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terça-feira, 29 de junho de 2010
Divida publica dos paises desenvolvidos - The Economist
The Economist, Jun 24th 2010
Rich countries borrowed from the future. Paying the bill will be difficult, and so will living in a thriftier world
DEBT is as powerful a drug as alcohol and nicotine. In boom times Western consumers used it to enhance their lifestyles, companies borrowed to expand their businesses and investors employed debt to enhance their returns. For as long as the boom lasted, Mr Micawber’s famous injunction appeared to be wrong: when annual expenditure exceeded income, the result was happiness, not misery.
For a long time debt in the rich world has grown faster than incomes. As our special report this week spells out, it is not just government deficits that have swelled. In America private-sector debt alone rose from around 50% of GDP in 1950 to nearly 300% at its recent peak. The origins of the boom go even further back, reflecting huge changes in social attitudes. In the 19th century defaulting borrowers were sent to prison. The generation that lived through the Great Depression learned to scrimp and save. But the wider take-up of credit cards in the 1960s created a “buy now, pay later” society. Default became just a lifestyle choice. The reckless lender, rather than the imprudent debtor, was likely to get the blame.
As consumers leveraged up, so did companies. The average bond rating fell from A in 1981 to BBB- today, just one notch above junk status. Firms that held cash on their balance-sheets were criticised for their timidity, while bankruptcy laws, such as America’s Chapter 11, prevented creditors from foreclosing on companies. That forgiving regime encouraged entrepreneurs (in Silicon Valley a bankruptcy is like a duelling scar in a Prussian officers’ mess) but also allowed too many zombie companies to survive (look at the airlines). And no industry was more addicted to leverage than finance. Banks ran balance-sheets with ever lower levels of equity capital; private equity and hedge funds, which use debt aggressively, churned out billionaires. The road to riches was simple: buy an asset with borrowed money, then sit back and watch its price rise.
All this was encouraged by the authorities. Any time a debt crisis threatened the economy, central banks slashed interest rates. The prospect of such rescues reduced the risk of taking on more debt. Bubbles were created, first in equities, then in housing. It was a monetary ratchet, in which each cycle ended with much higher debt and much lower interest rates. The end-game was reached in 2007-08 when investors realised a lot of this debt would not be repaid. As the credit crunch tightened, central banks had to cut short-term rates to 1% or below.
And now the reckoning
Rich-world countries now face two sets of problems. The most pressing is how to pay off their debts. Many people who have cut back their credit-card spending and firms which have seen their credit lines slashed would be horrified to see how little the rich world’s overall burden has fallen. Much of the debt has merely moved from the private to the public sector as governments have correctly stepped in to support banks and save the economy from falling into depression. And in the future, even more money will have to be raised, because of governments’ lavish promises of pensions and health care for the retiring baby-boom generation.
All this debt will have to be regularly refinanced and rolled over. Crises of confidence are likely, given that the rich world’s trend rate of growth (and thus the ability of debtors to service their loans) looks set to slow. Worse, much private debt is secured against assets; while the value of the debt is fixed, the value of the assets can fall. This can cause a vicious circle as debtors are forced to sell assets, driving prices down.
Piling up more debt does not seem an option. There is little appetite on behalf of borrowers or creditors. All governments face the tricky balance of appeasing the markets without damaging growth: Britain’s new government had a go this week (see article). But living with less debt will present a second set of longer-term challenges.
The road to purgatory
A rich world with less debt would look very different. Banks are already facing demands for higher capital ratios (and thus safer balance-sheets). Western consumers, facing higher taxes and lower benefits, will no longer have the freedom to spend; indeed, they will want to save more as they face long retirements. Sarah Jessica Parker and her Manolo Blahniks will be out; Grandma Walton and her sensible apron will be in. Houses will once again be somewhere to live, not vehicles for speculation. Some business models, notably private equity, will find it tougher to thrive. Life will be harder for entrepreneurs: more than half of all new firms rely on debt finance.
For policymakers, the priorities are clear. First, they need to focus on generating growth. America, with its relatively young, rising population, will find that comparatively easy. Continental Europe, by contrast, runs the risk of ending up like Japan, which has spent two decades struggling to grow in the face of its debt burden and ageing population. The best and the brightest young Europeans may emigrate to countries without such burdens; and if the economy stagnates, those that remain may eventually decide either to default on their debts, or to cut benefits to the elderly. Faced with those dangers, Europe needs to embrace the structural reforms necessary to make its economies as fast-growing and flexible as possible.
Second, policymakers need to begin the long task of rebalancing the world economy. It makes sense for Western countries, like workers in their 50s, to save for retirement rather than run up their credit-card bills. But if one lot of people saves, another must borrow. At the moment the developing world is unwilling to run current-account deficits; even getting China to save less is a huge task (see article). All the same, a shift is in everybody’s long-term interest—and the younger parts of the world should be the borrowers.
Weaning rich countries off their debt addiction will cause withdrawal symptoms. Austerity does not appeal to voters, who may work off their frustrations on politicians and (worse) foreigners. Mr Micawber’s phrase may be turned on its head again. When annual income is forced to exceed annual expenditure, the result may well be misery.