Tag: balance sheets

Interest rates have been at record lows across the developed world since 2009. Interest rates were reduced to such levels in order to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the resulting recession. The low interest rates were accompanied by extraordinary increases in money supply under various rounds of quantitative easing in the USA, UK, Japan and eventually the eurozone. But have such policies done harm?

This is the contention of Brian Sturgess in a new paper, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. He maintains that the policy has had a number of adverse effects:

 •  There will be nothing left in the monetary policy armoury when the next downturn occurs other than even more QE, which will compound the following problems.
 •  It has had little effect in stimulating aggregate demand and economic growth. Instead the extra money has been used to repair balance sheets and support unprofitable businesses.
 •  It has inflated asset prices, especially shares and property, which has encouraged funds to flow to the secondary market rather than to funding new investment.
 •  The inflation of asset prices has benefited the already wealthy.
 •  By keeping interest rates down to virtually zero on savings accounts, it has punished small savers.
 •  By rewarding the rich and penalising small savers, it has contributed to greater inequality.
 •  By keeping interest rates down to borrowers, it has encouraged households to take on excessive amounts of debt, which will be hard to service if interest rates rise.
 •  It has lowered the price of risk, thereby encouraging more risky types of investment and the general misallocation of capital.

Sturgess argues that it is time to end the policy of low interest rates. Currently, in all the major developed economies, central bank rates are below the rate of inflation, making the real central bank interest rates negative.

He welcomes the two small increases by the Federal Reserve, but this should be followed by further rises, not just by the Fed, but by other central banks too. As Sturgess states in the paper (p.12):

In place of ever more extreme descents into the unknown, central banks should quickly renormalise monetary policy. That would involve ending QE and allowing interest rates to rise steadily so that interest rates can carry out their proper functions. Failure to do so will leave the global financial system vulnerable to potential shocks such as the failure of the euro, or the fiscal stresses in the US resulting from the unfinanced spending plans announced by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.

Although Sturgess argues that the initial programmes of low interest rates and QE were a useful response to the financial crisis, he argues that they should have only been used as a short-term measure. However, if they were, and if interest rates had gone up within a few months, many argue that the global economy would rapidly have sunk back into recession. This has certainly been the position of central banks. Sturgess disagrees.

Articles

Damaging low interest rates and QE must end now, think thank warns The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (23/1/17)
QE has driven pension deficits up, think-tank argues Money Marketing, Justin Cash (23/1/17)
Hold: The ECB keeps interest rates and QE purchases steady as Mario Draghi defends loose policy from hawkish critics City A.M., Jasper Jolly (19/1/17)
Preparing for the Post-QE World Bloomberg, Jean-Michel Paul (12/10/16)

Paper
Stop Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Low interest rates and the Global Economy Centre for Policy Studies, Brian Sturgess (23/1/17)

Questions

  1. Find out what the various rounds of quantitative easing have been in the USA, the UK, Japan and the eurozone.
  2. What are the arguments in favour of quantitative easing as it has been practised?
  3. How might interest rates close to zero result in the misallocation of capital?
  4. Sturgess claims that the existence of ‘spillover’ effects has had damaging effects on many emerging economies. What are these spillover effects and what damage have they done to such economies?
  5. How do low interest rates affect interest rate spreads?
  6. Have pensioners gained or lost from QE? Explain how the answer may vary between different pensioners.
  7. What is meant by a ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ rate of interest (see section 3.2 in the paper)? Why, according to Janet Yellen (currently Federal Reserve Chair, writing in 2005), is this somewhere between 3.5% and 5.5% (in nominal terms)?
  8. What are the arguments for and against using created money to finance programmes of government infrastructure investment?
  9. Would helicopter money be more effective than QE via asset purchases in achieving faster economic growth? (See the blog posts: A flawed model of monetary policy and New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink.)
  10. When QE comes to an end in various countries, what are the arguments for absorbing rather than selling the assets purchased by central banks? (See the Bloomberg article.)

In an attempt to prevent recession following the financial crisis of 2007–8, many countries adopted both expansionary monetary policy and expansionary fiscal policy – and with some success. It is likely that the recession would have been much deeper without such policies

But with growing public-sector deficits caused by the higher government expenditure and sluggish growth in tax receipts, many governments soon abandoned expansionary fiscal policy and relied on a mix of loose monetary policy (with ultra low interest rates and quantitative easing) but tight fiscal policy in an attempt to claw down the deficits.

But such ‘austerity’ policies made it much harder for loose monetary policy to boost aggregate demand. The problem was made worse by the attempt of both banks and individuals to ‘repair’ their balance sheets. In other words banks became more cautious about lending, seeking to build up reserves; and many individuals sought to reduce their debts by cutting down on spending. Both consumer spending and investment were slow to grow.

And yet government and central banks, despite the arguments of Keynesians, were reluctant to abandon their reliance solely on monetary policy as a means of boosting aggregate demand. But gradually, influential international institutions, such as the IMF (see also) and World Bank, have been arguing for an easing of austerity fiscal policies.

The latest international institution to take a distinctly more Keynesian stance has been the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In its November 2015 Economic Outlook it had advocated some use of public-sector investment (see What to do about slowing global growth?. But in its Interim Economic Outlook of February 2016, it goes much further. It argues that urgent action is needed to boost economic growth and that this should include co-ordinated fiscal policy. In introducing the report, Catherine L Mann, the OECD’s Chief Economist stated that:

“Across the board there are lower interest rates, except for the United States. It allows the authorities to undertake a fiscal action at very very low cost. So we did an exercise of what this fiscal action might look like and how it can contribute to global growth, but also maintain fiscal sustainability, because this is an essential ingredient in the longer term as well.

So we did an experiment of a two-year increase in public investment of half a percentage point of GDP per annum undertaken by all OECD countries. This is an important feature: it’s everybody doing it together – it’s a collective action, because it’s global growth that is at risk here – our downgrades [in growth forecasts] were across the board – they were not just centred on a couple of countries.

So what is the effect on GDP of a collective fiscal action of a half a percentage point of GDP [increase] in public investment in [high] quality projects. In the United States, the euro area, Canada and the UK, who are all contributors to this exercise, the increase in GDP is greater than the half percentage point [increase] in public expenditure that was undertaken. Even if other countries don’t undertake any fiscal expansion, they still get substantial increases in their growth rates…

Debt to GDP in fact falls. This is because the GDP effect of quality fiscal stimulus is significant enough to raise GDP (the denominator in the debt to GDP ratio), so that the overall fiscal sustainability [debt to GDP] improves.”

What is being argued is that co-ordinated fiscal policy targeted on high quality infrastructure spending will have a multiplier effect on GDP. What is more, the faster growth in GDP should outstrip the growth in government expenditure, thereby allowing debt/GDP ratios to fall, not rise.

This is a traditional Keynesian approach to tackling sluggish growth, but accompanied by a call for structural reforms to reduce inefficiency and waste and improve the supply-side of the economy.

Articles

Osborne urged to spend more on infrastructure by OECD Independent, Ben Chu (18/2/16)
OECD blasts reform fatigue, downgrades growth and calls for more rate cuts Financial Review (Australia), Jacob Greber (18/2/16)
OECD calls for less austerity and more public investment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/2/15)
What’s holding back the world economy? The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz and Hamid Rashid (8/2/16)
OECD calls for urgent action to combat flagging growth Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/2/16)
Central bankers on the defensive as weird policy becomes even weirder The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/2/16)
Keynes helped us through the crisis – but he’s still out of favour The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/2/16)
G20 communique says monetary policy alone cannot bring balanced growth
Reuters (27/2/15)

OECD publications
Global Economic Outlook and Interim Economic Outlook OECD, Catherine L Mann (18/2/16)
Interim Economic Outlook OECD (18/2/16)

Questions

  1. Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
  2. Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
  3. Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all OECD countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
  4. What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
  5. How might a new classical/neoliberal economist respond to the OECD’s recommendation?
  6. Why may monetary policy have ‘run out of steam’? Are there further monetary policy measures that could be adopted?
  7. Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
  8. Should quantitative easing be directed at financing public-sector infrastructure projects? What are the benefits and problems of such a policy? (See the blog post People’s quantitative easing.)

The Bank of England’s Money and Credit release on 1 Feb provides us with data up to the end of 2015 on lending by banks and building societies to the rest of the UK private sector. In this post we update our blog of 17 December 2015 – is Minsky right yet again? – to analyse the latest data on lending. The headline numbers show that the flow of lending (net of repayments) by banks and building societies to UK households in 2015 was £40.8 billion up from £29.9 billion in 2014 taking their amount of outstanding lending to households to £1.26 trillion. Was American economist Minsky (1919-1996) right to have argued that cycles in credit are inevitable?

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by both households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions), i.e. deposit-taking institutions. The scale of debt accumulation in the late 1980s and again from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark. At the start of 1980 the UK household sector had debts to MFIs of around £53 billion. By the start of 2009 this had hit £1.29 trillion. To put these figures into context this corresponds to an increase in indebtedness to MFIs from 25 per cent of GDP to 86 per cent of GDP.

The chart also shows the increase in indebtedness of private non-financial corporations which are effectively every day businesses. They saw their debts to MFIs rise from around £25 billion to over £500 billion which is equivalent to an increase from 12 per cent of GDP to 33 per cent of GDP. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 1.)

The path of debt at the start of the 2010s is consistent with a story of consolidation. Although the term is readily used in the context of the public sector and measures to reduce public-sector deficits the term is also relevant for the private sector. Financially-distressed households, private non-financial corporations and MFIs took steps to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. Indeed the term is synonymous with the idea of a balance sheet recession which some economists argue describe the late 2000s. The result was that the demand for and supply of additional credit waned. Debt accumulation largely ceased and, as we can see from Chart 1, debt numbers fell.

More recently the indebtedness to MFIs of households has started to edge up again, though, as yet, not for private non-financial corporations. From the end of the first quarter of 2013 to the end of 2015 household indebtedness to MFIs has increased by 7 per cent to £1.26 trillion.

Chart 2 focuses on flows rather than stocks. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of Chart 2.) It allows us to see the accumulation of new credit (i.e. less repayments of debt). What is even more apparent from this chart is the evidence of cycles in credit. The growth in new credit during the 2000s is stark as is the subsequent squeeze on credit that followed. Across 2006 net flows of credit from MFIs to households reached £106 billion while the peak for PNFCs was across 2007 when they reached £71 billion. Subsequently, net credit numbers crashed with negative numbers for PNFCs indicating net repayments to MFIs.

The size of the credit flows emanating from MFIs and the magnitude of the resulting credit cycles is even more stark when presented as percentages of GDP. The annual flow of credit to households in the late 1980s reached 9.4 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs peaked at the end of the decade at 5.2 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, across 2006 net credit to households reached 7.5 per cent of GDP while the peak of lending to PNFCs was in the 12-month period to the end of 2007 Q1 equivalent to 4.8 per cent of GDP. In 2015, credit from MFIs to households reached 2.2 per cent of GDP while that to PNFCs was a mere 0.2 per cent of GDP.

Of course, the key question now is the path of credit. Clearly flows of credit to households are again on the rise. In part, this is driven by the rebound in the UK housing market. But, significantly there has been a significant rise in flows of consumer credit, i.e. unsecured debt.

Chart 3 shows the flows of consumer credit to individuals (excluding student loans involving the Student Loans Company) from MFIs and other credit providers. Again, we see the marked evidence of cycles. Across 2015 these net consumer credit flows amounted to £14.5 billion, the highest annual figure since 2005. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

To put the current rise in consumer credit into context, the net flow of consumer credit to individuals as percentage of GDP across 2015 as a whole amounts to about 0.8 per cent of GDP. This is the highest figure since the second half of 2006. While it might be a little early to say that credit numbers are a cause for concern, they do need to be seen in the context of a still relatively highly indebted household sector. Policymakers will be keeping a keen eye on credit patterns and assessing whether we have again acquired a real appetite for credit.

Articles

Households put another £4.4 billion on credit cards and personal loans in December as debt rises at fastest pace in a decade ThisisMoney.co.uk, Rachel Rickard Straus (1/2/16)
One in four ‘living for the day’ as 700,000 more expected to default on debt Independent, Simon Read (2/1/16)
Surprise mortgage jump confounds expectations Independent, Russell Lynch (1/2/16)
U.K. consumer credit slows; mortgage approvals up MarketWatch, Jon Sindreu (1/2/16)
Family debt continues to rise – report BBC News (13/1/16)

Data

Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. How can the financial system affect the economy’s business cycle?
  2. What does it mean if households or firms are financially distressed? What responses might they take to this distress and what might the economic consequences be?
  3. How would you measure the net worth (or wealth) of an individual or a firm? What factors might affect their net worth?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. Are there measures that policymakers can take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?
  8. What do you understand by a consolidation by the private sector? Discuss the possible macroeconomic effects of such a consolidation.
  9. What is meant by a balance sheet recession?
  10. How might the effect of attempts by a large number of individuals to improve their financial well-being differ from those when only a small numbers of individuals do so?

To what extent does history repeat itself? Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis infers that credit cycles are fairly inevitable. We have seem them in the past and we will see them in the future. Human beings are subject to emotion, to irrational exuberance and to a large dose of forgetfulness! To what extent do the latest UK credit numbers suggest that we might be embarking on another credit binge? Are the credit data consistent with evidence of another credit cycle?

Chart 1 shows the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The scale of debt accumulation in the late 1980s and again from the mid 1990s up to the financial crisis of the late 2000s is stark. At the start of 1985 the UK household sector had debts to MFIs of around £140 billion. By the start of 2009 this had hit £1.29 trillion. Meanwhile, private non-financial corporations saw their debts to MFIs rise from around £45 billion to over £500 billion. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The path of debt at the start of the 2010s is consistent with a story of consolidation. Financially-distressed households, private non-financial corporations and, of course, MFIs themselves meant that corrective action was needed to repair their balance sheets. The demand for and supply of additional credit waned. Debt accumulation largely ceased and, in fact, debt numbers fell. This trend continues today for private non-financial corporations. But, for households debt accumulation resumed in the middle of 2013. At the end of the third quarter of 2015 the household sector had debt obligations to MFIs of £1.246 trillion.

Chart 2 focuses on flows rather stocks. It allows us to see the accumulation of new credit (i.e. less repayments of debt). What is even more apparent from this chart is the evidence of cycles in credit. The growth in new credit during the 2000s is stark as is the subsequent squeeze on credit that followed.

The question that follows is what path are we now on? Clearly flows of credit to households are again on the rise. In part, this is driven by the rebound in the UK housing market. But, in fact there is a more rapid increase in consumer credit, i.e. unsecured debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

Chart 3 shows the flows of consumer credit from MFIs and other credit providers. Again, we see the marked evidence of cycles. In the year to the end of Q1 of 2015 net consumer credit flows amounted to £22.8 billion, the highest figure since the 12-month period up to the end of Q3 of 2005. Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)

While it might be a little early to say that another Minsky cycle is well under way, policymakers will be keeping a keen eye on credit patterns. Is history repeating itself?

Articles

Average UK mortgage debt rises to £85,000 The Guardian, Phillip Inman (15/12/15)
Consumer spending rise troubles Bank of England The Guardian, Heather Stewart (24/11/15)
Recovery ‘too reliant on consumer debt’ as BCC downgrades forecast The Guardian, Heather Stewart (9/12/15)
BCC: UK Growth Too Reliant On Consumer Debt Sky News (9/12/15)
Interest rates will stay low for longer – but household debt is a worry, says BoE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/11/15)
IMF: UK’s economic performance ‘very strong’, but risks remain BBC News (11/12/15)

Data

Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. How can the financial system affect the economy’s business cycle?
  2. What does it mean if households or firms are financially distressed? What responses might they take to this distress and what might the economic consequences be?
  3. How would you measure the net worth (or wealth) of an individual or a firm? What factors might affect their net worth?
  4. How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
  5. What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
  6. Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
  7. Are there measures that policymakers can take to reduce the likelihood that flows of credit become too excessive?

George Osborne in his recent Autumn Statement, once again stressed that ‘the government is committed to strong, sustainable and balanced growth’. But while he plans to reduce government debt as a percentage of GDP, consumer debt is rising, both absolutely and as a percentage of household disposable income. The rise in household borrowing, and the resulting rise in consumer expenditure, has been the main factor driving economic growth. It has not been exports nor, until recently, investment, as the Chancellor had hoped. Indeed, investment in new housing is falling.

The Office for Budget Responsibility in its latest Economic and Fiscal Outlook forecasts that gross household debt will reach 163 per cent of household disposable income by 2021, up from 146% at the end of 2015.

Consumer gross debt includes both secured debt and unsecured debt. Secured debt is essentially debt secured on property (i.e. mortgages), while unsecured debt is largely in the form of credit card debt, overdrafts and personal loans.

The chart shows that from 2008 to 2013, gross debt fell as a percentage of personal disposable income. Following the financial crisis, banks were more cautious about lending as they sought to increase their capital and liquidity ratios. And consumers were more cautious about borrowing as the uncertainty made many people keen to reduce their debts. This decline in credit reversed the massive growth in household debt from 2000 to 2008: one of the contributing factors to the financial crisis. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

But since late 2013, household debt – both secured and unsecured – has been rising. In absolute (nominal) terms, individuals’ debt is now £1.43 trillion, slightly above the previous high in 2008. And as the chart shows, the OBR forecasts that it will continue rising. This makes consumers more vulnerable to adverse economic shocks, such as a downturn in emerging markets, another crisis in the eurozone or financial crises in other parts of the world.

And as consumer debt has been rising, the personal saving ratio (the ratio of saving to personal disposable incomes) has been falling and is now lower than before the financial crisis.

The rise in consumer borrowing has been of some concern to the Bank of England. Andy Haldane, the Bank’s Chief Economist, appearing before the Treasury Select Committee, warned that consumer credit, and in particular personal loans, had been ‘picking up at a rate of knots. That ultimately might be an issue that the Financial Policy Committee might want to look at fairly carefully.’

Articles

The UK economy may be growing, but in a highly unbalanced way The Guardian, Phillip Inman (27/11/15)
UK growth hit by biggest drag from net trade on record The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (27/11/15)
Surge in consumer lending could prompt Bank of England intervention The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Jill Treanor (30/11/15)
Consumer spending rise troubles Bank of England The Guardian, Heather Stewart (24/11/15)
Between Debt and the Devil by Adair Turner review – should the government start printing money? The Guardian, Tom Clark (25/11/15)
Lending rises as Bank of England ponders new curbs Financial Times, Ferdinando Giugliano (30/11/15)
Carney indicates BoE’s willingness to rein in credit Financial TImes, Chris Giles (5/11/15)
FCA sounds alarm at rising credit card debt Financial Times, Emma Dunkley (3/11/15)
Interest rates will stay low for longer – but household debt is a worry, says BoE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (24/11/15)
Seven years after the crisis, Britain is still addicted to the drug of debt Independent, James Moore (1/12/15)
Vince Cable: Former Business Secretary warns that ‘severe economic storms’ are on the way Independent, Ben Chu (14/11/15)
The risks stalking the UK economy BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (1/12/15)

OBR publications
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (25/11/15)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables (Excel file) Office for Budget Responsibility (25/11/15)

Questions

  1. Does it matter if economic growth is driven by a rise in consumer demand, in turn driven by a risen in consumer credit?
  2. Is there an inflation risk from growth being driven by a rise in consumer credit?
  3. What is the precise relationship between the household saving ratio and the household debt ratio? (Which of these ratios is a stock and which is a flow?)
  4. What might cause a fall in consumer borrowing? Would this be a good thing?
  5. Why did consumer borrowing fall following the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  6. What could the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee do to curb consumer borrowing?
  7. If banks were forced to hold more reserves, how could aggregate demand be maintained? Would ‘helicopter money’ be a good idea?
  8. What are ‘countercyclical buffers for banks’? What are the arguments for raising them at the current time?