As pointed out in a recent Financial Times opinion piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Spitznagel (see FT article, concepts also expressed in a recent CNBC interview), the core economic problem that we are facing "is that our economic system is laden with debt." In fact, as pointed out by the authors, the debt load is about triple the amount relative to the GDP levels of the 1980s. Given that Tabel and his colleague have been betting on debt-induced hyperflation becoming the next black swan event (see previous post), and making them even more coin in the process, it might be easy to dismiss this as someone simply talking their book - which is probably somewhat the case. Yet the levels of the deficit spending and debt are unprecedented, and scary. Of course, what is possibly even more shocking is how making these levels know and pointing out their consequences is still looked at as a revelation, or at least finally drawing serious concern. It is simply no longer enough to point out the irony of using debt to solve a problem caused by too much debt. That train has already left the station. The focus is finally shifting to those trying to slow down the train before we all get run over.

As pointed out in the FT article, Taleb and Spitznagel believe the only solution to the debt problem is to immediately convert debt to equity. After all, companies in bankruptcy do this all the time - then again, I am not sure what that says about a country and its credit rating [Note: As a follow-up, see the recent Felix Salmon Reuters blog post about the unsustainability of debt-to-equity conversion]. To bolster their case, the authors given three reasons for their concern and reasoning. First, debt and leverage cause the system to become fragile - i.e., there is less room for error. Second, globalization has caused the system to be more complex, which in turn has caused business parameters to be more volatile. Third, and somewhat novel in perspective, is that debt is "highly treacherous." Loans hide volatility since they do not really vary outside of default. Such risk is hidden even more in highly complex derivative products, such as swaps and CDOs.

So what additional steps can governments do to reverse the trends? Tabel and Spitznagel list two options: deflate debt or inflate assets (once again, the authors are betting on the later). What have governments done? Deficit-based stimulus spending. And they are considering more (see previous post). Besides adding more debt, stimulus spending is likely to over- or undershoot since it is difficult to get just right in size and timing. This of course leaves economies vulnerable to inflation, and in some cases creates hyperinflation. Therefore, unless the levels of consumer and government debt are dealt with, and we consider other approaches for dealing with current problems, we are likely to experience another black swan - even one that is large and can be seen flying right towards us.