4 May 2009

Double digit unemployment in Australia by 2010 ~ Keen

So confidence is not “all it is about”: confidence played its role over the last thirty years as it “beguiled its victims into debt”, in Fisher’s evocative phrase. We don’t need more of it now, so much as less of it back then–but of course, we can’t amend history.

The victims of past overconfidence include Central Bankers, whose rescues of the financial system simply encouraged it to search out a new group of potential borrowers to replace those who had already been debt-saturated. They were victims of debt, as much as were the borrowers, because the naive theory of economics they followed ignored the role of debt completely. They therefore couldn’t see the process that was leading to crisis, even as their interventions egged that process on to heights that it could never have reached without them.

Had Greenspan and his equivalents around the world not intervened in 1987, it is quite possible that we would have experienced a mild Depression back then–mild because debt was only equivalent to 1929 levels then, because a larger Government sector than in the 1920s would have counterbalanced the private sector downturn, and because higher inflation in the late 80s would have helped reduced the real burden of debt.

Now we are sitting on the precipice of a mountain of debt twice as high as in the Great Depression, with low inflation turning into deflation as Fisher warned, and with Central Bankers who do not have a clue why the economy has suddenly gone from “the Great Moderation” to “the Greatest Crisis Since the Great Depression”.

Over-confidence in the face of rising debt did beguile us during the long boom. Confidence in the face of deleveraging will not save us during the coming Depression.

Comments on the Australian Data

Debt levels in Australia are very close to falling in nominal terms, and in fact only mortgage debt is still rising: both business and personal debt (other than mortgages) have fallen in the last few months. It is conceivable that, were it not for the “First Home Buyers Boost”, mortgage debt as well would be falling now too (the scheme is more aptly described as the “First Home Vendors Boost”, since prices at the low end of the market have been driven up by far more than the $7,000 increase in the grant).

As a result, the debt to GDP ratio has fallen for the last four months–though this is to some extent masked by Australia’s practice of summing the previous four quarters of GDP data to derive annual GDP, versus the American practice of simply multiplying the current quarter’s GDP figure by 4. Using the Australian approach, our debt to GDP ratio is now 160%; using the American, it is 162%, since GDP fell by 0.5% in the previous quarter.

Whichever way you cut it, deleveraging is now well and truly underway, and unemployment will therefore rise dramatically in the next few months. Most neoclassical economists are predicting 7.5% unemployment by mid-2010; I expect it will have entered double figures by early in 2010.


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