I’ve just finished reading the tremendous ‘Paper Promises’, by Philip Coggan, the distinguished finance editor of The Economist and Financial Times. In it, he surveys the concept of money and debt throughout history, and applies the lessons learned to our current ongoing crisis.
Philip’s primary concern is that the West’s current debt load can never be paid fully at current currency valuations. For example, the US has over $150 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities, which is over $500,000 for every person in the country, and that is over and above their own personal debts, such as mortgages, credit cards, and student loans. Other Western countries, such as the embattled quarter of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain are in even worse shape. So, what are the options? In Philip’s analysis, there are three: default, in which a nation declares bankruptcy and disavows its sovereign debt; stagnation, where either (a) repeated government stimulus creates a “zombie economy” or (b) fiscal austerity leads to less debt but no growth; or, third, inflation, where the currency is devalued until the debt is manageable.
The book is highly recommended reading – not merely as a guide to how the world economy ended up in its current state, but also to how we can guide ourselves outward and upward.