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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Increase in Household Debt Prior to the Crisis is Not a Moral Issue

Via Mike Konczal at Rortybomb, Josh Mason explains the findings of his research with Arjun Jayadev on the dynamics of household debt. Importantly, this research knocks a hole in the story that it was lack of self control -- the decline of the morals of the middle class -- that caused the increase in household debt prior to the financial crisis (the original article also has the mathematics and empirical tables explaining and documenting the results):

Guest Post by JW Mason: The Dynamics of Household Debt: [Mike here. ... Josh Mason ... and Arjun Jayadev, former Roosevelt Institute fellow and economist at Umass-Boston, have an interesting new paper out on the growth of household debt over the past 30 years. I asked them if they would write a summary of this research..., and Josh was willing...]
It’s a well-known fact that household debt has exploded in recent decades, rising from 50 percent of GDP in 1980 to over 100 percent on the eve of the Great Recession. It’s also well-known that household borrowing has increased sharply over this period. ... In fact, though,... while the first one is certainly true, the second is not.
How can debt have increased if borrowing hasn’t? Though this seems counterintuitive, the answer is simple. We’re not interested in debt per se, but in leverage, defined as the ratio of a sector’s or unit’s debt to its income (or net worth). This ratio can go up because the numerator rises, or because the denominator falls. Household leverage increased sharply, for instance, in 1930 and 1931 (see Figure 1) but people weren’t were consuming more in the Depression; leverage rose because incomes and prices were falling faster than households could pay down debt. Similarly, changes in interest rates can change the debt burden without any shift in household consumption...
But strangely, despite the example of the Depression (and Irving Fisher’s famous diagnosis of rising debt burdens caused by falling prices and incomes (Fisher 1933)), no one has systematically examined what fraction of changes in private debt can be attributed to changes in interest, growth, inflation and new borrowing. In a new paper, Arjun Jayadev and I attempt to fill this gap, applying the standard decomposition of public sector debt changes to household debt in the United States for the period 1929-2011. (Mason and Jayadev, 2012.) Our findings challenge the conventional narrative about rising household debt.
What we find is that the entire increase in household leverage after 1980 can be attributed to the non-borrowing... — what we call Fisher dynamics. If interest rates, growth and inflation over 1981-2011 had remained at their average levels of the previous 30 years, then the exact same spending decisions by households would have resulted in a debt-to-income ratio in 2010 below that of 1980, as shown in Figure 2. The 1980s, in particular, were a kind of slow-motion debt-deflation, or debt-disinflation; the entire growth in debt relative to earlier periods (17 percent of household income, compared with just 3 percent in the 1970s) is due to the slower growth in nominal income as a result of falling inflation. In other words, there is no reason to think that aggregate household borrowing behavior changed after 1980; indeed households reduced their borrowing in the face of higher interest rates just as one would expect rational agents to. The problem is that they didn’t, or couldn’t, reduce borrowing fast enough to make up for the fact that after the Volcker disinflation, leverage was no longer being eroded by rising prices. In this respect, the rise in debt-income ratios in the 1980s is parallel to that of 1929-1931. ...
Think of it this way: If you borrow money and your income in dollars rises by 10 percent a year (3 percent real growth, say, and 7 percent inflation) then you will find it much easier to pay off the debt when it comes due. But if you borrow the same amount and your dollar income turns out to rise at only 4 percent a year (the same real growth but only 1 percent inflation) then the payment, when it comes due, will be a larger fraction of your income. That, not increased household spending, is why debt ratios rose in the 1980s.
Neither the 1980s nor the 1990s saw an increase in new household borrowing — on the contrary, the household sector in the aggregate showed a primary surplus in these decades, in contrast with the primary deficits of the postwar decades. So both the conservative theory explaining increased household borrowing in terms of shorter time horizons and a general lack of self-control, and the liberal theory explaining it in terms of efforts by those further down the income ladder to maintain consumption standards in the face of a falling share of income, need some rethinking. Given the increased availability of credit and rising inequality, some households may well have chosen to increase spending relative to income, and those lower down the income ladder presumably did rely on borrowing to maintain consumption standards in the face of stagnant wages. But for the household sector in the aggregate, until 2000, there is no increased household borrowing to explain. ...
An important point to note ...[is] that in the period of the housing bubble — 2000 to 2006 — the conventional story is right: during this period, the household sector did run very large primary deficits (averaging 3.3 percent of income), which explain the bulk of increased leverage over this period. But not all of it: even in this period, about a third of the increase in debt was due to ... mechanical effects... And in the following four years, households reduced consumption relative to income by nearly as much as they increased it in the bubble years. But these large primary surpluses barely offset the large gap between interest and (very low) growth and inflation over these four years. In the absence of the headwind created by adverse debt dynamics, the increase in household leverage in the bubble would have been effectively reversed by 2011.
We draw two main conclusions. First, as a historical matter, you cannot understand the changes in private sector leverage over the 20th century without explicitly accounting for debt dynamics. The tendency to treat changes in debt ratios as necessarily the result in changes in borrowing behavior obscures the most important factors in the evolution of leverage. Second, going forward, it seems unlikely that households can sustain large enough primary deficits to reduce or even stabilize leverage. ... As a practical matter, it seems clear that, just as the rise in leverage was not the result of more borrowing, any reduction in leverage will not come about through less borrowing. To substantially reduce household debt will require some combination of financial repression to hold interest rates below growth rates for an extended period, and larger-scale and more systematic debt write-downs. ...

    Posted by on Friday, February 24, 2012 at 12:27 AM in Economics, Financial System | Permalink  Comments (87)


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