Deposits in Danger: BCG wants haircut for everyone of 11-30% to solve debt-crisis / US-wealth tax of 25%

Wealth and Savings In Danger: Bosten Consulting Group (BCG) wants haircut for everyone of 11-30% to solve debt-crisis.

In the US a one-time wealth tax of 25% of financial assets would be required.

Some extracts of the BCG study: Back to Mesopotamia

We believe that some politicians and central banks - in spite of protestations to the contrary - have been trying to solve the crisis by creating sizable inflation, largely because the alternatives are either not attractive or not feasible:

  • Austerity - essentially saving and paying back - is probably a recipe for a long, deep recession and social unrest
  • Higher growth is unachievable because of unfavorable demographic change and an inherent lack of competitiveness in some countries
  • Debt restructuring is out of reach because the banking sectors are not strong enough to absorb losses
  • Financial repression (holding interest rates below nominal GDP growth for many years) would be difficult to implement in a low-growth and low-inflation environment

Inflation will be the preferred option - in spite of the potential for social unrest and the difficult consequences for middle-class savers should it really take hold. However, boosting inflation has not worked so far because of the pressure to deleverage and because of the low demand for new credit. Moreover the inflation "solution" while becoming more tempting, may come to be seen as having economic and social implications that are too unpalatable. So what might the politicians and central banks do?

Since the publication of Stop Kicking The Can Down The Road, a number of readers have asked us what would happen if governments persisted in playing for time. To what measures might they have to resort? In this paper, we describe what might need to happen if the politicians muddle through for too much longer.

It is likely that wiping out the debt overhang will be at the heart of any solution. Such a course of action would not be new. In ancient Mesopotamia, debt was commonplace; individual debts were recorded on clay tablets. Periodically, upon the ascendancy of a new monarch, debts would be forgiven: in other news, the slate would be wiped clean. The challenge facing today's politicians is how clean to wipe the slates. In considering some of the potential measures likely to be required, the reader may be struck by the essential problem facing politicians: there may be only painful ways out of the crisis.

Restructuring the debt overhang in the euro zone would require financing and would be a daunting task. In order to finance controlled restructuring, politicians could well conclude that it was necessary to tax the existing wealth of the private sector. Many politicians would see taxing financial assets as the fairest way of resolving the problem. Taxing existing financial assets would acknowledge one fact: these investments are not as valuable as their owners think, as the debtors (governments, households, and corporations) will be unable to meet their commitments.

For most countries, a haircut of 11 to 30 percent would be sufficient to cover the costs of an orderly debt restructuring. Only in Greece, Spain, and Portugal would the burden for the private sector be significantly higher; in Ireland, it would be too high because the financial assets of the Irish people are smaller than the required adjustment of debt levels. This underscores the dimension of the Irish real estate and debt bubble.

In the overall context of the future of the euro zone, politicians would need to propose a broader sharing of the burden so that taxpayers in  such countries as Germany, France, and the Netherlands would contribute more than the share required to reduce their own debt load. This would be unpopular, but the banks and insurance companies in these countries would benefit.To ensure a socially acceptable sharing of the burden, politicians would no doubt decide to tax financial assets only above a certain threshold—€100,000, for example. Given that any such tax would be meant as a one-time correction of current debt levels, they would need to balance it by removing wealth taxes and capital-gains taxes. The drastic action of imposing a tax on assets would probably make it easier politically to lower income taxes in order to stimulate further growth.

A Program for the United States

The situation in the U.S. is different from that of the euro zone and, in a way, would be less complicated  to resolve.  The U.S. has all the levers with which to address the crisis and would not need to coordinate 17 countries with divergent interest. But some facts would need to be acknowledged before decisive action could be taken:

  • In spite of massive intervention by the Fed and the US government, growth remains anemic
  • The deleveraging of private households will have to go on for many years
  • The real estate market has not yet stabilized. About 11 million US households suffer from negative equity (their mortgage outstanding is higher than the value of their home). And the supply of homes is still in excess by 1.2 to 3.5 million (depending on the data used to estimate this number).
  • The US government deficit is not sustainable and will need to be brought to acceptable levels, which will slow growth and amplify the problems of the private sector.
  • In spite of a significant weakening in the dollar, the U.S. is still running a trade deficit that cannot be blamed on China alone. It reflects a lack of competitiveness in some key markets and the low proportion of manufacturing in the U.S. economy compared with countries such as Germany and Japan.
  • There is a striking similarity between the US and Japan in the development of stock and real estate prices (See chart below). A correlation does not mean causality, but it is a sobering picture should Ben Bernanke and his team fail to reflate the economy.
  • The interventions of the Fed, notably the programs designed to buy financial assets, have created a monetary overhang that could be the basis for sizable inflation in the future.

Addressing the debt overhang.

The US would also  need to reduce the debt overhang of the government, of consumer loans besides mortgages, and of non-financial corporate sector in the same way as in Europe. As exhibit 2 shows, the total debt overhang in the US equals $11.5 trillion or 77% of GDP. In the somewhat unlikely event of the US following the same path that Europe might pursue, a one-time wealth tax of 25% of financial assets would be required. As in Europe, this would also require the following initiatives.

  • Cleaning up the banking sector by calculating the losses and recapitalizing as needed – even if it means wiping out existing shareholders.
  • Additional taxes on real estate, including an increased capital-gains tax to offset the support for the real-estate market.
  • Creating an incentive for corporations to invest in R&D and new machinery by taxing profits not reinvested.
  • A commitment by the government to restrict its debt level and to prepare for the increasing costs of an aging population by either limiting benefits or raising the retirement age.

Addressing the fundamental issues of the US Economy.

We have argued for a long time that the US economy needs to address some fundamental issues in order to become globally competitive again. In putting an end to muddling through, the government might also embark on a major restructuring of the economy:

  • Reindustrialize and grow the share of the manufacturing sector from the current low of 12% of GDP to 20% of GDP . This might then allow a rebalancing of trade flows.
  • Revisit income distribution.  Most U.S. families cannot make up for their income shortfall with increased credit – and 41 million Americans are officially considered to be below the poverty line.
  • Take action to reduce dependency on imported oil by investing in new technologies and modernizing existing infrastructure.
  • As in Europe, an administration that truly bit the bullet would take a long-term view and invest more in education.

All this is still speculation. But history shows that the US economy, like no other, is capable of adjusting and implementing quite radical changes. And in our view, some of the actions described above might be pursued by the US government if things do not improve soon.

Full BCG report (PDF): Back to Mesopotamia