‘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)
- What would be the impact of several countries defaulting on debt?
- What factors determine the likelihood of sovereign defaults?
- What factors determine the likelihood of bank defaults?
- What is meant by ‘leverage’ in the context of (a) banks; (b) nations?
- What are the Basel III regulations? What impact will they have/are they having on bank leverage?
- Expand on the arguments supporting the doomsday scenario above.
- Expand on the arguments supporting the optimistic scenario above.
- What is the relationship between economic growth and debt?
- Explain how the explosion in global credit might merely be ‘the mirror image of rising output, asset prices and wealth’.
- 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)
- Explain what is meant by ‘leverage’.
- Why does a low-leverage economy do better in a downturn than a high-leverage one?
- What is the relationship between deficits and the debt/GDP ratio?
- When might an increase in debt be good for an economy?
- Comment on the statement in The Telegraph article that ‘In theory, debt is fine if it is backed up by high-quality collateral’.
- Why does the rise is debt matter for the global economy?
- 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?
- What is the structure of China’s debt and what problems does this pose for the Chinese economy?
On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the USA, filed for bankruptcy. Although the credit crisis had been building since mid 2007, the demise of Lehmans was a pivotal event in the unfolding of the financial crisis and the subsequent severe recession in most developed economies. Banks were no longer seen as safe and huge amounts of government money had to be poured into banks to shore up their capital and prevent further bankruptcies. Partial nationalisation seemed the only way of rescuing several banks and with it the global financial system.
A deep and prolonged recession followed (see Chart 1: click here for a PowerPoint). In response, governments pursued expansionary fiscal policies – at least until worries about rising government deficits and debt caused a lurch to austerity policies. And central banks pursued policies of near zero interest rates and subsequently of quantitative easing. But all the time debate was taking place about how to reform banking to prevent similar crises occurring in the future.
Solutions have included reform of the Basel banking regulations to ensure greater capital adequacy. The Basel III regulations (see Chart 2) demand considerably higher capital ratios than the previous Basel II regulations.
Other solutions have included proposals to break up banks. Indeed, just this week, the Lloyds Banking Group has hived off 631 of its branches (one sixth of the total) into a newly reformed TSB. Another proposal is to ring-fence the retail side of banks from their riskier investment divisions. In both cases the aim has been to avoid the scenario where banks are seen as too big to fail and can thus rely on governments to bail them out if they run into difficulties. Such reliance can make banks much more willing to take excessive risks. Further details of the new systems now in place are given in the Robert Peston article below.
But many critics maintain that not nearly enough has been done. Claims include:
• The Basel III rules are not tough enough and banks are still being required to hold too little capital.
• Rewards to senior bankers and traders are still excessive.
• The culture of banking, as a result, is still too risk loving in banks’ trading arms, even though they are now much more cautious about lending to firms and individuals.
• This caution has meant a continuing of the credit crunch for many small businesses.
• Higher capital adequacy ratios have reduced bank lending and have thus had a dampening effect on the real economy.
• The so-called ring-fences may not be sufficient to insulate retail banking from problems in banks’ investment divisions.
• Banks are not being required to hold sufficient liquidity to allow them to meet customers’ demands for cash in all scenarios.
• Banks’ reliance on each other still leaves a systemic risk for the banking system as a whole.
• Fading memories of the crisis are causing urgency to tackle its underlying problems to diminish.
• Problems may be brewing in less regulated parts of the banking world, such as the growing banking sector in China.
The following articles look at the lessons of the banking crisis – those that have been learned and those that have not. They look at the measures put in place and assess whether they are sufficient.
Lehman Brothers collapse, five years on: ‘We had almost no control’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (13/9/13)
Lehman Brothers collapse: five years on, we’re still feeling the shockwaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (13/9/13)
Five years after Lehman, could a collapse happen all over again? The Observer, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (15/9/13)
Five years after Lehman, all tickety-boo? BBC News, Robert Peston (9/9/13)
What have we learned from the bank crash? Independent, Yalman Onaran, Michael J Moore and Max Abelson (14/9/13)
We’ve let a good financial crisis go to waste since Lehman Brothers collapsed The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (12/9/13)
The Lehman legacy: Lessons learned? The Economist (9/9/13)
The dangers of debt: Lending weight The Economist (14/9/13)
The Lehman anniversary: Five years in charts The Economist (14/9/13)
- Why did Lehman Brothers collapse?
- Explain the role of the US sub-prime mortgage market in the global financial crisis of 2007/8.
- In the context of banking, what is meant by (a) capital adequacy; (b) risk-based capital adequacy ratios; (c) leverage; (d) leverage ratios?
- Explain the Basel III rules on (a) risk-based capital adequacy (see the textbook and the chart above); (b) non-risk-based leverage (introduced in 2013: see here for details).
- Explain and comment on the following statement by Adair Turner: ‘We created an over-leveraged financial system and an over-leveraged real economy. We created a system such that even if the direct cost of bank rescue was zero, the impact of their near-failure on the economy was vast.’
- Under what circumstances might the global financial system face a similar crisis to that of 2007/8 at some point in the future?
- Why is there an underlying conflict between increasing banks’ required capital adequacy and ensuring a sufficient supply of credit to consumers and business? What multiplier effects are likely to occur from an increase in the capital adequacy ratio?
Following the banking crisis of 2007/8 a new set of international banking regulations was agreed in 2010 by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. The purpose was to strengthen banks’ capital base. Under ‘Basel III’, banks would be required, in stages, to meet specific minimum capital adequacy ratios: i.e. minimum ratios of capital to (risk-weighted) assets. The full regulations would come into force by 2019. These are shown in the chart below.
The new Financial Policy Committee of the Bank of England has judged that some UK banks have insufficient ‘common equity tier 1 capital’. This is defined as ordinary shares in the bank plus the bank’s reserves. According to the Bank of England:
… the immediate objective should be to achieve a common equity tier 1 capital ratio, based on Basel III definitions and, after the required adjustments, of at least 7% of risk-weighted assets by end 2013. Some banks, even after the adjustments described above, have capital ratios in excess of 7%; for those that do not, the aggregate capital shortfall at end 2012 was around £25 billion.
Thus the banking system in the UK is being required, by the end of 2013, to meet the 7% ratio. This could be done, either by increasing the amount of capital or by reducing the amount of assets. The Bank of England is keen for banks not to reduce assets, which would imply a reduction in lending. Similarly, it does not want banks to increase reserves at the expense of lending. Either action could push the economy back into recession. Rather the Bank of England wants banks to raise more capital. But that requires sufficient confidence by investors.
And the end of this year is not the end of the process. After that, further increases in capital will be required, so that by 2019 banks are fully compliant with Basel III. All this will make it difficult for certain banks to raise enough capital from investors. As far as RBS and the Lloyds Banking Group are concerned, this will make the prospect of privatising them more difficult. But that is what the government eventually wants. It does not want the taxpayer to have to find the extra capital. Re-capitalising the banks, or at least some of them, may prove difficult.
The following articles look at the implications of the FPC judgement and whether strengthening the banks will strengthen or weaken the rest of the economy.
Financial policy committee identifies £25bn capital shortfall in UK banks The Guardian, Jill Treanor (27/3/13)
Banks Told To Raise Capital By Financial Policy Committee To Cushion Against A Crisis Huffington Post (27/3/13)
UK banks’ £25bn shortfall: positive for banks, negative for BoE credibility, Sid Verma (27/3/13)
Doubts over Bank of England’s £25bn confidence game The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (27/3/13)
Bank of England tells banks to raise £25bn BBC News (27/3/13)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
U.K. Banks Seen Avoiding Share Sales After BOE Capital Review Bloomberg Businessweek, Gavin Finch and Howard Mustoe (27/3/13)
Banks Cut Basel III Shortfall by $215 Billion in Mid-2012 Bloomberg (19/3/13)
Will strengthening banks weaken the economy? BBC News, Robert Peston (27/3/13)
Bank of England News Release
Financial Policy Committee statement from its policy meeting, 19 March 2013 Bank of England (27/3/13)
- Explain the individual parts of the chart.
- What do you understand by risk-weighted assets?
- Distinguish between capital adequacy ratios and liquidity ratios.
- What could the banks do to increase their capital adequacy ratios? Compare the desirability of each method.
- If all banks around the world were Basel III compliant, would this make another global banking crisis impossible?
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007/8, the international banking regulatory body, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, sought to ensure that the global banking system would be much safer in future. This would require that banks had (a) sufficient capital; (b) sufficient liquidity to meet the demands of customers.
The Basel III rules set new requirements for capital adequacy ratios, to be phased in by 2019. But what about liquidity ratios? The initial proposals of the Basel Committee were that banks should have sufficient liquid assets to be able to withstand for at least 30 days an intense liquidity crisis (such as that which led to the run on Northern Rock in 2007). Liquid assets were defined as cash, reserves in the central bank and government bonds. This new ‘liquidity coverage ratio’ would begin in 2015.
These proposals, however, have met with considerable resistance from bankers, who claim that higher liquidity requirements will reduce their ability to lend and reduce the money multiplier. This would make it more difficult for countries to pull out of recession.
In response, the Basel Committee has published a revised set of liquidity requirements. The new liquidity coverage ratio, instead of being introduced in full in 2015, will be phased in over four years from 2015 to 2019. Also the definition of liquid assets has been significantly expanded to include highly rated equities, company bonds and mortgage-backed securities.
This loosening of the liquidity requirements has been well received by banks. But, as some of the commentators point out in the articles, it is some of these assets that proved to be wholly illiquid in 2007/8!
Banks Win 4-Year Delay as Basel Liquidity Rule Loosened BloombergJim Brunsden, Giles Broom & Ben Moshinsky (7/1/13)
Banks win victory over new Basel liquidity rules Independent, Ben Chu (7/1/13)
Banks win concessions and time on liquidity rules The Guardian, Dan Milmo (7/1/13)
Basel liquidity agreement boosts bank shares BBC News (7/1/13)
Banks agree minimum liquidity rules BBC News, Robert Peston (67/1/13)
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision endorses revised liquidity standard for banks BIS Press Release (6/1/13)
Summary description of the LCR BIS (6/1/13)
Basel III: The Liquidity Coverage Ratio and liquidity risk monitoring tools BIS (6/1/13)
Introductory remarks from GHOS Chairman Mervyn King and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s Chairman Stefan Ingves (Transcript) BIS (6/1/13)
- What is meant by ‘liquid assets’?
- How does the liquidity of assets depend on the state of the economy?
- What is the relationship between the liquidity ratio and the money multiplier?
- Does the size of the money multiplier depend solely on the liquidity ratio that banks are required to hold?
- Distinguish between capital adequacy and liquidity.
- What has been the effect of quantitative easing on banks’ liquidity ratios?