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Article

Florian Exler and Michèle Tertilt

Consumer debt is an important means for consumption smoothing. In the United States, 70% of households own a credit card, and 40% borrow on it. When borrowers cannot (or do not want to) repay their debts, they can declare bankruptcy, which provides additional insurance in tough times. Since the 2000s, up to 1.5% of households declared bankruptcy per year. Clearly, the option to default affects borrowing interest rates in equilibrium. Consequently, when assessing (welfare) consequences of different bankruptcy regimes or providing policy recommendations, structural models with equilibrium default and endogenous interest rates are needed. At the same time, many questions are quantitative in nature: the benefits of a certain bankruptcy regime critically depend on the nature and amount of risk that households bear. Hence, models for normative or positive analysis should quantitatively match some important data moments. Four important empirical patterns are identified: First, since 1950, consumer debt has risen constantly, and it amounted to 25% of disposable income by 2016. Defaults have risen since the 1980s. Interestingly, interest rates remained roughly constant over the same time period. Second, borrowing and default clearly depend on age: both measures exhibit a distinct hump, peaking around 50 years of age. Third, ownership of credit cards and borrowing clearly depend on income: high-income households are more likely to own a credit card and to use it for borrowing. However, this pattern was stronger in the 1980s than in the 2010s. Finally, interest rates became more dispersed over time: the number of observed interest rates more than quadrupled between 1983 and 2016. These data have clear implications for theory: First, considering the importance of age, life cycle models seem most appropriate when modeling consumer debt and default. Second, bankruptcy must be costly to support any debt in equilibrium. While many types of costs are theoretically possible, only partial repayment requirements are able to quantitatively match the data on filings, debt levels, and interest rates simultaneously. Third, to account for the long-run trends in debts, defaults, and interest rates, several quantitative theory models identify a credit expansion along the intensive and extensive margin as the most likely source. This expansion is a consequence of technological advancements. Many of the quantitative macroeconomic models in this literature assess welfare effects of proposed reforms or of granting bankruptcy at all. These welfare consequences critically hinge on the types of risk that households face—because households incur unforeseen expenditures, not-too-stringent bankruptcy laws are typically found to be welfare superior to banning bankruptcy (or making it extremely costly) but also to extremely lax bankruptcy rules. There are very promising opportunities for future research related to consumer debt and default. Newly available data in the United States and internationally, more powerful computational resources allowing for more complex modeling of household balance sheets, and new loan products are just some of many promising avenues.

Article

African financial history is often neglected in research on the history of global financial systems, and in its turn research on African financial systems in the past often fails to explore links with the rest of the world. However, African economies and financial systems have been linked to the rest of the world since ancient times. Sub-Saharan Africa was a key supplier of gold used to underpin the monetary systems of Europe and the North from the medieval period through the 19th century. It was West African gold rather than slaves that first brought Europeans to the Atlantic coast of Africa during the early modern period. Within sub-Saharan Africa, currency and credit systems reflected both internal economic and political structures as well as international links. Before the colonial period, indigenous currencies were often tied to particular trades or trade routes. These systems did not immediately cease to exist with the introduction of territorial currencies by colonial governments. Rather, both systems coexisted, often leading to shocks and localized crises during periods of global financial uncertainty. At independence, African governments had to contend with a legacy of financial underdevelopment left from the colonial period. Their efforts to address this have, however, been shaped by global economic trends. Despite recent expansion and innovation, limited financial development remains a hindrance to economic growth.

Article

Maria Soledad Martinez Peria and Mu Yang Shin

The link between financial inclusion and human development is examined here. Using cross-country data, the behavior of variables that try to capture these concepts is examined and preliminary evidence of a positive association is offered. However, because establishing a causal relationship with macro-data is difficult, a thorough review of the literature on the impact of financial inclusion, focusing on micro-studies that can better address identification is conducted. The literature generally distinguishes between different dimensions of financial inclusion: access to credit, access to bank branches, and access to saving instruments (i.e., accounts). Despite promising results from a first wave of studies, the impact of expanding access to credit seems limited at best, with little evidence of transformative effects on human development outcomes. While there is more promising evidence on the impact of expanding access to bank branches and formal saving instruments, studies show that some interventions such as one-time account opening subsidies are unlikely to have a sizable impact on social and economic outcomes. Instead well-designed interventions catering to individuals’ specific needs in different contexts seem to be required to realize the full potential of formal financial services to enrich human lives.

Article

The links of international reserves, exchange rates, and monetary policy can be understood through the lens of a modern incarnation of the “impossible trinity” (aka the “trilemma”), based on Mundell and Fleming’s hypothesis that a country may simultaneously choose any two, but not all, of the following three policy goals: monetary independence, exchange rate stability, and financial integration. The original economic trilemma was framed in the 1960s, during the Bretton Woods regime, as a binary choice of two out of the possible three policy goals. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, emerging markets and developing countries found that deeper financial integration comes with growing exposure to financial instability and the increased risk of “sudden stop” of capital inflows and capital flight crises. These crises have been characterized by exchange rate instability triggered by countries’ balance sheet exposure to external hard currency debt—exposures that have propagated banking instabilities and crises. Such events have frequently morphed into deep internal and external debt crises, ending with bailouts of systemic banks and powerful macro players. The resultant domestic debt overhang led to fiscal dominance and a reduction of the scope of monetary policy. With varying lags, these crises induced economic and political changes, in which a growing share of emerging markets and developing countries converged to “in-between” regimes in the trilemma middle range—that is, managed exchange rate flexibility, controlled financial integration, and limited but viable monetary autonomy. Emerging research has validated a modern version of the trilemma: that is, countries face a continuous trilemma trade-off in which a higher trilemma policy goal is “traded off” with a drop in the weighted average of the other two trilemma policy goals. The concerns associated with exposure to financial instability have been addressed by varying configurations of managing public buffers (international reserves, sovereign wealth funds), as well as growing application of macro-prudential measures aimed at inducing systemic players to internalize the impact of their balance sheet exposure on a country’s financial stability. Consequently, the original trilemma has morphed into a quadrilemma, wherein financial stability has been added to the trilemma’s original policy goals. Size does matter, and there is no way for smaller countries to insulate themselves fully from exposure to global cycles and shocks. Yet successful navigation of the open-economy quadrilemma helps in reducing the transmission of external shock to the domestic economy, as well as the costs of domestic shocks. These observations explain the relative resilience of emerging markets—especially in countries with more mature institutions—as they have been buffered by deeper precautionary management of reserves, and greater fiscal and monetary space. We close the discussion noting that the global financial crisis, and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, have shown that no country is immune from exposure to financial instability and from the modern quadrilemma. However, countries with mature institutions, deeper fiscal capabilities, and more fiscal space may substitute the reliance on costly precautionary buffers with bilateral swap lines coordinated among their central banks. While the benefits of such arrangements are clear, they may hinge on the presence and credibility of their fiscal backstop mechanisms, and on curbing the resultant moral hazard. Time will test this credibility, and the degree to which risk-pooling arrangements can be extended to cover the growing share of emerging markets and developing countries.