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It’s the household debt, stupid

at 05:18 PM ET, 08/23/2011


(Calculated Risk)

Ken Rogoff wants to call our economic malaise “the Great Contraction.” Richard Posner wants us to at least call it “a depression.” I tend to dismiss arguments over semantics, but in this case, I agree. If it were up to me, we would call what we’re in a “household-debt crisis,” or something more elegant that gets the same idea across, as that would at least help us think more clearly about what we need to do to get out.

If you take the Rogoff/Reinhart thesis seriously -- and people should, and increasingly are -- what distinguishes crises like this one from typical recessions is household debt. When the financial markets collapsed, household debt was nearly 100 percent of GDP. It’s now down to 90 percent. In 1982, which was the last time we had a big recession, the household-debt-to-GDP ratio was about 45 percent.

That means that in this crisis, indebted households can’t spend, which means businesses can’t spend, which means that unless government steps into the breach in a massive way or until households work through their debt burden, we can’t recover. In the 1982 recession, households could spend, and so when the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates and made spending attractive, we accelerated out of the recession.

The utility of calling this downturn a “household-debt crisis” is it tells you where to put your focus: you either need to make consumers better able to pay their debts, which you can do through conventional stimulus policy like tax cuts and jobs programs, or you need to make their debts smaller so they’re better able to pay them, which you can do by forgiving some of their debt through policies like cramdown or eroding the value of their debt by increasing inflation. I’ve heard various economist make various smart points about why we should prefer one approach or the other, and it also happens to be the case that the two policies support each other and so we don’t actually need to choose between them.

All of these solutions, of course, have drawbacks: if you put the government deeper into debt in order to help households now, you increase the risk of a public-debt crisis later. That’s why it’s wise to pair further short-term stimulus with a large amount of long-term deficit reduction. If you force banks to swallow losses or face inflation now, you need to worry about whether they’ll be able to keep lending at a pace that will support recovery over the next few years. But as we’re seeing, not doing enough isn’t a safe strategy, either.

 
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