“This Chilling Economic Report Is Getting Passed Around By CEOs.”
That’s the headline greeting readers on the site Business Insider Christmas morning. The report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is titled, “Ending the Era of Ponzi Finance: Ten Steps Developed Economies Must Take.”
“The biggest [Ponzi scheme] … is still ongoing: the Ponzi scheme of the developed economies,” the report says near the beginning. “It is not simply that the developed world has borrowed significantly from future wealth to fund today’s consumption, leading to huge burdens for the next generation. It has also reduced the potential for future economic growth, making it more difficult for the next generation to deal with this legacy.”
That’s heavy. And it only gets heavier from there. So we’ve decided to distill it down to the best takeaways from the report and the write-up on Business Insider since BCG requires you to sign up to read it (it’s free, but still we thought some of you might not want to). Think of it as a little dose of salt to go with your Christmas dinner (sometimes salt is good, sometimes it’s bad — and from our reading of the suggestions the report offers, there’s both cases):
1. “The West was not going to find its way to the right economic path with a little tweaking at the edges, the CEO said. What is needed is a wholesale overhaul of the economic system to tackle record levels of public and private debt.” — from Business Insider
2. A summary of the report’s findings:
Mr Stelter and his colleagues do offer some solutions. First, there has to be an acknowledgement that some debts will never be repaid and should be restructured. Holders of the debt, be they countries or companies, should be allowed to default, whatever the short-term pain of such a process.
In social policy, retirement ages will have to increase. People will have to work harder, for longer and should be encouraged to do so by changes in benefit levels that do little – at their present level – to reward work at the margin.
The size of the state should be radically reduced and immigration encouraged. Competition in labour markets through supply-side reforms should be pursued.
Where governments can proactively act – by backing modern infrastructure – they should. High-growth economies are built on modern railways, airports, roads and energy supplies. Allowing potholes to develop in your local roads is a symptom of a wider malaise and cash-rich corporates should be pushed, through tax incentives, to invest their money in developed as well as emerging economies. Energy efficiency – to save money, not the planet – should be promoted.
3. And now some specifics, such as what the report says will need to be done with taxes on the wealthy (emphasis added):
The critical starting point is to accept the fact that many of today’s debts will never be repaid and to embrace debt restructuring and defaults. Current policies, designed to avoid that outcome, only postpone the ultimate resolution of the crisis and will result in even bigger losses down the road. Better to move quickly and act now, despite the likelihood of considerable near-term pain.
All stakeholders will have to contribute to the necessary cleanup. Creditors and holders of financial assets will have to accept losses. Taxpayers will have to accept higher taxes—with a special burden on the wealthy, because unless politicians begin to address the unequal distribution of income and wealth, they will not have the credibility to implement other painful measures needed to get the developed world back on track. As difficult as that will be, especially for those who have been prudent and saved for retirement, the sooner the developed economies bite the bullet, the sooner everyone will be able to repair their personal balance sheets before they retire. Otherwise, we risk experiencing a lost decade—or more—in which the fundamental underlying problems are not resolved and the value of current savings continually erodes.
— from the BCG report
4. However, it also suggest raising the retirement age (backlash against which has been severe in Europe) while also suggesting more “managed” healthcare (emphasis added):
• Raise the retirement age. As unpopular as this measure will be, it is the most important lever to reduce future costs. In an era of shrinking workforces, the math simply doesn’t work. The sooner the public knows what to expect, the sooner it will be able to plan for this scenario. Seen in this light, recent political initiatives toward earlier retirement, as we are currently witnessing in France, are extremely counterproductive.
• Reduce social-insurance payments. Even with a higher retirement age, it will be necessary, at least in some developed countries, to also reduce future payouts. Again, the sooner the public has a clear picture of what the changes will be and when, the sooner it can begin to prepare for them.
• Manage health care systems for greater efficiency. In many countries, especially the U.S., health care is the primary driver of increased government spending. But higher spending on health care is not necessarily a sign of better health outcomes. Although the U.S. spends 17.6 percent of GDP on health care, U.S. life expectancy is between 1.7 and 3 years less than it is in the U.K. (which spends only 9.6 percent of GDP on health care) and in France and Germany (which spend 11.6 percent). The health care systems of the developed countries—and not just the U.S.—offer huge potential for more efficiency with no loss in effectiveness. (See “Health Reform Should Focus on Outcomes, Not Costs,” BCG article, October 2012.)
— from the BCG report
5. But wait, there’s another set of conservative-style suggestions (emphasis added):
• Increase the efficiency of the social-welfare system. The administrative costs of welfare systems is an area ripe for rationalization. One change to consider is replacing traditional means testing, which can very quickly become highly bureaucratic and resource intensive, with a guaranteed minimum income. An idea supported in the past by liberals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith, but also by conservatives such as Friedrich Hayek, Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman, a guaranteed minimum income has the advantage of eliminating most procedures for means testing and freeing up resources traditionally used in the allocation and distribution of money.
• Free up the public-sector workforce. It is also important to reduce the number of public employees as a percentage of the overall population. In a period when labor will become increasingly scarce, it is critical that as many people as possible actually generate GDP (rather than merely consuming and redistributing it). This is not to say that public-service employees do not contribute to the overall welfare of society. But in a world of scarcity, the tradeoffs become more visible. And government inefficiencies are significant, especially in European countries.
• Implement structural reforms. Besides reforming social-welfare and retirement systems, it is important to maximize the economic potential of the economy. Therefore efforts to increase competition, by abolishing rules that block new entrants, and to increase the flexibility of labor markets need to be implemented fast. According to a study by the IMF, the growth potential of economies in Western Europe could be increased by 4.5 percent over five years through the adoption of such measures.
— from the BCG report
6. Here are the rest of the suggestions:
• Develop smart immigration policy
• Invest in education
• Reinvest in the asset base
• Increase raw-material efficiency
• Cooperate on a global basis
• Launch the next Kondratiev wave
— from the BCG report
7. “There needs to be a radical rethink of the way the West organises itself. Many of the ideas of Mr Stelter and his team are the right ones, although the tax burden being what it is in the UK, many would find it hard to stomach the thought of more tax rises that the BCG report recommends. At some point the relationship between taxed income and willingness to innovate turns negative.
“I would suggest the UK is very near that point.”
So there you have it. Having read that, you are now up to speed on the “chilling” report circulating among financial top brass. But if you want to dive more into it, we suggest reading the full report. There are other nuggets in there, and it will also help the numbering (I thought there were only supposed to be 10 suggestions?)make sense.