The seven countries most vulnerable to a debt crisis (10 graphs)
from Steve Keen
For decades, some of the most important data about market economies was simply unavailable: the level of private debt. You could get government debt data easily, but (with the outstanding exception of the USA—and also Australia) it was hard to come by.
That has been remedied by the Bank of International Settlements, which now publishes a quarterly series on debt—government & private—for over 40 countries. This data lets me identify the seven countries that, on my analysis, are most likely to suffer a debt crisis in the next 1-3 years. They are, in order of likely severity: China, Australia, Sweden, Hong Kong (though it might deserve first billing), Korea, Canada, and Norway.
I’ve detailed the logic behind my argument too many times to count, and I won’t repeat it here (if you want to check it out, try this Forbes post on Krugman, this one on money, this one on the Fed, or this one on our dysfunctional monetary system). The bottom line is that private sector expenditure in an economy can be measured as the sum of GDP plus the change in credit, and crises occur when (a) the ratio of private debt to GDP is large; (b) growing quickly compared to GDP. When the growth of credit falls—as it eventually must, as growing debt servicing exhausts the funds available to finance it, new borrowers baulk at entry costs to house purchases, and numerous euphoric and Ponzi-based debt-financed schemes fail—then the change in credit falls, and can go negative, thus reducing demand rather than adding to it.
This is what caused the Global Financial Crisis, and the simplest way to simply substantiate my argument—which virtually every other economist on the planet will advise you is crazy (except Michael Hudson, Dirk Bezemer and a few others)—is to show you this data for the USA. The crisis began as the rate of growth of credit began to fall, and the Great Recession was dated as starting in 2008 and ending in 2010. As you can see from Figure 1, the sum of GDP plus credit growth peaked in 2008, and fell till 2010—at which point the recovery began.
Figure 1: America’s crisis began when the rate of growth of credit began to fall
The BIS database lets me identify other countries—several of which managed to avoid a serious downturn during the GFC—which fill these two pre-requisites: a high level of private debt to GDP, and a rapid growth of that ratio in the last few years. The American ex-banker turned philanthropist and debt reformer Richard Vague, in his excellent empirical study of crises over the last 150 years, concluded that crises occur when (a) private debt exceeds 1.5 times GDP and (b) the level grows by about 20% (say from 140% to 160%) over a 5 year period.
America fitted those gloves in 2008, as did many other countries—all of which are either still in a crisis (especially in the Eurozone), or are suffering “inexplicably” low growth after an apparent recovery (as is the case in the USA, the UK, and so on). Using the BIS database, I can identify 21 countries that meet Richard’s first criteria, but to “go for broke” on this forecast, I restricted myself to the 16 countries that had a private debt to GDP ratio exceeding 175% of GDP. To simplify my analysis, I then limited the second criteria to countries where the increase in private debt last year exceeded 10% of GDP. That combination gave me my list.
Firstly, here is the private debt to GDP data for that set:
Figure 2: Countries with private debt/GDP > 175% & debt growth in 2015 > 10% of GDP, ranked by debt growth
Here is the rate of growth of debt data.
Clearly China and Hong Kong are the standouts here—and the fact that Hong Kong’s credit growth has been plunging since mid-2014 is why it may deserve top billing. But in all of these countries, credit growth is a very significant component of aggregate demand, and when it slows down, their economies will go into recession.
The next seven charts repeat the information shown in Figure 1 for each of these seven countries.
Timing precisely when these countries will have their recessions is not possible, because it depends on when the private sector’s willingness to borrow from the banks—and the banking sector’s willingness to lend—stops. This can be delayed by government policy—as it was in Australia in 2008, via a strong government stimulus, the restarting of the housing bubble by a government grant to first home buyers, and the boom in investment and exports set off by China’s own stimulus program. But the day when credit growth stops can’t be put off indefinitely. When it arrives, these countries—many of which appeared to avoid the worst of the crisis in 2008—will join the world’s long list of walking wounded economies.