Ray Dalio is the founder of the world's largest and best-performing hedge fund in 2011, Bridgewater Associates. The letter was created October 31, 2008 and updated March, 2012:
The economy is like a machine. At the most fundamental level it is a relatively simple machine, yet it is not well understood. I wrote this paper to describe how I believe it works. My description is not the same as conventional economists' descriptions so you should decide for yourself whether or not what I'm saying makes sense. I will start with the simple things and build up, so please bear with me. I believe that you will be able to understand and assess my description if we patiently go through it.
How the Economic Machine Works: "A Transactions-Based Approach"
An economy is simply the sum of the transactions made and a transaction is a simple thing. A transaction consists of the buyer giving money (or credit) to a seller and the seller giving a good, a service or a financial asset to the buyer in exchange. A market consists of all the buyers and sellers making exchanges for the same things – e.g., the wheat market consists of different people making different transactions for different reasons over time. An economy consists of all of the transactions in all of its markets. So, while seemingly complex, an economy is really just a zillion simple things working together, which makes it look more complex than it really is.
For any market, or for any economy, if you know the total amount of money (or credit) spent and the total quantity sold, you know everything you need to know to understand it. For example, since the price of any good, service or financial asset equals the total amount spent by buyers (total $) divided by the total quantity sold by sellers (total Q), in order to understand or forecast the price of anything you just need to forecast total $ and total Q. While in any market there are lots of buyers and sellers, and these buyers and sellers have different motivations, the motivations of the most important buyers are usually pretty understandable and adding them up to understand the economy isn't all that tough if one builds from the transactions up. What I am saying is conveyed in the simple diagram below. This perspective of supply and demand is different from the traditional perspective in which both supply and demand are measured in quantity and the price relationship between them is described in terms of elasticity. This difference has important implications for understanding markets.
The only other important thing to know about this part of the Template is that spending ($) can come in either of two forms – money and credit. For example, when you go to a store to buy something you can pay with either a credit card or cash. If you pay with a credit card you have created credit, which is a promise to deliver money at a later date,1 whereas, if you pay with money, you have no such liability.
In brief, there are different types of markets, different types of buyers and sellers and different ways of paying that make up the economy. For simplicity, we will put them in groups and summarize how the machine works. Most basically:
All changes in economic activity and all changes in financial markets' prices are due to changes in the amounts of 1) money or 2) credit that are spent on them (total $), and the amounts of these items sold (total Q). Changes in the amount of buying (total $) typically have a much bigger impact on changes in economic activity and prices than do changes in the total amount of selling (total Q). That is because there is nothing that's easier to change than the supply of money and credit (total $). For simplicity, let's cluster the buyers in a few big categories. Buying can come from either 1) the private sector or 2) the government sector. The private sector consists of "households" and businesses that can be either domestic or foreign. The government sector most importantly consists of a) the Federal Government2 which spends its money on goods and services and b) the central bank, which is the only entity that can create money and, by and large, mostly spends its money on financial assets.
Because money and credit, and through them demand, are easier to create (or stop creating) than the production of goods and services and investment assets, we have economic and price cycles.
The Capitalist System
As mentioned, the previously outlined economic players buy and sell both 1) goods and services and 2) financial assets, and they can pay for them with either 1) money or 2) credit. In a capitalist system, this exchange takes place through free choice – i.e., there are "free markets" in which buyers and sellers of goods, services and financial assets make their transactions in pursuit of their own interests. The production and purchases of financial assets (i.e., lending and investing) is called "capital formation". It occurs because both the buyer and seller of these financial assets believe that the transaction is good for them. Those with money and credit provide it to recipients in exchange for the recipients' "promises" to pay them more. So, for this process to work well, there must be large numbers of capable providers of capital (i.e., investors/lenders) who choose to give money and credit to large numbers of capable recipients of capital (borrowers and sellers of equity) in exchange for the recipients' believable claims that they will return amounts of money and credit that are worth more than they were given. While the amount of money in existence is controlled by central banks, the amount of credit in existence can be created out of thin air – i.e. any two willing parties can agree to do a transaction on credit – though this is influenced by central bank policies. In bubbles more credit is created than can be later paid back, which creates busts.
When capital contractions occur, economic contractions also occur, i.e. there is not enough money and/or credit spent on goods, services and financial assets. These contractions typically occur for two reasons, which are most commonly known as recessions (which are contractions within a short-term debt cycle) and depressions (which are contractions within deleveragings). Recessions are typically well understood because they happen often and most of us have experienced them, whereas depressions and deleveragings are typically poorly understood because they happen infrequently and are not widely experienced.
A short-term cycle, (which is commonly called the business cycle), arises from a) the rate of growth in spending (i.e. total $ funded by the rates of growth in money and credit) being faster than the rate of growth in the capacity to produce (i.e. total Q) leading to price (P) increases until b) the rate of growth in spending is curtailed by tight money and credit, at which time a recession occurs. In other words, a recession is an economic contraction that is due to a contraction in private sector debt growth arising from tight central bank policy (usually to fight inflation), which ends when the central bank eases. Recessions end when central banks lower interest rates to stimulate demand for goods and services and the credit growth that finances these purchases, because lower interest rates 1) reduce debt service costs; 2) lower monthly payments (defacto, the costs) of items bought on credit, which stimulates the demand for them; and 3) raise the prices of income-producing assets like stocks, bonds and real estate through the present value effect of discounting their expected cash flows at the lower interest rates, producing a "wealth effect" on spending. In contrast:
A long-term debt cycle, arises from debts rising faster than both incomes and money until this can't continue because debt service costs become excessive, typically because interest rates can't be reduced any more. A deleveraging is the process of reducing debt burdens (e.g. debt/income ratios). Deleveragings typically end via a mix of 1) debt reduction3, 2) austerity, 3) redistributions of wealth, and 4) debt monetization. A depression is the economic contraction phase of a deleveraging. It occurs because the contraction in private sector debt cannot be rectified by the central bank lowering the cost of money. In depressions, a) a large number of debtors have obligations to deliver more money than they have to meet their obligations, and b) monetary policy is ineffective in reducing debt service costs and stimulating credit growth. Typically, monetary policy is ineffective in stimulating credit growth either because interest rates can't be lowered (because interest rates are near 0%) to the point of favorably influencing the economics of spending and capital formation (this produces deflationary deleveragings), or because money growth goes into the purchase of inflation hedge assets rather than into credit growth, which produces inflationary deleveragings. Depressions are typically ended by central banks printing money to monetize debt in amounts that offset the deflationary depression effects of debt reductions and austerity.
To be clear, while depressions are the contraction phase of a deleveraging, deleveragings (e.g. reducing debt/income ratios) can occur without depressions if they are well managed. (See our "An In-Depth Look at Deleveragings.")
Differences in how governments behave in recessions and deleveragings are good clues that signal which is happening. For example, in deleveragings, central banks typically "print" money that they use to buy large quantities of financial assets in order to compensate for the decline in private sector credit, while these actions are unheard of in recessions.4 Also, in deleveragings, central governments typically spend much, much more to make up for the fall in private sector spending.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Since these two types of contractions are just parts of two different types of cycles that are explained more completely in this template, let's look at the template.
The Template: The Three Big Forces
I believe that three main forces drive most economic activity: 1) trend line productivity growth, 2) the longterm debt cycle and 3) the short-term debt cycle. Figuratively speaking, they look as shown below:
What follows is an explanation of all three of these forces and how, by overlaying the archetypical "business" cycle on top of the archetypical long-term debt cycle and overlaying them both on top of the productivity trend line, one can derive a good template for tracking most economic/market movements. While these three forces apply to all countries' economies, in this study we will look at the U.S. economy over the last hundred years or so as an example to convey the template. In "An In-Depth Look at Deleveragings" and "Why Countries Succeed and Fail Economically" we will look at these cycles across countries.
1) Productivity Growth
As shown below in chart 1, real per capita GDP has increased at an average rate of a shade less than 2% over the last 100 years and didn't vary a lot from that. (For an explanation for how and why this varies by country and over time, see the accompanying study "Why Countries Succeed and Fail Economically.") This is because, over time, knowledge increases, which in turn raises productivity and living standards. As shown in this chart, over the very long run, there is relatively little variation from the trend line. Even the Great Depression in the 1930s looks rather small. As a result, we can be relatively confident that, with time, the economy will get back on track. However, up close, these variations from trend can be enormous. For example, typically in depressions the peak-to-trough declines in real economic activity are around 20%, the destruction of financial wealth is typically more than 50% and equity prices typically decline by around 80%. The losses in financial wealth for those who have it at the beginning of depressions are typically greater than these numbers suggest because there is also a tremendous shifting of who has wealth.
Swings around this trend are not primarily due to expansions and contractions in knowledge. For example, the Great Depression didn't occur because people forgot how to efficiently produce, and it wasn't set off by war or drought. All the elements that make the economy buzz were there, yet it stagnated. So why didn't the idle factories simply hire the unemployed to utilize the abundant resources in order to produce prosperity? These cycles are not due to events beyond our control, e.g., natural disasters. They are due to human nature and the way the credit system works.
Most importantly, major swings around the trend are due to expansions and contractions in credit – i.e., credit cycles, most importantly 1) a long-term (typically 50 to 75 years) debt cycle (i.e., the "long wave cycle") and 2) a shorter-term (typically 5 to 8 years) debt cycle (i.e., the "business/market cycle").
About Debt Cycles
We find that whenever we start talking about cycles, particularly the "long-wave" variety, we raise eyebrows and elicit reactions similar to those we'd expect if we were talking about astrology. For this reason, before we begin explaining these two debt cycles we'd like to say a few things about cycles in general. A cycle is nothing more than a logical sequence of events leading to a repetitious pattern. In a capitalist economy, cycles of expansions in credit and contractions in credit drive economic cycles and they occur for perfectly logical reasons. Each sequence is not pre-destined to repeat in exactly the same way nor to take exactly the same amount of time, though the patterns are similar, for logical reasons. For example, if you understand the game of Monopoly®, you can pretty well understand credit and economic cycles. Early in the game of Monopoly®, people have a lot of cash and few hotels, and it pays to convert cash into hotels. Those who have more hotels make more money. Seeing this, people tend to convert as much cash as possible into property in order to profit from making other players give them cash. So as the game progresses, more hotels are acquired, which creates more need for cash (to pay the bills of landing on someone else's property with lots of hotels on it) at the same time as many folks have run down their cash to buy hotels. When they are caught needing cash, they are forced to sell their hotels at discounted prices. So early in the game, "property is king" and later in the game, "cash is king." Those who are best at playing the game understand how to hold the right mix of property and cash, as this right mix changes.
Now, let's imagine how this Monopoly® game would work if we changed the role of the bank so that it could make loans and take deposits. Players would then be able to borrow money to buy hotels and, rather than holding their cash idly, they would deposit it at the bank to earn interest, which would provide the bank with more money to lend. Let's also imagine that players in this game could buy and sell properties from each other giving each other credit (i.e., promises to give money and at a later date). If Monopoly® were played this way, it would provide an almost perfect model for the way our economy operates. There would be more spending on hotels (that would be financed with promises to deliver money at a later date). The amount owed would quickly grow to multiples of the amount of money in existence, hotel prices would be higher, and the cash shortage for the debtors who hold hotels would become greater down the road. So, the cycles would become more pronounced. The bank and those who saved by depositing their money in it would also get into trouble when the inability to come up with needed cash caused withdrawals from the bank at the same time as debtors couldn't come up with cash to pay the bank. Basically, economic and credit cycles work this way. We are now going to look at how credit cycles – both long-term debt cycles and "business cycles" – drive economic cycles.
How the System Works Prosperity exists when the economy is operating at a high level of capacity: in other words, when demand is pressing up against a pre-existing level of capacity. At such times, business profits are good and unemployment is low. The longer these conditions persist, the more capacity will be increased, typically financed by credit growth. Declining demand creates a condition of low capacity utilization; as a result, business profits are bad and unemployment is high. The longer these conditions exist, the more cost-cutting (i.e., restructuring) will occur, typically including debt and equity write-downs. Therefore, prosperity equals high demand, and in our credit-based economy, strong demand equals strong real credit growth; conversely, deleveraging equals low demand, and hence lower and falling real credit growth. Contrary to now-popular thinking, recessions and depressions do not develop because of productivity (i.e., inabilities to produce efficiently); they develop from declines in demand, typically due to a fall-off in credit creation.
Since changes in demand precede changes in capacity in determining the direction of the economy, one would think that prosperity would be easy to achieve simply through pursuing policies which would steadily increase demand. When the economy is plagued by low capacity utilization, depressed business profitability and high unemployment, why doesn't the government simply give it a good shot of whatever it takes to stimulate demand in order to produce a far more pleasant environment of high capacity utilization, fat profits and low unemployment? The answer has to do with what that shot consists of.
Money Money is what you settle your payments with. Some people mistakenly believe that money is whatever will buy you goods and services, whether that's dollar bills or simply a promise to pay (e.g., whether it's a credit card or an account at the local grocery). When a department store gives you merchandise in return for your signature on a credit card form, is that signature money? No, because you did not settle the transaction. Rather, you promised to pay money. So you created credit, which is a promise to pay money.
The Federal Reserve has chosen to define "money" in terms of aggregates (i.e., currency plus various forms of credit - M1, M2, etc.), but this is misleading. Virtually all of what they call money is credit (i.e., promises to deliver money) rather than money itself. The total amount of debt in the U.S. is about $50 trillion and the total amount of money (i.e., currency and reserves) in existence is about $3 trillion. So, if we were to use these numbers as a guide, the amount of promises to deliver money (i.e., debt) is roughly 15 times the amount of money there is to deliver.6 The main point is that most people buy things with credit and don't pay much attention to what they are promising to deliver and where they are going to get it from, so there is much less money than obligations to deliver it.
Credit As mentioned, credit is the promise to deliver money, and credit spends just like money. While credit and money spend just as easily, when you pay with money the transaction is settled; but if you pay with credit, the payment has yet to be made.
There are two ways demand can increase: with credit or without it. Of course, it's far easier to stimulate demand with credit than without it. For example, in an economy in which there is no credit, if I want to buy a good or service I would have to exchange it for a comparably valued good or service of my own. Therefore, the only way I can increase what I own and the economy as a whole can grow is through increased production. As a result, in an economy without credit, the growth in demand is constrained by the growth in production. This tends to reduce the occurrence of boom-bust cycles, but it also reduces both the efficiency that leads to high prosperity and severe deleveraging, i.e., it tends to produce lower swings around the productivity growth trend line of about 2%.
By contrast, in an economy in which credit is readily available, I can acquire goods and services without giving up any of my own. A bank will lend the money on my pledge to repay, secured by my existing assets and future earnings. For these reasons credit and spending can grow faster than money and income. Since that sounds counterintuitive, let me give an example of how that can work.
If I ask you to paint my office with an agreement that I will give you the money in a few months, your painting my office will add to your income (because you were paid with credit), so it will add to GDP, and it will add to your net worth (because my promise to pay is considered as much of an asset as the cash that I still owe you). Our transaction will also add an asset (i.e., the capital improvement in my office) and a liability (the debt I still owe you) to my balance sheet. Now let's say that buoyed by this increased amount of business that I gave you and your improved financial condition that you want to expand. So you go to your banker who sees your increased income and net worth, so he is delighted to lend you some "money" (increasing his sales and his balance sheet) that you decide to buy a financial asset with (let's say stocks) until you want to spend it. As you can see, debt, spending and investment would have increased relative to money and income. This process can be, and generally is, self-reinforcing because rising spending generates rising incomes and rising net worths, which raise borrowers' capacity to borrow, which allows more buying and spending, etc. Typically, monetary expansions are used to support credit expansions because more money in the system makes it easier for debtors to pay off their loans (with money of less value), and it makes the assets I acquired worth more because there is more money around to bid them. As a result, monetary expansions improve credit ratings and increase collateral values, making it that much easier to borrow and buy more. In such an economy, demand is constrained only by the willingness of creditors and debtors to extend and receive credit. When credit is easy and cheap, borrowing and spending will occur; and when it is scarce and 6 As a substantial amount of dollar-denominated debt exists outside the U.S., the total amount of claims on dollars is greater than this characterization indicates, so it is provided solely for illustrative purposes.
expensive, borrowing and spending will be less. In the "business cycle," the central bank will control the supply of money and influence the amount of credit that the private sector creates by influencing the cost of credit (i.e., interest rates). Changes in private sector credit drive the cycle. Over the long term, typically decades, debt and debt service costs rise relative to incomes. This obviously cannot continue forever. When it can't continue a deleveraging occurs.
As previously mentioned, the most fundamental requirement for private sector credit creation to occur in a capitalist system is that both borrowers and lenders believe that the deal is good for them. Since one man's debts are another man's assets, lenders have to believe that they will get paid back an amount of money that is greater than inflation (i.e., more than they could get by storing their wealth in inflation hedge assets), net of taxes. And, because debtors have to pledge their assets (i.e., equity) as collateral in order to motivate the lenders, they have to be at least as confident in their abilities to pay their debts as they value the assets (i.e., equity) that they pledged as collateral.
Also, an important consideration of investors is liquidity – i.e., the ability to sell their investments for money and use that money to buy goods and services. For example, if I own a $100,000 Treasury bond, I probably presume that I'll be able to exchange it for $100,000 in cash and in turn exchange the cash for $100,000 worth of goods and services. However, since the ratio of financial assets to money is so high, obviously if a large number of people tried to convert their financial assets into money and buy goods and services at the same time, the central bank would have to either produce a lot more money (risking a monetary inflation) and/or allow a lot of defaults (causing a deflationary deleveraging).
Monetary Systems One of the greatest powers governments have is the creation of money and credit, which they exert by determining their countries' monetary systems and by controlling the levers that increase and decrease the supply of money and credit. The monetary systems chosen have varied over time and between countries. In the old days there was barter - i.e., the exchange of items of equal intrinsic value. That was the basis of money. When you paid with gold coins, the exchange was for items of equal intrinsic value. Then credit developed – i.e., promises to deliver "money" of intrinsic value. Then there were promises to deliver money that didn't have intrinsic value.
Those who lend expect that they will get back an amount of money that can be converted into goods or services of a somewhat greater purchasing power than the money they originally lent – i.e., they use credit to exchange goods and services today for comparably valuable goods and services in the future. Since credit began, creditors essentially asked those who controlled the monetary systems: "How do we know you won't just print a lot of money that won't buy me much when I go to exchange it for goods and services in the future?" At different times, this question was answered differently.
Basically, there are two types of monetary systems: 1) commodity-based systems – those systems consisting of some commodity (usually gold), currency (which can be converted into the commodity at a fixed price) and credit (a claim on the currency); and 2) fiat systems – those systems consisting of just currency and credit. In the first system, it's more difficult to create credit expansions. That is because the public will offset the government's attempts to increase currency and credit by giving both back to the government in return for the commodity they are exchangeable for. As the supply of money increases, its value falls; or looked at the other way, the value of the commodity it is convertible into rises. When it rises above the fixed price, it is profitable for those holding credit (i.e., claims on the currency) to sell their debt for currency in order to buy the tangible asset from the government at below the market price. The selling of the credit and the taking of currency out of circulation cause credit to tighten and the value of the money to rise; on the other hand, the general price level of goods and services will fall. Its effect will be lower inflation and lower economic activity. Since the value of money has fallen over time relative to the value of just about everything else, we could tie the currency to just about anything in order to show how this monetary system would have worked. For example, since a one-pound loaf of white bread in 1946 cost ten cents, let's imagine we tied the dollar to bread. In other words, let's imagine a monetary system in which the government in 1946 committed to buy bread at 10 cents a pound and stuck to that until now. Today a pound loaf of white bread costs $2.75. Of course, if they had used this monetary system, the price couldn't have risen to $2.75 because we all would have bought our bread from the government at ten cents instead of from the free market until the government ran out of bread. But, for our example, let's say that the price of bread is $2.75. I'd certainly be willing to take all of my money, buy bread from the government at 10 cents and sell it in the market at $2.75, and others would do the same. This process would reduce the amount of money in circulation, which would then reduce the prices of all goods and services, and it would increase the amount of bread in circulation (thus lowering its price more rapidly than other prices). In fact, if the supply and demand for bread were not greatly influenced by its convertibility to currency, this tie would have dramatically slowed the last 50 years' rapid growth in currency and credit.
Obviously, what the currency is convertible into has an enormous impact on this process. For example, if instead of tying the dollar to bread, we chose to tie it to eggs, since the price of a dozen eggs in 1947 was seventy cents and today it is about $2.00, currency and credit growth would have been less restricted. Ideally, if one has a commodity-based currency system, one wants to tie the currency to something that is not subject to great swings in supply or demand. For example, if the currency were tied to bread, bakeries would in effect have the power to produce money, leading to increased inflation. Gold and, to a much lesser extent, silver have historically proven more stable than most other currency backings, although they are by no means perfect.
In the second type of monetary system – i.e., in a fiat system in which the amount of money is not constrained by the ability to exchange it for a commodity – the growth of money and credit is very much subject to the influence of the central bank and the willingness of borrowers and lenders to create credit.
Governments typically prefer fiat systems because they offer more power to print money, expand credit and redistribute wealth by changing the value of money. Human nature being what it is, those in government (and those not) tend to value immediate gratification over longer-term benefits, so government policies tend to increase demand by allowing liberal credit creation, which leads to debt crises. Governments typically choose commodity-based systems only when they are forced to in reaction to the value of money having been severely depreciated due to the government's "printing" of a lot of it to relieve the excessive debt burdens that their unconstrained monetary systems allowed. They abandon commodity-based monetary systems when the constraints to money creation become too onerous in debt crises. So throughout history, governments have gone back and forth between commodity-based and fiat monetary systems in reaction to the painful consequences of each. However, they don't make these changes often, as monetary systems typically work well for many years, often decades, with central banks varying interest rates and money supplies to control credit growth well enough so that these inflection points are infrequently reached. In the next two sections we first describe the long-term debt cycle and then the business/market cycle.
2) The Long-Term (i.e., Long Wave) Cycle As previously mentioned, when debts and spending rise faster than money and income, the process is selfreinforcing on the upside because rising spending generates rising incomes and rising net worths, which raise borrowers' capacity to borrow which allows more buying and spending, etc. However, since debts can't rise faster than money and income forever there are limits to debt growth. Think of debt growth that is faster than income growth as being like air in a scuba bottle – there is a limited amount of it that you can use to get an extra boost, but you can't live on it forever. In the case of debt, you can take it out before you put it in (i.e., if you don't have any debt, you can take it out), but you are expected to return what you took out. When you are taking it out, you can spend more than is sustainable, which will give you the appearance of being prosperous. At such times, you and those who are lending to you might mistake you as being creditworthy and not pay enough attention to what paying back will look like. When debts can no longer be raised relative to incomes and the time of paying back comes, the process works in reverse. It is that dynamic that creates long-term debt cycles. These long-term debt cycles have existed for as long as there has been credit. Even the Old Testament described the need to wipe out debt once every 50 years, which was called the year of Jubilee.
Upswings in the cycle occur, and are self-reinforcing, in a process by which money growth creates greater debt growth, which finances spending growth and asset purchases. Spending growth and higher asset prices allow even more debt growth. This is because lenders determine how much they can lend on the basis of the borrowers' 1) income/cash flows to service the debt and 2) net worth/collateral, as well as their own capacities to lend, and these rise in a self-reinforcing manner.
Suppose you earn $100,000, have a net worth of $100,000 and have no debt. You have the capacity to borrow $10,000/year, so you could spend $110,000 per year for a number of years, even though you only earn $100,000. For an economy as a whole, this increased spending leads to higher earnings, that supports stock valuations and other asset values, giving people higher incomes and more collateral to borrow more against, and so on. In the up-wave part of the cycle, promises to deliver money (i.e., debts and debt service payments) rise relative to both a) the supply of money and b) the amount of money and credit debtors have coming in (via incomes, borrowings and sales of assets). This up-wave in the cycle typically goes on for decades, with variations in it primarily due to central banks tightening and easing credit (which makes business cycles). But it can't go on forever. Eventually the debt service payments become equal to or larger than the amount we can borrow and the spending must decline. When promises to deliver money (debt) can't rise any more relative to the money and credit coming in, the process works in reverse and we have deleveragings. Since borrowing is simply a way of pulling spending forward, the person spending $110,000 per year and earning $100,000 per year has to cut his spending to $90,000 for as many years as he spent $110,000, all else being equal.
While the last chart showed the amount of debt relative to GDP, the debt ratio, it is more precise to say that high debt service payments (i.e., principal and interest combined), rather than high debt levels, cause debt squeezes because cash flows rather than levels of debt create the squeezes that slow the economy. For example, if interest rates fall enough, debts can increase without debt service payments rising enough to cause a squeeze. This dynamic is best conveyed in the chart below. It shows interest payments, principal payments and total debt service payments of American households as a percentage of their disposable incomes going back to 1920. We are showing this debt service burden for the household sector because the household sector is the most important part of the economy; however, the concept applies equally well to all sectors and all individuals. As shown, the debt service burden of households has increased to the highest level since the Great Depression. What triggers reversals?
The long-term debt cycle top occurs when 1) debt and debt service levels are high relative to incomes and/or 2) monetary policy doesn't produce credit growth. From that point on, debt can't rise relative to incomes, net worth and money supply. That is when deleveraging – i.e. bringing down these debt ratios – begins. All deleveragings start because there is a shortage of money relative to debtors' needs for it. This leads to large numbers of businesses, households and financial institutions defaulting on their debts and cutting costs, which leads to higher unemployment and other problems. While these debt problems can occur for many reasons, most classically they occur because investment assets are bought at high prices and with leverage7 – i.e., because debt levels are set on the basis of overly optimistic assumptions about future cash flows. As a result of this, actual cash flows fall short of what's required for debtors to service their debts. Ironically, quite often in the early stages the cash flows fall short because of tight monetary policies that are overdue attempts to curtail these bubble activities (buying overpriced assets with excessive leverage), so that the tight money triggers them (e.g., in 1928/29 in much of the world, in 1989/91 in Japan and in 2006/07 in much of the world). Also ironically, inflation in financial assets is more dangerous than inflation in goods and services because this financial asset inflation appears like a good thing and isn't prevented even though it is as dangerous as any other form of over-indebtedness. In fact, while debt financed financial booms that are accompanied by low inflation are typically precursors of busts, at the time they typically appear to be investment generated productivity booms (e.g. much of the world in the late 1920s, Japan in the late 1980s and much of the world in the mid 2000s).
Typically, though not always, interest rates decline in reaction to the economic and market declines and central banks easing, but they can't decline enough because they hit 0%. As a result, the abilities of central banks to alleviate these debt burdens, to stimulate private credit growth and to cause asset prices to rise via lower interest rates are lost. These conditions cause buyers of financial assets to doubt that the value of the money they will get from owning this asset will be more than the value of the money they pay for it. Then monetary policy is ineffective in rectifying the imbalance.
In deleveragings, rather than indebtedness increasing (i.e. debt and debt service rising relative to income and money), it decreases. This can happen in one of four ways: 1) debt reduction, 2) austerity, 3) transferring wealth from the haves to the have-nots and 4) debt monetization. Each one of these four paths reduces debt/income ratios, but they have different effects on inflation and growth. Debt reduction (i.e., defaults and restructurings) and austerity are both deflationary and depressing while debt monetization is inflationary and stimulative. Transfers of wealth typically occur in many forms, but rarely in amounts that contribute meaningfully to the deleveraging. The differences between how deleveragings play out depends on the amounts and paces of these four measures.
Depressions are the contraction phase of the deleveraging process. Typically the "depression" phase of the deleveraging process comes at the first part of the deleveraging process, when defaults and austerity (i.e. the forces of deflation and depression) dominate. Initially, in the depression phase of the deleveraging process, the money coming in to debtors via incomes and borrowings is not enough to meet debtors' obligations, assets need to be sold and spending needs to be cut in order to raise cash. This leads asset values to fall, which reduces the value of collateral, and in turn reduces incomes. Because of both lower collateral values and lower incomes, borrowers' creditworthiness is reduced, so they justifiably get less credit, and so it continues in a self-reinforcing manner. Since the creditworthiness of borrowers is judged by both a) the values of their assets/collaterals (i.e., their net worths) in relation to their debts and b) the sizes of their incomes relative to the size of their debt service payments, and since both net worths and incomes fall faster than debts, borrowers become less creditworthy and lenders become more reluctant to lend. In this phase of the cycle the contraction is self-reinforcing at the same time as debt/income and debt/net-worth ratios rise. That occurs for two reasons. First, when debts cannot be serviced both debtors and creditors are hurt; since one man's debts are another man's assets, debt problems reduce net worths and borrowing abilities, thus causing a self-reinforcing contraction cycle. Second, when spending is curtailed incomes are also reduced, thus reducing the ability to spend, also causing a self-reinforcing contraction.
You can see debt burdens rise at the same time as the economy is in a deflationary depression in both chart 2 and chart 3 above. The vertical line on these charts is at 1929. As you can see in chart 2, the debt/GDP ratio shot up from about 160% to about 250% from 1929 to 1933. The vertical line in chart 3 shows the same picture – i.e., debt service levels rose relative to income levels because income levels fell. In the economic and credit downturn, debt burdens increase at the same time as debts are being written down, so the debt liquidation process is reinforced. Chart 4 shows the household sector's debt relative to its net worth. As shown, this leverage ratio shot up from already high levels, as it did during the Great Depression, due to declines in net worths arising from falling housing and stock prices.
As mentioned earlier, in a credit-based economy, the ability to spend is an extension of the ability to borrow. For lending/borrowing to occur, lenders have to believe that a) they will get paid back an amount of money that is greater than inflation and b) they will be able to convert their debt into money. In deleveragings, lenders justifiably worry that these things will not happen.
Unlike in recessions, when cutting interest rates and creating more money can rectify this imbalance, in deleveragings monetary policy is ineffective in creating credit. In other words, in recessions (when monetary policy is effective) the imbalance between the amount of money and the need for it to service debt can be rectified by cutting interest rates enough to 1) ease debt service burdens, 2) stimulate economic activity because monthly debt service payments are high relative to incomes and 3) produce a positive wealth effect; however, in deleveragings, this can't happen. In deflationary depressions/deleveragings, monetary policy is typically ineffective in creating credit because interest rates hit 0% and can't be lowered further, so other, less effective ways of increasing money are followed. Credit growth is difficult to stimulate because borrowers remain over-indebted, making sensible lending impossible. In inflationary deleveragings, monetary policy is ineffective in creating credit because increased money growth goes into other currencies and inflation hedge assets because investors fear that their lending will be paid back with money of depreciated value.
In order to try to alleviate this fundamental imbalance, governments inevitably a) create initiatives to encourage credit creation, b) ease the rules that require debtors to come up with money to service their debts (i.e., create forbearance) and, most importantly, c) print and spend money to buy goods, services and financial assets. The printing of and buying financial assets by central banks shows up in central banks' balance sheets expanding and the increased spending by central governments shows up in budget deficits exploding. This is shown in the following three charts.
As shown below, in 1930/32 and in 2007/08 short term government interest rates hit 0%...
You can tell deleveragings from these three things occurring together, which does not happen at other times. Typically, though not necessarily, these moves come in progressively larger dosages as initial dosages of these sorts fail to rectify the imbalance and reverse the deleveraging process; however, these dosages do typically cause temporary periods of relief that are manifest in bear market rallies in financial assets and increased economic activity. For example in the Great Depression there were six big rallies in the stock market (of between 21% and 48%) in a bear market that totaled 89%, with all of these rallies triggered by these sorts of increasingly strong dosages of government actions which were intended to reduce the fundamental imbalance. That is because a return to an environment of normal capital formation and normal economic activity can occur only by eliminating this fundamental imbalance so that capable providers of capital (i.e., investors/lenders) willingly choose to give money to capable recipients of capital (borrowers and sellers of equity) in exchange for believable claims that they will get back an amount of money that is worth more than they gave.
Eventually there is enough "printing of money" or debt monetization to negate the deflationary forces of both debt reduction and austerity. When a good balance of debt reduction, austerity, and "printing/monetizing" occurs, debt and debt service can fall relative to incomes with positive economic growth. In the U.S. deleveraging of the 1930s, this occurred in 1933-37. Some people mistakenly think that the depression problem is just psychological: that scared investors move their money from riskier investments to safer ones (e.g., from stocks and high yield lending to government cash), and that problems can be rectified by coaxing them to move their money back into riskier investments. This is wrong for two reasons. First, contrary to popular thinking, the deleveraging dynamic is not primarily psychologically driven. It is primarily driven by the supply and demand of and relationships between credit, money and goods and services. If everyone went to sleep and woke up with no memories of what had happened, we would all soon find ourselves in the same position. That is, because debtors still couldn't service their debts, because their obligations to deliver money would still be too large relative to the money they are taking in, the government would still be faced with the same choices that would still have the same consequences, etc.
Related to this, if the central bank produces more money to alleviate the shortage, it will cheapen the value of money, thus not rectifying creditors' worries about being paid back an amount of money that is worth more than they gave. Second, it is not correct that the amount of money in existence remains the same and has simply moved from riskier assets to less risky ones. Most of what people think is money is really credit, and it does disappear. For example, when you buy something in a store on a credit card, you essentially do so by saying, "I promise to pay." Together you created a credit asset and a credit liability. So where did you take the money from? Nowhere. You created credit. It goes away in the same way. Suppose the store owner justifiably believes that you and others might not pay the credit card company and that the credit card company might not pay him if that happens. Then he correctly believes that the "asset" he has isn't really there. It didn't go somewhere else.
As implied by this, a big part of the deleveraging process is people discovering that much of what they thought was their wealth isn't really there. When investors try to convert their investments into money in order to raise needed cash, the liquidity of their investments is tested and, in cases in which the investments prove illiquid, panic-induced "runs" and sell-offs of their securities occur. Naturally those who experience runs, especially banks (though this is true of most entities that rely on short-term funding), have problems raising money and credit to meet their needs, so they often fail. At such times, governments are forced to decide which ones to save by providing them with money and whether to get this money through the central government (i.e., through the budget process) or through the central bank "printing" more money. Governments inevitably do both, though in varying degrees. What determines whether deleveragings are deflationary or inflationary is the extent to which central banks create money to negate the effects of contracting credit.
Governments with commodity-based monetary systems or pegged currencies are more limited in their abilities to "print" and provide money, while those with independent fiat monetary systems are less constrained. However, in both cases, the central bank is eager to provide money and credit, so it always lowers the quality of the collateral it accepts and, in addition to providing money to some essential banks, it also typically provides money to some non-bank entities it considers essential.
The central bank's easing of monetary policy and the movement of investor money to safer investments, initially drives down short-term government interest rates, steepens the yield curve and widens credit and liquidity premiums. Those who do not receive money and/or credit that is needed to meet their debt service obligations and maintain their operations, which is typically a large segment of debtors, default and fail. In depressions, as credit collapses, workers lose jobs and many of them, having inadequate savings, need financial support. So in addition to needing money to provide financial support to the system, governments need money to help those in greatest financial need. Additionally, to the extent that they want to increase spending to make up for decreased private sector spending, they need more money. At the same time, their tax revenue falls because incomes fall. For these reasons, governments' budget deficits increase. Inevitably, the amount of money lent to governments at these times increases less than their needs (i.e., they have problems funding their deficits), despite the increased desire of lenders to buy government securities to seek safety at these times. As a result, central banks are again forced to choose between "printing" more money to buy their governments' debts or allowing their governments and their private sector to compete for the limited supply of money, thus allowing extremely tight money conditions. Governments with commodity-based money systems are forced to have smaller budget deficits and tighter monetary policies than governments with fiat monetary systems, though they all eventually relent and print more money (i.e., those on commodity-based monetary systems either abandon these systems or change the amount/pricing of the commodity that they will exchange for a unit of money so that they print more, and those on fiat systems will just print more). This "printing" of money takes the form of central bank purchases of government securities and non-government assets such as corporate securities, equities and other assets. In other words, the government "prints" money and uses it to negate some of the effects of contracting credit. This is reflected in money growing at an extremely fast rate at the same time as credit and real economic activity contract, so the money multiplier and the velocity of money typically initially contract. If the money creation is large enough, it devalues the currency, lowers real interest rates and drives investors from financial assets to inflation hedge assets. This typically happens when investors want to move money outside the currency, and short-term government debt is no longer considered a safe investment.
Because governments need more money, and since wealth and incomes are typically heavily concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population, governments raise taxes on the wealthy. Also, in deleveragings, those who earned their money in the booms, especially the capitalists who made a lot of money working in the financial sector helping to create the debt (and especially the short sellers who some believe profited at others' expense), are resented. Tensions between the "haves" and the "have-nots" typically increase and, quite often, there is a move from the right to the left. In fact, there is a saying that essentially says "in booms everyone is a capitalist and in busts everyone is a socialist." For these various reasons, taxes on the wealthy are typically significantly raised. These increased taxes typically take the form of greater income and consumption taxes because these forms of taxation are the most effective in raising revenues. While sometimes wealth and inheritance taxes are also increased,8 these typically raise very little money because much wealth is illiquid and, even for liquid assets, forcing the taxpayer to sell financial assets to make their tax payments undermines capital formation. Despite these greater taxes on the wealthy, increases in tax revenue are inadequate because incomes – both earned incomes and incomes from capital – are so depressed, and expenditures on consumption are reduced.
The wealthy experience a tremendous loss of "real" wealth in all forms – i.e., from their portfolios declining in value, from their earned incomes declining and from higher rates of taxation, in inflation- adjusted terms. As a result, they become extremely defensive. Quite often, they are motivated to move their money out of the country (which contributes to currency weakness), illegally dodge taxes and seek safety in liquid, non-creditdependent investments. Workers losing jobs and governments wanting to protect them become more protectionist and favor weaker currency policies. Protectionism slows economic activity, and currency weakness fosters capital flight. Debtor countries typically suffer most from capital flight.
When money leaves the country, central banks are once again put in the position of having to choose between "printing" more money, which lessens its value, and not printing money in order to maintain its value but allowing money to tighten. They inevitably choose to "print" more money. This is additionally bearish for the currency. As mentioned, currency declines are typically acceptable to governments because a weaker currency is stimulative for growth and helps to negate deflationary pressures. Additionally, when deflation is a problem, currency devaluations are desirable because they help to negate it.
Debtor, current account deficit countries are especially vulnerable to capital withdrawals and currency weakness as foreign investors also tend to flee due to both currency weakness and an environment inhospitable to good returns on capital. However, this is less true for countries that have a great amount of debt denominated in their own currencies (like the United States in the recent period and in the Great Depression) as these debts create a demand for these currencies. Since debt is a promise to deliver money 8 The extent to which wealth taxes can be applied varies by country. For example, they have been judged to be unconstitutional in the U.S. but have been allowed in other countries. that one doesn't have, this is essentially a short squeeze which ends when a) the shorts are fully squeezed (i.e., the debts are defaulted on) and/or b) enough money is created to alleviate the squeeze, and/or c) the debt service requirements are reduced in some other way (e.g., forbearance).