Monday, July 19, 2010

John Mauldin: The Debt Supercycle

The Debt Supercycle

When I mention The End Game, you’ll immediately want to know what is ending. What I think is ending for a significant number of countries in the “developed” world is the Debt Supercycle. The concept of the Debt Supercycle was originally developed by the Bank Credit Analyst. It was Hamilton Bolton, the BCA founder, who used the word supercycle, and he was referring generally to a lot of things, including money velocity, bank liquidity, and interest rates. Tony Boeckh changed the concept to the more simple “Debt Supercycle” back in the early 1970s, as he believed the problem was spiraling private-sector debt. The current editor of the BCA (and Maine fishing buddy) Martin Barnes has greatly expanded on the concept.

Essentially, the Debt Supercycle is the decades-long growth of debt from small and easily-dealt-with levels, to a point where bond markets rebel and the debt has to be restructured or reduced or a program of austerity must be undertaken to bring the debt back to manageable proportions.

As Bank Credit Analyst wrote back in 2007:

“The history of the U.S. is characterized by a long-run increase in indebtedness, punctuated by occasional financial crises and subsequent policy reflation. The subprime blow-up is the latest installment in this ongoing Debt Supercycle story. During each crisis, there are always fears that conventional reflation will no longer work, implying the economy and markets face a catastrophic debt unwinding. Such fears have always proved unfounded, and the current episode is no exception.

“A combination of Fed rate cuts, fiscal easing (aimed at relieving subprime distress), and a lower dollar will eventually trigger another upleg in the Debt Supercycle, and a new round of leverage and financial excesses. The objects of speculation are likely to be global, particularly emerging markets and resource related assets. The Supercycle will end if foreign investors ever turn their back on U.S. assets, triggering capital flight out of the dollar and robbing U.S. authorities of any room for maneuver. This will not happen any time soon.”

I was talking with Martin a few months ago, and about the topic turned to the ending of the Debt Supercycle. Martin said we are nowhere near the end, as the government is stepping in where private debtors are cutting back. We have just shifted the focus of where the debt is coming from. And he is right, in that the Debt Supercycle in the US, Great Britain, Japan and other developed countries (yes, even Greece!) is still very much in play as governments explode their balance sheets. Total debt continues to grow.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

And yet, and yet… While the Debt Supercycle may not yet have ended, I think we can begin to see a clear case that, like the sandwich-board-wearing cartoon prophet warning, “The End is Nigh!” Greece is the harbinger of fundamental change. Spain and Portugal are pointing to the same outcome, as their cost of debt keeps rising. And Ireland? The Baltics?

There is a limit to how much debt you can pile on. But as the work of Reinhart and Rogoff points out (This Time Is Different), there is not a fixed limit or some certain percentage of GNP. Rather, the limit is all about confidence, a theme I have written on many times. Everything goes along well, and then “Boom!” it doesn’t. That “Boom” has happened to Greece. Without massive assistance, Greek debt would be unmarketable. Default would be inevitable. (I still think it is!)

The limit is different for every nation. For Russia in the 1990s, it was a rather minor total debt-to-GDP ratio of around 12%. Japan will soon have a debt-to-GDP ratio of 230%! The difference? Local savers bought government debt in Japan and did not in Russia.

The end of the Debt Supercycle does not have to mean calamity for each country, depending on how far down the road they are. Yes, if you are Greece your choices are between very, very bad and disastrous. Japan is a bug in search of a windshield. Each country has its own dynamics.

Take the US. We are some ways off from the end. We have time to adjust. But let’s be under no illusions, we cannot run deficits of 10% of GDP forever. At some point the Fed will either have to monetize the debt or the bond market will simply demand an ever-higher interest rate. Why can’t we go the way of Japan? Because we do not have the level of savings they have traditionally had. But their savings levels are rapidly declining, which says that if they want to continue their deficit spending at 10% of GDP, they will have to go into the foreign markets to borrow money at a much higher cost, or their central bank will have to print money. Neither choice is good.


Related book: The Great Reflation

Related previous post: Reflections on the Sovereign Debt Crisis - By Edward Chancellor