If there is such a thing as a capital crime in economics, it is Donald Trump’s exorbitant fiscal stimulus at the top of the cycle.
The effects are entirely pernicious. Such deficit spending at this juncture can only provoke a ferocious monetary response, threatening to bring the global expansion to a shuddering and climactic end sooner rather than later, and with particular violence.
Twin reports by the International Monetary Fund sketch a chain reaction of dangerous consequences for world finance.
The policy if, you can call it that, puts the US on an untenable debt trajectory. It smacks of Latin American caudillo populism, a Peronist contagion that threatens to destroy the moral foundations of the Great Republic.
The IMF’s Fiscal Monitor estimates that the US budget deficit will spike to 5.3 per cent of GDP this year and 5.9 per cent in 2019. This is happening at a stage of the economic cycle when swelling tax revenues should be reducing net borrowing to zero.
The deficit will still be 5 per cent in 2023. By then the ratio of public debt will have ballooned to 117 per cent (it was 61 per cent in 2007). Franklin Roosevelt defeated fascism with a total war economy at lower ratios.
The IMF does not take into account the near certainty of a global downturn at some point over the next five years. A deep recession would push the deficit into double digits, and send the debt ratio spiralling towards 140 per cent in short order.
There is no justification for Trump’s stimulus. The output gap has already closed. The fiscal “multiplier” is less than one. The US unemployment rate is approaching a 48-year low. The New York Fed’s “underlying inflation gauge” surged to 3.14 per cent in March, the highest since 2005.
As an aside, the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor noted that the lion’s share of Trump’s tax cuts go to the rich. The poorest two quintiles enjoy crumbs at first, but are ultimately left worse off.
He has betrayed the very descamisados who elected him. It is worth thumbing through the IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report for a glimpse of the gothic horror story that lies ahead of us.
”Term premiums could suddenly decompress, risk premiums could rise, and global financial conditions could tighten sharply. Although no major disruptions were reported during the episode of volatility in early February, market participants should not take too much comfort,” it said.
The report is a forensic study of hair-raising excess. The US stock market has broken with historic valuations and risen to 155 per cent of GDP, up from 95 per cent even in 2011. Margin debt on Wall Street the bellwether of speculation has rocketed to US$550 billion.
The Fund warned of “late-stage credit cycle dynamics” all too like 2007, and behaviour “reminiscent of past episodes of investor excesses? Leveraged loans in the US have doubled to USSl trillion since the pre-Lehman peak. There is a risk that defaults could spin out of control, leading to a complete “shutdown of the market”, with grave economic implications.
The shadiest “Cov-lite” loans made up 75 per cent of new loan issuance last year, with a deteriorating quality of covenant protection. This is a sure sign that debt markets are throwing caution to the wind. ”Embedded leverage” through derivatives has become endemic. US and European bond funds have raised their derivative leverage ratio from 215 per cent to 268 per cent of assets since 2014, with gross exposure reaching ”worrisome” levels. And so it goes on.
There are two elephants in the room. One is well-understood: the world is leveraged to the hilt.
“The combination of excessive public and private debt levels can be dangerous in the event of a downturn because it would prolong the ensuing recession,” said the Fund. It calculates that the global debt ratio has risen by 12 per cent of GDP since the last peak. The Bank for International Settlements thinks it is at least 40 per cent of GDP higher.
The point remains the same. Every region of the global economy has been drawn into the morass by the leakage effects of zero rates and quantitative easing, compounded by unrestricted capital flows.
The world is therefore ever more sensitive to rising borrowing costs. It lacks the fiscal buffers to cope with a shock. Countries may be forced into contractionary “pro-cyclical” policies, the fate of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy in the EMU austerity tragedy. It may soon happen on a global scale.
The IMF says the interest rate burden as a share of tax revenues has doubled over the last 10 years for poorer countries, leaving them acutely vulnerable to “rollover” risks if liquidity dries up.
Private debt ratios in emerging markets have jumped from 60 per cent to 120 per cent in a decade.
The second elephant is global dollar debt. This is less understood. Offshore dollar debt has risen fourfold to US$16t since the early 2000s, or USS30t when equivalent derivatives are included. “The international dollar banking system faces a structural liquidity mismatch,” said the Fund.
The world has a vast “short position” on the dollar. This is harmless in good times but prone to a sudden margin call akin to late 2008 as the Fed raises rates and drains dollar liquidity.
Much of this lending is carried out by European and Japanese banks using short term instruments such as commercial paper and interbank deposits, leaving them “structurally vulnerable to liquidity risks”. French banks have shockingly low dollar liquidity ratios.
The IMF says markets should not be beguiled by the current calm in the currency swap markets, used to hedge this edifice of dollar lending. The so-called “cross-currency basis” can move suddenly. “Swap markets may not be a reliable backstop in periods of stress,” it said.
The Fund warned that banks may find that they cannot roll over short term dollarfunding currently taken for granted. “Banks could then act as an amplifier of market strains. Funding pressure could induce banks to shrink dollar lending to non-US borrowers. Ultimately, there is a risk that banks could default on their dollar obligations,” it said.
So there you have it. While the IMF is coy, the awful truth is that the world is just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2007. The scale is now larger. The authorities have fewer safety buffers, and far less ammunition to fight a depression.
This time China cannot come to the rescue. It is itself the epicentre of risk.
The detonator for the denouement is selfevidently Fed tightening and should it ever happen a surging dollar.
Trump may have thought he was being clever in thinking that fiscal prime pumping this year and next would greatly help his re-election chances.
He may instead have brought forward global forces that he does not begin to understand, and guaranteed a frightening crisis under his own watch.