- 1, Trigger rapid economic growth.This helps reduce debt levels as a percentage of GDP, making debt levels more manageable. However, economists typically associate high levels of debt with stagnation (e.g. due to large numbers of “zombie” companies—etc)—making rapid growth unlikely. Hence it is unlikely that rapid growth in GDP can be relied upon as a standalone measure to reduce the Debt/GDP ratio.
- 2, Default or restructuring.Not a pretty option. A default on Government debt may financially destroy retirees and other segments of the population. This is generally not a voluntary option on the part of Governments. Governments may nevertheless be forced to restructure or default where a sudden rise in interest rates on debt denominated in foreign currency creates a situation of default.
- 3, Financial Repression.This is a term coined by two Stanford economists in 19731. It is the likeliest choice for most Governments, because the default or restructuring is politically unpalatable. (The severity of the financial repression might be moderated if some GDP growth can be achieved). The remainder of this article will discuss financial repression.
- Artificially low interest rates. This may be achieved by various measures, such as caps on interest rates, or a more modern version, Quantitative Easing (QE), where yield are manipulated downwards. This creates a massive transfer of wealth from savers to borrowers (including Governments). Artificially low interest rates was the primary method of financial repression during the aforementioned post World-War II era.
- Debasing currency. The Romans, for example, over the centuries, put less and less silver and gold into their coins over the centuries. Very rapid increase in broad money supply is the modern version of currency debasement. Government may (or may not!) use this additional money to pay down debt.
- Asset confiscation:
- In 1933, the US confiscated gold in the hands of private citizens3.
- Confiscating bank deposits (e.g. the Government of Cyprus confiscated approximately 48% of uninsured bank deposits in 2013).
- Expropriation of private pension funds to pay down national debt (e.g. Argentina, Hungary). In 2011, the Hungarian Government nationalized the second private pillar of the pension fund system, providing the Government generating additional budgetary revenue equivalent to 9.5% of GDP4.
- Capital controls. In China, there has been multi-decade restrictions on buying foreign assets which continue into the present. This alters the supply/demand relationship for Government debt, allowing the Chinese Government to borrow on far more competitive terms that in a liberalized capital market. Due to low interest rates, people need to put aside more money to reach their desired retirement nest egg. In effect, this is a mechanism for forced savings at a reduced rate of interest, creating a windfall for borrowers, including Government.
- Government control or regulation of financial institutions, (e.g. requiring them to hold a higher percentage of Government bonds), as the UK required during the 2010 recession5. Another example: Basel III requirements demand banks to hold higher levels of sovereign debt to meet solvency ratios6. Once again, this alters the demand/supply relationship for Government bonds, suppressing interest rates.
One of the commonly acknowledged effects of financial repression is to increase the inequality of income distribution. As discussed in the Chinese example, inflating away the national debt puts an enormous burden on vast swaths of the population who hold bonds to save for retirement—while indebted entrepreneurs and corporations benefit from low interest rates, making them substantially wealthier.
This article might be considered as a general introduction on financial repression. Several of my subsequent articles will deal with what I consider to be special cases of financial repression, such as bail-ins and revaluing gold reserves. Financial repression will remain a hot topic over at least the coming decade. You will need to develop strategies to protect against it to conserve your net worth and portfolio.