The last borrower

We spent last Friday ‘cosechando’. That is, we were on our knees going through the vineyard, harvesting grapes. The going rate for such work is 5.7 pesos per ‘gamela’, the plastic bin we dragged along after us, in which we put the grapes. This was the first time we had ever done it.

Experienced, hardy pickers can fill 40 boxes a day, giving them  about 230 pesos for the day, which is about $23. Your editor worked at fast as he could. Still, he was only able to pick at the rate of nine gamelas per day. That gave him an income for the day of 51.3 pesos, or about $5.

The sun beat down. The grapes hid behind leaves and clung to vines, making it hard to cut them off. Our knees found every rock in the field. Still, we were proud to be doing honest work, and happy to earn some extra money.

And now, let us turn back to last week’s subject.

You’ll recall that the credit bubble must continue to expand. Or else, all Hell will break loose. Civilisation probably won’t be able to survive a real credit deflation, Richard Duncan believes. Visions of chaos, depression and war in his head, he advocates policies that give the bubble more air.

We live in a credit-driven economy. Credit must expand, or the economy shrinks. It can’t stand still; because the current level of jobs and incomes depends on additional debt, year after year. Last year, for example, the US  government made $1trn of additional credit available through its quantitative easing (QE) programme. And America’s economy grew just 1.9% – or only about $320bn. Think what would have happened without this credit boost!

But if credit is to expand, someone must borrow. Who?

Not consumers. They don’t have the disposable incomes to support much additional borrowing.

And not corporations. Their earnings are beginning to turn down, too. The days of borrowing money in order to goose up their own stocks (and, not coincidentally, get management bigger bonuses) must be nearing an end.

Who does that leave? Government. Government is the only large entity with the ability – in theory – to borrow an infinite amount of money. Because it doesn’t have to worry about paying it back. It’s the only institution with the legal right to counterfeit its own money, and use this cash to pay its own debts.

What a sweet deal!

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Duncan reckons that the US can, will, and should follow the example given by the Japanese. While the US has debt equal to about 100% of GDP, Japan’s government debt is well over 200% of GDP. By that measure, the US could borrow another $17trn, enough to keep the credit bubble and the economy expanding for many years.

You see, dear reader, we live in a world of wonders. One of them is that we have an economy that now lives, and apparently thrives, on air. Each year, households, government and corporations spend their revenues, and then some. This extra spending would normally come from savings. Instead, it comes out of the air – as credit created by the Fed and the banking system.

Now, imagine that the air were cut off. You can see what a disaster it would be. Everyone would be gasping for cash, for credit, for a last breath.

What’s the solution? Keep the credit flowing.

That is what the Japanese did following their stock and property market crash in 1990. And it’s what they’ve been doing ever since. They were faced with the same challenge – the household sector could no longer be persuaded to borrow, and the corporate sector could no longer afford to.

So the government stepped in as the borrower and big spender of last resort, running up Japanese government debt to the highest in the world.

But wait, with the government borrowing and spending so freely, didn’t prices go up? Didn’t inflation discourage people from lending to the government?

Nope. Prices were stable or actually fell. For two reasons. Because everyone else was paying down debt and reluctant to spend at all. And because wage competition from nearby China was substantially lowering the cost of consumer items.

So, with no threat from consumer price inflation, the government just kept borrowing and spending. This has held the economy together for 24 years. Many economists look at the Japanese example as a success story.

But the final chapter on that story still hasn’t been written. We will take a guess at how it will turn out. Stay tuned.

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