Thursday, 19 October 2017

Debt: The Last 30 Years

We are marginally less constipated than before. Ideologically speaking. Thanks in large part to Jeremy Corbyn British politics has begun to move on from the mendacious obsession with public debt being the cause of the last financial crisis (and the harbinger of future ones).

Political conservation has started to appreciate the seriousness of enormous levels of private debt, which was always the elephant in the room. The Bank of England has warned of a ‘spiral of complacency’ about growing household debt, while the IMF has cautioned that the ‘rapid growth in household debt – especially mortgages – can be dangerous’. Anthropologist David Graeber says ‘the household sector is a rolling catastrophe’. Around 17 million Britons have less than £100 in savings.  And with the BoE making noises about raising interest rates from rock bottom levels, there are worries that some mortgage-holders could default, precipitating a US-style sub-prime crisis.

The problem is that all attention is directed at one kind of private debt – personal debt. And while its seriousness should not be minimised there are other sorts of private debt that merit just as much, if not more, concern:

Personal debt is not the most extreme form of private debt

Private debt can be divided into three types – financial sector debt (i.e. banks & insurance companies), corporate debt and personal or household debt. All three have grown exponentially since the start of the 1990s. According to economist Michael Roberts, what he terms ‘global liquidity’, a combination of banks loans, securitized debt and derivatives, mushroomed from 150% of world GDP in 1990 to 350% in 2011. And while in some countries, colossal financial sector debt has declined to a degree following the financial crisis, and household debt levels fell before rising once more, corporate debt, nourished by near zero interest rates, has just snowballed over the last nine years.

According to figures released by management consultants McKinsey in 2015, all forms of private debt have grown since 2007 but corporate debt has increased by double the rate of both household and financial debt, which nonetheless rose but in a more subdued manner than before the crisis (see the graphic in this article). Government debt has also exploded as financial debt was transferred to state coffers. “Nonfinancial corporate debt remains the largest component of overall in the advanced capitalist economies at 113% of GDP,” says Roberts, “compared to 104% for government debt and 90% for household debt.”

The forms that corporate debt takes vary but one of the most common is for companies to use debt to buy back their own shares. This practice, which was illegal in the United States before 1982, increases the firm’s share price in a totally artificial manner, giving the appearance of financial health and success in the marketplace. Frequently, it also personally benefits the corporate executives who authorise it as they are paid partly in stock options. In fact the corporate sector has been the main buyer of US equities since the market meltdown of 2008, engaging in what has been described as ‘the greatest debt-funded buyback spree in history’. It was estimated that in 2017 the largest US companies would spend a record $780 billion on share buy backs, though, in reality, the forecast bonanza has apparently hit a snag.

Or possibly corporate debt takes the form of shareholder loans, the practice by which one company deliberately loads another company that they own (they are the main shareholders) with huge amounts of debt which the captive company is then obliged to pay back at high rates of interest; 15 or 20% for example. The Financial Times recently highlighted the case of Arqiva which owns 9/10ths of the UK’s terrestrial TV transmission networks and, in the three years to June 2016, paid around £750 million in interest to its controlling shareholders, payments financed by borrowing.  It is now £3 billion in debt. And that’s just one company.

Household debt did not cause the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis

What household debt did was light the touch-paper. The nationwide implosion of the housing market in America after interest rates were raised signalled the demise of all those mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations but the reason it proved so devastating for the US economy and spread the crisis around the world was because of the fatal combination of household debt with gargantuan financial sector and corporate debt. The Global Financial Crisis was sparked in August 2007 (‘the day the world changed’) when French bank BNP Paribas froze its funds because of its exposure to the mortgage backed securities of the US sub-prime market. The problem wasn’t defaulting French mortgage-holders but the effects were being felt by a French bank. BNP was one of three major French banks who were collectively overleveraged to the tune of 237% of French GDP. That level of indebtedness caused the crisis to spread to Europe as hugely indebted, and now effectively insolvent, European banks called in the loans they had made to southern European governments.

Nobody can say with any assurance what the trigger will be for the next financial crisis. It might be heavily indebted US college graduates or UK credit card borrowers or Australian consumers or Dutch mortgage holders (a country which has the most indebted households in the euro area).

But it’s equally possible that the fuse will be lit from another sector of the economy entirely – massively overleveraged corporations being unable to repay their creditors when interest rates rise, for instance. In that case, households will simply be spectators to the unfolding events.

All the focus is on personal debt because it represents a morality play

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber points out that in Sanskrit, Aramaic and Hebrew ‘debt’, ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ are all the same word. In modern German, the word for ‘debt’ – schuld – also means guilt. “If history shows anything,” Graeber writes, “it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

The existence of enormous level of personal debt in advanced capitalist countries is a sure sign that the individual freedom these societies claim to uphold is skin deep. In reality, they are founded relations of coercion and control. To be in debt is to have someone’s boot on your neck. In the UK, high rates of personal debt are intimately related to the fact that real wages are 10 per cent lower than a decade ago. Rising personal debt is also strongly correlated to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

From another perspective, personal debt is the symbol of our fatal addiction to consumerism, the consequence of an all-embracing need to maintain a modern lifestyle, decorated with the latest products, no matter what the cost to ourselves or the environment. Either way, personal debt unmistakably says something about the current state of society – what drives it and who is in control.

Corporate and financial sector debt, by contrast, is not only opaque, it is frightening neutral. Debt has simply become the way of doing business over the last 30 years. Debtors are frequently also creditors and companies may simultaneously indebt themselves and hoard cash. Indeed, increasing ‘leverage’ (to use the technical term) or loading debt onto captive companies (as in the Arqiva case) is often the primary means by which profits are made. No sense of shame or ‘doing something wrong’ attaches to it.

The question that should arise is why the corporate sector – financial and otherwise – has become so addicted to debt? Why is old-fashioned investment in new products or new technologies comparatively shunned?

It is possible to reduce personal debt but corporate debt is far more of an intractable problem

Theoretically it is possible to cut personal debt to more manageable and less dangerous levels.  Ending austerity, strengthening trade unions, instituting rent controls and directing efforts to raising the level of real wages should see the rates of payday loan and credit card debt diminish. I say theoretically because, interestingly, some of the highest quantities of personal debt, as a proportion of GDP, are in Scandinavian countries – nations that have impressive rates of trade union membership, collective bargaining and high personal incomes. However, those in debt in Nordic countries tend to be higher earners. In the US and UK, by contrast, personal debt often afflicts people much lower down the income scale – people who are much more likely to default given a slight change in the economic winds.

Corporate debt is a different matter entirely. The massive government bail outs of 2008 only succeeded in transferring debt from the financial sector to the state and, even then, only denting marginally the indebtedness of the banks. Corporations, whose debt had risen markedly over the previous twenty years, merely took advantage of the lower interest rate environment, to become even more indebted.

The writer and broadcaster Paul Mason says governments have to do something ‘clear and progressive about debts’. He advocates a policy of ‘financial repression’ – that is stimulating inflation and holding interest rates below the rate of inflation for 10 or 15 years as a way of writing off debt. But we can see the problems that a mild rise in the rate of inflation to the historically low level of 3% is currently causing people in the UK, with wages unable to catch up. Deliberately stoking inflation for a decade or more would surely precipitate the household debt defaults that so many people are warning about – inflation would erode the total amount of people’s debt but interest payments would still need to be met as real incomes plummeted. And if interest rates are below inflation – as they are now – the incentive for corporations to take on more debt is still there.

It is difficult to imagine how this system can gradually and progressively resolve its problems without provoking the economic collapse that everyone is so desperate to avoid.


It's probably worth re-emphasising that when I speak about corporate debt, I'm not referring to the borrowing a company naturally needs to do to keep going and expand its operations. See -

What's happening now is massive borrowing to either appear successful (share buy backs) or invest in debt to make more money. They're nothing to do with how capitalism is meant to function in the textbooks.


1 comment:

  1. Corporate debt is higher now than it was in the year before the crash: 'Based on a global sample of 13,000 entities, the S&P agency estimates that the proportion of highly leveraged corporates — those whose debt-to-earnings exceed 5x — stood at 37 percent in 2017, compared to 32 percent in 2007 before the global financial crisis. Over 2011-2017, global non-financial corporate debt grew by 15 percentage points to 96 percent of GDP.'