It’s not just me

It can be difficult deciding what to write next.  Everything seems to have been said already.

And then along comes the weekend newspaper.  The Times Saturday June 27 and Philip Aldrick.  If you have a subscription you can read his article We ought to be scared: too much debt is being combined with too much blind faith.

In simple terms what he was saying was that some important economic indicators are heading the same way they went before the big crash – the  2008 disaster brought about by banks lending too much to people who could not pay them back.

So – money is cheap thanks to Quantitative Easing and very low (or zero) interest rates.

Probably as a result, lots of borrowing has been going on – according to the article $57 trillion in 7 years – which is massively more than the economic growth in the same period.

So debt is now 286% of GDP.  Is this worrying?  Well it was less than that – 269% of GDP – before the crisis.

And where is the money being lent?  “Emerging markets” seems to be the answer – Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are all running deficits borrowing from Western economies.

As I see it, the problem is simply our debt-ridden system.  Because of low interest rates in the Western economies, bankers need to find someone else to lend money to who will pay high rates of interest.  Germany is financing Greek debt at higher interest rates than it can get elsewhere in the EU, but even this is not enough to produce returns for the financial sectors in the West.

As a result money is lent at higher risks to countries which offer a much higher rate of return.  This means money in junk bonds and frontier bonds.  Or put another way in risky companies and risky countries.

Some risky investments will go bad and the question is whether the financial gurus have got it right this time and balanced the risk with the return or whether, as happened before 2008, they went for return at all costs and ended up offloading the risk onto governments who did not dare to let the banking system (and therefore the banks) collapse and so underwrote the debts in massive bailouts.

My answer is simple.  If commercial debt is outlawed, then bankers and other financiers cannot do this to us again.

This is not an easy fix, because we have been brought up on the present system and imagining a different world is difficult.  And bringing in a ban on commercial debt will require considerable planning and ruthless implementation (because any loophole will be exploited because the financial sector is all about exploiting situations – such as different interest rates in different countries – to make a profit).

Is this a crazy idea?  Possibly, but we have tried for years to bring the banking sector under control in the UK and we keep on ending up with scandals – PPI and other misselling scandals, LIBOR and foreign exchange rate fixing, helping launder drug and terrorist money…

So let’s try something new!

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The problem with mortgages

A recent article in the Times “New funding rules force builders to apply brakes” (I read the print edition from Saturday 14 February) highlights one of the problems of commercial debt

In my white paper I explain that having debt in an economy creates problems. It allows the economy to overheat when things are going well (debt financed growth) and then makes the recession worse when things are going badly (debt repayments mean that the total fall in GDP is bigger than any underlying reduction in real production).

So the mortgage market in the UK has pushed house prices up, because we think nothing of borrowing large amounts of money over long terms to buy houses. The debt means that more houses can be “afforded” and therefore increases the number of houses bought. This in turn means that more houses are built and the house builders are very happy. Economists are happy because house building contributes to GDP and everything looks great.

And then along comes financial regulation – last year (2014), the Financial Conduct Authority carried out a review of the mortgage market and came up with some new guidelines, which have meant that mortgage lenders are looking at mortgage applications more carefully and as a result reducing the amounts they are willing to lend. And this is what the Times article was complainingHouse under construction about – house builders are reducing the number of houses they build because these rule changes mean fewer houses are being bought.

This supports my view that the mortgage market – commercial lending – has affected the housing market and pushed prices up.

If my suggestion of outlawing commercial lending is followed through, then the housing market will not have the support of mortgage lending and house prices will fall (relative to earnings). This would be a good thing in that house prices would no longer be buoyed up when the economy is strong and sink when the economy falls, but will remain more stable.

Sadly there is another side to all this – which is the effect of withdrawing commercial lending on the economy as a whole. As the Times article indicates, house builders are building fewer houses because buyers are finding it more difficult to get mortgages. And the same is likely to be true of many other areas of the economy – by restricting lending, economic activity will be lower (as measured by the GDP measure economists use).

Are the benefits of a more stable economy and freedom from some of the other adverse effects of debt worth paying the price of lower levels of GDP? I would say yes.