It’s the Private Debt, Stupid

I’ve gone on about this elsewhere, but thought I should bring it up front and center here.

While everyone hyperventilates about government debt, they don’t seem to be aware of the massively greater load of private debt, and its spectacular runup compared to government debt:

This from Steve Keen’s latest. (It’s not very long. There are lots of pictures. It makes every kind of sense. Read the whole thing.) The blue line is publicly held debt — not including money the government owes itself (on the consolidated budget) for Social Security and Medicare.*† The red line is debt of 1. households and nonprofits, 2. nonfinancial businesses, and 3. financial businesses.

Here’s how those sectors break out:

Again, you hear all sorts of hyperventilating from the morality-based school of economics about households/consumers going on a debt-financed spending binge, especially in the 00s. And that definitely happened. With the financial industry begging them to borrow — almost literally throwing money at them — and telling them authoritatively that it’s free because house prices always go up, it’s not surprising. Humans will be humans; who’s gonna turn down money when the powers that be — who presumably know a lot more about finance than a high-school-educated homeowner working at a lumber mill — say it’s free?

But that ignores the really massive runup: financial corporations’ debts. Starting at a little over 10% of GDP in 1970, they hit almost 80% by 2000, and when the crash hit they were over 120% of GDP — a 10x, order-of-magnitude increase over 40 years.

The story explaining these pictures was told long ago — notably by Irving Fisher in 1933 (only after he had driven his Wall Street firm to ruin and lost everything, including his house, by clinging, Polyanna-like, to the kindergarten-ish Price-Is-Right! nostrums of classical economics). Minsky told it in cogent and convincing detail.

The basic story is very simple. It goes like this (in my words):

• Banks (and shadow banks) make money by lending. Bankers have every incentive to increase their loan books, even by extending questionable loans, because bankers don’t personally bear the eventual, down-the-road losses from loan defaults — they’ve gotten their money already.
• When banks run out of real, productive enterprises to lend to — enterprises that can pay back loans and interest from the production and sale of real goods that humans can consume — they start lending to speculators (gamblers) who are buying financial assets in hopes that their prices will rise.
• That lending — extra money being pumped into the system — does indeed drive up the price of financial assets, far beyond the value of the real assets that (according to most economists you listen to) supposedly underpin those financial assets’ value.
• Eventually people realize that the value of financial assets far exceeds the value of real assets — and far exceeds the capacity of the real economy to service the loans that drove up those financial asset prices. Prices of financial assets plummet, borrowers default because there just ain’t enough real income to service the loans, financial-asset prices plummet some more, all in a downward spiral — with all sorts of collateral damage to the real economy.

There’s your (economy-wide) Ponzi scheme. Households and nonfinancial businesses definitely participate (the financial industry makes it almost irresistible not to), but it’s driven by the financial industry, and a huge proportion of the takings go to players in the financial industry.

But as Keen points out, the powers that be almost completely ignore that simple story. He quotes one of Bernanke’s extraordinarily rare mentions of either Fisher or Minsky:

Fisher’s idea was less influential in academic circles, though, because of the counterargument that debt-deflation represented no more than a redistribution from one group (debtors) to another (creditors). Absent implausibly large differences in marginal spending propensities among the groups, it was suggested, pure redistributions should have no significant macro-economic effects… (Bernanke 2000, p. 24; emphasis added)

The rarity — inexplicable to me, at least — speaks even more loudly and eloquently than this blithely dismissive quotation does.

When really smart people like Ben Bernanke constantly ignore an elegant, simple, even obvious explanation that’s been lying on the ground, ready to pick up, for at least 75 years, you gotta figure they’ve got some incentive — whether they’re conscious of it or not. That’s what I talked about the other day.

Again, read Steve’s whole piece. And if you have any interest in economics and haven’t bought the new edition of his book yet, do.

* Please don’t try to dismiss this by pointing to the net present value of SS/Medicare liabilities extending into the infinite future. 1. Including those intra-government debts doesn’t change this picture much at all. 2. It’s a completely separate discussion, about whether we choose to provide those services out of current GDP over future years and decades. 3. If charges by health-care providers were rising at the same rate as inflation, even that future cost would not be a terrible burden. 4. Social Security is actuarily solid on a cash-flow basis for decades, and beyond the foreseeable future (75 years+) if we simply Scrap The Cap on the payroll tax, requiring high earners to pay their full share.

† I’m not clear whether he includes bonds held by the Fed — again, money the government owes itself, if you view Treasury and Fed as both being part of the government — which total a whopping $1.6 trillion or so, more than 10% of GDP, last I checked. I don’t actually know if Fed holdings are included in “debt held by the  public.” (You gotta wonder whether the Fed counts as “the public.”) Little help, so I don’t have to go Google it up myself?

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.