In recent times the notion that the financial sytem can be destabilising seems blindingly obvious. And, yet, for some time macroeconomic models of the economy tended to regard the financial system as benevolent. It served our interests. We were the masters; it was our servant. Now of course we accept that credit cycles can be destabilising. Policymakers, especially central banks, follow keenly the latest private-sector credit data. Here we look back at previous patterns in private-sector debt and crucially at what patterns are currently emerging.
First a bit of theory. The idea of credit cycles is not new. But the financial crisis of the late 2000s has helped to reignite analysis and interest. Economists are trying to gain a better understanding of the relationship between flows of credit and the state of the economy and, in particular, why might flows increase as the level of real GDP rises – why might they be endogenous variables in models of the determination of GDP. One possibility is the financial accelerator. This is the idea that as real GDP rises banks perceive lending to be less risky. After all, real incomes will tend to rise and collateral values (against which borrowing can be secured) are likely to be rising too.
Another possibility is growing exuberance as the economy grows. This has gained in popularity as an idea, with economists revisiting the work of Hyman Minsky (1919–96), an American economist. Here success breeds failure as the balance sheets of people and businesses deteriorate as they become increasingly burdened with debt. The balance sheets are said to be congested leading to a point when a deleveraging starts. A balance sheet recession then follows.
Now for the data. Consider first the stocks of debt acquired by households and private non-financial corporations from MFIs (Monetary Financial Institutions). The first chart shows debt stocks as a percentage of GDP. It illustrates nicely the phenomenon of financialisation. In essence, this is the increasing importance of MFIs to the economy. At the end of 2014, these two sectors had debt stocks outstanding equivalent to 90 per cent of GDP. In fact, this is down from a peak of 129 per cent in September 2009. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The growth in debt, especially in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, was through 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. Some argue that this was part of a super-cycle which works alongside the normal credit cycle, albeit over a much lengthier period. It can be argued that these cycles coincided during the 1990s and for much of the 2000s until financial distress hit. The distress was hastened by central banks raising interest rates to dampen the rising rate of inflation, partly attributable to rising global commodity prices, including oil.
Some refer to 2008 as a Minsky moment. Overstretched balance sheets needed repairing. But, the collective act of repair actually caused financial well-being to worsen as asset prices and aggregate demand fell.
The 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 Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) has responsibility for monitoring and helping to ensure the soundness of the UK financial system.
Undoubtedly, the FPC will have constructed a chart similar to our second chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). This chart suggests some caution: the need for casting a ‘Minsky eye’ on lending patterns. Over 2014, the UK household sector undertook net lending (i.e. after deducting repayments) of £30 billion. While nothing like the £100 billion or so in 2007, this does mark something of a step up. Indeed it is almost exactly double the flow in 2013. In the months ahead we will continue to monitor the credit data. You can bet that the FPC will do too!
Comment: Household debt threatens return to spending Herald Scotland, Bill Jamieson (2/3/15)
Household debt rising at fastest rate for 10yrs moneyfacts.co.uk (10/2/15)
Housing starting to rally after home loan approvals rise in January London Evening Standard, Ben Chu (2/3/15)
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?
According to Brad DeLong, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, if we are to get a full understanding of the financial crisis and recession of the past two years, we need to take a historical perspective. In the following article from The Economic Times of India, he argues that modern macroeconomists need to learn from history if their assumptions and models are to be relevant and predictive.
The anti-history boys The Economic Times (India) (1/10/09)
A fuller version of the above article, along with comments from readers, can be found on Brad deLong’s blog site, a Semi-Daily Journal of an Economist at:
Economic History and Modern Macro: What Happened? (30/9/09)
- According to Narayana Kocherlakota, most macroeconomic models “rely on some form of large quarterly movements in the technological frontier. Some have collective shocks to the marginal utility of leisure. Other models have large quarterly shocks to the depreciation rate in the capital stock (in order to generate high asset price volatilities)…”. How could these models explain business cycles? Would you classify them as ‘real business cycle theories’: i.e. as ‘supply-side’ explanations?
- How does Brad deLong explain recessions?
- Why does a change in the velocity of circulation of money contribute to a crash?
- What are the strengths and limitation of using economic history to understand the current crisis?
Both business and consumer confidence are affected by the state of the economy. A recession, or even a slowdown in the economy, will make people worried for their jobs and future incomes and hence cut back on spending and either save more or reduce their debts. Similarly firms are likely to cut back on investment if they are pessimistic about the future. But both consumer demand and investment are components of aggregate demand. A cut in aggregate demand will drive the economy further into recession and cause even greater pessimism. In other words, there is a feedback loop. Recession causes pessimism and hence a fall in aggregate demand, which, in turn, worsens the recession.
A similar process of feedback occurs in times of optimism. If the economy recovers, or is thought to be about to do so, the resulting optimism will cause people and firms to spend more. This rise in aggregate demand will help the process of recovery (see Accelerating the recession and Animal Spirits).
The following article by Robert Shiller, co-author of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, looks at the swing from pessimism to optimism over the past few months.
An Echo Chamber of Boom and Bust: Robert Schiller New York Times (29/8/09)
Efficient Market Hypothesis: True “Villain” of the Financial Crisis? The Market Oracle (26/8/09)
Monthly confidence indicators for the EU can be found at:
Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series European Commission Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. (Each of the ‘en’ cells links to a zipped Excel file.)
- Explain why “confidence has rebounded so quickly in so many places” in recent weeks.
- Is Robert Shiller’s explanation of feedback loops consistent with the accelerator theory?
- In what circumstances do business and consumer psychology result in destabilising speculation and what causes turning points in the process? Why may such turning points be difficult to predict?
- Examine the monthly Economic Sentiment Indicator (ESI) for the UK from the ‘Business and Consumer Surveys: Time Series’ link above. You will need to refer to the final column in the Excel ESI Monthly worksheet (Column GV). Chart the movements in this indicator over the past three years. Also chart the quarterly growth in UK GDP over the same time period. You can find data from Economic and Labour Market Review (ONS), Data tables, Table 1.01, Column YBEZ. Is ESI a leading or a lagging indicator of GDP?
- What implications does Shiller’s analysis have for the management of the economy?
- Why may stock market movements not be a ‘random walk’?
Imagine putting together a dream team of economists to tackle the current recession. Who would you choose? Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor considers this game of ‘fantasy economics’ in the linked article below. In the process, he makes a number of criticisms of economists for saying little about what caused the current crisis and how such crises could be avoided in the future.
As students studying economics you might want to defend economists against this attack. After all, virtually every time you turn on the radio or television or open a paper, there are economists explaining what has happened and what should be done about it. So see if you can mount a defence against this attack – and maybe put together your own dream team of economists!
It’s a funny old game: where is the dream team of economists to tackle the slump? Guardian (1/6/09)
Profiles of many the economists referred to in Larry Elliott’s article can be found at the History of Economic Thought website. You can access this from the Sloman Hot Links tab above and then click on site C18.
- Explain why economies with deregulated financial markets are likely to experience macroeconomic instability (‘boom-bust cycles’).
- What are the benefits of studying perfectly competitive markets and general equilibrium theory?
- Write a brief defence of the use of mathematics in economics.
- Does experimental economics allow economists to take a ‘more nuanced and relevant approach’ to studying economic behaviour and devising appropriate policy?