House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again

House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again

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by Atif Mian, Amir Sufi

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The Great American Recession resulted in the loss of eight million jobs between 2007 and 2009. More than four million homes were lost to foreclosures. Is it a coincidence that the United States witnessed a dramatic rise in household debt in the years before the recession—that the total amount of debt for American households doubled between 2000 and 2007 to $14


The Great American Recession resulted in the loss of eight million jobs between 2007 and 2009. More than four million homes were lost to foreclosures. Is it a coincidence that the United States witnessed a dramatic rise in household debt in the years before the recession—that the total amount of debt for American households doubled between 2000 and 2007 to $14 trillion? Definitely not. Armed with clear and powerful evidence, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi reveal in House of Debt how the Great Recession and Great Depression, as well as the current economic malaise in Europe, were caused by a large run-up in household debt followed by a significantly large drop in household spending.

Though the banking crisis captured the public’s attention, Mian and Sufi argue strongly with actual data that current policy is too heavily biased toward protecting banks and creditors. Increasing the flow of credit, they show, is disastrously counterproductive when the fundamental problem is too much debt. As their research shows, excessive household debt leads to foreclosures, causing individuals to spend less and save more. Less spending means less demand for goods, followed by declines in production and huge job losses. How do we end such a cycle? With a direct attack on debt, say Mian and Sufi. More aggressive debt forgiveness after the crash helps, but as they illustrate, we can be rid of painful bubble-and-bust episodes only if the financial system moves away from its reliance on inflexible debt contracts. As an example, they propose new mortgage contracts that are built on the principle of risk-sharing, a concept that would have prevented the housing bubble from emerging in the first place.

Thoroughly grounded in compelling economic evidence, House of Debt offers convincing answers to some of the most important questions facing the modern economy today: Why do severe recessions happen? Could we have prevented the Great Recession and its consequences? And what actions are needed to prevent such crises going forward?

Editorial Reviews

Christina D. Romer
“Mian and Sufi have produced some of the most important and compelling research on the impact of debt on consumer behavior during the recent housing bubble and bust.  This excellent new book presents and expands this research in a rigorous, yet engaging and accessible way.”
Kenneth Rogoff
“This is a profoundly important book that makes a huge range of serious empirical evidence on the financial crisis accessible to a broad readership.  A compendium of Mian and Sufi’s own celebrated work would already be a spectacular contribution, but this book is so much more.  Although the authors present all views in a balanced, scholarly way, their quiet insistence that we should have moved faster to write down household mortgages is well-reasoned and compelling.”
Carmen Reinhart
“Much has been written about the boom and subsequent bust that rocked the US economy during 2007–2009, but insightful and informed analysis is much rarer. This book is one of those rare gems. It offers an in-depth look at the state of housing, consumer credit, household incomes, and debt around the crisis and presents an informed discussion about its causes and consequences. The analysis of crisis resolution has resonance, not only for the United States, but for the many countries that are still entangled in severe financial difficulties.”
Lord Adair Turner
House of Debt is a very important book, reaching beyond surface explanations of the Great Recession to identify the fundamental cause—excessive private debt built up in the pre-crisis boom years. It combines meticulous empirical research with an ability to see the big picture. Its message needs to be heeded and its proposals for reform seriously considered if we are to avoid repeating in future the mistakes of the past.”
New York Review of Books - Paul Krugman
“Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, our leading experts on the macroeconomic effects of private debt, have a new blog []— and it has instantly become must reading.”
Financial World
“Most books about economics are hard going, ploddingly earnest and pretty impenetrable. This one is not. It is one of those rare pieces of work that actually contains more than one “wow” moment.  . . . Mian and Sufi are empirical economists. They are both clever. . . . But where they differ from most of their peers is that they are prepared to dig down into the data, often to the individual postcode level, to see just what the impact of a particular policy decision was and, as important, which way causality flows.”
“The country needed a bailout—the government just chose the wrong one. That’s the case economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi made this year in a book aiming to rewrite the story of the recession—and what our politicians should have done about it. If they’re right, future crises may be handled entirely differently.”
Financial Times - Martin Wolf
“Perhaps the most important single lesson of the crisis is that beyond some point the growth in debt adds to the fragility of the economy more than it adds to either personal welfare or aggregate demand. Atif Mian and Amir Sufi argue this persuasively in House of Debt.”
New York Review of Books
“A perceptive book, House of Debt, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, makes a strong case that the excessive level of borrowing by middle-class and even poor Americans was a fundamental cause of deep recession. Once unemployment started o rise, Americans had less buying power because they were strangled by mortgage and other debt.”
New York Times - Binyamin Appelbaum
“Mian and Sufi are convinced that the Great Recession could have been just another ordinary, lowercase recession if the federal government had acted more aggressively to help homeowners by reducing mortgage debts. The two men — economics professors who are part of a new generation of scholars whose work relies on enormous data sets — argue . . . that the government misunderstood the deepest recession since the 1930s. They are particularly critical of Timothy Geithner, the former Treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the former Federal Reserve chairman, for focusing on preserving the financial system without addressing what the authors regard as the underlying and more important problem of excessive household debt. They say the recovery remains painfully sluggish as a result.”
Huffington Post - Richard Eskow
“Sufi and Mian have been publishing important work on this topic for the last eight years, beginning well before the 2008 crisis. Their arguments are compelling and deserve widespread attention, especially at a time when Tim Geithner and others are trying to rewrite history – and when many homeowners still need help.”
“Subsequent reforms to our financial system give policymakers more tools to police housing finance, yet the continuing over-reliance on debt and a lack of good jobs leaves families at risk and exposes our economy to the whipsaw of another debt-fueled credit bubble. Mian and Sufi deserve credit of another kind for detailing how ensnared the American Dream is in this tangled web of debt finance—and how exposed the vast majority of us are to the broader economic consequences. “
Wall Street Journal
“A concise and powerful account of how the great recession happened and what should be done to avoid another one. Atif Mian, an economist at Princeton University, and Amir Sufi, a finance professor at the University of Chicago, make a strong circumstantial case that household debt was the recession's main culprit. They also find it skulking in the background of previous downturns, usually loitering in the vicinity of a housing bubble. . . . House of Debt is clear, well-argued and consistently informative. . . . Mian and Sufi's proposal to shift much of the risk of falling home prices to lenders—while rewarding them for their trouble—is a good place to start. If we don't put moralizing aside and analyze dispassionately what caused the last crisis, we areunlikely to prevent the next one.”
“Distills lessons about the crisis from their recent research into one easily digestible package.”
The Hill
“House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi of Princeton University and the University of Chicago, respectively, reads things a bit differently and, to my mind, more sagely. The authors contend that Geithner and colleagues erred mightily in not focusing more on homeowners. Homeowners’ post-bubble mortgage debt overhang was a much greater long-term threat to the macroeconomy than was bank failure. It was also, as I and others argued at the time, the ultimate source of bank peril itself. Rescuing homeowners would accordingly have offered a twofer, binding the wounds that the bailouts could but bandage. . . . Superior to Geithner’s take on the crisis.”
National Review
“In House of Debt, their brilliant new book . . . Mian and Sufi detail the ways in which the housing bust damaged the economic well-being low- and middle-income households across the country.”
Financial Times - Lawrence Summers
“The most important economics book of 2014; it could be the most important book to come out of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Its arguments deserve careful attention, and its publication provides an opportunity to reconsider policy choices made in 2009 and 2010 regarding mortgage debt.  House of Debt is important because it persuasively demonstrates that the conventional meta-narrative of the crisis and its aftermath, which emphasizes the breakdown of financial intermediation, is inadequate. . . . All future work on financial crises will have to reckon with the household balance sheet effects they stress. After their work, we can still believe in the necessity of financial rescues; however, we can no longer believe in their sufficiency. And after their work, we have an important new agenda of reforms to consider if future crises are to be prevented.”
Financial Times
“Mian and Sufi argue that ‘economic disasters are almost always preceded by a large increase in household debt.’ It is debatable whether this is a universal truth. But it is certainly true of the financial crisis of 2007-08. The authors argue, persuasively, for a shift from traditional debt towards contracts that share losses between the suppliers and users of finance.”
Robert M. Solow
“It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the glamour and squalor of financial maneuvers. One forgets that the financial system is useful only to the extent that it makes the everyday economy of production, employment, consumption and capital formation work better, and avoids doing harm. Mian and Sufi do not make this mistake. Their principles and their very ingenious research keep the focus where it belongs. They tell a powerful story about excessive debt that any reader can understand, they nail it down with careful use of data, and they have serious ideas about how to make the system better and safer. It is a splendid book.”
“In this readable book, Mian and Sufi pose questions pertaining to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent great recession: Why did the housing bubble vary in severity?  Why did unemployment increase where housing prices were stable?  Can a reoccurrence of this financial crisis be prevented? . . . . Recommended.”
Housing News Report
“Many books have been written trying to explain the housing crash and the subsequent mortgage meltdown. This book, however, adds clarity to a murky topic. It offers new insight into housing debt, consumer spending, and how mortgage debt—if abused—can lead to disastrous results. Moreover, their proposal to shift mortgage risk to lenders is an interesting concept.”

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House of Debt

How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again

By Atif Mian, Amir Sufi

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 Atif Mian and Amir Sufi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13864-0


A Scandal in Bohemia

Selling recreational vehicles used to be easy in America. As a button worn by Winnebago CEO Bob Olson read, "You can't take sex, booze, or weekends away from the American people." But things went horribly wrong in 2008, when sales for Monaco Coach Corporation, a giant in the RV industry, plummeted by almost 30 percent. This left Monaco management with little choice. Craig Wanichek, their spokesman, lamented, "We are sad that the economic environment, obviously outside our control, has forced us to make ... difficult decisions."

Monaco was the number-one producer of diesel-powered motor homes. They had a long history in northern Indiana making vehicles that were sold throughout the United States. In 2005, the company sold over 15,000 vehicles and employed about 3,000 people in Wakarusa, Nappanee, and Elkhart Counties in Indiana. In July 2008, 1,430 workers at two Indiana plants of Monaco Coach Corporation were let go. Employees were stunned. Jennifer Eiler, who worked at the plant in Wakarusa County, spoke to a reporter at a restaurant down the road: "I was very shocked. We thought there could be another layoff, but we did not expect this." Karen Hundt, a bartender at a hotel in Wakarusa, summed up the difficulties faced by laid-off workers: "It's all these people have done for years. Who's going to hire them when they are in their 50s? They are just in shock. A lot of it hasn't hit them yet."

In 2008 this painful episode played out repeatedly throughout northern Indiana. By the end of the year, the unemployment rate in Elkhart, Indiana, had jumped from 4.9 to 16.2 percent. Almost twenty thousand jobs were lost. And the effects of unemployment were felt in schools and charities throughout the region. Soup kitchens in Elkhart saw twice as many people showing up for free meals, and the Salvation Army saw a jump in demand for food and toys during the Christmas season. About 60 percent of students in the Elkhart public schools system had low-enough family income to qualify for the free-lunch program.

Northern Indiana felt the pain early, but it certainly wasn't alone. The Great American Recession swept away 8 million jobs between 2007 and 2009. More than 4 million homes were foreclosed. If it weren't for the Great Recession, the income of the United States in 2012 would have been higher by $2 trillion, around $17,000 per household. The deeper human costs are even more severe. Study after study points to the significant negative psychological effects of unemployment, including depression and even suicide. Workers who are laid off during recessions lose on average three full years of lifetime income potential. Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated the devastation quite accurately by calling unemployment "the greatest menace to our social order."

Just like workers at the Monaco plants in Indiana, innocent bystanders losing their jobs during recessions often feel shocked, stunned, and confused. And for good reason. Severe economic contractions are in many ways a mystery. They are almost never instigated by any obvious destruction of the economy's capacity to produce. In the Great Recession, for example, there was no natural disaster or war that destroyed buildings, machines, or the latest cutting-edge technologies. Workers at Monaco did not suddenly lose the vast knowledge they had acquired over years of training. The economy sputtered, spending collapsed, and millions of jobs were lost. The human costs of severe economic contractions are undoubtedly immense. But there is no obvious reason why they happen.

Intense pain makes people rush to the doctor for answers. Why am I experiencing this pain? What can I do to alleviate it? To feel better, we are willing to take medicine or change our lifestyle. When it comes to economic pain, who do we go to for answers? How do we get well? Unfortunately, people don't hold economists in the same esteem as doctors. Writing in the 1930s during the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes criticized his fellow economists for being "unmoved by the lack of correspondence between the results of their theory and the facts of observation." And as a result, the ordinary man has a "growing unwillingness to accord to economists that measure of respect which he gives to other groups of scientists whose theoretical results are confirmed with observation when they are applied to the facts."

There has been an explosion in data on economic activity and advancement in the techniques we can use to evaluate them, which gives us a huge advantage over Keynes and his contemporaries. Still, our goal in this book is ambitious. We seek to use data and scientific methods to answer some of the most important questions facing the modern economy: Why do severe recessions happen? Could we have prevented the Great Recession and its consequences? How can we prevent such crises? This book provides answers to these questions based on empirical evidence. Laid-off workers at Monaco, like millions of other Americans who lost their jobs, deserve an evidence-based explanation for why the Great Recession occurred, and what we can do to avoid more of them in the future.


In "A Scandal in Bohemia," Sherlock Holmes famously remarks that "it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." The mystery of economic disasters presents a challenge on par with anything the great detective faced. It is easy for economists to fall prey to theorizing before they have a good understanding of the evidence, but our approach must resemble Sherlock Holmes's. Let's begin by collecting as many facts as possible.

When it comes to the Great Recession, one important fact jumps out: the United States witnessed a dramatic rise in household debt between 2000 and 2007—the total amount doubled in these seven years to $14 trillion, and the household debt-to-income ratio skyrocketed from 1.4 to 2.1. To put this in perspective, figure 1.1 shows the U.S. household debt-to-income ratio from 1950 to 2010. Debt rose steadily to 2000, then there was a sharp change.

Using a longer historical pattern (based on the household-debt-to-GDP [gross domestic product] ratio), economist David Beim showed that the increase prior to the Great Recession is matched by only one other episode in the last century of U.S. history: the initial years of the Great Depression. From 1920 to 1929, there was an explosion in both mortgage debt and installment debt for purchasing automobiles and furniture. The data are less precise, but calculations done in 1930 by the economist Charles Persons suggest that outstanding mortgages for urban nonfarm properties tripled from 1920 to 1929. Such a massive increase in mortgage debt even swamps the housing-boom years of 2000–2007.

The rise in installment financing in the 1920s revolutionized the manner in which households purchased durable goods, items like washing machines, cars, and furniture. Martha Olney, a leading expert on the history of consumer credit, explains that "the 1920s mark the crucial turning point in the history of consumer credit." For the first time in U.S. history, merchants selling durable goods began to assume that a potential buyer walking through their door would use debt to purchase. Society's attitudes toward borrowing had changed, and purchasing on credit became more acceptable.

With this increased willingness to lend to consumers, household spending in the 1920s rose faster than income. Consumer debt as a percentage of household income more than doubled during the ten years before the Great Depression, and scholars have documented an "unusually large buildup of household liabilities in 1929." Persons, writing in 1930, was unambiguous in his conclusions regarding debt in the 1920s: "The past decade has witnessed a great volume of credit inflation. Our period of prosperity in part was based on nothing more substantial than debt expansion." And as households loaded up on debt to purchase new products, they saved less. Olney estimates that the personal savings rate for the United States fell from 7.1 percent between 1898 and 1916 to 4.4 percent from 1922 to 1929.

So one fact we observe is that both the Great Recession and Great Depression were preceded by a large run-up in household debt. There is another striking commonality: both started off with a mysteriously large drop in household spending. Workers at Monaco Coach Corporation understood this well. They were let go in large part because of the sharp decline in motor-home purchases in 2007 and 2008. The pattern was widespread. Purchases of durable goods like autos, furniture, and appliances plummeted early in the Great Recession—before the worst of the financial crisis in September 2008. Auto sales from January to August 2008 were down almost 10 percent compared to 2007, also before the worst part of the recession or financial crisis.

The Great Depression also began with a large drop in household spending. Economic historian Peter Temin holds that "the Depression was severe because the fall in autonomous spending was large and sustained," and he remarks further that the consumption decline in 1930 was "truly autonomous," or too big to be explained by falling income and prices. Just as in the Great Recession, the drop in spending that set off the Great Depression was mysteriously large.

The International Evidence

This pattern of large jumps in household debt and drops in spending preceding economic disasters isn't unique to the United States. Evidence demonstrates that this relation is robust internationally. And looking internationally, we notice something else: the bigger the increase in debt, the harder the fall in spending. A 2010 study of the Great Recession in the sixteen OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries by Reuven Glick and Kevin Lansing shows that countries with the largest increase in household debt from 1997 to 2007 were exactly the ones that suffered the largest decline in household spending from 2008 to 2009. The authors find a strong correlation between household-debt growth before the downturn and the decline in consumption during the Great Recession. As they note, consumption fell most sharply in Ireland and Denmark, two countries that witnessed enormous increases in household debt in the early 2000s. As striking as the increase in household debt was in the United States from 2000 to 2007, the increase was even larger in Ireland, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. And as dramatic as the decline in household spending was in the United States, it was even larger in five of these six countries (the exception was Portugal).

A study by researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expands the Glick and Lansing sample to thirty-six countries, bringing in many eastern European and Asian countries, and focuses on data through 2010. Their findings confirm that growth in household debt is one of the best predictors of the decline in household spending during the recession. The basic argument put forward in these studies is simple: If you had known how much household debt had increased in a country prior to the Great Recession, you would have been able to predict exactly which countries would have the most severe decline in spending during the Great Recession.

But is the relation between household-debt growth and recession severity unique to the Great Recession? In 1994, long before the Great Recession, Mervyn King, the recent governor of the Bank of England, gave a presidential address to the European Economic Association titled "Debt Deflation: Theory and Evidence." In the very first line of the abstract, he argued: "In the early 1990s the most severe recessions occurred in those countries which had experienced the largest increase in private debt burdens." In the address, he documented the relation between the growth in household debt in a given country from 1984 to 1988 and the country's decline in economic growth from 1989 to 1992. This was analogous to the analysis that Glick and Lansing and the IMF researchers gave twenty years later for the Great Recession. Despite focusing on a completely different recession, King found exactly the same relation: Countries with the largest increase in household-debt burdens—Sweden and the United Kingdom, in particular—experienced the largest decline in growth during the recession.

Another set of economic downturns we can examine are what economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff call the "big five" postwar banking crises in the developed world: Spain in 1977, Norway in 1987, Finland and Sweden in 1991, and Japan in 1992. These recessions were triggered by asset-price collapses that led to massive losses in the banking sector, and all were especially deep downturns with slow recoveries. Reinhart and Rogoff show that all five episodes were preceded by large run-ups in real-estate prices and large increases in the current-account deficits (the amount borrowed by the country as a whole from foreigners) of the countries.

But Reinhart and Rogoff don't emphasize the household-debt patterns that preceded the banking crises. To shed some light on the household-debt patterns, Moritz Schularick and Alan Taylor put together an excellent data set that covers all of these episodes except Finland. In the remaining four, the banking crises emphasized by Reinhart and Rogoff were all preceded by large run-ups in private-debt burdens. (By private debt, we mean the debt of households and non-financial firms, instead of the debt of the government or banks.) These banking crises were in a sense also private-debt crises—they were all preceded by large run-ups in private debt, just as with the Great Recession and the Great Depression in the United States. So banking crises and large run-ups in household debt are closely related—their combination catalyzes financial crises, and the groundbreaking research of Reinhart and Rogoff demonstrates that they are associated with the most severe economic downturns. While banking crises may be acute events that capture people's attention, we must also recognize the run-ups in household debt that precede them.

Which aspect of a financial crisis is more important in determining the severity of a recession: the run-up in private-debt burdens or the banking crisis? Research by Oscar Jorda, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor helps answer this question. They looked at over two hundred recessions in fourteen advanced countries between 1870 and 2008. They begin by confirming the basic Reinhart and Rogoff pattern: Banking-crisis recessions are much more severe than normal recessions. But Jorda, Schularick, and Taylor also find that banking-crisis recessions are preceded by a much larger increase in private debt than other recessions. In fact, the expansion in debt is five times as large before a banking-crisis recession. Also, banking-crisis recessions with low levels of private debt are similar to normal recessions. So, without elevated levels of debt, banking-crisis recessions are unexceptional. They also demonstrate that normal recessions with high private debt are more severe than other normal recessions. Even if there is no banking crisis, elevated levels of private debt make recessions worse. However, they show that the worst recessions include both high private debt and a banking crisis. The conclusion drawn by Jorda, Schularick, and Taylor from their analysis of a huge sample of recessions is direct:

We document, to our knowledge for the first time, that throughout a century or more of modern economic history in advanced countries a close relationship has existed between the build-up of credit during an expansion and the severity of the subsequent recession.... [W]e show that the economic costs of financial crises can vary considerably depending on the leverage incurred during the previous expansion phase [our emphasis].

Taken together, both the international and U.S. evidence reveals a strong pattern: Economic disasters are almost always preceded by a large increase in household debt. In fact, the correlation is so robust that it is as close to an empirical law as it gets in macroeconomics. Further, large increases in household debt and economic disasters seem to be linked by collapses in spending.

So an initial look at the evidence suggests a link between household debt, spending, and severe recessions. But the exact relation between the three is not precisely clear. This allows for alternative explanations, and many intelligent and respected economists have looked elsewhere. They argue that household debt is largely a sideshow—not the main attraction when it comes to explaining severe recessions.

The Alternative Views

Those economists who are suspicious of the importance of household debt usually have some alternative in mind. Perhaps the most common is the fundamentals view, according to which severe recessions are caused by some fundamental shock to the economy: a natural disaster, a political coup, or a change in expectations of growth in the future.

But most severe recessions we've discussed above were not preceded by some obvious act of nature or political disaster. As a result, the fundamentals view usually blames a change in expectations of growth, in which the run-up in debt before a recession merely reflects optimistic expectations that income or productivity will grow. Perhaps there is some technology that people believe will lead to huge improvements in well-being. Severe recession results when these high expectations are not realized. People lose faith that technology will advance or that incomes will improve, and therefore they spend less. In the fundamentals view, debt still increases before severe recessions. But the correlation is spurious—it is not indicative of a causal relation.


Excerpted from House of Debt by Atif Mian, Amir Sufi. Copyright © 2014 Atif Mian and Amir Sufi. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Amir Sufi is professor of finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jackdav38 More than 1 year ago
A very well argued , compelling  explanation of the causes of the 2008 (and other) financial disasters. Equally important, it is written in  clear, concise way, free of academic jargon. While there a few points I would quibblw with, this is an excellent book.