Financial repression refers to "policies that result in savers earning returns below the rate of inflation" in order to allow banks to "provide cheap loans to companies and governments, reducing the burden of repayments". It can be particularly effective at liquidating government debt denominated in domestic currency. It can also lead to a large expansions in debt "to levels evoking comparisons with the excesses that generated Japan’s lost decade and the Asian financial crisis" in 1997.
Financial repression consists of the following:
- Explicit or indirect capping of interest rates, such as on government debt and deposit rates (e.g., Regulation Q).
- Government ownership or control of domestic banks and financial institutions with barriers that limit other institutions from entering the market.
- High reserve requirements
- Creation or maintenance of a captive domestic market for government debt, achieved by requiring banks to hold government debt via capital requirements, or by prohibiting or disincentivising alternatives.
- Government restrictions on the transfer of assets abroad through the imposition of capital controls.
These measures allow governments to issue debt at lower interest rates. A low nominal interest rate can reduce debt servicing costs, while negative real interest rates erodes the real value of government debt. Thus, financial repression is most successful in liquidating debts when accompanied by inflation and can be considered a form of taxation, or alternatively a form of debasement.
The size of the financial repression tax for 24 emerging markets from 1974 to 1987. Their results showed that financial repression exceeded 2% of GDP for seven countries, and greater than 3% for five countries. For five countries (India, Mexico, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe) it represented approximately 20% of tax revenue. In the case of Mexico financial repression was 6% of GDP, or 40% of tax revenue.
After World War II
Financial repression "played an important role in reducing debt-to-GDP ratios after World War II" by keeping real interest rates for government debt below 1% for two-thirds of the time between 1945 and 1980, the United States was able to "inflate away" the large debt (122% of GDP) left over from the Great Depression and World War II. In the UK, government debt declined from 216% of GDP in 1945 to 138% ten years later in 1955.
China's economic growth has been attributed to financial repression thanks to "low returns on savings and the cheap loans that it makes possible". This has allowed China to rely on savings-financed investments for economic growth. However, because low returns also dampens consumer spending, household expenditures account for "a smaller share of GDP in China than in any other major economy". However, as of December 2014, the People’s Bank of China "started to undo decades of financial repression" and the government now allows Chinese savers to collect up to a 3.3% return on one-year deposits. At China's 1.6% inflation rate, this is a "high real-interest rate compared to other major economies”.
After the 2008 economic recession
In a 2011 NBER working paper, Carmen Reinhart and Maria Belen Sbrancia speculate on a possible return by governments to this form of debt reduction in order to deal with high debt levels following the 2008 economic crisis.
"To get access to capital, Austria has restricted capital flows to foreign subsidiaries in central and eastern Europe. Select pension funds have also been transferred to governments in France, Portugal, Ireland and Hungary, enabling them to re-allocate toward sovereign bonds."
Critics argue that if this view was true, investors (i.e., capital-seeking parties) would be inclined to demand capital in large quantities and would be buying capital goods from this capital. This high demand for capital goods would certainly lead to inflation and thus the central banks would be forced to raise interest rates again. As a boom pepped by low interest rates fails to appear these days in industrialized countries, this is a sign that the low interest rates seem to be necessary to ensure an equilibrium on the capital market, thus to balance capital-supply—i.e., savers—on one side and capital-demand—i.e., investors and the government—on the other. This view argues that interest rates would be even lower if it were not for the high government debt ratio (i.e., capital demand from the government).
Free-market economists argue that financial repression crowds out private-sector investment, thus undermining growth. On the other hand, "postwar politicians clearly decided this was a price worth paying to cut debt and avoid outright default or draconian spending cuts. And the longer the gridlock over fiscal reform rumbles on, the greater the chance that 'repression' comes to be seen as the least of all evils".
Also, financial repression has been called a “stealth tax” that "rewards debtors and punishes savers—especially retirees" because their investments will no longer generate the expected return, which is income for retirees. "One of the main goals of financial repression is to keep nominal interest rates lower than they would be in more competitive markets. Other things equal, this reduces the government’s interest expenses for a given stock of debt and contributes to deficit reduction. However, when financial repression produces negative real interest rates (nominal rates below the inflation rate), it reduces or liquidates existing debts and becomes the equivalent of a tax—a transfer from creditors (savers) to borrowers, including the government."
- "China Savers Prioritized Over Banks by PBOC". Bloomberg. November 25, 2014.
- Carmen M. Reinhart, Jacob F. Kirkegaard, and M. Belen Sbrancia, "Financial Repression Redux", IMF Finance and Development, June 2011, p. 22-26
- Shaw, Edward S. Financial Deepening in Economic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973
- McKinnon, Ronald I. Money and Capital in Economic Development. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1973
- Carmen M. Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia, "The Liquidation of Government Debt", IMF, 2011, p. 19
- Reinhart, Carmen M. and Rogoff, Kenneth S., This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 143
- Bill Gross, "The Caine Mutiny Part 2", PIMCO
- Giovannini, Alberto and de Melo, Martha, "Government Revenue from Financial Repression", The American Economic Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 Sep. 1993 (pp. 953-963)
- "The great repression". The Economist. 16 June 2011.
- "Financial Repression 101". Allianz Global Investors. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
- Gillian Tett, "Policymakers learn a new and alarming catchphrase", Financial Times, May 9, 2011
- Amerman, Daniel (September 12, 2011). "The 2nd Edge of Modern Financial Repression: Manipulating Inflation Indexes to Steal from Retirees & Public Workers". Financial Sense.