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On the BIS annual report, monetary policy and the hazards of overindebtedness

This is an abbreviated post from our subscription series at Credit Writedowns Pro.

The 2014 BIS Annual Report warns again about the perils of ultra-easy monetary policy as it did in the lead-up to the Great Financial Crisis. I think the BIS could prove a Cassandra here and will explain below. Nevertheless, many refuse to heed its warnings because of the concern with the sluggishness of the real economy in developed economies and the worry about becoming the next Japan. The problem, as the BIS states, is debt. But the answer is not restrictive policy and structural reform as the BIS argues. Rather it is an acceptance of fiscal policy outcomes as mostly endogenous.

Modern-day economic models, including the standard DSGE (dynamic stochastic general equilibrium) models used in econometrics, are basically all flow models. These models are not geared to understanding macro disequilibrium and the tipping points in terms of debt stocks that often presage crisis. In the real world, economies are rarely in equilibrium. The way this works is outlined in a May post on financial bubbles and the fingers of instability.  As with markets, traditional economic simplification of economic events as independent of prior economic events is wrong. Economic actors are social beings that are influenced by the environment in which they operate. And this is especially important in terms of the availability of and demand for credit. As the economic cycle continues, fingers of instability develop as economic agents vulnerable to an economic hiccup because of overindebtedness increase.

If the fingers of instability are large enough, you reach a ‘critical state’ in which event patterns are defined more by power law probability distributions than by standard Gaussian bell curve distributions. What happens then is an economic catastrophe of unpredictable size and scope, a mini-crisis that blows over in weeks or a crisis of unheralded proportions like the one that began in 2007. The key here is that the fingers of instability come together to create financial fragility in the form of overindebtedness and eventually what Hyman Minsky calls ‘Ponzi finance’ to form a potentially catastrophic outcome that cannot be predicted in time or size but that varies in an exponential magnitude that is not consistent with a Gaussian distribution. This is the essence of secular buildups of debt and is the origins of great crises. The BIS is warning, therefore, that ultraeasy monetary policy foments the buildup of these kinds of fingers of instability that lead to crisis. And they therefore recommend that central banks tighten.

To sum up what the BIS is saying, I would make three points.

First, the BIS believes that the stock of debt that can build up across cycles and create financial fragility that goes undetected by policy makers because policy makers are short-term focused on business cycle dynamics, thus missing the debt dynamics. This is what I also noted at the outset of this piece. The way this short-termism has been practiced for the past three decades is what I call the asset-based economic model. It works by decreasing interest rates and lowering debt service costs such that asset prices are boosted and larger levels of debt can be secured against those assets to promote growth. This debt-fuelled growth model is highly effective from a cyclical perspective. The problem, however, is that you reach a critical state when the accumulation of debt and the misallocation of resources is so large that you have a big crisis and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Second, because policy makers miss these debt stock cues, they allow a problem to build up that is much more acute in nature than the cyclical blips that they are trying to address. We saw this particularly in Ireland and Spain, where public debt levels were low pre-crisis but exploded post-crisis due to a move from public surplus to deficit and large scale bailouts to backstop a failed financial system. The same increase in public indebtedness occurred almost everywhere, and I would note that in the US and the UK, it took government from under Maastricht Treaty debt to GDP levels below 60% to well over 100%. So we are talking about public debt increasing by one-half of GDP in the case of the US and the UK, or 100% of GDP in the case of Ireland and Spain. That is an order of magnitude greater than the cost of a garden variety cyclical downturn that policy makers attempt to prevent with extraordinary policy measures.

Third, the BIS believes that demand-side stimulus is just a panacea without supply-side fixes. The buildup of debt has left the economy awash in excess supply and the economy must  utilize the cyclical upturn to address that excess or it will be allowing the problem to build across cycles, fomenting another devastating crisis. I wrote on the importance of supply side problems in January of last year. The important take away regarding becoming the next Japan – which is what everyone is trying to avoid – is that in the absence of supply side efforts, stimulus is a socialisation of losses – a gearing up of the public balance sheet as a means of maintaining demand and gearing down private balance sheets. Eventually, you end up where Japan is, in a policy cul-de-sac with government debt to GDP at 230%.

Where I differ from the BIS is on the debt dynamics of fiscal policy.

Deficits are mostly endogenous. They are the result of an ex-post accounting identity. When the economy is weak, the fiscal balance is more negative because spending on automatic stabilizers and stimulus increases while tax receipts decline. When the economy is strong, we see just the opposite. Spending on automatic stabilizers declines and tax receipts increase. The chart above shows in graphical form that this is almost a straight line relationship.

Deficits are mostly a function of the inputs i.e. of the private sector’s desire to net save net of investment and the government’s already legislated spending decisions. Those inputs are pre-determined. Trying to make deficits exogenous by making the deficit itself a policy variable creates reflexivity that ends in disaster when private debt levels are high. This is why austerity has been an abject failure. This is why the fiscal multiplier has been much larger than one. The deficit is not a goal. Making it a goal of policy brings uncertainty and pro-cyclicality into the business cycle. It increases private sector debt stress, reduces private spending, reduces tax receipts and increases spending on automatic stabilizers.

I am not concerned about the deficit levels of governments in sovereign currency areas. They do not face a solvency constraint. Moreover, the deficits automatically correct across the business cycle. Policy makers should allow the deficit to be large enough at cycle troughs to bring the economy quicker to full employment. And then they can concentrate on the supply side to reduce excess capacity.

If you look at most countries, including Germany I might add, much of the increase in debt was due to loss socialization from financial distress with the rest coming from countercyclical fiscal deficits. If you limit ultraeasy monetary policy, financial fragility will lessen. And even if there is some residual fragility, policy should be geared toward reducing excess capacity and reducing loss socialization, while countercyclical fiscal policy acts as a safety net. I don’t hear anyone in policy circles making this plea. Therefore, I believe we are headed for another round of crisis when this cycle turns down. As I wrote recently on how economics has failed us, it is not that economics has failed us at all. The economic insights are there for all to see. The willingness to take action is not.


Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.