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A debt spiral we could have avoided

Economists simply would not accept that their model could fail

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Who, five years ago, would have predicted the part-nationalisation of private banks, the UK Treasury considering abandoning its fetish of “inflation targeting”, and prudent Gordon Brown breaching the EU cap on government spending?

Well, some economists did, and five years ago the New Statesman ran a piece about their concerns.

In September 2003, I edited a book for the New Economics Foundation called The Real World Economic Outlook. It warned of "a collapse in the credit system of the rich world, led by the US, leading to soaring personal and corporate bankruptcies . . . The risks of a debt-deflationary spiral in the rich world are significant."

In a New Statesman article based on the book, I wrote: "If unemployment were to rise here, that could lead to a downward spiral in . . . house prices, making it harder to pay off debts [and] a debt-deflationary spiral.

"This threat is very real. But few economists, politicians and consumers appear to understand the nature of the risk." The cover carried a picture of a middle-class dinner party with the caption: "Coming soon. The new poor."

And so it has proved.

For more than two decades, economists operated behind an intellectual blockade where their theories calcified into an ideology that, remarkably, made no provision for systemic economic failure. Instead, powerful "security services" such as monetarists and their successors enforced strict global adherence to a theory of fantastic, always self-adjusting and self-regulating markets that could be relied upon to act efficiently. Mathematical models always allowed a return to equilibrium. There was no theory for systemic economic failure.

Those who still had time for the ideas of Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes or J K Galbraith were denied professional posts, journal publication and media commentary. As a result, mainstream economists were not analytically equipped for near-systemic global economic failure and thus failed to alert their masters in the banks, central banks and finance ministries. They still do not fully grasp the scale of the crisis (after each of six bailouts, beginning with Bear Stearns, we were promised that the bottom had been reached and recovery was nigh).

The big US and EU bailouts treated the symptoms, not the disease. The disease is debt, and though it takes two to create debt, the bailouts helped only creditors, not debtors; banks, rather than homeowners or companies; the world of finance, rather than workers or industry. There remains a high risk of a systemic meltdown and a severe and prolonged global recession. One reason is that central banks have lost control over real interest rates. Their co-ordinated lowering of rates was followed by an immediate spike in mortgage rates. These are based on the privately set British Bankers' Association's Libor rates. The committee of bankers that raised them was serving the interests of the finance sector - not those of homeowners or companies. But high rates of interest exacerbate the disease of unpayable debt.

The very opposite is needed if we are to avoid ten years or more of sustained economic failure.

Interest rates rose because of risks posed to banks by indebted homeowners and companies, and by plummeting property prices. Bailing out banks, and not private and corporate debtors, means property prices will continue to "deleverage" chaotically and destructively.

Faced with these falling property prices, compounded by extensive fraud and deceit within the financial system, nobody can calculate the scale of outstanding financial liabilities; the probability that liabilities will, or will not be met; or the timing of such payments.

Property prices have been falling in Britain for just one year now, but have fallen for three years in the US. More disturbingly, prices in Japan (as Graham Turner points out in his book The Credit Crunch) are still falling, fully 18 years after Japan's credit bubble burst in 1990.

Only by bailing out homeowners and companies can we arrest chronic property deflation, and restore confidence and solvency to the international capital markets.

Fortunately, there is a simple, cheap policy that would address property deflation. It is based on Keynes's monetary theory, which has always been sidelined, but which he considered even more essential for breathing life into the corpse that was the global economy in the 1930s than his proposed fiscal policies.

Cheap money, ie, very low rates of interest, will help make mortgage and corporate debt repayments affordable. To achieve low rates, we first have to abandon the cross of "inflation targeting" on which the economy is being crucified. Second, the government must remove from the private British Bankers' Association the power to set interbank lending (Libor) rates. If it is to help homeowners and businesses, the government must restore to the Bank of England, accountable to society as a whole (not just the finance sector), the power to set all interest rates.

Only then can we hope to regain financial stability.

Ann Pettifor is a political economist

This article appears in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism