A: Basically what happens is that after a period of time, economies go through a long-term debt cycle — a dynamic that is self-reinforcing, in which people finance their spending by borrowing and debts rise relative to incomes and, more accurately, debt-service payments rise relative to incomes. At cycle peaks, assets are bought on leverage at high-enough prices that the cash flows they produce aren’t adequate to service the debt. The incomes aren’t adequate to service the debt. Then begins the reversal process, and that becomes self-reinforcing, too. In the simplest sense, the country reaches the point when it needs a debt restructuring. General Motors is a metaphor for the United States.
Q: As goes GM, so goes the nation?
A: The process of bankruptcy or restructuring is necessary to its viability. One way or another, General Motors has to be restructured so that it is a self-sustaining, economically viable entity that people want to lend to again.
This has happened in Latin America regularly. Emerging countries default, and then restructure. It is an essential process to get them economically healthy.
We will go through a giant debt-restructuring, because we either have to bring debt-service payments down so they are low relative to incomes — the cash flows that are being produced to service them — or we are going to have to raise incomes by printing a lot of money.
It isn’t complicated. It is the same as all bankruptcies, but when it happens pervasively to a country, and the country has a lot of foreign debt denominated in its own currency, it is preferable to print money and devalue.
Q: Isn’t the process of restructuring under way in households and at corporations?
A: They are cutting costs to service the debt. But they haven’t yet done much restructuring. Last year, 2008, was the year of price declines; 2009 and 2010 will be the years of bankruptcies and restructurings. Loans will be written down and assets will be sold. It will be a very difficult time. It is going to surprise a lot of people because many people figure it is bad but still expect, as in all past post-World War II periods, we will come out of it OK. A lot of difficult questions will be asked of policy makers. The government decision-making mechanism is going to be tested, because different people will have different points of view about what should be done.
—Ray Dalio, Chief Investment Officer, Bridgewater Associates in this weekend’s Barrons (full content limited to subscribers)