Debt, Deficit, Default and Bugatti Veyrons
15/08/2011 2 Comments
The other day @WH1SKS tried to bully me into writing a blog post. Normally I don’t give
in to cyber-terrorism but he has big muscles and he could snap me like a twig so I’ve broken the rules a bit.
I have forgotten exactly what the brief said but I think it was something like, “what would happen if the US and Europe didn’t repay their debt?” I couldn’t write it at the time as I had a hangover (because I am cool.)
I don’t have a hangover at the moment (I am still cool though) so I’ve briefly written down my thoughts. I should state that I don’t really know much about this and wouldn’t even have attempted it if @WH1SKS hadn’t made me, so it might be nonsense – these are really just my uneducated thoughts. I do think the US and Europe are very different though so I will look at each in turn….
The United States
The USA has about $14.6 trillion of debt. A number like that is impossible for the brain to comprehend so I’ll tell you what it looks like. The world’s most expensive road car is the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport (BVSS), which costs $2.4m and is 1.19m tall (that’s about $2,000 per millimetre). If you bought $14.6 trillion of BVSSs and stacked them on top of each other they would form a tower 818 times the height of Mount Everest.
(If you then drove them all forwards at the same time the one on top would probably achieve 30 or 40 million miles per hour which would be pretty cool. Still, it would almost certainly end in a nasty accident, so please don’t try this.)
I’ve forgotten my point. Oh, yes. The amount of money they owe is very big. So what would happen if they decided not to pay it back?
Firstly, the US would find it pretty tricky to borrow any money ever again because no one would trust them. You might wonder why this is a problem – they just became better off by $14.6 trillion so who cares? It’s a problem because even with the debt cleared off they would still have the deficit. The deficit is the amount by which their spending exceeds their income and last year the US added 95 Mount Everests worth of BVSSs onto their pile of debt. This means that if no one would lend them any money any more they couldn’t finance their deficit and would therefore need to take immediate action to make the books balance. You are all aware of Labour’s “too much too soon” argument against Conservative spending cuts. Labour’s position is that we are trying to reduce our deficit too quickly and by doing so harming economic growth thus costing us more overall.
When considering the size of the cuts being implemented by the Conservatives this point is debatable. But the Conservatives are not proposing to eradicate the deficit overnight or anything even close.
In our fictional scenario, the US would need to reduce it by 100% with immediate effect. They could do this by massively reducing spending or massively increasing taxes. Either way this would send their economy into a devastating recession, 100 times worse than the last one and they wouldn’t come out of it for a long time. Because the US is so important in the global economy we’d all be back in recession too and again it would be much worse than the last one.
So although paying back 818 Mount Everests of BVSSs it not pleasant it is actually much better than the alternative, so we could therefore say that if a country can pay off their debt then they will do. And in reality the US can afford its debt at the moment without any major risks. It’s a lot of debt but it is a very large economy and the markets are happy to lend it a lot more before they start to worry about its solvency. What the markets were concerned about (and what led to the S&P downgrade) was more a plausible situation in which the US made some interest payments late because its politicians were too incompetent to govern the country properly. The effects of this would have been far less severe than the situation described above where the US outright could not repay any of its debt.
That said it would still cause a major problem. Lenders would be much more nervous about lending going forward, so would require a higher interest rate to compensate for this. More expensive borrowing would slow down the US’s recovery further that alone might not actually be much a disaster were it not for the fact that markets always over-react to everything. The markets would see late payment as bad news and when bad news happens, people in the financial sector all turn into Beaker from the muppets and panic and make everything a thousand times worse.
So yes, it would be bad for the US to miss a payment but maybe the biggest problems would be caused indirectly by the market’s reaction, rather than from the direct problems of the person who didn’t receive the cash.
That’s America. Let’s move on….
Everyone has been talking about Greece. Greece’s situation is, I think, a lot worse than what’s going on in the US. Greece’s debt is only (!?) 19 Mount Everests of BVSSs but its economy is tiny in comparison with that of the US and there is a very real possibility of Greece not being able to make its debt repayments. The market realises this and unlike the US no one really wants to lend Greece any more money. This is why they are continually asking for bailouts to keep things going.
If Greece defaults on its debt then it will have serious implications for the rest of Europe. The Greek banks would all fail overnight but it’s worse than that. Most of the major European financial institutions have also lent a lot of money to Greece and some of them will most likely be in trouble. As we saw in 2008 when Lehman’s went bust, a major default causes the banks to completely lose trust in each other. As soon as they lose trust in each other, interbank lending stops and then they get into even more trouble:
- Bank#1 needs to borrow some money from Bank#2 to pay back a loan to Bank#3.
- Bank#2 has the cash available but doesn’t know if Bank#1 is ok or not so won’t lend it any money.
- Bank#1 therefore can’t pay #Bank3
- Bank#1 goes bust
- Bank#3 didn’t receive their cash! Are they in trouble now too?
- No one lends to Bank#3
- etc etc etc
The other very shaky economies, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy would be hit quickly afterwards because no one is going to risk pumping further money in there.
The European Central Bank would effectively be left holding the bomb when the ticking stopped and would only be able to stop those countries collapsing by printing lots of money (thus screwing the Euro) or by taking significant funding from the more healthy economies (Germany and France) which would screw them up quite a lot too.
The UK would probably be happy that it didn’t join the Euro but its banks would be severely hit and additionally, the EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner, so the UK economy would take a big hit too. I have no idea by how much but it wouldn’t be good.
Markets would react by everyone turning into Beaker from the muppets again.
So, in summary, I think the US is actually ok financially and its problems are caused more by its crazy politicians than by its debt. I am much more worried by Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, a situation where there I think there is a significant risk of a second global financial crisis.
And if that happens we are not all going to be driving Bugatti Veyron Super Sports any time soon.