Thursday, March 22, 2012

IMF's 'Survey Magazine' Interview: Debt and the New World Order

From the IMF:
Debt Can Reshape Current Economic, Political Order—Coggan
  • In the long term, debt crisis change nature of monetary system
  • Current debt levels are unprecedented in history
  • China, largest creditor nation, will set new economic order
Current debt levels, which have led to a sovereign debt crisis in Europe and turmoil in world markets, threaten to reshape our economic and political world order, says economist Phillip Coggan.

If there is a single word that has defined the economic crisis in Europe and the United States, it is debt, Coggan says. Debt has been all consuming, drowning homeowners and mortgages, leaving cities and counties bankrupt, and forcing countries to make public cuts, even in the face of fierce opposition.
In his latest book, Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order, Coggan, columnist for The Economist magazine, looks back in history at other debt crises in attempt to analyze the current situation.
In an interview with IMF Survey online, Coggan explains that this is not the first time in history unsustainable debt levels meant drastic changes for how the world does business.

IMF Survey online: Can you explain the premise of your book?

Coggan: The thesis of the book is that history is a battle between creditors and debtors, and the battleground is the nature of money. Over time, creditors have insisted on forms of sound money, whether the money is linked to precious metal like gold, or whether currencies are fixed in rates against each other.
Debtors have tended to want their value of money to be flexible. They have wanted more money to be created at times of crisis, or exchange rates to move, float on the markets so that they can devalue away their debts.

What has happened in history is that we have had a series of periods in which debts have built up. There have been crises—the 1930s, the 1970s, and now—and as those crises unfolded, the nature of the monetary system changed, and a new order came into place; that new order tended to be set by the creditor nation.

IMF Survey online: How did the levels of debt that we have accumulated in the past decade compare to other periods of high debt?

Coggan: We have much higher levels of total debt relative to economic output—gross domestic product—than we have before. There have been moments in history when governments have had higher ratios of debt to GDP than they have now. But, we have not had debt right across the economy in the consumer sector, in the corporate sector, and in the banking sector, in the same way that we have had today.

We are talking about most of the developed world having scenes of 300 to 400 percent debt levels of GDP; and of course we saw in Ireland and Iceland scenes of seven to nine times debt levels to GDP. These are pretty much unprecedented in history.

IMF Survey online: There are sure to be implications for such high levels of debt. What will they be?

Coggan: Well, the reason the book is called Paper Promises is debt, like paper money, really, is a paper promise. And I could also throw in the promises governments have made to citizens in the form of benefits, like pensions and healthcare.

Not all these promises can be honored. That is the implication of these very high debt levels. And so economic history going forward is all going to be about a battle to decide who gets the wrong end of the stick.

We will see taxpayers battling public sector workers, we will see the young battling the old, the rich battling the poor, and some countries battling—not in a military sense, but arguing—with other countries about how much debt they should pay off and how much should be forgiven....MORE
HT: Global Macro Monitor