Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Burden of the sons: debt owed by their fathers

Future generations are most likely to curse their fathers for the burden of national debt bequeathed to them.

Future generations are most likely to curse their fathers for the burden of national debt that is spiralling out of control as governments increase spending, print money and pass on future taxes to the younger generation. Add to this some expected spending cuts on "non-essentials", and the lifestyles of future generations are also set to become somewhat poorer. The spending cuts and taxes are a certainty for most countries, including the GCC, for without them national debt and debt interest would be set on an unsustainable upward path. It is no coincidence that several GCC countries are reviving long-dormant tax plans, first mooted when the Gulf oil producers were running large budget deficits.

For some European countries, particularly Britain, the news is particularly grim and has enormous social implications. The UK Treasury has forecast that public-sector net debt will burst through a ceiling of 40 per cent of national income and peak in about five years' time at more than 57 per cent of national income. This implies that it will take until the early 2030s for the debt burden to return below the 40 per cent ceiling and to pre-crisis levels.

Economists believe it may take 20 years to restore British public finances. By then, those who hold political office will have long gone, and the younger generation will be passed the buck. By some independent estimates, the British government will have to raise taxes or cut spending by £20bn (Dh102.79bn) a year by 2015 to meet its own targets for restoring public finances. To give it a more "human face", the £20bn the government needs to raise each year is the equivalent of about £650 a year for each family in the UK.

However, all governments are now faced with a terrible dilemma - in the current circumstances the cost of doing nothing, should action be required, is larger than the cost of acting. The answer is ballooning national debt burdens. The figures are staggering. Again for Britain, and using the Treasury's own figures, it is estimated that the credit crunch will cost the state the equivalent of 3.5 per cent of GDP, or about £50bn in today's money, in lost tax receipts and extra spending on social security.

So far, most major governments have been able to fund rising public-sector debt relatively cheaply because of high demand for liquid, low-risk government bonds. Who wants to buy corporate bonds given the lack of confidence in non-government securities after some high-profile defaults? As such, demand for government debt is likely to remain firm, helping keep yields relatively low. In its latest world economic outlook, the IMF now sees economic activity contracting by about 1.5 per cent in the US, 2 per cent in the euro zone and 2.5 per cent in Japan. Two of the brightest stars in the economic landscape, China and India, have seen their growth forecasts slashed, to 6.75 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively. The global economy as a whole is perilously near to shrinking, with a mere 0.5 per cent growth predicted - the lowest since the 1940s.

The International Labour Organisation says global unemployment and poverty are set for a "dramatic increase" in the next year. The UN agency adds that, at worst, recorded unemployment could rise by more than 50 million from the 2007 level to hit 230 million, or 7.1 per cent of the world's workers, by the end of this year. The IMF says tax cuts, public spending and borrowing boosts around the world will be useless unless the financial system is revived. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the IMF, eloquently put it: "If there is not a restructuring of the banking system, all the money you can put into monetary and fiscal stimulus will just go into a black hole."

For the Gulf countries, the options seem few and are based on spending as a way out of recession, and on boosting domestic demand. Debt will be domestically generated, with modest tapping of international capital markets. The debt burden will rise in the Gulf, with most oil-price forecasts predicting sluggish recovery until 2011 at best. We could very well see sales of government bonds to private-sector investors as a means of tapping surplus savings, and this could help to deepen the region's capital markets.

Above all, we need to prepare ourselves for the introduction of indirect taxation, followed by a gradual introduction of direct taxation to help governments manage their debt burden. Just like their counterparts in the West, all of this will come as a rude shock to Gulf youngsters when the burden of debt repayment is passed on by their fathers. The notion of taxation will no longer be the stuff of fairy tales for the Gulf's children.

Dr Mohamed A Ramady, a former banker, is a visiting associate professor in the finance and economics department at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.