During his visit to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico, President Donald Trump shocked the bond market when he told Geraldo Rivera of Fox News that he was going to wipe out the island's bond debt. He said on October 3rd:
You know they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street. We're gonna have to wipe that out. That's gonna have to be -- you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don't know if it's Goldman Sachs but whoever it is, you can wave good-bye to that.
How did the president plan to pull this off? Pam Martens and Russ Martens, writing in Wall Street on Parade, note that the U.S. municipal bond market holds $3.8 trillion in debt, and it is not just owned by Wall Street banks. Mom and pop retail investors are exposed to billions of dollars of potential losses through their holdings of Puerto Rican municipal bonds, either directly or in mutual funds. Wiping out Puerto Rico's debt, they warned, could undermine confidence in the municipal bond market, causing bond interest rates to rise, imposing an additional burden on already-struggling states and municipalities across the country.
True, but the president was just pointing out the obvious. As economist Michael Hudson says, "Debts that can't be paid won't be paid." Puerto Rico is bankrupt, its economy destroyed. In fact it is currently in bankruptcy proceedings with its creditors. Which suggests its time for some more out-of-the-box thinking . . . .
Turning Disaster into a Win-Win
In July 2016, a solution to this conundrum was suggested by the notorious Goldman Sachs itself, when mom and pop investors holding the bonds of bankrupt Italian banks were in jeopardy. Imposing losses on retail bondholders had proven to be politically toxic, after one man committed suicide. Some other solution had to be found.
Italy's non-performing loans (NPLs) then stood at 210bn, at a time when the ECB was buying 120bn per year of outstanding Italian government bonds as part of its QE program. The July 2016 Financial Times quoted Goldman's Francesco Garzarelli, who said, "by the time QE is over -- not sooner than end 2017, on our baseline scenario -- around a fifth of Italy's public debt will be sitting on the Bank of Italy's balance sheet."
His solution: rather than buying Italian government bonds in its quantitative easing program, the European Central Bank could simply buy the insolvent banks' NPLs. Bringing the entire net stock of bad loans onto the government's balance sheet, he said, would be equivalent to just nine months' worth of Italian government bond purchases by the ECB.
Puerto Rico's debt is only $73 billion, one third the Italian debt. The Fed has stopped its quantitative easing program, but in its last round (called "QE3"), it was buying $85 billion per month in securities. At that rate, it would have to fire up the digital printing presses for only one additional month to rescue the suffering Puerto Ricans without hurting bondholders at all. It could then just leave the bonds on its books, declaring a moratorium at least until Puerto Rico got back on its feet, and better yet, indefinitely.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs data, 33,000 US jobs were lost in September, the first time the country has had a negative figure since 2010. It could be time for a bit more economic stimulus from the Fed.
Shifting the debt burden of bankrupt institutions onto the books of the central bank is not a new or radical idea. UK Prof. Richard Werner, who invented the term "quantitative easing" when he was advising the Japanese in the 1990s, says there is ample precedent for it. In 2012, he proposed a similar solution to the European banking crisis, citing three successful historical examples.
One was in Britain in 1914, when the British banking sector collapsed after the government declared war on Germany. This was not a good time for a banking crisis, so the Bank of England simply bought the banks' NPLs. "There was no credit crunch," wrote Werner, "and no recession. The problem was solved at zero cost to the tax payer."
For a second example, he cited the Japanese banking crisis of 1945. The banks had totally collapsed, with NPLs that amounted to virtually 100 percent of their assets:
But in 1945 the Bank of Japan had no interest in creating a banking crisis and a credit crunch recession. Instead it wanted to ensure that bank credit would flow again, delivering economic growth. So the Bank of Japan bought the non-performing assets from the banks -- not at market value (close to zero), but significantly above market value.
Werner's third example was the US Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program, in which it bought $1.7 trillion in mortgage-backed securities from the banks. These securities were widely understood to be "toxic" -- Wall Street's own burden of NPLs. Again the move worked: the banks did not collapse, the economy got back on its feet, and the much-feared inflation did not result.
In each of these cases, he wrote: