Debt, Like Matter & Energy, Was Not Destroyed

UBS’ Art Cashin directs us to the Economist’s Buttonwood column for an interesting take post S&P downgrade. The debt in the system has not been eliminated — it has merely been moved from banker to taxpayer:

It is three years since Bear Stearns was pushed into the arms of J P Morgan and the fundamental debt problem has not been resolved. The debt has been moved around but not eliminated. This has undoubtedly bought time and I quite understand the point made frequently by my colleague on Free Exchange that governments and central banks have acted to protect workers from losing their jobs and to prevent consumption from collapsing. In this, they have had a fair degree of success.

But the debt is still there.

It must be eliminated by growth, inflation or default. In the case of Greece, the growth option looks out of the question and the country cannot really generate inflation on its own because it does not control its money supply; default at some stage seems inevitable. Like Greece, Portugal has a competitiveness as well as a debt problem; eliminating the former without depreciating the currency involves force-feeding the population with gruel for many years. At some stage, default may seem the better option.

The US has better growth prospects than most European nations and has the “exorbitant privilege” of issuing debt in the world’s reserve currency, which keeps the cost down. But it resembles one of those Greek myths when the hero’s power is accompanied by a curse; in this case, a political system that is not designed for serious deficit-cutting (the point made by S&P). The world’s dominant power tends to think its financial strength will never drain away. But Spain, having absorbed all that gold and silver from Latin America, still defaulted on its debts in the 16th century; Louis XIV, the sun king whom other monarchs dreamed of emulating, set France on the road to financial ruin; and Britain started the 20th century with a huge empire and piles of overseas assets but was rationing food in peacetime by the late 1940s.”

Great stuff . . .


Negative watch
Buttonwood Apr 18th 2011

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