17/5/15: Public Debt, Private Debt… Someone Thinks There Might Be Consequences

Remember last year vigorous debate about whether debt (in particular real economic debt – as I call it, or non-financial debt – as officialdom calls it) matters when it comes to growth? Well, the debate hasn’t die out… at least not yet. And some heavy hitters are getting into the fight. Òscar Jordà, Moritz HP. Schularick and Alan M. Taylor paper, “Sovereigns versus Banks: Credit, Crises and Consequences“, Working Paper No. 3: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2585696

Ok, so some key preliminaries: “Two separate narratives have emerged in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. One interpretation speaks of private financial excess and the key role of the banking system in leveraging and deleveraging the economy. The other emphasizes the public sector balance sheet over the private and worries about the risks of lax fiscal policies.” The problem is that the two ‘narratives’ “…may interact in important and understudied ways”, most notably via debt and debt overhangs.

The authors examine “the co-evolution of public and private sector debt in advanced countries since 1870. We find that in advanced economies significant financial stability risks have mostly come from private sector credit booms rather than from the expansion of public debt.”

Time for Krugmanites to pop some champagne? Err, not too fast: “However, we find evidence that high levels of public debt have tended to exacerbate the effects of private sector deleveraging after crises, leading to more prolonged periods of economic depression.”

Wait, what? A state indebted to the point of losing its shirt (or rather default on pay awards to trade unionised workers and retirees) imposes cost on private sector that can be detrimental during private sector own deleveraging? Yeah, you betcha. It is called power of taxation. Just as during the current crisis the Governments world wide gave no damn as to whether you and I can pay kids schools fees, health insurance and mortgages, so it was thus before.

We uncover three key facts based on our analysis of around 150 recessions and recoveries since 1870:

  1. in a normal recession and recovery real GDP per capita falls by 1.5 percent and takes only 2 years to regain its previous peak, but in a financial crisis recession the drop is typically 5 percent and it takes over 5 years to regain the previous peak; 
  2. the output drop is even worse and recovery even slower when the crisis is preceded by a credit boom; and 
  3. the path of recovery is worse still when a credit-fuelled crisis coincides with elevated public debt levels. Recent experience in the advanced economies provides a useful out-of-sample comparison, and meshes closely with these historical patterns. Fiscal space appears to be a constraint in the aftermath of a crisis, then and now.”

Now, take a more in-depth tour of the changes in fiscal and private non-financial debt across 17 advanced economies since 1870s:

Oh, yeah… 1950s and 1960s public deleveraging was done by leveraging up the real economy. And it didn’t stop there. It got much much worse… instead of deleveraging one side of the economy, both public and private sides continued to binge on debt. Through the present crisis.

So “what does the long-run historical evidence say about the prevalence and effects of private and public debt booms and overhangs? Do high levels of public debt affect business cycle dynamics, as the public debt overhang literature argues? Are the effects of either variety of debt overhang more pronounced after financial crisis recessions?”

So here are the results:

So the results provide “…a first look at over 100 years of the inter-relationships of private credit and sovereign debt. We end with five main conclusions“:

  1. “…while public debt has grown in most countries in recent decades, the extraordinary growth of private sector debt (bank loans) is chiefly responsible for the strong increase of total liabilities in Western economies. About two thirds of the increase in total economy debt originated in the private sector. …Sovereign and bank debts have generally been inversely correlated over the long run, but have increased jointly since the 1970s. In modern times, the Bretton-Woods period stands out as the only period of sustained public debt reduction, both in expansions and recessions.”
  2. “…in advanced economies financial stability risks originate primarily in the private sector rather than in the public sector. To understand the driving forces of financial crises one has to study private borrowing and its problems. In the very long run, if we run a horse race between the impact of changes or run-ups in private credit (bank loans) and sovereign debt as a predictor of financial crisis and its associated distress, private credit is the more significant predictor; sovereign debt adds little predictive information. This fits with the events of 2008 well: with the exception of fiscal malfeasance in Greece most other advanced countries did not have obvious public debt problems ex ante. Of course, ex post, the fierce financial crisis recession would wreak havoc on public finances via crashing revenues and rising cyclical expenditures.”
  3. “…with a broader and longer sample we confirm that private debt overhangs are a regular feature of the modern business cycle. We find that once a country does enter a recession, whether it is an ordinary type or a financial-crisis type of recession, if it carries the legacy of a large private credit boom then the post-recession output path of the economy is typically adversely affected with slower growth.”
  4. “…our new data also allow us to see the distinct contribution of public debt overhangs. We find evidence that high levels of public debt matter for the path of economies out of recessions, confirming the results of Reinhart et al. (2012). But the negative effects of high public debt on the performance of the economy arise specifically after financial crises and in particular when private borrowing also ran high. While high levels of public debt make little difference in normal times, entering a financial crisis recession with an elevated level of public debt exacerbates the effects of private sector deleveraging and typically leads to a prolonged period of sub-par economic performance.” In other words, not too fast on that champagne, Krugmanites… 
  5. “…from a macroeconomic policy standpoint these findings could inform ongoing efforts to devise better guides to monetary, fiscal, and financial policies going forward…” blah… blah… blah… we can stop here.

Funny how no one can get the right idea, though – the reason public debt matters is because the state always has a first call on all resources. As the result, the state faces a choice at any point of deleveraging cycle:

  • (A) leverage up the State to allow deleveraging of the real economy; or
  • (B) tax there real economy to deleverage the State.

In the US, the choice has been (A) in 2008-2014. In Europe, it has been (B). The thing is: both Europe and US are soon going to face another set of fine choices:

  • (Y) reduce profligacy in the long run to deleverage the State; or
  • (Z) get the feeding trough of pork barrel politics rocking again.

No prizes for guessing which one they both will make… after all, they did so from 1970s on, and there are elections to win and seats to occupy…