Why economists ignore private debt

Actually, from most of the models I’ve seen, mainstream economists completely ignore public debt as well. After all, since credit owed is (mostly) endogenous, what does it matter how much Peter owes Paul? That’s the main reason so few of them saw 2008 coming. The article is focused on Australia, but it is globally applicable.

There is a reason why mainstream economists ignore private debt while focusing intently upon public debt. Neoclassical economic models assume markets operate in a static state of equilibrium, but these models are based on a slew of preposterous assumptions which are never met in the real world. The banking and financial system is modelled by assuming that money, debt and banks do not exist! The element of time is also removed, making it difficult for economists to understand the inter-temporal allocations of debt.

This is like an astronomer or astrophysicist building a model of our solar system absent the sun, moon and gravity – an inadequate framework that will inevitably produce glaring mistakes. By using a circular form of logic, private domestic and external debts are assumed to be the outcome of rationally-derived contracts, so the level of debt is deemed to be efficient by definition. In contrast, public debts are considered to be managed by ‘irrational’ government planners, who cannot make optimising decisions; a clear fallacy based on stereotypes of the competency of financial actors within the economy.

In the post-1970s era, neoliberal economic policy has dominated mainstream perspectives. A major goal of government has led to an unyielding mantra that public debts must be reduced by running surpluses where possible. The obsession with public debt and deficits has blindsided policymakers to the rapid accumulation of private debts. For instance, the severe mid-1970s recession was caused largely by the collapse of the dual commercial and residential real estate bubbles, inflated by sharply accelerating private debts, but the economics profession failed to take notice.

Unfortunately, this made no difference, with the 1981 Campbell Report advocating further deregulation of the banking and financial sector. By the time of the 1997 Wallis Report, neoclassical economists had the benefit of hindsight when examining the mid-1970s dual commercial and housing bubbles, the 1981 Sydney housing bubble, the 1987 stock market bubble and crash, the late 1980s dual commercial and housing bubbles, and the lead-up to the largest stock market bubble in Australian economic history, the Dot-Com era.

With Australia’s economic history littered with asset bubbles, irrational exuberance, recessions and depressions, what were the recommendations of the Wallis Report? More financial deregulation! Mainstream economists in Australia (and elsewhere) are wilfully blind to countervailing evidence which demonstrates the harms caused by financial deregulation.

The reason that financial deregulation is advocated becomes obvious: booming private debts enhance the power, profit and authority of the horde of private monopolists, usurers, speculators, rent seekers, free riders, financial robber barons, control frauds, inheritors and indolent rich.