The Deleveraging Trap

Hayekians and Minskians agree on one key thing: an increase in debt beyond the underlying productive economy is unsustainable.

In my view, the key figures in defining this are total debt as a percentage of GDP, and its relationship with industrial production. Debt as a percentage of GDP tracks how much debt there is relative to one measure of economic activity, GDP. Yet GDP is a very limited tool of measurement; all GDP really tracks is the circulation of money. To get a clearer sense of the true relationship with underlying productivity, it is useful to compare the ratio of debt-to-GDP with the level of industrial production.

Up ’til the ’70s, debt-to-GDP grew more slowly than industrial production. That is healthy and sustainable. While the total market debt may grow in tandem with GDP, and with industrial production — indeed, this can be the case even under a gold exchange standard (as the gold supply increases) — there is no sensible reason for the ratio of debt-to-GDP to grow faster than industrial production. Indeed, this is symptomatic of just one thing — consumption without income, enjoyment without effort, living beyond the means of productivity. This is just an unsustainable bubble.

As the ’90s turned to the ’00s and the United States gains in industrial production ceased to accumulate, while GDP and most concerningly (and hilariously) while the debt-to-GDP ratio continued to increase. This was classical bubble behaviour, and the end came very poetically; the recession and the industrial production collapse hit just as growth in the debt to GDP ratio (as indexed against 1953 levels) finally surpassed growth in industrial production. Indeed, I hypothesise that a very strong indicator of a Minsky moment — when excessive indebtedness forces systemic deleveraging, leading to price falls, leading to widespread economic contraction — is the point when long-term growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds long-term growth in industrial output.

The debt-to-GDP ratio is gradually falling, yet it is still at a far higher level than the historical average, and it is still proportionately higher than industrial output. And at the same time, consumers are re-leveraging, and government debt is soaring. And industrial production is barely above where it it was a decade ago, and far below its pre-2000 trend line. We have barely started, and already this has been a slow and grinding deleveraging; rather than the quick and brutal liquidation like that seen in 1907 where the banking system was effectively forced into bailing itself out, the stimulationist policies of low rates, quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus have kept in business zombie companies and institutions carrying absurd debt loads. Like Japan who experienced a similar debt-driven bubble in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we in the West appear to have embarked on a low-growth, high-unemployment period of deleveraging; and like Japan, we appear to be simply transferring the bulk of the debt load from the private sector to the public, without making any real impact in the total debt level, or any serious reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio. 

Cutting spending — for both the private sector and public sector — is problematic. My spending is your income; as spending falls, income falls, which leads to more consumers, producers and governments attempting to deleverage. This leads to more monetary easing, simply to keep the zombie system stable, and keep the zombie debt serviceable. More consumers and producers can take on debt, at least for a time, but the high residual debt level makes any great expansion of productivity or growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load. It is a vicious cycle.

Quantitative easing does not even tackle the main challenge: reducing the debt load. In fact, it is targeted at precisely the opposite — increasing the debt load, by encouraging lendingBut lending into a society that is already heavily indebted leads to no great uptick in productivity, because consumers and producers are already over-indebted to begin with, so few can afford new debt. And banks — flush with cash — have no real incentive to lend; the less they lend, the more deflationary conditions are prone to become, increasing the purchasing power of their excess reserves (on which the central bank already pays interest). The outcome is greater economic stagnation, ’til the next round of monetary easing which leads to a brief uptick, and then further stagnation.

To break out of the deleveraging trap, the debt load needs to be drastically reduced. In my mind there are three potential pathways there, each with various drawbacks and advantages:

  1. Liquidation; when a debt-driven crash happens, the central bank stands back and lets it happen, as happened in 1907. Prices will drastically fall, many companies and banks and debt will be liquidated, until the point at which prices have fallen to a sustainable level. But we may have missed the boat — the crash already happened, the system has already been bailed out, and the financial system today has already become zombified. And under a system where the central bank determines the availability of money and the level of interest rates this approach has in the past led to excessive central-bank-enforced liquidation, from which the economy may struggle to recover, as happened after 1929.
  2. (Hyper)inflation; the central bank prints money and injects it into the economy via the banking system. Prices rise, wages rise, and the nominal debt remains the same, thus reducing the debt burden. While most economists who advocate such an approach advocate a slightly elevated level of inflation, the higher the rate of inflation, the more the residual debt load will be devalued; under a Weimar-style regime, mortgages could be repaid in a week. Unfortunately inflation is nonuniform; whoever gets the money first (i.e. banks) can buy up assets on the cheap, and pass the cost of the inflation down the chain of transactions. As Keynes himself noted: “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Inflation discourages savings and capital formation, which are necessary for new growth. And most significantly — as the Fed’s experiment with QE shows — inflation unless it is very severe will not even necessarily have much bearing on reducing the debt-to-GDP load. The results of a severe (hyper)inflation could be very chaotic and dangerous.
  3. Debt Jubilee; the central bank prints money, and injects it into the economy via the citizens, with the explicit condition that they use it to clear their debts. This will have the desirable effect of directly reducing debt levels, and lifting over-indebted consumers and producers out of the deleveraging trap. Additionally, the inflation would be uniform and so not to the advantage of the banks or the financial elite. However introducing a large quantity of money to the system — even directly as a medium for debt-cancellation — does itself carry a high inflationary potential.

Certainly, the current status quo of high unemployment, low growth, sustained over-indebtedness and zombie banks and corporations surviving on government handouts is not sustainable in the long run. We shall see which route out of the deleveraging trap we take. Liquidationism seems unlikely, as central banks are afraid of the concept. Inflation (or its unintentional corollary, currency collapse) seems risky and dangerous. A debt jubilee would at least address the real problem of excessive debt, although it is in modern times uncharted territory, and would surely face much political opposition.

82 thoughts on “The Deleveraging Trap

  1. Looks like the only way out is like the 1907 liquidation. All other exits from the deleveraging will add public debt which is no solution. So we have to hope the economy gets dezombified enough to be fixed correctly. Wait I said that incorrectly, we have to remove the zombies to fix the economy.

    Are you testing your readers to make sure we understand what you write???

    • I’m… not necessarily testing my readers as much as I am playing with Keen’s idea, trying it on, seeing if it fits. At heart I am a free marketeer, but we don’t have a free market, and the central planners at the Fed are hardcore anti-liquidationists, so the idea of an organic liquidation by anything other than systemic collapse seems really distant.

      I’m not necessarily 100% behind Steve Keen, but I already think he’s much, much better than Bernanke or Krugman or any of the austerians, and the beautiful thing about his idea is that it’s debt-cancellation. It would add zero public debt, and significantly reduce private debt. The biggest problem is excessive inflationary potential.

    • The problem with the economy is that we are not on the gold standard like before. We are do not have any safeguards against run away inflation. The only way to protect ourself is by investing in gold. I use for great service. I have even found some bullion coins below spot. Thank you for a great post.

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  4. I really like Steve Keen but the debt jubilee idea is a not-so-great idea. It would be like giving a bunch of middle schools boys a free night at a house of ill-repute as a punishment for constantly “bumping into” their female classmates.

    Now, if you have a debt jubilee and then outlaw banking [@ interest], then I’m all-in!!

    • Yep, you have to combine a jubilee with the abolition of fractional-reserve banking or you don’t actually solve the problem.

      No matter what you do, fixing the problem requires a certain, significant portion of the population to admit that they do not and have never contributed anything to society other than burglary.

      • Yep, you have to combine a jubilee with the abolition of fractional-reserve banking or you don’t actually solve the problem.

        A theory: trying to abolish fractional reserve banking is like alcoholic prohibition. It’ll just create a black market.

        • I think you’ll have to explain how that “theory” makes any sense.

          Banks today specialize in “white market” fraud, that is fraud fully backed by the legal system (fractional reserve banking). If a bank doesn’t have government approval, it can’t be a bank, and can’t interact (transfer funds) with other banks. It’s not like alcohol where an individual can very easily set up their own little distillery (without government approval) and sell their alcohol for cash to some middleman (without government approval) and then the middleman sells it to the in-the-know public (again without government approval).

          Say someone without government approval convinces you that they are a bank. They offer you a loan, which they created via their own fractional reserve mechanism. What will the form of that loan be? It can’t be actual cash, not unless they are counterfeiting US/fed currency. (And if they are going to do that and their counterfeits are good enough to not get caught, why would they bother with fractional reserve and lending nonsense? They’d just buy whatever they want with their fake cash.) If not cash, then what? A check? A check from a fake bank isn’t going to clear at *any* real bank, so as soon as you try to spend that loan (on a car, house, business, whatever the loan was for), the jig is up.

          To fully enforce prohibition would have required the government to simultaneously monitor every place alcohol could have possibly been made and/or every place alcohol could have possibly been sold. That’s an impossible task — the country’s too big. To fully (*) enforce full reserve banking only requires that banks registered with the government as banks follow the rules. All “black market” banks are locked out of the financial system. The government already enlists each bank for gestapo duty — you can’t even pull much cash out of your account before your bank will file a “suspicious activity” report with the government.

          (*) That leaves accounting fraud, performed by government-approved banks, as the only means of conducting fractional reserve banking. But it would be erroneous to refer to that as “black market”. In a black market both parties know they are engaged in an activity the government does not allow. But neither depositors nor borrowers doing business with the fraudulent bank will be in the loop. So it’s not a “black market” but straight-up fraud. Besides defrauding its depositors and borrowers, and fooling any government auditing process, such a bank would also have to defraud other banks: In order to loan out more than it takes in as deposits, it would have to counterfeit the extra money and provide that counterfeit money to other banks in order to keep the check clearing process operating. Either that’s cash or electronic. If it’s cash, see previous comment. If it’s electronic, the only way to make that work is for the bank to report more deposits than it actually took in. If all bank-to-bank transfers were done via government servers, and the only way banks could get “electronic credits” is by giving the government the cash from the depositors, then it’s game-over for the would-be fraudulent bank.

          If fractional reserve *US dollar* banking were banned, you could still have fractional reserve banking, fully legal. But that would require that banks go back to issuing private bank notes like they used to. Private bank notes would of course NOT be legal tender, so individuals could protect themselves from that kind of fractional reserve banking by not accepting such bank notes (or if they do accept them, redeem them for cash regularly to avoid ending up being a major bag-holder should the bank go bust). And forget about trying to operate private bank notes as a “black market” operation (e.g., if all fractional reserve were outlawed rather than just US dollar fractional reserve), because the only way that works is if said bank notes are widely accepted by businesses (a loan is of no use if you can’t buy a car/house/whatever with it), and that’s basically impossible if the government is doing any enforcement at all as every single sting will take down another business. Since most businesses are not willing to accept that kind of risk, most businesses would not accept private bank notes if they were not legal, and therefore such bank notes will not be widely accepted.

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  8. Debt Jubilee today means bigger debts and another Super Debt Jubilee tomorrow. If there is a way to pay the bills without hard working I can’t see reason to work. Debts is a way for politicians do not solve problems but kicking the can down the road. And any Jubilee only encourage politicians to inflate their promises. More MediCare, free housing etc. There is only one solution: liquidation

  9. 1907 is not a valid comparison to today. 1907 was when a few bankers got a whiff of a copper squeeze and they all piled in on the starboard ide of the boat. (i.e. they all went long at the same time.)

    They all got got caught on the wrong side of the boat, and once the margin calls came in, all the bankers started to liquidate there positions at the same time. Because the margin calls were so large, the liquidations spilled over into the regular economy.

    Legend has it that the famous bear Jesse Livermore had to be “waived off” by J. P. Morgan, with the understanding that if Jesse went through with all is orders, there would be no stock market left.

    A better question would be to ask, “How does a society let a couple of men decide it’s economic future?”

    We have the same problem today. Ahem, cough, Jamie Diamond/Ben Bernanke.

    • Oh, to pile on,

      1907 was he reason why the FED was created.

      The bankers relearned that in a short squeeze, they(The bankers/sharks) where the only thing swimming in the ocean. Eventually, only ONE would be left. AND, what happens to the only shark left in the ocean? The plebs, hook it and it and eat it for lunch.

      Hence, the Federal Act Reserve of 1913.

      Legislation to protect the sharks, at the expense of the rest of the ocean.

      PS “Fish are friends, not food.”

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  11. Henry Blodget wrote a good article: “There’s An Easy, Fair Solution to the Global Debt Crisis — Too Bad No One Ever Talks About It”

    “In most situations in which people or companies can’t pay their debts, a simple thing happens.
    It’s called “bankruptcy.”
    The borrower says, “I can’t pay you back” and then the borrower surrenders his or her claim on any assets that he or she still possesses.
    The lender, meanwhile, sifts through those assets and recoups what he or she can.
    And in this normal, natural state of affairs, both parties get hurt by the experience, and they go home to nurse their wounds, having learned a harsh lesson that hopefully will help them avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
    And that’s as it should be.
    Because they’re both responsible for the mistake.
    The borrower borrowed too much. And the lender loaned too much.
    And they both paid the price for their optimism and/or greed.
    Now, note what does NOT happen in this normal, natural “debtor can’t pay lender” state of affairs: The world doesn’t freeze up with paroxysms of angst, denial, finger-pointing, can-kicking, moral hazard, and endless bailouts–in which no one is ever forced to acknowledge his or her mistake and learn his or her lesson. […]

    And, of course, like anyone else who has made a colossal, painful mistake, they’re slow to acknowledge that they made a mistake, and they’re doing everything they can to never have to acknowledge that.”

  12. Henry goes on to say:

    “(And to be clear: I’m not talking about the lender of last resort giving “bailouts.” I’m talking about it stepping in as the financial institution goes bust. The lender of last resort will take over the entity’s operations temporarily–very temporarily–and then sell off the operating businesses and/or write down the debts, recapitalize the bank, and refloat it with new management. The original shareholders will lose everything. The original bondholders will lose something. The taxpayers will, in all likelihood, gain something–the way most debtors in possession do.)

    Yes, the financial institutions’ equity investors will get wiped out.
    Yes, the financial institutions’ lenders will get dinged.
    But again, that’s as it should be.
    They were the ones, after all, who trusted the financial institution not to make dumb-ass loans.
    By making those loans, the lenders took risks–with the aim of reaping nice rewards.
    This time, the risks didn’t pan out. So they should pay the price.
    That’s capitalism.
    And as hedge-fund manager Kyle Bass recently remarked, capitalism without bankruptcy is like Catholicism without hell.”

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  15. Interesting idea, this “Jubilee,” but what about those who were so foolish as to avoid running up ruinous debts? Are they punished by being made to watch as their profligate brethren are bailed out?

    • In Steve Keen’s vision, if you don’t have the debt you just get an equivalent cash injection. This would I suppose counterbalance, as those who were already frugal are less likely to throw the money around wastefully, and could even be a help to starting a productive business to frugal people who were on too low an income to save enough. I suppose the Austrian school interprets it as a misallocation of capital, and I suppose that that is technically true, but if you’re going to try and cancel debt, you need to offset it.

      • Unfortunately, everybody is trying to, “save the system,” instead of allowing it to fail so we can move-on.

        And why on God’s green Earth would you want to bail-out people who made poor decisions?

        If the system was allowed to work as designed, this crisis would pretty much be over already. Although capitalism distributes labor-value in a rather absurd way, one thing it does really, really well is dispense with financial failure.

        • You say some great things sometimes, Impermanence.

          I will say, though, that if we must try to save the system again, it is better we use something that has at least a hope of working, rather than methods like QE which have almost no hope of working.

        • Aziz, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that things are the way they are because that’s EXACTLY the way they are designed to be. For example, education is designed to fail the vast majority of people because if you did educate most everybody to a fairly high level [which is quite do-able], what the hell is everybody going to do?

          The objectives of the all the non-sense that has been going on since 2008 has been highly successful, IF you understand what their objectives were [are]. First and foremost, the system is doing whatever it takes to keep expanding over-all debt for reasons you well-understand. This has been “successful” thus far.

          Less important has been taking care of the players in the system [bankers, bond-holders, political types, corporations, etc.]. Again, most would suggest that these parasites have been feeding quite comfortably.

          But, and again, as you well-understand, you can only delay the inevitable so long, so the great re-set seems to be just around the corner. What’s really fascinating is watching a system laid bare. If we are able to view the THIS level of corruption on the surface, just imagine what must be going on behind the scenes!!

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  17. A “debt jubilee” would be wildly inflationary, which would favour the debtors again. Here I am in my house, a house I stupidly paid $400,000.00 for during the bubble (which is now worth $300,000.00). I haven’t paid my mortgage in a few years because I’m angry it’s now worth less, but because I’m angry or because “somebody owes me something”, I continue to live in it for free. The debtor is getting “something for nothing”.

    Houses are not being foreclosed on because banks don’t want to book their losses, or they are being held in shadow inventory so as not to flood the market with low-priced homes. The lender is getting “something for nothing”.

    So here I am in my house. I get given $50,000.00, and now am only underwater by $50,000.00. I enjoy the lowest mortgage rates in history. The banks continue to let houses trickle out onto the market, which maintains higher prices.

    The people who didn’t play and who have no debt receive their $50,000.00 in free money. Some of them figure that putting it in the bank is a waste of time, so they play the market with it (flood the market with it), causing all sorts of chaos and mispricing: commodities go through the roof, corporate stocks rise. Again, the first ones in would get “something for nothing”.

    Other non-debtors may elect to buy a house with their $50,000.00. If enough people decide the same thing, soon the inventory of housing begins to go down (never mind the houses purposely kept off the market by the banks), and we all know what happens when demand outstrips supply: prices go up. So within a year or two the home debtor who put nothing or next to nothing down is now back in the black, his house is increasing in value by the day, and the non-debtor is finding his $50,000.00 won’t buy a garage in Detroit.

    You’ve just got to know that if someone is for a debt jubilee that they have a vested interest in seeing it happen: they want inflation (it’s what they dream of). They made out like bandits for the last ten to twenty years and want to see some more of it. They’re set up for it, waiting.

    They are “the first ones in”.

  18. the central bank stands back and lets it happen, as happened in 1907.

    There was no central bank then. I suppose one could claim the Treasury was the de facto central bank, but Keynes hadn’t given them a half-baked theory to aspire to yet.

    • Yep, no central bank. I guess I phrased that misleadingly. The recovery from 1907 was actually much sharper than the one today, or the one in the 30s. Lots of junk was liquidated.

  19. How about a debtors union whereby the great mass of people demand concessions from the banks or else threaten to default entirely. The state cannot imprison hundreds of thousands (or millions). The banks failed to anticipate a global slowdown (which they in fact created) which results in an uptick of defaults; this is a risk which the banks took. The deflationary consequence of debt destruction would be healthy for prices, but if it turned into a paradox of thrift, THEN it could be dealt with via fiscal stimulus on infrastructure etc.,, instead of monetary stimulus which favors the financial sector.

    • How about Debtors Prison?

      I never took out loans when I was younger, because I did not know whether I could service it. I saved and paid cash.

      Honour is lost on many people. Maybe people will realise that not paying your debts but choosing Bankruptcy is an easy way out. It makes everybody else pay higher rates, just to compensate the lender.

      Of course if you lose your income you are in deep trouble. But what about income protection insurance?

      With Tax time upon us, I am seeing a massive slowdown on its way (Australia). It is interesting when you ask people if work is slow. Who needs the Statistics Bureau. People are definitely bracing for a slowdown with commensurate personal deleveraging.

      But in Australia you become Bankrupt if you default on a loan. It is not like the USA where you can hand the keys back or live in “shadow inventory”. So we’ll see if the housing collapse is more measured.

      I think our Politicians and Bureaucrats will be taking a big pay cut this coming election.

  20. And maybe if we bring back Debtors Prison, we’ll have less lending and less rampant consumerism. The Planet can’t sustain debt fueled economic growth.

    • Debt IS prison!!

      Why have debt? What’s the point other than to give people an easy method of stealing another’s future income? Imagine a world where people actually live within their means.

      The banking community has created a culture where people actually believe that going into debt is the normal way you go about doing every damn thing.

      The long term solution is to get rid of banks, bankers, and their debt nightmare. These are people who create absolutely nothing but massive heartache for the majority and, “something for nothing,” for themselves.

      Banking is the ultimate something for nothing scam, and people have known this for thousands of years.

  21. Couldn’t agree more! Thankfully, and through hard work and saving, I’ve never been in debt, aside from my credit card I pay off at the end of every month. If I want something, I save for it first, THEN I buy it.

    Of course, it’s hard for people to first save up to buy a reasonably-priced home outright, but they should have to put down at least 20 to 25% as a down payment so they have a real stake in the game. I guarantee, if they had to scrimp and save in order to get that 20 to 25% down payment, they’d sure as heck be sure they weren’t buying in a bubble, they’d read the fine print, and there wouldn’t be the speculation and turnover we have today. This slowing down would bring the price of houses down to where they were affordable for people.

    Everybody wanted “something for nothing”. Again, the first ones in DID get something for nothing (mainly the bankers and speculators).

    Charles Hugh Smith has a good article today: “Financialization and Crony Capitalism Have Gutted the Middle Class”.

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