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.

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.

A question for Martin Wolf: Was the crisis “unprecedented”?

In the acknowledgements to The Shifts and the Shocks (which I am currently reading) Martin Wolf has stated that friends like Mervyn King encouraged him to be more radical than initially intended, and I suspect, as I read Chapter 4, “How Finance Became Fragile,” that this was one of the chapters that was affected by such comments. In particular, I see a contradiction between the initial framing of financial fragility which focuses on Minsky-like inherent fragility, and the discussion of regulation. Was this a crisis like that in the U.K. in 1866 or in the U.S. in the 1930s, or was this an “unprecedented” crisis that was aggravated by the elimination of legal and regulatory infrastructure that limited the reach of the crisis in 1866 and the 1930s? I am troubled by Wolf’s failure to take a clear position on this question.

Because Martin Wolf understands that the government intervention due to the crisis was “unprecedented” (at 15), I had always assumed that he understood that the nature of the 2007-08 crisis was also unprecedented. He appears, however, to be of the opinion that this crisis was not of unprecedented severity. Martin Wolf really surprised me here by taking the position that: “The system is always fragile. From time to time it becomes extremely fragile. That is what happened this time.” And by continuing to treat the crisis as comparable to the 1930s in the U.S. or 1866 in the U.K. (at 123-24).

His treatment of how regulation played into the crisis could be more thorough. He concludes that “the role of regulation was principally one of omissions: policymakers assumed the system was far more stable, responsible, indeed honest, than it was. Moreover, it was because this assumption was so widely shared that so many countries were affected.” (at 141). Wolf is undoubtedly aware of the many changes to the legal framework that protected the U.K. financial system in 1866 and the U.S. financial system in the 1930s that were adopted at the behest of the financial industry in both the U.S. and the U.K. (Such changes include the exemption of derivatives from gambling laws, granting repurchase agreements and OTC derivatives special privileges in bankruptcy, and the functional separation of commercial banking from capital markets.) Is the argument that these changes were not important? or that these changes fall in the category of omission by regulators? Given the preceding section of this chapter, it would appear that he believes these changes were not important, but given the conclusion of the chapter, I am not so sure.

In the conclusion, Wolf takes a somewhat more aggressive stance than he does in the body of the chapter: “The crisis became so severe largely because so many people thought it impossible.” (at 147). So maybe the crisis is unprecedented compared to 1866 and the 1930s. (In 1866 at least the possibility of financial collapse seems to have been recognized.) He also adds two more points to the conclusion that I didn’t see in the body of the chapter: the origins of the crisis include “the ability of the financial industry to use its money and lobbying clout to obtain the lax regulations it wanted (and wants)” and the fact that “regulators will never keep up with” the ability of the financial industry to erode regulation (at 147).

Thus, once I reached the conclusion of the chapter, it was no longer clear that Wolf views this crisis as primarily an example of inherent fragility. He has laid out the argument for how the financial industry successfully removed the legal and regulatory protections that were in place in 1866 and the 1930s. So this is my question for Mr. Wolf: Was the crisis itself “unprecedented” in the course of the last two centuries of Anglo-American financial history, or was this just a Minsky moment like many that have come before?

Golden Fetters, Legal Fetters

The interconnectedness of the international financial system is built on limitations.  In the 1920s these were the limitations set by the gold standard.  Nowadays these are the limitations created by the legal status of derivatives.  It is these limitations, which are perceived to protect the value of cross-border contracts, that make it possible for closely intertwined financial markets to develop.

Interconnectedness:  Golden Fetters

In the 1920s and early 30s cross border transactions depended on the operation of the gold standard.  Many cross-border contracts were denominated in sterling, though the dollar was growing in importance.  After the Dawes plan and the stabilization of the German currency, the flow of private sector funds from the US to Germany – denominated in marks – grew dramatically.  Thus, one of the reasons the gold standard was viewed as essential to the stability of the international financial system, was that the decision to go off gold by Britain, the US or Germany was sure to generate an international insolvency crisis.

Because of the structure of international trade, for the key countries whose currencies were used in foreign trade contracts the act of going off gold functioned as a means of transferring equity from the balance sheets of foreign banks and firms to the balance sheets of domestic banks and firms.  In short, one thing was certain:  the day Britain (or the US or Germany after Dawes) went off gold, that action would trigger an international insolvency crisis.

Needless to say, nobody could tell what would be the consequences of an international insolvency crisis and everybody who understood the consequences of leaving the gold standard was fearful that not only would formerly prosperous economies suffer immensely, but that the political consequences could also be disastrous.  This fear of a coming apocalypse drove central bankers – for the most part with the support of their governments – to do everything they could to avoid going off gold and triggering the subsequent insolvency crisis.

The problem with the effort to defend the gold standard was that in order to be successful the defense required universal cooperation.  And in the post World War I environment, there were many contentious issues that precluded genuine cooperation:  not only were differences over war debts and reparations almost impossible to resolve, but countries such as France were very jealous of the key role sterling had played in the world economy over the previous decades and sought to bolster their own position in the world of international finance – even as Britain was determined not to give up its leading role.  Thus, the measure of cooperation that was necessary to preserve the gold standard was unachievable in practice.

For this reason, the attempt to preserve the gold standard was an optimist’s boondoggle.  In retrospect, we know that going off gold was inevitable.

If the central bankers of the mid-twenties had known that their efforts at developing a cooperative solution to the problems they faced were doomed to failure, they might not have postponed the insolvency crisis, but instead let it break earlier.  Just imagine how different European history might be, had Britain chosen in 1925 – after the Dawes plan had opened a window for European recovery – to devalue before returning to gold.  If the financial world had not been struggling through the latter half of the 20s to carry on despite seriously undervalued and overvalued currencies – while at the same time building up cross-border obligations which would collapse in value in the 30s, it is possible that (i) the solvency crisis would have been smaller and (ii) Europe would have found its way to reasonably stable growth.

Interconnectedness:  Legal Fetters

Today we still have the problem of interconnectedness, but instead of being tied by a gold standard, in our flexible exchange rate world the ties are created by a complex web of derivative contracts – designed to protect against movements in exchange rates (amongst other things) just as the gold standard was.

Now we face a similar problem to that of abandoning the gold standard:  The bankruptcy of a major derivatives dealer will result in an international solvency crisis – thus it must be prevented at all costs – just as going off gold had to be prevented.  The question we face is the question that Europe faced in the mid-20s.  Do we protect the solvency of the international financial system via bailouts and economic hardship – or do we let the crisis that is upon us break?

We know now that for the 20s, the crisis was going to break in the end, and can speculate that it might have been smaller if it had broken earlier.  Unfortunately we cannot know whether today’s bailouts will succeed, or just like the 1929 government financed takeover of the Bodencredit Anstalt (Austria’s second largest bank) by the Credit Anstalt Bank – simply lead to a larger collapse a few years down the line.  By 1931 the Austrian bailout had failed.  The losses overwhelmed the Credit Anstalt bank – which was too big to save.

In the 20s, bailouts delayed the crisis, they didn’t prevent it.  Today we are faced with the question:  Can a bailout of the major derivatives dealers succeed?  Or will we find – as the best minds of the 1920s found – that the insolvency crisis will break, if not today, than a few years from today.

The worst mistake would be to treat the current financial structure as legal fetters and listen too closely to claims that any change in legal regime will trigger a crisis of confidence.  People who make these claims sound just like defenders of the gold standard in the 1920s.  History proved them wrong.  The current consensus of historians is that “Breaking with the dead hand of the gold standard was the key to economic revival.”  (Ahamed’s Lords of Finance p. 477)

While the collapse of derivatives markets would – for obvious reasons – create its own insolvency problems, the experience with the gold standard was that it is better to recognize early that the market is breaking down – and to be prepared to rewrite contracts so that they can be honored and so that systems of international trade become operational again (without government support).  Trying to prop up an old system without making the changes necessary to put it on firm foundations is a fool’s game.

On Lords of Finance 2

Having finished Lords of Finance over the holidays, I conclude that it is an excellent introduction to the role of reparations and war debts in the problems of the 1920s and 30s.  While I have always been told that reparations played a crucial role in the unravelling of Europe’s economies and polities, because these are problems of macroeconomic payment flows, the level of abstraction at which they are usually discussed has always left me in a state of incomprehension muddled with disbelief.

That Ahamed manages to present the problems of reparations in a down to earth manner that simply makes sense is an achievement in itself.

In short, despite its faults I would recommend Lords of Finance to students of the Depression because it presents the big picture of the interrelated macroeconomies with the full gamut of complex payments issues in a very accessible manner and thus can be used as a framework in which to place the pieces of a more careful study of the period.

In one sentence:  First read Lords of Finance; then you’ll be ready to absorb the overwhelming detail of Eichengreen’s Golden Fetters.

On Lords of Finance

I’ve just started reading Lords of Finance (about 1/3 through) and unfortunately I’m really put off by character descriptions that seem to belong more to the world of fiction than to non-fiction.  I just don’t understand how it is possible in a work of non-fiction to have an omniscient narrator make statements like:  “He displayed an astounding self-confidence.  This was not a facade.”

I have rarely met anybody who was outwardly confident without being inwardly insecure.  In fact, I would say that it is precisely those who present themselves as uncertain who have the deepest confidence — that is, they are confident enough to display openly that there’s a lot they don’t know and don’t worry about how the world judges them.  In short, I would argue that the character of someone who died some sixty years ago is in some sense unknowable.

That’s why biographers use lengthy quotes.  What a man’s wife has to say about him always says something about the man — even if it’s only about the kind of wife he chose.   But surely this issue:  whether a character description says more about the speaker or the object of the description is for the reader to decide.   Thus, the introduction of an omniscient narrator into a work of non-fiction is problematic — the reader has difficulty judging whether the character descriptions say more about Liaquat Ahamed or about the character he’s describing.

Given my discomfort with Ahamed’s approach to the subjects of his book, I can’t help but wonder what evidence the author has for his diagnosis of Montagu Norman as suffering from “severe manic depression“.  This reads to me as an outrageous case of pop psychology, which may be supported by nothing more than Carl Jung’s diagnosis in 1913 of GPI and death within months  (Norman lived until 1950) and episodes of moodiness.  There seems to be strong evidence that Norman suffered from more than one “nervous breakdown”, but conflating a reaction to excessive stress with mental illness strikes me as one of those decisions that says far more about Ahamed than about Norman.

On an alternate note in Ahamed’s takedown of the competence of the governors of the Bank of England (whom he notes in the same pages made the best decisions) he derides the real bills doctrine as “clearly fallacious” — and goes on to explain why it held true:  because it was espoused in an environment with a gold standard.  The author shows no awareness whatsoever that the purpose of the real bills doctrine was to protect the economy from inflation caused by speculative bubbles and frauds.

Despite the preceding criticism, I am learning a lot about finances throughout Europe during World War I and the interwar period.  And it appears to me that when Ahamed focuses on factual information he is generally careful to be accurate.

19th v 21st c. banking: What has changed …

There’s one last quote from Lombard Street that I want to record. In reference to the Bank of England’s lender of last resort activities, Bagehot writes:

No advances indeed need to made by which the Bank will ultimately lose. The amount of bad business in commercial countries is an infinitesimal small fraction of the whole business. That in a panic the bank, or banks, holding the ultimate reserve should refuse bad bills or bad securities will not make the panic really worse; the ‘unsound’ people are a feeble minority, and they are afraid even to look frightened for fear their unsoundness may be detected.

Is anybody else wondering whether it’s still true that: “the amount of bad business in commercial countries is an infinitesimal small fraction of the whole”?

(cross posted here)