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The Archetypal Big Debt Cycle
How I Think about Credit and Debt
Since we are going to use the terms "credit" and "debt" a lot, I'd like to start with what they are and how they work.
Credit is the giving of buying power. This buying power is granted in exchange for a promise to pay it back, which is debt. Clearly, giving the ability to make purchases by providing credit is, in and of itself, a good thing, and not providing the power to buy and do good things can be a bad thing. For example, if there is very little credit provided for development, then there is very little development, which is a bad thing. The problem with debt arises when there is an inability to pay it back. Said differently, the question of whether rapid credit/ debt growth is a good or bad thing hinges on what that credit produces and how the debt is repaid (i.e., how the debt is serviced).
Almost by definition, financially responsible people don't like having much debt. I understand that perspective well because I share it.1 For my whole life, even when I didn't have any money, I strongly preferred saving to borrowing, because I felt that the upsides of debt weren't worth its downsides, which is a perspective I presume I got from my dad. I identify with people who believe that taking on a little debt is better than taking on a lot. But over time I learned that that's not necessarily true, especially for society as a whole (as distinct from individuals), because those who make policy for society have controls that individuals don't. From my experiences and my research, I have learned that too little credit/debt growth can create as bad or worse economic problems as having too much, with the costs coming in the form of foregone opportunities.
Generally speaking, because credit creates both spending power and debt, whether or not more credit is desirable depends on whether the borrowed money is used productively enough to generate sufficient income to service the debt. If that occurs, the resources will have been well allocated and both the lender and the borrower will benefit economically. If that doesn't occur, the borrowers and the lenders won't be satisfied and there's a good chance that the resources were poorly allocated.
In assessing this for society as a whole, one should consider the secondary/indirect economics as well as the more primary/direct economics. For example, sometimes not enough money/credit is provided for such obviously cost-effective things as educating our children well (which would make them more productive, while reducing crime and the costs of incarceration), or replacing inefficient infrastructure, because of a fiscal conservativism that insists that borrowing to do such things is bad for society, which is not true.
I want to be clear that credit/debt that produces enough economic benefit to pay for itself is a good thing. But sometimes the trade-offs are harder to see. If lending standards are so tight that they require a near certainty of being paid back, that may lead to fewer debt problems but too little development. If the lending standards are looser, that could lead to more development but could also create serious debt problems down the road that erase the benefits. Let's look at this and a few other common questions about debt and debt cycles.
How Costly Is Bad Debt Relative to Not Having the Spending That the Debt Is Financing?
Suppose that you, as a policy maker, choose to build a subway system that costs $1 billion. You finance it with debt that you expect to be paid back from revenue, but the economics turn out to be so much worse than you expected that only half of the expected revenues come in. The debt has to be written down by 50 percent. Does that mean you shouldn't have built the subway?
Rephrased, the question is whether the subway system is worth $500 million more than what was initially budgeted, or, on an annual basis, whether it is worth about 2 percent more per year than budgeted, supposing the subway system has a 25-year lifespan. Looked at this way, you may well assess that having the subway system at that cost is a lot better than not having the subway system.
To give you an idea of what that might mean for an economy as a whole, really bad debt losses have been when roughly 40 percent of a loan's value couldn't be paid back. Those bad loans amount to about 20 percent of all the outstanding loans, so the losses are equal to about 8 percent of total debt. That total debt, in turn, is equal to about 200 percent of income (e.g., GDP), so the shortfall is roughly equal to 16 percent of GDP. If that cost is "socialized" (i.e., borne by the society as a whole via fiscal and/or monetary policies) and spread over 15 years, it would amount to about 1 percent per year, which is tolerable. Of course, if not spread out, the costs would be intolerable. For that reason, I am asserting that the downside risks of having a significant amount of debt depends a lot on the willingness and the ability of policy makers to spread out the losses arising from bad debts. I have seen this in all the cases I have lived through and studied. Whether policy makers can do this depends on two factors: 1) whether the debt is denominated in the currency that they control and 2) whether they have influence over how creditors and debtors behave with each other.
Are Debt Crises Inevitable?
Throughout history only a few well-disciplined countries have avoided debt crises. That's because lending is never done perfectly and is often done badly due to how the cycle affects people's psychology to produce bubbles and busts. While policy makers generally try to get it right, more often than not they err on the side of being too loose with credit because the near-term rewards (faster growth) seem to justify it. It is also politically easier to allow easy credit (e.g., by providing guarantees, easing monetary policies) than to have tight credit. That is the main reason we see big debt cycles.
Why Do Debt Crises Come in Cycles?
I find that whenever I start talking about cycles, particularly big, long-term cycles, people's eyebrows go up; the reactions I elicit are similar to those I'd expect if I were talking about astrology. For that reason, I want to emphasize that I am talking about nothing more than logically-driven series of events that recur in patterns. In a market-based economy, expansions and contractions in credit drive economic cycles, which occur for perfectly logical reasons. Though the patterns are similar, the sequences are neither pre-destined to repeat in exactly the same ways nor to take exactly the same amount of time.
To put these complicated matters into very simple terms, you create a cycle virtually anytime you borrow money. Buying something you can't afford means spending more than you make. You're not just borrowing from your lender; you are borrowing from your future self. Essentially, you are creating a time in the future in which you will need to spend less than you make so you can pay it back. The pattern of borrowing, spending more than you make, and then having to spend less than you make very quickly resembles a cycle. This is as true for a national economy as it is for an individual. Borrowing money sets a mechanical, predictable series of events into motion.
If you understand the game of Monopoly®, you can pretty well understand how credit cycles work on the level of a whole economy. Early in the game, people have a lot of cash and only a few properties, so it pays to convert your cash into property. As the game progresses and players acquire more and more houses and hotels, more and more cash is needed to pay the rents that are charged when you land on a property that has a lot of them. Some players are forced to sell their property at discounted prices to raise that cash. So early in the game, "property is king" and later in the game, "cash is king." Those who play the game best understand how to hold the right mix of property and cash as the game progresses.
Now, let's imagine how this Monopoly® game would work if we allowed the bank to make loans and take deposits. Players would be able to borrow money to buy property, and, rather than holding their cash idly, they would deposit it at the bank to earn interest, which in turn would provide the bank with more money to lend. Let's also imagine that players in this game could buy and sell properties from each other on credit (i.e., by promising to pay back the money with interest at a later date). If Monopoly® were played this way, it would provide an almost perfect model for the way our economy operates. The amount of debt-financed spending on hotels would quickly grow to multiples of the amount of money in existence. Down the road, the debtors who hold those hotels will become short on the cash they need to pay their rents and service their debt. The bank will also get into trouble as their depositors' rising need for cash will cause them to withdraw it, even as more and more debtors are falling behind on their payments. If nothing is done to intervene, both banks and debtors will go broke and the economy will contract. Over time, as these cycles of expansion and contraction occur repeatedly, the conditions are created for a big, long-term debt crisis.
Lending naturally creates self-reinforcing upward movements that eventually reverse to create self-reinforcing downward movements that must reverse in turn. During the upswings, lending supports spending and investment, which in turn supports incomes and asset prices; increased incomes and asset prices support further borrowing and spending on goods and financial assets. The borrowing essentially lifts spending and incomes above the consistent productivity growth of the economy. Near the peak of the upward cycle, lending is based on the expectation that the above-trend growth will continue indefinitely. But, of course, that can't happen; eventually income will fall below the cost of the loans.
Economies whose growth is significantly supported by debt-financed building of fixed investments, real estate, and infrastructure are particularly susceptible to large cyclical swings because the fast rates of building those long-lived assets are not sustainable. If you need better housing and you build it, the incremental need to build more housing naturally declines. As spending on housing slows down, so does housing's impact on growth. Let's say you have been spending $10 million a year to build an office building (hiring workers, buying steel and concrete, etc.). When the building is finished, the spending will fall to $0 per year, as will the demand for workers and construction materials. From that point forward, growth, income, and the ability to service debt will depend on other demand. This type of cycle — where a strong growth upswing driven by debt-financed real estate, fixed investment, and infrastructure spending is followed by a downswing driven by a debt-challenged slowdown in demand — is very typical of emerging economies because they have so much building to do.
Contributing further to the cyclicality of emerging countries' economies are changes in their competitiveness due to relative changes in their incomes. Typically, they have very cheap labor and bad infrastructure, so they build infrastructure, have an export boom, and experience rising incomes. But the rate of growth due to exports naturally slows as their income levels rise and their wage competitiveness relative to other countries declines. There are many examples of these kinds of cycles (i.e., Japan's experience over the last 70 years).
In "bubbles," the unrealistic expectations and reckless lending results in a critical mass of bad loans. At one stage or another, this becomes apparent to bankers and central bankers and the bubble begins to deflate. One classic warning sign that a bubble is coming is when an increasing amount of money is being borrowed to make debt service payments, which of course compounds the borrowers' indebtedness.
When money and credit growth are curtailed and/or higher lending standards are imposed, the rates of credit growth and spending slow and more debt service problems emerge. At this point, the top of the upward phase of the debt cycle is at hand. Realizing that credit growth is dangerously fast, the central banks tighten monetary policy to contain it, which often accelerates the decline (though it would have happened anyway, just a bit later). In either case, when the costs of debt service become greater than the amount that can be borrowed to finance spending, the upward cycle reverses. Not only does new lending slow down, but the pressure on debtors to make their payments is increased. The clearer it becomes that debtors are struggling, the less new lending there is. The slowdown in spending and investment that results slows down income growth even further, and asset prices decline.
When borrowers cannot meet their debt service obligations to lending institutions, those lending institutions cannot meet their obligations to their own creditors. Policy makers must handle this by dealing with the lending institutions first. The most extreme pressures are typically experienced by the lenders that are the most highly leveraged and that have the most concentrated exposures to failed borrowers. These lenders pose the biggest risks of creating knock-on effects for credit worthy buyers and across the economy. Typically, they are banks, but as credit systems have grown more dynamic, a broader set of lenders has emerged, such as insurance companies, non-bank trusts, broker-dealers, and even special purpose vehicles.
The two main long-term problems that emerge from these kinds of debt cycles are:
1) The losses arising from the expected debt service payments not being made. When promised debt service payments can't be made, that can lead to either smaller periodic payments and/or the writing down of the value of the debt (i.e., agreeing to accept less than was owed.) If you were expecting an annual debt service payment of 4 percent and it comes in at 2 percent or 0 percent, there is that shortfall for each year, whereas if the debt is marked down, that year's loss would be much bigger (e.g., 50 percent).
2) The reduction of lending and the spending it was financing going forward. Even after a debt crisis is resolved, it is unlikely that the entities that borrowed too much can generate the same level of spending in the future that they had before the crisis. That has implications that must be considered.
Can Most Debt Crises Be Managed so There Aren't Big Problems?
Sometimes these cycles are moderate, like bumps in the road, and sometimes they are extreme, ending in crashes. In this study we examine ones that are extreme — i.e., all those in the last 100 years that produced declines in real GDP of more than 3 percent. Based on my examinations of them and the ways the levers available to policy makers work, I believe that it is possible for policy makers to manage them well in almost every case that the debts are denominated in a country's own currency. That is because the flexibility that policy makers have allows them to spread out the harmful consequences in such ways that big debt problems aren't really big problems. Most of the really terrible economic problems that debt crises have caused occurred before policy makers took steps to spread them out. Even the biggest debt crises in history (e.g., the 1930s Great Depression) were gotten past once the right adjustments were made. From my examination of these cases, the biggest risks are not from the debts themselves but from a) the failure of policy makers to do the right things, due to a lack of knowledge and/or lack of authority, and b) the political consequences of making adjustments that hurt some people in the process of helping others. It is from a desire to help reduce these risks that I have written this study.
Having said that, I want to reiterate that 1) when debts are denominated in foreign currencies rather than one's own currency, it is much harder for a country's policy makers to do the sorts of things that spread out the debt problems, and 2) the fact that debt crises can be well-managed does not mean that they are not extremely costly to some people.
The key to handling debt crises well lies in policy makers' knowing how to use their levers well and having the authority that they need to do so, knowing at what rate per year the burdens will have to be spread out, and who will benefit and who will suffer and in what degree, so that the political and other consequences are acceptable.
There are four types of levers that policy makers can pull to bring debt and debt service levels down relative to the income and cash flow levels that are required to service them:
1) Austerity (i.e., spending less)
2) Debt defaults/restructurings
3) The central bank "printing money" and making purchases (or providing guarantees)
4) Transfers of money and credit from those who have more than they need to those who have less(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Big Debt Crises"
Copyright © 2018 Ray Dalio.
Excerpted by permission of Bridgewater Associates, LLP.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: The Archetypal Big Debt Cycle, 9,
How I Think about Credit and Debt, 9,
The Template for the Archetypal Long-Term/Big Debt Cycle, 13,
Our Examination of the Cycle, 13,
The Phases of the Classic Deflationary Debt Cycle, 16,
The Early Part of the Cycle, 16,
The Bubble, 16,
The Top, 21,
The "Depression", 23,
The "Beautiful Deleveraging", 32,
"Pushing on a String", 35,
Inflationary Depressions and Currency Crises, 39,
The Phases of the Classic Inflationary Debt Cycle, 41,
The Early Part of the Cycle, 41,
The Bubble, 42,
The Top and Currency Defense, 45,
The Depression (Often When the Currency Is Let Go), 49,
The Spiral from a More Transitory Inflationary Depression to Hyperinflation, 58,
War Economies, 61,
In Summary, 64,