Monday, 9 June 2014

Drowning in Debt – Need Help

We are being pushed into borrowing our way back to economic growth but staying afloat also involves selling off our future

The last thing a drowning man needs is more water but this is how policy makers have chosen to react to the global financial crisis.  The global financial crisis came about due to consumers being allowed to take on too much debt in the past.  Yet, the policy response has been to push for greater borrowing by lowering interest rates and feeding money into the banking system.  Higher debt now can only mean greater repayments in the future.  This would be acceptable if a swift return to economic growth was on the way but this seems too optimistic.  Instead, while the economy is getting a temporary boost now, growing levels of debt are being forecast to depress the economy for years to come.

Cheap loans anyone?

The debt and water analogy works on many levels.  In the same way that water is essential for life to flourish, debt is needed for an economy to grow.  Yet, like water, too much debt can be as bad as not enough.  The appropriate level of debt depends on the pace of economic expansion.  Rapid economic growth will create greater demand for loans as business opportunities arise and asset prices rise.  Like a garden requires watering when the weather is hot, a booming economy can absorb more debt as the money generated through the loans makes it easier to fund debt repayments. 

The opposite is also true.  It is desirable to have fewer loans as an economy cools since paying off debt is tougher.  It seems a strange time to convince people to rack up more debt but that is what central banks are pushing for.  This is because the tools of monetary policy work by reducing the cost of money (through lower interest rates or printing more cash) when the economy is floundering.  Such policies make sense when assuming a rapid recovery in economic growth but even economists are pessimistic about the prospects for the global economy.

The other bail out option is for the government to ramp up spending through increased borrowing.  This is the typical response to dampened economic growth but concerns about high levels of government debt have limited the capacity for such a fiscal stimulus.  This has resulted in monetary policy having to take on the bulk of the heavy lifting in getting the economy moving again.  Businesses have typically not made use of the cheap credit on offer through the low interest rates (except to buy back their own shares).  It is the increased debt taken on by households that has been the main driver of economic recovery but this is neither balanced nor sustainable

Debt – paying the price

It is the role of policy makers to create an environment for encouraging economic growth.  Tough choices are necessary when few options are available but relying on households to pile up more debt seems irresponsible and short-sighted.  The ratio of earnings to house prices is on the rise at a time when wages are standing still.  This means that consumers will be saddled with debt repayments for longer (especially if house prices stagnate as is probable) and this will depress consumer spending in the future.  It seems a poor trade-off even at a time when the economy is underwater. 

This policy seems even dafter when considering that consumer debt is mostly unproductive.  Buying a house off someone else does not add anything to the economy (while spending on renovations does help a bit).  On the other hand, if the government were to borrow and spend more on education or infrastructure, this would increase the output capacity of the economy.  Yet, this sensible alternative is being dismissed even though investors are no longer shunning any government with excessive debt and interest rates on government debt are near record lows for many countries. 

It will ultimately be people like you and me who pay the price.  Our spending power is being put at risk at a time when the government’s own finances are drained and businesses are not putting their balance sheets in jeopardy.  It is likely to remain tough for many people to keep their heads above water and an economy saturated with debt may not provide much help.

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