Opinion: Global public debt will raise medium term interest rates
6th Jul 09, 10:58am
By Neville Bennett This "Greater Depression" is a profound turning point in history. Recently, I analyzed how it had tipped the balance in global GDP away from the West to the emerging world. That change arises partly from differential economic growth rates. Obviously more is involved, and my focus now is on public debt and demography. In essence, ever since the Asian Crisis, emerging countries have cleaned up their balance sheets and now have significant savings. But the developed world is encumbered with an ageing population, and unsustainable commitments in health and pensions. These prevent the paying down of public debt, which has been overblown by the need to bailout banks and fund costly stimulus packages. Japan and the UK are illustrative cases, but there may be lessons for New Zealand in this issue, as credit ratings come under pressure. Global Public Debt Governments have possibly stabilized the financial sector but there must be doubt about the remedy: massive public debt. According to the IMF, by next year, the gross public debt of the 10 richest countries will have risen from 78% of GDP in 2007, to 106%. It is an increase of $9 trillion in three years. New Zealand has made a modest contribution to this. Its public debt in May 2007 was NZ$28.8 bn, rising by a quarter to NZ$36.6 bn in May 2009. There is worse to come. Weak economic growth and revenue, plus increased expenditure point to large budget deficits. The IMF believes public debt will be 111% of this group's GDP in 2014, but in a worst case scenario it may reach 150%. This is the highest peacetime borrowing on record. The world economy will struggle for a decade at least with the weight of this albatross around its neck. It is the result of the paradox that crash caused by too much debt has been remedied by government bailouts to keep economies completely falling off the cliff. Most economists agree with this pump-priming in principle, but they may thereafter disagree on some aspects (for example: too much to banks) and the timing the necessary return to sounder fiscal management. To be sure, governments have been ably to service this debt quite cheaply. Their reserve banks have driven down rates in order to stimulate the economy, and markets rates have been low as investors have flocked to find safety in government-backed securities. Nevertheless, yields are rising in response to new issuances and the cost of debt servicing is increasing net debt appreciably. Will governments try to pay off the debt at the cost of lower economic growth? Or will try to inflate the debt away? Inflation can reduce the real cost of debt, and is attractive to governments as it is more politically acceptable than tax increases. But the cost is much higher than many politicians think. The cost of high inflation is horrendous. Investors will buy debt only if they can make a real return. This requires an interest rate well above the CPI. If inflation is running at 10% p.a., medium term interest rates have to be higher, say 12%-16%. In the process, unless a lot of debt is paid off, the remainder will grow in line with interest rates. It is like a dog chasing its tail. The debt reduces when the dog is exhausted and can chew its tail. Meanwhile, high interest rates have slayed the economy. Only hyper-inflation destroys debt but it also destroys the middle class. Recent History Public debt always rises after recessions because Keynes's policy of pump-priming is universally accepted. Some countries default. But the richer countries rely on fast growth. More recently some very fiscally responsible states like Canada, Sweden, Ireland and New Zealand have restrained public debt. Although New Zealand will triple its bond issuance from about NZ$5 bn p.a. in 2008-9, to NZ$15 bn. in 2013-15, it will keep public debt at a reasonable proportion of GDP. It is forecasting gross public debt as a proportion of GDP at 41.1% this year, rising the 45% in 2012-13 and 49% in 2014-15. This is clearly responsible, but it does rest on projections on increases in GDP which may be optimistic. I am apprehensive that interest rates may rise to attract foreign investors, and that will be a drag on economic growth. Moreover, if NZ yields are attractive, the NZ dollar is likely to soar above fair value, hurting exports and our important tourist and student markets. Rebound? A rebound is difficult. Exports may be sluggish, particularly as households are rebuilding their balance sheets, with a marked reluctance to buy big-ticket items. The richer countries may follow a version of Japan's past, where it is very difficult to stimulate the domestic economy when asset prices are falling. The Japanese Government has pump-primed until it is gasping. The country is still in deflation, but its gross debt-ratio has tripled from 65% of GDP in 1990 to 170% now. Other Fiscal costs The problem of repaying the cost of the bailout is dwarfed by the cost of an ageing population. According to the IMF, the present cost of the bailouts is only one tenth of the financial cost of ageing. If this problem is not addressed, demographic pressures will send the debt of the big rich economies to around 200% of GDP by 2030. The world has regarded emerging country debt as the most in risk of default. This is an anachronism. The emerging members of G20 had a debt-GDP ratio of 38% in 2007 and it is falling to perhaps 35% this year. The rich countries need to be careful to avoid tightening policy too soon for fear of snuffing out economic growth. But they may need to take other action to free up fiscal elbow-room. Pensions are an obvious problem, and raising the retirement age seems imperative as many superannuation schemes are unfunded. S&P have made it clear that the UK either raises taxes or cuts pensions and health spending if it is to avoid a credit downgrade. This is problematic as funding civil service pensions alone can amount to 85% of GDP. ____________ * Neville Bennett was a long-time Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Canterbury, where he taught since 1971. His focus is economic history and markets.