Richard Koo explains balance sheet recessions

Economist Richard Koo is well known for his concept of  a ‘balance sheet recession’. In this short video he explains how the recent Great Recession, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Japan’s economic stagnation since the 1990s are all examples of this, and what can be done about it.

A number of somewhat iconoclastic economists have explored the nature and consequences of asset-price bubbles, fueled by the accumulation of private sector debt, and their subsequent collapse, followed by private sector deleveraging (paying down debt). They include Koo, Michael Pettis, Steve Keen and Michael Hudson, the latter three being influenced by the late Hyman Minsky and his Financial Instability Hypothesis. The four of them proffer somewhat different solutions to the long stagnation that can follow the collapse of a debt-fueled asset-price bubble, which we are arguably still living through.

Koo favours a fiscal stimulus in which government spending exceeds revenue at a rate sufficient to prevent the economy collapsing as a large number of firms use their cash flow to pay down debt, rather than invest. This is what has been done intermittently in Japan. Koo argues that without the stimulus the Japanese economy would have experienced its own Great Depression, rather than simply years of stagnation.

Keen and Hudson favour a Modern Debt Jubilee in which much private debt is simply forgiven and wiped out, allowing households and firms to raise their spending on consumption and investment and drive economic recovery.

Pettis focuses his analysis on the current account imbalances across the global economy which in his view caused the build-up of debt. The unwinding of these imbalances is required to secure a more sustainable global recovery.

There is something to be said for the ideas of all of the above. I am keen to compare them and integrate the most important aspects, as their thinking overlaps to a significant extent. That will be the subject of a future post! In the meantime, I can definitely recommend watching the video as an introduction to Koo’s thinking.

Balance sheet recessions and macro-micro linkages

Economist Richard Koo has become well-known through his promotion of the idea of ‘balance sheet recessions’. These occur after the collapse of asset prices after a financial bubble, which leaves many firms technically insolvent and forces the private sector overall to use its earnings to pay down debt rather than borrow to invest. This will lead to a deep recession in the absence of a suitably ambitious fiscal policy from the government, which is the only actor in the economy which can borrow and spend the savings of the private sector in this situation. Continue reading