Richard Vague is calling from Los Angeles, where he owns a franchise in the League of Legends Championship Series, where 10 professional teams compete to master the preeminent online video game; last year, the prize payout was $2.3 million and over 30 million people watched online. It’s only one of Vague’s varied interests: In addition to underwriting the groundbreaking gene therapy cancer research of Penn’s Dr. Carl June and remaking Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival into one of the coolest arts events anywhere, Vague has spent the last couple of years challenging economic orthodoxy.
And that’s why I left a message for him. I’d read that Croatia was adopting his economic panacea: The Croatian government had recently persuaded the country’s banks to forgive the debts of its poorest citizens. Just like that, the balance sheets of some 60,000 Croatians were suddenly wiped clean—as part of a radical economic stimulus plan. It’s precisely the course of action Vague controversially prescribes for America in his book, The Next Economic Disaster: Why It’s Coming and How To Avoid It (University of Pennsylvania Press). The proposal was notable because of who Vague is as much as for its radical nature; after all, Vague made his fortune in banking as CEO of First USA Bank and then Jupiter Capital. Now here he was, telling members of his own class that they needed to forgive loans in order to serve the common good.
So, now that a country in the real world is adopting the Vague Postulate, I put the question to him: Was he a prophet? “No, not a prophet,” Vague replied, laughing. “But it does mean that someone else is coming to the same conclusions. Perhaps it’s validation that there are other paths to economic recovery besides the same old tired toolbox of interest rate cuts and quantitative easing.”
Here’s the background: While a banker in the early to mid-aughts, Vague noticed a sudden 85 percent surge in private debt—credit card, mortgage, personal and business loans. His bank’s chief economist patted him on his head and told him not to worry, but Vague—figuring the bill would eventually come due—presciently cashed out. (It would be the first of many run-ins with the purveyors of economic conventional wisdom).
Vague’s argument is that the stimulative effect of forgiving loans, as Croatia has now done for its poorest citizens, would dwarf any type of government spending program.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, he was stunned to hear the debate center on public, and not private, debt. Liberals argued for federal stimulus dollars and conservatives trumpeted budget austerity. On the campaign trail, politicians debated a 3 percent hike in the income tax rate. Vague saw it all as political theater pretending to be economic problem solving. So he hired his own band of heterodox economists—not to mention another team to poke holes in his team’s findings—and he unlocked the key to predicting economic calamity. He found that, throughout history, economic collapse has virtually always occurred when private debt grows by more than 40 percent in a decade when combined with a nation’s private debt to GDP ratio exceeding 150 percent. In other words: When private debt gets to a certain level, it can topple whole economies—as it has here during the Great Depression and Great Recession. It was a fiscal smoking gun.
Vague’s presentations to policymakers and politicians encountered a lot of agreement—until he got to his cure. Widespread debt restructuring. In other words: Forgiving loans, as Croatia has now done for its poorest citizens.
Vague’s argument is that the stimulative effect of such a move would dwarf any type of government spending program. That runs right into the economic article of faith known as “moral hazard”—that such a “bailout” would give rise to a nation of deadbeats.
Vague thinks that reaction is about emotion—as opposed to simple math. “When I say that, mathematically, the best way out of this trap is debt restructuring, people freeze up because they think of not paying your bills as a sin…” he told me when his book came out last year. “Debt is a contract. Contracts are restructured all the time. My entire career in banking, we had a loan-restructuring group.”
When I suggest that Vague’s boardroom buddies must be quaking in their Ferragamo’s, he laughs mischievously. “It’s in the best interest of those who have capital for there to be a belief that not paying a loan back is a sin,” he says.
Vague cautions that the Croatian experiment might be too small to have a big impact. “This is a very tiny program,” he says. “But it has the promise of being a potential new path.”
And for those who consider it a radical stretch, Vague points out we’ve been down this road before. He’s now at work on a short economic history of 1800 to the present (because, hey, why not?), and he’s finding that world history is replete with such economic mulligans. Egypt, Babylon, and Israel all forgave the debts of their respective citizens at one time or another. As recently as 2008, the U.S. government paid banks to forgive homeowner debt, lest the economy crater. Now that jobs are slowly coming back, debt restructuring here will be a much harder sell. But without doing it, we just might continue to have a sputtering recovery. “My contention is that banks could forgive debt if the government let them spread it out over 30 years,” Vague says. “That way, it wouldn’t hit their bottom line all at once.”
There’s something happening in the zeitgeist. French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise bestseller last year, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, points to it, as does Croatia’s debt forgiveness and the increasing concerns surrounding income inequality. For Vague, it comes down to this: People are restless and dissatisfied by pure market solutions, because the market is never as rational as market manipulators would like us to believe. So maybe they’ll turn to data. And when they do, Richard Vague and his controversial solution will be waiting for them, and he’ll say what he always does: “It’s just simple math, folks.”