‘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?
In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.
But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.
Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:
This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.
While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?
But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:
The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.
The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.
We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.
The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)
- What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
- To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
- Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
- Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
- Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?
If one person saves more, then it will increase that person’s consumption possibilities in the future. If, however, everyone saves more, and hence spends less, then businesses will earn less and are likely to respond by producing less if the decline in aggregate demand continues. Hence if a country saves more, people could be worse off. That’s the paradox of thrift.
There is considerable debate around the world at the moment about the desirability of austerity policies. The debate has become more intense with the worsening economic outlook in many European countries and with the election in France of François Hollande who rejects many of the austerity measures of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
But can further stimulus be given to aggregate demand without causing a further worsening of countries’ public-sector debt positions and causing a fall in confidence in financial markets? And how would that impact on investment?
And in the meantime, as the economic outlook darkens, people are trying to save more, despite low interest rates. The paradox of thrift seems to be getting more acute. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
How National Belt-Tightening Goes Awry New York Times, Robert J. Shiller (19/5/12)
Japan disease is spreading: High risk and low returns Firstpost (India), Vivek Kaul (17/5/12)
The Solution can not be More Debt Huffington Post, Jill Shaw Ruddock (29/5/12)
Crediting debt Breaking Views, Edward Hadas (30/5/12)
Green investments can overcome the paradox of thrift New Statesman, Dimitri Zenghelis (7/6/12)
Austerity has never worked Guardian, Ha-Joon Chang (4/6/12)
The False Choice Between Austerity And Growth Forbes (24/5/12)
It’s not a case of austerity v stimulus for Europe Guardian, Paul Haydon (1/6/12)
UK households’ saving ratio: series NRJS ONS
Household saving rates for OECD countries StatExtracts: OECD
- Why may we be experiencing a paradox of thrift at the current time?
- What are the arguments for the use of fiscal and monetary policies to expand aggregate demand at the current time?
- What are the arguments against the use of fiscal and monetary policies to expand aggregate demand at the current time?
- Can economic growth be stimulated by a redistribution of aggregate demand and, if so, in what way?
- Can green investment overcome the paradox of thrift?
- To what extent are demand-side and supply-side policies (a) complementary; (b) contradictory? Or, to put the question another way, to what extent may policies to encourage growth in the long term damage growth in the short term and vice versa?
According to a report just published by accountancy firm Deloitte, UK household real disposable incomes are set to fall for the fourth year in a row. What is to blame for this? According to Deloitte’s chief economic adviser, Roger Bootle, there are three main factors.
The first is the combination of tax rises and government expenditure cuts, which are now beginning to have a large impact. Part of this is the direct effect on consumer disposable incomes of higher taxes and reduced benefits. Part is the indirect effect on employment and wages of reduced public expenditure – both for public-sector employees and for those working for companies that supply the public sector.
The second is the rise in food, fuel and raw material prices, which have driven up the rate of inflation, thereby eroding real incomes. For most people, “pay growth is unlikely to catch up with inflation any time soon. Inflation is heading towards – and possibly above – 5%. Real earnings are therefore all but certain to fall for the fourth successive year in a row – the first time that this has occurred since the 1870s.”
The third is that demand in the private sector is unlikely to compensate for the fall in demand in the public sector. “I still doubt that the private sector can compensate for the cuts in public sector employment – which is already falling by 100,000 a year.
The upshot is that I expect households’ disposable incomes to fall by about 2% this year in real terms – equivalent to about £780 per household. And it will take until 2015 or so for incomes to get back to their 2009 peak.
… In terms of the year-on-year change in circumstances, although not the absolute level, that would make 2011 the worst year for households since 1977 (the depths of the recent recession aside). Were interest rates to rise too, conditions would arguably be the worst for households since 1952.”
Well, that’s a pretty gloomy forecast! The following articles examine the arguments and consider the likelihood of the forecasts coming true. They also look at the implications for monetary and fiscal policy.
Since I wrote the above, two more gloomy forecasts have been published: the first by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the second by Ernst & Young’s Item Club. Both reports are linked to below.
Squeeze on incomes expected to rule out rate rise Guardian, Phillip Inman (3/5/11)
No rate rise until 2013, says Bootle MoneyMarketing, Steve Tolley (3/5/11)
UK households ‘face £780 drop in disposable incomes’ BBC News (3/5/11)
Why our purchasing power is set to suffer the biggest squeeze since 1870 The Telegraph, Ian Cowie (3/5/11)
2012 ‘worst year’ for household finances says Deloitte BBC News, Ian Stuart, Chief Economist with Deloitte (3/5/11)
Retailers expect sales gloom to continue Guardian, Graeme Wearden (3/5/11)
What makes consumers confident? BBC News, Shanaz Musafer (4/5/11)
Household incomes in UK ‘may return to 2004 levels’ BBC News (13/5/11)
Biggest squeeze on incomes since 1980s TotallyMoney, Michael Lloyd (13/5/11)
High street to endure decade of gloom, says Ernst & Young Item Club Guardian, Julia Kollewe (16/5/11)
Outlook for spending ‘bleak’ and road to recovery is long, Ernst & Young ITEM Club warns The Telegraph, James Hall (16/5/11)
Feeling the pinch: Overview Deloitte (3/5/11)
Feeling the pinch: Full Report Deloitte (3/5/11)
Long-term effects of recession on living standards yet to be felt IFS Press Release (13/5/11)
ITEM Club Spring 2011 forecast Ernst & Young
UK high street faces difficult decade as consumer squeeze intensifies and households focus on paying down debt, says ITEM Club Ernst & Young (16/5/11)
Forecasts for Output, Prices and Jobs The Economist
Forecasts for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
Consumer Confidence Index Nationwide Building Society (Feb 2011)
Confidence indicators for EU countries Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- For what reasons may real household incomes fall by (a) more than and (b) less than the 2% forecast by Deloitte?
- What is likely to happen to commodity prices over the coming 24 months and why?
- With CPI inflation currently running at an annual rate of 4% (double the Bank of England’s target rate of 2%), consider whether it is now time for the Monetary Policy Committee to raise interest rates.
- For what reasons might households respond to falling real incomes by (a) running down savings; (b) building up savings?
- What are the implications of the report for tax revenues in the current financial year?
- What makes consumers confident?
If you are lucky enough to have piles of money earning interest in a bank account, one thing you don’t want to be doing is facing the dreaded tax bill on the interest earned. It is for this reason that many wealthy people put their savings into bank accounts in Switzerland and other countries with strict secrecy laws. Countries, such as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Liberia and the Principality of Monaco have previously had laws in place to prevent the effective exchange of information. This had meant that you could keep your money in an account there and the UK authorities would be unable to obtain any information for their tax records.
However, as part of an ongoing OECD initiative against harmful tax practices, more and more countries have been opening up to the exchange of information. In recent developments, Switzerland and the UK have signed an agreement, which will see them begin to negotiate on improving information exchange. In particular, the UK will be looking at the possibility of the Swiss authorities imposing a tax on any interest earned in their accounts by UK residents. This tax would be on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs. One concern, however, with this attempted crack down on tax evasion is that ‘innocent’ taxpayers could be the ones to suffer.
The following articles consider this recent development. It is also a good idea to look at the following link, which takes you to the OECD to view some recent agreements between the UK and other countries with regard to tax policy and the exchange of information. (The OECD)
UK in talks over taxing Britons’ Swiss bank accounts BBC News (26/10/10)
Doubts on plans to tackle tax evasion Telegraph, Myra Butterworth (21/10/10)
HMRC letters target taxpayers with Swiss bank accounts BBC News (25/10/10)
Spending Review: Can the taxman fix the system? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (22/10/10)
Britain, Switzerland agree to begin tax talks AFP (26/10/10)
Treasury to get £1 billion windfall in Swiss deal over secret bank accounts Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/10/10)
Swiss to help UK tax secret accounts Reuters (25/10/10)
The OECD’s Project on Hamful Tax Practices, 2006 Update on Progress in Member Countries The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration 2006
A Progress Report on the Jurisdictions surveyed by the OECD global forum in implementing the internationally agreed tax standard The OECD, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration (19/10/10)
- Is there a difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion?
- If there is crack down on tax evasion, what might be the impact on higher earners? How could this potential policy change adversely affect the performance of the UK economy?
- If tax evasion is reduced, what are the likely positive effects on everyday households?
- Is clamping down on tax evasion cost effective?
- What might be the impact on people’s willingness to work, especially of those on higher wages, if there is no longer a ‘haven’ where they can save their money?
- How could tax reform help the UK reduce its budget deficit?