FORTUNE -- The Great Depression. Wall Street in 1987. Japan in 1997. Points of economic collapse are generally crystal clear in the rear-view mirror. Professional politicians in Japan have been telling stories for 20 years as to why they can prevent economic stagnation. In the US, the storytelling started in 2007. All the while, stock market and real-estate prices have repeatedly rallied to lower-highs, then collapsed again, to lower-lows.
Despite the many differences between Japan and the US, there is one similarity that continues to matter most in the risk management model my colleagues and I use at Hedgeye, our research firm -- debt as a percentage of GDP. Now that the US can't cut interest rates any lower, the only option left on the table is what the Fed just announced it would start doing -- buying Treasury debt. And that could lead the country to the brink of collapse: According to economists Carmen Reinhart & Ken Rogoff, whose views we share, crossing the 90% debt/GDP threshold is the equivalent of crossing the proverbial Rubicon of economic growth. It's a point from which it's almost impossible to return.
[ From John Sykes - Here’s an even scarier chart showing our total debt to GDP ratio. To quote the author of The crisis explained in one chart: Debt-to-GDP: “This chart compares total debt (or “credit”) in the U.S. to GDP (or Gross Domestic Product) on a percentage basis. Current total credit-market debt stands at more than 340 percent of total GDP… As we can see on this chart, the last time debts got even remotely close to current levels was back in the early 1930s, and that bears a bit of explanation. The debt-to-GDP ratio back then didn’t start to climb until after 1929 (blue arrow), because debts remained relatively fixed in size, while it was the GDP that fell away from under the debts. With the exception of the Great Depression anomaly, our country always held less than 200 percent of our GDP in debt (green circle). In 1985 we violated that barrier and have never looked back.”]
On July 2nd, we cut both our third quarter 2010 and full year 2011 GDP estimates for the US to 1.7%. At the time, the consensus around US economic growth estimates was about 3%. Now we're starting to see both big brokerage analysts and the Federal Reserve gradually cut their GDP estimates, but not by enough. Even our estimate for 2011 is still too high.