Weighed down by debt? Revisiting the link between corporate debt overhang and investment

Bruno Albuquerque

Prior to the Covid-19 (Covid) shock hitting the world economy in March 2020, concerns about US corporate debt sustainability were on the radar of the media and policymakers. Corporates had been accumulating debt at a rapid pace, leading to a record-high debt level of 47% of GDP in 2019. To what extent may the accumulation of debt amplify the ongoing crisis, and delay the US recovery? And what can we learn from past episodes of firm-specific debt booms? In a new paper, I revisit these questions using data for a large panel of US firms from the mid-1980s to just before the pandemic. I find that persistent debt booms led financially constrained firms to cut back on investment, across both capital expenditures and intangible assets.

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Battle of the exchange funds

Max Harris

This post contributes to our occasional series of guest posts by external researchers who have used the Bank of England’s archives for their work on subjects outside traditional central banking topics.

When Britain created the Exchange Equalisation Account (EEA) in 1932, its designers had little sense of the controversy that would ensue. The previous year, Britain had suspended gold convertibility, and the volatile capital flows that followed convinced officials that they needed a tool for managing the exchange rate. The EEA – originally a fund solely for foreign exchange interventions (its remit is broader now) – seemed not only necessary but eminently reasonable. To a world in the throes of depression, however, it looked like a means to weaken sterling and reap a competitive advantage. America responded by establishing the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF) in what many viewed as another escalation in the conflict that was tearing the international monetary system apart.

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Central banks and history: a troubled relationship

Barry Eichengreen

The Bank of England co-organised a ‘History and Policy Making Conference‘ in late 2020. This guest post by Barry Eichengreen, Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California Berkley, is based on material included in his keynote address at the conference.

Learning from history is hard. At central banks, it can be hard to draw policymakers’ attention to historical evidence. Even when historical analogies are at the forefront of their minds, the right analogies are not always applied in the right way. In fact, over-reliance on a small number of compelling historical case studies can lead to suboptimal decisions. Policymakers therefore need access to a wide portfolio of analogies. They must also cultivate an historical sensibility that is suspicious of simplification and alert to the differences – as well as the similarities – between ‘now’ and ‘then’.

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Can sectoral supply shocks have aggregate demand consequences?

Ambrogio Cesa-Bianchi and Andrea Ferrero

Restrictions on activity to curb the spread of Covid-19 led to a shutdown of specific parts of the economy. These lockdown measures can be thought of as a shock that suddenly decreases the supply of affected sectors, which lowers output and increases their price. Guerrieri et al (2020) propose a theoretical model of ‘Keynesian supply shocks’ where a sectoral supply shock triggers knock-on effects on demand in other sectors which, if strong enough, can lead to a fall in aggregate prices and output – thus resembling an aggregate demand shock. In a recent paper, we provide empirical evidence supporting this hypothesis using pre-Covid data. Our results suggest a different way to look at the Covid crisis and business cycles in general.

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Household debt and consumption revisited

Philip Bunn and May Rostom

The academic literature finds that the build-up of household debt before the 2008 financial crisis is linked to weaker consumption afterwards. But there is wider debate over the mechanisms at play. One strand of literature emphasises debt overhang acting through the level of leverage. Others find it was over-optimism acting through leverage growth. In this post, we revisit our previous analysis on leverage and consumption in the UK using synthetic cohort analysis. The correlation between leverage measures and their link to other macroeconomic variables mean it’s challenging to tease out their effects. Yet we find that whilst both mechanisms played a role, there is evidence that debt overhang linked to a tighter credit constraints was the bigger driver.

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Monetary policy, sectoral comovement and the credit channel

Federico Di Pace and Christoph Görtz

There is ample evidence that a monetary policy tightening triggers a decline in consumer price inflation and a simultaneous contraction in investment and consumption (eg Erceg and Levin (2006) and Monacelli (2009)). However, in a standard two-sector New Keynesian model, consumption falls while investment increases in response to a monetary policy tightening. In a new paper, we propose a solution to this problem, known as the ‘comovement puzzle’. Guided by new empirical evidence on the relevance of frictions in credit provision, we show that adding these frictions to the standard model resolves the comovement puzzle. This has important policy implications because the degree of comovement between consumption and investment matters for the effectiveness of monetary policy.

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Do large and small banks need different prudential rules?

Austen Saunders and Matthew Willison

Banks come in different shapes and sizes. Do prudential regulations that work well for big banks work as well for small ones? To help us find out, we measure the effectiveness of some key regulatory ratios as predictors of bank failure. We do so using ‘receiver operating characteristic’ – or ‘ROC’ – analysis of simple threshold rules. When we do this, we find that we can use the ratios we test to make better predictions for large banks than for small ones. This provides evidence that an efficient set of regulations for large banks might not be as efficient for small ones.

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Slow recoveries, endogenous growth and macroprudential policy

Dario Bonciani, David Gauthier and Derrick Kanngiesser

Following the global financial crisis in 2008, central banks around the world introduced tighter banking regulations to increase the resilience of the financial sector and reduce the risks of severe financial disruptions during economic downturns. This fact has motivated a large body of literature to assess the role that macroprudential (MacroPru) policies play in mitigating the severity of recessions. One common finding is that the benefits of MacroPru are relatively minor within standard dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models. In a new paper, we show that MacroPru becomes significantly more important in a model that accounts for the long-term negative consequences of financial disruptions.

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Does corporate leverage amplify economic downturns? A dive into the literature

Sudipto Karmakar, Alexandra Varadi and Sarah Venables

This post reviews the literature on the consequences of debt for corporate and macroeconomic outcomes, drawing both on the pandemic period and on previous financial crises. Lessons from previous crises show that high leverage can amplify corporate risks and economic downturns by: increasing reliance on external financing that may dry up in stress; through debt overhang problems; or by increasing linkages between corporates and other sectors of the economy. Corporate debt may also be correlated with negative outcomes in the pandemic as well, but it is still early to draw direct conclusions.

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What do two million accounts tell us about the impact of Covid-19 on small businesses?

James Hurley, Sudipto Karmakar, Elena Markoska, Eryk Walczak and Danny Walker

Compass on old map

This post is the second of a series of posts about the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on business activity.

Covid-19 led to a sharp reduction in economic activity in the UK. As the shock was playing out, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) were expected to be more exposed than larger businesses. But until now, we have not had the data to analyse the impact on SMEs. In a recent Staff Working Paper we use a new data set containing monthly information on the current accounts of two million UK SMEs. We show that the average SME saw a very large drop in turnover growth and that the crisis played out very differently for different types of SMEs. The youngest SMEs in consumer-facing sectors in Scotland and London were hit hardest.

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