Category: Economics 10e: Ch 19

Ten years ago, the financial crisis deepened and stock markets around the world plummeted. The trigger was the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest US investment bank. It filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. This was not the first bank failure around that time. In 2007, Northern Rock in the UK (Aug/Sept 2007) had collapsed and so too had Bear Stearns in the USA (Mar 2008).

Initially there was some hope that the US government would bail out Lehmans. But when Congress rejected the Bank Bailout Bill on September 29, the US stock market fell sharply, with the Dow Jones falling by 7% the same day. This was mirrored in other countries: the FTSE 100 fell by 15%.

At the core of the problem was excessive lending by banks with too little capital. What is more, much of the capital was of poor quality. Many of the banks held securitised assets containing ‘sub-prime mortgage debt’. The assets, known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), were bundles of other assets, including mortgages. US homeowners had been lent money based on the assumption that their houses would increase in value. When house prices fell, homeowners were left in a position of negative equity – owing more than the value of their house. With many people forced to sell their houses, prices fell further. Mortgage debt held by banks could not be redeemed: it was ‘sub-prime’ or ‘toxic debt’.

Response to the crisis

The outcome of the financial crash was a series of bailouts of banks around the world. Banks cut back on lending and the world headed for a major recession.

Initially, the response of governments and central banks was to stimulate their economies through fiscal and monetary policies. Government spending was increased; taxes were cut; interest rates were cut to near zero. By 2010, the global economy seemed to be pulling out of recession.

However, the expansionary fiscal policy, plus the bailing out of banks, had led to large public-sector deficits and growing public-sector debt. Although a return of economic growth would help to increase revenues, many governments felt that the size of the public-sector deficits was too large to rely on economic growth.

As a result, many governments embarked on a period of austerity – tight fiscal policy, involving cutting government expenditure and raising taxes. Although this might slowly bring the deficit down, it slowed down growth and caused major hardships for people who relied on benefits and who saw their benefits cut. It also led to a cut in public services.

Expanding the economy was left to central banks, which kept monetary policy very loose. Rock-bottom interest rates were then accompanied by quantitative easing. This was the expansion of the money supply by central-bank purchases of assets, largely government bonds. A massive amount of extra liquidity was pumped into economies. But with confidence still low, much of this ended up in other asset purchases, such as stocks and shares, rather than being spent on goods and services. The effect was a limited stimulation of the economy, but a surge in stock market prices.

With wages rising slowly, or even falling in real terms, and with credit easy to obtain at record low interest rates, so consumer debt increased.

Lessons

So have the lessons of the financial crash been learned? Would we ever have a repeat of 2007–9?

On the positive side, financial regulators are more aware of the dangers of under capitalisation. Banks’ capital requirements have increased, overseen by the Bank for International Settlements. Under its Basel II and then Basel III regulations (see link below), banks are required to hold much more capital (‘capital buffers’). Some countries’ regulators (normally the central bank), depending on their specific conditions, exceed these the Basel requirements.

But substantial risks remain and many of the lessons have not been learnt from the financial crisis and its aftermath.

There has been a large expansion of household debt, fuelled by low interest rates. This constrains central banks’ ability to raise interest rates without causing financial distress to people with large debts. It also makes it more likely that there will be a Minsky moment, when a trigger, such as a trade war (e.g. between the USA and China), causes banks to curb lending and consumers to rein in debt. This can then lead to a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Total debt of the private and public sectors now amounts to $164 trillion, or 225% of world GDP – 12 percentage points higher than in 2009.

China poses a considerable risk, as well as being a driver of global growth. China has very high levels of consumer debt and many of its banks are undercapitalised. It has already experienced one stock market crash. From mid-June 2015, there was a three-week fall in share prices, knocking about 30% off their value. Previously the Chinese stock market had soared, with many people borrowing to buy shares. But this was a classic bubble, with share prices reflecting exuberance, not economic fundamentals.

Although Chinese government purchases of shares and tighter regulation helped to stabilise the market, it is possible that there may be another crash, especially if the trade war with the USA escalates even further. The Chinese stock market has already lost 20% of its value this year.

Then there is the problem with shadow banking. This is the provision of loans by non-bank financial institutions, such as insurance companies or hedge funds. As the International Business Times article linked below states:

A mind-boggling study from the US last year, for example, found that the market share of shadow banking in residential mortgages had rocketed from 15% in 2007 to 38% in 2015. This also represents a staggering 75% of all loans to low-income borrowers and risky borrowers. China’s shadow banking is another major concern, amounting to US$15 trillion, or about 130% of GDP. Meanwhile, fears are mounting that many shadow banks around the world are relaxing their underwriting standards.

Another issue is whether emerging markets can sustain their continued growth, or whether troubles in the more vulnerable emerging-market economies could trigger contagion across the more exposed parts of the developing world and possibly across the whole global economy. The recent crises in Turkey and Argentina may be a portent of this.

Then there is a risk of a cyber-attack by a rogue government or criminals on key financial insitutions, such as central banks or major international banks. Despite investing large amounts of money in cyber-security, financial institutions worry about their vulnerability to an attack.

Any of these triggers could cause a crisis of confidence, which, in turn, could lead to a fall in stock markets, a fall in aggregate demand and a recession.

Finally there is the question of the deep and prolonged crisis in capitalism itself – a crisis that manifests itself, not in a sudden recession, but in a long-term stagnation of the living standards of the poor and ‘just about managing’. Average real weekly earnings in many countries today are still below those in 2008, before the crash. In Great Britain, real weekly earnings in July 2018 were still some 6% lower than in early 2008.

Articles

Information and data

Questions

  1. Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
  2. Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
  3. Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
  4. How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
  5. What are the main threats to the global economy at the current time? Are any of these a ‘hangover’ from the 2007–8 financial crisis?
  6. What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
  7. Find data on household debt in two developed countries from 2000 to the present day. Chart the figures. Explain the pattern that emerges and discuss whether there are any dangers for the two economies from the levels of debt.

In three interesting articles, linked below, the authors consider the state of economies since the financial crisis of 2007–8 and whether governments have the right tools to tackle future economic shocks.

There have been some successes over the past 10 years, in particular keeping inflation close to central bank targets despite considerable shocks (see the Vox article). Also unemployment has fallen in most countries and to very low levels in some, including the UK.

But economic growth has generally remained well below the levels prior to the financial crisis, with low productivity growth being the main culprit. Indeed, many people have seen no growth at all in their real incomes over the past 10 years, with low unemployment being bought at the cost of a growth in zero-hour contracts and work in the gig economy. And what economic growth we have seen has been largely the result of taking up slack through unprecedentedly loose monetary policy.

Fiscal policy, except in the period directly following the financial crisis, has generally been tight as governments have sought to reduce their deficits and slow down the growth in their debt.

But what will happen if economies once more slow? Or, worse still, what will happen if there is another global recession? Do countries have the policies to tackle the problem this time round?

Quantitative easing could be used again, but many economists believe that it will have more limited scope if confined to the purchase of assets in the secondary market. Also, there is little scope for reducing interest rates, which, despite some modest rises in the USA, remain at close to zero in most developed countries.

One possibility is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy, where new money is used to finance government expenditure on infrastructure, such as road and rail, broadband, green energy, hospitals and schools and colleges. This would avoid the need for governments to borrow on open markets as the spending would be financed by new government securities purchased directly by the central bank.

An objection to such ‘people’s quantitative easing‘, as it has been dubbed, is that it would effectively end the independence of central banks. This independence has been credited by many with giving central banks credibility in controlling inflation. Would inflationary expectations rise with people’s quantitative easing and, with it, actual inflation? A lot would depend on the extent to which this QE could still be conducted within a framework of targeting inflation and whether people’s expectations of inflation could be managed jointly by the government and central bank.

Articles

How should recessions be fought when interest rates are low? The Economist. Free exchange (21/10/17)
The economy is failing. We need to think radically about how to fix it The Guardian, Liam Byrne (25/10/17)
Elusive inflation and the Great Recession Vox, David Miles, Ugo Panizza, Ricardo Reis, Ángel Ubide (25/10/17)

Videos

Economics since the crisis Vox on YouTube. Charles Goodhart (11/10/17)
Is the system broken? Vox on YouTube, Anat Admati (12/10/17)
Signs of a crisis Vox on YouTube, Christian Thimann (19/10/17)
Policy stances since 2007 Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (29/10/17)
Did policymakers get it right? Vox on YouTube, Paul Krugman (4/10/17)

Questions

  1. Why, during the next recession, will the “zero lower bound” (ZLB) on interest rates almost certainly bite again?
  2. Why would the scope for QE, as conducted up to now, be more limited in the future if a recession were to occur?
  3. Why have central banks appeared to have been so successful in keeping inflation close to target despite negative and positive demand- and supply-side shocks?
  4. Why are the pressures on government expenditure likely to increase in the coming years?
  5. How would a temporary price-level target help to tackle a recession when the economy next bumps into the ZLB? What would limit its success?
  6. Is it appropriate for central banks to stick to an inflation target in times when there is an adverse supply-side shock resulting in cost-push inflation?
  7. Why might monetary policy conducted in a framework of inflation targeting tend to lessen the impact of a fiscal stimulus?
  8. What are the arguments for and against relaxing central bank independence and pursuing a co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy?
  9. What are the arguments for and against using helicopter money to boost private expenditure during a future recession where interest rates are already near the ZLB?
  10. What are the arguments for and against using ‘people’s QE’?

The US Federal Reserve, like many other central banks, engaged in massive quantitative easing in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/8. Over three rounds, QE1, QE2 and QE3, it accumulated $4.5 trillion of assets – mainly government bonds and mortgage-backed securities (see chart below: click here for a PowerPoint). But, unlike its counterparts in the UK, the eurozone and Japan, it has long ceased its programme of asset purchases.. In October 2014, it announced that QE was at an end. All that would be done in future would be to replace existing holdings of assets as they matured, keeping total holdings roughly constant.

But now this policy is set to change. The Fed is about to embark on a programme of ‘quantitative tightening’, already being dubbed ‘QT’. This involves the Fed reducing its holdings of assets, mainly government bonds and government-backed mortgage-related securities.

This, however, for the time being will not include selling its holding of bonds or mortgage-backed securities. Rather, it will simply mean not buying new assets to replace ones when they mature, or only replacing part of the them. This was discussed by the 75 participants at the joint meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and Board of Governors on 14–15 March.

As the minutes put it: “Many participants emphasized that reducing the size of the balance sheet should be conducted in a passive and predictable manner.”

A more active form of QT would involve selling assets before maturity and thus reducing the size of the Fed’s balance sheet more rapidly. But either way, reducing assets would put downward pressure on the money supply and support the higher interest rates planned by the FOMC.

The question is whether there is enough liquidity elsewhere in the system and enough demand for credit, and willingness of the banking system to supply credit, to allow a sufficient growth in broad money – sufficient, that is, to support continued growth in the economy. The answer to that question depends on confidence. The Fed, not surprisingly, is keen not to damage confidence and hence prefers a gradualist approach to reducing its holdings of assets bought during the various rounds of quantitative easing.

Articles

Fed’s asset shift to pose new test of economy’s recovery, resilience Reuters, Howard Schneider and Richard Leong (6/4/17)
Federal Reserve likely to begin cutting back $4.5 trillion balance sheet this year Washington Post, Ana Swanson (5/4/17)
Why the Fed’s debate about shrinking its balance sheet really, really matters Money Observer, Russ Mould (7/4/17)
The Fed and ECB keep a cautious eye on the exit Financial Times (7/4/17)
Get ready for the Fed’s next scary policy change CBS Money Watch, Anthony Mirhaydari (5/4/17)
The Fed wants to start shrinking its $4.5 trillion balance sheet later this year Business Insider, Akin Oyedele (5/4/17)
Inside the Fed’s March Meeting: The Annotated Minutes Bloomberg, Luke Kawa, Matthew Boesler and Alex Harris (5/4/17)
QE was great for asset prices – will ‘QT’ smash them? The Financial Review (Australia), Patrick Commins (7/4/17)
Shrinking the Fed’s balance sheet Brookings, Ben Bernanke (26/1/17)

Data

Selected data Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

Questions

  1. Distinguish between active and passive QT.
  2. If QE is a form of expansionary monetary policy, is QT a form of contractionary monetary policy?
  3. Could QT take place alongside an expansion of broad money?
  4. What dangers lie in the Fed scaling back its holdings of government (Treasury) bonds and mortgage-backed securities?
  5. Why is it unlikely that the Fed will reduce its holdings of securities to pre-crisis levels?
  6. Why are the Bank of England, the ECB and the Bank of Japan still pursuing a policy of QE?
  7. What are the implications for exchange rates of QT in the USA and QE elsewhere?
  8. Find out data for the monetary base, for narrow money (M1) and broader money (M2) in the USA. Are narrow and/or broad money correlated with Federal Reserve asset holdings?

Both the financial and goods markets are heavily influenced by sentiment. And such sentiment tends to be self-reinforcing. If consumers and investors are pessimistic, they will not spend and not invest. The economy declines and this further worsens sentiment and further discourages consumption and investment. Banks become less willing to lend and stock markets fall. The falling stock markets discourage people from buying shares and so share prices fall further. The despondency becomes irrational and greatly exaggerates economic fundamentals.

This same irrationality applies in a boom. Here it becomes irrational exuberance. A boom encourages confidence and stimulates consumer spending and investment. This further stimulates the boom via the multiplier and accelerator and further inspires confidence. Banks are more willing to lend, which further feeds the expansion. Stock markets soar and destabilising speculation further pushes up share prices. There is a stock market bubble.

But bubbles burst. The question is whether the current global stock market boom, with share prices reaching record levels, represents a bubble. One indicator is the price/earnings (PE) ratio of shares. This is the ratio of share prices to earnings per share. Currently the ratio for the US index, S&P 500, is just over 26. This compares with a mean over the past 147 years of 15.64. The current ratio is the third highest after the peaks of the early 2000s and 2008/9.

An alternative measure of the PE ratio is the Shiller PE ratio (see also). This is named after Robert Shiller, who wrote the book Irrational Exuberance. Unlike conventional PE ratios, which only look at average earnings over the past four quarters, the Shiller PE ratio uses average earnings over the past 10 years. “Because this factors in earnings from the previous ten years, it is less prone to wild swings in any one year.”

The current level of the Shiller PE ratio is 29.14, the third highest on record, this time after the period running up to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The mean Shiller PE ratio over the past 147 years is 16.72.

So are we in a period of irrational exuberance? And are stock markets experiencing a bubble that sooner or later will burst? The following articles explore these questions.

Articles

2 Clear Instances of Irrational Exuberance Seeking Alpha, Jeffrey Himelson (12/2/17)
Promised land of Trumpflation-inspired global stimulus has been slow off the mark South China Morning Post, David Brown (20/2/17)
A stock market crash is a way off, but this boom will turn to bust The Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/2/17)
The “boring” bubble is close to bursting – the Unilever bid proves it MoneyWeek, John Stepek (20/2/17)

Questions

  1. Find out what is meant by Minksy’s ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and a ‘Minsky moment’. How might they explain irrational exuberance and the sudden turning point from a boom to a bust?
  2. Is it really irrational to buy shares with a very high PE ratio if everyone else is doing so?
  3. Why are people currently exuberant?
  4. What might cause the current exuberance to end?
  5. How does irrational exuberance affect the size of the multiplier?
  6. How might the behaviour of banks and other financial institutions contribute towards a boom fuelled by irrational exuberance?
  7. Compare the usefulness of a standard PE ratio with the Shiller PE ratio.
  8. Other than high PE ratios, what else might suggest that stock markets are overvalued?
  9. Why might a company’s PE ratio differ from its price/dividends ratio (see)? Which is a better measure of whether or not a share is overvalued?

Household borrowing on credit cards and through overdrafts and loans has been growing rapidly. This ‘unsecured’ borrowing is now rising at rates not seen since well before the credit crunch of 2008 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below). Should this be a cause for concern?

Household confidence is generally high and, as a result, people continue to take out more loans and so household debt continues to increase. Saving rates are falling and, at 5.1% of household disposable income, are the lowest rate since 2008, mirroring the high levels of spending and borrowing.

But as long as the economy keeps growing and as long as interest rates stay at record low levels, people should be able to continue servicing this rising debt. Indeed, with generous balance transfer offers between credit cards and many people paying off their full balance each month, only 56.6% are paying any interest at all on credit card debt, the lowest level on record.

But there could be trouble ahead! Secured borrowing (i.e. on mortgages) is at record highs as house prices have soared, limiting the amount people have to left to spend, even with ultra low interest rates. Student debt is growing, putting a brake on graduate spending.

With economic growth set to slow and inflation set to rise as the effects of the lower pound filter through into retail prices, this could initially boost borrowing further as people seek to maintain levels of consumption. But then, if unemployment starts to rise and consumer confidence starts to fall, real spending could decline, putting further downward pressure on the economy.

Confidence could then fall further and we could witness a repeat of 2008–9, when people became worried about their levels of borrowing and cut back on consumption in an attempt to claw down their debt. The economy was pushed into recession.

The Bank of England is well aware of this scenario and wants banks to ensure that their customers can afford loans before offering them.

Articles

Bank governor Mark Carney warns on household debt BBC News, Brian Milligan (30/11/16)
Credit crunch: Household debt is rising just as the economy’s future is uncertain The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/12/16)

Bank of England publication
Financial Stability Report, November 2016 Bank of England (30/11/16)

Data

Money and lending Bank of England Interactive Database
United Kingdom Households Debt To GDP Trading Economics
Household debt OECD Data

Questions

  1. What determines the amount people borrow?
  2. What would cause people to cut back on the amount of debt they have?
  3. Distinguish between secured and unsecured borrowing and debt.
  4. Why has secured borrowing risen? Does this matter?
  5. What is meant by the term ‘re-leveraging’? What is its significance in terms of household borrowing?
  6. Find out what the affordability tests are for anyone wanting to take out a mortgage.
  7. What are the greatest risks to UK financial stability?