2020 Hindsight: Why the world is not zero-sum

According to a report, Global Waves of Debt, pre-published by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise.

We hear from time to time that “the world is not zero sum.” Rarely is that dictum explained in other than mystical terms (e.g. “supply creates its own demand,” “human wants are insatiable,” etc.). The explanation, however, is simple: debt. Without debt there would be no “economic growth.”
Debt finances growth; growth services debt. And they all lived happily ever after. But some debt takes “riskier forms.” Hyman Minsky wrote about the first of those four debt waves in “The Bubble in the Price of Baseball Cards.” In that paper Minsky addressed the price of baseball cards, the Latin American debt crisis, the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese real estate and equity booms of the ’80s, and “[o]ne of the puzzles of the 1980s… the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump.”
What the rise in Trump’s wealth had in common with the Latin American debt crisis was that they both were predicated on a precarious differential between real interest rates and increases in asset values that could change very suddenly with an increase in the former or a decrease in the latter.
One of Minsky’s best shots was a drive-by — relating the regional increase in real estate prices to “rapid increase in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham.” That Drexel Burnham “success” was, of course, transitory and involved fraud. The inference was that Trump’s financial success, too, was ultimately — at least indirectly — fraudulent.
John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term “bezzle” for the amount by which total wealth is inflated by embezzlement in the period before the embezzlement is discovered:

At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in—or more precisely not in—the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle.

Any large quantity of debt includes an inventory of embezzlement. A certain amount of it will never be paid back. Some was never intended to be repaid. As the debt increases relative to income, the proportion of prospective embezzlement also increases.

Happy New Year!

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