Thursday, October 23, 2014

Debt Trouble

I was teaching ""Financial Crises"" in the CREI Macro Summer School last week (link here). As I was brushing up the syllabus, I realized just how much great work Mian and Sufi have done on the recent crisis. I already knew their & nbsp;paper in the QJE on the subprime crisis, where they show that areas with high latent demand for mortgages in 1997 (i.e. high denial rates) saw a big increase in lending, lower denial rates, higher LTVs, without any improvement in economic conditions. & nbsp;

Now, they also have a paper (with Francesco Trebbi, in the AER) on the voting of Republicans and Democrats on the bailout packages for homeowners, and for the financial industry. Guess what? Your ideology matters.... but only up to a point. What also matters a lot are the economic interests of your constituents. So if you are a god-fearing Republican who believes in small government, Ronald Reagan, the right to bear arms, and not helping anyone in need... you may rethink the last bit if your constituents are looking at a lot of foreclosures. As Groucho Marx said - these are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others.
Mian and Sufi also have a small new paper, published in the SF-Fed's Economic Letters, on which areas of the US are suffering the most from the current recession... and it's all about debt levels. The first thing that is stunning is the size of the debt binge in the last 10 years (figure above). The second killer chart in the paper looks at the differential performance in auto sales:

Counties with a lot of household debt saw a big decline in sales in the run-up to 2008 already, and have stayed depressed. The low-debt counties have roared back, as everyone should have done in a normal recovery. Slow recovery? Maybe there is something more to it than a bit of pump-priming via the government deficit, and QE1-3. Without inflation, it's hard to see what will help those suffering counties reduce their debt burdens.

All of this goes to show that the analogy of debt binges and alcohol-infused parties is quite apt - fun while the punch is on tab, less so the next morning. That was also the argument about the Great Depression, made by Barry Eichengreen and Kris Mitchener almost a decade ago (in a much underappreciated paper). The title? The Great Depression as a credit boom gone wrong.

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