With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
The Christmas and new year period often draws attention to the financial well-being of households. An important determinant of this is the extent of their indebtedness. Rising levels of debt mean that increasing amounts of households’ incomes becomes prey to servicing debt through repayments and interest charges. They can also result in more people becoming credit constrained, unable to access further credit. Rising debt levels can therefore lead to a deterioration of financial well-being and to financial distress. This was illustrated starkly by events at the end of the 2000s.
The total amount of lending by monetary financial institutions to individuals outstanding at the end of October 2018 was estimated at £1.61 trillion. As Chart 1 shows, this has grown from £408 billion in 1994. Hence, indivduals in the UK have experience a four-fold increase in the levels of debt. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The debt of individuals is either secured or unsecured. Secured debt is debt secured by property, which for individuals is more commonly referred to as mortgage debt. Unsecured debt, which is also known as consumer credit, includes outstanding debt on credit cards, overdrafts on current accounts and loans for luxury items such as cars and electrical goods. The composition of debt in 2018 is unchanged from that in 1994: 87 per cent is secured debt and 13 per cent unsecured debt.
The fourfold increase in debt is taken by some economists as evidence of financialisation. While this term is frequently defined in distinctive ways depending upon the content in which it is applied, when viewed in very general terms it describes a process by which financial institutions and markets become increasingly important in everyday lives and so in the production and consumption choices that economists study. An implication of this is that in understanding economic decisions, behaviour and outcomes it becomes increasingly important to think about the potential impact of the financial system. The financial crisis is testimony to this.
In thinking about financial well-being, at least at an aggregate level, we can look at the relative size of indebtedness. One way of doing this is to measure the stock of individual debt relative to the annual flow of GDP (national income). This is illustrated in Chart 2. (Click hereto download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The growth in debt among individuals owed to financial institutions during the 2000s was significant. By the end of 2007, the debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 88 per cent. Decomposing this, the secured debt-to-GDP ratio had reached 75 per cent and the unsecured debt-to-GDP ratio 13 per cent. Compare this with the end of 1994 when secured debt was 46 per cent of GDP, unsecured debt 7 per cent and total debt 53 per cent. In other words, the period between 1994 and 2007 the UK saw a 25 percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio of individuals.
The early 2010s saw a consolidation in the size of the debt (see Chart 1) which meant that it was not until 2014 that debt levels rose above those of 2008. This led to the size of debt relative to GDP falling back by close to 10 percentage points (see Chart 2). Between 2014 and 2018 the stock of debt has increased from around £1.4 trillion to the current level of £1.61 trillion. This increase has been matched by a similar increase in (nominal) GDP so that the relative stock of debt remains little changed at present at around 76 per cent of GDP.
Chart 3 shows the annual growth rate of net lending (lending net of repayments) by monetary financial institutions to individuals. This essentially captures the growth rate in the stocks of debt, though changes in the actual stock of debt are also be affected by the writing-off of debts. (Click here to download a PowerPoint of the chart.)
We can see quite readily the pick up in lending from 2014. The average annual rate of growth in total net lending since 2014 has been just a little under 3½ per cent. This has been driven by unsecured lending whose growth rate has been close to 8½ per cent per annum, compared to just 2.7 per cent for secured lending. In 2016 the annual growth rate of unsecured lending was just shy of 11 per cent. This helped to fuel concerns about possible future financial distress. These concerns remain despite the annual rate of growth in unsecured debt having eased slightly to 7.5 per cent.
Despite the aggregate debt-to-GDP ratio having been relatively stable of late, the recent growth in debt levels is clearly not without concern. It has to be viewed in the context of two important developments. First, there remains a ‘debt hangover’ from the financial distress experienced by the private sector at the end of the 2000s, which itself contributed to a significant decline in economic activity (real GDP fell by 4 per cent in 2009). This subequently affected the financial well-being of the public sector following its interventions to cushion the economy from the full effects of the economic downturn as well as to help stabilise the financial system. Second, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The financial resilience of all sectors of the economy is therefore of acute concern given the unprecedented uncertainty we are currently facing while, at the same time, we are still feeling the effects of the financial distress from the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It therefore seems timely indeed for individuals to take stock of their stocks of debt.
In his Budget on 29 October, the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced a new type of tax. This is a ‘digital services tax’, which, after consultation, he is planning to introduce in April 2020. The target of the tax is the profits made by major companies providing social media platforms (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), internet marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and eBay) or search engines (such as Alphabet’s Google).
The proposed digital services tax is a 2% tax on the revenues earned by such companies in the UK. It would only apply to large companies, defined as those whose global revenue is at least £500m a year. It is expected to raise around £400m per year.
The EU is considering a similar tax at a rate of 3%. India, Pakistan, South Korea and several other countries are considering introducing digital taxes. Indeed, many countries are arguing for a worldwide agreement on such a tax. The OECD is studying the implications of the possible use of such a tax by its 36 members. If an international agreement on such a tax can be reached, a separate UK tax may not go ahead. As the Chancellor stated in his Budget speech:
In the meantime we will continue to work at the OECD and G20 to seek a globally agreed solution. And if one emerges, we will consider adopting it in place of the UK Digital Services Tax.
The proposed UK tax is a hybrid between direct and indirect taxes. Like corporation tax, a direct tax, its aim is to tax companies’ profits. But, unlike corporation tax, it would be harder for such companies to avoid. Like VAT, an indirect tax, it would be a tax on revenue, but, unlike VAT, it would be an ‘end-stage’ tax rather than a tax on value added at each stage of production. Also, it would not be a simple sales tax on companies as it would be confined to revenue (such as advertising revenue) earned from the use in the UK of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces. As the Chancellor said in his speech.
It is important that I emphasise that this is not an online-sales tax on goods ordered over the internet: such a tax would fall on consumers of those goods – and that is not our intention.
There is, however, a political problem for the UK in introducing such a tax. The main companies it would affect are American. It is likely that President Trump would see such taxes as a direct assault on the USA and could well threaten retaliation. As the Accountancy Age article states, ‘Dragging the UK into an acrimonious quarrel with one of its largest trading partners is perhaps not what the Chancellor intends.’ This will be especially so as the UK seeks to build new trading relationships with the USA after Brexit. As the BBC article states, ‘The chancellor will be hoping that an international agreement rides to his rescue before the UK tax has to be imposed.’
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.
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.
Explain the major causes of the financial market crash in 2008.
Would it have been a good idea to have continued with expansionary fiscal policy beyond 2009?
Summarise the Basel III banking regulations.
How could quantitative easing have been differently designed so as to have injected more money into the real sector of the economy?
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?
What is meant by ‘shadow banking’ and how might this be a threat to the future stability of the global economy?
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.
The IMF has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook. This provides an assessment of trends in the global economy and gives forecasts for a range of macroeconomic indicators by country, by groups of countries and for the whole world.
This latest report is upbeat for the short term. Global economic growth is expected to be around 3.9% this year and next. This represents 2.3% this year and 2.5% next for advanced countries and 4.8% this year and 4.9% next for emerging and developing countries. For large advanced countries such rates are above potential economic growth rates of around 1.6% and thus represent a rise in the positive output gap or fall in the negative one.
But while the near future for economic growth seems positive, the IMF is less optimistic beyond that for advanced countries, where growth rates are forecast to decline to 2.2% in 2019, 1.7% in 2020 and 1.5% by 2023. Emerging and developing countries, however, are expected to see growth rates of around 5% being maintained.
For most countries, current favorable growth rates will not last. Policymakers should seize this opportunity to bolster growth, make it more durable, and equip their governments better to counter the next downturn.
By comparison with other countries, the UK’s growth prospects look poor. The IMF forecasts that its growth rate will slow from 1.8% in 2017 to 1.6% in 2018 and 1.5% in 2019, eventually rising to around 1.6% by 2023. The short-term figures are lower than in the USA, France and Germany and reflect ‘the anticipated higher barriers to trade and lower foreign direct investment following Brexit’.
The report sounds some alarm bells for the global economy.
The first is a possible growth in trade barriers as a trade war looms between the USA and China and as Russia faces growing trade sanctions. As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF told an audience in Hong Kong:
Governments need to steer clear of protectionism in all its forms. …Remember: the multilateral trade system has transformed our world over the past generation. It helped reduce by half the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty. It has reduced the cost of living, and has created millions of new jobs with higher wages. …But that system of rules and shared responsibility is now in danger of being torn apart. This would be an inexcusable, collective policy failure. So let us redouble our efforts to reduce trade barriers and resolve disagreements without using exceptional measures.
The second danger is a growth in world government and private debt levels, which at 225% of global GDP are now higher than before the financial crisis of 2007–9. With Trump’s policies of tax cuts and increased government expenditure, the resulting rise in US government debt levels could see some fiscal tightening ahead, which could act as a brake on the world economy. As Maurice Obstfeld , Economic Counsellor and Director of the Research Department, said at the Press Conference launching the latest World Economic Outlook:
Debts throughout the world are very high, and a lot of debts are denominated in dollars. And if dollar funding costs rise, this could be a strain on countries’ sovereign financial institutions.
In China, there has been a massive rise in corporate debt, which may become unsustainable if the Chinese economy slows. Other countries too have seen a surge in private-sector debt. If optimism is replaced by pessimism, there could be a ‘Minsky moment’, where people start to claw down on debt and banks become less generous in lending. This could lead to another crisis and a global recession. A trigger could be rising interest rates, with people finding it hard to service their debts and so cut down on spending.
The third danger is the slow growth in labour productivity combined with aging populations in developed countries. This acts as a brake on growth. The rise in AI and robotics (see the post Rage against the machine) could help to increase potential growth rates, but this could cost jobs in the short term and the benefits could be very unevenly distributed.
This brings us to a final issue and this is the long-term trend to greater inequality, especially in developed economies. Growth has been skewed to the top end of the income distribution. As the April 2017 WEO reported, “technological advances have contributed the most to the recent rise in inequality, but increased financial globalization – and foreign direct investment in particular – has also played a role.”
And the policy of quantitative easing has also tended to benefit the rich, as its main effect has been to push up asset prices, such as share and house prices. Although this has indirectly stimulated the economy, it has mainly benefited asset owners, many of whom have seen their wealth soar. People further down the income scale have seen little or no growth in their real incomes since the financial crisis.