Imagine a world without debt

By Edward Hadas
August 7, 2013

I have a dream: a world without debt, and with much more equity. It’s not just that summer holidays are a good time for fantasising. The fifth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy is a month away, and regulators have recently forced both Deutsche Bank and Barclays to issue more shares.

Some regulators’ beach thoughts may drift to the magic numbers of bank capital ratios. My approach is less technical and more philosophical. I wonder why the financial system relies so much on debt. Loans and bonds are poorly designed for their primary economic purpose – investment.

This observation may sound shocking. Interest-bearing debt is considered totally normal. Financial theory unquestioningly treats risk-free debt as the standard instrument. Savers usually compare all investments to a similar standard: safe bank accounts which pay a steady interest rate.

But a little reflection on the real economy shows that the typical debt arrangement is an unfortunate holdover from a more primitive age. Loans are unnecessarily distant from economic reality. If we were starting now, we would never rely on such rigid instruments to fund investments.

To start, loans carry a maturity mismatch, because temporary debt funds permanent investments. Depositors can take money out of banks, banks can pull lines of credit and loans are supposed to be repaid or refinanced at maturity. But the factories the credit finances cannot then be unbuilt. The research cannot be undone and the people cannot be untrained.

The way that interest rates are usually fixed in advance is another problem. Unless both sides agree on floating rates, loans are bets on future inflation rates. Sometimes borrowers gain, sometimes lenders do, but either way a totally unnecessary risk is created.

The most important problem with debt is the so-called economic mismatch: the interest payments on loans vary much less than borrowers’ cashflows. Temporary difficulties can lead basically sound companies to skimp on economically valuable investments, or to default.

Banks are supposed to be able to absorb the losses from defaults. They charge riskier borrowers higher interest rates, a burden which makes default more likely. They also have a hierarchy for taking losses. Shareholders lose out first, followed by holders of subordinated debt. In most countries, the government comes to the rescue when losses get really large.

The arrangements are complicated and uncertain – thus the debate over how much capital banks need. The problem, though, is largely created by the duality of loans: either good or bad. If borrowers’ payments were more flexible – lower and higher depending on economic conditions – banks could have financial structures which were both simpler and sounder.

What is needed? Financial instruments which have no maturity, which are protected from inflation and which have variable payments. There’s nothing fantastic about that wish list. Common shares tick all the boxes.

Then why don’t common shares, or something like them, dominate finance? Well, the disadvantages of debt are clear, but it has one crucial advantage: a crude but clear duality. It is easy to tell whether counterparties are living up to the loan terms, so strangers can deal with each other relatively easily.

In contrast, equity only works if the companies that receive the funds can be trusted to make fair judgments on how much to pay investors. Within families and other tight-knit groups, the tug of loyalty and the desire to avoid shame promote the necessary honesty. Much more is needed for shares in enterprises run by strangers to be trustworthy: bureaucratic competence, effective governments and powerful auditors.

Today’s developed economies meet those requirements, but they still rely extensively on debt. The refusal to relegate this obsolete tool to the dustbin of history helps explain the peculiar vulnerability of modern economies to financial distress. With a more resilient financial system, it would not take more than five years to recover fully from the failure of a single big bank.

Indeed, with an equity-based financial system, leverage – effectively building large debt structures on small equity foundations – would be almost impossible. Instead of making unrealistic promises of safe nominal returns, banks would offer a plausible commitment of fair real returns. They would fail far less often than now, and far less spectacularly.

Common stock in its current form is not a suitable replacement for debt. Something new is needed; call it flexi-debt. Unlike shares, flexi-debt would not give funders voting rights. And while dividends on shares are discretionary, flexi-debt payments would be indexed – to GDP, income or some other objective variable.

There is many winters’ worth of work to be done before flexi-debt could replace standard debt. Education, financial design, law and experiment are all required. But stable finance need not be a pipe dream.

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