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At the Heart of the Matter: Household Debt in Contemporary Banking and the International Crisis

Paulo Dos Santos

Discussion Papers from Research on Money and Finance

Abstract: This paper considers the nature and role of household indebtedness in contemporary banking and the current financial and economic crises. It offers a concise empirical exposition of the centrality of household lending and related financial services to leading banking institutions and to the credit systems of a number of advanced and middle-income economies. It also offers socioeconomic characterizations of this debt and its macroeconomic significance from the standpoint of Marxist political economy, affording two distinctive insights. First, the concrete social content of household debt over the past two decades has helped ensure this lending remained highly profitable to lenders, making it a natural vehicle for destabilizing capital-market competition. Second, a crisis characterized by record levels of over-indebted wage-earning households is likely to pose distinctive difficulties to a process of market-based recovery. While the destruction of capital values during a crisis lays the basis for the eventual restoration of profitability and solvency for some enterprises, over-indebted wage-earning households face no analogous opportunity. Without new speculative asset-price bubbles, the restoration of their financial stability hinges on reductions in consumption or increases in wages, both of which present obstacles to a market-based process of economic recovery.

Date: 2009
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