What stopped the global financial crisis of 2008 from getting completely out of hand? Governments did. They bailed out, merged, financed, guaranteed, and handed out 'Get Out of Jail Free' cards for anyone who found themselves in trouble. Without government intervention, the financial system would've failed.
But what if the financial system failed because of the government's own dodgy finances? Who would do the bailing out then? Who would save us? The answer is nobody.
The scary part is the world is nearing that point. Governments around the world are in dire financial straits. We're going to find out the hard way what the world looks like when governments struggle to make ends meet. There are already some interesting signs of what's to come.
But we're in Australia. And our government doesn't have much debt. In fact, we are going to run a billion dollar surplus, aren't we? Was that a pig flying past your window? Australians need to keep a few things in mind when it comes to our government debt-to-GDP.
Cyprus got into trouble because its financial sector is enormous relative to its economy. The same thing happened in Iceland and Ireland. In each case, debt to GDP before the government bailout of the financial system wasn't a major problem. But now that the governments are liable to bail out the banks, debt to GDP is really much higher.
The thing is, Australia's financial sector is way too big as well. Bank assets are around 340% of GDP. That's more than Spain or Italy, although estimates vary wildly. If the Australian government had to bail out the banks like in America and Europe, our debt-to-GDP would be through the roof.
For now it's at the same level as Ireland's was before the crisis. But our banks lend out one and a half times our GDP, about the same as Greece. In other words, we're by no means outside the firing line.
Correction: You are by no means outside the firing line.
Governments that are cash strapped turn to anyone with wealth to finance themselves. Typically, they go straight to where you keep your money - the bank. Banks hold vast amounts of sovereign bonds.
One big reason for this is the rules and regulations you have to follow when running a bank. You have to set aside capital (like reserves) when you make loans. But when you make a loan to the government by buying its bond, you don't have to set aside that capital, because loans to government are considered 'risk free'. We're not making this up, it's in any finance textbook.
One reason governments covet high ratings on their debt is that their debt is no longer considered 'risk free' if it receives a low rating. Banks can no longer hold their debt without setting aside precious capital.
Of course, when the first country fails, a domino effect starts. One of the main reasons Cypriot banks failed is because they held so many Greek government bonds. The three largest banks in Cyprus lost about €4 billion on the Greek defaults, about six and a half thousand Australian dollars per person in Cyprus.
Now that the governments in Europe have run the banks dry, causing them to fail in the process, where will the politicians turn to next to get their cash fix? They'll turn to people with savings, like you.
The French tried their millionaires tax. In Cyprus, things took a surprisingly direct route. They're just confiscating deposits. This method of wealth confiscation has a very bad history, but that's another story.
So what might Australian politicians come up with to raid your wealth in the name of preserving the government's accounts?
The first step is always capital controls. Bank holidays, exchange rate manipulation, fees, deposit withdrawal limits, endless paperwork and much more.
Believe it or not, much of this is already taking place in Australia. For example, it's difficult to run your own retirement savings. The government has made it difficult for you to take responsibility over the money you put away during your working life.
The aim here is for you to keep your finances 'in the system'...to use the default option like everyone else. That way, when the government wants to access an enormous pool of funds to sell its government bonds to, the pool is sitting there waiting.
But the most likely source of theft, not just here in Australia, but everywhere, is going to be the government's old favourite - inflation. Inflation is a form of wealth theft because of the effects it has.
When the government prints up money and buys things, prices rise. But the government gets to purchase at the price before it goes up. As the new money ripples through the economy raising prices, those who receive it last are left paying the higher prices. Wealth is transferred from those who get the cash last (you) to people who get the cash first (the government).
There's something important to understand about inflation. Let's say the price of everything would've fallen 20% during the financial crisis if the government didn't rescue everyone and everything.
You would've become 20% wealthier because your cash would buy 20% more. Your assets would still be exactly the same assets, even if their price falls. A house is still a house, whether it's valued at $500,000 or $400,000. The people who would've suffered are borrowers. Their debts wouldn't have shrunk 20% along with everything else.
Now, most economists would say that there was no inflation as a result of the government interventions during the financial crisis. But what if they engineered 20% inflation, bringing the overall change in prices to 0, because the deflation and inflation offset each other? In that case, you would've missed out on a 20% gain in your wealth.
Now it's impossible to know how much deflation there would've been if the government hadn't intervened. Economists call this kind of hypothetical scenario the 'counterfactual'. But the point is that inflation can steal wealth in unnoticeable ways. You'll never know how much wealthier deflation would've made you.
The easiest way to opt out of all this is to think and deal in real values. Never mind prices, cash and interest rates. These are now tools of the government to make their finances appear reasonable. Instead, think in terms of something you know the real value of because you use it.
Petrol might be a good example. How has your family's financial status performed adjusted for the rise in petrol prices? How are your retirement investments performing in terms of how many litres of petrol you could buy? Are you wealthier or poorer?
For this month's issue of the Money for Life Letter we've investigated a rather odd way of investing in tangible assets you can instantly know the value of, regardless of their price. Ironically, the asset has outperformed the stock market many times over these last few years.
But, best of all, it's difficult for the government to get their hands on this way of investing your wealth. The issue is due out tomorrow. In the meantime, you could find out about another way you might end up hundreds of thousands of dollars better off here.
The Daily Reckoning Weekend Edition
From the Archives...
Gold: The Worst Investment of 2013?
22-03-13 - Bill Bonner
As the Bank Run Hits Cyprus, Dr Cowie Hits Hong Kong
21-03-13 - Nick Hubble
The Mining Shuffle
20-03-13 - Nick Hubble
BHP The Old Warrior
19-03-13 - Dan Denning
Drama in Europe's Economy: Savers 'Suffer for Cyprus'
18-03-13 - Dan Denning
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About the Author
Nick Hubble is a feature Editor of The Daily Reckoning Australia. (You can subscribe to the Daily Reckoning for free here.) Nick has spent the last three years discovering lots of new, exciting and surprisingly simple ways to generate money for retirement. He’s put all these ideas into his investment publication The Money for Life Letter. If you're already a subscriber to these publications, or want to follow Nick's financial world view more closely, then we recommend you join him on Google+. It's where he shares investment research, commentary and ideas that he can't always fit into his regular Daily Reckoning emails.