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Tick-Tock with the Debt Time Bomb

Time gets us all in the end...

I NEED to apologize for not sticking more closely to the script, says Bill Bonner in this excerpt for his Diary of a Rogue Economist from a recent investment conference speech in Bermuda.

I promised to tell you about Calvin Coolidge and his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon.

But when you sit down to compose a never know exactly where it will lead you. You want to react to what has been said so far. And I found Coolidge and Mellon to be rather less important, at least to my point, than I expected.

The short version of the story is that Coolidge cut taxes, still ran a surplus, and paid off a quarter of the national debt.

When the Crash of '29 came, Coolidge was already out of office, but his Treasury secretary, Mellon, had been picked up by Herbert Hoover, and he brought the spirit of the Coolidge administration with him.

So when the stock market crash came in 1929, Mellon knew what to do: Let it burn itself out. He knew that a limit had been reached – and that the crisis was getting rid of bad debts and bad that the economy could get back to work on a more solid foundation.

In the 1920 Depression, the feds stayed out of it and the economy quickly recovered. But in 1929, instead of letting the markets correct mistakes, the feds intervened. The result was a long, drawn-out period that we know as the Great Depression.

And today, the feds are intervening more than ever.

Instinctively, we know that there are always limits. There are things that are true, whether you believe them or not.

Gravity doesn't stop working just because you don't believe in it. You can't make people rich by giving them pieces of paper with green ink on them. And stocks don't go up just because you need more money in your retirement account.

The old-timers say, "Money doesn't grow on trees," and, "Trees don't grow to the sky." The first one seems obvious. But the second one always seems a little lame...because trees do grow up to the sky. Where else are they going to grow?

But the idea is right. There are limits.

We know that stocks aren't infinitely valuable. We know that we won't live forever...and that something always happens to prevent things from getting too far out of whack.

Or to put it another way...Things get out of whack, but then always get back into whack somehow.

There are feedback loops...there are corrections...and there are reckonings. There are alarms that go off...bells that sound the hours to tell us when we're staying up too late...and headaches to tell us when we've had too much to drink.

There are bosses to tell us when we're doing a bad job...and priests to tell us when we are bad people...

And there are husbands and wives – that's what they're for...among other things – to remind us that we are idiots and tell us when we are acting like fools.

There are limits. The biggest of them all is time. And here's the idea...

Credit is offered by the Fed and the banking system. It is used by Wall Street to run up asset prices. But it is paid back by the Main Street economy.

This debt is offered in Dollars, yuan, yen, or Euros. But it is paid in time.

We need to spend the time earning the money to pay the interest and principal on the outstanding debt. And we are running out of time.

It's always time we run out of...

We meant to save for our retirement...We meant to stop eating so much...We meant to spend more time with our parents when they were still alive, or more time with our children when they were still little.

But we didn't have enough time. We ran out of it.

It's always time, not money. The richest person in the world runs out of time, just like we do.

We meant to say something to someone we cared about...but time got away from us.

We would have...we should have...we could have...but each time, we ran out of time.

We humans are capable of great mischief. We make big mistakes sometimes. All you have to do is read a little history and you will find us doing – collectively and individually – such dumb things as to take your breath away.

Take Napoleon's invasion of Russia, for example. His own officers begged him not to do it; it was so reckless and hopeless...

The pyramids absorbed the entire surplus economic output of a whole civilization over perhaps 1,000 years...

With communism – in which people submitted to outrageous central planning and got poorer over 70 years in Russia and 30 years in China – all you had to do was look across the border to Hong Kong...West Germany...Singapore...or Japan...

Or right now, just look over the border from North Korea, and you would see clearly that the Soviet/Communist Chinese experimental system of a centrally planned economy is a failure.

The only things they could produce reliably – and in sufficient quantity – in Russia were vodka, cement, and gasoline. And sometimes, you couldn't tell the difference.

People drank so much vodka that the life expectancy in Russia went down...and continued to go down even after the Soviet Union disappeared.

Looking back at it now, we just open our mouths and wonder: What were they thinking?

In our private lives, errors are corrected more readily and more easily – without too much suffering.

The bad cook opens a restaurant, and he soon goes out of business. The careless electrician forgets to turn off the juice and gets electrocuted.

The man who forgets his wife's birthday...the drunk driver...the musician who is tonnee-deaf...the cross-eyed tennis player...the salesman with a permanent frown...the blind truck driver...the dance instructor with two left feet...

You get the idea.

Every day, in millions of transactions, error is punished. Success, truth, and competence are rewarded. That's how a society – and an economy – is supposed to work.

It's why, generally, things get better, not worse. Because mistakes and incompetence are weeded out.

But in public life – that is, in our collective lives – mistakes are not readily corrected. Instead, they're made the law of the land. They're obligatory. That's the big advantage – and the terrible temptation – of allowing governments to boss us around.

They can do things that we would ourselves – if we had any real choice in the matter. They can do things that we know, instinctively, won't work.

But "dress'd in a little brief authority," as Shakespeare put it, the feds do things that make the gods weep. Things that are stupid, and catastrophic...

They say, "What goes up must come down." But the feds can keep kiting checks for far longer than you thought possible.

So I tried to figure out what the limit really is. I mean, the feds can put out an almost infinite amount of money...or at least, fake money. And once an economy comes to depend on fake money, the feds can keep it supplied almost indefinitely.

So what's the limit? What goes wrong? Where is the brick wall that we know, instinctively, is out there somewhere?

As you will see, of course, it's time.

The world now has $250 trillion worth of debt. That debt depends on two things:

  1. Low interest rates, and
  2. World trade.

Low rates allow debtors to roll over their debt. And trade – sales and profits – allows them to keep up with the interest payments.

And now, both of those things are in danger. Central banks are raising rates – almost all over the world. And interest rates have been going up on their own, with mortgage rates in the US now hitting the 5% mark...and the 10-year Treasury bond yield solidly over 3%.

What we are looking at is one of those great mistakes of history, where fake money from the US created a whole fake worldwide economy – with loans that should never have been made...products that should never have been produced...buildings that should never have been built...and debts that now can't be repaid.

And we can measure time.

Because there's a limit to how much time a person can reasonably spend servicing debt. Traditionally, debts generally measure about 1.5 times output.

In other words, for every day you spend working, you can afford debts equal to a day and a half's wages. And that's why interest rates are so important.

So if you earn $100,000 net of taxes, and you owe $150,000, at a 2% interest rate, that means you will have to spend seven-and-a-half days to keep up with your repayments.

But the debt-to-output ratio in the US today is 3.4-to-1. So the guy who makes $100,000 after tax owes $340,000. And at a 5% interest rate, he has to work two months just to keep up.

He's running out of time.

Time is what gets us all. We run out of it. Everyone in this room is running out of time. And it can't be stretched. It can't be printed. It can't be saved up, stitched up, or revved up.

It waits for nobody and no thing. And all we are left with are regrets.

We wish we had used our time better. We wish we had begun saving for our retirement earlier. We wish we had taken the time to learn Spanish or how to play the piano...

We wish we had bought Amazon 20 years ago when we first called it the "River of No Return"...

And yes, time is money...and pain.

(Yes, most speakers hope to make their audiences cheer in approval. I only hope to make them weep.)

And as time is running out, another monumental disaster is coming.

Not because we're running out of money. The feds can produce all the fake money they want. Instead, we're running out of time.

The BBC reports that global income is about $70 trillion, with median household incomes of about $10,000 – or about $5 an hour. Global debt is the aforementioned $250 trillion.

At a 3% interest rate, that's $7.5 trillion per year interest, or 1.5 trillion hours of work...That's about 300 hours for every working adult...or about two months of the year.

Now, raise the interest rate to 5%...and what happens is obvious...

You run out of time. And you can't cheat time.

Already, working one-sixth of the year to pay interest is hard, but maybe not impossible. But raise the interest rate to 5% and you have to work nearly three months – just to pay the interest. The world doesn't have that much surplus.

For the last 47 years, the feds have been putting out fake money. Debt has increased three to five times faster than income.

Interest rates were largely the result of central financial planning by the Fed...As much as $11 trillion was quoted at negative rates of interest...

And investors really do buy Amazon at a price so high, even if they paid out every penny of earnings in dividends, it would still take shareholders hundreds of years to get even.

But just as we are all running out of time, so is the feds' huge bubble-finance economy. The business expansion is in its 112th month – the longest on record. The stock market is also the longest uncorrected bull market in history.

The clock is ticking.

Thank you.

New York Times best-selling finance author Bill Bonner founded The Agora, a worldwide community for private researchers and publishers, in 1979. Financial analysts within the group exposed and predicted some of the world's biggest shifts since, starting with the fall of the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s, to the collapse of the Dot Com (2000) and then mortgage finance (2008) bubbles, and the election of President Trump (2016). Sharing his personal thoughts and opinions each day from 1999 in the globally successful Daily Reckoning and then his Diary of a Rogue Economist, Bonner now makes his views and ideas available alongside analysis from a small hand-picked team of specialists through Bonner Private Research.

See full archive of Bill Bonner articles

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