The Great Recession: Debt Deflation and Crisis

When analyzing debt and economic growth, usually only government debts are examined. They are seen as a corollary to economic crises, devaluation of currencies, and government defaults — and while I’m not going to dispute or discuss these claims here in this post, perhaps on a later day, I will say that they are misleading trends of analyses in relation to the current financial crisis. There is another ‘kind’ of debt that is up for discussion and more pertinent to the crisis of 2007 — credit market debt, which consists of domestic non-financial sectors (household debt, business/corporate debt, and government debt) and domestic financial sector debt.

This explosion of credit began around the time of the institution of ‘Reaganomics,’ where individuals took to lending and spending over saving despite stagnant wages. 

A more detailed look of the trend since 2002, with its peak. The shaded area depicts the length of the recession.

However, the above graphs show the total credit market debt. Broken down, household (consumer) credit debt depicts the same trend.

What does all this mean? Fundamentally, this means that the expansive economic growth of the previous three decades were on shaky footing to begin with, likely leading to the global economic collapse that followed. The impact of the credit boom since the 1980s is described in an article by the research institute Center for American Progress (CAP) by Christian E. Weller. He writes:

“The debt is highest among the middle class. Middle-income families before the crisis had a debt-to-income ratio of 155.4 percent in 2007, the last year for which data are available, for families with incomes between $62,000 and $100,000, which constituted the fourth quintile of income in our nation in 2007. This ratio is higher than for any other income group. Families in the top 20 percent of income (with incomes above $100,000) had a ratio of debt to income of 123.6 percent, and families in the third quintile (with incomes between $39,100 and $62,000) owed 130.7 percent of their income. Households in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (with incomes below $39,100 in 2007) owed well below 100 percent of their income.”

Shocking as it is, this is the not the first time such a credit upsurge occurred. There was a similar phenomenon that occurred before the Great Depression of the 30s. Samuel Brittan, in his review of Richard Duncan’s ‘The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy,’ writes:

“It is certainly striking how both the 1929 Wall Street crash and the 2007-08 financial crisis were preceded by a huge credit explosion. Credit market debt as proportion of US gross domestic product jumped from about 160 per cent in the mid-1920s to 260 per cent in 1929-30. It then fell sharply in the 1930s to its original position. Later it surged ahead in two upswings after 1980 to reach 350 per cent of GDP in 2008.

The corresponding graphic, using the analysis by Jeffrey Gundlach, Chief Investment Officer from TCW:

This analysis of crises in relation to credit market debt is attributed to economist Irving Fisher, and his ideas were largely ignored in favor of mainstream Keynesian view of economic crises, which argued that they were caused by an insufficiency of aggregate demand. Since the recent economic crash of 2007, Fisher’s ideas have enjoyed a resurgence in economic thought. His theory on debt deflation has been of significant fascination in the heterodox Post-Keynesian school of economics, and is now beginning to enter the mainstream. Economist Paul Krugman discusses Fisher’s ideas in one of his posts on his blog “Conscious of a Liberal” in the NY Times — below is the graphic taken from the article (with added information).        

Since the total credit market debt owed has been stagnant since late 2009, reaching its ‘peak,’ and if GDP steadily keeps rising, it is likely that debt deflation will occur all the same as it did during the Great Depression. However, the issue of private debt and its hindrance on the consumer is still an issue — and if spending is ever to increase significantly, the issue of wages and consumer debt must be addressed.

***

– An analysis of the total credit market debt by Crestmont Research.

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