It’s important to understand exactly what the ratings agencies do. Their ratings are merely opinions. They are not regulators, though regulators take their work rather too seriously. They do not set rates – the market sets rates – though they take rather too seriously the ratings agencies’ opinions, mainly because it allows lazy traders to price the risk of a given security according to their rating without doing that boring maths stuff, or any tedious analysis.
The USA is not about to go bust, but the deficit is rising, the debt is rising, and rising at an increasing rate. This is President Obama’s “stimulus” program, and it has failed utterly, just as every other stimulus program everywhere has failed during this crisis. The problem is that of decades of Governmental overspend. In the USA the benefits of relatively low tax-rates are eaten almost entirely on increase health care costs, something Obamacare does almost nothing to address; it just moves the burden a bit from private to public. So the western world entered the financial crisis with Government spending between 40% and 50%, as Governments found it easier to deliver jobs by borrowing to build a bloated state bureaucracy and generous but inefficient state services.
During the cheap-money boom running from the late 90’s to 2008 economic growth was accelerated by the money borrowed by Governments, and the money borrowed by people against the rising value of their homes. Public and private debt across the western world grew as Governments and home-owners spent cheap credit. It was the household debt, sliced and diced by ex-ratings-agency employees in ways to game the algorithms to generate the necessary grades to allow investors, who don’t look too closely under the bonnet, to buy them.
House-price inflation is just inflation, but this was not captured in statistics used by the central banks to set interest rates. Gordon Brown chose CPI, which excludes most housing costs, instead of the far more appropriate RPI, which doesn’t when setting the central bank free to set rates. As a result, British interest rates were too low during the 90’s or 00’s. Similar sleights of hand happened in the USA. Of course it was the private sector credit which went pop first – and the web of debt, and the financial instruments secured upon it fell apart and banks went bust. Ireland and Iceland were bankrupted by the cost of bailing out the banks.
A chunk, but not the lion’s share of the UK’s public debt is the cost of bailing out the banks. But the UK was running a deficit BEFORE the crisis, as was the USA. Governments were trying to keep the party running by borrowing money. Eventually the music stopped. The size of the UK’s and Ireland’s deficit is partially due to the collapse in Bank’s tax-bills which had underpinned public spending. In the USA, the Bush-era tax-cuts (and discretionary war-fighting) are the main reasons for the deficits. the Bank bail-outs (and that of motor manufacturers!!!) were the main reasons in the US. Governments desperately trying to keep the music playing by pulling the “stimulus” levers on their monetary (low interest rates) and fiscal (excessive state spending) levers.
So the wheel came off the financial system, leading to lower tax receipts from that sector. The correct response would have been to cut spending to reflect the new reality. But for the last 2 years, countries with open economies and floating exchange rates, whose policy makers surely knew that the fiscal multipliers were probably less than one, sought to “support” the economy with continued state spending.
This attempt to keep the party going was doomed to failure. Now for the good news. The US and UK political systems and indeed democracy, are mature enough to call “enough”. The Tea Party caucus stopped Obama’s lunatic stimulus program and demanded a return to balanced budgets, and crucially they called for the majority of this fiscal contraction to come from spending cuts, not tax rises. In the UK the electorate was persuaded that ever more spending was not the answer and elected a Conservative-led coalition which had not shied away from the need for spending cuts. In the UK spending cuts are about to start, or “bite” as the BBC keeps telling us. This may be expansionary, if it means that confidence in money and the economy returns.
The UK and USA are going to be Okay. Our public finances will be brought under control. The USA will regain its AAA rating in time, and we may even experience growth while doing it. (This will surprise the Keynesian and the BBC).
The economies of Southern Europe don’t have the excuse of bailing out banks for their crisis. That can be laid squarely at the door of the Euro, a political vanity project which is now destroying economies and lives, because sharing a currency doesn’t make Greeks or Italians into Germans. The ultimate cause though is the same. Decades of cheap money artificially boosted the economy leading to an asset price boom. Governments unshackled from the constraints of the markets were able to borrow to buy votes, until bond traders noticed that the Greeks and Italians were not behaving like those parsimonious Germans and started to drive down the price of their bonds. The music has stopped, the money must be paid back, and Governments MUST cut their cloth according to their means.
Who’s going to spend more to close the gap? Well that’s obvious. The Japanese people have to start spending their savings (while their government reins in its spending). The Chinese government will find the returns available on its surplus heading to zero if it continues to buy dollars to keep the Yuan down. They will have to start running surpluses and let their currency appreciate.
It ain’t all bad. The world has plenty of demand – 2 Billion south and east Asians are getting richer faster than ever before in the greatest expansion of wealth in history. Why aren’t we celebrating this, and seeing it as an opportunity? What we need is Governments to realise they can’t and shouldn’t run deficits or surpluses for ever, and the less they manage the economy, the better that economy functions in the long-term. Indeed neither should people run surpluses for ever: You can’t take it with you. The world’s financial crisis are simply shocks which change behaviour to iron out these imbalances. It works, eventually.