The 1990s in Japan is now known worldwide as a ‘lost decade‘ (‘Ushinawareta Jūnen‘) for what was at the time the world’s second largest economy – and the biggest creditor of the global hyperpower, the United States. A collapsing asset bubble led to a crash in the stock market; the ensuing debts that had been run up during the era of gold leaf sushi turned bad, and the Japanese have been struggling to rid themselves of the shadow of indebtedness which has throttled economic growth in the Land of the Rising Sun ever since.
So what exactly is one to make of this recent graph – produced by Haver Analytics for Morgan Stanley, the global financial services firm headquartered at 1585 Broadway in New York City – comparing debt levels across a range of advanced economies?
As can be seen from the graphical representation, Japan’s debt – a huge percentage of its GDP – is nevertheless dwarfed by that of the United Kingdom: weighing in at just shy of 1,000% of the nation’s gross domestic product, it is literally peerless in the context of the great global debt game; intriguingly, a huge chunk of the UK’s liabilities are not government debts, but obligations owed by the financial sector. At the other end of the spectrum, nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand enjoy relatively less alarming positions, with Australia’s low level of government debt particularly enviable.
After some contemplation, we at Mediolana have reached the following conclusions from this sobering data:
1. A Lost Generation? The idea that the United Kingdom could be facing anything other than – at the very least – a lost decade must now be consigned to the designer recycle bin of history. The absolute level of debt that exists within the economy means that nothing other than economic collapse is possible, though whether it is gradual or sudden is yet to be determined. The fact that the United Kingdom of today does not possess anything like Japan’s scientific clout of the 1990s – nor its world class brands – means that there is no equivalent cushion to keep the economy ticking over, either; a lost generation, rather than a lost decade, may be the country’s fate.
2. Who Pays? The green part of the UK debt bar – constituting around two-thirds of the obligations – are those owed by the City of London and its relevant associates. Ordinarily, this would be a bad scenario – the collapse of banks and financial institutions more generally is hardly pleasant – but within the specific context of the United Kingdom, this state of affairs could prove catastrophic. The reason is that even since the onset of the present financial crisis, the Chancellor of the Exchequer – regardless of political hue – has not hesitated to write out cheque after cheque in an attempt to restore the banking sector to health; if this policy is continued, the United Kingdom could end up following the Japanese example of bailing out zombie institutions to the point of general economic implosion.
3. The Recapitalisation of Capitalism. It is clear that even allowing for the nerve-wracking examples of the UK and Japan, the developed world in general is still far, far too dependent on debt – as opposed to savings – for its day-to-day economic functioning. From Scandinavia to North America, easy borrowing, rather than fiscal discipline, is the norm. Capitalism cannot work sustainably under such conditions: the only result will be debt cycles of ever-increasing velocity. There is much soul-searching to do both in the corridors of power and amongst ordinary citizens.