- The short answer is Yes. But not just Britain. Many first world counties are heading towards sovereign debt default. This will no doubt lead to a global monetary and financial crisis. I am skeptical of the current recovery because it is drive by debt. You can’t borrow and spend your way out of debt. If you borrow US$2T to boost the economy today, some time in the future you have to pay back.
- In America’s case, since foreigners own most of the debts, when pay back time comes, US$2T will be withdrawn from the economy. This will result in economic contraction. Of course, with current debts of US$12T and unfunded liabilities of US$80-$90T, when pay back comes, it will be economic Armageddon.
- The Daily Mail reports:
A year ago, the world reacted with astonishment as Iceland technically went bust. It seemed inconceivable that a modern democratic nation could have such parlous finances that only an emergency $6billion bail-out from the International Monetary Fund enabled its economy to keep functioning.
This week, we witnessed a similar crisis in the Middle East but on a far, far more dangerous scale, as Dubai effectively defaulted on £48billion of loans. Unless its more prudent and oil-rich neighbour, Abu Dhabi, launches a rescue plan then Dubai – once a gilded monument to financial success – will effectively be insolvent.
Which leads us to a haunting question: as the country in the world hardest hit by the credit crunch, with gross domestic product (GDP) projected to decline by almost five per cent in 2009, could Britain be next? Let’s think the unthinkable for a moment. These are the facts.
Even before the financial crisis, the British Government spent roughly £30billion more per year than it earned in tax revenues. This money, of course, had to be borrowed from international investors. Today, the Government needs up to £200billion a year for at least the next three years in order to meet its spending commitments. But the Government’s estimates invariably understate its true need, and they have to be continually revised upwards.
Before the crunch, total government debt stood at roughly 40 per cent of GDP. It is now around 60 per cent of GDP, but is projected to soar close to 100 per cent in the next few years. But again, that is not the full story.
Treasury estimates of the size of the national debt ignore so-called ‘off balance sheet commitments’, such as Private Finance Initiatives (effectively, hospitals and schools built with money loaned by the private sector) as well as the massive unfunded government pension liability.
There may be other, hidden, liabilities. After this week’s shocking revelation of secret loans of £62billion made by the Bank of England to the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS at the height of the credit crunch, who knows how many other skeletons remain in the Treasury’s closet? It is wise to assume that the true size of Britain’s debts could be much bigger than we all think.
Yet politicians of both parties can’t acknowledge this. Why? Because any dispassionate analysis would spell only one thing – we need massive spending cuts and tax rises to avoid heading the way of Iceland and Dubai.
The news is potentially so bad that politicians simply don’t want the general public to know what’s going on. Given the scale of the crisis, what then do they propose? New Labour is non-committal, suggesting that cuts will be prudent, thoughtful and spare people’s worst pain. The Conservatives have targeted around £7billion of spending cuts, but these won’t happen immediately and are nothing like enough to rebalance the nation’s books.
Besides, one minute the Tories are preaching ‘austerity’, warning that savage cuts are needed, the next David Cameron is telling the City that ‘our strategy has to be for growth, both now and in the long term’.
Such posturing, flip-flopping and vague promises are truly worrying. For, make no mistake, we could be teetering on the brink of a truly epic national crisis – one that makes the financial hardship of the past 18 months seem like a mere inconvenience.
For the past few years, Hollywood disaster movies have shown the world under attack by aliens or being destroyed by global warming. We have all thrilled to images of the White House being taken out by a giant laser beam or Big Ben frozen in an Ice Age snow drift.
A disaster movie involving countries going bust doesn’t quite have the same dramatic appeal, but it would be every bit as deadly as a tsunami hitting London – and we have precious little left to defend us.
We’ve already had one big shock to Britain’s financial system as many of our best-known banks teetered on the brink. The Treasury spent hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ pounds trying to steady the ship. The financial cupboard is now bare. So what could cause the second wave of the disaster?
In three words – a sterling crisis. So far, containment of the crisis has focused on rescuing the banks and pumping more money into the system through the crazy Zimbabwe-esque expedient of ‘quantitative easing’ - effectively flooding the banking system with more cash. This has cost hundreds of billions of pounds, all of which needs to be repaid if we are to avoid rampant inflation. That means borrowing more money from the international money markets.
But there is a problem. Until recently it was unthinkable that a sovereign nation couldn’t service its debts. And yet this is exactly what’s just happened with Dubai. If international lenders begin to doubt the creditworthiness of UK plc, they will downgrade our credit rating and dramatically increase the rates of interest they charge. UK banks will have to follow suit to match these rates, putting unsustainable pressure on our struggling economy.
Thousands of businesses already hit by the recession will go bust. Trapped by soaring unemployment and welfare benefits, the Government will have to borrow more. And so the vicious debt cycle will continue to spiral down towards national insolvency – and, potentially, social anarchy. Why won’t our politicians get a grip?
The seeds of a possible future disaster were sown during the Blair years. Blair inherited a strong, stable economy which had been responsibly managed by his Conservative predecessors with acceptable levels of government debt. He played his first term in office with textbook good sense; it was a continuation of Conservative policy to all extents and purposes, with debt kept at record lows. After that, perhaps because the Opposition was so weak, Blair and his Chancellor let rip.
The massive spending by New Labour on public services during its last two terms was a good idea in principle but a disaster in practice. This was because Blair was not a ‘details’ type of person. As with the invasion of Iraq, he took wide-ranging decisions on economic planning based on little more than a broad vision, no doubt wishing to feel the hand of history upon his shoulder. Instead of the money being carefully managed, with every penny accounted for as with a household budget, it was sprayed about indiscriminately like a fire hose out of control.
Christmas is only four weeks away; people don’t want to hear bad news. Our politicians also don’t want to be the ones to deliver it (bad news equals lost votes). But unfortunately, as Dubai’s predicament now shows, we’ve got to stop thinking that it couldn’t happen to us and start having an urgent national debate if we are to have any hope of staving off disaster.
The Conservatives are odds-on to win the forthcoming General Election, to be held probably in May or June. There is a view they will not announce the full range of spending cuts they intend to make until it is safely won. Once in office they can claim the situation is far worse than they envisaged and start swinging the axe. But do we want a party that surfs into office on a wave of optimism, only then to reveal its true character later? This is hardly the stuff of greatness.
Present times are alarmingly like 1939, when the nations didn’t want to accept the prospect of a war, or - if they did - liked to feel it would be over quickly. Even our then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, delayed, entering futile peace negotiations and refusing to accept reality. It took a great man, possibly the greatest Englishman of all time, to save the nation.
What if the great danger in our lifetime is not a military but an economic war? Who then has the moral courage to take the tough but necessary action?
- Apart from the United States many major countries are also going bust. Japan and UK comes to mind. What is of significance with the bust of America is that the USD is the world reserve currency. As much as 65% of the world’s foreign reserves are held in USD. This is mainly because oil is priced and sold in USD. Since all countries need to buy oil, the USD is accepted any where. International trade is largely done in USD too. Some estimates put it at 67% of all international trade.
- In the past 6 months, many countries anticipating some sort of devaluation of the USD is shifting their USD reserves into other currencies and gold. Many countries, notably BRIC, have begun the process of untying their trade from the USD. Many agreements have been signed between countries to accept each other currencies for international trade. Will the USD be devalued? It has been losing value for the past 6 months. A more drastic debasement is around the horizon.
- The Daily Crux reports:
Within the next 12 months, the U.S. Treasury will have to refinance $2 trillion in short-term debt. And that’s not counting any additional deficit spending, which is estimated to be around $1.5 trillion. Put the two numbers together. Then ask yourself, how in the world can the Treasury borrow $3.5 trillion in only one year? That’s an amount equal to nearly 30% of our entire GDP. And we’re the world’s biggest economy. Where will the money come from?
How did we end up with so much short-term debt? Like most entities that have far too much debt – whether subprime borrowers, GM, Fannie, or GE – the U.S. Treasury has tried to minimize its interest burden by borrowing for short durations and then “rolling over” the loans when they come due. As they say on Wall Street, “a rolling debt collects no moss.” What they mean is, as long as you can extend the debt, you have no problem. Unfortunately, that leads folks to take on ever greater amounts of debt… at ever shorter durations… at ever lower interest rates. Sooner or later, the creditors wake up and ask themselves: What are the chances I will ever actually be repaid? And that’s when the trouble starts. Interest rates go up dramatically. Funding costs soar. The party is over. Bankruptcy is next.
When governments go bankrupt it’s called “a default.” Currency speculators figured out how to accurately predict when a country would default. Two well-known economists – Alan Greenspan and Pablo Guidotti - published the secret formula in a 1999 academic paper. That’s why the formula is called the Greenspan-Guidotti rule. The rule states: To avoid a default, countries should maintain hard currency reserves equal to at least 100% of their short-term foreign debt maturities. The world’s largest money management firm, PIMCO, explains the rule this way: “The minimum benchmark of reserves equal to at least 100% of short-term external debt is known as the Greenspan-Guidotti rule. Greenspan-Guidotti is perhaps the single concept of reserve adequacy that has the most adherents and empirical support.”
The principle behind the rule is simple. If you can’t pay off all of your foreign debts in the next 12 months, you’re a terrible credit risk. Speculators are going to target your bonds and your currency, making it impossible to refinance your debts. A default is assured.
So how does America rank on the Greenspan-Guidotti scale? It’s a guaranteed default. The U.S. holds gold, oil, and foreign currency in reserve. The U.S. has 8,133.5 metric tonnes of gold (it is the world’s largest holder). That’s 16,267,000 pounds. At current dollar values, it’s worth around $300 billion. The U.S. strategic petroleum reserve shows a current total position of 725 million barrels. At current dollar prices, that’s roughly $58 billion worth of oil. And according to the IMF, the U.S. has $136 billion in foreign currency reserves. So altogether… that’s around $500 billion of reserves. Our short-term foreign debts are far bigger.
According to the U.S. Treasury, $2 trillion worth of debt will mature in the next 12 months. So looking only at short-term debt, we know the Treasury will have to finance at least $2 trillion worth of maturing debt in the next 12 months. That might not cause a crisis if we were still funding our national debt internally. But since 1985, we’ve been a net debtor to the world. Today, foreigners own 44% of all our debts, which means we owe foreign creditors at least $880 billion in the next 12 months – an amount far larger than our reserves.
Keep in mind, this only covers our existing debts. The Office of Management and Budget is predicting a $1.5 trillion budget deficit over the next year. That puts our total funding requirements on the order of $3.5 trillion over the next 12 months.
So… where will the money come from? Total domestic savings in the U.S. are only around $600 billion annually. Even if we all put every penny of our savings into U.S. Treasury debt, we’re still going to come up nearly $3 trillion short. That’s an annual funding requirement equal to roughly 40% of GDP. Where is the money going to come from? From our foreign creditors? Not according to Greenspan-Guidotti. And not according to the Indian or the Russian central bank, which have stopped buying Treasury bills and begun to buy enormous amounts of gold. The Indians bought 200 metric tonnes this month. Sources in Russia say the central bank there will double its gold reserves.
So where will the money come from? The printing press. The Federal Reserve has already monetized nearly $2 trillion worth of Treasury debt and mortgage debt. This weakens the value of the dollar and devalues our existing Treasury bonds. Sooner or later, our creditors will face a stark choice: Hold our bonds and continue to see the value diminish slowly, or try to escape to gold and see the value of their U.S. bonds plummet.
One thing they’re not going to do is buy more of our debt. Which central banks will abandon the dollar next? Brazil, Korea, and Chile. These are the three largest central banks that own the least amount of gold. None own even 1% of their total reserves in gold.