Economic Growth Idea: Forgive or Restructure Debt U.S. Citizens Hold

The highly tempestuous debates between Keynesians and deficit-hawks distract from the real cause of America's Great Recession and from the solution.  Former banker and credit expert Richard Vague and The Atlantic's Steve Clemons argue in a new report (pdf) that to stimulate jobs and economic growth, financial houses should take phased write downs of assets and give loan holders relief and debt forgiveness.

unemployment line depression.jpg

Restructuring Private Debt May Be Better Option than Austerity or More Stimulus
by Steve Clemons and Richard Vague

In the Spring of 2011, the Obama administration started to rev up a campaign called "The Summer of Recovery" and planned to deploy the President, VP Joe Biden, and the economically connected Cabinet members and advisers to go to all parts of the country, particularly battleground states, and convince Americans that things were getting better, that jobs were being created, and that the vector of the nation was pointing in a great direction.

The Summer of Recovery became a Summer of Anxiety as the jobs machine sputtered and as other parts of the global economy slowed reducing demand for American exports. Voices like Paul Krugman and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich lambasted the White House for not having been Keynesian enough and not opening the government spending spigots to more deeply invest in US infrastructure, shore up deteriorating state balance sheets, and keep more Americans employed and in their homes that were still being foreclosed at record rates.

dollars.jpgBut Republicans, who under George W. Bush's leadership hatched the conditions of inattentive and lax regulatory attention that contributed significantly to the Great Recession of 2008-2009, decided to convince Americans that the nation's economic malaise was a product of Obama's massive government post-crisis spending.  In a dangerous game of government debt limit brinksmanship, House Speaker John Boehner and his Tea Party-fearing Republican caucus took the nation to the brink of default. 

Even though the crisis that had unfolded had been a function of behavior in private debt markets, the debate about what to do next has focused entirely on what level of debt the government should deploy or cut back. 

The debt-hawks and uber-Keynesians may both be well meaning in their desire to steady the US economic ship and relaunch it towards growth -- but they are distracted by ideology and conventional economic thinking from looking at more compelling causes of major economic crises and more efficacious policy responses. 

It's private debt that matters most.

There is about $24 trillion in consumer and business debt held in the United States today and this dwarfs the federal debt, money supply, and the nation's GDP.  

debt to gdp.jpgIn a short report (pdf) we are releasing today that explores the behavior of private debt before and after economic crises -- not only in the US, but in Japan as well as a number of European nations -- we have noted that (1) a fast run-up of private debt combined with (2) a level of private debt more than 150% of GDP were evident in both the Great Recession of 2008-2009 as well as in America's Great Depression.

Federal debt was inconsequential to these crises.  Charts in the report (pdf) we are posting today make clear that Spain, economically beleaguered today, was in excellent federal balance sheet health before the recent Eurozone financial quakes started.

So as a predictor of future crises, we suggest that private debt growth rates combined with the absolute level of non-government, private debt are the two most important factors to flag.

Once a private debt-triggered crisis starts, attention turns typically to the government and whether it will reform through austerity programs and conditioned loans or whether the government will inject capital resources of its own to keep the economy primed and liquid.

What is interesting about the recent Great Recession and the American case is that while many economic pundits speak about post-crisis deleveraging, the private debt total only declined by 3% in the US and is now increasing again, essentially reaching today the pre-crisis level of private debt. 

That's right.  The private debt load in the US today is roughly the same as the private debt load held in early 2008.  This is of enormous consequence as consumers and businesses that are overburdened with debt cannot lead an economy to higher growth.  Government spending can provide some stimulus, but our analysis shows that this stimulus is significantly less efficient in stimulating GDP growth than re-jiggering and triggering private spending.  And while private debt typically matters more than government debt, a total debt load for an economy does matter.  Ask Japan.

Federal austerity may be necessary at some point, but austerity in government accounts does not give the private sector any relief from these record high burdens of private debt.

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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