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How Debt Money Goes Broke

by Steven Lachance. December 12, 2005

Most know debt is a byproduct of the finance-centered US economic model. Few, however, are familiar with how much debt the US credit system creates, let alone the implications. The upshot is financial decision making based on mainstream herding and hesitancy to take essential steps to preserve personal wealth.

How much debt?

According to the most recent Flow of Funds report from the Federal Reserve, total credit market debt (TCMD) expanded by $799 billion in the third quarter of 2005. At this rate, debt growth for a single year is $3 trillion, or 50% greater than total US industrial production. Since 1987, the year Alan Greenspan became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, TCMD has more than tripled, from $13 trillion to $40 trillion, and now accounts for well over 300% of GDP. This debt growth is without precedent by any relative or absolute measure, evidence that the US has experienced a debt bubble.

Where does it come from?

Traditionally, savings finance debt. As the US savings rate has been anemic for years, many establishment economists, Ben Benanke among them, have claimed that US debt growth is supported by the inflow of surplus savings from abroad-the global savings glut thesis. Net purchases of US debt by foreign interests, though, are less than $1 trillion per year, far short of annual debt growth of $3 trillion. Some commentators are quick to point a finger at the Fed; it's printing money they say. This too misses the mark. As of 9 December, Fed credit was up just 3.8% YoY and the combined balance sheet of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks is barely $1 trillion.

The pump for the epic American debt bubble is neither foreign savings nor the Fed. For the $27 trillion of debt created during his tenure, Alan Greenspan can thank the private sector and the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The Fed may be negligent for loosing control of the credit system, but it is not directly responsible for what has occurred since. The GSE's combined book of business, for instance, dwarfs the Fed balance sheet at nearly $3 trillion. Anchored by the money center banks, a vast constellation of financial entities, including mortgage lenders, consumer credit firms, and the financial arms of industrial enterprises, has blossomed to do with a vengeance what the Fed itself would not; create a seemingly unlimited quantity of debt out of thin air through loan origination.

Where does it go?

Debt is self-liquidating when used to generate future income, from which interest is serviced and principal repaid. Used for any other purpose, it is non-self-liquidating and results in payment obligations with no countervailing source of income. Of the $3 trillion in debt created this year, households used about 50% for mortgages and consumer loans, governments 25%, and companies 25%. Only companies incur self-liquidating debt, so at least 75%, or $2.25 trillion, of the debt has produced a future burden rather than an income stream. Companies, though, are no white knights. They have mostly used their $750 billion of the debt pie for purposes other than capital investment, namely to cover unfunded liabilities and buyback shares they liberally printed to reward management in the first place. The US is, thus, at or close to a situation whereby the percentage of debt financed by domestic savings is zero and the percentage of non-self-liquating debt is one hundred.

How does it end?

A debt-based monetary system has a lifespan-limiting Achilles heel: as debt is created through loan origination, an obligation above and beyond this sum is also created in the form of interest. As a result, there can never be enough money to repay principal and pay interest unless debt is continually expanded. Debt-based monetary systems do not work in reverse, nor can they stand still without a liquidity buffer in the form of savings or a current account surplus.

When debt grows faster than the economy, the burden of interest is bearable only so long as the rate of interest is falling. When the rate of interest reverses course, interest charges start rising faster than debt growth. This point was reached on 16 June 2003, the day the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury bottomed at 3.09%. Since then, debt grew from $32 trillion to $40 trillion, an increase of 25%. During the same period, annual interest charges rose by over 50%, from $1.28 trillion ($32 trillion at the prevailing average interest rate for debtors of 4%) to $2.0 trillion ($40 trillion at 5%). When interest charges exceed debt growth, debtors at the margin are unable to service their debt. They must begin liquidating.

Dipping into savings or running a current account surplus can offset liquidation for a time. The greater the pool of savings and the current account surplus, the longer an economy can endure liquidation at the margin without experiencing cascading cross-defaults. The US in the early 1930s and Japan in the early 1990s had such a liquidity buffer. In both cases, mobilizing domestic savings to increase government debt reversed the decline in total debt outstanding in two to three years and interest rates stayed low because savings financed the new debt. As a result, interest charges no longer exceeded debt growth and the need for marginal debtors to liquidate disappeared.

The US is now in a fundamentally different position than it was in 1930 or Japan was in 1990. Aside from a dearth of domestic savings, its vulnerability is compounded by a current account deficit. There is no buffer and no margin for error. Thus, when interest charges, now $2 trillion per year and accelerating, overtake annual debt growth, now $3 trillion and decelerating, liquidation will immediately trigger cascading cross-defaults. Without domestic savings to mobilize, the Fed cannot facilitate the expansion of government debt to fill the breach and simultaneously hold down interest rates. It cannot win the battle to keep debt growth greater than interest charges, the precondition for the viability of a debt-based monetary system. Once started, cascading cross-defaults consume all debt within an economy. The Fed has only two options: institute a new monetary system with a new currency or return monetary authority to the market and shut down.

© 2005 Steven Lachance

Contact Information

Steven Lachance | Tokyo, Japan | E-mail

Steven Lachance is a financial translator based in Tokyo. Over the last decade, he has worked for major European and Japanese investment banks, including Deutsche Bank Group, Commerzbank, Nikko Solomon Smith Barney, and Mizuho Securities.

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