, split between a relatively large government debt (amounting to 68 percent of GDP) and a relatively small private sector one (just 60 percent of GDP).

Over the next 23 years, the volume of debt increased, but the rise was broadly in line with growth in the rest of the economy, so the overall ratio of total debts to GDP changed little, from 128 percent in 1952 to 155 percent in 1975.

The only real change was in the composition. Private debts increased (7.8 times) more rapidly than public ones (1.5 times). As a result, there was a marked shift in the debt stock from public debt (just 37 percent of GDP in 1975) towards private sector obligations (117 percent). But this was not unusual. It should be seen as a return to more normal patterns of debt issuance after the wartime period in which the government commandeered resources for the war effort and rationed borrowing by the private sector.

From the 1970s onward, however, the economy has undergone two profound structural shifts. First, the economy as a whole has become much more indebted. Output rose eight times between 1975 and 2007. But the total volume of debt rose a staggering 20 times, more than twice as fast. The total debt-to-GDP ratio surged from 155 percent to 355 percent.

Second, almost all this extra debt has come from the private sector. Take a look at Chart 2.

 

Despite acres of newsprint devoted to the federal budget deficit over the last thirty years, public debt at all levels has risen only 11.5 times since 1975. This is slightly faster than the eight-fold increase in nominal GDP over the same period, but government debt has still only risen from 37 percent of GDP to 52 percent.

 

Instead, the real debt explosion has come from the private sector. Private debt outstanding has risen an enormous 22 times, three times faster than the economy as a whole, and fast enough to take the ratio of private debt to GDP from 117 percent to 303 percent in a little over thirty years.

For the most part, policymakers have been comfortable with rising private debt levels. Officials have cited a wide range of reasons why the economy can safely operate with much higher levels of debt than before, including improvements in macroeconomic management that have muted the business cycle and led to lower inflation and interest rates. But there is a suspicion that tolerance for private rather than public sector debt simply reflected an ideological preference.

The Debt Mountain

The data in Table 1 [download here] makes clear the rise in private sector debt had become unsustainable. In the 1960s and 1970s, total debt was rising at roughly the same rate as nominal GDP. By 2000-2007, total debt was rising almost twice as fast as output, with the rapid issuance all coming from the private sector, as well as state and local governments. 

 
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