Tag: private-sector debt

We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.

The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.

Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.

Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.

He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:

•  Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
•  Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
•  Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).

Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.


Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)


  1. What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
  4. Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
  5. Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
  6. Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
  7. Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
  8. What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
  9. What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?

Here are two thought-provoking articles from The Guardian. They look at macroeconomic policy failures and at the likely consequences.

In first article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics Editor, argues that Keynesian expansionary fiscal and monetary policy by the USA has allowed it to achieve much more rapid recovery than Europe, which, by contrast, has chosen to follow fiscal austerity policies and only recently mildly expansionary monetary policy through a belated QE programme.

In the UK, the recovery has been more significant than in the eurozone because of the expansionary monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England in its quantitative easing programme. ‘And when it came to fiscal policy, George Osborne quietly abandoned his original deficit reduction targets when the deleterious impact of an over-aggressive austerity strategy became apparent.’

So, according to Larry Elliott, Europe should ease up on austerity and governments should invest more though increased borrowing.

‘This is textbook Keynesian stuff. Unemployment is high, which means businesses are reluctant to invest. The lack of investment means that demand for new loans is weak. The weakness of demand for loans means that driving down the cost of borrowing through QE will have little impact. Therefore, it is up to the state to break into the vicious circle by investing itself, something it can do cheaply and – because there are so many people unemployed and businesses working well below full capacity – without the risk of inflation.’

In the second article, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor at Channel 4 News, points to the large increases in both public- and private- sector debt since 2007, despite the recession. Such debt, he argues, is becoming unsustainable and hence the world could be on the cusp of another crash.

Mason quotes from the Bank for International Settlements Quarterly Review September 2015 – media briefing. In this briefing, Claudio Borio,
Head of the Monetary & Economic Department, argues that:

‘Since at least 2009, domestic vulnerabilities have developed in several emerging market economies (EMEs), including some of the largest, and to a lesser extent even in some advanced economies, notably commodity exporters. In particular, these countries have exhibited signs of a build-up of financial imbalances, in the form of outsize credit booms alongside strong increases in asset prices, especially property prices, supported by unusually easy global liquidity conditions. It is the coincidence of the reversal of these booms with external vulnerabilities that should be watched most closely.’

We have already seen a fall in commodity prices, reflecting the underlying lack of demand, and large fluctuations in stock markets. The Chinese economy is slowing markedly, as are several other EMEs, and Europe and Japan are struggling to recover, despite their QE programmes. The USA is no longer engaging in QE and there are growing worries about a US slowdown as growth in the rest of the world slows. Mason, quoting the BIS briefing, states that:

‘In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.’

So should there be more expansionary policy, or should rising debt levels be reduced by tighter monetary policy? Read the articles and then consider the questions.

I told you so. Obama right and Europe wrong about way out of Great Recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/11/15)
Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? The Guardian, Paul Mason (1/11/15)


  1. To what extent do the two articles (a) agree and (b) disagree?
  2. How might a neo-liberal economist reply to the argument that what is needed is more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
  3. What is the transmission mechanism whereby quantitative easing affects real output? Is it a reliable mechanism for policymakers?
  4. What would make a financial crash less likely? Is this something that governments or central banks can influence?
  5. Why has productivity growth been so low in many countries? What would increase it?

‘The world is sinking under a sea of debt, private as well as public, and it is increasingly hard to see how this might end, except in some form of mass default.’ So claims the article below by Jeremy Warner. But just how much has debt grown, both public and private? And is it of concern?

The doomsday scenario is that we are heading for another financial crisis as over leveraged banks and governments could not cope with a collapse in confidence. Bank and bond interest rates would soar and debts would be hard to finance. The world could head back into recession as credit became harder and more expensive to obtain. Perhaps, in such a scenario, there would be mass default, by banks and governments alike. This could result in a plunge back into recession.

The more optimistic scenario is that private-sector debt is under control and in many countries is falling (see, for example, chart 1 in the blog Looking once again through Minsky eyes at UK credit numbers for the case of the UK). Even though private-sector debt could rise again as the world economy grows, it would be affordable provided that interest rates remain low and banks continue to build the requisite capital buffers under the Basel III banking regulations.

As far as public-sector debt is concerned, as a percentage of GDP its growth has begun to decline in advanced countries as a whole and, although gently rising in developing and emerging economies as a whole, is relatively low compared with advanced countries (see chart). Of course, there are some countries that still face much larger debts, but in most cases they are manageable and governments have plans to curb them, or at least their growth.

But there have been several warnings from various economists and institutes, as we saw in the blog post, Has the problem of excess global debt been tackled? Not according to latest figures. The question is whether countries can grow their way out of the problem, with a rapidly rising denominator in the debt/GDP ratios.

Only mass default will end the world’s addiction to debt The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (3/3/15)


  1. What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
  2. What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
  3. What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
  4. What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
  5. What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
  6. Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
  7. Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
  8. What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
  9. Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
  10. Is domestic inflation a good answer for a country to the problems of rising debt denominated (a) in the domestic currency; (b) in foreign currencies?

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, global debt is now higher than before the financial crisis. And that crisis was largely caused by excessive lending. As The Telegraph article linked below states:

The figures are as remarkable as they are terrifying. Global debt – defined as the liabilities of governments, firms and households – has jumped by $57 trillion, or 17% of global GDP, since the fourth quarter of 2007, which was supposed to be the peak of the bad old credit-fuelled days. In 2000, total debt was worth 246% of global GDP; by 2007, this had risen to 269% of GDP and today we are at 286% of GDP.

This is not how policy since the financial crisis was supposed to have worked out. Central banks and governments have been trying to encourage greater saving and reduced credit as a percentage of GDP, a greater capital base for banks, and reduced government deficits as a means of reducing government debt. But of 47 large economies in the McKinsey study, only five have succeeded in reducing their debt/GDP ratios since 2007 and in many the ratio has got a lot higher. China, for example, has seen its debt to GDP ratio almost double – from 158% to 282%, although its government debt remains low relative to other major economies.

Part of the problem is that the lack of growth in many countries has made it hard for countries to reduce their public-sector deficits to levels that will allow the public-sector debt/GDP ratio to fall.

In terms of the UK, private-sector debt has been falling as a percentage of GDP. But this has been more than offset by a rise in the public-sector debt/GDP ratio. As Robert Peston says:

[UK indebtedness] increased by 30 percentage points, to 252% of GDP (excluding financial sector or City debts) – as government debts have jumped by 50 percentage points of GDP, while corporate and household debts have decreased by 12 and 8 percentage points of GDP respectively.

So what are the likely consequences of this growth in debt and what can be done about it? The articles and report consider these questions.


Instead of paying down its debts, the world’s gone on another credit binge The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/15)
Global debts rise $57tn since crash BBC News, Robert Peston (5/2/15)
China’s Total Debt Load Equals 282% of GDP, Raising Economic Risks The Wall Street Journal, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (4/2/15)


Debt and (not much) deleveraging McKinsey Global Institute, Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva (February 2015)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
  2. Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
  3. What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
  4. When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
  5. Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
  6. Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
  7. Is it possible for (a) individual countries; (b) all countries collectively to ‘live beyond their means’ by consuming more than they are producing through borrowing?
  8. What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?

The linked article below from The Guardian paints a disturbing picture of the long-term problem of servicing both private-sector and public-sector debts.

With interest rates at historical lows, the problem has been masked for the time being. But with interest rates set to rise within a few months, and significantly over the coming years, the burden of debt servicing is likely to become severe. This could have profound effects both on long-term economic growth and on the distribution of income.

As the author, Phillip Inman states:

The funding gap is growing and with deficits on so many fronts, it is hard to see how promises to pensioners and health service users can be met without a dash for growth that is unsustainable, a switch to dramatic cost-cutting in other areas or higher taxes on those who came through the recession relatively unscathed.

You are probably facing the problem of growing debt yourself. How long, if ever, will it take you to repay your student loans? What impact will this have on your ability to spend and to have a ‘decent’ standard of living? Will you be able to afford a mortgage large enough to buy a reasonable house or flat? Will you be able to afford to do a masters degree or PhD without support from your parents or relatives or without a scholarship? And even if you manage to secure a well-paid job, will you be able to afford a reasonable pension for when you eventually retire?

The article looks at the nature of the problem and its causes. It concludes by saying:

Britain has become expert at putting off decisions and hoping for something to turn up. Without a return to ultra-cheap commodities, another technological/productivity revolution, or a return to more modest living and delayed gratification, it’s a plan that is running out of time.


Trouble in store: the grave future of British public and private debt The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/7/14)


Fiscal sustainability report Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Executive summary Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Supplementary data series Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)


  1. Why is public-sector debt likely to continue rising significantly over the coming years unless there is a concerted policy to make cuts in public expenditure?
  2. What factors are likely to lead to a rise in private-sector debt over the coming years?
  3. What factors have caused a redistribution from the younger to the older generation?
  4. How have ultra low interest rates affected the distribution of income?
  5. What is likely to happen to the gap in wages between ‘graduate’ jobs and ‘non-graduate’ jobs? Identify the factors likely to influence this gap?
  6. What is meant by ‘hire purchase’? Are leasing schemes for car purchase a form of ‘hire purchase? Are there similar schemes in the housing market?
  7. Does it matter if a country’s debts rise (either public or private) if the creditors are in the same country? Explain.