Lionel Shriver

The world is stuck in a debt trap

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

I don’t usually get up early just for an appointment at a bank. Yet last Tuesday in New York, I lost sleep in order to slam a trove of savings into a certificate of deposit. Surely I could have delayed the quotidian chore for any old day. What was the hurry? I wanted to ensure that the cash would earn a Great Big Two Per Cent.

As expected, the next day the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, made its second 0.25 per cent interest rate cut in three months. More cuts are to come — though starting from a miserable 1.75 per cent, it won’t take much whittling before we’re bang on zero.

Pre-millennium, rushing to lock in funds at a squalid 2 per cent interest rate would have been the stuff of low-grade fiscal nightmares. But after the dotcom bubble burst, the Fed rate plummeted from about 6.5 in 2000 to 1 per cent in 2003. At least thereafter it climbed steadily back up to a relatively healthy 5.25 per cent in 2007. Someone must have told Financial Jesus, who clearly has it in for me, that 2007 was the very first year of my life in which I accumulated some disposable income. Very disposable, as of 2008.

At which point the Fed rate plopped to virtually nothing and stayed nothing for a decade. A graph of the rate for the past 60 years demonstrates how utterly unprecedented this flatlining was. Now the tail end of that graph looks like the course of an airplane on a really long runway that finally achieved liftoff, only for the engines to cut out.

The entire world is stuck in a debt trap. Public, personal, and corporate accounts are swimming in red ink. As of July, worldwide debt totalled nearly $250 trillion. I know: a large number, and therefore meaningless. But according to Bloomberg, that’s 315 per cent of worldwide GDP. I calculate that’s about £35,000 for everyone on the planet over the age of 14. Mean something to you now?

That fateful year of 2008, global debt was ‘only’ about $175 trillion, and you’ll recall that it was bad real-estate loans that triggered what came close to the end of money, also known as the end of the world. Now global indebtedness is 40 per cent higher. This summer, US sovereign debt crossed, for economists, the signal threshold of 100 per cent of GDP; the American government borrows another $1 trillion every year now, and no one bats an eye. Brits should hold off feeling superior. At 257 per cent of GDP, the UK’s total debt is proportionately almost identical to America’s 256 per cent, and two-thirds of UK debt is private.

Holders of low-rate mortgages and car loans assume that their meagre interest payments will never increase. So you can’t raise interest rates, because then no one can afford to service their loans. Bingo, massive default, making 2008 seem like a disappointing scratch card. But what happens when money is basically free? Surprise! More debt! It’s a vicious cycle that central banks are terrified of trying to break.

Ostensibly, quantitative easing has not resulted in higher inflation. This is a lie. Since 2008, assets such as property and investment-grade fine art have ballooned. Most importantly, I recently tripped across the creepiest acronym ever: Tina. No, it’s not a new AI sex robot. It means There Is No Alternative, and it refers to the stock market.

With near-zero interest rates, the stock market is where everybody’s money has gone. There’s nowhere else to put your hard-earned savings where their value even keeps pace with inflation. The stock market is an enormous bubble. It used to be that before buying shares you studied a company’s profitability, its prospects, and its management’s track record. No one bothers with that fuddy–duddy stuff anymore. It’s all a big pile-on. The stock market is the world’s biggest casino. The escalating stock market is the very embodiment of inflation. The price of a company’s shares no longer bears the remotest relationship to what a company produces and what it’s actually worth. Only weenie interest rates enable otherwise unsustainably indebted entities to stay afloat, and the market is rumoured to be rife with these ‘zombie’ corporations.

We’re no longer fussed about how unfair this setup is for savers. There appear to be so few of them, so who cares? But I’ve read that in the US, to retire securely with a comfortable income, you need a staggering $2 million socked away. After all, we might live to 100, right? Very few build such reserves. Even the folks trying to accrue far less have entrusted their precious nest eggs to the market and therefore put their savings at risk — because there is no alternative. If the party ever stops, we’ll remember with a thud that anyone who’s contributed to a private pension is a saver. Should the stock market tank, we’ll retroactively resent that in order to make the world a better place for people who spend money they haven’t got, central banks have denied us a modest return on cash and low-risk bonds that would at least have kept the principle safe.

If money is free, it would make perfect sense to borrow as much as you need for the rest of your life, never pay it back, and then die. That may sound absurd, but that’s more or less what governments such as America’s are doing right now. In an earlier era, governments took out loans for big infrastructure investments that paid off in the long run; now governments borrow to pay the heating bill. They’re borrowing from a future that they no longer believe in.

I had a perplexingly mild discussion with an economist in Australia recently, who assured me pleasantly that in due course central banks will simply write off all that sovereign debt, poof, and then everything will be fine. If it’s that simple, why haven’t they waved their magic wands already? I had a funny feeling that we wouldn’t be fine. And I sure don’t want to find out.

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