Debt Will Come Back to Bite Us

11/04/2009 1:19 pm EST

Focus: MARKETS

John Mauldin

Chairman, Mauldin Economics

John Mauldin, editor of Thoughts from the Frontline, sees another recession on the horizon as big government deficits sap credit and commerce.

Some readers wrote this week telling me I am far too worried about a rising government deficit. Right now we are at roughly 42% of debt to GDP. In 1989, at the start of the lost decades, Japan had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 51%. Now it is at 178%, and the world has not come to an end for them. In fact, they are running massive government deficits today and plan to do so for a long time. Why, I am asked, can't we be like Japan? And my answer is that it is possible, but the cost that Japan has paid has been high.

For all intents and purposes, Japan has had no growth for almost two decades. Their nominal GDP is where it was 17 years ago, and the number of employed people is at 20-years-ago levels. Taxes were raised numerous times. Since government deficit spending has no long-term multiplier effect, growth has been nonexistent.

In 1998, the US had a total debt- (government plus private) to-GDP ratio of 260%. Today it is 373%. We have added over $15 trillion in debt, yet total employment today is roughly where it was nine years ago. I am sympathetic with the idea that in the short run the government should step in and the Fed should print (within limits) money to keep us from deflation. But if we continue to run massive deficits, we run the risk of catching Japanese disease—a decade-long (or longer) period of slow growth and high unemployment.

Large government deficits choke off the very investment that we need to create jobs. In the name of doing good, the unintended consequence is to make it more difficult for small businesses to start up and create jobs. And we all know that small business is the engine for job creation.

The way out of the current morass is to create jobs and increase productivity. But if the government runs deficits of $1.5 trillion, that means whatever savings (corporate and consumer) we have will not go into the investments we need, but into government debt.

Commercial and industrial loans at US banks [are] falling precipitously. Banks have (correctly) tightened lending standards, but that means that small and medium-sized businesses, which account for over 85% of all jobs, have been cut off from the life blood of growth. Is it any wonder they are cutting jobs at a prodigious rate? Going back to 1974, bank lending [has] either [grown] or at the most [gone] flat during recessions. But now we are experiencing something new: bank lending is falling.

So where do banks put their cash and reserves they are not lending? At the Fed and in Treasury debt. If you can leverage capital at ten to one (as banks can) and if you get 2% (for longer-term debt) and if you only have costs of, say, 50 basis points (or 0.5%), you can make a return on equity of 15% with no risk.

Bank reserves at the Fed are exploding. And they are likely to continue to do so, since bank balance sheets are still deteriorating, especially at smaller and regional banks exposed to commercial real estate loans. Banks are going to continue to reduce their loan portfolios in order to deal with the massive write-offs they are going to have to make. And my bet is they put those reserves they are not lending into government debt.

Given that the current Congress is hell bent on massively raising taxes in 2011, we are likely to dip back into recession by then, if not before. That will make deficits worse, and unemployment will again start to rise from already high levels. Twenty states have already raised sales taxes, and more are raising other taxes.

It is a vicious spiral.

This is not a prescription for a return to normal growth. We are headed for a New Normal that is less than what the market currently believes. Unless the deficit comes under control at some point, we face the real prospect of catching Japanese Disease and suffering yet another lost decade.

We can move along with positive GDP for some time. I am thinking of the longer term, 1-3 years out. We will become complacent. I will get letters telling me I am too pessimistic. But I firmly believe we will see a double-dip recession within another 18 months (at the most). Stock markets drop on average about 40% in a recession. Adjust your portfolios accordingly.

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