EDINBURGH, Scotland, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- The worst economic news isn't that the economic growth rate in the United States has been revised from 2.4 percent to 1.6 percent, grim as this appears. It is that in terms of debt and trade deficits, the global economy is back to where it was when the Great Recession began.
The Federal Reserve notes that total debt in the United States in the first quarter of this year was 360 percent of gross domestic product, exactly where it was in the second quarter of 2008, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers sent the financial system into a swoon from which it has still not recovered.
This is alarming, because such high and probably unsustainable levels of debt were one of the main reasons why the Great Recession hit. And most economists would agree that another leading reason was the unsustainable level of trade imbalances. Year after year after year of trade surpluses in China, Germany and Japan meant accumulating trade deficits in the United States.
The Great Recession was supposed to fix that and, in a way, it did. China's surplus on the current account of $426 billion in 2008 fell by a stunning 33 percent to a "mere" $284 billion in 2009. That is to say, China's trade surplus in 2008 was bigger than the entire Swedish economy. But in 2009 it shrank to about the size of the economy of Thailand.
Thanks to this sharp decline, the U.S. current account deficit of $706 billion in 2008 (about the size of the entire Dutch economy) shrank by more than 40 percent to $418 billion in 2009 (Sweden's economy again).
It wasn't only China that saw its exports fall. The Middle Eastern countries, thanks to the surge in oil prices, enjoyed a massive surplus of $348 billion in 2008 (about the size of the entire Saudi economy) but the region saw its surplus collapse by a dramatic 90 percent as the oil price slumped to a puny $35 billion in 2009 (about this size of the economy of Lebanon).
This may have been grim tidings for Chinese and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries exporters and American importers but for the U.S. and global economy as a whole it was a wholly welcome development, ending a bad trend. This is what recessions are supposed to do.
Sadly, it didn't last. The Americans are importing again like there is no tomorrow (and if they continue to do so, tomorrow will be very unpleasant when it comes). In June, the U.S. trade deficit was $49.9 billion, its highest level since October 2008 when the Great Recession really kicked in.
And in July, China recorded a trade surplus of $28.7 billion, which was its highest since the low point of the recession in January 2009. China wasn't alone. In the first five months of this year, Germany's trade surplus has soared by an impressive 30 percent compared over the previous depressed year, to more than $70 billion.
In short, we are back to where we started, with those same unsustainable trade imbalances. It is almost as though nothing has changed. Except that something very fundamental has changed over the past two years.
The world has gone nearly $7 trillion into debt in the meantime. Add together the deficit spending and the stimulus packages the world's governments mobilized since October 2008 and the total is $3.2 trillion. Add on top of that the total amount of liquidity creation by the various central banks through the printing of money and Qualitative Easing and lending against toxic assets and there is another $3.6 trillion -- mostly from the Fed and from Chinese banks.
These are huge sums, so large that the debt will be weighing on government and bank balance sheets (and this on taxpayers) for years to come. By the end of next year, it is very likely to that all the Group of Seven economies, except Canada, will have total government debt levels equivalent to their annual GDP.
In fact, the sums are so large that our governments and central banks cannot mount such a massive intervention again. This was the one shot at a rescue, the one great effort to prevent the Great Recession turning into a new Great Depression.
While it worked in the short term, it hasn't really succeeded in changing the world's bad habits. Americans are as indebted as ever and they have resumed their previous importing habits. The Germans and the Chinese are exporting energetically once again while declining to import and holding back on consumption, unconcerned that their behavior will lead inevitably to another crash when the United States cannot afford to finance its deficits.
And when that next crash comes our governments and central banks will be out of ammunition.