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Erik van Dijk
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Hi! I am Erik L. van Dijk, principal at LMG Emerge. LMG Emerge is an internationally-operating institutional investment consultant with offices in the Netherlands and at Mauritius. Our clients are pension plans and other institutional investors, family offices and HNW individuals. In close... More
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LMG Emerge
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LMG Emerge - New Economies
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Asset Pricing and Risk in Emerging and Frontier Markets
  • Greece, US Debt Ceilings and Kingdom Towers reaching the ceiling of the world: about a New World Order 0 comments
    Aug 4, 2011 4:16 AM

    Introduction

     The US government, in an effort led by president Obama on behalf of the Democrats but with the Republicans being the decisive factor, avoided Greek-like debt default. I know, European observers would like to correct us stating that there was no default in Greece and that the collective efforts of EU governments, ECB and the IMF avoided a default. But that is of course crap. If your debt is so high, that it is reaching twice the level of GDP we can all calculate that a country is bankrupt. With a GDP of 200 percent, even an interest rate of 2 percent would translate into a 4 percent required growth rate of GDP just to ensure that things won't eradicate further. And that 200 percent debt rate wasn't that far away anymore for Greece. So it was an impossible situation that could never be maintained without belt-tightening severe cost-cuttings. And that is why there was but one option for Greece. Go into a real default, which would then make investors look like big losers who would lose face, or change the terms of debt in a kind of 'soft default'. With the bulk of financial institutions in the European Union now being to quite some extent owned by their governments as a result of the Global Financial Crisis we are not really surprised to see government leaders opt for the soft landing scenario so that 'their' banks don't look like bad investors. But let's be fair: that is basically what they were. There was far too much money lend to and invested in the non-performing economies in Southern Europe in general and Greece in particular.


    There is not really a credit crisis, but it is a liquidity crisis: money is elsewhere

     

    But in an earlier Twitter message we also indicated that in the end Greece is not really the issue, and neither is Ireland nor Portugal. They are all relatively small compared to the economies that really matter in the world today. It is just a sign of times and huge nervousness that the Western world moves from one exaggerated crisis to another. At a time when Europe is struggling how to tighten the knots and cover the deficits prince Abdulwaleed of Saudi Arabia announced that he will - together with the Bin Laden (!) Construction Group build the tallest building of the world in Jeddah. The Kingdom Tower will be 1km tall. Higher than the Burj al Kalifa in Dubai. When will the Western world understand that the Changing World implies that when you pay a lot of money for oil, gas and other commodities and for cheaper products from China and India that then sooner or later those countries will be rich whereas you will have to make ends meet?

     

    The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah:

     


    The solution was and is simple. Get those with money to the table and convince them that investments in the Western world are worthwhile since it could buy them a stake in economies that are still more advanced, based on superior human capital and a superior financial infrastructure. The Chinese, Arabs and Russians are ready. When will the Western world be that far?


    The US Debt Ceiling and why its level was - of course - increased

     The clearest example of the changing world and the demise of former global empires and rulers is the debt crisis in the US. For weeks and months it was clear that without any interventions the US would reach the point where it could not continue to pay for all government activities and debt service anymore. The debt ceiling was reached. Democrats basically wanted a solution based on increased taxes, with Republicans as always opting for reduced spending. It was a fascinating theater play with in the end a logical outcome and somewhat obscure plot. Of course - finally - an agreement was reached. Reason: a non-agreement was too expensive to afford. In that case the credit rating of the US would definitely be reduced and that would immediately translate into higher interest rates and even more costs. And not just that: what is a bigger demise of a country that once was responsible for almost 40-50 percent of global GDP and 50 percent of global stock market value than to come out with a press release stating 'Sorry guys, we cannot pay our debts anymore''.


    Analyzing the US Government Debt : 1970-current


    LMG took a closer look at the data since 1970 and you see the result in the table below.

     

    Development of the US Government Debt : 1970 - current


    In the period 1970-current there were 5 Republican presidents and 3 Democrats. During that period GDP (nominal) went up from USD 1024.8 billion to USD 15227.1 billion. A huge increase but let's not forget that it was also a very inflationary period. We could have adjusted the figures for inflation of course, but we decided not to because the debt levels are in nominal values as well. Over the period Government Debt went up from USD 388 billion to USD 14332 billion. If we now calculate the Debt percentage as share of GDP we went from 37.9 percent of GDP in 1970 to 94.1 percent of GDP today. Scary numbers. Of course nothing like Greece - as a percentage - but be aware. The US is now by far the largest debtor nation in the world. One big credit card, financed by saving Chinese, Japanese, Russians and Arabs.


    As you can see our table consists of 4 windows. The first one gives information about the presidency, party etc. The second analyzes the government debt, the third the development of GDP and the fourth links the two together. In the fourth window we also asked ourselves the question: which presidents were capable of reducing the debt percentage during their presidency? Answer: 4 out of 8. Their names: Nixon, Ford and Carter - not coincidentally the first 3 in our analysis period! - and Bill Clinton. Father and Son Bush, Ronald Reagan and current president Obama were the one who saw the Debt to GDP ratio deteriorate rapidly.


    What is clear is that debt, so often associated with Democrats, is not necessarily a Democrat thing. Ronald Reagan, whose presidency is so often seen as one of the better ones with the economy recovering after the poor 1970s albeit at a huge price when it became clear that Supply Side economics based on the so-called Laffer curve didn't really work, was one of the champions of increased net spending. If the net spending is the result of excess government spending on social welfare, jobs, health care, education etc (popular with Democrats) or defense (the latter often popular with Republicans) or simply because tax rates are too low (also a favorite of Republics) is basically a non-issue. When you spend more than you earn as a nation you do exactly what credit-card addicts do. The US did and does get away with it to a large extent, simply because a) the US Dollar is still a reserve currency; b) it is still the most powerful nation in the world militarily and economically with a 25 percent share of global GDP but remember: we started in the 40-50 percent regions. So, in other words: when you try - with just about 300 million people - to rule the world as a leading policeman while at the same time supporting your struggling domestic economy with 'credit card like' debt, it is obvious that it is a bigger burden to do so when you represent 25 percent of the world than when you represent 50 percent of the global cake.


    Evaluation


    LMG believes that it is a dead-end street that will - if we like it or not - lead to a New World Order, one in which the former have nots in the Emerging world will now play a far more important role. We believe that the multipolar equilibrium that will result from it will - in the longer run - be of the best interest to all parties involved, including the US. We do not see them fall back into Splendid Isolation but simply giving up part of that Global Police role will automatically translate into healthier economic fundamentals when combining it with bringing tax levels up to levels similar to what we see in other developed nations.


    We are pretty confident that this will happen and when it does, that not the US but Europe will be the sick man in the developed world. Do not underestimate the vitality and dynamics of the US economy in the longer run. But in the short run, as long as the Western world is not yet ready to adjust to the New World Order, make sure you act careful using this confused interbellum to increase your exposure to Emerging Markets winners.


    Reps or Dems: who are to blame?

    Last but not least: typical US question.....who are to blame? The Republicans or the Democrats? The answer might be surprising and a paradox, but it is stated by the facts: the Republicans! They delivered 5 presidents who ruled the US for 28 years in the period that we analysed. The Democrats delivered 3 presidents who ruled a combined 14 years. The Republican Presidency translated into percentage debt increases of 49.9 percent net (see last column in the table), or an annualized increase of 1.78 percent. The Democrat Presidency translated into a percentage debt increase of 6.3 percent net (see last column in the table), or an annualized increase of a mere 0.23 percent. The problem of the US is not their health care or social security, it is the facilities for the rich and their defense spending.

     

    What about Global Security?

    Are we blind? Don't we see that without that spending the world would be an enormously dangerous place? That is what a lot of rightist politicians and other interested people might ask us. Of course we are not blind, but the fact is that the more you try to superimpose your own ideal system onto a world that clearly wants something else and that does have the big pockets now to go elsewhere - being not so dependent on you anymore - that sooner or later you stimulate and trigger terrorist uprisings in a similar fashion as what has led to the uprisings in the colonial empires of the past. The French, Portuguese, Spaniards, Brits, Dutch....they all know that sooner or later an expansionist system becomes too expensive. And the more you try to maintain it, the more expensive and violent it gets.


    Time to get the rich Emerging Markets nations at the table. They are willing to invest. Sooner or later Kingdom Towers and other toy spending become boring. And it is a fact that the superiority in several areas (human capital, education, financial infrastructure etc) of Western economies is still there. If we allow leading business men or Ministers of Finance and Economics from Emerging Nations in, the likelihood that terrorists will be the ones showing up and taking the lead is actually getting smaller.


    It might in the end be a sign of times that we should now focus on the Bin Laden Construction Groups of the world and not the Osamas!

     

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