By Kumar David –
“In light inaccessible hid from our eyes”, is a line from an 1867 hymn set to the tune of a Welsh ballad; it is not a quip about the mystery of global debt but it could well be. Economists don’t enlighten you on the nature and ubiquity of debt because they are muddled themselves. The eclectic hither and thither is recounted in The Economist’s ‘A new era of economics’ – 25 July 2020. There is no shared paradigm, laymen have to cogitate and pick up as best they can. Scientists, finnicky about cause and effect cannot suppress the need to frame things in intelligible terms; see if you can pick up anything useful from this idiot’s guide to the ubiquity and explosion of global and domestic public and private indebtedness. Public or national refers to central and local governments. Private is corporate, non-central-bank bank and household borrowing; the last includes mortgages, personal overdrafts and credit-card indebtedness.
There have been four stages in economic theology since the 1930s. The Keynesian gambit, the neo-liberal (Friedman-monetarist) nightmare and the two post-2009 phases. Yes, two phases, the first till about 2018 and the second thereafter which accelerated with covid-19. I say little on Keynesian macroeconomics or neo-liberalism; the former reigned from the Great Depression till the 1970s when it was invalidated by stagflation, and the latter, that is the neo-liberalism of Pinochet-Regan-Thatcher-IMF, gripped the world by the throat till the 1990s. The last nail in the coffin of dying neo-liberalism was the Great Recession (GR) of 2009-10; the last captain of that sinking ship Tony Blair earning himself the epithet Blatcherist. GR proved that unchecked free-market capitalism contained the germs of its destruction in its own DNA, collapsing under its own rationale.
A feature of the global economy since the 1990s is mounting debt, now astronomical public plus corporate debt, and in the run up to GR acute household mortgages. Strangely, no one asks: “If all the world is in debt, who is the creditor? Who owns the loot? What the source?” Leaving aside the printing press, a substantive topic of this essay, there are two tangible sources; the enormous wealth accumulated in the hands of the ultra-rich (the “One-Percent”) and public savings in provident funds, social-security coffers and in Japan Post Office Savings accounts. The former, is the surplus created by social labour appropriated by capital or siphoned into institutions called private equity, mutual and hedge funds and into mighty investment banks. Maybe half Lanka’s foreign debt is owned to these money-market funds, the other portion to multi-lateral agencies IMF, ADB and World Bank and foreign governments, mainly China and its state banking arms. The point I am driving is that the people of the poor half of the world are deeply in hock to the moguls of international finance capital, including the mighty One-Percent.
The first period of the post-GR phase which lasted for a little less than a decade was characterised in metropolitan centres by measures intended to revive economic growth. Credit was created by central banks (US Fed, EU’s ECB, Japan’s BoJ and limping along, the Bank of England) by the shipload and pumped out to Treasuries, or by purchases of corporate bonds, or shoved into bank vaults. The hope was that there would be investment, growth and employment. It fell flat on its face. Though employment did pick up a bit for reasons too long to detail here, production-capital did not take the ball and run. Instead finance took the money and put it into shares (equities), commercial property and Treasury Bonds, creating an asset bubble.
Central bank money did not go into economic activity; it was siphoned through the ultra-rich into the asset bubble; that is the rich got richer. For this reason, demand for goods and services did not grow (how many bottles of Premier Cru can a millionaire imbibe?). Sans demand, economic growth did not take off in the US, Europe or Japan, hence inflation was stuck below 2% and the economy did not fire up (if inflation escalates, the economy exudes full employment and output is near capacity-output they call it “heating up”). Economic misery in the lower orders created anger and populism (Occupy Movements and radical fundamentalisms). Outrage at the rich getting richer and everyone else getting poorer also triggered the Trump Base, the grip of Marine Le Penn, the popularity of Nigel French, Brexit, near fascists Hungary’s Victor Oban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda, and Hindutva’s Muslim-hating Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. In sum the first phase of post-GR intervention was neither an economic success nor was it politically soothing, it was a failure.
Enter the second post-GR stage starting in 2018 but fouled up and drowned by Covid-19. The world’s ruling powers had to take note that growth was not picking up, political resentment was swelling, inflation doggedly low and interest rates peering into the moat of negativity. Then corona hit! It summoned gigantic “stimulus” packages; in the domain of economic theory four schools of were jostling for space.
MMT (Modern Monetary Theory)
MMT is really odd in the eyes of regular economists; I too find it difficult to digest. Were I to exaggerate but only a bit, the theory says print money, print as much as you like, it won’t and it can’t do harm. Governments should not break their heads about deficits, central banks should not let inflation fears hold them back, they should create stimulus money by the bathtub and pour it into investment markets; household should party late into the night. The argument is that by turbo charging the economy with cash, productive activity will take off and rising output will defeat the demon of galloping inflation. The more serious-minded supporters of this school want to keep it going only till inflation and growth pick up and unemployment falls sufficiently, then slacken. But I am not persuaded. When inflation hits it hits fast and hard. Governments and the unwary, soaked in debt, will be overwhelmed by rapidly rising interest rates which will drive them to bankruptcy. Going in search of a free lunch is never unproblematic.
Fiscal splurge driven strategies (FS)
The more conventional last-ditch efforts are Fiscal Splurge (FS) and Monetary Control (MC). The former is the de facto method employed, whether consciously named FS or not, in broke, crisis driven, debt wracked or plain basket economies. While these pejoratives do not all apply to Lanka, some do. The bottom line is that in poor countries with high populist expectations, or enjoying electoral democracy that can oust politicians, governments if they wish to survive, have no option but to resort to fiscal deficits. That is spend more than their revenues to keep the masses stoned; an alternative opiate to religion. In a debt-intoxicated country this means monetary policy and fiscal policy have to merge, the former becomes a service provider to the latter; Prof Laxman transmutes into front office receptionist for President and PM. In the long-term fiscal profligacy has disastrous consequences that are so well-known that I don’t need to dwell on the it here.
Monetary control and manipulation (MC)
This is typical of the EU; the US is a mix of FS and MC. With MC power rests in the hands of the central bank not government, finance ministry or treasury – FS is the other way round. The prime example of MC is the European Central Bank, I dare say with the Bundesbank breathing down its neck, which drives a chariot whose lowly drays are individual EU governments. BOJ too is not a sub-contractor of the Japanese government. The Reserve Bank of India tried to talk big in the era of Raghuram Rajan but Governors and the Bank have since been cut down to size. Central banks in dominance use interest rates and money supply to manage inflation with an eye on the side turned towards employment and growth.
Restructuring (social concern or state-led)
This is an outlier in a discussion of how capitalist economies (including Scandinavian version) are struggling to cope with explosive debt, income and wealth gaps, and retain social instability. The two key concepts in understanding this fourth option are restructuring and involvement of the state. State-led, but market sensitive and capitalism-accommodative, one party China seems an obvious prototype but it is not an exemplar because this essay is focussed on capitalist (the majority) nations of the world. An imagined President Bernie Sanders Administration in the US is a hypothetical example of this option. I don’t need to explain how this will be different from the US we know, but the point of this essay is that US national debt is large and will be larger in the hypothetical case. At the moment in the debate about coping with a belly-up economy, staggering stimulus packages are on Congress’ table – the Republicans want to cap it at $2 trillion, Democrats to push it up to $3 trillion. Hypothetical Bernie and his Squad will make it larger.
Whatever the version, stimulus money will be part channelled to government (Treasury Bond purchase) and a comparable sum will be siphoned into corporate bonds and private assets. Soaring debt will undermine faith in America’s ability to measure up to its commitments and will damage faith in the dollar as the as the world’s reserve currency. Debt has come to stay in every corner, an unwelcome guest determined to hang on till there is a global transformation. Sri Lanka is a footnote to the story.