In recent times the notion that the financial sytem can be destabilising seems blindingly obvious. And, yet, for some time macroeconomic models of the economy tended to regard the financial system as benevolent. It served our interests. We were the masters; it was our servant. Now of course we accept that credit cycles can be destabilising. Policymakers, especially central banks, follow keenly the latest private-sector credit data. Here we look back at previous patterns in private-sector debt and crucially at what patterns are currently emerging.
First a bit of theory. The idea of credit cycles is not new. But the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Economists are trying to gain a better understanding of the relationship between flows of credit and the state of the economy and, in particular, why might flows increase as the level of real GDP rises – why might they be endogenous variables in models of the determination of GDP. One possibility is the financial accelerator. This is the idea that as real GDP rises banks perceive lending to be less risky. After all, real incomes will tend to rise and collateral values (against which borrowing can be secured) are likely to be rising too.
Another possibility is growing exuberance as the economy grows. This has gained in popularity as an idea, with economists revisiting the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–96), an American economist. Here success breeds failure as the balance sheets of people and businesses deteriorate as they become increasingly burdened with debt. The balance sheets are said to be congested leading to a point when a deleveraging starts. A balance sheet recession then follows.
Now for the data. Consider first the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The first chart shows debt stocks as a percentage of GDP. It illustrates nicely the phenomenon of financialisation. In essence, this is the increasing importance of MFIs to the economy. At the end of 2014, these two sectors had debt stocks outstanding equivalent to 90 per cent of GDP. In fact, this is down from a peak of 129 per cent in September 2009. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The growth in debt, especially in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, was through financial innovation. In particular, the bundling of assets, such as mortgages, to form financial instruments which could then be purchased by investors helped to provide financial institutions with further funds for lending. This is the process of securitisation. Some argue that this was part of a super-cycle which works alongside the normal credit cycle, albeit over a much lengthier period. It can be argued that these cycles coincided during the 1990s and for much of the 2000s until financial distress hit. The distress was hastened by central banks raising interest rates to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, including oil.
Some refer to 2008 as a Minsky moment. Overstretched balance sheets needed repairing. But, the collective act of repair actually caused financial well-being to worsen as asset prices and aggregate demand fell.
The global response to the events of the financial crisis has been for policy-makers to pay more attention to the aggregate level of credit provision. The Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has responsibility for monitoring and helping to ensure the soundness of the UK financial system.
Undoubtedly, the FPC will have constructed a chart similar to our second chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This chart suggests some caution: the need for casting a ‘Minsky eye’ on lending patterns. Over 2014, the UK household sector undertook net lending (i.e. after deducting repayments) of £30 billion. While nothing like the £100 billion or so in 2007, this does mark something of a step up. Indeed it is almost exactly double the flow in 2013. In the months ahead we will continue to monitor the credit data. You can bet that the FPC will do too!
Comment: Household debt threatens return to spending Herald Scotland, Bill Jamieson (2/3/15)
Household debt rising at fastest rate for 10yrs moneyfacts.co.uk (10/2/15)
Housing starting to rally after home loan approvals rise in January London Evening Standard, Ben Chu (2/3/15)
Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England