On “How the world economy shifted”

This is a commentary on Chapter 5 of Martin Wolf’s book, The Shifts and the Shocks.

Martin Wolf’s explanation of the euro zone crisis, and of the problems created for the currency union by countries that are determined to run a surplus is clear and convincing. (Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly, his reasoning echoes the initial rationale for the IMF, with its deliberate penalties for countries that run a surplus.)

The discussion of the savings glut is however less effective. The problem is that there are two aspects to this story: first the policies of emerging market countries that undervalue their currencies and make it easy for them to run current account surpluses and, second, the uncharacteristic movement of the U.S. business sector into surplus around the same time period.

Wolf makes it clear that the latter played an important role in the savings glut. The problem faced by Wolf and other advocates of the savings glut view is, however, that there is a coherent explanation for the surplus only in the case of the emerging market countries. Not surprisingly the text focuses on the explainable aspects of the glut and restricts its discussion of the U.S. business sector surplus mostly to remarks on the significance of its size.

This omission is extremely important, because Wolf makes it clear that an important factor in the crisis was the dysfunctional manner in which U.S. markets responded to both the savings glut and the subsequent reduction in the federal reserve’s policy rate which was designed to stimulate the U.S. economy and offset the adverse effects on U.S. employment of the combination of a huge trade imbalance and a deficit of business borrowing. U.S. financial markets responded to these two phenomena by creating unsustainable leverage and balance sheet deterioration in the household sector.

My concern is with the causality that Wolf assumes. Let me propose an alternative interpretation of the facts. We know that when a bubble pops there is a transfer of resources away from those who purchased at the peak and to those who buy at the nadir. One function of the massive extension of credit to households was to ensure that there was a lot of underinformed, “dumb” money buying into the peak of the bubble. To the degree that corporate decision-makers have access to investment funds where knowledgeable financiers either can navigate the bubble successfully or are just successful at convincing the decision-makers that they can do so, a profit maximizing corporate decision maker may prefer to invest in financial assets than to risk money on the production of products that need to be marketed to the already over-extended household sector. In short, the possibility that (i) the U.S. business sector was the important factor in the savings glut “at the margin,” and that (ii) the causality for the U.S. business sector’s participation in the savings glut runs from the overindebtedness of the U.S. household sector and a general tendency of the modern financial sector to misallocate resources to the financialization of the U.S. business sector’s use of funds, at least needs to be entertained and evaluated.

In short, I am uncomfortable with the assumption of causality implied by sentences like the following: “What the market demanded the innovative financial sector duly supplied . . . By creating instruments so opaque that they were perfectly designed to conceal (credit) risk.” (at 172). Given how difficult it is to establish causality, should we not be asking whether financial innovation, and in particular the ability of the financial sector to create assets that one side of the transaction did not understand, drove a demand to take the other side of transactions with such “dumb” money (of course, giving a substantial cut of the returns to the innovators and originators of these assets)?

Thus, while Wolf argues that household leverage and balance sheet deterioration were necessary to offset the massive demand deficiency created by the savings, he doesn’t really address the problem that a big chunk of this demand deficiency was endogenously created by the business sector itself. Blaming the crisis on foreign lenders who were only interested in riskless assets is too easy. Any genuine explanation of what was going on needs to include an explanation of the behavior of the U.S. business sector, and Martin Wolf does not offer such an explanation.

Overall, this chapter does a very good job of describing the trends that fed into the financial crisis. This careful description, however, is what made this reader see a gap in the explanation that made me question the causal story as it was presented. On the other hand, Wolf also draws the conclusion that a financial system capable of such extraordinary dysfunction is in need of serious reform. So perhaps my criticism of this chapter will turn out to be only a quibble with the full book. I’ll let you know.