Links and Thoughts for March 15, 2017

Do you guys know The Death Ship? B. Traven’s first novel, the only one not set in Mexico? It begins with an American sailor who goes ashore in the Netherlands, gets distracted as you do, his ship leaves. The Dutch don’t want him, they send him across the border to Germany. The Germans don’t want him, send him to Belgium, the Belgians send him to France. The French send him back to the Netherlands, where he ends up on the eponymous ship. It’s a good book. I was just thinking of it the other day, for some reason.

 

Against the sonderweg. Here is a fascinating article on the pre-history of Swedish social democracy. Contrary to claims of Swedish “sonderweg”, or special path, toward egalitarianism, Erik Bengtsson convincingly shows that until the 1930s, Sweden was not especially egalitarian relative to other West European countries or the US. Both economically and politically, it was at the unequal end of the European continuum, and considerably less equal than the US. “In 1900, it was one of the countries in Western Europe with the most restricted suffrage, and wealth was more unequally distributed than in the United States. …The more likely explanation of Swedish twentieth-century equality, rather than any deep roots, is the extraordinary degree of popular organization in the labour movement and other popular movements” in the 210th century. Income and wealth distribution were similar to France or Britain, while the franchise was more restricted than in any other major West European country. Up through World War One, Swedish politic was dominated by the same kind of “iron and rye” alliance of feudal landowners with big industrialists as Bismarkian Germany. “The exceptional equality of Swedish economy and society c. 1920-1990 did not arrive as the logical conclusion of a long historical continuity”; rather, it was the result of an exceptionally effective mass mobilization against what was previously an unusually inegalitarian state.

More speculatively, Bengtsson suggests that it was precisely the exceptionally strong and persistent domination by a small elite that created the conditions for Swedish social democracy: “the late democratization of Sweden” may have “fostered a liberal-socialist democratizing alliance … [between] petit bourgeois liberals and working-class socialists … unlike Germany, where the greater inclusion of lower-middle class men meant that middle class liberals and haute bourgeois market liberals could unite around a program of economic liberalism.”  It’s a neat inversion of Werner Sombart’s famous argument that “the free gift of the ballot” prior to the appearance of an organized working class was the reason no powerful socialist party ever developed in the United States. Bengttson’s convincing claim that Swedish egalitarianism was not the result of a deep-rooted history but of a deliberate political project to transform a previously inegalitarian society, has obvious relevance for today.

 

High productivity in France. While we are debunking myths about social democracy, here is Thomas Piketty on French productivity. “If we calculate the average labour productivity by dividing the GDP … by the total number of hours worked … we then find that France is at practically the same level as the United States and Germany, … more than 25% higher than the United Kingdom or Italy.” And here’s a 2014 post from Merijn Knibbe making the same point.

 

Against Hamilton. In The Baffler, Matt Stoller argues that Hamilton is overrated. Richard Kreitner makes a similar case in The Nation, with an interestingly off-center focus on Paterson, New Jersey. Christian Parenti (my soon-to-be colleague at John Jay College) made the case for Hamilton not long ago in the Jacobin; he’s writing an introduction to a new edition of Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. This is not a new debate. Twenty years ago, as the books editor of In These Times, I published a piece by Dan Lazare making a similar pro-Hamilton case; it was one of the things that Jimmy Weinstein fired me for.

My sense of these arguments is that one side says that Hamilton was a predecessor of today’s Koch brothers-neocon right, an anti-democratic militarist who believed the country should be governed by and for the top 1 percent; his opponent Jefferson must therefore have been a democrat and anti-imperialist. The other side says that Jefferson was a predecessor of today’s Tea Party right, an all-in racist and defender of slavery who opposed cities, industry and progress; his opponent Hamilton must therefore have been an abolitionist, an open-minded cosmopolitan and a liberal. I am far from an expert on early American politics. But in both cases, I think, the first half of the argument is right, but the second half is much more doubtful. There are political heroes in circa-1800 America, but to find them we are going to have look beyond the universe of people represented on dollar bills.

 

Against malinvestment. Brad Delong has, I think, the decisive criticism of malinvestment theories of the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery. In terms of the volume of investment based on what turned out to be false expectations, and the subsequent loss of asset value, the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s was much bigger than the housing bubble. So why were the macroeconomic consequences so much milder?

 

Selective memory in Germany. Another valuable piece of political pre-history, this one of German anti-Keynesianism by Jörg Bibow. Among a number of valuable points, he describes how German economic debate has been shaped by a strangely selective history of the 20th century, from which depression and mass unemployment – the actual context for the rise of Nazism — have been erased. Failures of economic policy can only be imagined as runaway inflation.

 

The once and future bull market in bonds. Here is an interesting conversation between Srinivas Thiruvadanthai of the Levy Center and Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal of Bloomberg, on the future of the bond market. Thiruvadanthai’s forecast: interest rates can fall quite a bit more in the coming decades. He makes several interesting and, to me, convincing points. First, that in an environment of large balance sheets, we can’t analyze the effects of things like interest rate changes just in terms of the real sector. The main effect of higher rates today wouldn’t be to discourage borrowing, but to raise the burden of existing debt. He also makes the converse argument, which I’m less sure about — that after another round or two of fiscal expansion and unconventional monetary policy, public sector debt could make up a large share of private balance sheets, with proportionately less private debt. Under those conditions, an increase in interest rates would be much less contractionary, or even expansionary, creating the possibility for much larger rate hikes if central banks continue to use conventional policy to stabilize demand.

More generally, he points out that, historically, the peacetime inflation of the 1970s is a unique event over the hundreds of years in which bond markets have existed, so it’s a little problematic to build a whole body of macroeconomic theory around that one episode, as we’ve done. And, he says, capitalism doesn’t normally face binding supply constraints — the vast majority of firms, the vast majority of the time, would be happy to sell more at their current prices. And he expresses some — much-needed, IMO — skepticism about whether central banks can in general hit an inflation target, reliably or at all.

 

Positive money? Here is a vigorous critique of 100 percent reserve backed, or positive, money. (An idea which is a staple of monetary reformers going back at least to David Hume, and perhaps most famous as the Chicago Plan.)  I don’t have a settled view on this idea. I do think it’s interesting that the reforms the positive money people are calling for, are intended to produce essentially the tight link between public liabilities and private assets which MMT people claim already exists. And which Thiruvadanthai thinks we might inadvertently move toward in the future.

 

Captial flows: still unstable. Here’s a useful piece in VoxEU on the volatility of capital flows. Barry Eichengrreen and his coauthors confirm the conventional wisdom among heterodox critics of the Washington Consensus: free movement of finance is the enemy of macroeconomic stability. FDI flows — which are linked to the coordination of real productive activity across borders — are reasonably stable; but portfolio flows remain as prone to sudden stops and reversals as they’ve always been.

 

Killing conscience. Over at Evonomics, Lynn Stout makes the important point that any kind of productive activity depends on trust, norms, and the disinterested desire to do one’s job well – what Michelet called “the professional conscience.” These are undermined by the creation of formal incentives, especially monetary incentives. Incentives obstruct, discourage, even punish, the spontaneous “prosocial” behavior that actually makes organizations work, while encouraging the incentivized people to game the system in perverse ways. under socialism, to speak of someone’s interests will be considered an insult; to give someone incentives will be considered an act of violence.

It’s a good piece; the one thing I would add is that one reason incentives are used so widely despite their drawbacks is that they are are about control, as well as (or rather than) efficiency. Workers’ consciences are very powerful tools at eliciting effort; but the boss who depends on them is implicitly acknowledging a moral claim by those workers, and faces the prospect that conscience may at some point require something other than following orders.

 

The deficit is not the problem. Jared Bernstein makes the same argument about trade that I made in my Roosevelt Institute piece a few months ago. The macroeconomic-policy question posed by US trade deficits should not be, how do we move our trade towards balance? It should be: how do we ensure that the financial inflows that are the counterpart of the deficit, are invested productively?

 

We simply do not know. Nick Rowe has always been one of my favorite economics bloggers – a model for making rigorous arguments in a clear, accessible way. I don’t read him as consistently as I used to, or comment there any more — vita breve and all that — but he still is writing good stuff. Here he makes the common-sensical point  that someone considering investment in long-lived capital goods does not face symmetric risks. “A recession means that capital services are wasted at the margin, because the extra output cannot be sold. But booms are not good, because a bigger queue of customers does nothing for profitability if you cannot produce more to meet the extra demand.” So uncertainty about future economic outcomes — or, what is not quite the same thing, greater expected variance — will depress the level of desired investment. I don’t know if Nick was thinking of Keynes — consciously or unconsciously when he wrote the post, but it’s very much in a Keynesian spirit. I’m thinking especially of the 1937 article “The General Theory of Employment,” where Keynes observes that to carry out investment according to the normal dictates of economic rationality, we must “assume that the present is a much more serviceable guide to the future than a candid examination of past experience would show it to have been hitherto.”

 

The health policy tightrope. The Republican plan health care plan, the CBO says, would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million. I don’t know any reason to question this number. By some estimates, this will result in 40,000 additional deaths a year. By the same estimate, the Democratic status quo leaves 28 million people uninsured, implying a similar body count. Paul Ryan’s idea that health care should be a commodity to be bought in the market is cruel and absurd but the Democrats’ idea that heath insurance should be a commodity bought in the market is not obviously less so. Personally, I’m struggling to find the right balance between these two sets of facts. I suppose the first should get more weight right now, but I can’t let go of the second. Adam Gaffney does an admirable job managing this tightrope act in his assessment of the Obama health care legacy  in Jacobin. (But I think he’s absolutely right, strategically, to focus on the Republicans for the Guardian’s different readership .)

 

On other blogs, other wonders.

I’m looking forward to reading Ann Pettifor’s new book on money. In the meantime, here’s an interview with her in Vogue.

Towards the Garfield left.

The end of austerity is perfectly feasible in Spain.

“Underfunded” doesn’t mean what it sounds like. Based on the excellent Sgouros piece I linked to earlier.

Uber is doomed.

The decline of blue-collar jobs. I admit I was surprised to see what a large share of employment manufacturing accounted for a generation ago.

Perry Anderson: Why the system will win. Very worth reading, like everything Anderson writes. But  too sympathetic to anti-immigrant politics.

The ECB should give money directly to European citizens.

Manchester by the Sea is a good movie. But Margaret is a great movie.

Links and Thoughts for Feb. 17

Minimum wages are good for poor people. Here is an important paper from Arin Dube on the impact of minimum wage increases on family income. Using a variety of approaches, he asks what the record of minimum wage changes tells us about how the effects of the minimum at different points in the income distribution. The core finding is that, in his preferred specification, the elasticity of income at the 10th percentile with respect to the minimum wage is around 0.4 – that is, a one percent increase in the minimum wage will raise income for poor families by close to half a percent. This is, to my mind, a really big number – it suggests that pay at most low-wage jobs is tightly linked to the minimum wage, and that criticism of minimum wages as being badly targeted at low income households is off the mark. Tho to be fair, he also finds that minimum wage increases don’t do much for the very bottom of the distribution, where there is not much wage income to begin with. But beyond whatever this ammo this gives for minimum wage supporters, this is a great example of how you should approach this kind of question as a social scientist. The paper gets out of the box of qualitative debates about job loss that have dominated this debate and makes a positive, quantitative claim about what minimum wages actually do.

This is the effect of a doubling of the state minimum wage on family income, per Dube.

 

Why prefund? I’m still trying to finish this interminable paper on state and local government balance sheets. But one of the big things I’ve learned is that the biggest constraint these governments face is not the terms on which they can borrow, but the extent to which they are required to prefund future expenses. The idea that pensions should be fully funded has a solid basis for private employers but it’s not at all clear that the same arguments apply for governments. It’s good to see that some professionals in state and local finance have come to the same conclusion. Here is a new paper from the Haas Institute on exactly this question. It makes a strong case that the requirement to fully fund public employee pensions is costly and unnecessary, and is an important factor in local government budget crises.

 

Privilege: still exorbitant. Here’s a nice analysis of the international role of the dollar. This is the same argument I tried to make in my Roosevelt Institute piece on trade policy last summer. The Economist says it better:

Unlike other aspects of American hegemony, the dollar has grown more important as the world has globalised, not less. … As economies opened their capital markets in the 1980s and 1990s, global capital flows surged. Yet most governments sought exchange-rate stability amid the sloshing tides of money. They managed their exchange rates using massive piles of foreign-exchange reserves … Global reserves have grown from under $1trn in the 1980s to more than $10trn today.

Dollar-denominated assets account for much of those reserves. Governments worry more about big swings in the dollar than in other currencies; trade is often conducted in dollar terms; and firms and governments owe roughly $10trn in dollar-denominated debt. … the dollar is, on some measures, more central to the global system now than it was immediately after the second world war. …

America wields enormous financial power as a result. It can wreak havoc by withholding supplies of dollars in a crisis. When the Federal Reserve tweaks monetary policy, the effects ripple across the global economy. Hélène Rey of the London Business School argues that, despite their reserve holdings, many economies have lost full control over their domestic monetary policy, because of the effect of Fed policy on global appetite for risk.

… During the heyday of Bretton Woods, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a French finance minister (later president), complained about the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the issuer of the world’s reserve currency. America’s return on its foreign assets is markedly higher than the return foreign investors earn on their American assets…  That flow of investment income allows America to run persistent current-account deficits—to buy more than it produces year after year, decade after decade.

Exactly right. You can have free capital mobility, or you can have a balanced trade for the US. But you can’t have both, as long as the world depends on dollar reserves.

 

Greece: still a catastrophe. Over at Alphaville, Matthew Klein makes a strong case that Greece’s experience in the euro has been uniquely catastrophic – no modern balance of payments crisis elsewhere has led to anything like as large and as sustained a fall in output and employment. Martin Sandbu objects, arguing that the Greek catastrophe is the result of austerity, not of the single currency per se. Which is true, but also, it seems to me, misses the point. The problem with the euro — as Klein more or less says — isn’t mainly that it precludes devaluation, but that it surrenders authority over the basic tools of macroeconomic policy to a foreign authority — an authority, as it turns out, that has been happy to see Greece burn pour encourager les autres.

 

The myth of capital strike. I was more on Team Streeck than Team Tooze in their great LRB showdown. But this followup post by Tooze is very smart. Mostly he’s just trying to bring some much-needed order to a complicated set of debates about the role of private finance, credit markets, central banks and the state. But he also scores, I think, a stronger point against Streeck than in the LRB review: Streeck exaggerates the threat of capital strike in modern “managed-money” economies. As Tooze says:

Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland even Italy and France all experienced bond market attacks. But this is because they were left by the ECB in a situation which was as though they had borrowed their entire sovereign debt in a foreign currency with no central bank support. … That peculiarity is the result of deliberate political construction. To generalize and reify it into a general theory of capitalist democracy in crisis is highly misleading.

I think Tooze is right: behind the apparent power of the bondholders there’s always either a hostile central bank, or else other, stronger countries.

 

Things are speeding up here at the end. From Credit Suisse, here is an interesting discussion of longevity of firms in the S&P 500.

There is a general sense that the rate of change is accelerating and that corporate longevity is shrinking. This assertion appears frequently in the business press. Our research shows a more nuanced picture. Indeed, a common measure of corporate longevity, turnover of the companies in the S&P 500, shows that longevity has lengthened in recent years.

 

A hell of a way to run a railroad. For New Yorkers who are bored of the things they are mad about and want something new to be mad about: The Port Authority capital plan approved this week includes $1.5 billion for Cuomo’s pointless LaGuardia AirTrain. Of course it would be too much to ask that we extend the existing transit system, we have to create a special new system for airport travelers only. But Cuomo’s plan is useless even for them.

 

Strikes: still declining. Various people have been sharing a graph of strikes “involving 1000 or more workers” on Facebook. I expressed some doubts about this – it’s obviously true that the US has seen a drastic decline in strikes and in worker militance in general, but how well is this captured by a series that only includes the largest strikes? Andrew Bossie replies, showing that for the earlier period where we have more comprehensive strike data, it matches the 1000+ series pretty well. Fair enough.

 

Welfare is not only for whites. Here is a useful corrective from Matt Bruenig to claims that the welfare state disproportionately serves white Americans.  I assume the idea behind these arguments is to disarm claim that welfare is just for “them.” But the politics could cut other way – it’s equally easy to see “welfare goes to whites” as a move to advance the idea that racial justice and economic justice are unrelated, even conflicting, goals. Anyway, whatever it rhetorical uses, we still need a clear and honest assessment of how things work. Which Matt as usual provides.

 

TPP is dead … or is it? My collaborator Arjun Jayadev has a nice piece in The Hindu (circulation 1.4 million, not far off the New York Times) on the legacy of the late, unlamented Trans-Pacific Partnership. It can be hard to rememebr, amid the shrieks and shudders and foul smells coming from the Oval Office, how destructive and, in its own way, insane, was the pre-Trump liberal consensus for free trade and endless war.

 

Just give people nice things is a sound basis for policy. When we decided peoples’ houses shouldn’t burn down, we didn’t provide savings accounts for private fire insurance, we hired firefighters and built fire stations. If the broad left takes power again, enough with too-clever-by-half social engineering. Help people and take credit.”

Links for May 25, 2016

Deliberately. The IMF has released its new Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece. Frances Coppola has the details, and they are something. Per the IMF,

Demographic projections suggest that working age population will decline by about 10 percentage points by 2060. At the same time, Greece will continue to struggle with high unemployment rates for decades to come. Its current unemployment rate is around 25 percent, the highest in the OECD, and after seven years of recession, its structural component is estimated at around 20 percent. Consequently, it will take significant time for unemployment to come down. Staff expects it to reach 18 percent by 2022, 12 percent by 2040, and 6 percent only by 2060.

Frances adds:

For Greece’s young people currently out of work, that is all of their working life. A whole generation will have been consigned to the scrapheap. …

The truth is that seven years of recession has wrecked the Greek economy. It is no longer capable of generating enough jobs to employ its population. The IMF estimates that even in good times, 20 percent of adults would remain unemployed. To generate the jobs that are needed there will have to be large numbers of new businesses, perhaps even whole new industries. Developing such extensive new productive capacity takes time and requires substantial investment – and Greece is not the most attractive of investment prospects. Absent something akin to a Marshall Plan, it will take many, many years to repair the damage deliberately inflicted on Greece by European authorities and the IMF in order to bail out the European banking system.

For some reason, that reminds me of this. Good times.

Also, here’s the Economist, back in 2006:

The core countries of Europe are not ready to make the economic reforms they so desperately need—and that will change, alas, only after a diabolic economic crisis. … The sad truth is that voters are not yet ready to swallow the nasty medicine of change. Reform is always painful. And there are too many cosseted insiders—those with secure jobs, those in the public sector—who see little to gain and much to lose. … One reason for believing that reform can happen … is that other European countries have shown the way. Britain faced economic and social meltdown in 1979; there followed a decade of Thatcherite reform. … The real problem, not just for Italy and France but also for Germany, is that, so far, life has continued to be too good for too many people.

I bet they’re pretty pleased right now.

 

 

Polanyism. At Dissent, Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber have a very nice introduction to Karl Polanyi. One thing I like about this piece is that they present Polanyi as a sort of theoretical back-formation for the Sanders campaign.

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters … are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. …

One of the divides within the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been between a social-democratic and a “progressive” but market-friendly vision of addressing social problems. Take, for example, health care. Sanders proposes a single-payer system in which the government pays and health care directly, and he frames it explicitly in the language of rights: “healthcare is a human right and should be guaranteed to all Americans regardless of wealth or income.” … Sanders offers a straightforward defense of decommodification—the idea that some things do not belong in the marketplace—that is at odds with the kind of politics that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered … Polanyi’s particular definition of socialism sounds like one Sanders would share.

 

Obamacare and the insurers. On the subject of health care and decommodification, I liked James Kwak’s piece on Obamacare.

The dirty not-so-secret of Obamacare … is that sometimes the things we don’t like about market outcomes aren’t market failures—they are exactly what markets are supposed to do. …  at the end of the day, Obamacare is based on the idea that competition is good, but tries to prevent insurers from competing on all significant dimensions except the one that the government is better at anyway. We shouldn’t be surprised when insurance policies get worse and health care costs continue to rise.

It’s too bad so many intra-Democratic policy debates are conducted in terms of the radical-incremental binary, it’s not really meaningful. You can do more or less of anything. Would be better to focus on this non-market vs market question.

In this context, I wish there’d been some discussion in the campaign of New York’s new universal pre-kindergarten, which is a great example incremental decommodification in practice. Admittedly I’m a bit biased — I live in New York, and my son will be starting pre-K next year. Still: Here’s an example of a social need being addressed not through vouchers, or tax credits, or with means tests, but through a universal public services, provided — not entirely, but mainly and increasingly — by public employees. Why isn’t this a model?

 

The prehistory of the economics profession. I really liked this long piece by Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the early history of the American Economics Association. The takeaway is that the AEA’s early history was surprisingly radical, both intellectually and in its self-conception as part of larger political project. (Another good discussion of this is in Michael Perelman’s Railroading Economics.) This is history more people should know, and Steinbaum and Weisberger tell it well. I also agree with their conclusion:

That [the economics profession] abandoned “advocacy” under the banner of “objectivity” only raises the question of what that distinction really means in practice. Perhaps actual objectivity does not require that the scholar noisily disclaim advocacy. It may, in fact, require the opposite.

The more I struggle with this stuff, the more I think this is right. A field or discipline needs its internal standards to distinguish valid or well-supported claims from invalid or poorly supported ones. But evaluation of relevance, importance, correspondence to the relevant features of reality can never be made on the basis of internal criteria. They require the standpoint of some outside commitment, some engagement with the concrete reality you are studying distinct from your formal representations of it. Of course that engagement doesn’t have to be political. Hyman Minsky’s work for the Mark Twain Bank in Missouri, for example, played an equivalent role; and as Perry Mehrling observes in his wonderful essay on Minsky, “It is significant that the fullest statement of his business cycle theory was published by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.” But it has to be something. In economics, I think, even more than in other fields, the best scholarship is not going to come from people who are only scholars.

 

Negative rates, so what. Here’s a sensible look at the modest real-world impact of negative rates from Brian Romanchuk. It’s always interesting to see how these things look from the point of view of market participants. The importance of a negative policy rate has nothing to do with the terms on which present consumption trades off against future consumption, it’s about one component of the return on some assets relative to others.

 

I’m number 55. Someone made a list of the top 100 economics blogs, and put me on it. That was nice.

Links for April 12

Maybe I should aspire to do a links post like this once a week. Today is Tuesday; is Tuesday a good day? Or would it be better to break a post like this into half a dozen short ones, and put them up one at a time?

Anyway, some links and thoughts:

 

Public debt in the 21st century. Here is a very nice piece by DeLong, arguing that over the next 50 years, rich countries should see a higher level of public expenditure, and a higher level of public debt, and that even much higher debt ratios don’t have any important economic costs. There’s no shortage of people making this general case, but this is one of the better versions I’ve seen.

The point that the “sustainability” of a given deficit depends on the relation between interest rates and growth rates has of course been made plenty of times, by people like Jamie Galbraith and Scott Fullwiler. But there’s another important point in the DeLong piece, which is that technological developments — the prevalence of increasing returns, the importance of information and other non-rival goods, and in general the development of what Marx called the “cooperative form of the labour process” — makes the commodity form  less and less suitable for organizing productive activity. DeLong sees this as an argument for a secular shift toward government as opposed to markets as our central “societal coordinating mechanism” (and he says “Smithian market” rather than commodity form). But fundamentally this is the same argument that Marx makes for the ultimate supercession of capitalism in the penultimate chapter of Capital.

 

Short-termism at the BIS. Via Enno Schroeder, here’s a speech by Hyun Song Shin of the BIS, on the importance of bank capital. The most interesting thing for my purposes is how he describes the short-termism problem for banks:

Let me now come back to the question as to why banks have been so reluctant to plough back their profits into their own funds. … we may ask whether there are possible tensions between the private interests of some bank stakeholders versus the wider public interest of maintaining a soundly functioning banking system… shareholders may feel they can unlock some value from their shareholding by paying themselves a cash dividend, even at the expense of eroding the bank’s lending base.

As many of the shareholders are asset managers who place great weight on short-term relative performance in competition against their peers, the temptation to raid the bank’s seed corn may become too strong to resist. … These private motives are reasonable and readily understandable, but if the outcome is to erode capital that serves as the bank’s foundation for lending for the real economy, then a gap may open up between the private interests of some bank stakeholders and the broader public interest.

Obviously, this is very similar to the argument I’ve been making for the corporate sector in general. I especially like the focus on asset managers — this is an aspect of the short-termism story that hasn’t gotten enough attention so far. People talk about principal-agent problems here in terms of management as agents and shareholders as principals; but only a trivial fraction of shares are directly controlled by the ultimate owners, so there are plenty of principal-agent problems in the financial sector itself. When asset managers’ performance is evaluated every year or two — not to mention the performance of the individual employees — the effective investment horizon is going to be short, and the discount rate correspondingly high, regardless of the preferences of the ultimate owners.

I also like his diplomatic rejection of a loanable-funds framework as a useful way of thinking about bank lending, and his suggestion that the monetary-policy and supervisory functions of a central bank are not really distinct in practice. (I touched on this idea here.) The obligatory editorializing against negative rates not so much, but I guess it comes with the territory.

 

Market failure and government failure in the euro crisis. This piece by Peter Bofinger gets at some of the contradictions in mainstream debates around the euro crisis, and in particular in the idea that financial markets can or should “discipline” national governments. My favorite bit is this quote from the German Council of Economic Experts:

Since flows of capital as well as goods and services are market outcomes, we would not implicate the ‘intra-Eurozone capital flows that emerged in the decade before the crisis’ as the ‘real culprits’ …Hence, it is the government failures and the failures in regulation … that should take centre-stage in the Crisis narrative.

Well ok then!

 

Visualizing the yield curve. This is a very nice visualization of the yield curve for Treasury bonds since 1999. Two key Keynesian points come through clearly: First, that the short-term rate set by policy has quite limited purchase on the longer term market rates. This is especially striking in the 2000s as the 20- and 30-year rates barely budget from 5% even as the short end swings wildly. But second, that if policy rates are held low enough long enough, they can eventually pull down market rates. The key Keynes texts are here and here; I have some thoughts here, developed further here.

 

Trade myths. Jim Tankersley has a useful rundown in the Washington Post on myths about trade and tariffs. I’m basically on board with it: You don’t have to buy into the idolatry of “free trade” to think that the economic benefits of tariffs for the US today would be minimal, especially compared with the costs they would impose elsewhere. But I wish he had not bought into another myth, that China is “manipulating” its exchange rate. Pegged exchange rates are in general accepted by orthodoxy; for much of modern history they were the norm. And even where exchange rates are not officially pegged or targeted, they are still influenced by all kinds of macroeconomic policy choices. It’s not controversial, for instance, to say that low interest rates in the US tend to reduce the value of the dollar, and thereby boost US net exports. Why isn’t that a form of currency manipulation? (To be fair, people occasionally suggest that it is.) I heard Joe Stiglitz put it well, at an event a year or two ago: There is no such thing as a free-market exchange rate, it’s just a question of whether our central bank sets it, or theirs does. And in any case, the Bank of China’s purchase of dollars has to be considered alongside China’s capital controls, which — given the demand of wealthy Chinese for dollar assets — tend to raise the value of the renminbi. On net, the effect of Chinese government interventions has probably been to keep the renminbi “artificially” high, not low. (As I’ve been saying for years.)

 

The politics of the minimum wage. Here is a nice piece by Stephanie Luce on the significance of New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15. Also in Jacobin, here’s Ted Fertik on why our horrible governor signed onto this and the arguably even more radical paid family leave bill.

It would be a great project for some journalist — I don’t think it’s been done — to explore how, concretely, this was won — the way the target was decided, what the strategy was, who was mobilized, and how. In mainstream press accounts these kinds of reforms seem to spring fully formed from the desks of executives and legislators, midwifed by some suitably credentialed experts. But when you dig beneath the surface there’s almost always been years of grassroots organizing before something like this bears fruit. The groups that do that work tend to avoid the press, I think for good reasons; but at some point it’s important to share with a wider public how the sausage got made. My impression in this case is that the key organizing work was done by Make the Road, but I’d love to see the story told properly. I haven’t yet read my friend Mark Engler’s new book, This Is an Uprising, but I think it has some good analysis of other similar campaigns.

Guest Post on Portugal

(In comments to one of the posts here on Greece, Tiago Lemos Peixoto posted some observations on the situation in Portugal. In response to some questions from me, he sent the message below. We don’t hear much in the US about the the political-economic situation in Portugal, and I thought Tiago’s discussion was interesting enough to post on the front page. I’ve posted his original comment first, and then then the followup. My questions to him are in italics. JWM.)

I am a 37 year old Portuguese, born merely 4 years after a semi fascist dictatorship that furthered our already geographical peripheral position to one of political isolation. We joined the EEC 10 years after that, while still trying to recover from the aftermath of the democratic transition on the promise of cooperation, solidarity, prosperity, and a helping hand in developing our economy to the european standards of living.

Now, let’s forget for a while the fact that such a thing never happend. Instead of modernizing and improving our competitiveness, the EEC brought in fact production quotas to our industries and agriculture, and effected a great many deals that turned out to be unilateral. One example out of many would be our milk and dairy production, which is capable of producing in vast quantities, but due to said quotas are, to this day, often destroyed and wasted so that we don’t outperform.

We didn’t readily see that, however. Along with our joining in 1986 came communitary funds which were generously abundant, almost trickle down. Why would we think about our lack of competitiveness when Europe paid our producers subsidies to cut down excess? Who could really complain when great and bloated artistic endeavours, ambitious new infrastructures were being developed via communitary funds? Or with the tearing down of the old borders, the freedom to move within anywhere in the Schengen space? After the years of dictatorship and extreme poverty, after all that crippling isolation, it seemed like the dawn of a new age. And there are striking paralels to Greece here as well, what with their being a peripheral country who survived a period of dictatorship.

Add to that the promise of the €. Now, that one was harder to sell, since it actually doubled a lot of the prices, but hey, all seemed to be going so well, surely it would all adjust soon, and this is just another step to an unified Europe of progress.

That’s what we’ve been pretty much conditioned to believe, and that is the mindset that made people equate the European project with prosperity. For the Greeks, it’s very likely that any Greek between 50 and 60 grew up in a dictatorship, and same goes to every Portuguese between 40 and 90. Adults like myself grew up with the European Union and its promise of a better world and barely know any world outside of it. And communitary funds, even if they’re all almost universally badly applied, worked like a Skinner’s box of sorts.

And now, they threaten us, the adults who barely know a world outside EEC/EU, the young adults who grew up on the possibilities given by Erasmus projects, the older people who grew up or lived through overt dictatorships, that all this can go away. And that with it comes fire and brimstone, that we HAD to join the € because our currency was too weak (and what better argument to NOT join the Euro?) and would be even more worthless if we were to readopt it. They throw the ghosts of market anathema at us, “leaving the Euro would be catastrophic, the markets react just from your mere mention of it, you really want to go back to those bad old days? Do you really want to be out of the cool kids’ club, and have no EU funding for your arts association anymore?”

That is why we fear the alternative, even as we begin to see the bars that hold our gilded cage.

Is there any kind of organized challenge to austerity there? Is there any kind of left opposition party?

Well, there is, and there isn’t. The most consistent and organized opposition is the local Communist Party (PCP), which commands a respectable position in parliament (about 11%). What’s more significant, the vote on PCP has been relatively unchanged since the 1974 revolution, so they’re a familiar presence in our democracy, and relatively well respected outside of its circles for the fact that they were the “vanguard” against Salazar’s regime. They’re incredibly well organized and have the support of the majority of the unions. They’re also relatively less “orthodox” than something like the KKE, for the most part. However, despite all this, their voting base is incredibly stable for better and for worse.

Then there’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc or BE) which could be seen as our own Syriza: a broad front of minor leftist parties of different traditions, disgruntled communists and modern socialists which formed 15 years ago and was on the rise in parliament. They took a huge hit in the last elections, though, through a combination of leadership bickerings, lack of cohesive message, and the center left Socialist Party (PS) being able to sideline them via pushing BE’s social issues agenda on issues like women and LGBT rights. Many saw BE a bit redundant after PS pushed those issues through parliament. They managed to have around 12% at their best, got 5-6% on the last election.

And that’s the extent of organized opposition. BE and PCP do work together a lot better both in parliament and on the streets than in other countries and are a lot closer than say, KKE and Syriza. But whereas PCP’s strength and weakness lies in the rigidity of its speech, BE has failed to have an open discussion on issues like debt restructuring and the like.

Social movements were strong for a while in 2010-2012, and were a ineffectual, uncohesive mess after that, I’m sad to say. There was a strong grass roots response to the austerity packages with absolutely gigantic demonstrations occuring in 2011-2012. But there was also failure to plainly articulate a political alternative, as well as the prevalent “sibling rivalries” that so often fracture these kinds of movements. The government and mainstream media narrative effectively pushed back via Thatcher’s “TINA”, and it’s not so much that people bought the narrative, but they’re failing to see anyone present anything else.

Dairy has been an issue in Greece too, it’s specifically mentioned in the new agreement. It seems as tho the crude mercantilist arguments, which I think mostly miss the larger picture, really may be the story in agriculture.

There is an apparent mercantilist side to the way that the EU is constructed. In many ways, it’s a paradox: its current ruling minds come from that neoliberal school of Thatcher and Reagan policies, but the actual construct is almost neo-colonial, with very apparenty peripheries and semi peripheries forming around the German epicenter. Any analysis of trade relations will show Germany as either the no. 1 or no. 2 exporter to other European countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, all of those have Germany in their top 2 of imports. Which is, I believe, all the more significant when you cross that data with the prevalence of production quotas.

Though I’d argue that in Portugal’s specific case, these quotas end up helping Spain, especially in terms of food products. Germany’s our second larger import origin, but we import a staggering 27% from Spain alone. Now, though I’m no economist and my field lies in History, I do believe this is a rabbit hole worth chasing.

Has there been significant liberalization in Portugal over the past five years? Rolling back of labor laws, weakening of unions, cutting back pensions, etc.? In other words, has the crisis worked?

It has. Completely. Nearly anything that could be privatized, including energy, our airfields, our air company, our telecommunications grids our energetic infrastructure, our mail service, all have been sold off at the time we’re speaking. It’s worth mentioning that, while it could be argued that there were severe deficiencies in the management of these companies, nearly all of them actually turned a profit. So, selling off, say, our energy for €3 billion 5 years ago stops being an impressive feat when we see that the company’s profits were at about €1 billion/year, and we’d have €2 billion more at our disposal by not selling.

Collective bargaining took a major hit. Most new jobs are being created on a temporary basis. People have in fact been “temps” without social welfare benefits for more than ten years now in many cases (this did not start with the crisis, but did speed up considerably). Others work under weekly renewable temp contracts, which can prolong themselves for months. Our minimum wage is net €505/month, but many make less than that by working 6.5 hour long “part time” jobs for €300-400. Any company can hire you and sign temp contracts with you for a period of 3 years during which the rules are more or less “at will”; firing you sometime during those 3 years, waiting a couple of months and then calling you back to rehire you (obviously resetting that 3 year grace period) is a very common occurence. Unpaid internships are the norm, with some of them taking on surreal form. Unpaid internships for bartender or hairdresser are things we can see on job websites and ads papers.
Unemployment is predictably high, currently at 14% after a 18% peak. We should account for the fact that Portugal measures unemployment by the number of people who have enrolled in our unemployment centers. Which are ineffective to Kafkaesque levels, often summoning you by letter to interviews which have already happened by the time you received that letter, at which point you’re out of the center (and the stats) and have to justify your absence or wait for four months before you can enroll again. Add to those numbers the fact that half a million left the country in the last 5 years. In a country of 10 million, that means 5% of our population, most of them college educated youths between 20 and 35 is absent from the active population.

But despite all that, despite the 6% GDP contraction, or the fact that the austerity measures actually skyrocketed the debt from 95% to 130%, we’re told (in an election year, no less) that we can rest assured in the fact that we’re not Greece (which if one wants to argue that we’ve been put under a slow burn as opposed to Greece’s scorched earth can be a point I do concede), and that “though the Portuguese are worse off, the country is better” (actual quote from Luis Montenegro, Parliamentary leader to the majority party), and that the worst has passed, and austerity is a thing of the past… though they need to make an extra 500 millions in pension cuts this year alone.

Draghi Makes His Case

A few unorganized thoughts on yesterday’s press conference. Video is here. Transcript is … do they even publish transcripts of these things?

Draghi’s introductory remarks didn’t mention Greece but of course that’s what all the questions were about. The big question were about liquidity assistance (ELA) to Greek banks and under what conditions Greek debt would be included in quantitative easing, a big expansion of which was just announced.

There’s no way to hide the hypocrisy of the simultaneous expansion of QE and continued limits on ELA. You can say, the markets don’t want to hold this debt so we need to reduce our holdings too, to avoid excessive risk — then you are acting like a private bank. Or you can say, the markets don’t want to hold this debt so we need to increase our holdings, to keep its yield down — then you are acting like a central bank. But there’s no basis for applying one of these logics to Greece and the other to the rest of the euro area.

There was also no explanation for the decision to raise the ELA cap by 900 million. Draghi kept repeating the formula “solvent banks with adequate collateral” but obviously this implies a bank by bank assessment, not a hard cap for the country as a whole. Anyway, the logic of a lender of last resort is that, if you are going to support the banks, you need to be prepared to lend as much as it takes. A limited program only makes the problem worse, by encouraging depositors and other holders of short-term liabilities to get out before its exhausted. Paul de Grauwe has the right analysis here:

The correct announcement of the ECB should be that it will provide all the necessary liquidity to the Greek banks. Such an announcement will pacify depositors. Knowing that the banks have sufficient cash to pay them out they will stop running to the bank. Like the OMT, such an announcement will stop the banking crisis without the ECB actually having to provide much liquidity to the Greek banks.

These are first principles of how a central bank should deal with a banking crisis. I would be very surprised if the very intelligent men (and one woman) in Frankfurt did not know these first principles. This leads me to conclude that the ECB has other objectives than stabilizing the Greek banking system. These objectives are political. The ECB continues to put pressure on the Greek government to behave well. The price of this behavior by the ECB is paid by millions of Greeks.

Logically, ELA should either be ended or else provided on the a sufficient scale to restore confidence and end the run. Draghi suggested that there was something moderate and “proportional” about choosing a course in between, but this is incoherent. I was also very struck that he felt the need to reject the accusation that “there was bank run deliberately caused by the ECB,” which no one there had made. Remember that old line, attributed to Claud Cockburn: Never believe something until it’s been officially denied.

Another thing I found interesting was how much he treated the Bank of Greece as an independent actor, frequently referring to decisions “taken by the ECB and the Bank of Greece” and even trying to pass the buck to them on questions like whether the additional ELA was sufficient (“we have fully accommodated the Bank of Greece’s request”) and when the Greek banks would be able to reopen. Establishing that the national central banks have independent authority will be important if they become a terrain of struggle in future conflicts between popular governments and the euro authorities.

On the question of when the Greek banks would reopen, after deferring to the BoG, he then said that they hold all this government paper (which isn’t actually true — the ECB’s own numbers show that Greek banks have the lowest proportion of government loans on their books of any major euro-area country) and their solvency and the adequacy of their collateral therefore depend on what’s going on with the government. “The quality of the collateral depends on the quality of the discussions” with the creditors was one way he put it, a more or less explicit acknowledgement that this decision is being made on political criteria.

Someone asked him point-blank how the Greek banks could be ineligible for assistance when the ECB’s own analysis had concluded they were solvent; someone else asked why a hard cap was being announced when this was never done for individual banks, precisely because of concerns wit would intensify a panic. At this point (around 40:00 in the video) he changed tack again. Now he said that this was a special case because it wasn’t about conditions at individual banks but about a “systemic” problem of a whole banking system, so the old rules didn’t apply. Which of course made nonsense of the “solvency and adequate collateral” formula, without doing anything to justify the ECB’s actions.

On the question of whether or when Greek bonds would be included in QE, Draghi’s initial non-answer was “when they become eligible for monetary policy.” Pressed by the reporter (around 56:00), he turned to vice-president Constâncio, who explained that if a country’s bonds were rated below investment-grade, they could only be purchased by the ECB if (1) there was an IMF program in place and (2) the ECB’s Governing Council determines that there is “credible compliance” with the program. [1] Here again we see how monetary policy is used to advance a particular policy agenda, and more broadly, a nice illustration of how market and state power articulate. The supposed judgement of the markets is actually enforced by public agencies.

One of the few departures from Greece was when Draghi got going — I can’t remember in response to what — about the need for deeper “capital market integration.” Which seems nuts. Who, looking at the situation in Europe today, would say, You know what we really need? More uncontrolled international lending. It’s just like Dani Rodrik’s parable:

Imagine landing on a planet that runs on widgets. You are told that international trade in widgets is highly unpredictable and volatile on this planet, for reasons that are poorly understood. A small number of nations have access to imported widgets, while many others are completely shut out even when they impose no apparent obstacles to trade. With some regularity, those countries that have access to widgets get too much of a good thing, and their markets are flooded with imported widgets. This allows them to go on a widget binge, which makes everyone pretty happy for a while. However, such binges are often interrupted by a sudden cutoff in supply, unrelated to any change in circumstances. The turnaround causes the affected economies to experience painful economic adjustments. For reasons equally poorly understood, when one country is hit by a supply cutback in this fashion, many other countries experience similar shocks in quick succession. Some years thereafter, a widget boom starts anew.

Your hosts beg you for guidance: how should they deal with their widget problem? Ponder this question for a while and then ponder under what circumstances your central recommendation would be that all extant controls on international trade in widgets be eliminated.

 

[1] I’m not sure but I believe these standards were established by the ECB itself, and not by any of its governing legislation. So the answer is evasive in another way. In general, watching these things makes clear how helpful it is in resisting popular pressure to have multiple, shifting, overlapping authorities. Any decision can be presented as an objective constraint imposed from somewhere else.

 

UPDATE: Nathan Tankus has some very sharp observations on the press conference.

 

Lessons from the Greek Crisis

The deal, obviously it looks bad. No sense in spinning: It’s unconditional surrender. It is bad.

There’s no shortage of writing about how we got here. I do think that we — in the US and elsewhere — should resist the urge to criticize the Syriza government, even for what may seem, to us, like obvious mistakes. The difficulty of taking a position in opposition to “Europe” should not be underestimated. It’s one of the ironies of history that the prestige of social democracy, earned through genuine victories by and for working people, is now one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who would destroy it. For a sense of the constraints the Syriza government has operated under, I particularly recommend this interview with an unnamed senior advisor to Syriza, and this interview with Varoufakis.

Personally I don’t think I can be a useful contributor to the debate about Syriza’s strategy. I think those of us in the US should show solidarity with Greece but refrain from second-guessing the choices made by the government there. But we can try to better understand the situation, in support of those working to change it. So, 13 theses on the Greek crisis and the crisis next time.

These points are meant as starting points for further discussion.  I will try to write about each of them in more detail, as I have time.

Continue reading Lessons from the Greek Crisis

Greece Thoughts and Links

Like everyone sympathetic to Greece in the current crisis, I was pleased by the size of the “No” vote in last weekend’s referendum. Even taking into account support from the far right, the 62% for No represents a significant increase in support from the 36% of the vote SYRIZA got in January.

But, I’m not sure how the vote changes the situation in any substantive way. Certainly it hasn’t led to any softening of the creditors’ position. The situation remains what it was before: Greece must comply with the full list of policy changes demanded by the creditors, and any further changes demanded in the future, or else the central bank will keep the Greek banking system shut down. The debt itself is just a pretext on both sides — repayment is not really what the creditors want, and default isn’t really what they are threatening.

I continue to think that the Bank of Greece is the key strategic terrain in this contest. If the elected government can regain control of the central bank — in defiance of eurosystem norms if need be — then it removes the source of the creditors’ power over the Greek economy. There is no need for a new currency in this scenario. If the Bank of Greece simply goes back to performing the usual functions of a central bank, instead of engaging in what is, in effect, a politically-motivated strike, then Greek banks can reopen and the Greek government can finance needed spending without the consent of the official creditors.

More broadly, I think we cannot understand the economics of the situation unless we clearly understand that “money,” in modern economies, refers to a network of promises between banks and not a set of tokens. In this sense, I don’t think it makes sense to think of being in or out of a currency as a simple binary. As Perry Mehrling emphasizes, there have always been overlapping networks of money-contracts, with various economic units participating in multiple networks to different degrees.

Here are a few relevant links, some spelling out my thoughts more, some useful background material.

 

1. Here is an interview with me on the podcast RadioDispatch. If you don’t mind listening rather than reading, this is my fullest attempt to explain the logic of the crisis.

RadioDispatch interview June 2015

 

2. I had a productive discussion with Dan Davies on this Crooked Timber thread. Since my last comment there got stuck in moderation for some reason, I’m reposting it here:

From my point of view, the key question is whether the ECB is constrained by, or at least acting in accordance with, the normal principles of central banking, or if it is deliberately withholding support from the Greek banking system in order to advance a political agenda.

Obviously, I think it’s the second. (And I think this is really the only leverage the creditors have — there is no reason that a default in itself should be particularly costly to Greece.) On whether it is plausible that the ECB would (ab)use its authority this way, I think that is unequivocally demonstrated by the letters sent to the governments of ItalySpain and Ireland during those countries’ sovereign debt crises in 2011. In return for support of those countries’ sovereign debt markets, the ECB demanded a long list of unrelated reforms, mainly focused on labor-market liberalization. There is no credible case that many of these reforms (for instance banning cost-of-living clauses in private employment contracts) were connected with the immediate crisis or even with public budgets at all. I think it can be taken as proven that the EC has, in the past, deliberately refused to perform its function of stabilizing the financial system, in order to put pressure on elected governments.

We can debate how exactly this precedent fits Greece. But I don’t think a central bank that allows its country’s banking system to collapse can ever be said to be doing its job. Every modern central bank — including the ECB with respect to every euro-area country except Greece — will go to heroic lengths, bending or ignoring rules as need be, to keep the payments system operating.

 

3. Over at The Week, I talk with Jeff Spross about the idea that changes in private financial flows between euro-area countries can be passively offset by balances between the national central banks in the TARGET2 system, avoiding the need to mangle the real economy to produce rapid adjustment of trade flows.

Like many critics of the euro system, I used to think that they had succeeded in creating something like a modern gold standard, and that the only way crises could be avoided was with a fiscal union, so that public flows could offset shifts in financial flows. But I no longer think this is correct, I think that the TARGET2 system can, and has, offset changes in private financial flows without the need for any fiscal payments.

(The Week also had a nice writeup of the Reagan-debt post.)

 

4. I reached this conclusion after reading several pieces by Philippine Cour-Thimann, who is the source for understanding TARGET2 and its role both in the normal operations of the euro system and in the crisis. I recommend this one to start with. (Incidentally it was my friend Enno Schröder who told me about Cour-Thimann.)

 

5. One topic I’ve wanted to get into more is the (in my view) limited capacity of relative-price adjustments to balance trade even when exchange rates are flexible. In the past, I’ve made this argument on the crude empirical grounds that Greece had large trade deficits continuously for decades before it joined the euro. I’ve also pointed out Enno’s work showing that the growth of European trade imbalances owes nothing to expenditure switching toward German products and away from Greek, Spanish, etc., but is entirely explained by the more rapid income growth in the latter countries. Now here is another interesting piece of evidence on this question from the ECB, a big new study finding that while there is a substantial fall in exports in response to large appreciations, there is no discernible growth in exports in response to depreciations. This fits with the idea, which I attribute to Robert Blecker, that in a world where prices are mainly set in destination markets rather than by producer costs, changes in exchange rates show up in exporter profit margins rather than directly in sales volumes. And while large losses will certainly cause some exporting firms to exit or fail, large (potential) profits are only one of a number of conditions required for exporters to grow, let alone for the creation of new exporting industries.

 

6. This is a great post by Steve Randy Waldman.

 

7. Here’s an interesting find from a friend: In the 1980s, Fidel Castro proposed “a cartel of debtor nations” that would require their creditors to negotiate with them as a group. See pages 278-285 of this anthology.

 

UPDATE: Re item 2, here’s Martin Wolf today (his links):

The European Central Bank could expand its emergency lending to the Greek banking system. If the ECB were a normal central bank that is exactly what it would do. Greece has a run on its banks. As the lender of last resort, the central bank ought to lend into such a run. If the ECB believes the banks are solvent, it must lend. If the ECB believes the banks are insolvent, it should arrange recapitalisation — by converting non-insured liabilities into equity, by selling banks to new owners or by securing funding from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Unfortunately, the ECB is not a normal central bank…

What Greece Must Do

Greece doesn’t need a new currency, it needs control over its central bank.

The Greek crisis is not fundamentally about Greek government debt. Nor in its current acute current form, is it about the balance of payments between Greece and the rest of the world. Rather, it is about the Greek banking system, and the withdrawal of support for it by the central bank. The solution accordingly is for Greece to regain control of its central bank.

I can’t properly establish the premise here. Suffice to say:

(1) On the one hand, the direct economic consequences of default are probably nil. (Recall that Greece in some sense already defaulted, less than five years ago.) Even if default resulted in a complete loss of access to foreign credit, Greece today has neither a trade deficit nor a primary fiscal deficit to be financed. And with respect to the fiscal deficit, if the Greek central bank behaved like central banks in other developed countries, financing a deficit domestically would not be a problem. And with respect to the external balance, the evidence, both historical and contemporary, suggests that financial markets do not in fact punish defaulters. (And why should they? — the extinction of unserviceable debt almost by definition makes a government a better credit risk post-default, and capitalists are no more capable of putting principle ahead of profit in this case than in others). The costs of default, rather, are the punishment imposed by the creditors, in this case by the ECB. The actual cost of default is being paid already — in the form of shuttered Greek banks, the result of the refusal of the Bank of Greece to extend them the liquidity they need to honor depositors’ withdrawal requests. [1]

(2) On the other hand, Greece’s dependence on its official creditors is not, as most people imagine, simply the result of an unwillingness of the private sector to hold Greek government debt, but also of the ECB’s decision to forbid — on what authority, I don’t know — the Greek government from issuing more short-term debt. [2] This although Greek T-bills, held in large part by the private sector, currently carry interest rates between 2 and 3 percent — half what Greece is being charged by the ECB. And of course, it’s not so many years since other European countries were facing fiscal crises — in 2011-2012 rates on Portugal’s sovereign debt hit 14 percent, Ireland’s 12, and Spain and Italy were over 7 percent and headed upwards. At these rates these countries’ debt ratios — not much lower than Greece’s — would have ballooned out of control and they also would have faced default. Why didn’t that happen? Not because of fiscal surpluses, delivered through brutal austerity — fiscal adjustments in those countries were all much milder than in Greece. Rather, because the ECB intervened to support their sovereign debt markets, and announced an open-ended willingness to do “whatever it takes” to preserve their ability to borrow within the euro system. This public commitment was sufficient to convince private investors to hold these countries’ debt, at rates not much above Germany’s. Needless to say, no similar commitment has been made for Greek sovereign debt. Quite the opposite.

So to both questions — why is failure to reach agreement with its official creditors so devastating for Greece; and why is the Greek government in hock to those creditors in the first place? — the answer is, the policies of the central bank. And specifically its refusal to fulfill the normally overriding duties of a central bank, stabilization of the banking system and of the market for government debt, a refusal in the service of a political agenda. The problem so posed, the solution is clear: Greece must regain control of its central bank.

Now, most people assume this means it must leave the euro and (re)introduce its own currency. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. It’s not widely realized, but the old national central banks did not cease to exist when the euro was created. [1] In fact, not only do they continue to operate, they perform almost all the day to day operation of central banking in the euro area, with, on paper, a substantial degree of autonomy from the central authorities in Brussels. So what’s required is not “exit,” not a radical step by the Greek government. Rather simply a change in personnel at the Bank of Greece. The BoG only needs to halt what is in effect a politically motivated strike, and return to performing the usual functions of a central bank.

Now, I cannot exclude the possibility that if Greece takes steps to neutralize the creditors’ main weapon, they will retaliate in other ways, which will result in the eventual exit of Greece from the euro. (Though “exit” is not as black and white as people suppose. [2]) But this would be a political choice by the creditors, not in any way a result of economic logic. We should not speak of exit in that case, but embargo.

Here is my proposal:

 

1. The Greek government takes control of the Bank of Greece. It replaces the BoG’s current leadership — holdovers from the old conservative government, appointed at the 11th hour when Syriza was on the brink of power — with suitably qualified people who support the program of Greece’s elected government. The argument is made that the central bank has abused its mandate, and failed in its fundamental duty to maintain the integrity of the banking system, in order to advance a political agenda.

Either legislation could be passed explicitly subordinating the BoG to the elected government, or use could be made of existing provisions for removal of central bank officials for cause. The latter may not be feasible and we don’t want to get bogged down in formalities. Central bankers have critical public function and if they won’t do it, they must be replaced with others who will. Whatever the law may say.

 

2. The new Bank of Greece leadership commit publicly to maintain the integrity of the Greek payments system, to protect deposits in Greek banks and to prevent bank runs — the same commitment the ECB has repeatedly made for banks elsewhere in Europe. The Greek government asserts its rights to license banks and resolve bank failures. Capital controls are imposed. Greek banks reopen.

 

3. If necessary, the BoG resumes Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) or equivalent loans to Greek banks. While the promise to do this is important, it probably won’t be necessary to actually resume ELA on any significant scale because:

– removing the previous threats to withdraw support from Greek banks will end the bank run and probably lead to the voluntary return of deposits to Greek banks.

– capital controls and, if necessary, continued limits on cash withdrawals, block any channels for deposits to leave the Greek banking system.

– resumption of Greek payments to public employees, pensioners, etc., to be soon followed by resumed economic growth, will automatically increase the deposit base of Greek banks.

 

4. The Greek government resumes spending at a level consistent with domestic needs, including full pay for civil servants, full payment of pensions, etc. Taxes similarly are set according to macroeconomic and distribution objectives. The resulting fiscal deficit is funded by issue of new debt to domestic purchasers. This new debt will be senior to existing debt to the public creditors.

It may be that this debt will end up being held by the banks, but that is no big deal. Greek government debt currently accounts for less than 6 percent of the assets of Greek banks, the lowest of many major European country and barely half the euro-area average. And in the absence of capital flight, bank assets and deposits will increase in line, so there is no need for any additional financing from the Bank of Greece. Even more: If resolution of the crisis leads to a repatriation of Greek savings abroad, then the increase in deposit liabilities of Greek banks will be balanced by increased reserves at (or rather reduced liabilities to) the Bank of Greece. The BoG in turn will acquire a more positive Target balance, or if it’s ejected from Target (see below), an equivalent increase in foreign exchange holdings.

 

5. The interest rate on the new debt needs to be comfortably less than the expected nominal growth rate of the Greek economy. I see no reason why this will not be true of market rates — there are already private holders of Greek T-bills with yields between 2 and 3 percent, and the combination of a Greek central bank committed to stabilizing the market for Greek public debt, and capital controls preventing Greek banks and wealth holders from acquiring foreign assets, should tend to push rates down from current levels. But if necessary, the Greek central bank will have sufficient hard and soft tools to get Greek banks to hold the new debt at acceptable rates.

 

6. The official creditors are offered a take-it-or-leave-it swap of existing loans for new debt. (I think this kind of forced restructuring is preferable to outright repudiation for various reasons.) The new debt will have a combination of writedown of face value of the current debt, maturity extensions and reduced interest rates so as to keep annual payments at some reasonable level. I think it might be better to avoid an explicit reduction of face value and simply offer, let’s say, 30 year bonds paying 2%, of equal face value to the current debt. It would be best if the new bonds were “Greek-denominated.” Perhaps it’s sufficient to say that the new bonds are issued under Greek law.

 

7. The Greek government must be prepared for declarations from the creditors that its actions are illegal, and for possible retaliation. Rhetorically, it may be helpful to emphasize that Greece remains sovereign and Greek law continues to control the Greek central bank and private banks; that the ECB (and its agents at the Bank of Greece) have abused their authority to advance a political agenda; and that the wellbeing of the Greek people must take priority over treaty obligations. But framing may not make much difference here and anyway these kinds of tactical-political questions are for the Syriza leadership and not for an American sympathizer.

What concrete form will creditor retaliation take? One possibility is they will stop deposits in Greek banks from being used to make payments elsewhere in Europe, by shutting off Bank of Greece access to Target2, the settlement system that currently clears balances between national central banks within the eurosystem. [3] Concretely, lack of access to Target2 needn’t be crippling. Payments within Greece won’t be affected, domestic interbank settlement can use accounts at the Bank of Greece just the same as now. Foreign payments will be made using deposits at banks in the exporting country, just as trade payments outside the euro area are already made. Since Greece currently has a small trade surplus, there is no need for anyone outside of Greece to accept a Greek bank deposit in payment. And even if foreign borrowing is desired, the resulting funds can take the form of deposits at a bank in the lending country — again, just as already happens for loan transactions outside the euro area. In effect, by cutting off Target2 the ECB will just be helping Greece enforce its capital controls.

Now one potential issue is the foreign obligations of private Greek units. Can they be paid with deposits in Greek banks? Let’s be clear that a negative answer requires a change in the law by the other euro countries — they are the ones that will redenominate, not Greece. But to be safe, Greece should pass a law clarifying that euro-denominated deposits at Greek banks are legal tender for all existing payment obligations by Greek households or businesses. And it would be good to have a sense of the scale of such obligations.

Assuming Greece loses access to Target2, its export earnings, going forward, will take the form of deposits in non-Greek banks or equivalent claims on non-Greek financial institutions. Which leads to…

 

8. It is critical to ensure that Greek export earnings are available to finance Greek imports. Many discussions of Greek default focus on what are, to my mind, non- or minor problems, while ignoring this major one. [4] If payment for Greek exports takes the form of deposits in foreign banks, as will presumably be the case of Target2 access is shut off, steps must be taken to ensure that those deposits are available for import payments rather being used to finance private acquisition of foreign assets.

Given Greece’s overall near-zero trade balance, access to foreign loans should not be necessary to finance continued imports. But this assumes that export earnings are available to finance imports. There is a danger that exporters will seek to evade capital controls by holding export earnings abroad, manipulating invoices if necessary to disguise noncompliance with the law. This is a serious problem in subsaharan Africa and elsewhere — individuals involved in foreign trade overstate the value of imports and understate the value of exports in order to retain foreign earnings abroad for their personal use. This kind of capital flight can leave a country that notionally has a positive trade balance nonetheless dependent on foreign borrowing to finance its imports. (Ireland is a recent example within the euro area.) The Greek government needs to have enforcement mechanisms to ensure that export earnings are used to finance imports and not to accumulate foreign assets. This should be straightforward where foreign sales are easily visible to regulators, as in tourism or refining, but may be challenging in the case of shipping.

Other European countries will presumably not be cooperative with Greece’s efforts to enforce capital controls. This is a reality that has to be planned for, but it also should be called what it is: Collusion with criminals to steal goods and services from Greece.

 

9. The government may need to ration foreign exchange. If capital controls are ineffective, or, in the first year or two, if seasonal variation in Greek exports swamps the overall balance, Greek export earnings may be insufficient to pay for current imports for some period, and foreign credit may not be available. This need not be a crisis. But it does mean that the government should be prepared to allocate scarce foreign exchange to particular sectors. The mechanisms to do this are already implicit in the imposition of capital controls. And the centralized allocation of foreign exchange is consistent with….

 

10. In the long run Greece should learn from the model of Korea and similar late industrializers. (This, also, is the argument for nationalizing the banks, rather than the fact that the “true” value of their assets, in some sense, leaves them insolvent.) Little if any boost to Greece’s net exports should be expected from devaluation. The goal rather must be to channel savings and foreign exchange to sectors that are not currently competitive, but that plausibly might become so.  Centralized allocation of credit and foreign exchange is needed to transform the industrial structure, rather than passively following current comparative advantage.

 

[1]  Those requests themselves are largely the result of the hysterical fear-mongering by the BoG and its masters in Greece, the exact opposite of the normal efforts of central bankers to prevent panics. In any case, the rules of the eurosystem give the ECB/BoG almost unlimited discretion with respect to liquidity assistance, so they can’t claim this decision is forced on them.

[2] You can think of a continuum from current membership, to the situation of Cyprus with capital controls, to Andorra which prints its own euro currency but does not have shares in the ECB, to Montenegro which uses the euros as domestic currency without any formal participation, to Denmark which has its own currency but clears balances with euro-area central banks through a Target2 account at the ECB.

[3] The best discussions of Target2 I know of are by Philippine Cour-Thimann.

[4] Here as so often, the political authorities step in to do what “market forces” supposedly ought to be doing but aren’t.

[5] Don’t believe the stories you will hear that this is somehow a necessary or automatic reaction to replacement of BoG leadership. It is not. Countries that are not in the euro at all are still permitted to participate in Target2.

[6] When I was debating this stuff with the very smart Nathan Tankus a few days ago, he brought up the possibility that foreign ATM cards wouldn’t work in Greece, and of an adverse ruling from the European Court of Justice. Oh no!