Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pearl Harbour Economics

A debt that will live in infamy

According to Warren Buffett, the current crisis is an "economic Pearl Harbour". And for taxpayers that's a very scary prospect.

Because the original played out very badly. Public spending went through the roof, and government debt ballooned to unprecedented levels which took us three decades to work off.

Here's the IMF's chart showing exactly what happened to official government debt in three of the main WW2 combatants. It was hugely expensive - especially coming on top of WW1 - and by 1945 the UK had clocked up an eye-watering debt burden in excess of 250% of GDP:

It wasn't until the 70s that the UK's burden returned to pre-WW1 levels, and that was through growth and inflation rather than actual debt repayment.

And now here we go again - Pearl Harbour, big spending, big debt, big problem.

But it's shaping up to be even worse than the original. According to the IMF, if we follow our current course, this time there is no prospect of the debt burden ever coming back down again - or at least not in Tyler's lifetime.

Here's their latest projection with an accelerating accumulation of government debt across the G20 economies for the next 40 years:

Now, trust me -that is a world we really don't want to inhabit. Interest rates pushed up by persistently heavy government borrowing, productive investment crowded out, high taxes, low or non-existent growth, high unemployment and probably high inflation as well.

But you know the really worrying bit? This doomsday machine is not triggered by our current Pearl Harbour at all.

Pearl Harbour we could handle. No, the real driver is the increasing burden of our ageing populations.

According to the IMF, for the UK, the net fiscal cost of our Pearl Harbour will be about 30% of GDP, or around £500 bn (net present value).

That's bad enough, but it pales into insignificance compared to the cost of our ageing population. That comes in at an horrendous 330% of GDP, or around £5 trillion in today's terms. Or £200 grand for every single household.

We have only two serious options.

First, we could shoot everyone over say the age of 65. But since Tyler is fast closing on 65, maybe that's not such a great idea.

So let's settle on the second option - raising the pension age much more than currently planned.

After all, as we've blogged before, when state pensions were first introduced, most people died before they got them. So in today's terms, a pension age of 75 would be markedly more generous.

It may sound tough. But post-Pearl Harbour we are going to have to think the unthinkable.

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