I’m rather late to House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, which is recently out in paperback. It argues eloquently and persuasively that the Great Financial Crisis was not only a banking crisis but also a household debt crisis, and that the length and severity of the downturn can largely be explained by the private debt overhang. This is not the received wisdom, of course. All the policy attention has focused on the near-catastrophe of the banking meltdown, and it is terrifying even now to think how serious the economic consequences would have been if the payments systems had stopped working, as they almost did in the UK. The book acknowledges that the authorities were absolutely right to act swiftly to prevent banking meltdown, and argues that more would have been better – more in the sense of the famous ‘helicopter money’ drop advocated by Adair Turner, for one, in his recent Between Debt and the Devil.
House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again
However, Mian and Sufi also point out that while political campaign contributions can be shown to have led the US Congress to support bank bailouts, there was next to no household debt relief. The core of their argument is that the effects of household leverage spilled over to the whole US economy, and that writing off some of the debt owed by homeowners underwater (not because of idleness or irresponsibility but because of a macro shock) would have benefited everyone. I found their argument convincing, along with the corollary that you can not fix an excess debt problem by getting people to take on more debt. The book makes a strong case for reducing the attractiveness of debt, due in large part to the tax system. They write:
“Debt instruments lead investors to focus on a very small part of the potential set of outcomes …In a world of neglected risks, financial innovation should be viewed with some degree of scepticism. If investors systematically ignore certain outcomes, financial innovation may just be secret code for bankers trying to fool investors into buying securities that look safe but are actually extremely vulnerable.” They are also critical of the extent of the bailouts for the financial sector: “The fundamental business of a bank is lending, just as the fundamental business of a furniture company is to sell furniture. Few economist believe that the government should promote the sale of bad furniture by stepping in to protect the creditors and shareholders of a poorly performing furniture company.” This understates the externalities involved in a bank failure, of course, and – as I noted – Mian and Sufi do not condemn the authorities’ response in 2008/9.
Given where we are, they advocate instead a range of measures to reduce debt dependence in future, including levelling the tax code as between debt and equity, and encouraging the use of more equity-like financial instruments, including in lending for home purchase. They cite approvingly Bob Shiller’s suggestions for instruments to insure against macro risks (in his book Finance and the Good Society) and Admati and Hellwig’s advocacy for far higher levels of equity as opposed to be debt to be required on banks’ balance sheets. These kinds of arguments are slowly making headway in both economics and in policy circles. But slowly. Meanwhile, what is terrifiying is the evidence of a re-inflating of the debt bubble in some economies, including the UK. Can we really be ready to risk going around the same hamster wheel again, just because the financial sector lobbies so effectively?