Deflecting an Aussie debt demolition

Australia has dodged the worst of recent crises that have ravaged developed economies, but the pace of deleveraging could change that if policymakers aren't careful.

The 'Global Financial Crisis', which began in late 2007, marked a turning point in the nature of market economies. Their performance from at least the mid-1960s had been underwritten by a faster growth of private debt than of GDP: this was the 'Age of Leverage'. In late 2007, the growth rate of private debt fell, and since then we have been in the Age of Deleveraging.

The statistics are stark enough: private debt rose sixfold compared to GDP in America from 1945, and sixfold in Australia from 1965. Pre-1988 figures aren’t available for UK debt, but clearly it has exploded since 1988. All three ratios peaked after 2007, and have since been falling. The fall in the US ratio is clearly unprecedented in the post-WWII period: only the Great Depression compares.

Figure 1

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The change in debt data is just as stark – and it points out one substantive difference between Australia on the one hand and the US and UK and most of the Western OECD on the other. Australian private debt is still rising (though more slowly than nominal GDP), whereas US private debt has been falling in absolute terms, and the UK has fluctuated between rising and falling debt.

Figure 2
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Non-economists might expect professional economists to pay great heed to these indicators – after all, surely private debt affects the economy? However, the dominant approach to economics – known as 'neoclassical economics' – ignores them completely, on the a priori grounds that the aggregate level of private debt doesn’t matter: only its distribution can have macroeconomic impacts.

The argument is that a rise in debt merely indicates a transfer of spending power from a saver to a borrower. The debtor’s spending power rises, but the saver’s spending power also falls, so in the aggregate there will only be a macroeconomic effect if there is a very large difference in behaviour between the saver and borrower. Therefore only the distribution of debt matters, not its level or rate of change.

Bizarre as it may sound, these arguments by leading economists ignore decades of empirical research into and practical knowledge on banking, which has established that their fundamental premise is false. A new debt is not a transfer from one bank customer’s account to another’s – which is effectively what Paul Krugman models and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke assumes – but a simultaneous creation of both a deposit and a debt by the bank. A bank loan thus gives a borrower additional spending power without forcing savers to reduce their spending power to compensate.

If the change in debt is roughly equivalent to the growth in income – as applied in Australia from 1945 to 1965, when the private debt to GDP ratio fluctuated around 25 per cent (see figure 1) – then nothing is amiss: the increase in debt mainly finances investment, investment causes incomes to grow, and the economy moves forward in a virtuous feedback cycle. But when debt rises faster than income, and finances not just investment but also speculation on asset prices, the virtuous cycle gives way to a vicious positive feedback process: asset prices rise when debt rises faster than income, and this encourages more borrowing still.

The result is a superficial economic boom driven by a debt-financed bubble in asset prices. To sustain a rise in asset prices relative to consumer prices, debt has to grow more rapidly than income – in other words, if asset prices are to rise faster than consumer prices, then rather than merely rising, debt has to accelerate. This in turn guarantees that the asset price bubble will burst at some point, because debt can’t accelerate forever. When debt growth slows, a boom can turn into a slump even if the rate of growth of GDP remains constant.

This is not far removed from the actual experience of the GFC. As the US experience illustrates most clearly, the switch from rising to falling private debt ushered in the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a prolonged period of high unemployment, and sharp falls in asset markets.

Figure 3
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This is why the shift from the Age of Leverage to the Age of Deleveraging was so dramatic, and yet so unforeseen by conventional economists: it was caused by a huge reduction in aggregate demand from a factor they ignore. This debt-induced reduction in aggregate demand will persist as long as private debt levels are falling as they still are in the US, though at a much reduced rate from the peak rate of fall in early 2010.

Until private debt levels are substantially reduced, the economy will always tend towards what Nomura Research Institute chief economist Richard Koo called a "balance sheet recession”, where the desire of the private sector to reduce its leverage will suppress aggregate demand, causing both recessions and falling asset prices. The Western OECD is thus 'turning Japanese' – replicating the crisis that led to Japan’s 'Lost Decade', which is now two decades old.

Koo argues that whether the world experiences the relatively minor decline in Japanese economic performance or achieves something much worse depends in part on whether the world mimics Japan’s policy response or not. But whereas conventional wisdom argues that Japan has failed by running huge government deficits, Koo argues that without these deficits, Japanese GDP would have fallen far more.

His reasoning is that, just as private sector borrowing spends additional money into existence, so too does a government deficit. But, as he explained in the Real-World Economics Review,if the private sector is deleveraging – as it has done in Japan since 1991 and is now doing in the US – then the change in private debt is actually subtracting from demand. Japan’s public sector deficits therefore attenuated the decline in aggregate demand.

On the other hand, Koo cautions that if the government attempts to run a surplus while the private sector is deleveraging, there will be two factors reducing economic activity at the same time. He therefore argues that deficits are sensible when the private sector is deleveraging, while attempting to run surpluses will make a bad situation worse:

"Although shunning fiscal profligacy is the right approach when the private sector is healthy and is maximizing profits, nothing is worse than fiscal consolidation when a sick private sector is minimising debt.

However, fiscal consolidation is the policy prescription that is being applied in the eurozone and the UK, and supported by politicians in both Australia and the US. The likely outcome of public austerity is thus a further decrease in the growth rate of countries practicing it. Given that most of the Western OECD is already under severe economic stress, the pain that austerity inflicts upon already stressed societies is likely to mean drastic political change.

The most obvious location for political turmoil is Europe, where the Maastricht Treaty’s rules force countries to attempt to restrain fiscal deficits to 3 per cent of GDP. This was always a bad idea, predicated on the belief that severe economic crises could not occur. Though the treaty was applauded by neoclassical economists, I was far from the only non-neoclassical economist to observe that this treaty could lead to the break-up of Europe when a recession hit, since, as I wrote in 2001, "Europe’s governments may be compelled to impose austerity upon economies which will be in desperate need of a stimulus.”

Though continental Europe is the most obvious location for economically inspired political instability in 2012, another dark horse may be the UK. As figure 1 shows, its private debt level is staggeringly high – one-and-a-half times the peak level of the US’s – and yet it did not suffer as severe a downturn as the US when the crisis began because, as figure 2 indicates, it did not fall as deeply into deleveraging. The maximum decline in aggregate demand caused by falling private debt in the UK was only 6 per cent of GDP, versus 20 per cent in the US.

However, the rate of deleveraging in the UK has again hit this level, while the US has recovered from the worst of the initial downturn and is deleveraging at a rate of only 3 per cent of GDP. Governments in both the US and the UK are favouring austerity policies, but the UK is already imposing them -- thus far with negative results – and is far more likely to be able to maintain them than the politically hamstrung US. This means that private sector deleveraging and public sector austerity may coincide in the UK in 2012, which from a 'balance sheet recession' perspective indicates that the UK could fall into recession from an already depressed level of economic activity. This is especially likely if the rate of private sector deleveraging accelerates.

What could the future hold for Australia? To date, sangfroid has dominated Australian attitudes towards the GFC – based partly on our avoidance of a deep downturn in 2008, which was unique amongst OECD nations, and partly on our lucky dependence on China. At the beginning of 2011, the RBA expected to be raising rates to restrain inflation in a booming economy, while Treasury expected unemployment to fall towards full employment levels. Economic policies proposed by the major political parties were based on expectations of managing a boom, and the only debate was over how quickly the federal budget should return to surplus.

Figure 4: Treasury forecasts (& projections of a return to equilibrium) in the 2011-12 budget
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Unfortunately, recent economic data hasn’t followed the sangfroid script. Inflation – as measured by the RBA’s preferred indicators, the weighted and trimmed means – has fallen rather than risen, while unemployment has risen from a low of 4.9 per cent to 5.3 per cent (versus expectations of 4.75 per cent in June 2012) and appears likely to trend up rather than down in coming months.

If this does happen, it will not be an indication that government deficits are the problem – or even that they have failed to stimulate the economy – but a caution that Australia is not so different after all. Though it was delayed by policy and the mining boom, Australia is now on the cusp of a balance sheet recession too.

To see this, we need to take a closer look at the Australian private debt level. Figure 5 considers both the level (compared to GDP) and rate of change of Australian private debt since 2000.

Figure 5
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After initially falling in 2008, Australia’s private debt to GDP ratio actually rose from mid-2009 till mid-2010; so Australia re-levered while the US in particular de-levered. This rising debt boosted aggregate demand after its initial fall during the GFC, but the growth of debt is now at levels well below the pre-GFC peak.

Anticipating what might happen from now on involves considering one of the trickiest aspects of debt, its acceleration. Since aggregate demand is income plus the change in debt, the change in aggregate demand is the change in income plus the acceleration of debt. I define the 'Credit Accelerator' (initially called the "Credit Impulse” by Michael Biggs and Tony Myer) as the ratio of the acceleration of debt to GDP, and use this as an indication of how strongly the dynamics of private debt are going to impact upon economic performance and asset markets.

Figure 6 illustrates why the GFC (which Americans call the 'Great Recession') was so much more devastating in the US than Australia: the deceleration of debt was far more extreme, and lasted for much longer.

Figure 6
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Figure 7 shows the relationship between credit acceleration and change in employment in Australia since 2000. Though the difference between the mild Australian and the severe American downturn was due to the much more severe deceleration of debt in America, private debt is now decelerating in Australia, and the level of employment is falling as a result.

Figure 7 (Mea culpa–R^2 should be "Correlation Coefficient”)

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A similar phenomenon applies to the most important asset class in Australia, housing. Mortgage debt was the only component of private debt to rise during the GFC – under the influence of what I call the First Home Vendors Boost. Mortgage debt is now decelerating, and house prices are falling as a result. As experience has shown in the USA and Japan, this tends to be a runaway process, as falling house prices encourage further falls in debt.

Figure 8 (R^2 should be "Correlation Coefficient”)

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Clearly, economic policy is now far more complex than it appeared to be before the GFC. As we enter this Age of Deleveraging, the worst thing we can do is apply policies that appeared to work during the preceding Age of Leverage – but were in fact predicated on ever-rising private sector indebtedness. Politicians should be sceptical of conventional economic advice at this time; it would be much wiser to study the history of the 1930s instead.

Steve Keen is a Professor of Economics & Finance at the University of Western Sydney and author of Debunking Economics and the blog Debtwatch.

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