I will likely return to these papers later, but I wanted to briefly comment on the interesting research on the recession and the impact of household debt - by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi. Here are two of their recent papers:
- What Explains High Unemployment? The Aggregate Demand Channel
- Household Balance Sheets, Consumption, and the Economic Slump [with Kamalesh Rao]
- Also see this Bloomberg op-ed: How Household Debt Contributes to Unemployment: Mian and Sufi
Mike Konczal at Rortybomb interviewed Amir Sufi on the topic of balance sheet recessions and posted the transcript on his blog. The entire interview is worth reading, but I'm going to include a few excerpts on Sufi's view of the recession and its causes.
Regarding the question of which policy is likely to be more effective in addressing the aggregate demand and unemployment problem, i.e., fiscal stimulus or household debt reduction (e.g., via principal forgiveness or credit writedowns), Sufi says:
I think that right-leaning economists don’t deny that the zero lower bound could be a friction. I think the zero-lower bound does bother them, that they think it is a fundamental friction. I think where they’d disagree with Paul [Krugman], and to an extent even I disagree with Paul, is that if you look at his model, the optimal policy in those models isn’t necessarily fiscal stimulus, it is writing down the debts of borrowers. That’s the number one policy that fixes the problem.
I come from a finance micro background, so if I were to criticize the zero-lower bound literature, which I use, it is that fiscal stimulus doesn’t fall so naturally out of it. Paul goes to lengths to argue against the argument “how can more debt solve a debt problem?” and explains it is because the borrowers are constrained, and there’s some truth to that. But the fundamental problem in these models, what generates the zero-lower bound problem, is a sharp reduction in consumption by borrowers. Why not attack that problem head on? If you look at Rogoff’s opinion against Krugman’s, I think this is the main difference. They agree on the zero-lower bound nature of the problem, but have different tactics on how to fight it. I tend to agree with the view that directly targeting the household debt problem seems to make more sense than fiscal stimulus.
On the issue of whether the debt and demand problem is just related to regions that suffered a housing crash, Sufi says:
You are correct: if you unconditionally look at the high debt-to-income places, a lot of it is highly correlated with places that had construction booms and a lot of migration. To get rid of the construction and migration effects, we try to use exogenous variation in debt-to-income ratios that is driven by housing supply elasticity. This is a technique called “two-stage least squares.” We regress the debt-income ratio on how hard it is to build in an area. The idea is that this instrument allows us to disentangle the effect of debt levels from construction and migration. The results after doing this are very strong. Any place that had a high debt-income ratio, whether or not it had a construction boom, is suffering massively now.
[Konczal] : Another response to this model is that the debt-to-income ratios don’t actually matter that much. What is really driving this is a wealth effect. People feel poorer from losing housing value, and thus they spend less. James Surowiecki just had a piece arguing against these balance sheet recession models in The New Yorker, “The Deleveraging Myth.” Dean Baker from CEPR makes this argument as well.
[Sufi]: Well obviously I disagree 100 percent with that for both theoretical and empirical reasons. The theoretical reason is that housing should not be thought of in a pure wealth sense. We all have to consume housing going forward. And the value of my house going down is also the same value of the price of housing going down. The easiest way to imagine this is to picture a young couple that currently rents and will buy a house in the future. If housing prices decline, it is good for them because they can then more easily buy a house in the future. Clearly, this is not a negative wealth effect for the young couple.
[Konczal]: But as far as I understand it there are studies that find a wealth effect in housing.
[Sufi]: This is a semantic point on what you call it. I’m saying as an economist that if you call something a wealth effect, then it has nothing to do with borrowing constraints and debt levels, and that effect in theory should be zero. To the degree that we observe that when people’s house prices go up they consume more, that’s not a wealth effect — that’s a borrowing constraint being alleviated, and people borrowing against collateral that they couldn’t before. Which is a very different thing, and it matters empirically. My own research on this topic shows definitively that people consume aggressively out of housing wealth because of borrowing constraints, not a simple wealth effect.
Here’s why I fundamentally disagree with the “wealth effect” argument. Suppose you have an economy that looks like the U.S. before the recession, where you have an extremely skewed net wealth distribution. The wealth effect argument is that the response of the economy to house price declines would have been the same if you flattened that out versus if you had the polarization that we have now. And I disagree with that fundamentally, and that’s what the research shows. The net wealth distribution matters. People who have very high debt-to-income ratios cut their spending very dramatically, and there is no way a pure wealth effect can explain the magnitude of the cut.
Also, on the topic of the wealth distribution and its impact:
The distribution of net wealth matters a lot. Let’s suppose there’s $100 of wealth in the economy and there’s a hundred people. If everybody had $1 of wealth, and then there’s a massive drop in house prices, my argument is that this recession wouldn’t have been nearly as severe. It’s because the five guys at the top have all of the $100 and are just lending to the other 95, that’s why the recession is so severe when house prices collapse. Paul said this a few times on his blog, and he’s usually very clear, but I don’t think he’s been clear enough on explaining this. These models on why deleveraging matters are all about the net wealth distribution. We shouldn’t be surprised that this recession and the Great Depression were preceded by very large increases in wealth inequality. This is well documented during the 1920s and the 2000s. This is why I get a bit annoyed at the guys who are saying it’s just a pure wealth effect, because it’s something bigger than that.
Do read the entire interview - it's worth it. Sufi also talks about savings rates and other factors.