Global Debt Bomb – Good data, Bad implications

2010-1-29 Forbes The Global Debt Bomb

More debt weighs heavily on GDP, says Carmen Reinhart, a University of Maryland economist. The coauthor, with Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff, of This Time It's Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton, 2009), Reinhart has found that a 90% ratio of government debt to GDP is a tipping point in economic growth. Beyond that, developed economies have growth rates two percentage points lower, on average, than economies that have not yet crossed the line. (The danger point is lower in emerging markets.) "It's not a linear process," she says. "You increase it over and beyond a high threshold, and boom!" The U.S. government-debt-to-GDP ratio is 84%.

We've been through this scenario before. It's especially ugly because we get hit by inflation, too. In the years immediately after World War II inflation surged past 6%, while economic growth flagged and the government-debt-to-GDP level exceeded 90%, note Reinhart and Rogoff. The country worked that ratio down over the next half-century. Now the ratio is shooting up again.

America is a nation of spendthrifts, addicted to easy credit and dependent on the kindness of savers overseas to keep us comfortable. Our retail industry hangs on credit cards and our real estate on 95% financing and the tax rewards for mortgage interest. The personal savings rate has climbed from negative 0.4% in 2006 to a positive 4.5% rate now, but that is still a pathetic figure for a nation whose government is un-saving all that and more with its deficit budget. Politicians on this continent are good at compassion, whether trying to help people stay in their overpriced homes or offering health care to millions of those without it. They are not so adept at nurturing growth.

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