Felix Salmon is my favorite business blogger — super smart, cosmopolitan and impressively unimpressed by the Masters of the Universe he spends his days observing. In general, I’d expect him to be much more on top of current financial data than I am. But in today’s post on the commercial paper market, he makes an uncharacteristic mistake — or rather, uncharacteristic for him but highly characteristic of the larger conversation around finance.
According to Felix:
The commercial paper market has to a first approximation become an entirely financial market, a place for banks and shadow banks to do their short-term borrowing while the interbank market remains closed.
According to David S. Scharfstein of Harvard Business School, who also testified last week, of the 50 largest issuers of debt to money market funds today, only two are nonfinancial firms; the rest are banks and other financial companies, many of them foreign.
Once upon a time, before the financial crisis, money-market funds were a mechanism whereby individual investors could make safe, short-term loans to big corporates, disintermediating the banks. But all that has changed now. For one thing, says Davidoff, “about two-thirds of money market users are sophisticated finance investors”. For another, the corporates have evaporated away, to be replaced by financials. In the corporate world, it seems, the price mechanism isn’t working any more: either you’re a big and safe corporate and don’t want to run the refinancing risk of money-market funds suddenly drying up, or else you’re small enough and risky enough that the money market funds don’t want to lend to you at any price.
I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s right.
Reading Felix, you get the clear impression that before the crisis, or anyway not too long ago, most borrowers in the commercial paper market were nonfinancial corporations. It has only “become an entirely financial market” relatively recently, he suggests, as nonfinancial borrowers have dropped out. But, to me at least, the real picture looks rather different.
|Source: Flow of Funds|
The graph shows outstanding financial and nonfinancial commercial paper on the left scale, and the financial share of the total on the right scale. As you can see the story is almost the opposite of the one Felix tells. Financial borrowers have always dominated the commercial paper market, and their share has fallen, not risen, in the wake of the financial crisis and recession. Relative to the economy, nonfinancial commercial paper outstanding is close to where it was at the peak of the past cycle. But financial paper is down by almost two-thirds. As a result, the nonfinancial share of the commercial paper market has doubled, from 7 to 15 percent — the highest it’s been since the 1990s.
Why does this matter? Well, of course, it’s important to get these things right. But I think Felix’s mistake here is revealing of a larger problem.
One of the most dramatic features of the financial crisis of fall 2008, bringing the Fed as close as it got to socializing the means of intermediation, was the collapse of the commercial paper market. But as I’ve written here before, it was almost never acknowledged that the collapse was largely limited to financial commercial paper. Nonfinancial borrowers did not lose access to credit in the way that banks and shadow banks did. The gap between the financial and nonfinancial commercial paper markets wasn’t discussed, I believe, because of the way the crisis was seen entirely through the eyes of finance.
I suspect the same thing is happening with the evolution of the commercial paper market in the past few years. The Flow of Funds shows clearly that commercial borrowing by nonfinancial borrowers has held up reasonably well; the fall in commercial paper lending is limited to financial borrowers. But that banks’ problems are everyone’s problems is taken for granted, or at most justified with a pious handwave about the importance of credit to the real economy.
And that’s the second assumption, again usually unstated, at issue here: that providing credit to households and businesses is normally the main activity of finance, with departures from that role an anomalous recent development. But what if the main action in the financial system has never been intermediating between ultimate lenders and borrowers? What if banks have always mostly been, not to put too fine a point on it, parasites?
During the crisis of 2008 one big question was if it was possible to let the big banks fail, or if the consequences for the real economy would be prohibitively awful. On the left, Dean Baker took the first position while Doug Henwood took the second, arguing that the alternative to bailouts could be a second Great Depression. I was ambivalent at the time, but I’ve been moving toward the let-them-fail view. (Especially if the counterfactual is that governments and central banks putting comparable resources into sheltering the real economy from collapsing banks, as they have into propping them up.) The evolution of the commercial paper market looks to me like one more datapoint supporting that view. The collapse of interbank lending doesn’t seem to have affected nonbank borrowers much.
(Which brings us to a larger point, of whether the continued depressed state of the real economy is due to a lack of access to credit. Obviously I think not, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
An insidious feature of the world we live in is an unconscious tendency to adopt finance’s point of view. This is as true of intellectuals as of everyone else. An anthropologist of my acquaintance, for instance, did his fieldwork on the New York financial industry. Nothing wrong with that — he’s got some very smart things to say about it — but you really can’t imagine someone doing a similar project on any other industry, apart from high-tech internet stuff. In our culture, finance is just interesting in a way that other businesses are not. I’m not exempting myself from this, by the way. The financial crisis and its aftermath was the most exciting time in memory to be thinking about economics; I’m not going to deny it, it was fun. And there are plenty of people on the left who would say that a tendency, which I confess to, to let the conflict between Wall Street and the real economy displace the conflict between labor and capital in our political language, is a symptom — a kind of reaction-formation — of the same intellectual capture.
But that is perhaps over-broadening the point, which is just this: That someone as smart as Felix Salmon could so badly misread the commercial paper market is a sign of how hard we have to work to distinguish the state of the banks, from the state of the economy.