Economics Explored host Gene Tunny chats with Richard Vague, a prominent American businessman and investor, about his new book, “The Paradox of Debt: A New Path to Prosperity Without Crisis.” Richard, who has previously written about “The Case for a Debt Jubilee”, shares powerful insights into the benefits and drawbacks of debt, discussing how it can help grow household wealth while also promoting economic instability and rising inequality. He also offers thought-provoking ideas for helping households and businesses manage and reduce their debts.
Note: this episode was recorded in mid-June 2023, i.e. before the Supreme Court decision regarding student loan relief, which is why the decision isn’t mentioned in this conversation.
About this episode’s guest: Richard Vague
Richard Vague served most recently as Secretary of Banking and Securities for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As the author of The Paradox of Debt (2023), The Case for a Debt Jubilee (2021), A Brief History of Doom (2019), and The Next Economic Disaster (2014), Richard Vague established himself as a clear and independent voice in the ongoing conversation about the role of private sector debt in the global economy.
What’s covered in EP195
- [00:04:39] Debt and the global financial crisis.
- [00:11:23] Debt always grows faster than the economy, Richard argues.
- [00:12:53] Increased debt and higher net worth.
- [00:17:23] Paradox of debt and inequality.
- [00:23:01] Type one and type two debt.
- [00:28:50] Regional banking crisis in the US.
- [00:32:13] The paradox of debt: summary.
- [00:35:10] Debt forgiveness in the private sector.
- [00:41:43] Debt restructuring in banking.
- [00:47:48] A win-win-win solution.
- [00:49:53] Massive job training as something Richard would like to see.
Links relevant to the conversation
Where you can buy Richard’s new book The Debt Paradox: A New Path to Prosperity Without Crisis:
Richard’s previous book The Case for a Debt Jubilee:
Gene’s conversation with Allen Morrison about the Enterprise China model which he mentions this episode:
The Paradox of Debt w/ Richard Vague, ex-Sec. of Banking & Securities, Pennsylvania – EP195
N.B. This is a lightly edited version of a transcript originally created using the AI application otter.ai. It was then looked at by a human, Tim Hughes from Adept Economics, to correct anything an otter might miss. It may not be 100 percent accurate, but should be pretty close. If you’d like to quote from it, please check the quoted segment in the recording.
Gene Tunny 00:06
Welcome to the Economics Explored podcast, a frank and fearless exploration of important economic issues. I’m your host Gene Tunny. I’m a professional economist and former Australian Treasury official. The aim of this show is to help you better understand the big economic issues affecting all our lives. We do this by considering the theory evidence and by hearing a wide range of views. I’m delighted that you can join me for this episode, please check out the show notes for relevant information. Now on to the show.
Hello, thanks for tuning into the show. This episode I chat with Richard Vague about his new book, The Paradox of Debt, a new path to prosperity without crisis. Richard Vague is a prominent American businessman and investor. He’s a former secretary of Banking and Securities for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He sits on the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees as well as on the boards of other prestigious organisations such as the Institute for New Economic Thinking. As you’ll discover Richard has some powerful insights into the good and bad aspects of debt. He talks about how it helps grow household wealth, while also promoting economic instability and rising inequality. Richard offers some thought-provoking ideas for helping households and businesses de-leverage and get their debts under control. Richard’s book is definitely worth a read. So I’d encourage you to grab a copy of it after you listen to this episode. I’ll include a link to the Amazon page for the book in the show notes. Okay, let’s get into the episode. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Richard Vague on the paradox of debt.
Richard Vague. Thanks for joining me on the programme.
Richard Vague 01:54
Thank you so much for having me.
Gene Tunny 01:55
Excellent. Richard, I’m keen to speak with you about your new book The Paradox of Debt. Debt’s a huge issue around the world. I’ve had recent shows on the debt ceiling in the US and and also the, what they’re calling the emerging economy debt crisis, there’s been a lot of discussion about that. And it’s one of those things that seems to come back every now and then we have these, these debt crises in various places. And in your book, you’ve got, I think, a good description of historically what’s been happening in this, this process that we’ll talk about. Could I ask to start off with what made you want to write this book? What motivated you to write the paradox of debt?
Richard Vague 02:42
Well, thank you so much for asking. And thanks, again, for having me on your show. We had done a lot of work for a number of years about financial crises be it in the Great Depression, or the great financial crisis of 2008, and so forth. And really, all of those are tied up in private debt and really rapid escalations of private debt. And we wrote a book called A Brief History of Doom that chronicled the 43 largest financial crises in the world over the last 200 years. And as we went around and presented that folks would love what we had to say, but ask you know, what about the other side of the balance sheet? You know, what about the assets that these individuals have? And? And can you put this together with the government debt story that we normally spend more time on? So I after hearing that for a few years, I finally said, well, that those questions are legitimate, they’re productive. So let’s roll up our sleeves. And let’s get into it. Let’s look at the entire balance sheet of countries of the sectors within those countries. And that’s this book.
Gene Tunny 03:54
Okay. So you wrote a previous book, and you’ve been speaking with various different people about that. And this gave you the idea. You’ve had a distinguished career in business and public service. Are you taking lessons from that? Are there things you that you saw in your career that have helped inform this book that you’ve written?
Richard Vague 04:14
Absolutely, you know we were in the banking business. So I studied debt, from the context of being a president of a bank. For years and years and years. It’s all I did, but I didn’t think you know, when you’re CEO of a company, you really thinking about the results of that company, and you don’t step back and think about the equation as a whole. And so that’s that really changed in 2000 and 5,6,7, when we began to see this tsunami of mortgage debt in the United States that ultimately ended up being the great global financial crisis. So we I honed my ability to look at debt and my interest in debt over an entire 30 year career, but it took the GFC for me want to step back and look at it holistically.
Gene Tunny 05:11
Gotcha. Right. Okay. And you mentioned the balance sheet. So you wanted to look at all of the you want to look at the debt, you wanted to look at the, well the liabilities for the people who owe the money. But you also wanted to look at the the assets. So is that part of the problem is the problem that a lot of the money that was borrowed was spent on unproductive investments? Is that is that one of the issues that you’ve been looking at?
Richard Vague 05:41
Well, yeah, and I want to be careful with the word unproductive. There. But yes, when you see a great financial crises, as we’ve had in this country, many, many times, we had one in the Great Depression, we had one and the 1980s, we of course, had one in 2008. You see lenders lending too much. And really, what we see is they’re doing loans that in normal circumstances would be just fine, mortgage loans, commercial real estate loans, but they overdo it. They do too many mortgage loans, they do too much construction debt. And not just a little bit too much, an egregious amount too much. So let’s take the 08 crisis, mortgage loans in 2002, were 5 trillion in the US by 2007. They’re 10 trade. So they doubled in five years. Well, you had to be a blind man to miss that. Or you had to have economic theories that excluded debt as a variable. And that’s really the way the Mac, the Orthodox macro economics profession looks at the economy, then their models don’t even take debt as a factor. So if you were looking at debt, it was easy to spot. It was egregious. And clearly, it’s one of the things we study.
Gene Tunny 07:16
Okay, so a couple of things that I’d like to discuss, Richard, what do you mean by their models? Don’t consider debt is a factor is that you? Are you saying that they’re too short term that they’re not thinking about the longer term and debt is in the short term, maybe you can get away with a buildup of debt. But in the long term, there can be a reckoning. So I just want to understand exactly what you’re saying there?
Richard Vague 07:41
Well, it’s surprising. But what’s called the DSGE model, which is the core model used by the Federal Reserve and academic economists everywhere, simply does not have bank and other forms of debt as a variable in the model, period. And you know, as as a career banker, I find that shocking. I’m not sure how you can study an economy without studying debt. But that is, in fact, the case. And it’s pervasive in orthodox economics. And that’s the very simple, straightforward reason that, you know, in 2005, and six and seven orthodox economists, were absolutely sanguine about the economy. At the very moment, it was about fall apart.
Gene Tunny 08:35
Yeah, yeah. I understand what you’re saying. And, and that’s true. So you’re talking about these DSGE models, these dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models of the economy. And yet you look at the macro models that the central banks run, and yeah, I mean, they’ve got a lot on inflation expectations on they’ve got their, their Phillips Curve and their Taylor rule. So they’ve got all of these traditional macro economic equations in them. But yeah, I have to look at what our RBA our Reserve Bank of Australia is doing here. But yep, I take your point and understand what you’re saying there. Now, I might have to have another look at that. And, yeah, I mean, I agree about in the lead up to the financial crisis. I mean, what was extraordinary about that I was in the when I was in the treasury at the time. So we were following it from the government perspective, also what was happening in the private sector, of course, because that was relevant to the state of the economy, government revenue, and what we’d have to borrow. But yeah, I remember just how much it did take a lot of people by surprise that suddenly everyone was talking about Hyman Minsky again. And someone who was considered a heterodox economist. And suddenly, everyone’s talking about the Minsky moment. So yeah, very, incredibly revealing time that one. So yeah, that’s more of a comment.
Richard Vague 09:56
Yeah, what I would say is, you know, I spent my career as a financial analyst, you know, as a as a bank executive, as a bank CEO, as in any of these capacities, you look at companies and industries, in the context of a balance sheet and income statement. And all any economy is, is the sum of the individuals and businesses and other institutions, primarily government institutions. In it, you just add those all up, and you have the aggregate balance sheet of the country. And so, you know, not coming up through a traditional economics route. I just took it as a given that the proper way to study an economy is the way I studied businesses and industries as a financial analyst. And this book, The Paradox of debt is that exercise, we just go in, and we look at it the way, you know, a financial analyst would look at it. And you’ll see for all seven of the largest countries in the world, we have assets, liability, income and expense, and we draw conclusions from that.
Gene Tunny 11:12
Okay. From that framework, Richard, what would you say are your key insights, and how that are different from the traditional way of looking at it?
Richard Vague 11:23
Well, one of the key insights is that debt always grows faster than the economy itself. And I spent decades in my banking career not even thinking about that. But to the extent I did, assuming that debt, you know, ebb and flow that it went up went down. But you know, over time, it was in a similar rein. That’s not even remotely true. Debt always grows faster than the economy. And we see that in the seven largest economies in the world that together constitute 60 plus percent of GDP. In the US, you know, circa 1980, debt to GDP, total debt, government debt, and private sector debt was 125% of GDP. Today, it’s more than double that level. So there’s no equilibrium, we are getting more and more leveraged as economic entities. So that’s the first thing that kind of hit you in the face, like a two by four, you know, we’re getting more and more leveraged. One of the other things that really is, you know, a central conclusion of this book, and again, was something that I hadn’t thought about, but is abundantly ever evident from the data is, the more debt you have, the higher the net worth of households go? So in 1980, at the time, you know, total debts 125% household net worth is about, let’s call it 350% of GDP. Here we are, you know, what is it 40 Something years later, debt has doubled. Net Worth, the net worth after subtracting debt of households is now almost 600%. So we should we actually demonstrate in the book that debt increased debt actually causes asset values to go up? And, you know, that’s good news insofar as it goes, but we also see show that it, it severely increases inequality, because the top 10% are the primary asset holders. So they’re seeing their net worth go up, you know, abundantly and folks kind of in the middle class and below, are not seeing increases in their net worth to GDP.
Gene Tunny 13:51
Gotcha. Okay. So yeah, a few things there. The so you talk about the tendency of debt to grow faster than the economy, and you’re talking about both private and public sector debt?
Richard Vague 14:03
The two added together.
Gene Tunny 14:06
Okay. And that you call this a debt staircase? Is that correct?
Richard Vague 14:11
Yeah, we’re very intentional about that, because most people call it the debt cycle. And while that’s, you know, somewhat accurate, it implies that debt returns to the previous level. Well, that essentially never happens. Debt will go up rapidly and then might come down, you know, a little bit it almost never comes down at all, frankly, and only in a calamity. And then it might plateau for a little while, and then it rapidly ascends again, to an entire new level. So we felt like debt cycle in a certain sense was misleading. So debt staircase really talks about we jump up to a new level plateau jump up in either higher level. That’s really been the history of debt in most countries.
Gene Tunny 15:05
Yeah. So I think this is that Ray Dalio, his idea of a debt cycle. I’m trying to remember who you are, I guess plenty of people, commentators talk about a debt cycle and leveraging
Richard Vague 15:16
it’s a natural tendency to think of things going up and down like a sine curve or something.
Gene Tunny 15:21
Yeah gotcha. Okay. Now, I want to go back to this, yeah, this tendency to go more and more into debt. And you mentioned that it does increase net worth. household net worth over time, and it’s increasing inequality. Yeah, I guess I’d probably Yeah, maybe I think too much in terms of the cycle. So I guess the story, many commentators or economists will tell us is the boom bust cycle. And there’s the exuberance, the over exuberance, and there’s too much lending, because there, there’s just too much optimism or frothiness, about the state of the economy and potential investments. And we see this time and time again, whether it’s railroads or whether it’s IT, whether it’s housing, there’s a there’s a new boom, and that’s when all the new debt gets created. So I’m just wondering, but it sounds like it’s not just a boom and bust phenomenon is it, you’re saying that this is something that actually has a there’s a trend increase in, in debt over time,
Richard Vague 16:30
you’re hitting the nail on the head, you know, I think that when people say boom, bust cycle, debt cycle, things like that, they kind of the unspoken implication is things return to the way they were previously. But that’s simply not the case. We instead, we have a boom, we have a bust, but we’re at an entirely new and higher level of leverage or indebtedness.
Gene Tunny 16:58
Hmm. Okay, I might ask you about this, what you call the paradox of debt. In your epilogue, you’ve got a really great summary of what this is. So I’ll just read this out, because I think this is really, really great. “This has revealed the paradox of debt, debt builds household net worth while also increasing inequality is essential for economic growth, and yet in excess leads all but inevitably to periodic economic calamity and stagnation. As a result, the paradox of debt portends the certainty of economic challenges and difficulties going forward, unless we are willing to get creative, and ambitious.” So I think that’s a really great summary of your of your arguments in this book, I want to unpack that I’d like to ask first, could you just explain again, how does this it builds household net worth, I get that because households are borrowing to invest in housing, but also in some other assets. But it also increases inequality. How does that work, Richard? How does it increase inequality at the same time?
Richard Vague 18:11
Well, this gets back to the relative distribution of stocks in real estate. Right now in the United States, household net worth is about $150 trillion. Let’s put that in perspective. Aggregate government debt is 31 trillion. So you can see household net worth really dwarfs anything else, it’s the biggest factor in any economy, and typically somewhere near 70%. So at least 60%, maybe near 70% of all household net worth is two things. Real Estate net of the debt to acquire that real estate, and stocks net of the debt to acquire those stocks. So your wealth really boils down typically, to those two things, your ownership of stocks and real estate. Well, the top 10% of households in the United States own 65% of all the stocks and real estate in the country. The bottom 60% That’s six zero % That’s surely most if not all of the middle class, collectively only own 14% one four % of all the stocks and real estate. So if stocks and real estate values go up, well then inequality by definition increases. And I think that is the fundamental equation in every developed economy. Debt goes up pushing asset values up. And since assets are held unequally, inequality widens.
Gene Tunny 20:04
And is it access to credit to then? And obviously the I guess the wealthier you are, the higher income, the more access, you have to credit. And that allows you to grow your wealth that way?
Richard Vague 20:15
Well, certainly that’s part of it. But even if we took the extreme example, where somebody in the top 10%, you know, had an asset had real estate, and a company selling goods, it is often the debt that the bottom 60% are accruing, or acquiring to buy the goods from the top 10% that contribute to this rising inequality. You know, famously, Apple didn’t really have much debt as a company and still doesn’t. But I guarantee you that the financing that’s provided to its customers, are what allow them to buy all the laptops and Macs and iPhones and, and other goods. I actually was a banker that provided some of that at one point in my career. So it’s the debt of the 60% that are buying the goods owned by from companies owned by the top 10%. That is part of this equation as well.
Gene Tunny 21:18
Right. And that’s, it sounds like that’s a sign that a lot of that is consumer debt. And so it’s not good debt, so to speak. So. Okay, what I want to understand which I’d love to know, your views on to what extent is this a good bet for the different players in the economy? So it sounds like so households seem to be on? Well, so far, they’ve Well, at least the the top 10% And maybe a larger share, they’ve done well out of this out of, you know, borrowing to invest? It’s, it’s been beneficial to them. I mean, that we’ve, you’ve had a housing crash, and you had one in LA, of course. So it’s not always, it’s not always smooth, but in general, have households benefited from it? What about business? I mean, clearly, some businesses have been able to access finance to grow, but then you do mention that, you know, this can lead to periods of economic stagnation. You talk about this debt, there’s a tax buyer, so the debt is favoured in the tax system in the states relative to equity finance. So how do you think about all of this in terms of is it rational to the whole debt? Or is it? How do you think about this? What about for business? And what about for government trying to regulate all of this, the central bank looking at it? I mean, to what extent should we be concerned about this growth of debt? There’s a lot there sorry, that I’m trying to understand the rationality, what your views are on that, please?
Richard Vague 22:52
Well, I would, what we do in the book is we divide debt, private sector debt into two categories. Type one debt and type two debt. And type one debt is debt for spending on new things, you know, and type two debt is spending to acquire an asset. Now, I’m being a little simplest, overly simplistic here. But, you know, from my perspective, if you borrow to go on a vacation, that debts a little bit more problematic, than if you buy you borrow to buy a house, or a company or something like that, you know, you might, you know, buy a small, you know, gift shop, or a retail store, you might borrow to buy a house or buy a rental property, those have a better chance of increasing your wealth, then the debt you incur to buy that motorcycle you’ve always wanted or go on that trip to Haiti, or what have you, and that that’s a little bit too simplistic, but directionally, I think, that would reveal the direction of our thinking about, you know, what debt we would encourage individuals to enter into and not.
Gene Tunny 24:17
Okay, so that’s for individuals, you mentioned this tax, this the tax system and how that works and how it favours debt finance. Is this part of the story? Is this does this mean that companies end up borrowing too much money and then to an extent, they can then invest in unproductive assets? Is this part of the story this, this tax treatment of the debt because of the interest payments are tax deductible and therefore, the other reforms? Is there any reform to that system that you see to the tax system that you you would propose?
Richard Vague 24:56
Well, you know, this is I think, is something that’s been debated endlessly for a long time. But you know, the, what we want to do, I think, and I think this would be true of all of us, I don’t think you’d find a lot of disagreement around this, what we want to do is we want to encourage stock ownership. And what we would like to somewhat avoid is the accumulation of too much debt. The irony is that the tax code would drive us in the opposite direction, because, you know, much of the interest we incur on debt is tax deductible. That’s a little less true than it was a generation ago. But it’s still, you know, broadly true. And at the same time, companies are double taxed, you know, on the stock side of things, so, you know, they’re taxed on earnings, and then the holder of the equity is taxed on dividends, but it’s famously referred to as double taxation. So, you know, I don’t think changing that changes the world irrevocably or radically, but I think at the margin, if we switch that around, you know, and made, you know, took away the tax penalty on the equity side and took away the remainder of the advantage on the borrowing side. At the margin, it would make a difference over time.
Gene Tunny 26:23
Okay, yep. So, so some difference, but it wouldn’t be the it wouldn’t completely solve this.
Richard Vague 26:29
It’s not the magic bullet
Gene Tunny 26:31
Not the magic bullet. Okay. Okay. Fair enough. Right. Well, I want to ask now about back to your, your summary of the paradox of debt. So “paradox of debt portends the certainty of economic challenges and difficulties going forward unless we are willing to get creative and ambitious” first, how bad could those economic challenges get? So when we were talking about risk, see you talk about how this debts leading inevitably to periodic economic calamity, calamity and stagnation? Are you seeing another financial crisis down the track for the US and the global economy?
Richard Vague 27:10
Well, we measure that by how rapidly the escalation in private debt to GDP is in a short period of time. And we do not see that as a problem in the US at the moment. It’s certainly a problem in China. You know, the Evergrande debacle that we all read about this past year was a direct result of an escalation in the equivalent of private so you know, there’s no private sector in China to speak up. But, you know, non government debt or the equivalent of private debt has shot up since 2008, in China in an unprecedented way. And I think one of the things you have there as a result is something on the order of 100 million empty dwellings, buildings were built in the interest of economic growth, that there are overcapacity, and thus, there are no buyers for so, you know, I think most western economies developed economies right now are not in danger of an imminent financial crisis. I think China’s got got its hands full.
Gene Tunny 28:23
Right, right. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Good point about China. I had a guest from the business school in Arizona, I think it was on last year to talk about the enterprise China model where just the close links between the business in China and the the the administration over there, so you know, good, good point about that. What about the regional banking crisis in the US? Is that something you’re concerned about? Richard? That’s something that’s been talked about recently.
Richard Vague 29:00
Yeah, it’s it’s a minor concern. It’s not a major concern. You know, there were some banks that broke the, one of the fundamental laws of banking. In banking, you’re supposed to match the maturity of assets and liabilities. You know, I entered banking as a young cub in the late 1970s. And, you know, I think one of the very first reports I was asked to prepare was the asset and liability matching report. So if it, you know, 5% of your assets, were at a 10 year maturity, then 5% of your liabilities were supposed to be at a 10 year maturity, and if 30% of your assets were at a, you know, one month or less maturity, you know, 30% of your liability, so, it matched so that if interest rates went up or down, the spread between the two would be relatively constant. What you didn’t want to have is a lot of long term assets, five year, ten year twenty year bonds, for example, funded by zero maturity liabilities, checking accounts, basically, or what we call demand deposits in the industry. You didn’t want to have that. Because if interest rates go up sharply, you’re screwed. That’s not a new concept. That’s banking 101. Well, what happened was interest rates were so low, and you had certain institutions like Silicon Valley Bank, who had way more deposits than they needed or should have had. And it was actually a penalty to them, because the yield on those assets was so low. Well, what you do to increase the yield on your excess assets is to buy long bonds. It’s the tempt, it’s like, you know, the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, you’re not supposed to do that. And everybody knows, you’re not supposed to do that. And yet they did it. And they did it in a huge way, they made a huge bet, has nothing to do with credit quality, has nothing to do with, you know, the fundamentals of the banking system as a whole. It represents their falling to the temptation in a in a gigantic way. And they weren’t the only ones. But it’s not so pervasive, that it’s a sustaining threat to the US banking system, it’s, you can go look at any banks, you know, call reports and other financial information. And we know exactly how much of this misbehaviour occurred and which institutions that occurred in and it’ll it’ll hurt, it’ll hurt a few and it’s hurting a few. It does not represent, you know, I’m gonna put a put a dimension on it. It’s a several 100 billion dollar problem in in an industry that has well over 2 trillion in capital, so it’s not a sustainable growth.
Gene Tunny 32:05
Okay. Okay. That’s, that’s fair enough. I’ll go back to your points on the paradox of debt. Yes, the creative and ambitious solutions you talk about, one of the things you talk about is a debt jubilee? Could you please explain what you mean by that, Richard?
Richard Vague 32:23
Yeah, this is, this is a hard problem. If as the evidence shows, debt always grows faster than GDP, You’ve almost got an engineering problem. You know, it’s as if you were designing an engine, and you found out after you had built it, that the temperature of that engine grows perpetually? Well, as an engineer, you could predict that that engine is going to explode from time to time. So you would introduce some kind of exhaust system or heat valve escape system to try to combat or overcome the perpetual increase in the temperature of that engine. I think we’ve got the same problem. You know, in modern developed economies, they always get more leverage. And so we’ve got, you know, put put your ideology aside put, you know, put all you’ve learned aside, you’ve got a problem here. And, and unless we solve it, we’re going to continue to have a couple of things happen, we’re going to have periodic crises. And we’re going to continue to have a slower and slower economic growth, as businesses and individuals get, you know, what I would call stultified by high levels of death. That leaves you with kind of only one solution, and that is ways of taking away debts that do not involve paying down that debt. Because paying down debt and aggregate just produces GDP, right. So we get into this quite a bit in the book. But there’s no easy way to do this. So I propose, you know, I kind of go out on a limb and try and propose some areas that maybe hopefully will provoke some thinking. So for example, student debt, which has gone from in the United States, a couple of 100 billion dollars to over one and a half trillion dollars really within a very short period of time. So you got all these students who graduate and then you know, lug around too much student debt for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years of their life. How about a programme where even I don’t support a programme of just forgiving all that debt, because it penalises the folks that were that did pay their debt. But I do think a programme whereby we let them do you know, a certain amount of voluntary community or civic work, you know, over, you know, five or 10 year period as a way to get relief on their student debt is something that we could consider. So, right now, if you graduate with student debt, and you enter government service, and you stay there for 10 years and you make 10 years worth of payments, you get whatever’s remaining of your student debt forgiven? Well, let’s, let’s create something that’s similar to that for the private sector. If you did 800 hours of community service, let’s say, after 10 years, the remainder of your student debt would be gone. That’s what I mean, when I say let’s get creative. Let’s try to think of ways to do this.
Gene Tunny 35:43
Okay, we’ll take a short break here for a word from our sponsor.
Female speaker 35:48
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Gene Tunny 36:18
Now back to the show. So debt jubilee is about debt forgiveness in in some form or another and there might be some community service for two so people could reduce their student debt. What about a more broader programme of debt forgiveness? Is that what you’re proposing in the private sector debt banks forgiving part of the debt? How does it all work?
Richard Vague 36:44
Here’s another idea. Because like I said, I stopped short of just getting a magic wand out and forgiving everyone debt, which, by the way, is what in ancient civilizations, rulers would do. And I think, you know, guys like Michael Hudson and your countrymen, Mike, Steve Keen and others have have talked about, you know, this is Hammurabi, this is Ancient Egypt, this is even ancient China. We don’t have that luxury. So let’s get creative. And, you know, another possible programme would be, after the ’08 crisis, when, you know, it was probably on the order of 15 million mortgages in the United States that were underwater by 10% or more. How about kind of a debt debt to equity exchange, you know, if the lender would write the mortgage down to the new current market value, appraised value. So maybe you bought a house that was 300,000. And now it’s only worth 200,000, you’ve still got a $300,000 mortgage? If the lender will write it down to that new value, and write your payments down proportionately? Well, then you would, in exchange, give the lender certain ownership of the house, which would be realised only on the event of a sale of the house. So they would get the upside. And the way the government could facilitate that is by going to the lender and saying, if you do this, we won’t make you take that as a hit against earnings in the current period. We’ll let you amortise that over, pick a number 30 years. So it’s kind of a win win win at that point that the bank deals with problem loans, the individual gets a lower payment. And the lender has the potential upside down the road if the house is sold.
Gene Tunny 38:49
Okay. Okay. So you’re talking about something that is voluntary, you’re not going to compel banks or lenders to to forgive part of their loans or force them into restructuring your you want this voluntary, but there may be some policy tweaks that could facilitate this restructuring. Is that the argument that you’re making, Richard?
Richard Vague 39:12
Yeah, to make it real, legislatively realistic or feasible? You, you have to construct it. So it there’s something in it for everybody.
Gene Tunny 39:22
Gotcha. Gotcha. And I think one of the interesting points you make is that, look, debt’s a contract. Do you quote, Dave Graeber on this, if I remember correctly, and look, these things get renegotiated. Well, throughout history, we see various periods in which there’s restructuring of debt. I mean, what’s extraordinary is that, you know, some countries seem to the periodically defaulting or and then there’s restructuring and then the banks keep lend to them 20 years later, and then you go through the same thing.
Richard Vague 39:55
Yeah contracts are contracts, you know that you know, if you are a data servicing provider and somebody wants you to write a programme and have it done by August 1, and you don’t have it done by August 1, you haven’t done by the following February. That’s not a moral failure. And, you know, but somehow, and folks like Hudson would argue for good reason. People have conflated morality with performance in a commercial contract. So if an individual doesn’t repay their debt, that’s, that’s a moral flaw or moral moral failing. Well, in my career, I was in banking for 37 years and debt contracts with companies get renegotiated all the time, you know, the company, you know, was manufacturing XYZ product and a competitor came along selling for half of what XYZ was being sold for, and we all knew that this debt was never going to repay. And if we absolutely enforced that repayment, we would cause the company to fail and get zero of our money back. Well, instead, we restructured the note so that we get paid half of what we rode back, the country could company could survive and compete. So you know, a rational restructuring of debt goes on in the banking industry all the time, all day, every day. And I think the light bulb that went on for me was, you know, 10 years or so ago when David Graeber’s book, delightful book, you know, ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’ and he, and he just says, you know, this is not a moral issue. This is a contractual issue.
Gene Tunny 41:43
Yeah, yeah. Want to ask, What about the policy changes? So you in a official position, you’re in a very senior position in Pennsylvania, but I imagine that this would require a federal change regulatory or legislative changes do have you thought about what, what could be done at a policy level to help smooth things to help make it easier to help make it easier for restructuring to to help households and businesses deal with this higher debt that that we’ve seen?
Richard Vague 42:19
I think the federal regulators in the Fed in particular have this ability. And there are a couple of famous instances of this. And to me, the most famous and applicable would have been in the early 1980s, when the New York money centre banks had been making lots of loans to less developed countries, the predominance of which were in South America. And, you know, they got to a point where the what were called LDC or less developed country debt was equal to, I think so, you know, well over 100%, of the capital of those New York money centre banks. So, you know, 150, 100, and the number that comes to mind is 170% was a big, big number, such that when things turn because of interest rates and the rising price of oil, if the regulator’s had come in and enforced their normal rules, all the New York banks would have failed, which, you know, by the way, would not have been a good thing for the country for, New York, for anybody. And so Paul Volcker, one of the giants of economic history came in, this was in the days before Twitter, and all those other ways in which information leaks, so porously, called those bankers into a room and said, We’re not going you know, you kind of put a fence around this, we’re not going to deduct these loans, from, you know, our analysis of your capital reserve adequacy. But you guys better get busy. And over the next several years, all your earnings ought to go towards building up reserves, again, so much of this as you can muster over the next few years. And then whenever you get a big enough cushion, we want you to write it down. That is exactly the kind of thing and by the way, they did this in a more structured and overt way relative to the savings and loan industry, which at that exact time had a very similar problem. That’s a way the regulators can step in the case of the LDCs. It was a regulatory matter. In the case of the same Solomons, it was actually a legislative matter. But those are ways you can do this. And sure enough, but I can I think it was 86 or 87 when Citibank announced a billion dollar write down of its LDC debt? Well, it shocked the world. But it related to a conversation that actually been held four years earlier. And for Citibank to do that was actually an announcement, they were now in good shape, rather than an announcement that they were in bad shape. They’d been forced do the same thing in 82 they would have failed. They had four years worth of earnings to cushion that. And it was it was actually a positive cleanup sign.
Gene Tunny 45:30
Yeah, yeah. So just, just to be clear, I mean, the reason I’m just just want to make sure I understand this properly in your, in your view as a banker, so what’s the, how are bankers looking at this when they do agree to a restructure or write down, they’re figuring that we can extend the term of the loan, or maybe we can cut the interest rate, or we take a haircut ourselves, we write down some of the value, they figure that well, this makes it more likely that they’ll actually be able to pay us back the full amount is that they’ll survive? Is that the logic from a bankers perspective?
Richard Vague 46:03
Yeah, if you’re the banker, the first thing, let’s just say it’s $100,000 write down, if you’re allowed to take that over 30 years, the hit to earnings this year is what? Roughly $3,000 instead of $100,000. You know, the second thing I would do in that case, is let them take the full deduction for a tax standpoint, because you know, most companies have regulatory accounting and tax accounting are two separate things. So they don’t have to take it, from a regulatory standpoint, they get to take it from a tax standpoint. So probably from a current earnings standpoint, at that point, they’re just fine. But in the meantime, the consumer who was struggling with their, you know, their loan now has a loan, they can make payments on adequately. So they they go from having a credit that is a troubled, questionable credit, to a credit, that is a solid credit. As it relates to the consumer, the household, they now have breathing room, they can go back to being kind of a regular participant in the economy, they now have a little extra money not only to make their payment, but to go on vacation and go out to restaurants and this that the other. And their give up is seven years down the road when they sell their house and they they get a gain of you know, $50,000 or whatever they might have give a third or a half of that to the bank, whatever they negotiated. So it makes it comfortable and possible for everyone. That’s why think of it is kind of a win win win.
Gene Tunny 47:50
Yeah. Okay. Very good. Richard, we’re coming to the end of our time. Any final thoughts, any additional thoughts on what other policy measures may be desirable? Or that you’re someone who’s concerned about the inequality in the US? And, you know, clearly that has grown over the last few decades? Are there any other policy measures you’d be recommending to address that?
Richard Vague 48:14
Well, I would make the observation that if the bottom 60% of the US population only holds 14% of the stocks and real estate, that you can probably afford to actually give tax incentives? You know, because we talked earlier about just modifying the penalties. But how about a tax credit, if you buy stock or a tax credit, if you buy real estate, for those, that bottom 60% It’s such a small number, that you have the room to do that without affecting the tax receipts of the government by much, if any, might actually be a positive there. So I make the point that there’s the latitude to create incentives for accumulating asset ownership among that group that we could be taking advantage of that will probably that we’re not. And there’s other things in that final chapter that we touch on too. And they may all be terrible ideas. Hopefully, some of them are good ideas. But, you know, having set up the problem in the first 90% of the book, we we take a stab at, you know, maybe some ways to deal with it in the last chapter.
Gene Tunny 49:29
Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, we talked about forgiveness or the debt jubilee as a possibility, renegotiations. Then you mentioned some, you’re trying to encourage asset ownership and then there are some others one other one or two that you you’d like to highlight.
Richard Vague 49:45
You know, it kind of kind of gets off the subject a little bit, but I put it in there anyway. I think there needs to be massive job training because if you want the bottom 60% to accumulate assets, you got to give them a little more income. We got a situation in the US that I think it’s parallel, at least to a certain extent elsewhere, that we’ve got a lot of jobs that need training that are going unfilled. We got a lot of under under employed people that don’t don’t qualify for that job that feels to me like a perfect place for government to step in, in conjunction with the private sector, and especially the companies and underwrite that, you know, I think it’s kind of the spiritual equivalent of, in the US what we call the GI Bill, where after World War Two, we underwrote college education for pretty much all the returning soldiers. And I think that helped fuel the increased size of the middle class and the 50s and 60s, I think there’s that opportunity here.
Gene Tunny 50:47
Okay. Well, Richard, thanks so much. And I’ll put a link in the show notes to your book. And yeah, I’d encourage people to buy it and read it. So it’s published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Richard Vague 51:16
Gene Tunny 51:18
Very good. So very distinguished publisher, and yeah, well researched, and lots of lots of good facts and figures. And yeah, very interesting analysis. And, but very good. But Richard, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it. And good luck with the book sales. Yes. And I hope you, you get a lot of a lot of readers and a lot of people are engaging with you on the issues, and I certainly enjoyed our conversation. So again, thanks so much.
Richard Vague 51:29
It’s a privilege and I’m all thanks go to you.
Gene Tunny 51:32
Very good. Thanks, Richard.
Richard Vague 51:36
Gene Tunny 51:39
Righto, thanks for listening to this episode of Economics Explored. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org Or a voicemail via SpeakPipe. You can find the link in the show notes. If you’ve enjoyed the show, I’d be grateful if you could tell anyone you think would be interested about it. Word of mouth is one of the main ways that people learn about the show. Finally, if your podcasting app lets you then please write a review and leave a rating. Thanks for listening. I hope you can join me again next week.
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