How much debt is too much?
Truth is, no one knows, but the world is playing a dangerous game trying to find out.
The latest report from the Institute of International Finance says the world’s total debt — government, corporate and household — totaled $244 trillion during the third quarter of 2018. That is 318 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, or more than three times the world’s total economic output.
Simply put, if it came due tomorrow, the world doesn’t have enough money to pay back what it owes.
When Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal ran into serious economic problems, the stronger nations in the European Union, especially Germany, were able to lift them up to some degree. But now the world’s largest economies — the United States, China, the United Kingdom and France, in particular — are swimming in red ink due mainly to poor economic choices. If they begin to drown, no one is large enough to offer a life preserver.
Public attention can be fickle. Today, Americans are bombarded with near-constant news about a government shutdown that hinges on construction of a border wall. The debt crisis, meanwhile, hardly gets any notice, yet it quickly could become an all-consuming crisis.
It doesn’t have to be so. Congress, the president, corporate leaders and each American could take action now to avert disaster.
In his 1962 State of the Union address, President John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” The sun has rarely shone brighter than today, with unemployment nationally at just under 4 percent and with salaries rising.
And yet, in the United States, that prosperity appears to be built on borrowing, which is the same as saying that the nation, collectively, is, like the fictional Wimpy in the old Popeye comic strip, all too happy to eat hamburgers today on the promise of paying for them on some future Tuesday.
Generations have laughed at Wimpy, created during the dark days of the Great Depression. But now this appears to be a nation of Wimpys. The day may come when his antics no longer seem funny.
Historically, debt has been countercyclical. In other words, when the economy is strong, deficit spending has receded. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reported last month, Washington’s deficit spending has surpassed 4.6 percent of GDP only eight times since 1950. Each time was in response to a strong recession. The current projected deficit of $970 billion would be at that 4.6 threshold. It would represent a troubling anomaly, coming despite an economic boom.
Some experts say much of the problem has to do with the way Washington reacted to the Great Recession of a decade ago. The economic stimulus, including quantitative easing and decisions by the Federal Reserve Board, has kept interest rates low, which has incentivized both corporations and average Americans to keep borrowing.
Money is cheap, but it isn’t free.
It’s not too late to reverse the trend. Certainly, every American should work hard to reduce personal debt. Government holds the biggest key, however.
To a large degree, market performance depends on investor confidence. As columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote recently, “Behavior can be self-fulfilling. If banks and bondholders believe debts will be repaid, then they will be …”9 comments on this story
At the moment, many are jittery in anticipation of a possible slowdown. Every bit of bad news, from trade disputes with China to the prolonged government shutdown, puts investors on edge.
If the president and congressional leaders would commit themselves to a period of austerity — either through cuts to spending or an increase in revenues — those jitters would ease. Even tiny movements in the right direction would likely inspire confidence.
To simply continue the current course, flirting with an unknown debt-level tipping point, is insanity.