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Growth, Debt, and the World Bank

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWhen I was in graduate school in economics in the early 1960s we were taught that capital was the limiting factor in growth and development. Just inject capital into the economy and it would grow. As the economy grew, you could then re-invest the growth increment as new capital and make it grow exponentially. Eventually the economy would be rich. Originally, to get things started, capital came from savings, from confiscation, or from foreign aid or investment, but later out of the national growth increment itself. Capital embodied technology, the source of its power. Capital was magic stuff, but scarce. It all seemed convincing at the time.

Many years later when I worked for the World Bank it was evident that capital was no longer the limiting factor, if indeed it ever had been. Trillions of dollars of capital was circling the globe looking for projects in which to become invested so it could grow. The World Bank understood that the limiting factor was what they called “bankable projects” — concrete investments that could embody abstract financial capital and make its value grow at an acceptable rate, usually ten percent per annum or more, doubling every seven years. Since there were not enough bankable projects to absorb the available financial capital the WB decided to stimulate the creation of such projects with “country development teams” set up in the borrowing countries, but with WB technical assistance. No doubt many such projects were useful, but it was still hard to grow at ten percent without involuntarily displacing people, or running down natural capital and counting it as income, both of which were done on a grand scale. And the loans had to be repaid. Of course they did get repaid, frequently not out of the earnings of the projects which were often disappointing, but out of the general tax revenues of the borrowing governments. Lending to sovereign governments with the ability to tax greatly increases the likelihood of being repaid — and perhaps encourages a bit of laxity in approving projects.

Where did all this excess financial capital come from? Not from savings (China excepted), but from new money and easy credit generated by our fractional reserve banking system, amplified by increased leverage in the purchase of stocks. Recipients of new money bid resources away from existing uses by offering a higher price. If there are unemployed resources and if the new uses are profitable then the temporary rise in prices is offset by new production — by growth. But resource and environmental scarcity, along with a shortage of bankable projects, put the brakes on this growth, and resulted in too much financial capital trying to become incarnate in too few bankable projects.

So the WB had to figure out why its projects yielded low returns. The answer sketched above was ideologically unacceptable because it hinted at ecological limits to growth. A more acceptable answer soon became clear to WB economists — micro level projects could not be productive in a macro environment of irrational and inefficient government policy. The solution was to restructure the macro economies by “structural adjustment” — free trade, export-led growth, balanced budgets, strict control of inflation, elimination of social subsidies, deregulation, suspension of labor and environmental protection laws — the so-called Washington Consensus. How to convince borrowing countries to make these painful “structural adjustments” at the macro level to create the environment in which WB financed projects would be productive? The answer was, conveniently, a new form of lending, structural adjustment loans, to encourage or bribe the policy reforms stipulated by the term “structural adjustment.” An added reason for structural adjustment, or “policy lending,” was to move lots of dollars quickly to countries like Mexico to ease their balance of payments difficulty in repaying loans they had received from private US banks. Also, policy loans, now about half of WB lending, require no lengthy and expensive project planning and supervision the way project loans do. The money moves quickly. The WB definition of efficiency became, it seemed, “moving the maximum amount of money with the minimum amount of thought.”

Why, one might ask, would a country borrow money at interest to make policy changes that it could make on its own without any loans, if it thought the policies were good ones? Maybe they did not really favor the policies, and therefore needed a bribe to do what was in their own best interests. Maybe the goal of the current borrowing government was simply to get the new loan, splash the money around among friends and relatives, and leave the next government to pay it back with interest.

Such thoughts got little attention at the WB which was haunted by the specter of an impending “negative payments flow,” that is, repayments of old loans plus interest greater than the volume of new loans. Would the WB eventually shrink and disappear as unnecessary? A horrible thought for any bureaucracy! But the alternative to a negative payments flow for the WB is ever-increasing debt for the borrowing countries. Of course the WB did not claim to be in the business of increasing the debt of poor countries. Rather it was fostering growth by injecting capital and increasing the debtor countries’ capacity to absorb capital from outside. So what if the debt grew, as long as GDP was growing. The assumption was that the real sector could grow as fast as the financial sector — that physical wealth could grow as fast as monetary debt.

The main goal of the WB is to make loans, to push the money out the door, to be a money pump. If financial capital were really the limiting factor countries would line up with good projects and the WB would ration capital among countries. But financial capital is superabundant and good projects are scarce, so the WB had to actively push the money. To speed up the pump they send country development teams out to invent projects; if the projects fail, then they invent structural adjustment loans to induce a more favorable macro environment; if structural adjustment loans are treated as bribes by corrupt borrowing governments, the WB does not complain too much for fear of slowing the money pump and incurring a “negative payments flow.”

If capital is no longer the magic limiting factor whose presence unleashes economic growth, then what is it?

“Capital,” says Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27). He further explains that, “Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of “capital,” it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues…”

In other words capital in the financial sense is the future expected net revenue from a project divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic stuff it is an indent, a lien, on the future real production of the economy — in a word it is a debt to be repaid, or alternatively, and perhaps preferably, to not be repaid but kept as the source of interest payments far into the future.

Of course debt is incurred in exchange for real resources to be used now, which as Soddy says cannot be used again in the future. But if the financed project can extract more resources employing more labor in the future to increase the total revenue of society, then the debt can be paid off with interest, and with some of the extra revenue left over as profit. But this requires an increased throughput of matter and energy, and increased labor — in other words it requires physical growth of the economy. Such growth in yesterday’s empty-world economy was reasonable — in today’s full-world economy it is not. It is now generally recognized that there is too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about growth. We never expected that growth itself would begin to cost us more than it was worth, making us poorer, not richer. But it did. And the only solution our economists, bankers, and politicians have come up with is more of the same! Could we not at least take a short time-out to discuss the idea of a steady-state economy?

Defusing the Debt Bomb

by James Johnston

If it didn’t have such explosive consequences, you’d have to laugh at the comedy of errors unfolding in the U.S. political arena. Politicians are proposing farcical “solutions” to the debt crisis in a competition to see who is better at pandering to the electorate. Are citizens really supposed to believe that raising taxes or cutting expenditures will provide meaningful relief on ballooning bank-inherited interest payments — payments so stratospheric that the human mind lacks a conceptual reference point for them? Each and every government service could be cut and it still wouldn’t help pay off the debt. The problem can’t be solved by reining in an overgrown government bureaucracy because much of it was created by an unregulated, overgrown banking system.

On the advice of conventional economic sages, we are to believe that the “credit crunch” is an event that took place in the past, with the words “growth” and “recovery” being used instead. But the transfer of debt from the private sector to the public sector in 2008 has merely postponed the inevitable detonation of a debt bomb that started ticking many years ago. If the government manages the bank-inherited debt in such preposterously piecemeal terms, it will never be paid off. Propping up the same broken banking system won’t solve the problem and will eventually cause history to repeat itself.

Only meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio of lenders and discourages irresponsible gambling with the money earned by average people — can truly diffuse the debt bomb and prevent this from happening again. The result will increase the stability of the financial system and bring us closer to an economic steady state. But it means that we have to give up our collective obsession with the meaningless, self-destructive growth provided by an overgrown banking sector. First, government leaders must stop celebrating the growth of debt-inflated GDP figures like unthinking, euphoric addicts.

How we got here

No one can pinpoint the causes of the Great Depression with certainty, but prominent economist Irving Fisher argued that the predominant catalyst was over-indebtedness and speculation, which fuelled asset bubbles (Fisher, 1933). Sound familiar? After the Great Depression, the U.S. government initiated reforms based on Fischer’s explanation of the problem. The purpose was to avoid another debt-driven crisis. New regulations prevented bankers from speculating with depositors’ savings, and the U.S. economy experienced many years of prosperity without financial crisis. Investment banking was a more conservative endeavor and savings and loan funds were not used for speculation or risky business investing.

Fast-forward half a century. During the 1980s, the deregulation of banking allowed savings and loan banks to make increasingly risky bets with borrowers’ money. Some banks failed during the savings and loan crisis, yet the process of deregulation continued. Meanwhile, bankers’ wages skyrocketed. So-called new financial “products” facilitated speculation and fueled an illusion of growth and prosperity. The illusion enshrouded bankers in a mystical aura. Everything they touched turned to gold, and politicians and citizens began to regard them as sages. Only the most intelligent people, one might suppose, could create so much wealth so quickly.

The illusion of growth produced illusions of stability and prosperity; bad decisions were rewarded while lessons from history were either disregarded or forgotten. In 2008, as the American economy inched uncomfortably close to detonation, the big banks revealed that the debt bomb was much larger than initially thought. Still the regulatory bomb squad sat idle. At no point did they come up with a useful plan for truly defusing it — it was simply postponed through the transference of debt. This occurred in spite of the risks associated with a pending disruption of the monetary system: the potential disappearance of savings, the foreclosure of homes, disruptions in the flow of goods and services, and unemployment. As a bomb counting down to detonation, here is the timeline we need to bear in mind:

  • At ten seconds to detonation, advances in computing technology allow for “bankers” (many of whom were in fact physicists and computer scientists) to create investment products called “derivatives,” products that Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”
  • At nine seconds, the financial sector consolidates into gigantic firms — something that was illegal following the Great Depression. Laws are changed under the guise of “modernization,” paving the path for the debt economy to balloon (and for history to repeat itself). Attempts to regulate derivatives fail and banking practices become increasingly risky.
  • At eight seconds, the euphoria reaches new heights. Loans are used as a means of generating investment funds for large banks. It becomes harder to track the risk associated with certain kinds of debt, as they are lumped together into an untraceable electronic mass (including commercial and residential mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and corporate debt). The products — “collateralized debt obligations” or “CDOs” — are given high ratings by credit rating agencies.
  • Seven seconds. Despite high ratings, many of the loans held in these portfolios are borrowed by people who cannot repay them. The banks don’t care, however, because insurance and default mechanisms allow them to avoid repaying any of the bad loans they issue. Besides, they argue, defaults like that are historically unprecedented.
  • Six seconds. As dot-com stocks crash due to over-speculation, investment money flows into sub-prime mortgages, which become all the rage. Mortgages reach their highest prices in history and home values skyrocket around the country. Indeed, many countries around the world see home values spike faster than ever. In the process, big financial firms (including JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Citibank, Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae and UBS) defraud their borrowers to push profits ever higher.
  • Five seconds. The leverage ratio between borrowed money and reserve money reaches new heights (from 20:1 to 30:1). For every dollar a bank has, it loans out 20 to 30 times that amount. Limits on leverage are relaxed, enabling banks to bet more with the money of depositors.
  • Four seconds. U.S. home prices double over their 1986 levels. The IMF and a handful of economists warn of crisis.
  • Three seconds. Big firms declare bankruptcy and the giant debt bureaucracy (the big banks) take a tumble.
  • Two seconds. As if covering a bomb in duct-tape, the U.S. government bails out the banks and transfers debt from the private sector to the public sector, tripling U.S. debt overnight. And yet, the same system that caused the crisis is propped up.

At this point in history, with the debt reaching more than 14 trillion dollars, U.S. leadership has a choice between defusing the bomb with meaningful regulatory and monetary reform — reform that lowers the leverage ratio and punishes irresponsible institutional gambling — or further bandaging a broken system that meaninglessly consumes government expenditures and cripples the real economy to the benefit of big banks. Choosing the latter will again postpone the inevitable, maintaining an unstable economic status-quo obsessed with illusory growth derived from debt-inflated GDP.

If the U.S. government refuses to defuse the bomb now, it will explode in the foreseeable future as risky banking practices continue and interest payments (penalties for past mistakes) soar to super-stratospheric heights. The irresponsible actions of financially bloated bankers are being overlooked by a government distracted with irrelevant ideological arguments. When the debt bomb finally detonates, those responsible will likely avoid the fallout in the comfort of their unjustifiable excess. And while average people can try to shield themselves by minimizing their exposure to the debt-inflated growth economy, they will undoubtedly suffer the most. If only those elected to represent their interests would overcome petty illusions and turn their attention to more critical reforms than cutting and taxing.

Show Me the Evidence: Growth and Prosperity

by Eben Fodor

Most cities in the U.S. have operated on the assumption that growth is inherently beneficial and that more and faster growth will benefit local residents economically. Local growth is often cited as the cure for urban ailments, especially the need for local jobs. But where is the empirical evidence that growth is providing these benefits?

I have completed a new study examining the relationship between growth and prosperity in U.S. metro areas. I found that those metro areas with the most growth fared the worst in terms of basic measures of economic well-being.

The study looked at the 100 largest U.S. metro areas (representing 66% of the total U.S. population) using the latest federal data for the 2000-09 period. The average annual population growth rate of each metro area was compared with unemployment rate, per capita income, and poverty rate using graphical and statistical analysis.

Some of the remarkable findings:

  • Faster-growing areas did not have lower unemployment rates.
  • Faster-growing areas tended to have lower per capita income than slower-growing areas. Per capita income in 2009 tended to decline almost $2,500 for each 1% increase in growth rate.
  • Residents of faster-growing areas had greater income declines during the recession.
  • Faster-growing areas tended to have higher poverty rates.

I also compared the 25 slowest-growing and 25 fastest-growing areas. The 25 slowest-growing metro areas outperformed the 25 fastest-growing in every category and averaged $8,455 more in per capita personal income in 2009. They also had lower unemployment and poverty rates.

Another remarkable finding is that stable metro areas (those with little or no growth) did relatively well. Statistically speaking, residents of an area with no growth over the 9-year period tended to have 43% more income gain than an area growing at 3% per year. Undoubtedly these findings offer a ray of hope that stable, sustainable communities may be perfectly viable — even prosperous — within our current economic system.

Click here to download the new study.

Eben Fodor is the founder of Fodor & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in community planning, land use, and environmental sustainability.  Fodor is also the author of Better, Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community.