According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the IIF (Institute of International finance) global debt has soared to a new record high. The level of government debt around the world has ballooned since the financial crisis, reaching levels never seen before during peacetime. This has happened in the middle of an unprecedented monetary experiment that injected more than $20 trillion in the economy and lowered interest rates to the lowest levels seen in decades. The balance sheet of the major central banks rose to levels never seen before, with the Bank Of Japan at 100% of the country’s GDP, the ECB at 40% and the Federal Reserve at 20%.
If this monetary experiment has proven anything it is that lower rates and higher liquidity are not tools to help deleverage, but to incentivize debt. Furthermore, this dangerous experiment has proven that a policy that was designed as a temporary measure due to exceptional circumstances has become the new norm. The so-called normalization process lasted only a few months in 2018, only to resume asset purchases and rate cuts.
Despite the largest fiscal and monetary stimulus in decades, global economic growth is weakening and leading economies’ productivity growth is close to zero. Money velocity, a measure of economic activity relative to money supply, worsens.
We have explained many times why this happens. Low rates and high liquidity are perverse incentives to maintain the crowding out of government from the private sector, they also perpetuate overcapacity due to endless refinancing of non-productive and obsolete sectors t lower rates, and the number of zombie companies -those that cannot pay their interest expenses with operating profits- rises. We are witnessing in real-time the process of zombification of the economy and the largest transfer of wealth from savers and productive sectors to the indebted and unproductive.
However, as monetary history has always shown, when central planners face the evidence of low growth, poor productivity and higher debt, their decision is never to stop the monetary madness, but to accelerate it. That is why the message that the ECB (European Central Bank) and the IMF are trying to convey is that there is a savings glut and that the reason why negative rates are not working as expected is that economic agents do not believe rates will stay low for longer, so they hold on to investment and consumption decisions. Complete nonsense. With the household, corporate and government debt at still elevated levels and close to pre-crisis highs, the notion of excess savings is ludicrous. What informs such a misinformed opinion? The often-repeated “there is no inflation” fallacy. If money supply is high and rates are low but inflation does not creep up, then surely there must be a savings glut. False. There is massive inflation in financial assets and housing but there is also a very clear rise in inflation in non-replicable goods and services versus replicable ones, which means that the official consumer price indices (CPI) misrepresent the true cost of living increase. That is the reason why there are demonstrations all over the eurozone against the rising cost of living at the same time as the ECB repeats that there is no inflation.
When central planners blame economic agents for an inexistent savings glut and repeat that there is no inflation when there clearly is a lot, they also tend to add a conclusion: if households and corporates are unwilling to spend or invest, then the government must do it. This is, again, a false premise. Households and corporates are spending and investing. There is no evidence of a lack of capital expenditure, let alone solvent credit demand. The private sector is simply not investing and spending as much as governments would want them to, among other reasons because the private sector does suffer the consequences of taking a higher risk when the evidence of debt saturation is clear to all those who risk their capital.
Unfortunately, the next wave of central bank action will be the full monetization of government excess. The excuse will be the so-called “climate emergency” and “green deals”. Yet governments do not have better or more information about the best course of action in the energy transition, and by artificially picking winners and losers, ignoring the positive forces of competition and creative destruction to deliver faster innovation and progress, governments tend to delay, not accelerate change.
In any case, it will happen. The ECB, always happy to repeat the mistakes of Japan with an even stronger impetus, is likely to start new programs of debt monetization for green projects and claim it is a different, radical and new measure… as if it was not doing so already with the Juncker and Green Energy Directives.
The result is easy to predict, unfortunately. Governments hate two things that disruptive technologies do: reduce consumer prices and generate lower tax revenues. Yes, disruptive technologies are, by definition, disinflationary both in CPI and in tax receipts. Furthermore, disruptive technologies also demolish government control of the economy. These three reasons, lower inflation, lower tax revenues, and less control, are the reasons why governments will never adopt true changes in the economic growth pattern. And because of these reasons, the massive spending financed with new money creation is likely to be even worse for economic growth. Not only it is likely to be an even bigger crowding-out of the private sector, but make economies less dynamic, less productive and more indebted.
There are ways to incentivize change and a green revolution. It is called competition and creative destruction. None of those are favored by governments, not because they are evil, but because governments have the incentive to maintain the obsolete sectors via subsidies.
If the previous $20 trillion stimuli have delivered more debt, less growth, and rising discontent among the middle class that always pays for government experiments, the next one will likely be the last step towards full Japanization. If anything, what are already prudent spending and investment decisions from the private sector are likely to be even more conservative, and the resulting negative productivity growth will mean lower salaries and employment but higher debt and a larger size of government in the economy… Which is, in reality, the ultimate goal of these massive plans.
The reader may think that this time is different but it is not, because the incentives are the same. What I am completely sure is that, once it fails as well, many will demand even more stimuli to solve the problem.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Daniel Lacalle is one the most influential economists in the world. He is Chief Economist at Tressis SV, Fund Manager at Adriza International Opportunities, Member of the advisory board of the Rafael del Pino foundation, Commissioner of the Community of Madrid in London, President of Instituto Mises Hispano and Professor at IE Business School, London School of Economics, IEB and UNED. Mr. Lacalle has presented and given keynote speeches at the most prestigious forums globally including the Federal Reserve in Houston, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, London School of Economics, Funds Society Forum in Miami, World Economic Forum, Forecast Summit in Peru, Mining Show in Dubai, Our Crowd in Jerusalem, Nordea Investor Summit in Oslo, and many others. Mr Lacalle has more than 24 years of experience in the energy and finance sectors, including experience in North Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. He is currently a fund manager overseeing equities, bonds and commodities. He was voted Top 3 Generalist and Number 1 Pan-European Buyside Individual in Oil & Gas in Thomson Reuters’ Extel Survey in 2011, the leading survey among companies and financial institutions. He is also author of the best-selling books: “Life In The Financial Markets” (Wiley, 2014), translated to Portuguese and Spanish ; “The Energy World Is Flat” (Wiley, 2014, with Diego Parrilla), translated to Portuguese and Chinese ; “Escape from the Central Bank Trap” (2017, BEP), translated to Spanish. Mr Lacalle also contributes at CNBC, World Economic Forum, Epoch Times, Mises Institute, Hedgeye, Zero Hedge, Focus Economics, Seeking Alpha, El Español, The Commentator, and The Wall Street Journal. He holds a PhD in Economics, CIIA financial analyst title, with a post graduate degree in IESE and a master’s degree in economic investigation (UCV).