Beware of ‘financial repression’
Recently, an article by Daniel Amerman caught our attention. Titled Is There A “Back Door” Method For The Government To Pay Down The Federal Debt Using Private Savings?, it details the process known as financial repression, where sovereign debts are slowly paid off by syphoning private savings from an unaware populace.
In this week’s podcast, Chris discusses the mechanics of the process, as well as its probability, with Dan:
To understand financial repression, we have to understand that we’ve been there before. Many nations have gone through periods in the past where they’ve had very high levels of government debt. And there are four traditional ways of dealing with that.
One of them is austerity. Everyone understands that. You raise the tax rates. You lower the government spending. This is a painful choice. It can last for decades. And what do you think the voters think about that?
There is another option and this we can call this the Argentina option. And that’s defaulting on government debts. It’s radical. Everybody understands it. How do the voters feel about it?
There is a third option is rapidly destroying the value of currency. Creating high rates of inflation that very quickly wipe out the true value of a national debt. But that also wipes out the true value of everyone else’s savings and salaries and so forth. It is such an obvious process you can’t really hide it. So how do the voters feel about that?
Those first three – they all work. They’ve all been done before. But they’re all very painful and make the voters very angry.
Now there is a fourth way of doing this. There’s nothing controversial about its existence; it’s not the slightest bit controversial for professional economists or people who have studied economics extensively. It’s financial repression. And it works. It’s what the advanced western nations did after World War II. It was a process that took 25 to 30 years, depending on the country. The West went from an average debt as a percentage of national economy from over 90% to under 30%. So we know it works in practice.
To understand what this fourth alternative is where governments like to go is that there are no political repercussions. It’s actually just as painful for the population as a whole. You’ve got to get the money one way or another. But financial repression is, for most people, just complex enough that the average voter never gets it. And because they don’t get it, they’re paying the penalty, but they don’t realize it. And they don’t see anyone to blame. That’s really good if you want to stay in office.
The key is a concept called negative real interest rates. If the rate of inflation is higher than the interest payments you are taking in, savers are losing purchasing power every year. Remember, this is a zero sum game between the borrower and the saver — with the saver funding the borrower. Every dollar in purchasing power that the savers, which are you and I, are losing every year — that goes to the benefit of the borrower, which in this case is the Federal government.
Understanding Financial Repression
Financial Repression and its devastating impact on retirement investors was the subject of a recent Bloomberg article, and it has also been previously covered by the Economist magazine, which included the following summary:
“… political leaders may have a strong incentive to pursue it (Financial Repression). Rapid growth seems out of the question for many struggling advanced economies, austerity and high inflation are extremely unpopular, and leaders are clearly reluctant to talk about major defaults. It would be very interesting if debt (rather than financial crisis or growing inequality) was the force that led to the return of the more managed economic world of the postwar period.”
The phrase “Financial Repression” was first coined by Shaw and McKinnon in works published in 1973, and it described the dominant financial model used by the world’s advanced economies between 1945 and somewhere between 1970 to 1980 (the specific duration varied by nation). While academic works have continued to be published over the years, the phrase fell into obscurity as financial systems liberalized on a global basis, and former comprehensive sets of national financial controls receded into history.