The government of B.C. just tabled another balanced budget. Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s latest budget projects a surplus of $284 million for 2015-2016. This means B.C.’s $63 billion public debt is slowly being paid down. B.C. may be the only province in Canada to avoid falling into deficit amid plunging oil prices. But there’s something else that the finance minister didn’t tell us. How did this surplus happen exactly?
In order for any government to have a surplus it must take in more money than it spends. Government revenue comes mostly from tax payers. In the past I have blogged about how money in the economy is generally created by people borrowing from private banks. So I believe a major reason the B.C. government is able to balance its books is because consumers in B.C. are going further into debt. We’re essentially shifting the debt burden from the government to the private sector.
For a country’s GDP to grow there needs to be economic expansion, which means people must earn and spend more money. But in order for additional money to exist somebody has to create it first. That’s where you and I come in. Money is created whenever we borrow money from a bank. When we take out a $1,000 loan, for example, $1,000 of bank credit is instantly created which we can cash out and spend, which adds $1,000 into the existing currency supply in the economy. This $1,000 did not exist in the world yesterday, but it does now because we created the money by borrowing it into existence. This increases the country’s nominal economic output. Nice. Most of the world’s money today is created this way. Even though we are now $1,000 in debt, the nation overall is better off because our extra spending just becomes income for other people.
The opposite phenomenon can also happen. If we pay off our $1,000 loan then that money would cease to circulate in the economy and be destroyed forever through debt cancellation. This is deflationary and is what every Central Banker in the world wants to avoid.
The basic concept of debt is simple. It’s when someone borrows money from another person. But once we start looking at different forms of debt such as sovereign debt, treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, demand loans, etc, it can start to sound like a different language to many of us.
Even the money in your wallet right now is just another form of debt. It may not be your debt but if you trace back that money to its initial point of creation you’d discover who’s debt it belongs to.
Year of the Debt
It has come to my attention that there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about the topic of debt on the internet. That’s why I’m making the proclamation that 2015 will be the year of the debt. I dedicate this year to write more about debt and its impact on our lives. I have even created a new section on the blog that’s all about debt.
Most consumers are told that being in debt will hold them back from spending, investing, and living the life they want. But this is not entirely true.
Canadians now have more debt than ever before yet our average household net worth continues to reach record highs. So debt and wealth doesn’t have to be contradictory. In fact, often times debt can increase our financial well-being.Alberta has the highest household debt of any province, but they also have the highest household incomes.
Consumers love to spend money. And around this time of the year big spenders tend to have a whole lot of purse-onality. A report from the newyorkfed.org shows that Americans have a total of $11.7 trillion of household debt. Roughly 74% of that is mortgage debt. That’s aboot $37,000 of total debt for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a recent report from the Equifax credit bureau reveals that Canadians now carry a total of $1.5 trillion of debt. This is 7.4% more than a year ago. And it works out to be roughly $43,200 per capita. But not to worry because if we remove the mortgage portion, then the total amount of debt has only increased 2.7% from 2013. This is actually quite sustainable, because if the inflation rate is around 2.7% and our debt increases by the same amount then the real value of our debt wouldn’t have gone up at all.
It looks like Canadians are 17% more indebted than Americans. Sorry But stable growth of household debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s what’s keeping the Canadian economy competitive. Canadians have to stimulate the economy by consumer borrowing and spending. Low interest rates have encouraged people to do just that. Auto loans showed the most significant increase, at 6.8% year-over-year. This is great news for everyone! Drivers can own new cars with affordable financing. Dealers are making more money from selling more cars. The manufacturing sector is firing on all cylinders. And total economic activity increases across the country. I don’t see any problems with this picture.
A devil’s advocate may suggest that borrowing money to buy expensive cars and speculate in the hot real estate market may not be such a smart idea. But let’s not forget that personal finance is relative. Despite the increase in debt, the delinquency rate — (bills more than 90 days past due) — remains on a downward trend and now stands at just 1.1% of all loans in Canada, Equifax said. In other words people are better off with their debts today than when they had less debt in previous years. That’s because the cost of debt is what determine’s our ability to pay it back. For example I would much rather owe a bank $100 with a 2% interest rate, than owe $80 with a 10% interest rate. Assuming these loans are amortized over many years, the latter loan, despite being a lesser amount, will end up costing me more money.
You know the credit market is tight when the former Chair of the Federal Reserve can’t even refinance his mortgage. If that’s of interest to you, you’re not a loan. Ben Bernanke graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics in 1975 from Harvard University. He later received his Ph.D. in economics at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.) Bernanke once even taught as a professor at Princeton University. He was also the chairman of the Department of Economics there from 1996 to 2002. But perhaps he is most notably known as serving 2 full terms as chairman of the central bank of the United States. He had control over the monetary policy of the world’s largest reserve currency. In other words he was arguably the most powerful and financially influential person on the planet.
So imagine everyone’s surprise when his request to refinance his mortgage was denied. As the Chair of the FOMC his salary was nearly $200,000 a year. However since he no longer has an impressive W-2 (T4 slip in Canada) he does not meet the requirements anymore of someone with a “stable income.” Nevermind he now makes $200,000 each time he presents a speech. Or that he currently has a $1 million book contract. Or that his net worth is over $2 million. All the bank sees is a person who was working over the last 11 years, and is now unemployed. The metrics by which financial institutions decide who to give loans to is flawed to say the least. Anyway the balance on Ben Bernanke’s mortgage back in 2011 was $672,000. It was a 30 year fixed-rate loan at 4.25% interest rate.
Many financial news sites have already discussed this story. However hardly anyone is talking about the most important question. Does it seem strange that a multi millionaire, who has always made a lot of money, still have a $672,000 mortgage at age 61???
Perhaps it shouldn’t.
The reason why Ben Bernanke likes to stay in debt
My investment strategy has always been to follow what the top 1% of the richest are doing with their money. Ben Bernanke’s behaviour of using leverage is perfectly in line with other like minded individuals.
Here’s why it makes sense to take on debt, even when he could pay off his mortgage at any time if he wanted to. It’s because interest rates are at rock bottom. He printed a lot of money during his position of power that insured rates will continue to stay low for years to come. Every dollar that the Fed creates out of thin air becomes a dollar of DEBT that the United States people have to bear. The only reason the economy is still holding itself together is because the cost to service debt (the interest rate) is low. Rates have been so low for so long that people and government alike have become addicted to cheap money. With a record amount of debt the country simply can’t afford the cost of those debts to increase any time soon.
Ben Bernanke bought his house on Capital Hill in 2004. Today his home has appreciated in value by $126,468, and the stock market has gone up by nearly 100%. This means by using the bank’s money to buy a property he was able to free up his own savings to invest in the profitable stock market.
Plus, by flooding the banks with so much money, Ben Bernanke made sure that the U.S. will have positive inflation. Most people don’t like inflation because it eats away at the value of their savings. But this same reason is precisely why it helps those who have debt. Inflation in the U.S. is currently at 2% a year. This means 2% of Ben’s mortgage balance of $672,000 will be paid off automatically by this time next year. That’s $13,400 of real wealth gain, created passively and discreetly thanks to the monetary policy that he purposefully designed, which is an environment of low interest rates with modest inflation. Inflation is created to help the U.S. government pay down its massive $17.8 Trillion national debt. However it benefits personal debts as well.
Printing money also has the effect of propping up the financial markets because: a.) it creates more financial transactions and activities. And b.) the market needs to build in future inflationary pressure. And using leverage in a rising stock market can multiply the returns! Furthermore. borrowing money to invest means the interest that one pays on the loan is tax deductible.
If Ben had paid for his house in cash (used no debt) then he probably couldn’t have bought one nearly as expensive. A smaller, cheaper home would not have appreciated as much as his actual, larger home did. So he would have missed out on part of that $126,468 tax free gain from his appreciating residence. Not to mention all the stock market gains he would have missed out on too.
In other words Ben has brilliantly engineered the financial system to reward those who use leverage and debt to build up their financial assets. His successor to the Fed, Janet Yellen, is most likely going to continue the monetary policy that Ben had put in place. So far Yellen has done nothing but print even more money on top of the balance sheet that Ben left behind.