A glass or two of red wine is very pleasant to have with a meal or on a picnic or just to enjoy at a social occasion. Three or four glasses of wine is also quite nice, but as one drinks more and more, there are problems that are obvious and well known. There is at best, a hangover; at worst, it is catastrophic with personal dislocation often resulting.
Debt is very much like red wine. In moderation, borrowing money and accumulating debt is a desirable thing. It allows people to buy a house, a car and to bring forward purchases that might otherwise be unattainable if people had to rely on accumulated savings to make those purchases. As the economics text books say, borrowing and debt accumulation facilitates immediate consumption but it occurs at a cost of lower future consumption as, at some point in the future, consumers repay that debt.
This theory of debt accumulation and repayment works well provided there are no disruptions such as a credit crunch, surging unemployment, substantial interest rate changes or falling assets prices between the time the debt is taken and the time it is due to be repaid.
This is the obvious problem which resulted in the global financial crisis.
While some debt is good, too much debt is clearly bad, in much the same way that the fifth, sixth and seventh glass of red wine leads to undesirable consequences.
One important aspect of the global financial crisis was that it was driven by a self-inflicted binge of consumer borrowing that was aided and abetted by profligate banks who lent to any Tom, Dick or Sally with only scant reference to their ability to ever meet their interest obligations let alone repay the principal. What’s more, the borrowers were complicit in sowing the seeds of the crisis. Too frequently, the household sector blindly signed up for loans that they didn’t understand and worse, couldn’t afford. And when it came time to reduce spending so that the interest on that debt could be paid and debt levels reduced many consumers didn’t have the capacity to do so.
What’s worse, when those householders realised that house prices could go down as well as up, and then sold their houses to cover their debt, they found all too often that the sale price was less than the amount they borrowed and as a result, the banking sector and economy cascaded into the disaster that continues to this day.
Consumers borrowed like drunken sailors on the belief that house prices always went up and that they would always have a job and therefore an income whereby they could service the loan. For a time, this fuelled strong economic growth and multi-decade lows in unemployment rates, but as is clear now, it was an economic performance built on foundations of sand.
As this problem grew and grew, the regulators and others kept their heads in that sand. They said “we have a new paradigm”, that “growth was being driven by a productivity miracle” and the like. Regulators had a strong disposition to let the economy and market “self-regulate”. There were scant requirements for borrowers or lenders to test the veracity of the loans being made, and this lack of guidance and supervision was a telling mistake.
Householders and even banks need guidelines in which to operate in much the same way that people need to be told to stop at a red traffic light and not go. We need health inspectors to check restaurants for hygiene. We need regulators to say it’s not acceptable to steal property. It is well known that regulators (the police) will impose a fine on people who drop litter in the street or on those who drive even 10 kilometres an hour above the speed limit.
These regulations tend to work well.
But the regulators of the financial system and the economy let banks and borrowers (admittedly they were consenting adults) do what they wanted. They drove too fast, lived an unhealthy existence and littered the economy with junk borrowings. Debt levels were increasingly large and decreasingly secure; they let people whose house had increased in value borrow against their “new found” wealth and to spend that money as they pleased. There were few rules let alone guidelines for the amount people could borrow, who could borrow and for the purpose they could use the borrowed funds.
The views expressed in this article are the author's only and do not necessarily reflect the position of TD Securities.
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