The Post-Crisis Economy’s Long Debt Hangover

CAMBRIDGE – The meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Washington, DC last week concluded on a sour note. Small wonder: Global growth prospects have dimmed amid a variety of risks now emanating from both advanced and developing countries.

The meeting’s participants addressed – yet again – the need for greater policy coordination, more fiscal stimulus, and a variety of structural reforms. And that discussion has become more urgent, given the widespread view that monetary policy may not have much ammunition left, and that competitive devaluations would do more harm than good.

But with the largest economies, nearly eight years after the global financial crisis, burdened by high and rising levels of public and private debts, it is baffling that comprehensive restructuring does not figure prominently among the menu of policy options. Indeed, for the global economy, debt restructuring is the proverbial elephant in the room.

In the early stages of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Kenneth Rogoff and I noted that recovery from severe financial crises are protracted affairs, as it takes time for households and firms to work down the debts accumulated during the boom. At the same time, banks, faced with a surge in nonperforming loans and compromised balance sheets, may be unable or hesitant to engage in new lending. Delays in cleaning up balance sheets are among the factors that impede recovery and make post-crisis recoveries different from typically sharper business-cycle rebounds.