Tag Archives: Debt

Updates from Chicago Booth

Given an out, people still fall back into debt
Research finds that keeping people out of debt traps isn’t as simple as paying off their loans
By Dee Gill – To the frustration of financial counselors everywhere, millions of people doom themselves to perpetual debt by repeatedly taking out small but expensive short-term loans they can barely afford. In the United States, these typically come from payday or car title lenders and go to financially strapped individuals.

In developing countries, small-scale entrepreneurs rely on daily or weekly loans for working capital. In both cases, borrowers pay exorbitant interest rates and, often, additional fees to extend a loan over and over. Interest payments can quickly add up to more than the loan amount.

Understanding how people get sucked into these debt traps is an important public-policy issue, according to Northwestern’s Dean Karlan, Chicago Booth’s Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harvard’s Benjamin N. Roth.

They conducted a series of experiments with indebted entrepreneurs in India and the Philippines and find that having their short-term loans paid off took the participants out of debt only temporarily. The entrepreneurs in question quickly took out new, profit-sapping loans. more>

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Time for a red shift from Germany’s ‘black zero’

By Peter Bofinger – If our children and grandchildren look back on the present day in 30 years, they will wonder how it was that such a civilised country as the United Kingdom could actually entertain leaving the European Union and robbing itself of its economic and political prospects.

In Germany they could ask the question why the land of poets and thinkers came up with the idea of ​​blindly sacrificing itself to the ideology of the ‘black zero’.

How could it be that Germany deliberately renounced investments in the future—and even believed that in doing so it was doing future generations a favor?

The German social-democrat party (SPD) is currently correcting mistakes from the past. This applies in particular to the 2005 ‘Hartz IV’ labor-market reform proposed by the eponymous commission, chaired by the personnel director of Volkswagen, established when Gerard Schröder was SPD chancellor. It has been celebrated as a great success for many years. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to resemble the fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

Today, Germany has a ratio of public debt to gross domestic product of 56 per cent, which is already below the 60 per cent threshold set by the Maastricht treaty. It is considerably below the level of the other G7 countries: Japan has the highest debt at 237 per cent of GDP, followed by Italy (129 per cent), the United States (108), France (96), the United Kingdom (87) and Canada (85).

Economics has so far failed to derive convincingly an upper limit on the debt-to-GDP ratio. more>

How Bronze Age Rulers Simply Canceled Debts

By Michael Hudson – My book And forgive them their debts”: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year  is about the origins of economic organization ad enterprise in the Bronze Age, and how it shaped the Bible. It’s not about modern economies. But the problem is – as the reviewer mentioned – that the Bronze Age and early Western civilization was shaped so differently from what we think of as logical and normal, that one almost has to rewire one’s brain to see how differently the archaic view of economic survival and enterprise was.

Credit economies existed long before money and coinage. These economies were agricultural. Grain was the main means of payment – but it was only paid once a year, at harvest time. You can imagine how awkward it would be to carry around grain in your pocket and measure it out every time you had a beer.

We know how Sumerians and Babylonians paid for their beer (which they drank through straws, and which was cleaner than the local water). The ale-woman marked it up on the tab she kept. The tab had to be paid at harvest time, on the threshing floor, when the grain was nice and fresh. The ale-woman then paid the palace or temple for its advance of wholesale beer for her to retail during the year.

If the crops failed, or if there was a flood or drought, or a military battle, the cultivators couldn’t pay. So what was the ruler to do? If he said, “You owe the tax collector, and can’t pay. Now you have to become his slave and let him foreclose on your land.”

Suddenly, you would have had a slave society. The cultivators couldn’t serve in the army, and couldn’t perform their corvée duties to build local infrastructure.

To avoid this, the ruler simply cancelled the debts (most of which were owed ultimately to the palace and its collectors). The cultivators didn’t have to pay the ale-women. And the ale women didn’t have to pay the palace.

All this was spelled out in the Clean Slate proclamations by rulers of Hammurabi’s dynasty in Babylonia (2000-1600 BC), and neighboring Near Eastern realms. They recognized that there was a cycle of buildup of debt, reaching an unpayably high overhead, followed by a cancellation to restore the status quo ante in balance.

This concept is very hard for Westerners to understand. more>

The Liberal Conception Of ‘Freedom’ Is Incapable Of Addressing The Problems Of Contemporary Capitalism

By Andrea Lorenzo Capussela – In a forthcoming book, Branko Milanović identifies four ‘troublesome features’ in ‘meritocratic liberal capitalism’.

In its simplest form, liberal theory – equal rights for all citizens, which guarantee their freedom, which is in turn conceived as absence of interference – has no obvious answer to those problems. For if freedom is non-interference, then it is compatible with both inequality and private domination, at least within certain bounds, as neither directly interferes with people’s individual choices.

Indeed, accepting precarious employment is a choice. And as liberals cannot say that Milanović’s four ‘troublesome features’ pose a fundamental challenge to their idea of a good society, their answer is a Ptolemaic one: sets of diverse, if potentially effective remedies such as redistribution, poverty relief, active labor market policies, civic education, and policing fake-news.

For the liberal conception of freedom is not the only conceivable one. Another notion, equally negative, is the republican or neo-roman one, which views freedom as non-domination. If I depend on someone else’s arbitrary will, or am subject to their enormous and unchecked power, I am not free, irrespective of how that power is exercised.

Hence the paradox of the ‘free slave’, frequent in republican literature: liberal theory implies that the slave who has a kind master is free, as she suffers no interference in her choices; republicans object that this depends entirely on the master’s benevolence, which can be revoked at will and may have to be cultivated: domination and unfreedom remain, therefore, and typically lead to self-censorship and a slavish mentality. more>

Is The Monetary System Facing The Risk Of Recession?

By Francesc Raventós – The International Monetary Fund, other economic institutions, politicians, experts, and a good number of indicators predict a new economic downturn. The causes will be diverse but the significant one is that debt worldwide has grown at an exaggerated rate.

According to the report of the International Finance Institute, IIF, global debt is $247-plus trillion, 318% of GDP.

In the 2000s or noughties an expansive fiscal and monetary policy with low interest rates generated significant public deficits, a strong increase in borrowing and created a stock market and real estate bubble that erupted in 2007, forcing central banks to push for a huge monetary expansion – Quantitative Easing – to get out of the crisis eventually.

With a lot of financial liquidity in the market at a cost close to zero, the economy has regained growth and, for now, inflation is under control. But the economic cycle cannot be considered closed until central banks’ debt and interest rates return to normal. Trust in the International Monetary System, and the main currencies remains, but if some day trust in one important currency is lost, the situation would be very delicate.

Now the economic recovery has been achieved, it is time to gradually restore debt and interest rates to reasonable levels (aka tapering). The US Federal Reserve (Fed) has already increased its interest rate and announced that it will continue to do so.

The consequences have been immediate, with the withdrawal of investments from emerging countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India or Turkey, to invest in American bonds. The European Central Bank (ECB) has also announced that by the end of 2018 it will stop buying debt and that interest rates will rise as the economy improves (but not before the summer of 2019).

What will be the consequences of tapering?

Will it destabilize the economy?

What are the risks of entering a new recession?

Will the current monetary system resist?

How will the governments that are highly indebted deal with recession? more>

Four Lessons (Not) Learned From The Financial Crisis

By John T. Harvey – That’s fantastic. Good work, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump. But just because we bailed the water out of the sinking ship doesn’t mean we patched all the holes. And while the former is a necessary first step, without the latter we won’t remain upright for long.

So what didn’t we fix that could still potentially cause a catastrophic leak? Too much. Here’s a short list of what we should have learned but didn’t.

  1. If you are going to bail someone out, bail out the debtor and not the creditor
  2. Financial institutions should be very closely supervised
  3. The market is not always right
  4. Deficit spending doesn’t cause inflation or bankruptcy

Most people assume that what financial institutions do is loan out other people’s money. That is, of course, part of what they do, but what is far more significant is the fact that they create money. I don’t just mean the intro-econ, money-multiplier story where banks make loans after the Federal Reserve injects new funds. In fact, that view is so wrong that economics professors are beginning to eliminate it from their curriculum (not nearly fast enough, but it’s getting there).

Rather, the standard scenario is one in which banks increase the money supply first by making loans to customers and then the Federal Reserve steps in second to supply the necessary reserves. Financial institutions make money out of thin air, not from someone’s savings, and if that leaves the system short of reserves then the Fed buys securities from banks. They do this to prevent interest rates from rising above their targeted rate and therefore the central bank accommodates rather than dictates when it comes to the supply of money. more>

Lessons From The Greek Tragedy Unlearnt

By Simon Wren-Lewis – Private banks were happy to lend to the Greek government because they mistakenly believed their money was as safe as if they were lending to Germany.

Other governments first delayed and then limited Greek default because they were worried about the financial health of their own banks. They replaced privately held Greek debt with money the Greek government owed to other Eurozone governments.

From that point voters would always want all their money back. In an effort to achieve that the Troika demanded and largely achieved draconian austerity and a vast array of reforms.

The result was a slump which crippled the economy in a way that has few parallels in history. Most economists understand that in situations like this it is ridiculous to insist that the debtor pays all the money back. For basic Keynesian reasons this insistence just destroys the ability of the debtor to pay: it is not a zero sum game between creditor and debtor. This is why so much of German debt was written off after WWII.

By July 2015 the Greek government was able to pay for its spending with taxes, so all it needed was loans rolled over. The Troika would only do that if the Greek government started running a large surplus to start paying back the debt i.e. further austerity. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Actively managed, but more index-like
Chicago Booth – Analyzing 2,789 actively managed mutual funds between 1979 and 2014, the researchers find that fund portfolios have become more liquid over time, largely as a result of becoming more diversified. Both components of diversification—balance and coverage—have risen sharply, especially since 2000. The level of coverage rose faster than the level of balance as mutual-fund managers poured ever more names into their portfolios.

The research captures the rise of closet indexing among active-mutual-fund managers, a phenomenon that may be caused by managers hewing toward the benchmark they are trying to outperform. While diversification has some benefits in terms of risk management and liquidity, the close resemblance of active portfolios to passive indexes might leave some investors wondering why they’re bothering to pay for active management given the ubiquitous availability of cheap, passive alternatives. more>

Why The Only Answer Is To Break Up The Biggest Wall Street Banks

By Robert Reich – Glass-Steagall’s key principle was to keep risky assets away from insured deposits. It worked well for more than half century. Then Wall Street saw opportunities to make lots of money by betting on stocks, bonds, and derivatives (bets on bets) – and in 1999 persuaded Bill Clinton and a Republican congress to repeal it.

Nine years later, Wall Street had to be bailed out, and millions of Americans lost their savings, their jobs, and their homes.

Why didn’t America simply reinstate Glass-Steagall after the last financial crisis? Because too much money was at stake. Wall Street was intent on keeping the door open to making bets with commercial deposits. So instead of Glass-Steagall, we got the Volcker Rule – almost 300 pages of regulatory mumbo-jumbo, riddled with exemptions and loopholes.

Now those loopholes and exemptions are about to get even bigger, until they swallow up the Volcker Rule altogether. If the latest proposal goes through, we’ll be nearly back to where we were before the crash of 2008. more>

Fiscal Policy Remains In The Stone Age

By Simon Wren-Lewis – Or maybe the middle ages, but certainly not anything more recent than the 1920s. Keynes advocated using fiscal expansion in what he called a liquidity trap in the 1930s. Nowadays we use a different terminology, and talk about the need for fiscal expansion when nominal interest rates are stuck at the Zero Lower Bound or Effective Lower Bound.

When monetary policy loses its reliable and effective instrument to manage the economy, you need to bring in the next best reliable and effective instrument: fiscal policy.

The Eurozone as a whole is currently at the effective lower bound. Rates are just below zero and the ECB is creating money for large scale purchases of assets: a monetary policy instrument whose impact is much more uncertain than interest rate changes or fiscal policy changes (but certainly better than nothing). The reason monetary policy is at maximum stimulus setting is that Eurozone core inflation seems stuck at 1% or below. Time, clearly, for fiscal policy to start lending a hand with some fiscal stimulus.

You would think that causing a second recession after the one following the GFC would have been a wake up call for European finance ministers to learn some macroeconomics. Yet what little learning there has been is not to make huge mistakes but only large ones: we should balance the budget when there is no crisis. more>