The enthusiasm of investors about central-bank interventions has reached a pitch that is already well-reflected in market prices, and a level of confidence that with little doubt, investors will ultimately regret. In the face of this enthusiasm, one almost wonders why nations across the world and throughout recorded history have ever had to deal with economic recessions or fluctuations in the financial markets. The current, widely-embraced message is that there is no such thing as an economic problem, and no such thing as risk. Bernanke, Draghi and other central bankers have finally figured it out, and now, as a result, economic recessions and market downturns never have to happen again. They just won’t allow it, printing more money will solve everything, and that’s all that any of us need to understand. And if it doesn’t solve everything, they can just keep doing more until it works, because there is no consequence to doing so, and all historical evidence to the contrary can finally, thankfully, be ignored. How could anyone ever have believed, at any point in history, that economics was any more complicated than that?
Unfortunately, the full force of economic history suggests a different narrative. Up to a certain point, which seems to be about 100-120% debt-to-GDP, countries can pull themselves from the brink of sovereign crisis through a combination of austerity (spending reductions), restructuring (putting insolvent financial institutions into receivership and altering the terms of unworkable private and public debt), and monetization (relief of government debt through the permanent creation of currency). Austerity generally reduces economic growth (and corporate profits) in a way that delivers less debt reduction benefit than expected, restructuring is often stimulative to growth because good new capital no longer has to subsidize old misallocations, but is politically contentious, and monetization of bad debt produces clear but often quite delayed inflationary pressures. None of these choices is simple.
Moreover, once countries have created massive deficits and debt burdens beyond about 120% of GDP – typically not to accumulate of productive assets and investments that service that debt, but instead to fund consumption, bail out insolvency, and compensate labor without output – austerity produces further economic depression, restructuring becomes disorderly and produces further economic depression, and attempts at monetization tend to be hyperinflationary.
Europe is fast approaching the point at which every solution will be disruptive, and remains urgently in need of debt restructuring, particularly across its banking system. It is a pleasant but time-consuming fantasy to believe that governments that are already approaching their own insolvency thresholds can effectively bail out a banking system that has already surpassed them. To expect the ECB to simply print money to solve the sovereign debt problems of Spain, Italy and other members is also dangerous. This hope prevents these nations from taking receivership of insolvent institutions now, and allows them to continue to operate in a way that threatens much more disorderly outcomes later.