Thursday, September 18, 2014
18

Down with Debt Weight

LONDON – Nearly four years after the start of the global financial crisis, many are wondering why economic recovery is taking so long. Indeed, its sluggishness has confounded even the experts. According to the International Monetary Fund, the world economy should have grown by 4.4% in 2011, and should grow by 4.5% in 2012. In fact, the latest figures from the World Bank indicate that growth reached just 2.7% in 2011, and will slow this year to 2.5% – a figure that may well need to be revised downwards.

There are two possible reasons for the discrepancy between forecast and outcome. Either the damage caused by the financial crisis was more serious than people realized, or the economic medicine prescribed was less efficacious than policymakers believed.

In fact, the gravity of the banking crisis was quickly grasped. Huge stimulus packages were implemented in 2008-9, led by the United States and China, coordinated by Britain, and with the reluctant support of Germany. Interest rates were slashed, insolvent banks were bailed out, the printing presses were turned on, taxes were cut, and public spending was boosted. Some countries devalued their currencies.

As a result, the slide was halted, and the rebound was faster than forecasters expected. But the stimulus measures transformed a banking crisis into a fiscal and sovereign-debt crisis. From 2010 onwards, governments started to raise taxes and cut spending in response to growing fears of sovereign default. At that point, the recovery went into reverse.

As Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff tell it in their masterly book This Time is Different, there is no secure way of short-circuiting a deep banking crisis. The crisis originates with “excessive debt accumulation,” which makes economies “vulnerable to crises of confidence.” Commercial banks have to be bailed out by governments; then governments have to be bailed out by commercial banks. In the end, both have to be bailed out by central banks.

All of this, according to Reinhart and Rogoff, involves a “protracted and pronounced contraction in economic activity.” They reckon that the average length of post-war crises has been 4.4 years – the time it takes for the necessary “de-leveraging” to occur – after which the crisis of confidence is over and economic growth revives.

However, there is something missing in the story. Recovery from the Great Depression took about 10 years, more than twice the post-war average. Reinhart and Rogoff offer a couple of reasons for the difference in recovery rates: the slow policy response to the Great Depression and the gold standard, which meant that individual countries could not export their way out of depression. In other words, fiscal policy and the monetary-policy regime have a decisive influence both on the depth of the collapse and how long before the economy recovers.

It is also significant that big financial collapses occurred again in the 1970’s, after being virtually absent in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the Keynesian system of managed economies and the Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates was in place. The major post-war crises that Reinhart and Rogoff consider run from 1977 to 2001. They occurred because regulation of banks and controls on capital movements were lifted; they were shorter than in the 1930’s because the policy responses were not idiotic.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono emphasized that point earlier this month, boasting to British Prime Minister David Cameron that Indonesia’s successful recovery plan after the 1998 collapse was inspired by John Maynard Keynes. “We must ensure that the people can buy; we must ensure that industries can produce…”

Today, many governments, especially in the eurozone, seem to have run out of policy options. With fiscal austerity all the rage, they have given up ensuring that “people can buy” and “industries can produce.” Central banks have been handed the job of keeping economies afloat, but most of the money that they print remains stuck in the banking system, unable to arrest stagnating consumption and falling investment.

Moreover, the eurozone itself is a mini-gold standard, with heavily indebted members unable to devalue their currencies, because they have no currencies to devalue. So, given that Chinese growth, too, is slowing, the world economy seems destined to crawl along the bottom for some time yet, with unemployment rising in some countries to 20% or more.

With fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies blocked, is there a way out of prolonged recession? John Geanakoplos of Yale University has been arguing for big debt write-offs. Rather than waiting to get rid of debt through bankruptcies, governments should “mandate debt forgiveness.” They could buy bad loans from lenders and forgive part of the principal payable by borrowers, simultaneously reducing lenders’ collateral requirements and borrowers’ debt overhang. In the US, the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) program and the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) were in effect debt-forgiveness schemes aimed at sub-prime mortgage holders, but on too small a scale.

But the principle of debt forgiveness clearly has applications for public debt as well, especially in the eurozone. Those who fear excessive public debt are the banks that hold it. Junk public bonds are no safer for them than junk private bonds. Both lenders and borrowers would be better off from a comprehensive debt cancelation. So would citizens whose livelihoods are being destroyed by governments’ desperate attempts to de-leverage.

Philosophically, the debt-forgiveness approach rests on the belief that creditors share culpability for defaults with debtors, since they made the bad loans in the first place. As long as the borrower has not misled the lender at the time of taking the loan, the lender bears at least some responsibility for the transaction.

In 1918, Keynes urged the cancelation of inter-Allied debts arising from World War I. “We shall never be able to move again, unless we can free our limbs from these paper shackles,” he wrote. And, in 1923, his call became a warning that today’s policymakers would do well to heed: “The absolutists of contract…are the real parents of revolution.”

Read more from our "In Keynes's Footsteps" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedGary Marshall

    By the way, here is a solution to the Greek problem. If anyone can find the flaw, I shall be more than happy to give him or her $50,000. I am just tired of doing this.

    ####

    The costs of borrowing for a nation to fund public expenditures, if it borrows solely from its resident citizens and in the nation's currency, is nil.

    Why? Because if, in adding a financial debt to a community, one adds an equivalent financial asset, the aggregate finances of the community will not in any way be altered. This is simple reasoning confirmed by
    simple arithmetic.

    The community is the source of the government's funds. The government taxes the community to pay for public services provided by the government.

    Cost of public services is $10 million.

    Scenario 1: The government taxes $10 million.

    Community finances: minus $10 million from community bank accounts for government expenditures.
    No community government debt, no community
    government IOU.

    Scenario 2: The government borrows $10 million from solely community lenders at a certain interest rate.

    Community finances: minus $10 million from community bank accounts for government expenditures.
    Community government debt: $10 million;
    Community government bond: $10 million.

    At x years in the future: the asset held by the community (lenders) will be $10 million + y interest. The deferred liability claimed against the community (taxpayers) will be $10 million + y interest.

    The value of all community government debts when combined with all community government IOUs or bonds is zero for the community. It is the same $0 combined worth whether the community pays its taxes immediately or never pays them at all.

    So if a community borrows from its own citizens to fund worthy public expenditures rather than taxes those citizens, it will not alter the aggregate finances of the community or the wealth of the community any
    more than taxation would have. Adding a financial debt and an equivalent financial asset to a community will cause the elimination of both when summed.

    Whatever financial benefit taxation possesses is nullified by the fact that borrowing instead of taxation places no greater financial burden on the community.

    However, the costs of Taxation are immense. By ridding the nation of Taxation and instituting borrowing to fund public expenditures, the nation will shed all those costs of Taxation for the negligible fee of borrowing in the financial markets and the administration of public
    debt.

    Regards,
    Gary Marshall

  2. CommentedGary Marshall

    Hello Robert,

    How about a third option. All that increased government expenditure and borrowing doesn't work. How about that one?

    People to buy and industries to produce is the aim. The means so far have failed. How about tax cuts, for individuals and businesses. Wouldn't that do the trick? Businesses will have more money and incentive with which to invest. Individuals will have more money with which to save, retire debt, invest, and consume.

    GM

  3. CommentedJohn Doe

    It will do no good to cancel debts until the Euro is ended. As long as " the eurozone itself is a mini-gold standard," nothing can be done.

    One has to understand that the present crisis came about because of the deflationary pressures of this "gold standard," which in effect and operation has been no different than when everyone returned to the Gold Standard after WWI.

    End the Euro and the problem will solve itself

  4. CommentedJonathan Lam

    Gamesmith94134: Down with debt weight
    At first, I would doubt that excessive debt accumulation which makes economies “vulnerable to crisis of confidence”; crisis of confidence may show more of its external than internal, perhaps, it is only for those purchase of the bonds. In term of the austerity program to shrink its economies, growth is not. As for eradicate debts, it helps the liquidity and sustainability, but it is nothing to the competitiveness or affordability for the debtor nations. Perhaps, it helps to stability of pricing on the durables but the lack of adjustment internally could hurt more in affordability on the populace to strive especially when unemployment is high like 20%, even the cut on repayment of debts can relieve the budgetary constraints to expand job market.
    Since I learned the cycle of growth that complies investment or debit/credit to the sovereignty accountable, adjustments to growth or debt bound to sustainability, modifies through inflation or deflation to yield affordability, then, competitiveness makes each recession to adjust, depression to modify, reform to correct in order to growth. It sound too conservative as a cycle of business, perhaps, it is just my mindset for my uncomfortableness.
    However, if the economy is not under kind of reform to adjust and the pricing adjustment like deflation, the level of affordability or competitiveness would remain as the hurdle for its populace to jump. Eventually it would suffer high inflation caused by the external elements like oil, and imports; it is just another austerity program by external force, and growth is not within its strength to revive if reform or deflation is not complied.
    I am not sure of the consequence of the “Twist” of the short term to longer term debts after the forgiveness of the debts; since the jump of 20 folds in monetary in the last ten years or the next ten years. I see the 2014 is where the counterforce of the growth if it is not inflationary for the developed nations through their external elements.
    May the Buddha bless you?

  5. CommentedVesa T

    Some thoughts. Firstly, it seems that so called intellectual elite is proposing two solutions for the current debt problems, either through stimulus (more debt) or now through debt-forgiveness. I will now comment only the latter one.

    I have some mortgages left for my house. Who decides whose debt will be forgiven? I’m sure that this debt forgiveness wouldn't help me and others like me; instead there would be some debt forgiveness for the big ones; banks, large investors, countries.

    Further, what would be the lesson for this? Simply, buy assets with too much leverage, and the bigger the better since if you are TBTF, your debts will be forgiven but you can keep the assets.

    In my opinion, if you have overly leveraged and made some bad investments, you ought to be suffered loss and go even bankruptcy. How do we ever learn anything if the lesson is that don't save, instead borrow and gamble.

    I, as a prudent individual, I'm very saddened about these kind of suggestions. I don’t want to be the one whose savings will be used to bail out others reckless behavior.

  6. CommentedJohn Hawkins

    To forgive or not to forgive, that is the question. The answer may be in the Merchant of Venice, a pound of flesh!

    But who`s flesh is the question now, a bankers or a workers?



  7. CommentedAndres Jaime

    Stimulus measures after the crisis just added debt to a problem that began years ago... it was just the straw that broke the camel´s back

  8. CommentedJennifer Ruddock

    Is it possible that the forecasts couldn't predict that dampened "animal spirits," as Keynes would say, would have as much of an effect as they are having on growth? Maybe the forecasts are flawed to begin with. It has almost become "fashionable" to talk about how gloomy things are these days...just take a look at the papers.

  9. CommentedJ. C.

    Sarchis, Lucky me that don´t have no "frustations" on this matters so I can post with your approval...

    We are not just talking about property market and greedy bankers here We are talking about emerging markets and other bondholders of such called "developed world". Why should chinese people pay for US excesses for example???

    Contracts are agreements between two parties based available information and trust.. and what if the borrower "lied" to about his numbers...

    If I buy a car and then I´m fired: 1 I give the car back to the bank 2 I make an effort and keep paying, since I gave my word...

    There is no much to understand in Mr. Skidelsky^s article, at the end it´s all about who will pay for the party... because someone will certainly pay for it. And it´s easier for politicians to justify haircuts to bondholders that to tell people to change their ways (and even more if "everybody does it")... but not allways the easy solution is the best solution or the right solution.

      CommentedA. T.

      M.F.,

      Creditors, be they Chinese paying the Americans or whoever else, are on the hook because they freely decided to loan their money to someone, and charged interest for the privilege. With interest being the compensation for bearing the risk of potential default, they can hardly complain when a debtor actually decides to stop paying. No one forced them to do anything – they just figured that giving out a loan would be a nice way to make a profit.

      Economies function best when they function on contracts, not on moral principles. Contracts are shared and explicit while moral principles are fuzzy and vary from person to person. "One's word" is valuable when you are doing a favour for a friend, but not for a market-mediated debt transaction.

  10. CommentedArthur Doohan

    This para' glosses over the issues of the lenders (banks) gaming property markets to drive prices up, of encouraging abnormal gearing by borrowers and of abandoning any pretense of 'fiduciary care' to borrowers and to the depositors....

  11. CommentedSarchis Dolmanian

    This thing called Internet is such a teriffic tool.
    It bridges distances magnificently and enables us to find out what other people think about current developments.
    Unfortunately it is us, the users, that cannot rise to meet the challenges. Maybe we should try harder to understand what others have to say before venting our own frustrations and even more so when the points we want to raise are raisonable.
    Mr. Skidelsky makes a perfectly valid observation when he says that "creditors share culpability for defaults with debtors, since they made the bad loans in the first place". It makes no difference if the creditor was a 'savvy' investment banker in the City or a nice 'old lady that has her savings in sovereign "safe" european....'. They both made loans that turned sour. Even citizens that find their public pension funds being driven into red had made bad investments: they invested too much trust into incapable politicians and very well paid public officials.
    Nowhere in this article has Mr. Skidelsky mentioned debtors being forgiven of their entire debts or keeping 'the spoils' yet people are acusing him of doing so. Some others speak about moral hasard.
    Yet nobody in his right mind would let someone retain ownership of an unpaid house and moral hazard also appears when lenders who squandered resources are kept afloat using tax money, specially so when those tax money are raised in a different country.
    And yes, we should change our ways. But we'd do a better job of it if we start with a clean plate than with one full of recriminations about who did what. History lessons should be well understood so that we wouldn't need to live them a second time but we shouldn't let the past overcome the future.

  12. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The prescription for increasing moral hazard has one weakness undeniably that we entrench ourselves in a perpetual state of dilemma that frugality and austerity would aggravate that gluttony would have done in any case; the power of global finance which has increased four folds after the crisis would now be as comprehensive as to engulf every aspect of our being. What Paul Myers has written is a new line of thought, one of shared value or sacrifice, but it has seeds of construction that the article has completely missed.
    I am attracted to the movement of funds, both public and private, and I am yet to see a deployment that gives confidence that it is moving to spur demand or create investments in innovation, infrastructure which has long term dividends for the economy. Funds seem to be moving at almost zero interest rate towards creation of the next bubble as stocks near their peak, while buy back arrangements gets the better of their intrinsic value.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  13. CommentedJ. C.

    "creditors share culpability for defaults with debtors..." you mean an old lady that has her savings in sovereign "safe" european debt (or pension funds) shares the culpability of incompetent rulers and bankers??? come on...

  14. CommentedJ. C.

    great idea! lets forgive all the debtors and keep living in a big lie until when?? until the next crisis??... Please...

    so who will lend again once you do that...?? and who will stop borrowers to borrow if they know they will be forgiven the next time...?? you are prescribing a medicine based on the assumtion that people is stupid...

  15. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I honestly find the article scary.
    It completely ignores the main problem.
    We have in front us a terribly overweight patient, so obese from the excessive eating and drinking that he cannot live much longer.
    What is the modern day solution? Let him have stomach reducing surgery, thus he can lose the extra weight dramatically, but then as a result he could continue the same excessive eating and drinking. What will be the result?
    Why do not we think why we got in the debt accumulation in the first place?
    We get the answer in the article itself: “We must ensure that the people can buy; we must ensure that industries can produce…”
    We are under this mass hypnosis that people have to keep buying, the industry has to keep producing...
    But we are producing and consuming over 90% unnecessary, useless, harmful goods, simply in order to make profit for a handful or people, people have to keep buying on credit since they have no means to buy, and most importantly they would not even buy if they would not be tricked into consuming by receiving artificial desires from a very sophisticated, scientific marketing machinery which works better than the "Matrix" in the movie.
    The solution for all our problem lies in tackling the root problem, our present attitude and lifestyle, and not in any other superficial adjustment on economical or financial level.
    The global crisis is providing us with day to day objective data on this, we are not in a crisis or recession, our whole system failed.
    We have to be brave enough to make the changes where they count, and free ourselves from the slavery of excessive consumerism.

  16. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    One way to deleverage is to convert debt to equity. That works on both sides of the fraction.

    So, besides debt cancellation, policy makers should consider debt conversion. Debts should be converted into preference and common shares in such a way as to also attract fresh capital to new enterprises.

    So a central European investment authority, which could issue new bonds, could make investments alongside the conversion of existing bonds into an overall equity investment. German banks could even out their portfolio of Spanish investments from way too many Spanish bonds to a balanced portfolio of bonds and preference and common share investments.

    Northern European countries need to have equity investments in Southern Europe that will return a stream of dividends over time. In the process of negotiating these, efforts can be made to improve overall economic productivity in Southern European and other European economies. Investment tends to flow towards improving productivity.

    This process has the virtue of spending money to get to somewhere better--the missing virtue in austerity economics.

  17. CommentedPiotr Aleksandrowicz

    Sir. Great idea of debt cancellation. But there is one small problem. I am a little conservative and I have never borrowed money (I hate credit), so I live in small and old one bedroom flat. Many of my friends live in modern mortgaged houses. After cancellation nothing will change. I will live in my small flat, they in their homes. Oh, there will be small change. I will lose probably some savings in my bank beacuse it will not collect my money from its debtors.Really great idea.

      CommentedOnanist Misanthrope

      Piotr Aleksandrowicz you have a point. I think the idea (which seems similar to Professor Steve Keen's "debt jubilee") is to reward the savers equally. ie if they are given $100K and MUST pay down debt, you are given $100K to do with as you wish.

  18. CommentedChris Cowsley

    The second reason - ineffective medicine prescribed - can in turn be for two reasons. In this case, the wrong therapists prevailed, and only the secondary "recuperative" medicine was prescribed. The medicine package prescribed by Alpert, Hockett & Roubini included reparative and restorative elements we have yet to deploy.

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