Another excerpt in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (2017, p.72):
“Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be”: Over time, debts mount up in excess of the ability of wide swathes of the economy to pay, except by transferring personal and public property to creditors.
The volume of debt owed by businesses, families and governments typically is as large as gross domestic product (GDP) – that is 100%. If the average interest rate to carry this debt is 5%, the economy must grow by 5% each year just to pay the interest charges. But economies are not growing at this rate. Hence, debt service paid to the financial sector is eating into economies, leaving less for labor and industry, that is, for production and consumption.
Greece’s debt has soared to about 180% of GDP. To pay 5% interest means that its economy must pay 9% of GDP each year to bondholders and bankers. To calculate the amount that an economy must pay in interest (not including the FIRE* sector as a whole), multiply the rate of interest (5%) by the ratio of debt to GDP (180%). The answer is 9% of GDP absorbed by interest charges. If an economy grows at 1% or 2% – today’s norm for the United States and eurozone – then any higher interest rate will eat into the economy.
Paying so much leaves less income to be spent in domestic markets. This shrinks employment and hence new investment, blocking the economy from growing. Debts cannot be paid except by making the economy poorer, until ultimately it is able to pay only by selling off public assets to rent extractors. But privatization raises the economy’s cost of living and doing business, impairing its competitiveness. This process is not sustainable.
The political issue erupts when debts cannot be paid. The debt crisis requires nations to decide whether to save the creditors’ claims for payment (by foreclosure) or save the economy. After 2008 the Obama administration saved the banks and bondholders, leaving the economy to limp along in a state of debt deflation. Economic shrinkage must continue until the debts are written down.
Private debt. Richard Vague, who used to be in the business of consumer credit, now researches such things. Here he talks to INET, which supports a network of mainly progressive economists, from leading thinkers to students.
When Vague started his research into trends in private debt across a number of major economies, he found that it was difficult to find a lot of the necessary data, from the nineteenth century through the roaring twenties to 1980s Japan.
He also touches on the need for debt restructuring after a major crisis such as the Great Recession, perhaps in the form of a ‘debt jubilee’. As he puts it, we saved the banks, but we did much less for ordinary households.
In this short video, some insights from Michael Pettis on Chinese economic growth numbers, the nation’s debt and its sustainability, the extent (or not) of deleveraging, the low share of consumption in national income, the perennial need for a rebalancing of its economy, and how this can be done.
The Levy Institute is officially non-partisan, but tends to publish in the spirit of post-Keynesian thinking. The late Hyman Minksy and Wynne Godley spent the latter part of their lives working there and Godley helped build their macroeconomic model of the US economy.
This year, the 14-page report is titled Can Redistribution Help Build a More Stable Economy? In short, the authors examine what they see as the four key constraints on the US economy and which account for the historically lengthy but weak recovery: (1) weak net export demand; (2) fiscal conservatism; (3) increasing income inequality; and (4) financial fragility. These four constraints help to explain the weak performance, as well as some of the political developments of recent years. Continue reading →
Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.
Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.
On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address. Continue reading →
The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College is ostensibly non-partisan but much of its published output is in the post-Keynesian tradition, and inspired by the work of Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, who both worked at the Institute in their later years. Continue reading →
Another in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s excellent J is for Junk Economics:
“John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946): In the 1920s, Keynes became the major critic of World War I’s legacy of German reparations and Inter-Ally debts. Against the monetarist ideology that prices and incomes in debtor countries would fall by enough to enable them to pay virtually any level of debt, Keynes explained that there were structural limits to the ability to pay. Accusing Europe’s reparations and arms debts of exceeding these limits, Keynes provided the logic for writing down debts. His logic controverted the “hard money” austerity of Jacques Rueff and Bertil Ohlin, who claimed that all debts could be paid by squeezing a tax surplus out of the economy (mainly from labor).
Modern Germany has embraced this right-wing monetarist doctrine. Even in the 1920s, all its major political parties strived to pay the unpayably high foreign debt, bringing about economic and political collapse. The power of “sanctity of debt” morality proved stronger than the logic of Keynes and other economic realists.
In 1936, as the Great Depression spread throughout the world, Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money pointed out that Say’s Law had ceased to operate. Wages and profits were not being spent on new capital formation or employing labor, but were hoarded as savings. Keynes viewed saving simply as non-spending on goods and services, not as being used to pay down debts or lent out to increase the economy’s debt overhead. (Banks had stopped lending in the 1930s.) He also did not address the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in excess of the economy’s ability to carry the debt overhead.
It was left to Irving Fisher to address debt deflation, pointing to how debtors “saved” by paying down debts they had earlier run up. And it was mainly fringe groups such as Technocracy Inc. that emphasized the tendency for debts to grow exponentially in chronic excess of the economy’s ability to carry its financial overhead. Emphasis on debt has been left mainly to post-Keynesians, headed by Hyman Minsky and his successors such as Steve Keen and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), grounded in Keynes’s explanation of money and credit as debt in his Treatise on Money (1930).”