Life Without Debt Will Be Stern

DEBT is as powerful a drug as alcohol and nicotine. In boom times Western consumers used it to enhance their lifestyles, companies borrowed to expand their businesses and investors employed debt to enhance their returns. For as long as the boom lasted, Mr Micawber’s famous injunction appeared to be wrong: when annual expenditure exceeded income, the result was happiness, not misery.

A rich world with less debt would look very different. Banks are already facing demands for higher capital ratios (and thus safer balance-sheets). Western consumers, facing higher taxes and lower benefits, will no longer have the freedom to spend; indeed, they will want to save more as they face long retirements. Sarah Jessica Parker and her Manolo Blahniks will be out; Grandma Walton and her sensible apron will be in. Houses will once again be somewhere to live, not vehicles for speculation. Some business models, notably private equity, will find it tougher to thrive. Life will be harder for entrepreneurs: more than half of all new firms rely on debt finance states the Economist.

Perhaps the housing crash will change attitudes towards home ownership. For a long time it seemed like a one-way bet, with homeowners able to buy an appreciating asset with cheap debt. Having realised that prices can fall as well as rise and that houses are illiquid assets, many more people may opt for the greater flexibility of renting and hold their wealth in more diversified forms. That is what happens in Germany, which has a much lower rate of home ownership than Britain or America.

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