Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Debts that can’t be paid, won’t be

An excerpt from a paper published for the conference Paradigm Lost: Rethinking Economics and Politics. I am speaking to this paper in Berlin this week. The full paper can be downloaded from their website (PDF).

A common denominator runs throughout recorded history: a rising proportion of debts cannot be paid. Adam Smith remarked that no government ever had repaid its debt, and today the same can be said of the overall volume of private-sector debt. One way or another, there will be defaults – unless debts are paid in an illusory fashion, simply by adding the interest charges onto the debt balance until the sums finally grow to so fictitious a magnitude that the illusion of viability has to be dropped.

But freeing an economy from illusion may be a traumatic event. The great policy question therefore concerns just how the various types of debts won’t be paid. The choice is between forfeiting property to foreclosing creditors, or writing debts down at least to the ability to pay, and possibly all the way down to make a fresh start. Somebody must lose, and their loss will appear on the other side of the balance sheet as another party’s gain. Debtors lose when they have to forfeit their property or cut back other spending pay their debts. Creditors lose when the debts are written down or go bad. Read More