Friday, June 25, 2010

The Debt Problem(s)

The Economist is known for its excellent coverage of a wide variety of topics. The recent debt crisis is no exception. It just published a special report on the crisis, and it has a number of very good articles. I'm not going to review them all, but I will recommend three of them.

The first, Repent at Leisure, is an excellent overview of debt and explains how borrowing has been a mainstay of personal action and government policy for at least 25 years.

Part two is titled The Morning After, and focuses consumer debt. In some ways, the most telling aspect of the article may lie in its opening paragraph, when a British software developer realizes he has a problem with his credit card bills. His comment is "if they are going to give it to me," referring to the credit line, "I must be able to afford it." It reflects a level of responsibility and self-awareness that is disturbing. And many consumers are guilty of it, willing to shift the fault from to the credit granters. But as Shakespeare might have said of this situation, "The fault lies not in our banks, but in ourselves if we are in debt."

In a Hole is the third article I want to draw your attention to. This one examines the limited options facing nations with large debt overhang, ranging from inflation to slower growth. It does not present any attractive alternatives, and as such could lend itself to a classroom exercise examining choice at the policy level.

All of these articles, as well as the others in the section, link to an interactive graphic that examines debt levels across fourteen countries, showing not only aggregate debt as a percentage of GDP, but breaking down to household, government, financial and non-financial debt. The graphic alone is worth your time. Please share your thoughts.

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