The World Is Drowning in Debt

July 13, 2020 Updated: July 14, 2020

Commentary

According to the International Monetary Fund, global fiscal support in response to the crisis will be more than $9 trillion, approximately 12 percent of the world’s GDP.

This premature, clearly rushed, probably excessive, and often misguided chain of so-called stimulus plans will distort public finances in a way we haven’t seen since World War II. The enormous increase in public spending and the fall in output will lead to a global government debt figure close to 105 percent of GDP.

If we add government and private debt, we are talking about $200 trillion of debt, a global increase of more than 35 percent of GDP, well above the 20 percent seen after the 2008 crisis, and all in a single year.

This brutal increase in indebtedness isn’t going to prevent economies from falling rapidly. The main problem of this global stimulus chain is that it’s entirely oriented toward supporting bloated government spending, and artificially low bond yields. That’s the reason why such a massive global monetary and fiscal response isn’t doing much to prevent the collapse in jobs, investment, and growth. Most businesses, small ones with no debt and no assets, are being wiped out.

Most of this new debt has been created to sustain a level of public spending that was designed for a cyclical boom, not a crisis, and to help large companies that were already in trouble in 2018 and 2019, the so-called “zombie” companies.

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the percentage of zombie companies—those that cannot cover their debt interest payments with operating profits—has exploded in the period of giant stimuli and negative real rates, and the figure will skyrocket again.

That’s why all this new debt isn’t going to boost the recovery; it will likely prolong the recession.

Debt is neither free nor irrelevant, even if interest rates are low, as interventionists want us to believe. More debt means less growth and a slower exit from the crisis, with lower productivity growth and a tepid employment improvement.

The often-repeated argument that “it would have been worse” if these bailouts and spending plans had not been implemented and that “nothing else could have been done” is easily rebutted: The countries that will fall the least in 2020, recover first, and do so with the lowest unemployment rates are the ones that have maintained prudent spending plans, preserved the economic fabric, and addressed the health crisis with serious protocols.

South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands—many countries haven’t fallen into the trap of massive government spending, have delivered better health and economic results than most nations, and have done so with lower levels of interventionism.

Many countries show that it’s not necessary to cover the economy with enormous budget imbalances to guarantee health.

It’s important to remember these figures of enormous indebtedness because of the disconnection between financial markets and the real economy, which has reached almost record levels and presents bubble-type features.

First, these huge stimuli are probably too big, too soon, and clearly geared toward sustaining low-productivity sectors. All this is supported by a monetary policy that has gone from providing liquidity to being the enabler of asset bubbles.

The balance sheet of the European Central Bank has increased by almost 2 trillion euros so far this year, and is already more than 52 percent of the eurozone’s GDP, much higher than that of the Federal Reserve, which is at 32.6 percent of the GDP of the United States, or the Bank of England, at 31.1 percent.

The Bank of Japan’s balance sheet already accounts for 117 percent of GDP, and its consequences should be a warning sign to all nations. Consumption has plummeted again in May, and the country has been stagnant for two decades, with debt that will exceed 260 percent of GDP. Copying Japan is the recipe for secular stagnation.

The huge increase in the balance sheet of central banks to artificially keep bond yields low has pushed stock markets higher just as 80 percent of listed companies have abandoned their business profit targets and analysts are slashing estimates for 2020, 2021, and 2022 at the fastest speed in the past decade, according to JPMorgan and Bank of America.

This enormous action of central banks leads to an unprecedented disconnection between the real economy and the stock markets. The expansion of multiples has accelerated just as earnings estimates plummet.

By making sovereign bonds prohibitively expensive, two dangerous things happen: Governments believe low bond yields are due to their policies, and investors take much more risk than what they think they have in their portfolios.

All of this looks harmless if the bubble expands and the placebo effect works, but if macro, earnings, and employment data remain disappointing, the next crash may be worse than the economic shutdown, because it may add a financial crisis to the already weak economy.

Unfortunately, when the next crash happens, governments and central banks will tell us that more stimulus is warranted.

Daniel Lacalle, Ph.D., is the chief economist at hedge fund Tressis and author of “Freedom or Equality,” “Escape from the Central Bank Trap,” and “Life in the Financial Markets.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.