Australia: Financial Stability | RBA

Extract from the latest Financial Stability Review by the RBA:

….In Australia, vulnerabilities related to household debt and the housing market more generally have increased, though the nature of the risks differs across the country. Household indebtedness has continued to rise and some riskier types of borrowing, such as interest-only lending, remain prevalent. Investor activity and housing price growth have picked up strongly in Sydney and Melbourne. A large pipeline of new supply is weighing on apartment prices and rents in Brisbane, while housing market conditions remain weak in Perth. Nonetheless, indicators of household financial stress currently remain contained and low interest rates are supporting households’ ability to service their debt and build repayment buffers.

The Council of Financial Regulators (CFR) has been monitoring and evaluating the risks to household balance sheets, focusing in particular on interest-only and high loan-to-valuation lending, investor credit growth and lending standards. In an environment of heightened risks, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has recently taken additional supervisory measures to reinforce sound residential mortgage lending practices. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has also announced further steps to ensure that interest-only loans are appropriate for borrowers’ circumstances and that remediation can be provided to borrowers who suffer financial distress as a consequence of past poor lending practices. The CFR will continue to monitor developments carefully and consider further measures if necessary.

Conditions in non-residential commercial property markets have continued to strengthen in Melbourne and Sydney, while in Brisbane and Perth high vacancy rates and declining rents remain a challenge. Vulnerabilities in other non-financial businesses generally appear low. Listed corporations’ profits are in line with their average of recent years and indicators of stress among businesses are well contained, with the exception of regions with large exposures to the mining sector. For many mining businesses conditions have improved as higher commodity prices have contributed to increased earnings, though the outlook for commodity prices remains uncertain.

Australian banks remain well placed to manage these various challenges. Profitability has moderated in recent years but remains high by international standards and asset performance is strong. Australian banks have continued to reduce exposures to low-return assets and are building more resilient liquidity structures, partly in response to regulatory requirements. Capital
ratios have risen substantially in recent years and are expected to increase further once APRA finalises its framework to ensure that banks are ‘unquestionably strong.’

Risks within the non-bank financial sector are manageable. At this stage, the shadow banking sector poses only limited risk to financial stability due to its small share of the financial system and minimal linkages with the regulated sector, though the regulators are monitoring this sector carefully. Similarly, financial stability risks stemming from the superannuation sector remain low.

While the insurance sector continues to face a range of challenges, profitability has increased of late and the sector remains well capitalised.

International regulatory efforts have continued to focus on core post-crisis reforms, such as addressing ‘too big to fail’, as well as new areas, such as the asset management industry and financial technology. While the goal of completing the Basel III reforms by end 2016 was not met, discussions are ongoing to try to finalise an agreement soon. Domestically, APRA is continuing its focus on the risk culture in prudentially regulated institutions and will review compensation policies and practices to ensure these are prudent.

Reading between the lines:

  • household debt is too high
  • apartments are in over-supply and prices are falling
  • we have to maintain record-low interest rates to support the housing bubble
  • APRA is “taking steps” to slow debt growth but also has to be careful not to upset the housing bubble
  • the Basel committee has been dragging its feet on new regulatory guidelines and we cannot afford to wait any longer

Source: RBA Financial Stability Review PDF (2.4Mb)

Australia: Warning signs of a contraction

Australia faces shrinking inflationary pressures.

Inflation

Wage growth is falling.

Wage Price Index

Credit growth is shrinking.

Inflation

Growth of currency in circulation is also slowing. The fall below 5% warns of a contraction.

Currency in Circulation: Growth

One piece of good news is that Chinese monetary policy seems to be easing. After a sharp contraction of M1 money stock growth in January, February shows a partial recovery. Collapse of the Chinese property bubble may be deferred a while longer.

China M1 Money Stock

Which is good news for iron ore exporters. At least in the short-term.

Why we need to worry about the level of Australian household debt

From Elizabeth Knight:

The balance sheets of Australian households with a mortgage are dangerously exposed to any fall in house prices.

It isn’t just that household debt relative to disposable incomes has reached a record high of 189 per cent, it’s that households’ ability to service that debt is potentially a ticking time bomb…..

A recent Digital Finance Analytics survey found that of the 3.1 million mortgaged households, an estimated 669,000 are now experiencing mortgage stress.

“This is a 1.5 per cent rise from the previous month and maintains the trends we have observed in the past 12 months,” it found. “The rise can be traced to continued static incomes, rising costs of living, and more underemployment; whilst mortgage interest rates have risen thanks to out-of-cycle adjustments by the banks and bigger mortgages thanks to rising home prices.”

Source: Why we need to worry about the level of Australian household debt

Sorry folks, this ain’t no property bubble

I have been predicting the collapse of the Australian property bubble, so feel obliged to also present the opposite view. Nothing like confirmation bias to screw up a good investment strategy.

Here Jessica Irvine argues that the property bubble will not burst:

Believe me, no one is keener than me to see a property bubble burst.

But sadly – for would-be buyers, at least – I just don’t see it happening.

Sure, there are risks.

If it turns out that banks have been lending to people who really can’t afford it, then we have a problem when interest rates start to rise.

Experts have been calling the end of the property market for years. But banks insist they stress test customers for a 2-percentage-point rise in interest rates and require “interest-only” borrowers to prove they could afford to repay principal too, if required.

More worrying is the mortgage broking channel, where a recent ASIC investigation found most of the high loan-to-value loans are written. If there is a weakness in the housing market, it’ll be in this area of lending standards and so called “macroprudential” policies when interest rates start to rise. The recent clamping down on investor loans is welcome.

But ultimately, the defining thing about bubbles is that they inevitably must pop.

But where is the trigger for a widespread home price collapse?

In a world of low inflation and growth, the Reserve Bank is likely to raise interest rates very gently, cushioning households.

Widespread job losses would be a trigger, but there is no talk of that. With record low wages growth, labour is hardly expensive at the moment.

Bubble proponents point to very high household debt levels relative to incomes. But the structural lowering of interest rates in the late 1990s and again after the global financial crisis has increased the amount of debt households can afford to service from a given income.

Lower rates have also helped many households build significant “buffers” against future rate increases, in offset accounts and other forms of saving.

Bubbles form when asset prices disconnect completely with market fundamentals.

But there are very good reasons to expect housing to be so expensive.

Forget the Cayman Islands, housing – owner occupied and investment housing – offers the best tax shelter around, from negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount on investment housing to the complete exemption of the family home from capital gains tax AND from the pension asset test.

Meanwhile, rapid population growth has been met by sluggish increases in housing supply. Incompetent state governments have created a premium for inner-city housing, where buyers can avoid paying the indirect costs of long commutes.

In the aftermath of World War II, home ownership rates skyrocketed as governments focused on supply.

But since then, governments have instead implemented policies that boost only the demand side of the equation, with tax concessions and cash bonuses for buyers that only increase prices.

Absent any trigger for widespread forced property sales, home owners will always respond to sluggish market conditions by sitting on their properties for longer. Lower volumes provide a cushion against falling prices.

In such a market, the best a first-time buyer can hope for is that future price gains might come back into line with income growth.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened after the early 2000s property boom when Sydney prices stagnated for almost a decade.

It’s less exciting, but more likely.

Jessica makes a good point about offset accounts which may cause real household debt to be overstated. This warrants further investigation.

But she seems too complacent about market fundamentals:

  • an oversupply of apartments;
  • negative gearing and capital gains tax advantages that could be removed by the stroke of a pen (or a tick on a ballot paper); and
  • prospective sharp cuts to immigration (again dictated by the ballot box)

Interest rate rises seem unlikely in the near future as inflationary pressures are fading. But I doubt that new homebuyers could afford a 2 percent rise in interest rates, that would amount to an almost 40% increase in monthly repayments for some. Even if they survive, repayments will take a big bite taken out of other household consumption and hurt the entire economy.

Also, the RBA may plan to increase rates gradually, to cushion the effect on homeowners, but Mr Market could have other ideas. And if you think central banks act autonomously from markets, think again.

Source: Sorry folks, this ain’t no property bubble

3 Headwinds facing the ASX 200

The ASX 200 broke through stubborn resistance at 5800 but is struggling to reach 6000.

ASX 200

There are three headwinds that make me believe that the index will struggle to break 6000:

Shuttering of the motor industry

The last vehicles will roll off production lines in October this year. A 2016 study by Valadkhani & Smyth estimates the number of direct and indirect job losses at more than 20,000.

Full time job losses from collapse of motor vehicle industry in Australia

But this does not take into account the vacuum left by the loss of scientific, technology and engineering skills and the impact this will have on other industries.

…R&D-intensive manufacturing industries, such as the motor vehicle industry, play an important role in the process of technology diffusion. These findings are consistent with the argument in the Bracks report that R&D is a linchpin of the Australian automotive sector and that there are important knowledge spillovers to other industries.

Collapse of the housing bubble

An oversupply of apartments will lead to falling prices, with heavy discounting already evident in Melbourne as developers attempt to clear units. Bank lending will slow as prices fall and spillover into the broader housing market seems inevitable. Especially when:

  • Current prices are supported by strong immigration flows which are bound to lead to a political backlash if not curtailed;
  • The RBA is low on ammunition; and
  • Australian households are leveraged to the eyeballs — the highest level of Debt to Disposable Income of any OECD nation.

Debt to Disposable Income

Falling demand for iron ore & coal

China is headed for a contraction, with a sharp down-turn in growth of M1 money supply warning of tighter liquidity. Falling housing prices and record iron ore inventory levels are both likely to drive iron ore and coal prices lower.

China M1 Money Supply Growth

Australia has survived the last decade on Mr Micawber style economic management, with something always turning up at just the right moment — like the massive 2009-2010 stimulus on the chart above — to rescue the economy from disaster. But sooner or later our luck will run out. As any trader will tell you: Hope isn’t a strategy.

“I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if — if, in short, anything turns up.”

~ Wilkins Micawber from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

APRA fiddles while housing risks grow

From Westpac today (emphasis added):

….With the Reserve Bank sharing our caution around 2018, along with ample capacity in the labour market (unemployment rate is 5.9% compared to full employment rate of 5.0%) and stubbornly low wages growth, there is only scope to cut rates. But as we have argued consistently, a resurgent housing market disallows such a policy option. Indeed, the minutes refer to “a build- up of risks associated with the housing market”. A tighter macro prudential stance seems appropriate.

Indeed, as we go to press, APRA has announced new controls, restricting the “flow of new interest-only lending to 30 per cent of total new residential mortgage lending” with a particular focus on limiting interest only loans with a loan-to-value ratio [LVR] above 80%. Currently, “interest-only terms represent nearly 40 per cent of the stock of residential mortgage lending by ADIs”, so this policy will restrict the terms at which a marginal borrower can access credit (investors and owner-occupiers). APRA also noted that they want banks to manage growth in investor credit to “comfortably remain below the previously advised benchmark of 10 per cent growth”. This is not a hard change to the target as had been mooted recently in the press (some suggesting the 10% limit could be as much as halved), but it does suggest lending to investors will continue to grow at a pace meaningfully below 10%. Looking ahead, the next RBA Stability Review (April 13) may provide more clarity on the macro prudential policy outlook and potential triggers for further action. For the time being though, the 2015 experience offers an understanding of the potential impact of this further tightening.

To head off a potential bubble burst, the RBA and APRA need to drastically slow house price growth. I am sure the big four banks are urging caution but they would be the worst hit by a meltdown. What APRA is doing is fiddling around the margins. To make housing investors think twice about further borrowing, APRA needs to cut the maximum LVR to 70%. And half that for foreign borrowers.

Can Australia dodge the great deleveraging? | MacroBusiness

Interesting chart from UBS (via Macrobusiness). Movement between 2002 and 2016 for a number of Developed and Emerging Market (DM and EM) countries in the ratio of bank credit to GDP and bank debt to credit.

The good guys are in the top left corner and the bad guys bottom right.

Australia and China are testing record levels of bank credit to GDP, tracing a similar path to Spain. We all know how that ended.

Source: Can Australia dodge the great deleveraging? – MacroBusiness

Australia & Canada in 4 charts

RBA governor Phil Lowe recently made a speech comparing the experiences of Australia and Canada over the last decade. Both have undergone a resources and housing boom. Four charts highlight the differences and similarities between the two countries.

Australia’s spike in mining investment during the resources boom did serious damage to non-mining investment while Canada’s smaller boom had no impact.

Australia & Canada: Mining v. Non-Mining Investment

Immigration fueled a spike in population growth in Australia, adding pressure on infrastructure and housing.

Australia & Canada: Population Growth

Both countries are experiencing a housing bubble, fueled by low interest rates and lately by export of China’s property bubble, with capital fleeing China and driving up house prices in the two countries.

Australia & Canada: Housing

Record levels of household debt make the situation more precarious and vulnerable to a correction.

Australia & Canada: Household Debt

Hat tip to David Llewellyn-Smith at Macrobusiness

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

Economics advisor John Adams warns that Australia faces “economic Armageddon” because of “significant structural imbalances” not seen since the lead up to the Great Depression in the 1920s.

Here are his seven signs:

Seven Signs Australians Are Facing Economic Armageddon

Sign 1: Record Australian Household Debt

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, Australia’s household debt as a proportion of disposable income now stands at a record high of 187%.

The two closest episodes were the 1880s and the 1920s, which both preceded the only two economic depressions ever experienced in Australian history in 1890 and 1929.

Sign 2: Record Australian Net Foreign Debt

Australia’s net foreign debt now stands at more than $1 trillion and as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product was at a record high of 63.3% in June 2016.

This makes Australians much more vulnerable to international economic developments such as higher global interest rates, international financial crises or major government or corporate bankruptcies.

Sign 3: Record Low Interest rates

Australia has its lowest official interest rates on record with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s cash rate sitting at 1.5%. The current low rate of interest is not sustainable over the medium term and will inevitably rise.

Australians, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, who have borrowed record amounts of money are very susceptible to higher interest rates.

4: Australian Housing Bubble

The expansion of credit by the Reserve Bank of Australia has been pumped into the Australian housing market over the past 25 years. Credit, which has been directed to Housing as a proportion of Australia’s GDP, has exploded from 21.07% in June 1991 to 95.06% in June 2016.

Over the same period, credit which has been directed at the business sector or to other personal expenses has remained relatively steady as a proportion of GDP.

5: Significant Increases in Global Debt

The General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements stated on 6 February 2017:

“Total debt in the global economy, including public debt, has increased significantly since the end of 2007 … Over the past 16 years, debt of governments, households and non-financial firms has risen by 63% in the United States, the euro area, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, 52% in the G20 and 85% in emerging economies. Heavy debt can only leave less room for manoeuvre in responding to future challenges.”

Sign 6: Major International Asset Bubbles

There are significant asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and real estate in major economies such as the United States and China, which has been fueled by the significant increases in global debt.For example, the Shiller PE Index in the United States which measures the price of a company’s stock relative to average earnings over the past 10 years is now at 28.85. This is the third highest recorded behind the Tech Bubble in 1999 and “Black Tuesday” in 1929.

Sign 7: Global Derivatives Bubble

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the value of the over the counter derivatives market (notional amounts outstanding) stood at US$544 trillion.

Much of these derivatives contracts are concentrated on the balance sheets of leading global financial and banking institutions such as Deutsche Bank. The concentration of complex derivative contracts on bank balance sheets poses significant risks to both individual institutions and the global financial system.

Veteran Investor Warren Buffet has repeatedly warned that derivatives are “financial weapons of mass destruction” and could pose as a “potential time bomb”.

Household debt is too high. Rising foreign debt and record low interest rates are fueling a housing bubble. Global debt is too high and rising, while stocks are over-priced. Throw in the global derivatives “bubble” with some truly terrifying numbers just to scare the punters out of their wits.

Nothing new here. Nothing to see. Move along now. The global economy is in good hands…..

Or is it? Aren’t these the same hands that created the current mess we are in?

John Adams is right to warn of the dangers which could have a truly apocalyptic effect, that makes the global financial crisis seem like a mild tremor in comparison.

Some of the risks may be overstated:

The derivatives “bubble” is probably the least of our worries as most of these positions offset each other, giving a net position a lot closer to zero.

Defensive stocks like Consumer Staples and Utilities are over-priced but there still appears to be value in growth stocks. And earnings are growing. So the stock “bubble” is not too alarming.

Global debt is too high but poses no immediate threat except to countries with USD-denominated debt — or Euro-denominated debt in the case of Greece, Italy, etc. — that cannot issue new currency to repay public debt (and inflate their way out of the problem).

But that still leaves four major risks that need to be addressed: Household debt, $1 Trillion foreign debt, record low interest rates and a housing bubble.

From Joe Hildebrand at News.com.au:

Mr Adams called on the RBA to take pre-emptive action by raising interest rates and said the government needed to rein in tax breaks like negative gearing as well as welfare payments.

This, he admitted, would result in “a mild controlled economic recession” but would stave off “uncontrolled devastating depression”.

The problem is that the Australian government appears to be dithering, with one eye on the next election. These are not issues you can “muddle through”.

If not addressed they could turn into the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Source: Apocalyptic warning for Australian families

BIS: High household debt kills growth | Macrobusiness

From Leith van Onselen, reproduced with kind permission from Macrobusiness:

Last month I showed how Australia’s ratio of household debt to GDP had hit 123% of GDP – the third highest in the world – according to data released by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS):

ScreenHunter_16670 Dec. 13 07.13

Martin North also compiled separate data from the BIS, which showed that Australia’s household debt servicing ratio (DSR) is also the third highest in the world:

Despite record low mortgage rates, Australia’s mortgage slaves are still sacrificing a far higher share of their income to pay mortgage interest (let alone principal) than when mortgage rates peaked in 1989-90:

ScreenHunter_16672 Dec. 13 11.05

Now the BIS has released a working paper, entitled “The real effects of household debt in the short and long run”, which shows that high household debt (as measured by debt to GDP) has a significant negative long-term impact on consumption and growth. Below are the key findings:

A 1 percentage point increase in the household debt-to-GDP ratio tends to lower growth in the long run by 0.1 percentage point. Our results suggest that the negative long-run effects on consumption tend to intensify as the household debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 60%. For GDP growth, that intensification seems to occur when the ratio exceeds 80%.

Moreover, the negative correlation between household debt and consumption actually strengthens over time, following a surge in household borrowing. What is striking is that the negative correlation coefficient nearly doubles between the first and the fifth year following the increase in household debt.

As shown in the table above, Australia’s household debt-to-GDP ratio was 123% as at June 2016 (higher now) – way above the BIS’ 80% threshold by which GDP growth is adversely impacted.

According to Martin North:

This is explained by massive amounts of borrowing for housing (both owner occupied and investment) whilst unsecured personal debt is not growing. Such high household debt, even with low interest rates sucks spending from the economy, and is a brake on growth. The swelling value of home prices, and paper wealth (as well as growing bank balance sheets) do not really provide the right foundation for long term real sustainable growth.

Another obvious extrapolation is that there could be carnage when mortgage rates eventually rise from current historical lows.

China’s Day of Reckoning | The Market Oracle

From Michael Pento:

Therein lies China’s dilemma: Allow the yuan to intractably fall, which will increase capital flight and destroy its asset-bubble economy. Or, raise interest rates to stabilize the currency and risk collapsing asset bubbles that will crumble under the weight of rising debt carrying costs.

China embodies a Keynesian dystopia that results from central planning gone mad. It’s mirage of prosperity should soon be coming to an unpleasant end. The misguided belief any government can print unlimited amounts of money and issue a massive amount of new credit; while providing the conditions that are the antitheses necessary for viable growth, has one significant Achilles heel: eventually, it will destroy your currency. Currency is always the pressure valve that explodes in an economy that has reached the apogee of dysfunction. The Red nation isn’t the only offender on this front, but is certainly one of the worst. Therefore, China and the yuan may have finally run out of time.

Source: Chinese Yuan’s Day of Reckoning :: The Market Oracle ::

Will China’s Financial Bust Ever Come?

From Paul Panckhurst and Adrian Leung at Bloomberg:

China’s reading is the nation’s highest on record in the gauge released by the Bank for International Settlements. It’s the single most reliable indicator of looming financial crises, according to the BIS, which found in a 2011 analysis of 36 countries that a majority of banking crises followed readings higher than 10 percent.

The credit-to-gross domestic product “gap” focuses on the amount of credit provided to households and businesses as a share of gross domestic product. It shows when the ratio of credit to GDP is blowing out – suggesting a credit boom and the risk of trouble brewing.

It isn’t advisable to place total reliance on a single indicator, but the rate of credit growth in China is alarming — and unsustainable in the long-term.

Source: Will China’s Financial Bust Ever Come?

US private investment dwindles

Private investment is declining as a percentage of GDP. Not a good sign when you consider that a similar decline preceded previous recessions.

Private Investment and Private Credit to GDP

Click graph to view full-size image.

Also a concern, when private credit is rising as a percentage of GDP while investment is falling. Crossover of the two lines would indicate that the private sector is borrowing more than it is investing. That is not likely to end well.

Government aims for wrong target on debt | MacroBusiness

Macrobusiness quotes LF Economics’ submission to the House of Representatives Budget Savings (Omnibus) Bill 2016:

….It is critical policymakers reign in exponentially-growing private sector debts as this consists of a major source of future financial instability. Australia’s household debt to GDP ratio is the highest in the world, at 125% and rising. Ironically, by ignoring private debt expansion which has generated a housing bubble, public debt will inevitably rise to stimulate the economy to counteract the economic downturn when it bursts.

Source: Government aims for wrong target on debt – MacroBusiness

Warning sign of China bank crisis | Business Insider

From Engen Tham, Reuters:

Excessive credit growth in China is signaling an increasing risk of a banking crisis in the next three years, a report from the Bank for International Settlements says.

The credit-to-gross-domestic-product gap, an early warning of financial overheating, hit 30.1 in China in the first quarter of this year, the financial watchdog said in a review of international banking and financial markets published Sunday.

Any level above 10 signals a crisis “occurs in any of the three years ahead,” the BIS said. China’s indicator is way above the second-highest level of 12.1 for Canada and the highest of the countries assessed by the BIS….

From the BIS:

The credit-to-GDP gap captures the build-up of excessive credit in a reduced-form fashion. It is defined as the difference between the credit-to-GDP ratio and its long-run trend, and it has been found to be a useful early warning indicator of financial crises.

In the BIS Table of credit-to-GDP gaps, Hong Kong was second highest at 18.1. Chile (15.7), Singapore (14.8), Thailand (14.5), Saudi Arabia (14.0) and Belgium (12.2) are higher than Canada (12.1). Australia (4.5), USA (-9.9) and UK (-27.0) are far lower. In fact, UK looks like a credit contraction.

Source: Credit-to-GDP warning sign of bank crisis China – Business Insider

Niall Ferguson: The “age of debt” has come to an end

Apologies for the sub-titles but this Hard Talk interview has an important message.

Rising debt—not a crisis, but a serious problem | Brookings

Testimony by Alice M. Rivlin, Senior Fellow – Economic Studies, Center for Health Policy, before the Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress on September 8, 2016:

…..our national debt is high in relation to the size of our economy and will likely rise faster than the economy can grow over the next several decades if budget policies are not changed. Debt held by public is about 74 percent of GDP and likely to rise to about 87 percent in ten years and to keep rising after that.

This rising debt burden is a particularly hard problem for our political system to handle because it is not a crisis. Nothing terrible will happen if we take no action this year or next. Investors here and around the world will continue to lend us all the money we need at low interest rates with touching confidence that they are buying the safest securities money can buy. Rather, the prospect of a rising debt burden is a serious problem that demands sensible management beginning now and continuing for the foreseeable future.

What makes reducing the debt burden so challenging is that we need to tackle two aspects of the debt burden at the same time. We need policies that help grow the GDP faster and slow the growth of debt simultaneously. To grow faster we need a substantial sustained increase in public and private investment aimed at accelerating the growth of productivity and incomes in ways that benefit average workers and provide opportunities for those stuck in low wage jobs. At the same time we need to adjust our tax and entitlement programs to reverse the growth in the ratio of debt to GDP. Winning broad public understanding and support of basic elements of this agenda will require the leadership of the both parties to work together, which would be difficult even in a less polarized atmosphere. The big uncertainty is whether our deeply broken political system is still up to the challenge.

…..There are three necessary elements of a long-run debt reduction plan:

  • Putting the Social Security program on sustainable track for the long run with some combination higher revenues and reductions in benefits for higher earners.
  • Gradually adjusting Medicare and Medicaid so that federal health spending is not rising faster than the economy is growing….
  • Adjusting our complex, inefficient tax system so that we raise more revenue in a more progressive and growth-friendly way and encourage the shift from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources…..

Source: Rising debt—not a crisis, but a serious problem to be managed | Brookings Institution

Credit bubbles and GDP targeting

In 2010 Scott Sumner first proposed that the Fed use GDP targeting rather than targeting inflation, which is prone to measurement error. Since then support for this approach has grown, with Lars Christensen, an economist with the Danish central bank, coining the term Market Monetarism.

Sumner holds that inflation is “measured inaccurately and does not discriminate between demand versus supply shocks” and that “Inflation often changes with a lag… but nominal GDP growth falls very quickly, so it’ll give you a more timely signal….” [Bloomberg]

The ratio of US credit to GDP highlights credit bubbles in the economy. The ratio rises when credit is growing faster than GDP and falls when credit bubbles burst. The graph below compares credit growth/GDP to actual GDP growth (on the right-hand scale). The red line illustrates a proposed GDP target at 5.0% growth.

US Credit Growth & GDP Targeting

What this shows is that the Fed would have adopted tighter monetary policies through most of the 1990s in order to keep GDP growth at the 5% target. That would have avoided the credit spike ahead of the Dotcom crash. More importantly, tighter monetary policy from 2003 to 2006 would have cut the last credit bubble off at the knees — avoiding the debacle we now face, with a massive spike in credit and declining GDP growth.

While poor monetary policy may have caused the problem, correcting those policies is unlikely to rectify it. The genie has escaped from the bottle. The only viable solution now seems to be fiscal policy, with massive infrastructure investment to restore GDP growth. That may seem counter-intuitive as it means fighting fire with fire, increasing public debt in order to remedy ballooning private debt.

Rising public debt is only sustainable if invested in productive infrastructure that yields market-related returns. Not in sports stadiums and public libraries. Difficult as this may be to achieve — with politicians poor history of selecting projects based on their ability to garner votes rather than economic criteria — it is our best bet. What is required is bi-partisan selection of projects and of private partners to construct and maintain the infrastructure. And private partners with enough skin in the game to enforce market discipline. I have discussed this at length in earlier posts.