Com­pe­ti­tion is not a panacea in bank­ing

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Inquiry into com­pe­ti­tion within the Aus­tralian bank­ing sec­tor

Sub­mis­sion by Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Steve Keen, School of Eco­nom­ics & Finance, Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Syd­ney; www.debtdeflation.com/blogs

The Aus­tralian Senate’s Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Eco­nom­ics has estab­lished an inquiry into com­pe­ti­tion in the bank­ing sec­tor, and I was invited by the Com­mit­tee to make a sub­mis­sion. Click here for the PDF of my sub­mis­sion. The RBA’s sub­mis­sion is linked here. All sub­mis­sions to the inquiry are avail­able here.

Request to submit

I thank the com­mit­tee for invit­ing me to make a sub­mis­sion. As noted below, the focus of my sub­mis­sion is point (m) in the terms of ref­er­ence, “any other related mat­ter”, since as I argue below, past attempts to improve bank­ing via increased com­pe­ti­tion have actu­ally exac­er­bated the main prob­lem in bank­ing: the ten­dency for banks to fund spec­u­la­tive bub­bles.

Executive Summary

The major prob­lems of the finan­cial sec­tor are macro­eco­nomic and related to the level of debt, rather than micro­eco­nomic and related to the price of debt. These are that:

  1. Banks have an innate desire to issue more debt than is good for the econ­omy as a whole, and increased com­pe­ti­tion tends to exac­er­bate this ten­dency rather than con­trol it;
  2. As a con­se­quence of (a), debt has grown inex­orably rel­a­tive to incomes until the finan­cial cri­sis began. This expan­sion of debt caused the appar­ent boom prior to the cri­sis, while the slow­down in the rate of growth of debt is the pre­dom­i­nant cause of the cri­sis itself;
  3. Banks are lend­ing too much to house­holds and too lit­tle to busi­ness; and
  4. Lend­ing has been ori­ented towards financ­ing spec­u­la­tion rather than invest­ment and the work­ing cap­i­tal needs of busi­ness.

Increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion once again, with­out ensur­ing that lend­ing is restrained rel­a­tive to incomes, and that it is directed away from house­holds and spec­u­la­tion and towards busi­ness and invest­ment, would only exac­er­bate prob­lems caused by ear­lier intro­duc­tions of unbri­dled com­pe­ti­tion in the 1980s and 1990s.

The focus of pol­icy on bank­ing there­fore needs to shift from the micro­eco­nomic issues of the degree of com­pet­i­tive­ness and so on to the macro­eco­nomic issues of the impact of debt on the econ­omy. In par­tic­u­lar, we need an effec­tive means to con­trol the bank­ing sector’s ten­dency to cre­ate too much debt—a ten­dency that increased com­pe­ti­tion tends to make amplify rather than atten­u­ate.

The one com­pet­i­tive reform I would sug­gest is to licence local banks to exclu­sively lend to small busi­ness to pro­vide work­ing cap­i­tal, where lend­ing can­not be secured against mort­gaged prop­erty.

Introduction

Econ­o­mists and politi­cians have a ten­dency to per­ceive prob­lems in bank­ing as being ones of micro­eco­nom­ics and effi­ciency, because stan­dard eco­nomic analy­sis regards bank­ing and the level of pri­vate debt as hav­ing lit­tle or no macro­eco­nomic impli­ca­tions.

This belief is reflected in the terms of ref­er­ence for this inquiry, which has arisen because the gen­eral pub­lic and the non-bank busi­ness sec­tor have been com­plain­ing about the impact of the bank­ing sec­tor on their lives and liveli­hoods. All of the terms of ref­er­ence, save the catch-all final one of “(m) any other related mat­ter”, con­sider micro­eco­nomic top­ics of such as “(a) … com­pe­ti­tion, (b) .. prod­ucts … fees and charges…” and so on. The focus is on com­pe­ti­tion and the prices of the prod­ucts that banks pro­vide, rather than on the macro­eco­nomic impact of banks and their fun­da­men­tal prod­uct, which is debt-based money.

I believe that this con­ven­tional view is mis­in­formed. Though the micro­eco­nomic issues are of some impor­tance, they are triv­ial com­pared to the issues of the vol­ume of debt that the banks cre­ate, and its effect upon macro­eco­nomic per­for­mance and asset prices.

To estab­lish this, I will first review the his­tory of two pre­vi­ous attempts to reform the bank­ing sec­tor by increas­ing the level of com­pe­ti­tion. Both of these had only tran­sient impacts upon the price of debt, but caused a last­ing increase in the level of debt, and made the Aus­tralian macro­econ­omy even more sub­ject to the dele­te­ri­ous dynam­ics of debt than it had been pre­vi­ously.

The past failures of increased competition in the finance sector

Recent crit­i­cism of banks has focused on the increase in vari­able mort­gage rates by more than the RBA’s increase in the cash rate since the “Global Finan­cial Cri­sis” (GFC) hit in 2008. How­ever, while the mar­gin between mort­gage rates and the cash rate has risen com­pared to post-Wal­lis Com­mit­tee lev­els, it is still below the level that applied prior to the Wal­lis reforms, which encour­aged a sub­stan­tial expan­sion in mort­gage lend­ing com­pe­ti­tion by secu­ri­tised lenders. As Fig­ure 1 indi­cates, after the econ­omy had recov­ered from “the reces­sion we had to have”, but before the Wal­lis reforms were intro­duced, the mar­gin var­ied between a low of 3 per­cent and a high of 5. It is now back to 3 per­cent.

Thus though the mar­gin has increased sub­stan­tially since the GFC hit (from 1.8 to 3 per­cent, a 67% increase in 2.7 years), this has only restored mar­gins to what they were prior to the last time the finance sec­tor was reformed to intro­duce more com­pe­ti­tion (in line with the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Wal­lis Com­mit­tee).

Fig­ure 1: Rela­tion­ship between mort­gage rates and RBA cash rate since 1990


Then, as now, increased com­pe­ti­tion was expected to ben­e­fit cus­tomers via lower costs. The Wal­lis Com­mit­tee described the com­pet­i­tive intent of its reforms in the fol­low­ing way:

The Inquiry has not pur­sued change for its own sake, but has sought an appro­pri­ate bal­ance between achiev­ing com­pet­i­tive out­comes and ensur­ing finan­cial safety and mar­ket integrity. In par­tic­u­lar, its rec­om­men­da­tions seek to…:

  • ensure that reg­u­la­tion of sim­i­lar finan­cial prod­ucts is more con­sis­tent and pro­motes com­pe­ti­tion by improv­ing com­pa­ra­bil­ity;
  • intro­duce greater com­pet­i­tive neu­tral­ity across the finan­cial sys­tem;
  • estab­lish more con­testable, effi­cient, and fair finan­cial mar­kets result­ing in reduced costs to con­sumers;
  • pro­vide more effec­tive reg­u­la­tion for finan­cial con­glom­er­ates which will also facil­i­tate com­pe­ti­tion and effi­ciency; and
  • facil­i­tate the inter­na­tional com­pet­i­tive­ness of the Aus­tralian finan­cial sys­tem.

Pre­cise pre­dic­tion of the direc­tion and per­for­mance of the finan­cial sys­tem can­not be made. How­ever, the Inquiry is con­fi­dent that imple­men­ta­tion of its rec­om­men­da­tions will place Australia’s finan­cial insti­tu­tions and mar­kets in a strong posi­tion to adapt to change and to respond to the ever increas­ing com­pet­i­tive pres­sures which lie ahead. (Stan Wal­lis et al., 1997, p. 2)

The main com­pet­i­tive impact of the Wal­lis Com­mit­tee rec­om­men­da­tions was to accel­er­ate the growth of secu­ri­tised lend­ing. As Fig­ure 1 indi­cates, this did indeed reduce costs for con­sumers, in terms of the mar­gin between offi­cial and mar­ket inter­est rates. But the tran­sient nature of this com­pet­i­tive ben­e­fit, the fact that its unwind­ing coin­cided with the most severe inter­na­tional finan­cial cri­sis since the Great Depres­sion, and the pub­lic anger at banks today, indi­cates that com­pe­ti­tion did not func­tion entirely in the man­ner expected by the Wal­lis Com­mit­tee.

The markup on the cost of funds itself was low­ered not so much by an increase in effi­ciency, as by a diminu­tion of qual­ity, as essen­tial costs were cut in a com­pet­i­tive race for mar­ket share—a com­pe­ti­tion which also increased the aggre­gate hous­ing loans to GDP ratio.

As the National Direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Prop­erty Insti­tute noted to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives hear­ing into Home loan lend­ing prac­tices and processes, detailed prop­erty val­u­a­tions have been replaced by “drive by” checks that do no more than con­firm via a “cur­sory glance” that a prop­erty had a dwelling on it:

what we have seen, par­tic­u­larly from a val­u­a­tion point of view, is that the asset test that many of the ADIs state they under­take, they quite lit­er­ally do not under­take. We do not have val­uers going out doing asset tests on all loans that are under­taken by finan­cial insti­tu­tions. Some banks get their own either ex-man­agers to drive by to see if the actual house exists or we have a lower form of val­u­a­tion being under­taken.

These days it is get­ting to the point where you actu­ally have the val­uer who would not actu­ally even see if the house or asset existed in the first place. You have a drive-by which is at best a cur­sory glance to see if there is a prop­erty on the lot that has been pur­chased. (Mr Warner, Stand­ing Com­mit­tee On Eco­nom­ics Finance And Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion, 2007, p. 34)

Sim­i­larly, detailed eval­u­a­tions of the borrower’s capac­ity to ser­vice a loan, and a com­mit­ment to keep loan repay­ments below 30% of gross bor­rower income, were replaced by auto­mated checks that the bor­rower had suf­fi­cient income left after loan repay­ments to be just above the Hen­der­son poverty line. As APRA’s Gen­eral Man­ager for Indus­try and Tech­ni­cal Ser­vices, Heidi Richards, told the Com­mit­tee:

Our research has also con­firmed that ADIs have mate­ri­ally increased the max­i­mum amount they are will­ing to lend to a given bor­rower. The increase has come about in a shift away from tra­di­tional debt-ser­vic­ing ratios based on sim­ple gross bor­rower income cal­cu­la­tions. In the newer income sur­plus mod­els bor­row­ers are assumed to con­tinue repay­ing their mort­gage until they reach a min­i­mum level of house­hold expen­di­ture, with these min­i­mum lev­els often based on poverty level mea­sures.

The tra­di­tional rule of thumb was that debt-ser­vic­ing expenses should amount to no more than 30 per cent of gross bor­rower income but, based on a review of lend­ing poli­cies that APRA con­ducted last year, we found that loans with debt-ser­vic­ing ratios above 30 per cent are now often well within ADIs’ pol­icy para­me­ters. (Ms Richards, Stand­ing Com­mit­tee On Eco­nom­ics Finance And Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion, 2007, p. 5)

The lower mar­gins between mort­gage rates and the cash rate that con­sumers tem­porar­ily enjoyed between 1997 and 2008 were thus achieved largely through a drop in the qual­ity of the mort­gage prod­uct. This, and the dra­matic increase in the level of debt, allowed loan to val­u­a­tion ratios to blow out from the con­ser­v­a­tive 70% of the 1960s and early 1970s to the 97% lev­els on offer today. This dra­matic increase in the size of mort­gages rel­a­tive to incomes (and con­se­quent drop in the ini­tial equity that bor­row­ers have in their prop­er­ties) has meant an enor­mous increase in cost of ser­vic­ing mort­gages, despite lower mar­gins. This is the main rea­son that banks are the sub­ject of such intense pub­lic oppro­brium today.

At the aggre­gate level, the drop in mort­gage qual­ity caused an explo­sion in unpro­duc­tive lend­ing to the house­hold sec­tor, the same phe­nom­e­non that in the USA fuelled an appar­ent boom known as “The Great Mod­er­a­tion”, which ended in the finan­cial col­lapse that Amer­i­can econ­o­mists now call “The Great Reces­sion”. Though the mar­gin between mort­gage rates and the cash rate fell by 50 per­cent rel­a­tive to 1992 lev­els, the vol­ume of mort­gages rose four­fold (see Fig­ure 2). This increase in the vol­ume of debt rel­a­tive to GDP is the pri­mary rea­son that bank prof­its have increased: had the impact of addi­tional com­pe­ti­tion only been to affect the mar­gin between the banks’ cost of funds and the RBA rate, then bank profits—and there­fore the cost of debt to consumers—would be lower today than prior to the Wal­lis reforms.

Fig­ure 2: A halv­ing of mort­gage mar­gins, a four­fold increase in vol­umes

In the after­math of the finan­cial cri­sis, all the secu­ri­tised lenders have either col­lapsed, or have been taken over by the four major banks: com­pe­ti­tion has given way to oligopoly—as it did in the 1980s. Mar­gins on all classes of loans (except those to large busi­nesses) have risen, but only in the case of per­sonal loans are these mar­gins gen­er­ally higher than applied in the pre-Wal­lis period. As Fig­ure 3 indi­cates, though the recent focus has been on the 1.1% increase in the mort­gage mar­gin, the mar­gin has risen most aggres­sively on per­sonal loans—where it is up 3.7%–while the small busi­ness loan mar­gin has risen 1.8%.

Fig­ure 3: Mar­gin of aver­age loan rates above RBA rate

Falling margins and rising volumes—too much debt

Com­pe­ti­tion thus ini­tially reduced mar­gins, only to have them rise once more—so that the ben­e­fits of com­pe­ti­tion proved tran­sient.

The drop in the qual­ity of loan assess­ment led to an explo­sion in the vol­ume of debt, most of which financed spec­u­la­tion rather than invest­ment. The last­ing impact of the reforms was to sus­tain the ten­dency that the bank­ing sec­tor had already demon­strated even prior to the attempts by gov­ern­ments to reform it via increased com­pe­ti­tion, to increase the level of pri­vate debt com­pared to income. While inter­est rates have var­ied wildly and widely over time, the level of debt com­pared to GDP has risen almost inex­orably prior to the Global Finan­cial Crisis—after 20 years of sta­bil­ity between 1945 and 1965 (see Fig­ure 4).

Fig­ure 4: The real rea­son that bank­ing is a prob­lem today is the blowout in the ratio of debt to GDP

Though the drop in mar­gins was tran­sient, the increase in the vol­ume of debt car­ried by the hous­ing sec­tor was sub­stan­tial and, if not per­ma­nent, much more endur­ing: as Fig­ure 5 indi­cates, whereas it would have taken a mere 2 months of GDP to repay all out­stand­ing mort­gage debt in 1990, it would take more than 10 months of GDP to do the same today.

Fig­ure 5: Vary­ing sec­toral debt lev­els over time

This increase in debt could have been pro­duc­tive had it increased the stock of hous­ing, or improved its qual­ity sub­stan­tially. How­ever though Aus­tralian houses have grown dra­mat­i­cally in size—resulting in so-called “McMansions”—the pro­por­tion of mort­gage debt that has financed con­struc­tion of new homes has fallen from 60 per­cent for investors in the late 1980s to barely 5 per­cent today, while the pro­por­tion of owner-occu­pier loans that financed con­struc­tion has fallen from 20 per­cent to about ten per­cent (see Fig­ure 6; the recent increase was clearly due to the tripling of the First Home Own­ers Grant for new dwelling con­struc­tion, and that is now rapidly revers­ing since the Boost has ter­mi­nated).

By impli­ca­tion, the vast major­ity of mort­gage finance has financed spec­u­la­tion on the prices of exist­ing prop­er­ties, dri­ving up house prices with­out adding to the hous­ing stock of the coun­try.

Fig­ure 6: Per­cent of hous­ing loans financ­ing con­struc­tion

Though the increase in prices has made house­holds feel wealth­ier, the increase in the real debt per house has far exceeded the increase in the CPI-deflated house price index. As Fig­ure 7 shows, though house prices have risen by a fac­tor of 2.5 in real terms since 1977, the CPI-deflated debt level has risen more than 4 times as much. The diver­gence between the debt level per house and house prices began in 1990—before the Wal­lis reforms were introduced—but the rate of diver­gence increased after Wal­lis encour­aged the growth of secu­ri­tized lend­ing.

Fig­ure 7: Increase in debt per house and house price

Thus even though house prices have risen sub­stan­tially, house­hold equity in houses has fallen over the last 2 decades—from above 90 per­cent in the late 1980s to under 70 per­cent (see Fig­ure 8; the sig­nif­i­cant rise in the last two years has been caused by the increase in house prices sparked by the First Home Own­ers Boost). This equity is now extremely depen­dent on house prices remain­ing high, since though debt has dri­ven house prices up, debt will not fall if house prices fall.

Fig­ure 8: Value of house­hold assets minus mort­gage debt

As equity has fallen, the cost of enter­ing the mar­ket has risen. Those who have recently entered the mar­ket have had to devote a pro­hib­i­tive por­tion of their incomes to ser­vic­ing their mort­gage, while those con­sid­er­ing enter­ing must con­tem­plate a daunt­ing level of debt com­pared to their incomes.

As a result, hous­ing afford­abil­ity has dete­ri­o­rated sharply: the claim that many prop­erty lob­by­ists and banks make that it has not is sim­ply absurd. Fig­ure 9 shows the ratio of the aver­age loan taken out by a first home buyer to the aver­age wage, which has risen from just over 2.5 in 1992 to as much as 6 in 2009.

Some com­men­ta­tors have claimed that this rise in the size of mort­gages com­pared to incomes was just a con­se­quence of falling mort­gage rates: as rates fell, the level of debt taken on rose, leav­ing the cost of ser­vic­ing the debt con­stant. RBA Gov­er­nor Glenn Stevens made pre­cisely this claim to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Eco­nom­ics, Finance and Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion in 2007:

The rough sta­tis­tic that I have quoted many times was that the aver­age rate of inter­est was about half; that meant you could ser­vice twice as big a debt. Guess what? That is exactly what occurred, and that had a very pro­found effect on asset val­ues. (Glenn Stevens, remarks to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Eco­nom­ics Finance and Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion, 2007, p. 26)

Though there were peri­ods where this was the case, Fig­ure 9 shows that in gen­eral this was not true. Debt lev­els did rise as rates gen­er­ally fell from 1990–1998, but since then debt lev­els have almost dou­bled com­pared to incomes, while mort­gage rates are higher now than then.

Fig­ure 9: Ratio of the aver­age first home loan to the aver­age yearly wage

A focus on the inter­est costs of debt also under­states the prob­lem, since as debt lev­els rise rel­a­tive to income the cost of pay­ing down the prin­ci­pal over time rises more than the inter­est rate cost alone. On this basis it is unde­ni­able that the increase in the vol­ume of mort­gages, which was the main last­ing impact of increased com­pe­ti­tion, has made Aus­tralians worse off. Fig­ure 10 shows that in 1996, prior to the Wal­lis reforms, the aver­age first home loan could be ser­viced with 30 per­cent of the after tax salary of the aver­age wage earner; today, the fig­ure is 80 per­cent. It is no longer fea­si­ble for a sin­gle per­son on the aver­age wage to buy a dwelling today, and even a cou­ple has to devote more of their take home pay to ser­vic­ing a mort­gage than an indi­vid­ual did just 15 years ago.

Fig­ure 10: 80 per­cent of the aver­age wage needed to ser­vice a first home loan

The dele­te­ri­ous impacts of increased com­pe­ti­tion in lend­ing to the house­hold sec­tor have clearly out­weighed the ben­e­fits. The one ben­e­fit was that the mar­gin between mort­gage rates and the cash rate halved for a decade, but it has now reverted to three-quar­ters of the pre-Wal­lis value. Real house prices have dou­bled, mak­ing some house­holds (espe­cially those who own their houses out­right) wealth­ier, but debt has increased four­fold, and in the aggre­gate house­hold equity in prop­erty has fallen.

Competition’s history of excess in banking

A sim­i­lar process applied the pre­vi­ous time that a mas­sive boost to com­pe­ti­tion was intro­duced into the finan­cial sector—in Feb­ru­ary 1985, when Paul Keat­ing per­suaded the Hawke Labor Gov­ern­ment to intro­duce not merely 4 for­eign banks into the Aus­tralian mar­ket, but six­teen. Then, lend­ing to the busi­ness sec­tor exploded, ris­ing from 33% of GDP to 55% in just 4 years. Much of that lend­ing was unpro­duc­tive, financ­ing the spec­u­la­tive activ­i­ties of now acknowl­edged Ponzi mer­chants like Alan Bond, Christo­pher Skase and Lau­rie Con­nell.

In the after­math of the Stock Mar­ket Crash of 1987 and the real estate bub­ble and bust that pre­ceded the 1990s reces­sion, all the for­eign banks either with­drew from the mar­ket or had their oper­a­tions taken over by the Big Four—one of which, West­pac, almost col­lapsed itself in 1992 when it recorded a $1.6 bil­lion loss.

Increased com­pe­ti­tion in the finan­cial sec­tor has thus failed on two pre­vi­ous occa­sions to achieve the results its advo­cates expected. Instead on both occa­sions, the qual­ity of loan eval­u­a­tion dropped and the vol­ume of lend­ing increased dra­mat­i­cally, with most of that lend­ing fund­ing spec­u­la­tion rather than invest­ment.

The sec­tor to which the lend­ing was directed var­ied, as Fig­ure 5 indi­cates: busi­ness debt more than dou­bled between 1977 and 1987, and then oscil­lated for the next twenty years, only to explode once more from 2005–2008 (when it funded some pro­duc­tive invest­ment in min­er­als, but also the “lever­aged buy­out” frenzy that ended when the stock mar­ket crash began). Mort­gage debt was con­stant through­out the late 70s and 80s, but then increased more than five­fold between 1990 and 2010.

The absence of any long term pat­tern in the sec­toral data masks a very clear pat­tern in the aggre­gate data. For the first 20 years after WWII, pri­vate debt was con­stant at roughly 25 per­cent of GDP. From then on, the level of pri­vate debt com­pared to income has risen relent­lessly, until a crit­i­cal turn­ing point was reached in early 2008. From mid-1964 until early 2008, the pri­vate debt to GDP ratio grew expo­nen­tially, reach­ing a peak of 157 per­cent of GDP in mid-2008. As Fig­ure 11 indi­cates, call­ing this growth “expo­nen­tial” is not mere hyper­bole: the cor­re­la­tion of the actual ratio to a sim­ple expo­nen­tial growth rate of 4.2% p.a. is 0.993.

Fig­ure 11: An inex­orable increase in debt from 1965 until 2008

The only rea­son that this cor­re­la­tion is not even closer to a per­fect 1 is the exis­tence of two “super-bub­bles” in 1972–77 and 1985–1994, and the recent top­ping-out of the ratio in March 2008. This growth rate was sus­tained despite sig­nif­i­cant shifts in reg­u­la­tory regimes, dra­matic volatil­ity in inter­est rates, and as noted ear­lier, sig­nif­i­cant shifts in the sec­toral breakup of pri­vate debt.

This his­tory should give pause to the cur­rent renewed enthu­si­asm for intro­duc­ing more com­pe­ti­tion into the finan­cial sec­tor. If debt—the fun­da­men­tal out­put of the bank­ing sector—has grown inex­orably despite dra­matic changes in the struc­ture of the finan­cial sec­tor and the econ­omy over time, then is there some­thing inher­ent to bank­ing that leads to unre­strained growth in debt? And if increased com­pe­ti­tion had unin­tended dele­te­ri­ous con­se­quences on pre­vi­ous occa­sions, what might be the con­se­quences of enhanc­ing com­pe­ti­tion again now, in the after­math of a finan­cial cri­sis? Is com­pe­ti­tion the panacea, as con­ven­tional eco­nomic analy­sis argues, or is it to some extent the prob­lem in the finan­cial sec­tor?

Funding bubbles rather than productive enterprise

Bank­ing is clearly a vital func­tion in a mar­ket econ­omy, and much of what banks do is essen­tial for com­merce: pro­vid­ing work­ing cap­i­tal to firms, fund­ing invest­ment, enabling con­sumers to own their homes as an alter­na­tive to rent­ing, and so on.

How­ever bank­ing also has poten­tially dam­ag­ing con­se­quences if it funds spec­u­la­tive activ­i­ties rather than gen­uine invest­ment on a large scale—as I argue that, based on the empir­i­cal data, it has. This neg­a­tive side of bank­ing is unlikely to be con­strained by competition—in fact it is likely to be made worse by more com­pe­ti­tion.

This is because bank­ing dif­fers from com­mod­ity production—to which stan­dard “sup­ply and demand” analy­sis is nor­mally applied—in ways that mean that it has an innate ten­dency to try to pro­duce as much of its prod­uct (effec­tively, debt that simul­ta­ne­ously cre­ates credit money) as it can entice its cus­tomers to take on. The only fac­tor that can pre­vent this ten­dency lead­ing to exces­sive debt lev­els is a limit to the will­ing­ness of its cus­tomers to bor­row money.

If bor­row­ers base their desired level of lend­ing on either enhanc­ing imme­di­ate con­sump­tion, or fund­ing activ­i­ties that may lead to income gen­er­a­tion in the future, then debt will gen­er­ally be con­strained to sus­tain­able levels—as occurred dur­ing the 1950s and early 1960s. If, how­ever, bor­row­ers go into debt to finance spec­u­la­tion about asset prices, then there is a poten­tial for the level of bor­row­ing to grow out of pro­por­tion to incomes and lead to a finan­cial cri­sis.

An essen­tial side-effect of this process is the cre­ation of an asset price bub­ble from the pos­i­tive feed­back between ris­ing lev­els of lever­age and asset prices. Asset prices are dri­ven up by debt-financed pur­chases of assets, and this rise in price entices more bor­row­ers into debt. An increase in debt to income ratios there­fore goes hand in hand with an asset price bub­ble. These bub­bles ulti­mately burst for three main rea­sons:

  1. Bor­row­ing to buy exist­ing assets adds to the debt bur­den of soci­ety with­out adding to its income gen­er­at­ing capac­ity. The indi­vid­u­als who profit from ris­ing asset prices are essen­tially Ponzi spec­u­la­tors whose “enter­prise” is fun­da­men­tally loss-mak­ing. Ulti­mately they must fail, and this real­ity is masked only by ris­ing asset prices. As soon as they fal­ter, they are likely to go bank­rupt;
  2. Price to income ratios get dri­ven to lev­els that appear irra­tional even to insid­ers, lead­ing to greater volatil­ity, and even­tu­ally an asset price crash that ends the bub­ble; and
  3. The lev­els of debt that exist­ing spec­u­la­tors and new entrants need to under­take to con­tinue dri­ving the bub­ble becomes pro­hib­i­tive com­pared to their income lev­els. The bor­row­ing slows down, thus end­ing the pos­i­tive feed­back process that dri­ves the bub­ble.

The dan­ger in allow­ing increased com­pe­ti­tion in finance, with­out pro­vi­sions to ensure that the lend­ing is directed to pro­duc­tive uses, is that the sector’s innate ten­dency to fund Ponzi schemes will be ampli­fied by the pres­sure of com­pe­ti­tion.

Competition in the 1980s—the stock market bubble and bust

In ret­ro­spect, this is clearly what occurred dur­ing the 1980s. The ini­tial bub­bles then were in shares and com­mer­cial property—though any­one who claimed there was a bub­ble before Octo­ber 1987 was widely derided. The stock mar­ket bub­ble then burst spec­tac­u­larly, as Fig­ure 12 indi­cates, but in the after­math, spec­u­la­tion shifted to res­i­den­tial prop­erty (thanks in no small mea­sure to the gov­ern­ment re-intro­duc­ing the First Home Own­ers Grant to ward off a feared reces­sion). Prices rose 36% in real terms between Octo­ber 1987 and March 1989, and then stag­nated in real terms for the next decade.

Fig­ure 12: Stock mar­ket bub­bles of the 1980s and 2000s

Competition in the 1990s-2000s—housing and share market bubbles

The addi­tional com­pe­ti­tion from secu­ri­tized lenders that the Wal­lis Com­mit­tee cham­pi­oned has had a sim­i­lar effect, this time pri­mar­ily on house­hold debt and spec­u­la­tion on house prices. Increased com­pe­ti­tion in finance has once again had the dele­te­ri­ous effect of fund­ing spec­u­la­tion rather than pro­duc­tive invest­ment, dri­ving up debt lev­els and caus­ing asset bub­bles in both the share and the prop­erty mar­kets.

Pre­dictably, banks have denied that their activ­i­ties have funded spec­u­la­tive bub­bles. With regard to hous­ing, they assert that house prices reflect fun­da­men­tal forces, on the basis of four propo­si­tions:

  1. That the house price to income ratio in Aus­tralia is not as high as those who assert that there is a house price bub­ble claim it to be;
  2. That there is an excess of demand for hous­ing over sup­ply in Aus­tralia, reflect­ing prob­lems with reg­u­la­tion that have pre­vented the con­struc­tion of new houses in line with under­ly­ing demand;
  3. Strong pop­u­la­tion growth is dri­ving up prices; and
  4. That Aus­tralians have a pref­er­ence to live near the coast and are will­ing to pay a pre­mium to do so.

In order to estab­lish my posi­tion that the bank­ing sec­tor has once again funded a spec­u­la­tive bub­ble, I need to con­sider these argu­ments in detail. As I show below, none of them stand up to close scrutiny.

No house price bubble (and “Coastal living”)

The Com­mon­wealth Bank made the fol­low­ing asser­tions that com­bine argu­ments 1 and 4 above:

  • Aus­tralia the 4th least densely set­tled coun­try in the world—83% live within 50 kms of the coast.
  • Coastal loca­tions demand a premium—Australia’s pop­u­la­tion con­cen­tra­tion in capital/coastal cities dis­torts com­par­isons to other, more densely set­tled coun­tries.
  • Australia’s cap­i­tal city house price to income ratio of 5.6 is con­sis­tent with coastal city met­rics glob­ally (Com­mon­wealth Bank, 2010, p. 4)

These asser­tions were sup­ported by the table shown in Fig­ure 13:

Fig­ure 13: Com­mon­wealth Bank coastal cities com­par­i­son table

This table is a piece of bla­tant sophistry. Note that there are 2 sources given: Demographia (Wen­dell Cox and Hugh Pavletich, 2010) and UBS. All of the over­seas city data points are taken from the Demographia sur­vey, while all of the Aus­tralian cities are derived from UBS research. The dif­fer­ences between the Demographia data for all the cities in this table and the UBS-CBA data are shown in Table 1

Table 1: CBA (Com­mon­wealth Bank, 2010) and Demographia (Wen­dell Cox and Hugh Pavletich, 2010pp. 36–37) house price ratio com­par­i­son

House Price to Income Ratios

Unaf­ford­abil­ity Rank­ings

Coun­try City

Demo-graphia

UBS-CBA

Diff-erence

Dem-ographia

UBS-CBA

Diff-erence

Aus-tralia Syd­ney

9.1

6.2

–32%

2

5

–3

Aus-tralia Mel­bourne

8.0

5.0

–38%

3

9

–6

Aus-tralia Bris­bane

6.7

4.7

–30%

6

10

–4

US San Fran­cisco

7.0

7.0

0%

4

2

2

US Los Ange­les

5.7

5.7

0%

10

8

2

US New York

7.0

7.0

0%

5

3

2

Canada Van­cou­ver

9.3

9.3

0%

1

1

0

UK Bris­tol-Bath

6.1

6.1

0%

8

6

2

NZ Auck­land

6.7

6.7

0%

7

4

3

NZ Welling­ton

5.8

5.8

0%

9

7

2

The UBS-CBA doc­u­ment thus under­states the house price to income ratio for Aus­tralian cities by 30 to 38 per­cent com­pared to the orig­i­nal Demographia doc­u­ment. It por­trays Aus­tralian cities as falling in the mid­dle of the range when, accord­ing to Demographia, Aus­tralian cities are amongst the most unaf­ford­able in the world—in fact in Demographia’s com­par­i­son of 272 cities around the world, Syd­ney was the 2nd most expen­sive, behind only Van­cou­ver.

There are, I believe, two main rea­sons why the CBA-UBS fig­ures for Aus­tralia are so much lower than Demographia’s. Firstly, the Demographia sur­vey com­pares median house prices to median incomes, whereas the CBA-UWS study com­pares median house prices to aver­age incomes. Since income dis­tri­b­u­tion is skewed, the aver­age income sub­stan­tially exceeds the median. Sec­ondly, the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics includes income from prop­erty (includ­ing the imputed rental income from owner-occu­pied dwellings) when cal­cu­lat­ing the aver­age income, whereas the median income relies on wage income only.

Had the CBA-UBS study applied the same trans­for­ma­tions to the over­seas data, then their fig­ures for those cities would also have been sub­stan­tially lower than the Demographia fig­ures, and the rel­a­tive expen­sive­ness of Aus­tralian cities com­pared to coastal cities around the world—let alone land-locked ones—would have been obvi­ous.

Includ­ing income from prop­erty in the income to which one com­pares prop­erty prices is also an inher­ently flawed approach: it will under­state the price to income ratio when prices are ris­ing (and, con­versely, exag­ger­ate the ratio when prices are falling). Prop­erty income derives pri­mar­ily from the change in price, and this will be pos­i­tive when prices are rising—making income larger than it would oth­er­wise be. Using this data to con­clude that there is not a house price bub­ble is turn­ing a Nel­son­ian eye to the prob­lem.

When one is not try­ing to not see a bub­ble, sta­tis­ti­cal evi­dence of it abounds. I will present three mea­sures: the ratio of house prices to dis­pos­able income per head; the ratio of house prices to GDP per head; and the gross rental yield on Aus­tralian rental prop­er­ties.

The house price to dis­pos­able income data shows a slow upward drift in this ratio from 1960 till 1997 (see Fig­ure 14), and then a take­off of the ratio since then to ten stan­dard devi­a­tions above its mean.

Fig­ure 14: House prices to dis­pos­able income–upward trend then bub­ble since 1997

It could be argued that this series always shows a ris­ing trend, and the accel­er­a­tion in that trend is not con­clu­sive evi­dence of a bub­ble. The house price to GDP per capita cal­cu­la­tion, on the other hand, shows no trend between 1953 and 2000, but an explo­sion in the ratio since 1997 that has taken the ratio from under the mean to more than 7 stan­dard devi­a­tions above the mean (see Fig­ure 15). This and sev­eral other met­rics indi­cate that (a) the house price bub­ble began in 1997 and (b) it has dri­ven Aus­tralian house prices to a level at least 50% higher than his­toric lev­els.

Fig­ure 15: House prices to GDP per capita

The low return on rent­ing in Aus­tralia makes it obvi­ous that “investors” in this indus­try are seek­ing cap­i­tal gain rather than income—and are there­fore pri­mar­ily spec­u­la­tors rather than gen­uine investors (see Fig­ure 16). The rental yield hov­ered around 3.5 percent—low, but not trivial—between 1998 when records became avail­able, and 1997, when the pre­vi­ous two mea­sures also indi­cate that the most recent bub­ble began. Since then the aver­age yields fell to a low of under 2 per­cent as house prices rose far more than did rents—and the recov­ery in the ratio to a not quite so abysmal 2.5% was entirely due to the fall in house prices that pre­ceded the Rudd Government’s intro­duc­tion of the First Home Own­ers Boost.

Fig­ure 16: Rental yields are well below deposit rates, let alone loan rates

There­fore, to put it politely, bank argu­ments that there is no house price bub­ble in Aus­tralia (and the CBA-UBS table in par­tic­u­lar) are duplic­i­tous and misleading—even when one makes an “apples to apples” com­par­i­son of Aus­tralian house prices to coastal cities over­seas, we still have amongst the most expen­sive hous­ing in the world. But the argu­ment that we should only con­sider coastal cities is also non­sense.

The propo­si­tion that coastal cities com­mand a pre­mium begs the ques­tion: com­pared to what? In coun­tries like the USA, the answer is easy: com­pared to land-locked cities where the vast major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion lives. But in Aus­tralia, there is no inland mar­ket over which a pre­mium can be charged (apart from Can­berra, which, at a price to income ratio of 5.8, is the 228th least afford­able city in the world out of the 272 in the on the Demographia sur­vey). In Aus­tralia, if you live in a city, then you either live on the coast or in Can­berra: there is no non-coastal city mar­ket over which coastal cities can com­mand a pre­mium.

Underlying demand”

The argu­ment that there is an under­ly­ing short­age of hous­ing, and that this is why house prices are high, is also eas­ily dis­missed. The sup­ply short­age is derived from esti­mates devel­oped by the National Hous­ing Sup­ply Coun­cil.

the Coun­cil esti­mated a gap of around 85,000 dwellings between under­ly­ing demand for and sup­ply of hous­ing at 30 June 2008. The Coun­cil devel­oped a method­ol­ogy for mea­sur­ing the gap based on selected mea­sures of home­less­ness, includ­ing the num­ber of mar­ginal res­i­dents of car­a­van parks and the under­sup­ply of pri­vate rental dwellings indi­cated by the rental vacancy rate. The mea­sures used in the 2008 report were: 2008 gap size =

  • addi­tional pri­vate rental dwellings required in 2008 to increase the num­ber of vacant pri­vate rental dwellings to 3 per cent of the total pri­vate rental stock

These measures—especially the last two—express a social need for addi­tional hous­ing. But they are in no way express a mar­ket demand for hous­ing, Frankly, if you believe that house prices are being dri­ven up by either home­less peo­ple or “mar­ginal res­i­dents of car­a­van parks”, then I have a Bridge or two I’d like to sell you.

Population pressure

The pop­u­la­tion pres­sure argu­ment does appear super­fi­cially convincing—like any story that gives rise to a Ponzi Scheme—but it is sim­ply not sup­ported by the data. While the asser­tions that Aus­tralia didn’t have an over­build­ing spree like those in the USA or China, that our pop­u­la­tion growth rate exceeds the OECD aver­age, and that it spiked recently when house prices were ris­ing sharply are all true, pop­u­la­tion growth per se bears no cor­re­la­tion to changes in house prices.

Fig­ure 17: Absolute growth lev­els of pop­u­la­tion, immi­gra­tion and dwellings

If the argu­ment that a short­age of new houses rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion growth is the cause of ris­ing house prices were true, then Aus­tralia should have expe­ri­enced falling house prices between 1955 and 2006—because for this entire period the rate of growth of new dwellings exceeded the rate of growth of pop­u­la­tion (see Fig­ure 18).

Fig­ure 18: Falling ratio of pop­u­la­tion to dwellings for all years except 2006–2010

Over the long term, the cor­re­la­tion between pop­u­la­tion growth and change in house prices is effec­tively zero. Lag­ging house price change behind pop­u­la­tion change—to test the argu­ment that pop­u­la­tion growth causes price change, but with a lag—does not improve the cor­re­la­tion (see Fig­ure 19). The cor­re­la­tion between change in pop­u­la­tion and change in house prices remains neg­a­tive.

Fig­ure 19: There is no cor­re­la­tion between pop­u­la­tion growth and house prices, even when time lags are con­sid­ered

Even dur­ing the one period when the rate of growth of pop­u­la­tion exceeded the rate of growth of pop­u­la­tion, the change in house prices is uncor­re­lated with the change in pop­u­la­tion and pop­u­la­tion den­sity (see Fig­ure 20).

Fig­ure 20: A neg­a­tive cor­re­la­tion between pop­u­la­tion and house prices

The sim­ple rea­son that pop­u­la­tion change doesn’t deter­mine house price move­ments is that the real mar­ket demand for hous­ing is given fun­da­men­tally by the num­ber of peo­ple who have recently taken out a mort­gage, This can vary rad­i­cally as a pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, swamp­ing vari­a­tions in the rate of pop­u­la­tion growth itself (see Fig­ure 21).

Fig­ure 21: Volatil­ity of new owner occu­pier loans as per­cent of pop­u­la­tion

The two fac­tors that do have a strong causal cor­re­la­tion with changes in house prices are the vol­ume of new lend­ing, and gov­ern­ment manip­u­la­tion of the mar­ket via the First Home Own­ers Grant. The lat­ter will—I hope—be the sub­ject of a sep­a­rate inquiry one day. The for­mer demon­strates that the key fac­tor in deter­min­ing house prices is the growth rate of mort­gage debt: the cor­re­la­tion is strong (0.56), and new lend­ing leads price change by about 3–6 months (see Fig­ure 22).

Fig­ure 22: The growth in mort­gage debt is the key deter­mi­nant of house price changes

Unregulated banking has financed Ponzi Schemes rather than investment

The data thus clearly shows that, on the two pre­vi­ous occa­sions where com­pe­ti­tion in bank­ing was inten­si­fied, the result was an increase in lend­ing for spec­u­la­tive rather than pro­duc­tive pur­poses.

While the boost in lend­ing was tak­ing place, aggre­gate demand increased—as explained later—which made the econ­omy appear buoy­ant. But when the buoy­ant lend­ing came to an end, an eco­nomic cri­sis ensued, since the lend­ing pre­dom­i­nantly drove asset prices higher (rather than adding to the level or pro­duc­tiv­ity of assets).

The end result was an increased level of debt com­pared to income, with lit­tle to show for the increased gear­ing save more expen­sive assets. That is the main rea­son why banks are “on the nose” today. To amplify com­pe­ti­tion a third time, with­out heed­ing these lessons of the past, would be a seri­ous mis­take.

What we should do instead is:

  1. Prop­erly iden­tify the prob­lems in the sec­tor, rather than assum­ing that, what­ever the prob­lems might be, more com­pe­ti­tion will fix them; and
  2. Tai­lor the reforms to the prob­lems, so that there is at least some chance the pro­posed solu­tions will make things bet­ter rather than worse.

The macro-dynamics of debt

As out­lined above, the key prob­lem with the bank­ing sec­tor is that it has cre­ated too much debt, and that the major­ity of this debt has funded spec­u­la­tion rather than pro­duc­tive invest­ment.

This prob­lem has been exac­er­bated by reforms that have been based on a naïve faith in dereg­u­lated mar­kets, but the prob­lem itself is an endemic one, as the his­tor­i­cal record attests. As Fig­ure 23 empha­sises, the pri­vate debt to GDP level today dwarfs any­thing pre­vi­ously expe­ri­enced in Aus­tralia, but there have also been two pre­vi­ous lesser debt bub­bles that both ended in seri­ous Depres­sions (Chay Fisher and Christo­pher Kent, 1999).

Fig­ure 23: Australia’s pri­vate debt to GDP ratio over the very long term

Most econ­o­mists pay lit­tle if any atten­tion to this ratio—and most were there­fore caught com­pletely unawares when the Global Finan­cial Cri­sis hit. By way of con­trast, this ratio and its deriv­a­tives are cru­cial to my analy­sis (Steve Keen, 1995), and to that of the hand­ful of other econ­o­mists around the world who antic­i­pated the GFC (Dirk J Beze­mer, 2009, Dirk J. Beze­mer, 2010, Edward Full­brook, 2010).

An instance of the san­guine way that most econ­o­mists think about pri­vate debt is given by RBA Deputy Gov­er­nor Ric Battellino’s obser­va­tions on the extra­or­di­nary level of house­hold debt as at Sep­tem­ber 2007 (when it was 94% of GDP):

The fac­tors that have facil­i­tated the rise in debt over the past cou­ple of decades – the sta­bil­ity in eco­nomic con­di­tions and the con­tin­ued flow of inno­va­tions com­ing from a com­pet­i­tive and dynamic finan­cial sys­tem – remain in place. While ever this is the case, house­holds are likely to con­tinue to take advan­tage of unused capac­ity to increase debt. This is not to say that there won’ t be cycles when credit grows slowly for a time, or even falls, but these cycles are likely to take place around a ris­ing trend. Even­tu­ally, house­hold debt will reach a point where it is in some form of equi­lib­rium rel­a­tive to GDP or income, but the evi­dence sug­gests that this point is higher than cur­rent lev­els.” (Ric Bat­tellino, 2007, p. 20)

I am not so san­guine, firstly because the his­tor­i­cal record shows that when pri­vate debt reaches a peak, it does not remain at an equi­lib­rium level but goes into reverse (see Fig­ure 23), and sec­ondly because even if debt did reach “some sort of equi­lib­rium rel­a­tive to GDP or income”, this would cause a large fall in aggre­gate demand.

This point is not con­sid­ered by the vast major­ity of econ­o­mists because they believe that the level of debt has no impact on macro­eco­nomic out­comes. Ben Bernanke pro­vides a good illus­tra­tion of this in his dis­missal of Fisher’s argu­ment (Irv­ing Fisher, 1933) that the Great Depres­sion was caused by “debt-defla­tion”:

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 macro­eco­nomic effects. ” (Ben S. Bernanke, 2000, p. 24)

Bernanke’s con­ven­tional argu­ment is false because it ignores the role that changes in debt play in deter­min­ing aggre­gate demand. In the equi­lib­rium per­spec­tive that vir­tu­ally defines con­ven­tional eco­nomic the­ory (known as “neo­clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics”), debt is merely a redis­tri­b­u­tion of spend­ing power from one per­son (the lender) to another (the bor­rower). But in the real world (and in the non-ortho­dox “Finan­cial Insta­bil­ity Hypoth­e­sis”: Hyman P. Min­sky, 1982), the aggre­gate level of debt can expand or con­tract, and this change in the aggre­gate level of debt does have macro­eco­nomic effects because it alters aggre­gate spend­ing power.

In a nut­shell, aggre­gate demand is the sum of GDP plus the change in debt (Steve Keen, 2009a, c, d), and for this rea­son a sim­ple sta­bi­liza­tion of the debt to GDP ratio can cause a reces­sion.

This can be illus­trated using a sim­ple exam­ple. Con­sider an econ­omy with a nom­i­nal GDP of $1 tril­lion, which is grow­ing at 10% per annum, where half (5%) is real growth and half is infla­tion. The econ­omy also has a pri­vate debt level of $1.25 tril­lion that is grow­ing at 20% p.a. Total spend­ing in the econ­omy that year will there­fore be $1.25 tril­lion, con­sist­ing of $1 tril­lion from GDP and $250 bil­lion from the increase in debt.

Then assume that GDP con­tin­ues to grow at the same rate, so that it is $1.1 tril­lion the year after, and that the rate of growth slows down to 10% per annum—the same speed as the rate of growth of nom­i­nal GDP, so that the debt ratio remains con­stant at 150%, the level it reached in Year 1.

Total aggre­gate demand will there­fore be $1.25 trillion—the sum of the $1.1 tril­lion GDP and the 10% increase in debt from its level of $1.5 tril­lion. This is the same level of nom­i­nal demand as the year before—but since there has been 5% infla­tion, the level of real demand has fallen by $60 bil­lion. This is enough to cause a reces­sion (if the impact is felt entirely by the sale of goods and ser­vices), or a sharp fall in asset prices, or some com­bi­na­tion of the two.

This hypo­thet­i­cal example—summarised in Table 2—is a milder ver­sion of what actu­ally occurred in 2008 and caused the Global Finan­cial Cri­sis. The actual expe­ri­ences of the USA and Aus­tralia are sum­ma­rized in Table 3 and Table 4 respec­tively.

Table 2: Hypo­thet­i­cal exam­ple of impact of debt to GDP ratio reach­ing equi­lib­rium

Variable/year Year 1 Year 2
Nom­i­nal GDP

$1,000

$1,100

Growth rate of nom­i­nal GDP (%)

10%

10%

Real growth rate (%)

5%

5%

Infla­tion rate (%)

5%

5%

Pri­vate debt

$1,250

$1,500

Growth rate of pri­vate debt (%)

20%

10%

Change in pri­vate debt

$250

$150

Nom­i­nal aggre­gate demand (GDP + change in debt)

$1,250

$1,250

Real aggre­gate demand (in Year 1 terms)

$1,250

$1,190

In the USA, the rate of growth of debt did not merely slow but actu­ally turned neg­a­tive: there­fore the change in debt actu­ally sub­tracted from aggre­gate demand, rather than adding to it. But as illus­trated by the hypo­thet­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Table 2, the mere slow­down in the rate of growth of debt prior to the year end­ing in Jan­u­ary 2010 was enough to start “The Great Reces­sion” in 2008-09.

In the year end­ing in 2008, America’s GDP was $14.34 tril­lion, and the growth in pri­vate debt was $4.04 tril­lion, so that pri­vate sec­tor aggre­gate demand was $18.38 tril­lion. In the year end­ing in 2009, nom­i­nal GDP was slightly higher at $14.35 tril­lion, but the growth in debt was only $1.45 tril­lion (the rate of growth of debt had slowed from 11.1% p.a. to 3.6% p.a.). Pri­vate sec­tor aggre­gate demand was thus $15.8 trillion—a four­teen per­cent fall from the year before.

The increase in gov­ern­ment debt atten­u­ated the fall in total aggre­gate demand to some extent, but this still fell 9% over the year, and America’s asset mar­kets, com­mod­ity mar­kets, and unem­ploy­ment took a huge hit.

The fol­low­ing year saw the slow­down in the rate of growth of debt turn into absolute delever­ag­ing, with pri­vate debt falling by $1.86 tril­lion (falling mort­gage debt con­tributed $220 bil­lion of this). Pri­vate sec­tor aggre­gate demand was thus $12.55 tril­lion, com­pared to $18.38 tril­lion just two years ear­lier.

Table 3: Delever­ag­ing in the USA

Variable\Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
GDP

12,915,600

13,611,500

14,337,900

14,347,300

14,453,800

Change in Nom­i­nal GDP

6.3%

5.4%

5.3%

0.1%

0.7%

Change in Real GDP

2.7%

2.4%

2.5%

–1.9%

0.1%

Infla­tion Rate

4.0%

2.1%

4.3%

0.0%

2.6%

Pri­vate Debt

33,196,817

36,553,385

40,596,586

42,045,481

40,185,976

Debt Growth Rate

9.6%

10.1%

11.1%

3.6%

–4.4%

Change in Debt

2,914,187

3,356,568

4,043,201

1,448,895

–1,859,505

GDP + Change in Pri­vate Debt

15,829,787

16,968,068

18,381,101

15,796,195

12,594,295

Change in Pri­vate Aggre­gate Demand

0.0%

7.2%

8.3%

–14.1%

–20.3%

Gov­ern­ment Debt

6,556,391

6,893,467

7,321,592

8,615,051

10,167,585

Change in Gov­ern­ment Debt

478,851

337,076

428,125

1,293,459

1,552,534

GDP + Change in Total Debt

16,308,638

17,305,144

18,809,226

17,089,654

14,146,829

Change in Total Aggre­gate Demand

0.0%

6.1%

8.7%

–9.1%

–17.2%

Mort­gage Debt

10,042,429

11,157,757

11,954,054

11,903,391

11,683,114

Change in Mort­gage Debt

1,179,274

1,115,328

796,297

–50,663

–220,277

Aus­tralia suf­fered a reduc­tion in aggre­gate demand as well from the slow­down in the rate of growth of pri­vate debt in the year end­ing in 2008. GDP was $1.13 tril­lion, while the increase in pri­vate debt that year was $260 billion—so that pri­vate sec­tor aggre­gate demand was $1.39 tril­lion. GDP grew to $1.24 tril­lion the next year, while the growth of debt slowed sub­stan­tially to $134 bil­lion. The sum was $1.37 tril­lion, slightly less in nom­i­nal terms than the year before.

Table 4: Avoid­ing delever­ag­ing in Aus­tralia

Variable\Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
GDP

966,032

1,039,953

1,134,431

1,237,884

1,257,016

Change in Nom­i­nal GDP

8.1%

7.7%

9.1%

9.1%

1.5%

Change in Real GDP

3.2%

2.6%

4.8%

2.3%

1.3%

Infla­tion Rate

2.8%

3.3%

3.0%

3.7%

2.1%

Pri­vate Debt

1,321,900

1,510,600

1,770,149

1,904,640

1,915,384

Debt Growth Rate

13.5%

14.3%

17.2%

7.6%

0.6%

Change in Debt

157,420

188,700

259,549

134,491

10,744

GDP + Change in Pri­vate Debt

1,123,452

1,228,653

1,393,980

1,372,375

1,267,760

Change in Pri­vate Aggre­gate Demand

0.0%

9.4%

13.5%

–1.5%

–7.6%

Gov­ern­ment Debt

14,973

17,174

20,871

32,140

69,749

Change in Gov­ern­ment Debt

–5,553

2,201

3,697

11,269

37,609

GDP + Change in Total Debt

1,117,899

1,230,854

1,397,677

1,383,644

1,305,369

Change in Total Aggre­gate Demand

0.0%

10.1%

13.6%

–1.0%

–5.7%

Mort­gage Debt

722,844

819,095

916,897

998,628

1,076,425

Change in Mort­gage Debt

81,618

96,251

97,802

81,731

77,797

The implications for economic performance of excessive private debt

From this debt-dri­ven per­spec­tive, these macro-eco­nomic impli­ca­tions of debt are far more impor­tant than the micro­eco­nomic issue of the cost of debt. But since Aus­tralia has appar­ently done so well dur­ing the GFC, these macro­eco­nomic issues have been far less dom­i­nant here than in the rest of the world. It is there­fore impor­tant to con­sider why Aus­tralia dif­fered from the rest of the world: was there some­thing unique about Aus­tralia which meant the GFC didn’t hap­pen here, or are the macro­eco­nomic impli­ca­tions of the GFC still rel­e­vant to us? We can get some guid­ance from com­par­ing the Aus­tralian expe­ri­ence to the US one.

There are three major dif­fer­ences between Aus­tralia and the USA, which in turn are by far the major rea­sons why Australia’s eco­nomic per­for­mance was so much bet­ter than America’s:

  1. While Australia’s debt to GDP level is unprece­dented in its own his­tory, the USA’s is higher still;
  2. Delever­ag­ing as such did not occur in Australia—though this almost guar­an­tees that it will occur in the future; and
  3. Growth in mort­gage debt con­tin­ued, largely under the influ­ence of gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

Were the cur­rent pri­vate debt to GDP ratio unre­mark­able, these fac­tors would be gen­er­ally positive—a handy boost to credit-dri­ven demand would have helped us side­step a reces­sion, with only minor long term con­se­quences. But since pri­vate debt is at unprece­dented lev­els, these short term gains in 2009–2010 imply that a rever­sal of our eco­nomic for­tunes in 2011 is pos­si­ble, if pri­vate sec­tor delever­ag­ing com­mences here. To explain why, I need to pro­vide more detail on each of those three dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tors between the USA and Aus­tralia.

Level of Debt

Fig­ure 24 shows both how much greater America’s pri­vate debt level is that Australia’s, and also shows that Amer­ica is rapidly delever­ag­ing now. Thus even though Australia’s debt-dri­ven boost to aggre­gate demand was larger in 2008 than America’s—since pri­vate debt grew 17.2% that year in Aus­tralia, ver­sus 11.1% in the USA—the sheer scale of the USA’s debt com­pared to its GDP means that its depen­dence on ris­ing debt was even more extreme than ours. It also meant that when the debt went into reverse, the depress­ing impact of this was greater for the USA than Aus­tralia.

Fig­ure 24: The USA’s pri­vate debt to GDP ratio is sig­nif­i­cantly larger than Australia’s

The rate of change of debt—no deleveraging here

The fun­da­men­tal cause of the GFC was the burst­ing of a global debt bub­ble. With the growth of debt going from pos­i­tive to negative—so that we went from ris­ing debt adding to aggre­gate demand, to falling debt sub­tract­ing from aggre­gate demand (see Fig­ure 25)—what had appeared to be a period of stel­lar eco­nomic per­for­mance gave way to the biggest eco­nomic cri­sis since the Great Depres­sion.

Fig­ure 25: The GFC was the first time the change in debt reduced aggre­gate demand since the Great Depres­sion

Aus­tralia, on the other hand, avoided a seri­ous down­turn because delever­ag­ing was stalled, and in fact turned around—so that ris­ing debt once again added to aggre­gate demand. While Amer­ica and the rest of the world had a delever­ag­ing-dri­ven cri­sis, Aus­tralia avoided the cri­sis by relever­ag­ing on the back of a renewed prop­erty bub­ble (see Fig­ure 26).

Fig­ure 26: Aus­tralia abruptly stopped delever­ag­ing in 2010

Since eco­nomic activ­ity and employ­ment in a mar­ket econ­omy is demand-dri­ven, delever­ag­ing in the USA (and else­where in the OECD) caused a seri­ous reces­sion, while Australia’s relever­ag­ing boosted aggre­gate demand and resulted in it expe­ri­enc­ing only a very mild down­turn.

The piv­otal role of the change in pri­vate debt in deter­min­ing eco­nomic activ­ity is eas­ily seen in Fig­ure 27, which cor­re­lates the debt-dri­ven frac­tion of aggre­gate demand with the unem­ploy­ment rate. This fig­ure shows why it is not hyper­bole to com­pare the cur­rent cri­sis to the Great Depres­sion, since this is the only time since then that the debt-con­tri­bu­tion to aggre­gate demand has turned neg­a­tive (the appar­ent neg­a­tives in 1945 were due respec­tively to the end­ing of WWII, and a break in the sta­tis­ti­cal series). The cor­re­la­tion with unem­ploy­ment points out the “Ponzi” nature of the US’s eco­nomic per­for­mance in both the Great Depres­sion and recently: when debt grew, unem­ploy­ment fell, and vice versa—with dis­as­trous consequences—when delever­ag­ing struck. In the Great Depres­sion the cor­re­la­tion was –0.76; across the whole of 1955 till now, the cor­re­la­tion was –0.36; and in the last 20 years, when the pri­vate debt has sur­passed the Great Depres­sion level, the cor­re­la­tion was –0.9.

Fig­ure 27: Debt dri­ven-demand and unem­ploy­ment, USA

I’ve used the same ver­ti­cal scales for the Aus­tralian data (Fig­ure 28) as the Amer­i­can to empha­sise both dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two coun­tries.

Firstly, both GDP and the change in debt deter­mine aggre­gate demand, and with its lower level of debt dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s, the debt-dri­ven frac­tion of aggre­gate demand was far less impor­tant in Aus­tralia than in Amer­ica. The cor­re­la­tion over 1955–2010 was 0.25, which is both small and the wrong sign, show­ing that the debt con­tri­bu­tion to demand was swamped by that of GDP—which is the sign of a well-func­tion­ing econ­omy.

Sec­ondly how­ever, this dif­fer­ence dis­ap­peared as Australia’s debt to GDP ratio grew expo­nen­tially from 1965. Between 1990 an today, the cor­re­la­tion is sig­nif­i­cant, the cor­rect sign for the causal argu­ment I am mak­ing here, and large at –0.82. So by the time the GFC hit, the debt-dri­ven com­po­nent of aggre­gate demand was almost as dom­i­nant in Aus­tralia as it was in the USA.

Thirdly, we avoided a seri­ous down­turn, not by hav­ing an econ­omy that was fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent to the USA’s, but by pre­vent­ing delever­ag­ing. Whereas dur­ing the 1990s reces­sion, absolute delever­ag­ing did occur (and unem­ploy­ment exceeded 10 per­cent) dur­ing the GFC, delever­ag­ing was pre­vented solely because a gov­ern­ment policy—the First Home Own­ers Boost—encouraged Aus­tralian house­holds to go on a debt-binge.

Fig­ure 28: Debt-dri­ven demand and unem­ploy­ment, Aus­tralia

The busi­ness sec­tor, whose debt had been grow­ing strongly in the leadup to the GFC, delev­ered at a faster pace than it did dur­ing “the reces­sion we had to have”, when the debt frac­tion of aggre­gate demand briefly turned neg­a­tive. On the other hand, mort­gage debt rose strongly. Australia’s avoid­ance of delever­ag­ing was there­fore entirely due to the growth in mort­gage debt (see Fig­ure 29).

Fig­ure 29: Debt-dri­ven demand by sec­tor

This growth in mort­gage debt would not have come about with­out the First Home Own­ers Boost (see Fig­ure 30). Prior to that pol­icy being intro­duced, mort­gage debt was on track to fall by about 2% of GDP between mid-2008 and March 2010. Instead, it rose by over 6% of GDP. This effec­tively added $100 bil­lion in debt-financed expen­di­ture to the Aus­tralian economy—a larger boost to aggre­gate demand than either the Rudd Government’s stim­u­lus pro­gram, or the impact on house­hold dis­pos­able income of the RBA’s rate cuts.

Fig­ure 30: The impact of the FHOB on the trend in mort­gage debt

The great dan­ger for the future is that this pol­icy suc­cess in 2008-09 has set Aus­tralia up for a greater pol­icy dilemma in future when the house­hold sec­tor joins the busi­ness sec­tor in delever­ag­ing. That this may already be hap­pen­ing can be seen by con­sid­er­ing the third aspect of pri­vate debt, the “credit impulse”: the impact of the accel­er­a­tion or decel­er­a­tion of debt on the change in aggre­gate demand.

The credit impulse

The fact that aggre­gate demand is the sum of GDP plus the change in debt means that the change in aggre­gate demand is the sum of the change in GDP plus the accel­er­a­tion of debt. Just as the debt con­tri­bu­tion to demand is highly cor­re­lated with the level of employ­ment, the accel­er­a­tion of debt—or the credit impulse, which is defined as the change in the change in debt divided by GDP (Michael Biggs et al., 2010)—is highly cor­re­lated with the change in employ­ment.

In stark con­trast to the assump­tion made by Bernanke and most neo­clas­si­cal economists—that debt only has macro­eco­nomic impli­ca­tions if the dis­tri­b­u­tion of debt affects con­sump­tion (to cite a recent paper by Krug­man, “It fol­lows that the level of debt mat­ters only if the dis­tri­b­u­tion of that debt mat­ters, if highly indebted play­ers face dif­fer­ent con­straints from play­ers with low debt”, Gauti B. Eggerts­son and Paul Krug­man, 2010, p. 3)—the sheer scale of debt, its rate of change, and whether it is accel­er­at­ing or decel­er­at­ing, have very sig­nif­i­cant impacts on the macro­econ­omy. If Bernanke, Krug­man and other neo­clas­si­cals were cor­rect, the cor­re­la­tions between the accel­er­a­tion in debt and the change in unem­ploy­ment should be insignif­i­cant.

Instead, the cor­re­la­tion is highly sig­nif­i­cant, large, per­sis­tent, and causal, since it leads changes in employ­ment and GDP by about 3 months. The cor­re­la­tion dur­ing the Great Depres­sion was –0.72; over the whole post-WWII period from 1955 the cor­re­la­tion was –0.59, and since 1990 it was –0.82 (see Fig­ure 31).

Fig­ure 31: Decel­er­a­tion of US debt in the GFC more extreme than in Great Depres­sion

The com­par­i­son of Aus­tralia with the USA dur­ing the GFC con­firms that Aus­tralia had a milder GFC by hav­ing a milder neg­a­tive credit impulse, and by revers­ing it before the USA did (Fig­ure 32).

Fig­ure 32: Australia’s credit impulse was milder and reversed ear­lier than did the USA’s

The size of the neg­a­tive credit impulse in 2008–2010 in Amer­ica was the major cause of the sharp increase in unem­ploy­ment, and the recent improve­ments have been due to the credit impulse turn­ing less neg­a­tive (see Fig­ure 33).

Fig­ure 33: The USA’s large neg­a­tive credit impulse caused a large increase in unem­ploy­ment, since mildly reversed

Australia’s milder reces­sion and current—though appar­ently faltering—recovery has been due to its neg­a­tive credit impulse being smaller than in the USA, and being reversed ear­lier (see Fig­ure 34).

Fig­ure 34: Australia’s smaller neg­a­tive credit impulse meant a smaller down­turn

At a super­fi­cial level, this implies an easy solu­tion to an eco­nomic down­turn: if the econ­omy slows down, encour­age the growth of credit, and the econ­omy will recover. Effec­tively, this is how Aus­tralia and most of the OECD has over­come past reces­sions: by expand­ing the level of pri­vate debt even more and caus­ing a new debt-dri­ven boom to replace the old one.

The prob­lem with this solu­tion is that it nec­es­sar­ily involves a ris­ing level of debt com­pared to income over time. At some point, this will result in a level of debt which is so large com­pared to income that many eco­nomic agents refuse to take on any more debt. The credit impulse there­fore turns neg­a­tive and a major cri­sis ensues—a Depres­sion.

In late 2005, I formed the belief that we had reached such a point in the credit cycle, which is why I went pub­lic with my views that a seri­ous eco­nomic cri­sis was immi­nent (along with a hand­ful of other non-ortho­dox econ­o­mists; for details see Dirk J Beze­mer, 2009, Dirk J. Beze­mer, 2010, Edward Full­brook, 2010). The occur­rence of the Global Finan­cial Cri­sis, against the expec­ta­tions of the vast major­ity of econ­o­mists, vin­di­cated my analy­sis.

Australia’s appar­ent avoid­ance of the cri­sis has led to my analy­sis car­ry­ing less weight in Aus­tralia than over­seas. How­ever as out­lined above, Australia’s avoid­ance of a seri­ous down­turn to date has largely occurred because it delayed the process of delever­ag­ing. In effect, we avoided the GFC by recre­at­ing the con­di­tions that caused it: an asset price bub­ble caused by ram­pant lend­ing to the house­hold sec­tor.

Implications for competition policy

Attempt­ing to increase com­pe­ti­tion in the bank­ing sec­tor once more could risk con­tin­u­ing this process of an ever-increas­ing level of debt caus­ing appar­ent pros­per­ity, at the expense of guar­an­tee­ing a future severe delever­ag­ing-dri­ven con­trac­tion.

How­ever an equally prob­a­ble out­come, given the exces­sive and unprece­dented level of house­hold debt (higher than that pre­vail­ing in the USA—see Fig­ure 35—and with a much higher debt ser­vic­ing cost—see Fig­ure 36), is that new com­peti­tors will fail to gain a foothold in the mar­ket, because the mar­ket will now shrink rather than expand as the house price bub­ble deflates.

The like­li­hood that the level of house­hold debt will fall is rea­son enough to be less than enthu­si­as­tic about the ben­e­fits of increased com­pe­ti­tion in the bank­ing sector—since in the past this has led to ris­ing lev­els of debt. It is also hard to con­tem­plate how increased com­pe­ti­tion could be con­sis­tent with falling debt volumes—such a phe­nom­e­non is more likely to mean con­sol­i­da­tion in the sec­tor rather than an increased num­ber of play­ers fight­ing over a smaller pie.

Fig­ure 35: Aus­tralian house­hold debt com­pared to GDP is now 5% higher than America’s

Fig­ure 36: Inter­est on mort­gages cost 6.5% of GDP here ver­sus under 4% in the USA

A lack of competition, or a lack of control?

The pre­ced­ing analy­sis shows that the prob­lem with bank­ing is not so much a lack of com­pe­ti­tion, as a lack of con­trol over the level of lend­ing. The ques­tion then is whether increased com­pe­ti­tion would pro­vide the con­trol needed over the level of lend­ing.

The his­tor­i­cal record is decid­edly that it will not: as shown above, both pre­vi­ous pol­icy-inspired increases in com­pe­ti­tion caused a blowout in debt lev­els. Com­pe­ti­tion is not the solu­tion to the social and eco­nomic prob­lems caused by the bank­ing sec­tor.

Why then are politi­cians and econ­o­mists rec­om­mend­ing more com­pe­ti­tion for bank­ing? To some degree this is because of they tend to apply the stan­dard “sup­ply and demand” model to banking—and there­fore to argue that if the indus­try is the sub­ject of com­plaints, it must be because it is too monop­o­lis­tic. Unfor­tu­nately how­ever, the “sup­ply and demand” model is a false guide to the oper­a­tions of the bank­ing sec­tor. So too is the “money mul­ti­plier” the­ory of how credit money is cre­ated that is still taught in eco­nom­ics text­books, despite being found to be empir­i­cally false over the last 3 decades.

One of the main rea­sons that the world is now mired in a seem­ingly never-end­ing series of finan­cial crises is because of the appli­ca­tion of appeal­ing but false mod­els of how bank­ing behaves. It is there­fore impor­tant for policy-makers—like the mem­bers of this Committee—to have an accu­rate under­stand­ing of how the sec­tor they are attempt­ing to reform actu­ally oper­ates.

The con­ven­tional “money mul­ti­plier” model argues that the cre­ation of credit money begins with an injec­tion of gov­ern­ment-cre­ated “Base Money”, which is then deposited by an indi­vid­ual in a bank account. The bank then retains a por­tion of this—the so-called Reserve Ratio—and lends the rest. A process of re-deposit­ing and re-lend­ing then occurs, at the end of which the total amount of money cre­ated is equal to the Base Money injec­tion divided by the Reserve Ratio.

Were this model accu­rate, then we would find that there was a time lag between the cre­ation of Base Money (M0) and the cre­ation of Credit Money (M2–M0). But in fact the lag has been found to be the other way around: credit money is cre­ated first, fol­lowed by changes in base money. As Nobel Prize win­ners Kyd­land and Prescott put it:

There is no evi­dence that either the mon­e­tary base or M1 leads the cycle, although some econ­o­mists still believe this mon­e­tary myth. Both the mon­e­tary base and M1 series are gen­er­ally pro­cycli­cal and, if any­thing, the mon­e­tary base lags the cycle slightly… The dif­fer­ence of M2 — M1 leads the cycle by even more than M2, with the lead being about three quar­ters. (Finn E. Kyd­land and Edward C. Prescott, 1990, p. 12)

A more real­is­tic per­spec­tive on bank­ing is the “endoge­nous money” the­ory, and its impli­ca­tions are that dereg­u­lated, com­pet­i­tive bank­ing has an innate ten­dency to cause finan­cial crises of the kind the global econ­omy is now expe­ri­enc­ing. As Basil Moore put it, the essence of this model is the obser­va­tion that

In the real world banks extend credit, cre­at­ing deposits in the process, and look for the reserves later” ((Basil J. Moore, 1979, p. 539) cit­ing (Alan R. Holmes, 1969, p. 73); see also more recently (Piti Disy­atat, 2010, “loans drive deposits rather than the other way around”, p. 7)).

This empir­i­cal real­ity makes it easy to under­stand a fun­da­men­tal point: that banks have an innate ten­dency to want to cre­ate as much debt as pos­si­ble, and the only effec­tive stop to this is not com­pe­ti­tion between banks, but insti­tu­tional reforms that limit the will­ing­ness of bor­row­ers to take on debt for spec­u­la­tive pur­poses.

I have con­structed mod­els of a pure credit econ­omy to illus­trate this point (Steve Keen, 2009a, b, c, d, 2008, 2010); rather than repro­duc­ing these here I have put a model which enables these points to be illus­trated in a dynamic sim­u­la­tion (see Fig­ure 37 for a sam­ple out­put) on my blog at the page http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/policy-documents/. The model and mod­el­ing soft­ware can be down­loaded directly from the fol­low­ing link:

http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/KeenDynamicModel.zip.

Fig­ure 37: Sam­ple out­put from dynamic mod­el­ling pro­gram with vari­a­tions in lend­ing vari­ables

Fig­ure 38 illus­trates the basic insight of this endoge­nous money per­spec­tive: bank income increases if more debt is cre­ated. This ten­dency will not be reduced by increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion: instead, as the his­tor­i­cal record of Aus­tralian bank­ing has illus­trated, an increase in com­pe­ti­tion will often amplify this ten­dency as the com­pe­ti­tion for mar­ket share leads all banks to search out avenues to mar­ket debt.

Fig­ure 38: Bank income increases with faster lend­ing, more rapid money cre­ation, and slower loans repay­ment

The eas­i­est way to do so is to fund spec­u­la­tion on asset prices, since that weak­ens the one effec­tive con­trol on the amount of debt that banks can cre­ate, the will­ing­ness of firms and house­holds to go into debt.

If firms and house­holds limit their bor­row­ing to what they can rea­son­ably antic­i­pate ser­vic­ing from income, then broadly speak­ing debt would not become a prob­lem. Though there will always be firms who bor­row with unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions of profit, and prodi­gal house­holds who live beyond their means, by and large these will be periph­eral issues if bor­row­ing is income-based.

But when bor­row­ing becomes based instead on expec­ta­tions of prof­it­ing from ris­ing asset prices (“asset-based lend­ing”), then a pos­i­tive feed­back loop is set up that, almost inevitably, leads to a blowout in debt lev­els and an even­tual finan­cial cri­sis. Ris­ing debt lev­els them­selves drive up asset prices, indi­vid­u­als accept a higher debt to income ratio than they oth­er­wise would in the belief that debt can be repaid from the pro­ceeds of asset sales, and an actual boom is gen­er­ated in the econ­omy as the increase in debt spurs aggre­gate demand. Once such an appar­ent “vir­tu­ous cir­cle” is in train, it is almost impos­si­ble to stop, since vir­tu­ally every­one in soci­ety has an inter­est in its con­tin­u­ance: the banks, stock­bro­kers and real estate agents because their prof­its are higher, the gen­eral pub­lic because they feel wealth­ier as asset prices rise (and some of them do profit from buy­ing and sell­ing on a ris­ing mar­ket), and even the gov­ern­ment because the Ponzi boom gen­er­ated by ris­ing pri­vate debt makes it seem to be a “good eco­nomic man­ager”.

But the boom must ulti­mately end in a cri­sis, because it dri­ves up debt lev­els with­out adding to the economy’s income-gen­er­at­ing capac­ity. Ulti­mately, a level of debt will be incurred that can­not be ser­viced, and the econ­omy will col­lapse into a Depres­sion. I have mod­eled this process in another more tech­ni­cal paper (Steve Keen, 2009d). Two sam­ple out­puts from this model are shown in Fig­ure 39 and Fig­ure 40. With­out asset-based lend­ing, though the debt level rises, it does not get out of hand and cause a cri­sis.

Fig­ure 39: a debt-financed pure credit econ­omy with­out asset-based lend­ing

With asset-based lend­ing how­ever, spec­u­la­tive lend­ing even­tu­ally pre­dom­i­nates over pro­duc­tive invest­ment and even­tu­ally, after a series of finan­cial cycles, the level of debt over­whelms the econ­omy.

Fig­ure 40: a debt-financed pure credit econ­omy with asset-based lend­ing

Conclusion: the problem is not microeconomic, and competition is not the solution

Since the main prob­lems with the bank­ing sec­tor relate to the amount of debt it gen­er­ates and the macro­eco­nomic prob­lems these cause, the solu­tion lies not with micro­eco­nomic reforms—and espe­cially not with increased com­pe­ti­tion, which exac­er­bates the under­ly­ing prob­lem of exces­sive debt—but with insti­tu­tional reforms and macro­eco­nomic pol­icy.

From the expe­ri­ence of the Great Depres­sion itself, it is clear that reg­u­la­tory reform is not enough to pre­vent bank lend­ing get­ting out of hand. Reforms such as the Glass Stea­gall Act may tem­porar­ily usher in a period of sta­bil­ity. But if the reforms leave open the pos­si­bil­ity of fund­ing asset-price spec­u­la­tion, then banks will do this and in the process, under­mine the reforms. The pub­lic will gain a tem­po­rary ben­e­fit from the lend­ing as it expands eco­nomic activ­ity, bank power will rise with ris­ing debt, and ultimately—as we saw in 1999—the very reforms them­selves will be abol­ished.

Some­thing more per­ma­nent is required, and it has to, in my opin­ion, tackle the will­ing­ness of bor­row­ers to take on debt, rather than attempt­ing to limit bank will­ing­ness to lend—since I see this as rather like try­ing to stop the tides com­ing in.

I have devel­oped two basic reform ideas, both of which I know I have Buckley’s Chance of hav­ing imple­mented at present—especially in Aus­tralia, since the dom­i­nant per­cep­tion here is that we have in fact avoided the prob­lems that have beset the rest of the world. How­ever unless I put these ideas into cir­cu­la­tion now, there will never be any chance of hav­ing them imple­mented, even when atti­tudes to the finan­cial cri­sis are much more melan­choly than today.

Reform Proposals

My pro­pos­als are, in one sense, “micro­eco­nomic reforms”, since they are rede­f­i­n­i­tions of fun­da­men­tal com­po­nents of every­day con­tracts rather than grand reg­u­la­tory schemes to con­trol bank­ing, or fis­cal or mon­e­tary pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions to counter the excesses of the bank­ing sec­tor. How­ever, I am sure they are not the kind of micro­eco­nomic reforms the Com­mit­tee had in mind—and nor are they likely to be adopted.

These pro­pos­als are:

  1. To rede­fine shares so that, when pur­chased from a com­pany, they last indef­i­nitely as they do today, but once they are sold to a sec­ondary pur­chaser, they have a defined life­time of 50 years, after which they expire (I call this a Jubilee Share pro­posal); and
  2. To base lend­ing for prop­erty on the rental income (actual or imputed) of the prop­erty being pur­chased, and to limit the debt that can be secured against a prop­erty to ten times its annual rental income.

The object of both reforms is to make lever­aged spec­u­la­tion on asset prices much less likely than it is today.

The vast major­ity of trades on share mar­kets are of spec­u­la­tors sell­ing to other spec­u­la­tors, with val­u­a­tions osten­si­bly based on the net present value of expected future div­i­dend flows, but in real­ity based on the “Greater Fool” prin­ci­ple, where ris­ing debt funds the Greater Fool. If instead shares on the sec­ondary mar­ket pro­vided div­i­dends for up to 50 years, but after that date had a value of zero, it is far less likely that share pur­chases would be under­taken with bor­rowed money. Val­u­a­tions would then be actu­ally based on con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mates of future div­i­dend flows up until expiry, lead­ing to much less volatile share prices and much less spec­u­la­tion.

Such a change would also encour­age cap­i­tal for­ma­tion via the share mar­ket, since the only means to secure a per­pet­ual div­i­dend flow would be to pro­vide money directly to a com­pany via an ini­tial pub­lic offer­ing.

The prop­erty reform would break the pos­i­tive feed­back loop that cur­rently exists between lever­age and prop­erty prices: prices rise because some bor­row­ers are will­ing to take on more lever­age to trump other bor­row­ers, and the increased lever­age dri­ves prices up, feed­ing back into the lever­age-price bub­ble process.

With this reform, all would-be pur­chasers would be on equal foot­ing with respect to their level of debt-financed spend­ing, and the only way to trump another buyer would be to put more non-debt-financed money into pur­chas­ing a prop­erty.

Though I know there is no prospect of these reforms being adopted, I nonethe­less rec­om­mend that Sen­a­tors at least pon­der them. The Global Finan­cial Cri­sis is not going away any time soon, because its fun­da­men­tal cause is still with us—an exces­sive level of pri­vate sec­tor debt, gen­er­ated by a finan­cial sec­tor that was hap­pier fund­ing Ponzi Schemes than it was doing the more dif­fi­cult work of financ­ing pro­duc­tive invest­ment. Only when the intractabil­ity of the cri­sis with­out fun­da­men­tal reforms becomes appar­ent, will pro­pos­als like these that actu­ally go to the heart of the prob­lem be con­sid­ered.

In the mean­time, I expect that mis­taken ideas—such as that the prob­lem is exces­sive mar­gins rather than exces­sive debt, and that addi­tional com­pe­ti­tion will solve this problem—are more likely to be pro­posed by Inquiries such as this one. I remain opposed to unstruc­tured attempts to increase com­pe­ti­tion in the bank­ing sec­tor, but there is one com­pet­i­tive reform that I would sup­port: intro­duc­ing lenders whose sole pur­pose is to pro­vide small busi­ness with work­ing cap­i­tal. At present, small busi­ness is being squeezed by higher loan mar­gins more than all other sec­tors, and much small busi­ness lend­ing is actu­ally secured against and based on the prop­erty owned by small busi­ness own­ers, rather than on their busi­nesses and cash flows,as it should be.

A com­pet­i­tive reform that encour­aged lend­ing to this sector—to finance actual busi­ness activity—would be worth­while. Any other approach that relied sim­ply on increased com­pe­ti­tion to fix the sector’s ills would either fail to work—given the cur­rent exces­sive level of debt—or make our prob­lems worse.

References

Bat­tellino, Ric. 2007. “Some Obser­va­tions on Finan­cial Trends.” Reserve Bank of Aus­tralia Bul­letin, Octo­ber 2007, 14–21.

Bernanke, Ben S. 2000. Essays on the Great Depres­sion. Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press.

Beze­mer, Dirk J. 2009. ““No One Saw This Com­ing”: Under­stand­ing Finan­cial Cri­sis through Account­ing Mod­els,” Gronin­gen, The Nether­lands: Fac­ulty of Eco­nom­ics Uni­ver­sity of Gronin­gen,

Beze­mer, Dirk J. 2010. “Under­stand­ing Finan­cial Cri­sis through Account­ing Mod­els.” Account­ing, Orga­ni­za­tions and Soci­ety, 35(7), 676–88.

Biggs, Michael; Thomas Mayer and Andreas Pick. 2010. “Credit and Eco­nomic Recov­ery: Demys­ti­fy­ing Phoenix Mir­a­cles.” SSRN eLi­brary.

Com­mon­wealth Bank. 2010. “Aus­tralian Res­i­den­tial Houses and Mort­gages: Cba Mort­gage Book Secure,” Syd­ney: Com­mon­wealth Bank of Aus­tralia,

Cox, Wen­dell and Hugh Pavletich. 2010. “6th Annual Demographia Inter­na­tional Hous­ing Afford­abil­ity Sur­vey,” Demographia,

Disy­atat, Piti. 2010. “The Bank Lend­ing Chan­nel Revis­ited,” BIS Work­ing Papers. Basel: Bank of Inter­na­tional Set­tle­ments, 35.

Eggerts­son, Gauti B. and Paul Krug­man. 2010. “Debt, Delever­ag­ing, and the Liq­uid­ity Trap: A Fisher-Min­sky-Koo Approach,”

Fisher, Chay and Christo­pher Kent. 1999. “Two Depres­sions, One Bank­ing Col­lapse,” Reserve Bank of Aus­tralia Research Dis­cus­sion Papers. Syd­ney, NSW, Aus­tralia: Reserve Bank of Aus­tralia, 54.

Fisher, Irv­ing. 1933. “The Debt-Defla­tion The­ory of Great Depres­sions.” Econo­met­rica, 1(4), 337–57.

Full­brook, Edward. 2010. “Keen, Roubini and Baker Win Revere Award for Eco­nom­ics,” E. Full­brook, Real World Eco­nom­ics Review Blog. New York: Real World Eco­nom­ics Review,

Holmes, Alan R. 1969. “Oper­a­tional Con­traints on the Sta­bi­liza­tion of Money Sup­ply Growth,” F. E. Mor­ris, Con­trol­ling Mon­e­tary Aggre­gates. Nan­tucket Island: The Fed­eral Reserve Bank of Boston, 65–77.

House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Eco­nom­ics Finance and Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion. 2007. “Ref­er­ence: Reserve Bank of Aus­tralia Annual Report 2006,” Perth: Hansard,

Keen, Steve. 2009a. “Bail­ing out the Titanic with a Thim­ble.” Eco­nomic Analy­sis & Pol­icy, 39(1), 3–24.

Keen, Steve. 2009b. “The Dynam­ics of the Mon­e­tary Cir­cuit,” S. Rossi and J.-F. Pon­sot, The Polit­i­cal Econ­omy of Mon­e­tary Cir­cuits: Tra­di­tion and Change. Lon­don: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 161–87.

Keen, Steve. 1995. “Finance and Eco­nomic Break­down: Mod­el­ing Minsky’s ‘Finan­cial Insta­bil­ity Hypoth­e­sis.’.” Jour­nal of Post Key­ne­sian Eco­nom­ics, 17(4), 607–35.

Keen, Steve. 2009c. “The Global Finan­cial Cri­sis, Credit Crunches and Delever­ag­ing.” Jour­nal Of Aus­tralian Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, 64, 18–32.

Keen, Steve. 2009d. “House­hold Debt-the Final Stage in an Arti­fi­cially Extended Ponzi Bub­ble.” Aus­tralian Eco­nomic Review, 42, 347–57.

Keen, Steve. 2008. “Keynes’s ‘Revolv­ing Fund of Finance’ and Trans­ac­tions in the Cir­cuit,” R. Wray and M. Forstater, Keynes and Macro­eco­nom­ics after 70 Years. Chel­tenham: Edward Elgar, 259–78.

Keen, Steve. 2010. “Solv­ing the Para­dox of Mon­e­tary Prof­its.” Eco­nom­ics: The Open-Access, Open Assess­ment E-Jour­nal, 4(2010–31).

Kyd­land, Finn E. and Edward C. Prescott. 1990. “Busi­ness Cycles: Real Facts and a Mon­e­tary Myth.” Fed­eral Reserve Bank of Min­neapo­lis Quar­terly Review, 14(2), 3–18.

Min­sky, Hyman P. 1982. Can “It” Hap­pen Again? : Essays on Insta­bil­ity and Finance. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Moore, Basil J. 1979. “The Endoge­nous Money Stock.” Jour­nal of Post Key­ne­sian Eco­nom­ics, 2(1), 49–70.

National Hous­ing Sup­ply Coun­cil. 2010. “National Hous­ing Sup­ply Coun­cil 2nd State of Sup­ply Report,” H. Depart­ment of Fam­i­lies, Com­mu­nity Ser­vices and Indige­nous Affairs, Can­berra: Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment,

Stand­ing Com­mit­tee On Eco­nom­ics Finance And Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion. 2007. “Round­table on Home Loan Lend­ing Prac­tices and Processes,” Can­berra: Proof Com­mit­tee Hansard,

Wal­lis, Stan; Bill Beer­worth; Jeff Carmichael; Ian Harper and Linda Nicholls. 1997. “Final Report of the Finan­cial Sys­tem Inquiry,” Trea­sury, Can­berra: Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment Pub­lish­ing Ser­vice,

About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.
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  • cape1232

    Great expo­si­tion. If no one takes your mes­sage to heart its not because they couldn’t under­stand it. I wish the US would invite you to tes­tify to con­gress.

    I think your pro­pos­als make sense and would work — espe­cially because they are sim­ple and easy for lay-peo­ple to under­stand. I don’t even think it is a stretch to think that vot­ers would actu­ally under­stand why these pro­pos­als would work. (This is not a crit­i­cism of the populace’s intel­lect; more just an obser­va­tion on how lit­tle most peo­ple under­stand what money is or how bank­ing actu­ally works.)

    What kinds of resis­tance would you expect to these ideas? You stated, of course, that neo-clas­si­cal econ­o­mists won’t even lis­ten, and will just pro­pose more of the same kind of poli­cies we’ve had before. But sup­pos­ing another econ­o­mist or pol­icy maker were to have a seri­ous dis­cus­sion with you about how well your pro­pos­als would work, what do you think their objec­tions would be, and your responses? (In other words, if I try to con­vince my fel­low cit­i­zens to sup­port these pro­pos­als, can you give me more ammu­ni­tion?)

  • Hi Conal,

    That’s a very impor­tant point that is becom­ing a major com­po­nent of eco­log­i­cal thinking–that there is a trade­off between opti­mal­ity and robustness–and we cer­tainly need that in eco­nom­ics, to replace its one-eyed focus on effi­ciency.

  • Thanks Andrew.

    Firstly, I agree with the thrust of your equity ideas as a means to tran­sit from the mess we’re in now to a more sus­tain­able future; whether they would work as a means to pre­vent hous­ing ever becom­ing a tar­get of debt-lever­aged spec­u­la­tion in the future I can’t yet say; I haven’t the time to read your blog entry in detail–I’ll try to do so later.

    In the mean­time, I’d encour­age blog­gers here to check it out them­selves, and debate it here.

    I know the Jubilee Shares idea is “out there”; my expec­ta­tion is that, in 5 or more years, it will be a lot more con­ser­v­a­tive than some of the ideas oth­ers will put for­ward.

  • Good ques­tions cape.

    The most obvi­ous resis­tance is the “out there” com­ment Andrew made–I’ve seen some­one on another blog putting a “wtf!” about both ideas. They seem too rad­i­cal. But to me, there’s less rad­i­cal than pro­pos­als to intro­duce 100% reserve banking–because they would basi­cally elim­i­nate deposits as we know them today. My pro­pos­als are also tar­get­ted at what I see as the cru­cial danger–that how­ever money is cre­ated, if it can be used to fund a Ponzi Scheme, it will lead to no good.

    Next off, the main objec­tions are to the Jubilee Shares idea, and the main come­back I’ve had to that is that, since it would mean that peo­ple fund­ing an IPO couldn’t then get a quick cap­i­tal gain by sell­ing those shares again for a profit, it would reduce the cre­ation of new cap­i­tal.

    I also get told that this would elim­i­nate the sec­ondary mar­ket in shares, which has been an insti­tu­tion in cap­i­tal­ism for half a mil­len­nia.

    To the first point, I argue that IPO-quick-cap­i­tal-profit-ori­ented invest­ing is what gave us excesses like the Dot­Com bub­ble. I want sober deci­sions being made about where to risk one’s cap­i­tal in new ven­tures, rather than casino-style invest­ing; I hope my idea would encour­age the lat­ter, while elim­i­nat­ing the for­mer.

    To the sec­ond, I argue that a 50 year life span for a share is plenty of rea­son to buy it on the sec­ondary mar­ket, if it’s a share in an estabished com­pany that has proven itself, or one that is being sold so cheaply that the return is worth it. Val­u­a­tions would clearly be based on the net present value of the expected cash flows over the life of the share–something that neo­clas­si­cal text­books fan­ta­sise is what hap­pens now, but of course it doesn’t. So the sec­ondary mar­ket would become far less impor­tant, and smaller, but it would still exist.

  • TruthIs­ThereIs­NoTruth

    From some­one with inti­mate knowl­edge of finan­cial mar­kets the for and against argu­ment pre­sented in regards to the jubilee shares is being car­ried out by peo­ple who are too far removed from the detailed knowl­edge needed to under­stand why such a pro­posal is infea­si­ble at a prac­ti­cal level, fur­ther­more any con­sid­er­a­tion of risk, par­tic­u­larly risk trans­fer is also being ignored in the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

    It is some­what of a shame because the core mes­sage is very good and per­son­ally I would like to see it get more seri­ous atten­tion, shame­fully just this morn­ing there is already talk about stilt­ing up non-bank lend­ing insti­tu­tions.

    The pro­posal punch­line detracts from the main mes­sage, prac­ti­tion­ers will dis­miss the impor­tant bits on the basis of the pro­posal, whose nature and arbi­trari­ness of the para­me­ters sig­nal an uncon­sul­ta­tive approach. The the­ory is good, I would sug­gest more con­sul­ta­tion on the prac­ti­cal mat­ters.

  • mahaish

    hi andrew,

    very inter­est­ing link, im going to study it a bit more,

    but my ini­tial 30,000 foot per­spec­tive is ,

    ulti­mately an equity based sys­tem, is still going to need enough cur­rency or reserves , legally sanc­tioned tokens, for peo­ple to buy them­selves into a share of the pye.

    so for an assett swap to occurre , or for a new equity based assett to exist, ulti­mately some­where down the food chain cur­rency with­out an attached lia­bil­ity is going to be required if we want to get rid of this debt based sys­tem

    we can the­o­ret­i­cally go to a non cur­rency totally script based sys­tem, but i cant see that hap­pen­ing while we have fiat cur­rency issu­ing ans tax­ing gov­ern­ments.

    and if our sav­ings rates arent high enough to get a rea­son­albe rate of eco­nomic expan­sion, then the sov­er­eign gov­ern­ment needs to step in and issue enough non debt based cur­rency to allow that equity for­ma­tion to hap­pen.

    what say you

  • mahaish

    and it still doesnt get rid of the prob­lem that steve alludes to,

    equity can be lever­aged, and hence turned into debt

  • Andrew not the Saint

    I’m not FOFOA Steve 🙂 He mainly talks about gold, or “Free­Gold” as he calls it and is dead cer­tain on hyper­in­fla­tion hap­pen­ing at some point. Regard­less of his fore­casts and views on gold, I find a lot of par­al­lels in your and his views on debt.

    Since we’re talk­ing about “out there” ideas, I had an even outer one — http://www.talkfinance.net/f36/free-market-equity-based-approach-land-value-tax-5462/

    In regards to your and mahaish’s con­cerns about debt-lever­aged bub­bles — another impor­tant “blowout pre­ven­tion” mea­sure would be to sim­ply abol­ish the fra/ictional reserve bank­ing in its cur­rent form and go back/forward to a sys­tem which would not allow pri­vate enti­ties to issue inter­est-bear­ing credit that’s treated vir­tu­ally the same as gov­ern­ment-issued money (I’m talk­ing about the Aussie RBA here rather than the US Fed). How­ever, even that couldn’t com­pletely pre­vent occa­sional bub­bles, but I’m cer­tain it would pre­vent mas­sive bub­bles fol­lowed by huge debt defla­tion­ary whirlpools that we’re look­ing at today, that could suck out a whole econ­omy as well as a soci­ety to a near com­plete col­lapse.

    Peo­ple come up with the Tulip Mania as an exam­ple of a bub­ble in the hard-money times. Well, I don’t care about tulips and I don’t care about the idiots who got burnt on tulip spec­u­la­tion (and I wouldn’t care today either), but I do care about fam­i­lies who suf­fer do to astro­nom­i­cal costs of home own­er­ship. What IS nec­es­sary is some gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion try­ing to pre­vent or rather limit bub­bles of NECESSITIES — land, food, energy and such. Cut­ting the easy credit sup­ply is only a part of the solu­tion, which I feel won’t be so sim­ple. E.g. there would need to be strong anti-trust reg­u­la­tion pre­vent­ing the likes of GS mak­ing huge prof­its on oil futures in 2008.

  • ” the idea that inter­est rate pric­ing can stop a spec­u­la­tive bubble–or lead to equilibrium–is I believe false appli­ca­tion of some­thing that has some fea­si­bil­ity in a com­mod­ity mar­ket (price help­ing the sys­tem sta­bilise) but lit­tle rel­e­vance to one where expec­ta­tions about the future and uncer­tainty are involved.”

    All invest­ment is spec­u­la­tion. And if you are say­ing it is impos­si­ble to price risk, then wouldn’t thins imply that bond inter­est rates are arbi­trary and bond rat­ings are mean­ing­less?

  • All invest­ment is spec­u­la­tIVE; some is speculation–my dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion being that some­thing that adds to the pro­duc­tive capac­ity of soci­ety is pro­duc­tive (which I pre­fer to call invest­ment) while some sim­ply dri­ves up asset prices (which I pre­fer to call spec­u­la­tion, but an old men­tor termed “place­ment”).

    And yes and yes.

  • ak

    Steve,

    The sec­ond pro­posal does not look rad­i­cal at all to me. It is per­fectly fea­si­ble to limit the size of mort­gage loans in rela­tion to the poten­tial rental income. I think that con­ser­v­a­tive lend­ing prac­tices were quite com­mon some time ago (even 15 years ago in Cen­tral Europe).

    How­ever I am not entirely con­vinced that the Jubilee Share pro­posal can actu­ally change much if the expiry time is 50 years. It may make shares illiq­uid if the expiry time is short. There may always be ways to cir­cum­vent this reg­u­la­tion — for exam­ple by lend­ing shares. I am not con­vinced that share­mar­ket bub­bles are very dan­ger­ous to the whole econ­omy with­out gear­ing.

    We need to look at the var­i­ous bub­bles or sim­i­lar phe­nom­ena in the past to deter­mine what trig­gers spec­u­la­tion. Let’s look at the behav­iour which appeared dur­ing the Gold Rush. It was obvi­ous that the amount of gold was finite but this didn’t stop the peo­ple com­ing. In a bub­ble ini­tially asset prices may rise because investors expect higher div­i­dends when the project proves its via­bil­ity. Once spec­u­la­tors see that a price of some­thing is ris­ing — they swoop on these assets and keep pump­ing the price up. It is irrel­e­vant what is the sub­ject of the bub­ble — it can be some­thing as use­less as tulips. Then the sub­se­quent waves of spec­u­la­tors arrive — these who will be burned when the bub­ble pops.
    This behav­iour is per­fectly ratio­nal for the ini­tial group of spec­u­la­tors — the “seed­ers”. The herd is less ratio­nal of course.
    I am not sure whether the pat­tern will change if the shares of a ris­ing com­pany have to expire in 48 years. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of the peo­ple gam­bling on ris­ing prices will be dead by that time. Spec­u­la­tors do not buy and hold. They buy and hope to sell before the price col­lapses.

    What I would sug­gest instead is much less spec­tac­u­lar. I would use a screw­driver and some red tape instead of a ham­mer. The income tax (what includes the tax on div­i­dends) should be low­ered and any cap­i­tal gain tax exemp­tions (what includes the infa­mous neg­a­tive gear­ing) should be removed. The cap­i­tal gains tax rate should be actu­ally made slightly higher than the income tax. Our prop­erty taxes need to be increased as well. This should be enough to sta­bilise the sys­tem as there was no hous­ing bub­ble in Ger­many where sim­i­lar sys­tem is in place. The over­all level of tax­a­tion should not change.

    Addi­tion­aly there should be strict reg­u­la­tions on bank lend­ing to spec­u­la­tors. These peo­ple do not redis­trib­ute the risk, they do increase sys­temic risk if they bor­row too much. Money should be lent directly to com­pa­nies rather than to peo­ple buy­ing shares on sec­ondary mar­kets.

    Of course there is a risk that these mea­sures may be removed in the future and the les­son un-learned again but the same may hap­pen to any reg­u­la­tions.

  • Smok­in­Je­bus: Can you point me to a time and place when banks had 100% reserve deposits and all lend­ing was done explic­itly via bonds? 

    What we do have data on is more-free or less-free bank­ing sys­tems and the larger cri­sis have hap­pened under less free bank­ing and directly as a result of cen­tral bank mon­e­tary pol­icy. eg. con­sider how the great­est cri­sis to date (one that dwarfed all pre­vi­ous insta­bil­i­ties) occurred 16 years after the cre­ation of the US 3rd US cen­tral bank and as a direct result of it’s heavy print­ing to prop up the British pound which was itself print­ing to fund WWI debt.

  • sj

    Mr Keen
    Your com­ment about 50 year expiry of shares idea being taken seri­ously in a few years maybe right.
    How many com­pa­nies last 50 years, most blow up insol­vent any­way!
    The list is very long HIH,Onetel,Storm financial,ABC Child Care etc etc
    Bond cru­sades will slaugh­ter high debt com­pa­nies and inter­est rates will soar even­tu­ally.
    Trans­par­ent and open account­ing is the way to clean up the ponzi scheme, unfor­tu­nately doggy account­ing is made law by weak gov­ern­ments.
    Again same old mes­sage cash­flow is king and higher inter­est rates will sur­prise the high debt spec­u­la­tors.

  • So in your opin­ion, there’s no dif­fer­ence in risk in giv­ing, say, a 30 year mort­gage loan of $1M to some­one with $10K/year in income and sub­stan­tial debt and no sav­ings vs. some­one with $1M/year in income and no debt and sub­stan­tial sav­ings?

  • er

    I get stuck on the iden­tity that aggre­gate demand equals GDP (Y) + change in debt (?B), which is unfor­tu­nate for understanding’s sake as much of the analy­sis fol­lows from it…
    How does it fit with the national account­ing iden­ti­ties, I = S, a con­se­quence of Y = I + C?

    Now, ?B must be some-else’s increase in asset ?A, which, I vaguely under­stand, might be the (false) premise for some, such as Bernanke in his rejec­tion of Fisher’s analy­sis, to treat it as (in some way) as neu­tral.

    That’s about the extent of my under­stand­ing… Some help would be appre­ci­ated.

  • No stevedeko­rte,

    If I was that sim­plis­tic then I hardly think I’d have the read­er­ship I do, do you?

    I am sim­ply mak­ing a point that peo­ple who think debt is all about risk have missed: that chang­ing debt lev­els is also about aggre­gate demand.

  • Hi er,

    Check out the Biggs, Mayer & Pick paper on this:

    http://ssrn.com/abstract=1595980

    where they relate the change in debt argu­ment directly to the old national account­ing iden­ti­ties (I go beyond this because I include pur­chases of exist­ing assets in expen­di­ture).

    I’ve yet to work my argu­ment through thor­oughly with respect to the I=S con­clu­sion of con­ven­tional macro, but I sus­pect that I’ll be able to show this involves a con­ser­va­tion “law” which only applies in a non-grow­ing econ­omy. Biggs et al on the other hand work within this iden­tity.

  • winslowre­co­nom­ics

    The Global Finan­cial Cri­sis is not going away any time soon, because its fun­da­men­tal cause is still with us—an exces­sive level of pri­vate sec­tor debt”

    And this also means there is also an exces­sive level of pri­vate sec­tor sav­ings.

    Which raises the ques­tion whether the debt is really the prob­lem, or is the prob­lem with how debt is cre­ated or is the prob­lem that sav­ings can’t be eas­ily forced into income for overly indebted debtors?

    Ways to reduce the prob­lem of an exces­sive level of pri­vate sec­tor debt include.….
    Re dis­tri­b­u­tional taxes
    Reduc­ing inter­est rates on sav­ings and debt
    Clear­ing debts through bank­ruptcy
    Replac­ing pri­vate debt with pub­lic debt

    Btw, bill mitchell thinks Aus­tralia is near­ing reces­sion because of a lack of fis­cal pol­icy. Your hous­ing bet may still come true.

    http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=12577

  • Pingback: Son of Wallis competition | Steve Keen's Debtwatch()

  • Jack Spax

    A com­par­ism of the Swiss econ­omy, the level of their pri­vate debt, the strength of their bank sys­tem, should be con­sid­ered, they seem to have a small pop­u­la­tion, but a plethora of var­i­ous banks owned in part by their can­ton­ments and the SNB. I believe their bank­ing model is one that should be con­sid­ered and looked to as well as hav­ing a broad based eco­nom­i­cal model rather than the reliance of growth of debt as the prime dri­ver of the econ­omy Cer­tainly on face value their model appears more resi­lent as opposed to the Anglo Amer­i­can bank­ing sys­tem and cer­tainly the ECB.

  • Ok, but my point is in a free bank­ing sys­tem, inter­est rates will nat­u­rally price risk and there­fore limit lever­age in the sys­tem. You stated that it would not work because risk couldn’t be priced and then denied that risk could not be priced. So I’m con­fused — if you do think risk can be priced then why wouldn’t it nat­u­rally limit debt and risk expo­sure?

  • The word “nat­ural” steve deko­rte, is a com­plete give­away. There’s noth­ing “nat­ural” about a process of price set­ting reach­ing equi­lib­rium (or near it, as the Aus­tri­ans seem to think) when we’re liv­ing in a com­plex sys­tem, espe­cially where that price has to equi­li­brate claims now with future finan­cial prospects to repay those claims when the future can­not be known.

    I sug­gest you do some read­ing on uncertainty–which can­not be reduced to “risk”–starting with Chap­ter 12 of Keynes’s Gen­eral The­ory, and his 1937 paper The Gen­eral The­ory of Employ­ment, fol­lowed by some con­sid­er­a­tion of com­plex­ity theory–from Man­del­brot to Per Bak and Ilya Pri­gogine.

  • There’s noth­ing “nat­ural” about a process of price set­ting reach­ing equi­lib­rium when we’re liv­ing in a com­plex sys­tem.. when the future can­not be known.”

    I agree that the future is unknown, but not *com­pletely* unknown — and that is the key dif­fer­ence. Were it com­pletely unknown we would have no means of choos­ing any action at all.

    The fact that you sat down and wrote your response shows that you pre­dicted it would be read. You made an invest­ment of time based on this risk assess­ment. I see no dif­fer­ence between your choice of how to spend your time or whether to spend your sav­ings buy­ing par­tic­u­lar bonds.

    Fur­ther, there is no avoid­ing mak­ing pre­dic­tions — whether or not you let the mar­ket deter­mine lever­age (which cer­tainly isn’t the case in any econ­omy with a cen­tral bank or fiat cur­rency) or you let the gov­ern­ment deter­mine it, *some­one* has to make that choice and it is done by mak­ing pre­dic­tions about the future. Wouldn’t you agree?

    AFAICS, the only ques­tion is whether a this deci­sion should be left to free indi­vid­u­als or whether the threat of force should be used to place the deci­sion in the hands of the few who, his­tor­i­cally, always man­age to per­son­ally profit from this power at the expense of the pub­lic and make the sys­tem far more prone to cat­a­strophic col­lapse.

  • mahaish

    Ways to reduce the prob­lem of an exces­sive level of pri­vate sec­tor debt include…..
    Re dis­tri­b­u­tional taxes
    Reduc­ing inter­est rates on sav­ings and debt
    Clear­ing debts through bank­ruptcy
    Replac­ing pri­vate debt with pub­lic debt”

    hi winslowe­co­nom­ics,

    redis­tri­b­u­tional taxes, yes 

    or in my view a total re struc­tur­ing of the tax sys­tem away from tax­ing income gen­er­a­tion towards tax­ing eco­nomic rents. so we abol­ish income and var­i­ous busi­ness taxes, and intro­duce a prop­erty and resource taxes

    reduc­ing inter­est rates,

    well that may not work in a defla­tion, it will depend from what base line inter­est rates are being reduced from. if the idea is to have neg­a­tive inter­est rates, that isnt necesser­ally going to drive more invest­ment and spend­ing, if there hasnt been an improve­ment in the bal­ance sheet pos­tion of the pri­vate sec­tor. fur­ther more inter­est rate reduc­tions can have a neg­a­tive effect on pri­vate sec­tor bal­ance sheets, since savers are get­ting reduced returns.

    clear­ing debts through bank­rupcy, yes but who ought to be made bank­rupt, the debtor or the cred­i­tor , or both. and who gets to retain con­trol of the enti­ties

    replac­ing pri­vate debt with pub­lic debt,

    well, the gov­ern­ment has con­trol of the cur­rency, which it can issue with­out cre­at­ing a lia­bil­ity owned by the pri­vate sec­tor in the form of a bond. when the gov­ern­ment spends it cre­ates deposits, but it doesnt need to issue a debt instru­ment. con­ven­tional think­ing these days means that gov­ern­ments issue secu­ri­ties as a mon­etery con­trol and anti infla­tion mea­sure. but this is a false dichotomy, since when gov­ern­ments issue secu­ri­ties, we end up with a assett swap between secu­ri­ties and bank reserves, with no nett improve­ment in pri­vate sec­tor nett worth. 

    its the level of the deficit above and beyond the impact of auto­matic sta­bilis­ers that improve pri­vate sec­tor nett worth and privste sec­tor sav­ings, not whether the cen­tral bank buys and sell debt instru­ments.

    so yes larger deficits, with­out necesser­ally hav­ing debt issuance. more gov­ern­ment spend­ing to get more pri­vate sec­tor sav­ings.,

    not this ridicu­lous drive towards more bud­get sur­pluses and the eco­nomic dis­as­ters that even­tu­ally fol­low them

    cheers

  • gcjblack

    I also have con­cerns with the 50 year Jubilee shares. Dur­ing 50 years, spec­u­la­tors can have their toy to play with to their demented will. 99% of all shares are not in their 50th year.

    Let’s look at how stock options and their $ value changes as they approach the con­tract expiry date. Many peo­ple use the Black-Scholes for­mula to cal­cu­late the value of this trans­ac­tion. Steve: What does your sim­u­la­tor say when this is plugged into your sim­u­la­tor. My intu­ition says this will not work.

    In Canada, the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees home mort­gages pro­vided they meet cer­tain cri­te­ria. To make mar­gin money with no (or min­i­mal) risk will seem irre­sistible to a banker. Effec­tive set­ting of government’s terms & require­ments will ensure home loans are rea­son­able. A house usu­ally has a clearly defined square footage, as this is used for assessed val­ues in most juris­dic­tion. Grad­ing on a curve of the hous­ing qual­ity fac­tor can be used, as every “above aver­age” home requires a “below aver­age” house to also exist. This grade qual­ity can then be mul­ti­plied by the max­i­mum $/sq. ft. (as defined and allowed by gov­ern­ment) can be used to define the max­i­mum sell­ing price, and some gov­ern­ment defined frac­tion of that is the max. gov­ern­ment guar­an­teed mort­gage. The gov­ern­ment can care­fully adjust the $/sq.ft fac­tor and the frac­tion loan­able depend­ing on infla­tion, costs, debt lev­els, inter­est rates, etc. so as to avoid bub­bles, and eco­nomic col­lapse.

    How does this pro­posal sup­port or com­pare to the Ams­ter­dam hous­ing price trends over ~300 years?

    For share, deriv­a­tives, CDO’s, CDS’, and other FIRE instru­ments, the mar­ket prof­its on each flip, and there­fore exces­sively encour­ages churn­ing of accounts. This puts all Wall St. pro­fes­sion­als into a con­flict of inter­est against society’s need to avoid bub­bles. If how­ever, they received a flat fee per per­son to do all trades for that per­son per year, the pro­fes­sional no longer need to egg on clients nor churn­ing of accounts, as they no longer ben­e­fit from doing so. Since there is a trans­ac­tion cost for every trade, clients who wish to be day traders are to be avoided like the plague if a Wall St. pro­fes­sional is to make a decent income. 

    Stock traders make money on churn­ing clients, as well as financ­ing the churn­ing and spec­u­lat­ing by oth­ers; loans that spec­u­late on the spec­u­la­tions of oth­ers.

    I pro­pose deny­ing spec­u­la­tive loan inter­est costs and loan losses as tax deductible expenses. Sec­ondly, deny enforce­ment of spec­u­la­tive loan agree­ments by Courts as being against pub­lic pol­icy. Who, under these con­di­tions, would con­tinue to loan for spec­u­la­tive pur­poses? Thirdly, cap­i­tal gains taxes should go to near zero for those that are made on IPO’s. If you make cap­i­tal gains on non-IPO finan­cial instru­ments, it will receive >50% tax bite for cap­i­tal gains. This means that once you join a firm by pur­chas­ing shares, you’re most likely in for life. There­fore, choose care­fully. Fourthly, man­age­ment may try to plun­der the cor­po­ra­tion. Shareholder’s rights must receive greater pro­tec­tion through open­ness & account­abil­ity, and no golden para­chutes if we are to invest for life. For exam­ple, max­i­mum wage+benefits (eg. CEO’s pay pack­age) can be no more than 6 to 30 (statute per­mit­ted range) times the low­est pay rate in the orga­ni­za­tion. The exact num­ber (between 6 & 30) would be set by the Board, and rat­i­fied by Share­hold­ers.

    Will these few changes effec­tively remove spec­u­la­tion from our economies?