“Over a protracted period of good times, capitalist economies tend to move from a financial structure dominated by hedge finance units to a structure in which there is a large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance. . . . The greater the weight of speculative and Ponzi finance, the smaller the overall margins of safety in the economy and the greater the fragility of the financial structure.”
Hyman Minsky, 1992
In 1920, an Italian immigrant to the U.S. by the name of Charles Ponzi created the scheme that would cause his name to live on in history. He announced an arbitrage business that would buy postal reply coupons in Italy and exchange them for stamps in the U.S., taking advantage of significant price differences due to high postwar inflation. He attracted investors by promising extraordinarily high returns—50 percent within 45 days. But instead of investing the money to buy the coupons and exchange them for stamps, he simply used the money of later investors to pay high returns to earlier investors, extracting huge profits along the way. By the time the fraud collapsed, investors had lost nearly $20 million, the equivalent of about $225 million in 2011 dollars. Such frauds have been known as Ponzi schemes ever since.
The second-biggest Ponzi scheme in recent history—organized by the New York hedge-fund manager Bernard Madoff—led to losses of approximately $20 billion in 2008. The biggest, however, is still ongoing: the Ponzi scheme of the developed economies. 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.
It may seem harsh or exaggerated to liken the current troubles of the developed economies to a Ponzi scheme. I do so deliberately to emphasize the scope and seriousness of the problem. Nearly five years after the financial crisis, the leaders of the developed world are far too complacent. Politicians and central bankers have continued to “kick the can down the road,” pursuing policies designed to postpone the day of reckoning and avoid telling the public the truth: that a sizable part of the debt will not be paid back in an orderly way.
Fortunately, there is still time to act. But leaders from all social sectors—government, business, organized labor, environmental and other stakeholder groups—need to act decisively and quickly in order to secure future economic prosperity, social cohesion, and political stability. It is in the nature of Ponzi schemes to collapse suddenly, without warning. No one knows what event may send the developed world and the global economy as a whole back into crisis.
This paper explores the causes and characteristics of the developed world’s Ponzi scheme and proposes ten steps that every developed economy will have to take to resolve it. All stakeholders will have to make sacrifices. Creditors will have to accept losses. The wealthy will have to pay more taxes. Wage earners will have to work longer and save more for their retirement. Public spending on social welfare will have to be cut, even as spending in new areas of social investment will have to be increased. Government will have to get smaller and more efficient. And because these problems don’t affect the developed economies alone but also global growth, the emerging economies will have to contribute to the solution by consuming more and exporting less.
Who pays and who benefits will be subjects of intense political controversy. How critical tradeoffs are managed will vary from country to country. But rather than address these issues, this publication simply aims to highlight the painful dilemmas that the developed world faces, to define the necessary steps toward a genuine solution, and to create a sense of urgency for rapid action.