Waking Up To Sovereign Debt

25 Mar

From Business Spectator:

The current Greek debt crisis is likely to be only the first of a series of disruptions this year, as global financial markets inevitably shift their attention to the sovereign debt problems of advanced economies.

These problems were magnified by the global financial crisis. Faced with a collapse in consumer spending, and the risk of widespread bank failures, governments opened their cheque books while central banks printed trillions of dollars.

This had the effect of stabilising the financial system, but we now have to deal with consequences of these actions, and particularly with the deterioration in the balance sheets of most advanced economies.

The sovereign debt problem is not confined to the so-called PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). Markets are also unnerved by the massive build-up of government debt in the United Kingdom and Japan. And that’s without mentioning the huge budgetary problems facing debt-laden US states, such as California.

There are various doomsday scenarios as to how this situation will ultimately play out.

The first is that countries will start off by heading in the direction that Greece is currently taking. That is, governments will attempt to repair their balance sheets by slashing their spending, and pushing up tax rates.

But the worry is that such budgetary measures will prove counter-productive. The countries that follow this path will end up with their economies plunging into recession, and with an outbreak of social unrest. And as their economies shrink, their tax revenues will dry up, which means that they won’t be able to pay the interest bills on their massive debt.

Eventually the situation will become untenable, and central banks will be forced to respond to the situation by printing more and more money in order to create enough inflation to erode the value of the debt.

Under this scenario, massive central bank money printing means ending up with hyperinflation, along the lines of the Weimar Republic, or, more recently, Zimbabwe. In which case the price of gold explodes, with some predicting it could reach $5,000 an ounce. Prices for other commodities also soar, and stock prices are also likely to remain high, as it is assumed that central banks will always keep interest rates below the rate of inflation.

The alternative fear is that the world ends up looking a lot more like Japan than Zimbabwe, and the main struggle is against deflation.

Under this scenario, the determination of consumers to reduce their debt levels overwhelms government efforts to stimulate the economy. What’s more, the deleveraging process causes demand to collapse, and this puts pressure on labour costs. Households respond to this further deterioration in their earnings by tightening their belts even further, resulting in an ongoing deflationary cycle.

One of the main arguments of this camp is that even though central banks continue to print huge amounts of money, it won’t lead to inflation because the banks are not lending the money. Instead, total credit in the economy will contract as consumers, and businesses, try to repay their existing debts, rather than taking out new loans.

According to this view, the price of gold and other commodities will collapse. The drop in demand will also put pressure on the profit margins of businesses, and this will push global sharemarkets lower, even though interest rates will be kept close to zero.

Of course, it’s likely that neither of these two extreme views will play out in their entirety. But we are likely to see markets oscillate between these two opposing fears as worries about sovereign debt continue to climb this year.

Got to love that blind optimism in the final paragraph.

It’s interesting to observe how the power of denial encourages an otherwise rational and sensible commentator to set aside all the evidence of where things are clearly headed, simply because the end of this road looks calamitous –

"She'll Be Right, Mate"

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