6 March 2009

After the Economic Dunkirk


Not well. Rudd’s stimulus is a whopping $42 billion–a big number. But our private debt is now over $2 trillion. If the private sector de-levers by as little as 5% of its current debt level, that will withdraw $100 billion from spending. In the new economic Rock vs Scissors game, Deleveraging trumps Government Stimulus every time.

This is why Japan is still mired in a Depression, 19 years after its bubble economy burst. You can’t solve a problem caused by too much debt by going into more debt. Ultimately, the only solution is to reduce debt.

There Australia is in a quandary. We don’t yet have insolvent banks–the USA on the other hand has nothing else. So drastic means of attacking the problem are possible in America, once the Yankees get over their usual pussy-footing about nationalisation. But we can’t follow that path while it still appears that our banks are solvent.

So all we can do is brace ourselves for a massive increase in unemployment, and do what we can to ameliorate the pain. Several policies are obvious there: remove the waiting period for receiving the dole, eliminate (or drastically prune) the requirements that unemployed persons exhaust their savings before they receive the dole, get rid of the punitive job application requirements, and take the stigma away from being a victim of a global financial crisis that is well beyond the control of those whose jobs will be destroyed by it.

That will necessitate a massive increase in the government deficit, but that is justified in making sure that the pain of a Depression is shared more equitably. It is also a far more sensible way of going into deficit than throwing a fistful of money at soon to be unemployed consumers.

We can also change the rules on mortgage defaults, so that a failed borrower becomes a renter from the bank or lender that extended the money, and pays a rent based on a proportion of their income. That might mean a lot less revenue for banks, but it will also mean a lot less mortgagee sales–and there will be a tsunami of those coming our way if the economy continues to shrink by 0.5% or more every quarter.

On that front, the most recent figure was a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ve already seen overseas, and what we are likely to see here as deleveraging reduces debt-financed spending, our terms of trade collapse, and our export voumes plummet. It seems that the days of Kangaroo Economics–”We won’t suffer a recession because we have marsupials”–are over. Bye Bye, Boom Boom.

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