Financialization, Household Credit and Economic Slowdown in the U.S.

Deepankar Basu

Between 1948 and 1973, real GDP for the U.S. (measured in 2005 chained dollars) economy grew at a compound annual average rate of about 3:98 percent per annum; between 1973 and 2010, the corresponding growth rate was only 2:72 per cent per annum. While the 25 year period of high growth after the Second World War has, with some justification, earned the epithet of the “Golden Age” of capitalism, the period of relative stagnation since the mid-1970s has been characterized by heterodox economists as a neoliberal capitalist regime (Dum´enil and L´evy, 2004, 2011; Harvey, 2005; Kotz, 2009).

Three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism have attracted lot of scholarly attention. First is the marked trend towards growing financialization of the economy, by which is meant a growing weight of financial activities in the aggregate economy. Figure 1 presents some well-known evidence, for the period 1961-2010, in support of this claim. The top left panel plots the share of value added that is contributed by the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector in the value added by the total private sector of the U.S. economy: between 1961 and 2008, the contribution of the FIRE sector increased steadily from about 16 per cent to roughly 25 percent. The top right panel gives the share of financial sector profit in total domestic profit income in the U.S. economy, which shows a steady increase since the early 1970s (interrupted briefly in the early 1980s). It is only during the financial crisis in 2007-2008 that this share declined for a brief period; it is noteworthy that the share started a rapid ascent in 2009, and has recovered much of its loss since then. The two figures in the bottom panel provide evidence, for the period 1988-2009, of the growing size of the stock market: both stock market capitalization and total value traded, as a proportion of nominal GDP, has trended up since the late 1980s, providing clear evidence of the growth of financial relative to real activity.

The second notable characteristic of the neoliberal regime has been the veritable explosion of the flow of credit (and the build-up of the stock of debt) in the economy. One important dimension of the growth of credit has been the unprecedented increase in the credit flowing to (working class) households. Figure 2 presents evidence in support of both these claims by plotting the time series of outstanding debt (measured as total credit market liabilities) of three crucial sector of the U.S. economy: the nonfinancial business sector, the household sector, and financial business sector. While the business sectors display an increasing trend since the early 1960s (along with large fluctuations at business cycle frequencies), the household sector debt starts a secular rise since the early 1980s (with almost no business cycle fluctuations), and the financial business sector also displays a secular rise till the onset of the Great Recession. The last chart in Figure 2 plots the time series of the ratio of outstanding household debt and outstanding debt of the nonfinancial business sector. The ratio shows a clear upward trend since the mid-1970s, with household debt increasing from about 85 percent of nonfinancial business debt in the mid-1970s to about 140 percent just prior to the start of the Great Recession.

The third important characteristic of neoliberal capitalism has been stagnation of real wages for the bulk of the working class. In the face of rising productivity, this has entailed a massive redistribution of income away from working class households, leading to widening income and wealth inequality. Figure 3 presents evidence in support of this claim. The top panel plots an index of productivity (measured real output per hour) in the total nonfarm business sector of the U.S. economy. There is an increasing trend in productivity over time, with a marked acceleration in growth since the mid-1990s. This is in sharp contrast to the evolution of real wages of production and nonsupervisory workers plotted in the bottom panel, who comprise about 80 percent of the U.S. workforce. The hourly real wage has barely increased between the early 1970s and the late 2000s; the weekly real wage has in fact declined during this period.

The main question that this paper wishes to explore is the possible connections between the slowdown in economic growth on the one hand and the three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism on the other? Heterodox economists have been interested in this question for at least the last three decades, and the main contribution of this paper is to extend that literature by presenting a theoretical model to address this question. Building on and extending Foley (1982, 1986a), this paper develops a discrete-time Marxian circuit of capital model to analyze the link between financialization, nonproduction credit and economic growth. It is demonstrated that increasing financialization and the growth of household credit (a component of nonproduction credit) can reduce the growth rate of a capitalist economy. Hence, this paper offers a novel explanation, rooted in a Marxian circuit of capital macroeconomic analysis, for the slowdown of the U.S. economy during the neoliberal era.

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