It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.
According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.
In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.
“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”
This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:
“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”
Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:
“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”
Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
Have you ever woken in the night worrying about your finances? Most of us have. Our overall financial position undoubtedly exerts influence on our spending. Therefore, we would not expect our current spending levels to be entirely determined by our current income level.
Our financial health, or what economists call our net financial wealth, can be calculated as the difference between our financial assets (savings) and our financial liabilities (debt). Between them, British households have amassed a stock of debt of £1.423 trillion, almost as much as annual GDP, which is around £1.5 trillion (click here to download the PowerPoint.) We look here at recent trends in loans by financial institutions to British households. We consider the effect that the financial crisis and the appetite of individuals for lending is having on the debt numbers.
There are two types of lending to individuals. The first is secured debt and refers to loans against property. In other words, secured debt is just another name for mortgage debt. The second type of lending is referred to as unsecured debt. This covers all other forms of loans involving financial institutions, including overdrafts, outstanding credit card debt and personal loans. The latest figures from the Bank of England’s Money and Credit show that as of 31 March 2013, the stock of debt owed by individuals in the UK (excluding loans involving the Student Loans Company) was £1.423 trillion. Of this, £1.265 trillion was secured debt while the remaining £157.593 billion was unsecured debt. From this, we can the significance of secured debt. It comprises 89 per cent of the stock of outstanding debt to individuals. The remaining 11 per cent is unsecured debt.
The second chart shows the growth in the stock of debt owed by individuals (click here to download the PowerPoint chart). In January 1994 the stock of secured debt stood at £358.75 billion and the stock of unsecured debt at £53.774 billion. 87 per cent of debt then was secured debt and, hence, little different to today. The total stock of debt has grown by 246 per cent between January 1994 and March 2013. Unsecured debt has grown by 197 per cent while secured debt has grown by 253 per cent.
However, more recently we see a different picture evolving, more especially in unsecured debt. Since October 2008, the monthly series of the stock of unsecured debt has fallen on 47 occasions and risen on only 7 occasions. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has fallen on only 12 occasions and often by very small amounts. Consequently, the stock of unsecured debt has fallen by 23.2 per cent between October 2008 and March 2013. In contrast, the stock of secured debt has risen by 3.5 per cent. The total stock of debt has fallen by 0.4 per cent over this period.
Another way of looking at changes in the stock of debt is to focus on what are known as net lending figures. This is simply the difference between the gross amount lent in a period and the amount repaid. The net lending figures will, of course, mirror changes in the total debt stock closely. For example, a negative net lending figure means that repayments are greater than gross lending. This will translate into a fall in the stock of debt. However, some difference occurs when debts have to be written off and not repaid.
The third chart shows net lending figures since January 1994 (click here to download the PowerPoint chart). The chart captures the financial crisis very nicely. We can readily see a collapse of net lending by financial institutions to households. It is, of course, difficult to disentangle from the net lending figures those changes driven by changes in the supply of credit by financial institutions and those from changes in the demand for credit by individuals. But, we can be certain that the enormous change in credit levels in 2008 were driven by a massive reduction in the provision of credit.
To further put the net lending figures into context, consider the following numbers. Over the period from January 2000 to December 2007, the average amount of monthly net lending was £8.52 billion. In contrast, since January 2009 the average amount of net lending has been £691 million per month. Consider too the composition of this net lending. The average amount of net secured lending between January 2000 and December 2007 was £7.13 billion per month compared with £1.39 billion for net unsecured lending. Since January 2009, monthly net secured lending has averaged only £756 million while monthly net unsecured lending has averaged -£64.4 million. Therefore, repayments of unsecured lending have outstripped gross unsecured lending.
While further analysis is needed to fully understand the drivers of the net lending figures, it is, nonetheless, clear that the financial system of 2013 is very different to that prior to the financial crisis. This change is affecting the growth of the debt stock of households. This is most obviously the case with unsecured debt. The stock of unsecured debt in March 2013 is 24 per cent smaller than in its peak in September 2008. It is now the job of economists to understand the implications of how the new emerging patterns in household debt will affect our behaviour and overall economic activity.
Money and Credit – March 2013 Bank of England
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England
Bank of England extends lending scheme Financial Times, Chris Giles (24/4/13)
Markets insight: Europe and the US lines cross on household debt ratio Financial Times, Gillian Tett (9/5/13)
British families are the deepest in debt Telegraph, James Kirkup (14/5/13)
Total property debt of British households stands as £848bn Guardian, Hilary Osborne (13/5/13)
Household finances reach best level in three years – but are stuck below pre-crisis levels This is Money.co.uk, Matt West (17/5/13)
ONS says Welsh households have lowest debts in Britain BBC News (28/1/13)
- Outline the ways in which the financial system could impact on the spending behaviour of households.
- Why might the current level of income not always be the main determinant of a household’s spending?
- How might uncertainty affect spending and saving by households?
- Explain what you understand by net lending to individuals. How does net lending to individuals affect stocks of debt?
- Outline the main patterns seen in the stock of household debt over the past decade and discuss what you consider to be the principal reasons for these patterns.
- If you were updating this blog in a year’s time, how different would you expect the charts to look?
Consumer spending is crucial to an economy. In the UK total consumer spending is equivalent to almost two-thirds of the value of country’s GDP. Understanding its determinants is therefore crucial in attempting to forecast the short-term path of the economy. In other words, the growth of the economy in 2013 will depend on our inclination to spend.
While the amount of disposable income (post-tax income) will be one factor influencing our spending, other factors matter too. Amongst these ‘other factors’ is the stock of wealth of households. Here we look at the latest available figures on the net worth of the UK household sector. Will our stock of wealth help to underpin spending or will it act to constrain spending?
The household sector’s net worth is the sum of its net financial wealth and non-financial (physical) wealth. Net financial wealth is the balance of financial assets over financial liabilities. Financial assets include funds in savings accounts, shares and pension funds. Financial liabilities include debts secured against property, largely residential mortgages, and unsecured debts, such as overdrafts and unpaid balances on credit cards. Non-financial wealth largely includes the value of the sector’s holdings of property and buildings.
The following table summarises the net worth of the UK household sector at the end of 2011 and 2010. The figures are taken from the Office for National Statistics release, National Balance Sheet. They show that at the end of 2011, the household sector had a net worth of £7.04 trillion. This was up just 0.1 per cent up 2010. At the end of 2011, the stock of net worth of the household sector was 7 times the amount of disposable income earned by the sector in 2011.
The Household Sector Balance Sheet
|Net financial wealth
|Non-financial (physical) wealth