A Counterproposal to “Shifts and Shocks”

Martin Wolf in Shifts and Shocks does a remarkable job of taking a comprehensive view of all the moving parts that have played a role in creating our current financial malaise and ongoing risks to financial stability. He also does a wonderful job of laying them out clearly for readers. Furthermore, I am entirely convinced by his diagnosis and prognoses of the Eurozone’s problems. When it comes to the question of the financial system more generally, however, even though I’m convinced that Wolf understands the symptoms, I don’t think he’s on target with either his diagnosis or his solutions. In fact, I think he too shows signs of being hampered by the problem of intellectual orthodoxy.

This post is therefore going to combine commentary on Shifts and Shocks with an introduction to my own views of how to understand the boondoggle that is the modern financial system. (I have nothing to say about the Eurozone’s grief except that you should read what Martin Wolf has to say about it.) For the long form of my views on the structural reform of the financial system, see here.

First, let me lay out the many things that Wolf gets right about the financial system.

  • The intellectual failures are accurately described:
    • orthodox economics failed to take into account the banking system’s role in creating credit, and thus failed to understand the instability that was building up in the system.
    • this has led to a dysfunctional and destabilizing relationship between the state and the private sector as suppliers of money
  • His basic conclusion is correct:
    • the system is designed to fail because banks finance long-term, risky and often illiquid assets with short-term, safe and highly liquid liabilities.
  • The inadequacy of the solutions currently being pursued is also made clear. Combining macro-prudential policy and “unlimited crisis intervention” with resolution authorities
    • just worsens the dysfunctional relationship between the state and the private sector
    • forces rulemaking that is designed to preserve a system that the regulators don’t trust and that is so complex it is “virtually inconceivable that it will work” (234)
  • His focus on the need for more government expenditure to support demand instead of attempts to induce the private sector to lever up yet again is correct.
  • The key takeaways from his conclusion are also entirely correct (349)
    • The insouciant position – that we should let the pre-crisis way of running the world economy and the financial system continue – is grotesquely dangerous.”
    • “leveraging up existing assets is just not a particularly valuable thing to do; it creates fragility, but little, if any, real new wealth.”

I think Wolf makes a mistaking in diagnosing the problem, however. One can view our current financial system as simply exhibiting the instability inherent in all modern economies (a la Minsky), or as exhibiting an unprecedented measure of instability even taking Minsky into account, or something in between. Wolf takes the hybrid position that while the basic sources of instability have been present in financial systems since time immemorial, “given contemporary information and communication technologies, modern financial innovations and globalization, the capacity of the system to generate complexity and fragility, surpasses anything seen historically, in its scope, scale and speed.” (321) This, I believe, is where the argument goes wrong.

To those familiar with financial history the complete collapse of a banking system is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. The banking system collapsed in Antwerp in the mid-15th century, in Venice in the late 16th century, in France in the early 18th century, and in Holland in the late 18th century. What is remarkable about 19th and 20th century banking is not its instability, but its lack of total collapse.

Indeed, the remarkable stability of the British banking system was founded in part on the analysis of the reasons behind 18th century financial instability on the continent. (There is no important British banking theorist who does not mention John Law and his misadventures in France.)  In particular, a basic principle of banking used to be that money market assets — and bank liabilities — should not finance long-term assets; capital markets should have the limited liquidity that derives from buyers and sellers meeting in a market. Thus, when Wolf finds that our modern system is “designed to fail” because money market assets are financing risky long-term assets, and that market liquidity is a dangerous illusion that breeds overconfidence and is sure to disappear when it is most needed (344), he is simply rediscovering centuries-old principles of what banks should not do.

By arguing that the structural flaws of modern finance are as common to the past as to the present, Wolf embraces the modern intellectual orthodoxy and sets up his radical solution: that our only option for structural reform that stabilizes banking is to take away from banks the ability to lend to the private sector and require that all debt be equity-financed. Thus, Wolf obfuscates the fact that the 19th and 20th century solution to banking instability was to limit the types of lending to the private sector that banks were allowed to engage in. Britain had a long run of success with such policies, as did the U.S. from the mid-1930s to the 1980s. (Recall that the S&Ls were set up in no small part to insulate the commercial banks from the dangers of mortgage lending — as a result the S&L crisis was expensive, but did not destabilize the commercial banks, and was compared to 2007-08 a minor crisis.) Thus, there is another option for structural reform — to stop viewing debt as a single aggregate and start analyzing which types of bank lending are extremely destabilizing and which are not.

The real flaw, however, in Wolf’s analysis is that he doesn’t have a model for why banking lending is important to the economy. Thus, when he acknowledges that it is possible that the benefits of “economic dynamism” due to banking exceed the massive risks that it creates (212-13), he doesn’t have a good explanation for what those benefits are. As a result, Wolf too is intellectually constrained by the poverty of modern banking theory.

19th c. bankers were far less confused about the benefits of banking. When everybody is willing to hold bank liabilities, banks have the ability to eliminate the liquidity constraints that prevent economic activity from taking place. The merchant who doesn’t have enough capital to buy at point A everything he can sell at point B, just needs a line of credit from the bank to optimize his business activities. This problem is ubiquitous and short-term lending by banks can solve it. Furthermore, because they solve it by expanding the money supply, and not by sourcing funds from long-term lenders, the amount of money available to borrow can easily expand. Of course, there are problems with business cycles and the fact that the incentives faced by banks need to be constantly monitored and maintained, but these are minor issues compared with the asset price bubbles that are created when banks get into long-term lending and that destabilized the financial system in 2007-08.

Overall, banks can do a lot to improve economic efficiency without getting into the business of long-term lending. And a recipe for financial stability should focus on making sure that long-term lending, not all bank lending, is funded by equity.

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