The instability of the economy was clearly demonstrated by the events of the late 2000s. Economists have devoted considerable energies to understanding the determinants of the business cycle. Increasing attention is focused on the role that credit cycles play in contributing to or exacerbating cycles. Therefore, data on lending by banks is followed keenly by policymakers who wish to avoid the repeat of the pace of growth in credit seen in the period preceding the financial crisis. Interestingly, the latest data from the Bank of England show that lending by financial institutions to households (net of repayments) rose in July to its highest level since November 2009.
The idea of credit cycles is not new. But, the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Many economists have revisited the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–1996), an American economist, who argued that financial cycles are an inherent part of the economic cycle and contribute to fluctuations in real GDP. Notably, he argued that credit extended to households and businesses is pro-cyclical so that flows of credit extended by banks are larger when the growth of the economy’s output is stronger. Since credit flows are dependent on the phase of the business cycle, they are said to be endogenous to the path of output. The key point here is that there is an inherent mechanism within the economy which is potentially destabilising.
Banks, it is argued, may use the growth of the economy’s output as an indicator of the riskiness of its lending. Households and businesses may undertake a similar assessment. After a period of sustained growth banks and investors become more confident about the future path of the economy and, consequently, in the returns of assets. This means that there is a role for psychology in understanding the business cycle.
If we look at the chart, this period of heightened confidence may correspond with the period starting from the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2007 the average monthly net flow of credit to private non-financial corporations and households was £9.4 billion. In other words, households and businesses were acquiring a staggering £9.4 billion of additional debt from banks each month. But, this was as high as £14.0 billion per month in 2007. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
What helped to fuel the impact of heightened confidence on credit provision was financial innovation. In particular, the bundling of assets, such as mortgages, to form financial instruments which could then be purchased by investors helped to provide financial institutions with further funds for lending. This is the process of securitisation. The result was that during the 2000s as households and businesses began to acquire larger debts their financial well-being became increasingly stretched. This was hastened by central banks raising interest rates. The intention was to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, such as oil. Suddenly, euphoria was replaced with pessimism.
Some argue that a Minsky moment had occurred. Many countries then witnessed a balance sheet recession. As individual households and businesses try and improve their own financial well-being they collectively contribute to its worsening. For instance, large-scale attempts to sell assets, such as shares or property, only help to cause their value to decline.
A global response to the events of the financial crisis has been for policy-makers to pay more attention to the aggregate level of credit provision. The chart shows that lending in 2014 is more robust than it has been form some time. Across the first seven months of 2014 the average monthly net flow of credit extended by banks to households and businesses (private non-financial corporations) has been £2.2 billion.
However, the 2014-rebound of credit is wholly attributable to lending to households. Net lending to households has averaged £2.7 billion per month while businesses have been repaying credit to banks to the tune of £437 million per month – something that businesses have collectively done in each year from 2009. While net lending to households remains considerably lower than pre-financial crisis levels, it will be something that policymakers will be watching very closely. This, in turn, means that they will be paying particular interest to the housing and mortgage markets.
Appetite for loans picks up again, say major banks BBC News (23/9/14)
Business lending by UK banks is down by £941m Herald Scotland, Ian McConnell (27/8/14)
How bank lending fell by £365 BILLION in five years… much to the delight of controversial payday loan firms Mail, Louise Eccles (7/09/14)
U.K.’s Big Banks Cut Lending by $595 Billion, KPMG Says Bloomberg, Richard Partington (8/9/14)
UK banks’ home loan approvals fall to 12-month low – BBA Reuters, Andy Bruce and Tom Heneghan (23/9/14)
Bankstats (Monetary and Financial Statistics) – Latest Tables Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
- What is meant by the term the business cycle?
- What does it mean for the determinants of the business cycle to be endogenous? What about if they are exogenous?
- Outline the ways in which the financial system can impact on the spending behaviour of households. Repeat the exercise for businesses.
- How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households and businesses?
- What does it mean if bank lending is pro-cyclical?
- Why might lending be pro-cyclical?
- How might the differential between borrowing and saving interest rates vary over the business cycle?
- Explain what you understand by net lending to households or firms. How does net lending affect their stock of debt?