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10.4 Million American Families Slide Toward Losing Their Homes -- Is It Time for Debt Forgiveness?

Wages are stagnant or falling. Foreclosures are tearing through communities, and falling home prices are destroying family equity. It's like a reverse New Deal.

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Economists Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière wrote a breakthrough paper for the IMF that made the connection between inequality and financial crisis. “The crisis,” they wrote, “is the ultimate result, after a period of decades, of a shock to…two groups of households, investors who account for 5% of the population, and whose bargaining power increases, and workers who account for 95% of the population.” The 5 percent, broadly speaking, lend to the 95 percent, and in so doing gain still greater wealth and power. The shock comes when the creditor class suddenly realizes that the borrowers are drowning in debt and cannot possibly absorb any more. At that point, financial assets connected to consumer debt are dumped and prices crash, much as they did in 2007. The authors add, “To our knowledge, our framework is the first to provide an internally consistent mechanism linking the empirically observed rise in income inequality…and the risk of a financial crisis.”

It took three decades of lopsided borrowing to produce the breakdown, Kumhof and Rancière explain, but the ominous trend was evident for years. In the early 1980s the 95 percent had debts equal to about 65 percent of their income. By 2006 that figure had risen to 140 percent. They were devoting so much of their paychecks to making payments on old debt—credit cards, equity lines and mortgages—there was nothing left to make the payments on new debt. Defaults and bankruptcies were already swelling. The collapse came when creditors grasped the danger and started selling off their mortgage bonds and loans to consumers.

It seems odd that the financial interests, with their brilliant analysts and high-speed computers, didn’t see the nature of the crisis until it was breaking over their heads. They may have been blinded by the fabulous wealth they were harvesting. Kumhof and Rancière point out that the same ominous combination—a run-up of debt accompanied by gaping inequality—preceded the crash of 1929. Greed may inspire optimism.

But why did ordinary debtors fall into this trap? The standard line is that they, too, were blinded by greed, eager for consumer pleasures they couldn’t afford. This is true for some, but the explanation libels most working people. Wage stagnation started in the 1970s and spread widely in the Reagan era. Typically, as incomes faltered, families faced two bad choices—either go deeper into debt or surrender their middle-class standard of living. Naturally, most people tried to hang on to what they had.

The responses to this crisis are well-known. People worked more—women and teenagers entered the workforce, family members took two or three jobs. And they borrowed more, paying the bills with credit cards. In these terms, average families were making heroic efforts to maintain their standard of living. They were doomed to fail unless dramatic economic reforms improved their lot. University of California economist Clair Brown predicted nearly two decades ago in her landmark study of American consumption that sooner or later working people would have to retreat to lower levels of consuming. Working harder and borrowing more had sustained them for twenty years, but neither of these remedies was repeatable. At some point the merry-go-round would have to stop.

The retreat is now in full flight. Homeownership has declined by 1.1 percent over the past decade. Wages are stagnant or falling. Foreclosures are tearing through communities, and falling home prices are destroying family equity. Americans, as Whalen says, are experiencing the reverse New Deal.

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The president is losing the policy bet he made at the outset of his administration. Government regulators, he decided, would give leading banks a pass on stern cleanup and rigorous reforms. With blanket forbearance and enormous lending supplied by the Federal Reserve, the assumption was that the largest financial institutions could earn their way back to solvency, gradually shedding all those “toxic assets” left over from the collapse of the housing bubble. Recovery of the broad economy was supposed to follow.

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