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The Big Threat to the Economy Is Private Debt and Interest Owed on It, Not Government Debt

We should focus on how paying off private debt is eating into personal incomes.
 
 
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Editor's Note: These remarks were made by by Prof. Michael Hudson at  The Atlantic’s Economy Summit, Washington DC, Wednesday, March 13, 2013.

There are two quite different perspectives in the set of speeches at this conference. Many on our morning panels – Steve Keen, William Greider, and earlier Yves Smith and Robert Kuttner – have warned about the economy being strapped by debt. The debt we are talking about is private-sector debt. But most officials this afternoon focus on government debt and budget deficits as the problem – especially social spending such as Social Security, not bailouts to the banks and Federal Reserve credit to re-inflate prices for real estate, stocks and bonds.

To us this morning, government deficit spending into the economy is the solution. The problem is private debt. And in contrast to Federal Reserve and Treasury bailout policy, we view the problem not as real estate prices too low to cover bank reserves. The problem is the carrying charges on this private debt, and the fact that debt service is eating into personal income – and also business income – to deflate the economy.

There is Mortgage debt that is still leading to foreclosures, evictions, and is depressing the real estate market for most buyers except for all-cash hedge funds.

We have been urging a write-down of mortgage debt in line with the debtor’s ability to pay, or to bring debt service in line with current market prices. The administration has bailed out the banks for their bad loans, but has kept the debts in place for most of the population. Its promise of debt write-downs has been empty.

Student loan debt, now the second largest debt in the US at around $1 trillion, is the one kind of debt that has been growing since 2008. It is depriving new graduates of the ability to start families and buy new homes. This debt is partly a byproduct of cutbacks in federal and local aid to the universities, and partly of turning them into profit centers – financializing education to squeeze out an economic surplus to invest in real estate and financial holdings, to  pay much higher salaries to upper management (but not to professors, who are being replaced by part-time, un-tenured help), and especially to create a thriving high-profit, zero-risk, government guaranteed loan business for banks.

This is not really “socializing” student loans. Its social effects are regressive and negative. It is a bank-friendly giveaway that is helping polarize the economy.

The character of the stock market has been turned upside down. Instead of raising equity capital to reduce corporate debt ratios, corporate takeovers are being financed with debt.

Business debt service is still crowding out the use of corporate cash flow for new tangible investment and hiring. This is especially the case for companies bought in leveraged buyouts for corporate or management takeovers. Shareholder activism is forcing industrial companies to yield financial returns, such as using earnings for stock buy-backs to bid up stock market prices (and thereby increase the value of management stock options). We thus are seeing a buildup of financial capital, not of industrial capital.

The result of the private-sector debt overhang is a self-feeding spiral of debt deflation. Revenue earmarked to pay bankers is not available to spend on goods and services. Lower consumer spending is a major reason why firms are not investing in tangible capital to produce more output. Markets shrink, shopping malls close down, and empty stores are appearing for rent on major shopping streets from New York City to London.