In our Deep Water Waves publication, we identified several powerful, connected and long-duration factors that will have a significant impact on investment returns over the next decades. One of these is the Debt Wave, driven primarily by a combination of economic, geopolitical and demographic pressures. We observe that the Sovereign Debt Wave is at a historic peak in terms of the US dollar value of the debt issued and appears set to continue growing. This was sustainable with low inflation and plentiful liquidity. These factors have both reversed, leading to a heightened urgency to raise capital. As a result, the traditional view on fiscal responsibility seems to have moved from the mainstream of political and economic policy debate to the fringes. Given several secular trends in place, this “wave” is apt to grow in depth and breadth. And that puts this debate at the center of policy decisions for a generation. This process drives an increasingly structural polarization between those countries that can easily continue to issue debt and refinance and those that cannot. Our paper on the subject can be accessed here.
- Even before COVID-19, the debt-to-gross-domestic-product (GDP) ratio was growing around the world.1 In the countries that powered global economic growth in the last generation (the United States, Europe and since 2009, China) debt is set to keep growing, as aging demographics raise the cost of pensions and health care, and working-age populations shrink. For lower-income economies with relatively fragile sovereign financials, continued access to affordable credit is an existential requirement.
- Many of the traditional mechanisms used to escape debt (economic growth through global trade) can no longer be taken for granted, due to the commingling of geopolitics and economics. In the long term, this is a challenge for China and the emerging markets. The policy of “friendshoring” and the drive to diversify supply chains eliminates some of the most powerful catalysts helping these countries climb the knowledge ladder. This trajectory points to a widening polarization between developed countries and the rest.
- In these circumstances, developing economies are extremely exposed. The International Institute of Finance (IIF) calculates that the combined debt of the 30 large and developing countries has risen to US$98 trillion from US$75 trillion in 2019,2 pre-pandemic. Part of this surge is due to the collapse of their currencies against the US dollar, but the structural problem remains. Policy decisions made in the past have put them in financial quicksand, sinking deeper with every attempt to get out.
- We examine the widely held theory of China’s predatory lending and provide two country case studies. The conclusion is that there is no evidence of a master plan using sovereign debt. History suggests that many borrowing governments have consciously chosen less-economically sensible credit to avoid scrutiny and conditionality. Observers find grounds for discomfort, but not for panic.
- Finally, the chances of inserting a particular country into the crucial international supply chains are greatly improved if it can play the geoeconomic Great Game.3 A country needs a sizable population to attract foreign direct investments (FDI), a commercial and industrial ecosystem that is used to operating in international markets, as well as unexploited mineral wealth—especially if those minerals are relevant for the green transition or for electric vehicles (EVs) or defense. Mexico and Indonesia clearly have a window of opportunity, which implies they could take advantage of the current geopolitical climate to leverage financing and/or favorable market access.
We believe we need a massive reallocation of resources, which implies a need for positive real interest rates because there will be so much issuance from both governments and the private sector that there will be competition for investors’ cash. There is an opportunity for private debt to arbitrage, but default risk is probably higher overall. The traditional sources of long-term savings might be squeezed or even reduced over time, as the working populations in mostly high-income countries shrink and their costs increase. There will be increasing government intervention in most countries—not always efficiently or even usefully. In our opinion, this scenario makes every investment decision loaded with implicit factor weights that are not currently mainstream.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
All investments involve risks, including possible loss of principal.
Fixed income securities involve interest rate, credit, inflation and reinvestment risks, and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls.
To the extent a strategy invests in companies in a specific country or region, it may experience greater volatility than a strategy that is more broadly diversified geographically.
International investments are subject to special risks, including currency fluctuations and social, economic and political uncertainties, which could increase volatility. These risks are magnified in emerging markets.
The government’s participation in the economy is still high and, therefore, investments in China will be subject to larger regulatory risk levels compared to many other countries.
Investing in the natural resources sector involves special risks, including increased susceptibility to adverse economic and regulatory developments affecting the sector—prices of such securities can be volatile, particularly over the short term.
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1. Source: International Institute of Finance (IIF) Global Debt Database, as of December 1, 2022.
3. Refers to the 19th Century struggle between Great Britain and Russia to gain control of Central Asia. It was referred to as The Great Game and ranged from Constantinople through Persia, Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.