04/12/2018, 19.18
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A world full of debts will cause economic and political crises (IV)

by Maurizio d'Orlando

At the end of 2017, global debt reached US$ 233 trillion dollars, or 318 per cent of world GDP. All the money pumped into the system by central banks has saved the banks but not the real economy. The monetary and financial system has reached its credibility threshold. We are on the eve of the end of an era. Our expert in political economy presents the fourth and last part of his analysis.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Quantitative easing, or QE*, had two goals. One is explicit: overcome the financial crisis of 2008 and in this it was an extraordinary success. The banks and financial institutions were saved and the stock market indices have recouped all the losses, and greatly expanded. The Dow Jones is now higher by 270 per cent from the low of 2009, 85 per cent from the height of 2007.

QE’s second goal was political: avoid the social crisis that followed the 1929 financial crisis, which led to the authoritarian politics that followed. The obvious reference is the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933.  In fact, nine years of QE have profoundly changed society and habits, with the great triumphs for the progressive and "liberal" ideology that has always had a strong connection with the Keynesian QE ideology.

At the root of all this is the optimistic idea that a linear development for humanity is possible, a future of progress without limits and without falls and without regression. All it takes is to print money. This optimism is not new in history. In the past centuries, starting with the French Revolution, the world has known the initial phases of other optimistic ideologies for humanity like the enlightenment, rationalism, idealism, positivism, Marxism, super-humanism, historicism, futurism.

These ideologies are the false faiths of the past centuries that accompanied the Apollonian, exuberant and optimistic phases of economic and social growth. All these faiths, which have had hundreds and hundreds of millions of true believers, have, however, collapsed, swept away by the Dionysian and destructive phases of disillusionment, which followed the phases of growth.

The same will happen to the prevailing faith in QE and the thaumaturgical power of the monitors of money printing, the central banks. Nine years of limitless ultra-Keynesian QE have in fact solved nothing from the point of view of the growth of the real economy.

Even if we accept official figures about inflation– which is particularly hard when it comes to Chinese data but also true for Western countries – and therefore about real GDP growth after inflation, we are facing really low strangled economic growth rates, with annual increases in the United States of around 2 per cent. In light of this, the high watermark reached by stock market indices is not justified.

So what if the index loses points, as some say, or even more points, as others say? To align itself with real GDP growth, the Dow Jones, in fact, should shrink by more than half, after taking inflation into account, and that would be a meltdown, with a major impact on the real economy.

Now what is brewing is not a crisis like those of 2007, or 2000, or even the one that has become the archetypical crisis, 1929. The one that is coming will not only be economically disastrous but will also have huge political repercussions and will be historically momentous.

In a rational mechanistic universe, the Dow Jones should not have risen by 270 per cent after February 2009. The point is that the economy is not only about budgets and contracts, but also a reflection of human behaviour, expectations, group psychology, as well as economic, political and social doctrines. Therefore, if stock market indices rose as much as they did it is because of the trust people have in the value of money and the liquidity guaranteed by the watchful eyes of central banks. It is the effect of more than half a century of undisputed rule by Keynesian economic doctrines since 1960 when Kennedy became president.

Since then, the principle of balanced public accounts, as postulated by classical economists, was abandoned, and constant profligate public spending – even in the absence of any urgent and temporary military obligation – became the norm. This was followed by neo-Keynesian doctrines aimed at stimulating growth with the expansion of credit to households and private non-financial institutions.

Lastly, ultra-Keynesians led the support for the banking and financial system that loaded the balance sheets of government-backed central banks with toxic assets. Thus, the public debt in the United States and many other countries came to exceed a well-known critical threshold which, for the developed world, is between 80 and 90 per cent of GDP [1]. The most worrying figure, however, is the total debt, i.e. the sum of public debt, household debt, private non-financial corporate debt and that of banks and financial companies.

At the end of last year, according to a research by the Institute of International Finance, the total debt worldwide stood at US$ 233 trillion, or 318 per cent of world GDP. It was 217 per cent in 1997 and 278 per cent in 2007. In 20 years it grew on average per year by 5.05 per cent. Thus, the public debt is not the only one that cannot be repaid. Logically, other types of debt have lower sustainability thresholds, and therefore the problem concerns the entire credit system and thus "wealth" expressed in financial values.

With such data, with the huge gap between stock market indices and GDP, with the time bomb of financial derivatives, which has not yet been defused, with the limitless emission of money above all in the past ten years, with the pathological growth of central bank balance sheets, the existing monetary and financial system has reached a certain credibility threshold.

We have reached the point where Fonzie jumps the shark[2], where the bluster is no longer credible and accepted. Some early signs are already visible, most notably the rise of crypto-currencies. Whatever doubts we may have about them, the crypto-currencies are the expression of the great uneasiness surrounding the money issued by commercial banks and regulated by central banks.

For this writer, a non-economic event – a war or a major natural disaster – might act as a catalyst for a historically unprecedented crisis. When will this happen? Who knows! This and next year might even be years of growth, as some predict, but for this writer we are on the eve of the end of an era, like 1789, which saw the end of monarchies. Soon it will be the end of republics.

* a monetary policy by which a central bank increases liquidity

(Last of four parts.) For the first part, click here; for the second part, click here; for the third part, click here.


[1] For developing countries the technical threshold is lower, around 40 - 50 per cent of GDP.

[2] The reference is to the TV sit-com Happy Days, popular in the 1970s and early 1980s.

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Squandering more public resources
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