Luckily I'm not paid to be either an optimist or a pessimist. What I think is obvious is that increased debt does lead to increased vulnerability as the RBA Governor recently warned about.
But that doesn’t mean it would be wise for that build-up in household leverage to continue unabated over the years ahead. One would have to think that, however well households have coped with the events of recent years, further big increases in indebtedness could increase their vulnerability to shocks – such as a fall in income – to a greater extent than would be prudent.
It may be that many households have sensed this. We see at present a certain caution in their behaviour: even though unemployment is low, and measures of confidence have been quite high, consumer spending has seen only modest growth. This may be partly attributable to the fact that the stimulus measures of late 2008 and early 2009 resulted in a bringing forward of spending on durables into that period from the current period (though purchases of motor vehicles by households – a different kind of durable – have increased strongly over recent months). But the long downward trend in the saving rate seems to have turned around and I think we are witnessing, at least just now, more caution in borrowing behaviour. Of course this will have been affected by the recent increase in interest rates but the level of rates is not actually high by the standards of the past decade or two. We can’t rule out something more fundamental at work.
We can’t know whether this apparent change will turn out to be durable. But if it did persist, and if that meant that we avoided a further significant increase in household leverage in this business cycle, it might be no bad thing. Moreover if a period of modest growth in consumer spending helped to make room for the build-up in investment activity that seems likely, perhaps that would be no bad thing either.Fortunately, however, for those who don't like to sit on the fence like I (and the Governor it seems) do, there are definite proponents of boom or doom that you can read. For doom read Steve Keen; for boom (but not bubble) read Christopher Joye.
Joye's arguments are very persuasive and he always brings interesting data to the table. But I'm still concerned about the level of private debt in Australia. Most commentators are much more focused on public debt (partly because economists as a bunch are generally anti-govt and pro-market as a first principles assumption).
The problem with private debt is that there is no political constituency to develop policies to keep it down, as there is with public debt. Despite democratic pressures that encourage higher spending and lower taxation - what the Marxist James O'Connor in the 1970s called the "fiscal crisis of the state" and what others on the right called the "crisis of democracy" - eventually governments have to face the judgement of those from whom they borrow or tax.
While the 1980s did not signal the demise of the state as many predicted it did stop the growth of the state - at least while growth remained subdued. As Lindert (2004: 22) points out: "For all the often-reported “crisis” or “demise” of the welfare state, all one really sees after 1980 is a slowdown, not a decline, in the shares of GDP that welfare-state taxpayers put into such programs."
Recent events have shown just how important states remain in the global economy and I'm imagining that the last few years will show a considerable growth in the size of the state throughout the world. But as in the 1980s, this growth cannot continue and the constituencies in favour of fiscal retrenchment are reasserting themselves despite the uncertain nature of the recovery. Last week's G20 meeting was divisive compared to previous meetings and the major divide was over appropriate fiscal stances. (Just quietly those pesky global imbalances are unlikely to go away with the Germans tightening policy and the Americans keeping things pretty loose.
Retrenchment is well under way in Europe as countries as diverse as Greece and Ireland deal with fiscal crises. The Irish have decided to take harsh medicine and as a consequence the Irish population is going through hard times. Greece is another story and the major problem is actually building up a decent tax base. In other words, Greek authorities need to get people to pay tax. The Germans are major advocates of fiscal retrenchment, much to the annoyance of the United States.
One of the excellent points made by David Lindert (2004: 6) in his seminal study of social spending Growing Public is that governments are constrained by democracy:
There is no clear net cost to the welfare state, either in our first glance at the raw numbers or in deeper statistical analyses that hold many other things equal … It turns out there are many good reasons why radically different approaches to the welfare state have little or no net difference in their economic costs. Those reasons are many, in terms of an institutional list, but they boil down to a unified logic: Electoral democracy, for all its messiness and clumsiness, keeps the costs of either too much welfare or too little under control.But what are the restrictions on the expansion of private debt? Governments have encouraged the growth of debt through taxation policies for housing and company debt. And financial liberalisation has massively increased access to credit. Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-financial liberalisation. I would much rather live in an era where access to credit is not rationed and the financial sector is innovative and consumer oriented. But like all good things there is need for balance.
Rather than deal with the consequences of private debt in Australia, governments have attempted to underpin debt through subsidies, guarantees and . There is a good reason for this - any major pay down of debt in Australia will lead to lower spending. Now I hope that the optimists are right, but in the back of my mind is the continuing worry about what level of debt is too much.
Undoubtedly Australia has survived a very big stress test, but it did so by increasing public debt to maintain private debt. As Keynes supposedly once said: "the unsustainable cannot be sustained".
Peter H. Lindert (2004) Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.