Economist Henry Kaufman today warned of mounting international and corporate debt and said the world economy continues to be in "considerable economic and financial risk."
While reiterating earlier forecasts of falling interest rates, Kaufman emphasized that real interest rates remain too high to bring about a major economic recovery, particularly in light of staggering corporate debt and mounting government deficits.
Furthermore, Kaufman said that, with unemployment at a 40-year high and an environment in which the U.S. economy "has not progressed" in four years, there are no historic parallels to cite in deciding how to pull the economy out of the current disinflation period.
Kaufman, managing director of Salomon Brothers Inc., made the remarks in an address to Japanese government and business officials in Tokyo today. In his prepared text, released this morning, Kaufman -- whose forecast of sharp cuts in borrowing rates helped launch the ongoing stock boom last August -- repeatedly issued dire warnings about the fragility of the current world economic order.
According to his estimates, credit market debt in the United States has risen from $1.8 trillion in 1971 to $4.4 trillion in 1981. Debt in the non-communist world has risen simultaneously from $3.6 trillion to $14.3 trillion. "The result is a riskier world for us all," he said.
"The debt burden today is awesome, and its constrictiveness is permeating our economic life," Kaufman said, noting that much of the debt accumulated over the last decade has fueled inflation rather than economic growth.
In addition, Kaufman said "disturbing loose ends to the world's financial fabric could entail serious consequences," citing as examples the problems faced by large banks in Mexico and the Vatican's bank.
Kaufman also said that the corporate balance sheets pose just as much of a "precarious predicament" as those of nations and banks. The strains of the high cost of debt and poor profitability can be alleviated only by strong economic recovery and an accompanying revival of credit markets, he said.
But Kaufman said that a strong, well-financed recovery is not in the offing and predicted instead that likely economic growth of only several percentage points "will be insufficient to lift the constraints on basic industry.
"Indeed, their positions may become more vulnerable," he said. "No recovery in business capital outlays should be expected soon and, in fact, even further contraction in this sector is likely during the first half of next year." Kaufman said "a sputtering economy will produce lower rates."
Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that there is little precedent for the current disinflation climate, Kaufman warned. "The path of disinflation, necessary as a precursor to sustainable growth, is untried and has perils whose dimensions are unknown," he said.
Kaufman proposed the establishment of a stand-by international credit organization in the International Monetary Fund to deal with "special emergencies." That organization should have access to at least $50 billion, he said. He also proposed an expansion of the IMF, perhaps by raising quotas -- funding from member nations -- by as much as 50 percent.