Monday, August 12, 2013

A World Without Debt

Edward Hadas has written a good article on the problems of debt. He says that he dreams of a world without debt. Here are his reasons.

Loans and bonds are poorly designed for their primary economic purpose – investment. This observation may sound shocking. Interest-bearing debt is considered totally normal. Financial theory unquestioningly treats risk-free debt as the standard instrument. Savers usually compare all investments to a similar standard: safe bank accounts which pay a steady interest rate.

But a little reflection on the real economy shows that the typical debt arrangement is an unfortunate holdover from a more primitive age. Loans are unnecessarily distant from economic reality. If we were starting now, we would never rely on such rigid instruments to fund investments.

To start, loans carry a maturity mismatch, because temporary debt funds permanent investments. Depositors can take money out of banks, banks can pull lines of credit and loans are supposed to be repaid or refinanced at maturity. But the factories the credit finances cannot then be unbuilt. The research cannot be undone and the people cannot be untrained.
The way that interest rates are usually fixed in advance is another problem. Unless both sides agree on floating rates, loans are bets on future inflation rates. Sometimes borrowers gain, sometimes lenders do, but either way a totally unnecessary risk is created.

The most important problem with debt is the so-called economic mismatch: the interest payments on loans vary much less than borrowers’ cashflows. Temporary difficulties can lead basically sound companies to skimp on economically valuable investments, or to default.

Banks are supposed to be able to absorb the losses from defaults. They charge riskier borrowers higher interest rates, a burden which makes default more likely. They also have a hierarchy for taking losses. Shareholders lose out first, followed by holders of subordinated debt. In most countries, the government comes to the rescue when losses get really large.

The arrangements are complicated and uncertain – thus the debate over how much capital banks need. The problem, though, is largely created by the duality of loans: either good or bad. If borrowers’ payments were more flexible – lower and higher depending on economic conditions – banks could have financial structures which were both simpler and sounder.

What is needed? Financial instruments which have no maturity, which are protected from inflation and which have variable payments. There’s nothing fantastic about that wish list. Common shares tick all the boxes (Full article at a Imagine a World Without Debt.
The biblical economic model is hostile to debt and interest. Loans for longer than seven years are prohibited, because that is a long as people who do not know the future can commit. The borrower becomes the slave of the lender, and God’s people should be free. Loans to the poor must be interest free. So as the gospel advances the use of debt should decline dramatically, and be replaced with greater use of equity, which is more equitable anyway. Edward’s comments provide economic reasoning to support this view.

No comments: