Links for October 14

Now we are making progress. This piece by CEA chair Jason Furman on “the new view” of fiscal policy seems like a big step forward for mainstream policy debate. He goes further than anyone comparably prominent in rejecting the conventional macro-policy wisdom of the past 30 years. From where I’m sitting, the piece advances beyond the left edge of the current mainstream discussion in at least three ways.

First, it abandons the idea of zero interest rates as a special state of exception and accepts the idea of fiscal policy as a routine tool of macroeconomic stabilization. Reading stuff like this, or like SF Fed President John Williams saying that fiscal policy should be “a first responder to recessions,” one suspects that the post-1980s consensus that stabilization should be left to the central banks may be gone for good. Second, it directly takes on the idea that elected governments are inherently biased toward stimulus and have to be institutionally restrained from overexpansionary policy. This idea — back up with some arguments about  the“time-inconsistency” of policy that don’t really make sense — has remained a commonplace no matter how much real-world policy seems to lean the other way. It’s striking, for instance, to see someone like Simon Wren-Lewis rail against “the austerity con” in his public writing, and yet in his academic work take it as an unquestioned premise that elected governments suffer from “deficit bias.” So it’s good to see Furman challenge this assumption head-on.

The third step forward is the recognition that the long-run evolution of the debt ratio depends on GDP growth and interest rates as well as on the fiscal balance. Some on the left will criticize his assumption that the debt ratio is something policy should be worried about at all — here the new view has not yet broken decisively with the old view; I might have some criticisms of him on this point myself. But it’s very important to point out, as he does, that “changes in the debt ratio depend on two factors: the difference between the interest rate and the growth rate… and the primary balance… The larger the debt is, the more changes in r – g dwarf the primary balance in the determination of debt dynamics.” (Emphasis added.) The implication here is that the “fiscal space” metaphor is backward — if the debt ratio is a target for policy, then a higher current ratio means you should focus more on growth, and that responsibility for the “sustainability” of the debt rests more with the monetary authority than the fiscal authority. Admittedly Furman doesn’t follow this logic as far as Arjun and I do in our paper, but it’s significant progress to foreground the fact the debt ratio has both a numerator and a denominator.

If you’re doubting whether there’s anything really new here, just compare this piece with what his CEA chair predecessor Christina Romer was saying a decade ago — you couldn’t ask for a clearer statement of what Furman now rejects as “the old view.” It’s also, incidentally, a sign of how far policy discussions — both new view and old view — are from academic macro. DSGE models and their associated analytic apparatus don’t have even a walk-on part here. I think left critics of economics are too quick to assume that there is a tight link — a link at all, really — between orthodox theory and orthodox policy.

 

Why do stock exchanges exist? I really enjoyed this John Cochrane post on volume and information in financial markets. The puzzle, as he says, is why there is so much trading — indeed, why there is any trading at all. Life cycle and risk preference motivations could support, at best, a minute fraction of the trading we see; but information trading — the overwhelming bulk of actual trading — has winners and losers. As Cochrane puts it:

all trading — any deviation of portfolios from the value-weighted market index — is zero sum. Informed traders do not make money from us passive investors, they make money from other traders. It is not a puzzle that informed traders trade and make money. The deep puzzle is why the uninformed trade, when they could do better by indexing. …

Stock exchanges exist to support information trading. The theory of finance predicts that stock exchanges, the central institution it studies, the central source of our data, should not exist. The tiny amounts of trading you can generate for life cycle or other reasons could all easily be handled at a bank. All of the smart students I sent to Wall Street for 20 years went to participate in something that my theory said should not exist.

At first glance this might seem like one of those “puzzles” beloved of economists, where you describe some real-world phenomena in terms of a toy model of someone maximizing something, and then treat the fact that it doesn’t work very well as a surprising fact about the world rather than an unsurprising fact about your description. But in this case, the puzzle seems real; the relevant assumptions apply in financial markets in a way they don’t elsewhere.

I like that Cochrane makes no claim to have a solution to the puzzle — the choice to accept ignorance rather than grab onto the first plausible answer is, arguably, the starting point for scientific thought and certainly something economists could use more of. (One doesn’t have to accept the suggestion that if we have no idea what social needs, if any, are met by financial markets, or if there is too much trading or too little, that that’s an argument against regulation.) And I like the attention to what actual traders do (and say they do), which is quite different from what’s in the models.

 

Yes, we know it’s not a “real” Nobel. So the Nobel went to Hart and Holmstrom. Useful introductions to their work are here and here. Their work is on contract theory: Why do people make complex ongoing agreements with each other, instead of just buying the things they want? This might seem like one of those pseudo-puzzles — as Sanjay Reddy notes on Twitter, the question only makes sense if you take economists’ ideal world as your starting point. There’s a whole genre of this stuff: Take some phenomenon we are familiar with from everyday life, or that has been described by other social scientists, and show that it can also exist in a world of exchange between rational monads. Even at its best, this can come across like a guy who learns to, I don’t know, play Stairway to Heaven with a set of spoons. Yes, getting the notes out takes real skill, and it doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not clear why you would play it that way if you weren’t for some reason already committed to the gimmick. Or in this case, it’s not clear what we learn from translating a description of actual employment contracts into the language of intertemporal optimization; the process requires as an input all the relevant facts about the phenomenon it claims to explain. What’s the point, unless you are for some already committed to ignoring any facts about the world not expressed in the formalism of economics? This work — I admit I don’t know it well — also makes me uncomfortable with the way it seems to veer opportunistically between descriptive and prescriptive. Is this about how actual contracts really are optimal given information constraints and so on, or is it about how optimal contracts should be written? Anyway, here’s a more positive assessment from Mark Thoma.

 

Still far from full employment. Heres’ a helpful report from the Center for Economics and Policy Research on the state of the labor market. They look at a bunch of alternatives to the conventional unemployment rate and find that all of them show a weaker labor market than in 2006-2007. Hopefully the Clinton administration and/or some Democrats in the Senate will  put some sharp questions to FOMC appointees over the next few years about whether they think the Fed as fulfilled its employmnet mandate, and on what basis. They’ll find some useful ammunition here.

 

Saving, investment and the natural rate. Here’s a new paper from Lance Taylor taking another swipe at the pinata of the “natural rate”. Taylor points out that if the “natural” interest rate simply means the interest rate at which aggregate demand equals potential output (even setting aside questions about how we measure potential), the concept doesn’t make much sense. If we look at the various flows of spending on goods and services by sector and purpose, we can certainly identify flows that are more or less responsive to interest rates; but there is no reason to think that interest rate changes are the main driver of changes in spending, or that “the” interest rate that balances spending and potential at a given moment is particularly stable or represents any kind of fundamental parameters of the economy. Even less can we think of the “natural” rate as balancing saving and investment, because, among other reasons, “saving” is dwarfed by the financial flows between and within sectors. Taylor also takes Keynes to task (rightly, in my view) for setting us on the wrong track with assumption that households save and “entrepreneurs” invest, when in fact most of the saving in the national accounts takes place within the corporate sector.

 

On other blogs, other wonders:

At Vox, another reminder that the rise in wealth relative to income that Piketty documents is mainly about the rising value of existing assets, not the savings-and-accumulation process he talks about in his formal models.

Also at Vox: How much did Germany benefit from debt forgiveness after World War II? (A lot.) EDIT: Also here.

Is there really a “global pivot” toward more expansionary fiscal policy? The IMF and Morgan Stanley both say no.

Another one for the short-termism file: Here’s an empirical paper suggesting that when banks become publicly traded, their management starts responding to short-run movements in their stock, taking on more risk as a result.

Matias Vernengo has a new paper on Raul Prebisch’s thought on business cycles and growth. Prebisch would be near the top of my list of twentieth century economists who deserve more attention than they get.

I was just at Verso for the release party for Peter Frase’s new book Four Futures, based on his widely-read Jacobin piece. I don’t really agree with Peter’s views on this — I don’t see the full replacement of human labor by machines as the logical endpoint of either the historical development of capitalism or a socialist political project — but he makes a strong case. If the robot future is something you’re thinking about, you should definitely buy the book.

 

EDIT: Two I meant to include, and forgot:

David Glasner has a follow-up post on the inconsistency of rational expectations with the “shocks” and comparative statics they usually share models with. It’s probably not worth beating this particular dead horse too much more, but one more inconsistency. As I can testify first-hand, at most macroeconomic journals, “lacks microfoundations” is sufficient reason to reject a paper. But this requirement is suspended as soon as you call something a “shock,” even though technology, the markup, etc. are forms of behavior just as much as economic quantities or prices are. (This is also one of Paul Romer’s points.)

And speaking of people named Romer, David and and Christina Romer have a new working paper on US monetary policy in the 1950s. It’s a helpful paper — it’s always worthwhile to reframe abstract, universal questions as concrete historical ones — but also very orthodox in its conclusions. The Fed did a good job in the 1950s, in their view, because it focused single-mindedly on price stability, and was willing to raise rates in response to low unemployment even before inflation started rising. This is a good example of the disconnect between the academic mainstream and the policy mainstream that I mentioned above. It’s perfectly possible to defend orthodoxy macroeconomic policy without any commitment to, or use of, orthodox macroeconomic theory.

 

EDIT: Edited to remove embarrassing confusion of Romers.

Links for September 23

I am going to strive to make these posts weekly. People need things to read.

 

The trouble with macro. I haven’t yet read any of the latest big-name additions to the “what’s wrong with macroeconomics?” pile: Romer (with update), Kocherlakota, Krugman, Blanchard. I should read them, maybe I will, maybe you should too. Here’s my own contribution, from a few years ago.

 

Tankus notes. You may know Nathan Tankus from around the internet. I’ve been telling him for a while that he should have a blog. He’s finally started one, and it’s very much worth reading. I’m having some trouble with one of his early posts. Well, that’s how it works: You comment on what you disagree with, not the things you think are smart and true and interesting — which in this case is a lot.

 

The shape of the elephant. Branko Milanovic’s “elephant graph” shows the changes in the global distribution of income across persons since 1980, as distinct from the more-familiar distribution of income within countries or between countries. The big story here is that while there has been substantial convergence, it isn’t across the board: The biggest gains were between the 10th and 75th percentiles of the global distribution, and at the very top; gains were much smaller in the bottom 10 percent and between the 70th and 99th percentiles. One question about this has been how much of this is due to China; as David Rosnick and now Adam Corlett of the Resolution Fondation note, if you exclude China the central peak goes away; it’s no longer true that growth was unusually fast in the middle of the global distribution. Corlett also claims that the very slow growth in the upper-middle part of the distribution — close to zero between the 75th and 85th percentiles — is due to big falls in income in the former Soviet block and Japan. Initially I liked the symmetry of this. But now I think Corlett is just wrong on this point; certainly he gives no real evidence for it.  In reality, the slow growth of that part of the distribution seems to be almost entirely an artifact due to the slow growth of population in the upper part of the distribution; correct for that, as Rosnick does here, and the non-China distribution is basically flat between the 10th and 99th percentiles:

Source: David Rosnick
Source: David Rosnick

Yes, there does seem to be slightly slower growth just below the top. But given the imprecision of the data we shouldn’t put much weight on it. And in any case whatever the effect of falling incomes in Japan and Eastern Europe (and blue-collar incomes in the US and western Europe), it’s trivial compared to the increase in China. Outside of China, the global story seems to be the familiar one of the very rich pulling ahead, the very poor falling behind, and the middle keeping pace. Of course, it is true, as the original elephant graph suggested, that the share of income going to the upper-middle has fallen; but again, that’s because of slower population growth in the countries where that part of the distribution is concentrated, not because of slower income gains.

It’s important to stress that no one is claiming that Branko’s figures are wrong, and also that Branko is on the side of the angels here. He’s been fighting the good fight for years against the whiggish presumption of universal convergence.

 

Equality of opportunity and revolution. Speaking of Branko, here he is on the problem with equality of opportunity:

Upward mobility for some implies downward mobility for the others. But if those currently at the top have a stronghold on the top places in society, there will no upward mobility however much we clamor for it. … In societies that develop quickly even if a lot of mobility is about positional advantages, … it can be compensated by creating enough new social layers, new jobs and by making people richer. …

In more stagnant societies, mobility becomes a zero-sum game. To effect real social mobility in such societies, you need revolutions that, while equalizing chances or rather improving dramatically the chances of those on the bottom, do so at the cost of those on the top. … The French Revolution, until Napoleon to some extent reimposed the old state of affairs, was precisely such an upheaval: it oppressed the upper classes (clergy and nobility) and promoted the poorer classes. The Russian revolution did the same thing; it introduced an explicit reverse discrimination against the sons and daughters of former capitalists, and even of the intellectuals, in the access to education.

I think this is right. The principle of equality of opportunity is incompatible, not just practically but logically, with the principle of inheritance. The only way to realize it is to deprive those at the top of their power and privileges, which by definition is possible only in a revolutionary situation. This is one reason why I have no interest in a political program defined, even in its incremental first steps, in terms of equality of income or wealth. The goal isn’t equality but the abolition of the system which makes quantitative comparisons of people’s life-situations possible.

The post continues:

There is also an age element to such revolutions which fundamentally alter societies and lift those from below to the top. The young people benefit. In a beautiful short novel entitled “The élan of our youth” Alexander Zinoviev, a Russian logician and later dissident, describes the Stalinist purges from a young man’s perspective. The purges of all 40- or 50-year old “Trotskyites” and “wreckers” opened suddenly incredible vistas of upward mobility for those who were 20- or 25-year old.  They could hope, at best, to come to the positions of authority in ten or fifteen years; now, that were suddenly thrown in charge of hundreds of workers, became chief designers of airplanes, top engineers of the metro. What was purge and Gulag for some, was upward mobility for others.

As this suggests, the overturning ofhierarchies didn’t stop with the revolutions themselves — that was the essential content of the various purges, to prevent a new elite from consolidating itself. I’ve always wondered how much vitality revolutionary France and Russia gained from these great overturnings. There are an enormous number of working-class people in our society, I have no doubt, who would be much more capable of running governments and factories, designing airplanes and subways, or teaching economics for that matter, than the people who get to do it.

 

We simply do not know — but we can fake it. Aswath Damodaran has a delicious post on the valuations that Elon Musk’s bankers came up with to justify Tesla’s acquisition of Solar City. The basic problem in these kinds of exercises is that the same price has to look high to the shareholders of the acquired company and low to the shareholders of the acquiring company. In this case, the Solar City shareholders have to believe that the 0.11 Tesla shares they are getting are worth more than the Solar City share they are giving up, while the Tesla shareholders have to believe just the opposite — that one Solar City share is worth more than the 0.11 Tesla shares they are giving for it. You can square this circle by postulating some gains from the combination — synergies! efficiencies! or, sotto voce, market power — that allows the acquirer to pay a premium over the market price while still supposedly getting a bargain. Those gains may be bullshit but at least there’s a story that makes sense. But as Damodaran explains, that isn’t even attempted here. Instead the two sets of advisors (both ultimately hired by Musk) simply use different assumptions for the growth rates and cost of capital for the two companies, generating two different valuations. For instance, Tesla’s advisors assume that Solar City’s existing business will grow at 3-5% in perpetuity, while Solar City’s advisors assume the same business will grow at 1.5-3%. So one set of shareholders can be told that a Solar City share is definitely worth less than 0.11 Tesla shares, while the other set of shareholders can be told that it is definitely worth more.

So what’s the interest here? Obviously, it’s always fun to se someone throwing shoes at the masters of the universe. But with my macroeconomist hat on, the important thing is it’s a snapshot of the concrete sociology behind the discounting of future cashflows. Whenever we talk about “the market” valuing some project or business, we are ultimately talking about someone at Lazard or Evercore plugging values into a spreadsheet. This is something people who imagine that production decisions are or can be based on market signals — including my Proudhonist friends — would do well to keep in mind. Solar City lost money last year. It lost money this year. It will lose money next year. It keeps going anyway not because “the market” wants it to, but because Musk and his bankers want it to. And their knowledge of the future isn’t any better founded than the rest of ours. Now, you could argue that this case is noteworthy because the projections are unusually bogus. Damodaran suggests they aren’t really, or only by degree. And in any case this sort of special pleading wouldn’t work if there were an objective basis for computing the true value of future cashflows. I suspect it was precisely Keynes’ experience with real-world financial transactions like this that made him stress the fundamental unknowability of the future.

 

Uber: The bar mitzvah moment. While we’re reading Damodaran, here’s another well-aimed shoe, this one at Uber. As he says, pushing down costs is not enough to make profits. You also need some way of charging more than costs. You need some kind of monopoly power, some source of rents: network externalities; increasing returns, and the financing to take advantage of them; proprietary technology; brand loyalty; explicit or implicit collusion with your competitors. Which of these does Uber have? maybe not any? Uber’s foray into self-driving cars is perhaps a way to generate rents, though they’re more likely to accrue to the companies that actually own the technology; I think it’s better seen as a ploy to convince investors for another quarter or two that there are rents there to be sought.

Izabella Kaminska covers some of the same territory in what may be the definitive Uber takedown at FT Alphaville. Though perhaps she focuses overmuch on how awful it would be if Uber’s model worked, and not enough on how unlikely it is to.

 

On other blogs, other wonders. 

San Francisco Fed president John Williams writes, “during a downturn, countercyclical fiscal policy should be our equivalent of a first responder to recessions.” Does this mean that MMT has won?

Mike Konczal: Trump is full of policy.

My friend Sarah Jaffe interviews my friend Vamsi, on the massive strikes going on in India.

The Harry Potter books are bad books and and have a bad, childish, reactionary view of the world. So does J. K. Rowling.

The Mason-Tanebaum household has its first byline in the New York Times this week, with Laura’s review of the novel Black Wave in the Sunday books section.

 

 

Only the Debt Is National

Imagine this set of transactions.

1. A bank in rich country A makes a loan of X to the government of poor country B. Let’s say for concreteness that A is the United States, B is Nigeria, and X is $1 billion. So now we have a liability of $1 billion of the Nigerian government to the US bank, and deposit of $1 billion at the US bank owned by the government of Nigeria.

(Nigeria might just as well be Egypt or Mexico or Argentina or Greece or Turkey or Indonesia. And the United States might just as well be Germany or the UK. )

2. The deposit at the bank is transferred from ownership of the government to ownership of some private individual. It’s easy to imagine ways this can be done.

3. The residents of Nigeria, via their government, still have a liability of $1 billion to the bank, obliging them to make annual payments equal to the interest rate times the principal. In this case, let’s say the interest rate is 5%, so debt service is $50 million.

4. The payments can be met by running an annual export surplus of $50 million. As long as this $50 million annual payment is maintained, interest payments can be made and the principal rolled over; the debt will remain forever.

5. The private individual from step 2 moves from Nigeria to the United States, eventually becoming a citizen there.

The result of this: a family in the United States has wealth of $1 billion (plus whatever they already had, of course). Meanwhile, the people of Nigeria make payments of $50 million each year to the United States forever, in the form of uncompensated exports. In their important book Africa’s Odious Debts and related work, Boyce and Ndikumana demonstrate that this story describes much of sub-Saharan Africa’s foreign debt. It applies elsewhere in the world as well.

I wonder how various people evaluate this scenario. Do we agree there is something wrong here? And if so, what, and what is the solution?

The orthodox view, as far as I can tell, is: what’s the problem? People should pay their debts. Nigeria (or Argentina etc.) is a person, it has borrowed, it must pay. The fact that some private individual chooses to hold their wealth in one country rather than another has nothing to do with it.

More generally, the dominant view today is that the ability to carry transactions like those describe above is an unmixed blessing; in fact it’s the whole point of the international system. The three pillars of the European union are free movement of people, free movement of goods, and free movement of finance.  Argentina’s Macri is hailed as a hero — by Obama among others — for removing capital controls.  If you are committed to capital mobility, then it’s hard to see where the objection would be. Third World governments and New York banks are consenting adults and can contract on any terms they choose. And of course the fact that a possessor of wealth happens to be located in one country cannot, in a liberal order, be an objection to them owning an asset somewhere else.

Maybe it’s the last step that is the issue? Outside of Europe, the free movement of people does not have the same place in the economic catechism as the free movement of money or goods. And even in Europe it’s a bit shaky. Still, most governments are happy enough to welcome rich immigrants. (A few months ago, my FT dislodged a glossy pamphlet, a racially ambiguous woman in a bikini on the cover, advertising citizenship by investment in various Caribbean countries.)  This post was provoked by a Crooked Timber post by Chris Bertram; I’d be curious what he, or other open-borders advocates like my friend Suresh Naidu, would say about this scenario. Does an unrestricted right of human beings to cross borders imply an unrestricted right to transfer property claims across them also?

If the solution is not limits on movement of people, perhaps it is limits on cross-order transfers of financial claims, that is, capital controls. This used to be common sense. It’s not entirely straightforward where capital controls would operate in the sequence above; the metaphor of “capital” as a substance that moves across borders is unhelpful. But in some way or other capital controls would prevent the individual in country B from coming into possession of the bank deposit in country A.

There are two problems with this solution, one practical and the other more fundamental. The practical problem is that many routine transactions — payment for imports say — involve the creation of bank deposits in one country payable to some entity in another. It is hard to distinguish prohibited financial transactions from permitted payments for goods and services — and as Boyce and Ndikumana document, capital flight is usually disguised as current account transactions, for instance by over-invoicing for imports. Eric Helleiner [1] quotes Jacob Viner: “Because of the difficulty of distinguishing between capital account and current account transactions, capital controls could be made effective only by ‘censorship of communications and by crushing penalties for violation.'” [2]

The more fundamental problem is that these transactions — and capital flight in general – may be perfectly legal by the rules in force when they take place. Or if formally illegal, they are usually carried out by high government officials and/or members of the country’s elite. So the government of the poor country is unlikely to aggressively apply any restrictions that do exist. A subsequent government might well feel differently — but what claim do they have on a private bank account in a foreign country?

The problems with making capital controls effective were recognized clearly in the runup to Bretton Woods. In White’s 1942 draft for the agreements — again quoting Helleiner — “governments were required (a) not to accept or permit deposits or investments from any member country except with the permission of the government of that country, and (b) to make available to the government of any member country at its request all property in form of deposits, investments or securities of the nationals of the member country.” Even this wouldn’t be enough, of course, in the case where the wealthowner ceases to be a national. And it might not help in the case of a corrupt government that doesn’t want to repatriate private funds — though it might, if (as was also discussed) countries with balance of payments problems were required to draw on foreign exchange in private hands before being granted official assistance. In any case, it seems challenging to impose effective capital controls without granting the government control of all foreign assets — which will often require the cooperation of the country where those assets are held.

Needless to say nothing like this was included in the Bretton Woods agreements as signed. The US government would not even accept its allies’ pleas to assist in repatriating flight capital to help with the acute balance of payments difficulties following the war. Now it’s true, Second Circuit Judge Griesa recently claimed even more extensive authority that the government of Argentina would have had under White’s proposals, seizing the US assets of third parties who’d received payments from the Argentine government. But that was strictly to make payments to creditors. No such access to foreign assets is generally available.

This situation can arise even if governments themselves don’t even have to borrow abroad. As we recently saw in the case of Ireland, a government can strictly limit its debt and still find itself with unmanageable foreign liabilities. If private institutions — especially banks, but potentially nonfinancial corporations as well — borrow abroad, government that wishes to keep them operational  in a crisis may have to assume their liabilities. Or at least, they will be strongly urged to do so by all the guardians of orthodoxy. What, are you going to just let the banks fail? Meanwhile, any foreign claims generated by the activities of the banks before they failed are out of reach.

Financial commitments create obligations; when circumstances change, sometimes they can’t be met. Someone isn’t going to get what they were promised. In modern economies, the state (often in the guise of the central bank) steps in to assume or redenominate claims, to impose an ex post consistency on the inconsistent contracts signed by private agents. But with foreign-currency commitments to foreigners the authorities’ usual tools aren’t available. And just as important, there are other authorities — the ECB in the case of Greece, the US federal court system in the case of Argentina — that are ready to use their privileged position in the larger payments system to enforce the claims of creditors. In effect, while domestic contracts are always subject to political renegotiation, foreign contracts are — or can be made to seem — objective fact.

What we’ve ended up with is a situation in which private parties have an absolute right to make whatever financial commitments they choose, and national governments have an absolute duty to honor the resulting balance sheet commitments. Wealth belongs to individuals, but debt belongs to the people. They are bound by past government commitments forever.

Or as Marx observed, “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of modern peoples is their national debt. …in England all public institutions are designated ‘royal’; as compensation for this, however, there is the ‘national’ debt. ” 

 

 

[1] The Helleiner book, along with Fred Block’s Origins of International Economic Disorder, is still the best thing I know on the evolution of international monetary arrangements since World War II. Has anything better been written in the 20 years since it came out?

[2] This brings out two general points on financial regulation that I’d like to develop more. First, it is one thing to establish different rules for different kinds of activity, but the classification has to actually match up with the legal and accounting categories in which actual economic transactions are organized. The category of “banks” is a currently relevant example. This is part of the larger issue of what I call the money view, or economic nominalism — we need a perspective that regards money payments and the labels they bear as fundamental, rather than seeing them as reflections of some underlying structure. Second, and relatedly, it is hard for individual regulations to be effective in a setting in which anything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted, since for any regulated transaction there will normally be unregulated ones that are economically equivalent.

Links for April 21

 

The coup in Brazil. My friend Laura Carvalho has a piece in the Times, briefly but decisively making the case that, yes, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is a coup. Also worth reading on Brazil: Matias VernengoMarc Weisbrot and Glenn Greenwald.

 

The bondholder’s view of the world Normally we are told that when interest rates on public debt rise, that’s a sign of the awesome power of bond markets, passing judgement on governments that they find unsound. Now we learn from this Bloomberg piece that when interest rates on public debt fall, that  too is a sign of the awesome power of bond markets. Sub-1 percent rates on Irish 10-year bonds are glossed as: “Bond Market to Periphery Politicians: You Don’t Matter.” The point is that even without a government, Ireland can borrow for next to nothing. Now, you might think that if the “service” bond markets offer is available basically for free, to basically anyone — the takeaway of the piece — then it’s the bond markets that don’t matter. Well then you, my friend, will never make it as a writer of think pieces in the business press.

 

The bondholder’s view, part two. Brian Romanchuk says what needs to be said about some surprisingly credulous comments by Olivier Blanchard on Japan’s public debt.

Anyone who thinks that hedge funds have the balance sheet capacity to “fund” a G7 nation does not understand how financial markets are organised. There has been a parade of hedge funds shorting the JGB market (directly or indirectly) for decades, and the negative yields on JGB’s tells you how well those trades worked out.

 

The prehistory of Trumpism. Here is a nice piece by my University of Chicago classmate Rick Perlstein on the roots of Trump’s politics in the civil-rights-backlash politics of fear and resentment of Koch-era New York. (Also.) I’ve been wishing for a while that Trump’s role in the Central Park Five case would get a more central place in discussions of his politics, so I’m glad to see Rick take that up. It’s also smart to link it to the Death Wish/Taxi Driver/Bernie Goetz white-vigilante politics of the era.  (Random anecdote: I first saw Taxi Driver at the apartment of Ken Kurson, who was at the U of C around the same time as Rick and I. He now edits the Trump-in-law owned New York Observer.)  On the other hand, Trump’s views on monetary policy are disturbingly sane:

“The best thing we have going for us is that interest rates are so low,” says Trump, comparing the U.S. to a homeowner refinancing their mortgage. “There are lots of good things that could be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.”

 

The new normal at the Fed. Here’s a useful piece from Tracy Alloway criticizing the idea that central banks will or should return to the pre-2008 status quo.  It’s an easy case to make but she makes it well. This is a funny moment to be teaching monetary policy. Textbooks give a mix of the way things were 40 years ago (reserve requirements, the money multiplier) and the way things were 10 years ago (open market operations, the federal funds rate). And the way things are now? Well…

 

Me at the Jacobin. The Jacobin put up the transcript of an interview I did with Michel Rozworski a couple months ago, around the debates over potential output and the possibilities for fiscal stimulus. It’s a good interview, I feel good about it. Now, Noah Smith (on twitter) raises the question, when you say “the people running the show”, who exactly are you referring to? It’s a fair question. But I think we can be confident there is a ruling class, and try to understand its intentions and the means through which they are carried out, even if we’re still struggling to describe the exact process through which those intentions are formed.

 

Me on Bloomberg TV. Joe Weisenthal invited me to come on “What’d You Miss” last week, to talk about that BIS paper on bank capital and shareholder payouts. Here’s a helpful post by Matthew Klein on the same topic. And here is the Fed paper I mention in the interview, on the high levels of bank payouts to shareholders during 2007-2009, when banks faced large and hard to predict  losses from the crisis and, in many cases, were simultaneously being supported in various ways by the Fed and the Treasury.

 

“Brazil in Drag”: Hyman Minsky on Donald Trump

Via Nathan Cedric Tankus, here is a recent JPKE article by Kevin Capehart on a 1990 lecture by Minsky that uses Trump as a case study of asset market bubbles in the 1980s. The lecture is fascinating, and not just as an odd historical artifact.

Here is what Minsky says about Trump:

One of the puzzles of the 1980s was the rapid rise in the financial wealth of Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal… Trump’s fortune was made in real estate. Many large fortunes have been made in real estate, since real estate is highly leveraged. Two factors made Trump somewhat unique — one was the he developed a fortune in the period of high real interest rates, and the second was that the cash flows on most of Trump’s properties were negative.

Trump’s wealth surged because the market value of his properties — or at least the appraised value — was increasing faster than the interest rate. Trump obtained the funds to pay the interest on his outstanding loans by increasing the draw under what in effect was a home equity credit line. The efficiency with which Trump managed these properties was more or less irrelevant — hence Trump could acquire the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City without much concern about the impacts on the profits of the two casinos he already owned. Trump was golden — he had a magic touch — as long as property prices were increasing at a more rapid rate than the interest rate on the borrowed funds.

The puzzle is that the lenders failed to recognize that the arithmetic of his cash flows was virtually identical with that of the developing countries [discussed earlier in the lecture]; in effect Trump was Brazil in drag. In the short run Trump could make his interest payments with funds from new loans — but when the increase in property prices declined to a value below the interest rate, Trump would become short of the cash necessary to pay the interest on the outstanding loans.

The increase in U.S. real estate prices in the 1980s was regional, and concentrated in the Northeast and in coastal California. … Real estate prices dipped in the oil patch, climbed modestly in the rust belt, and surged in those areas that benefitted from the rapid increases in incomes in banking and financial services — sort of a derived demand from the financial success of Drexel Burnham. In effect, those individuals with high incomes in financial services — and with the prospect of sharp increase in incomes — set the pace for increases in real estate prices.

Trump’s cousins were alive and well and flourishing in Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul especially in the second half of the 1980s. The prices of equities and real estate were increasing because they were increasing…

In any market economy the price of real estate will tend to reflect both its rental return and the rate of return on the riskless bond. … The price of land rises and the price of land sometimes falls — the relevant question is whether the anticipated increase in the price of land is sufficiently higher than the interest rate on bonds to justify a riskier investment.

….

The key question is why so many varied bubbles developed in the last several decades. The most general answer is that sharp changes in inflation rates and interest rates led to extremely volatile movement in asset prices. And once these price movements begin, then on occasion momentum may develop and feed on itself — at least for a while.

So in Minsky’s version of The Art of the Deal, there are three things you need to get rich like Trump. First, be an investor in NYC and New Jersey real estate in a period when land prices are rising rapidly there relative to the rest of the country. Second, be highly leveraged. And third — and this is critical — convert your equity to cash as quickly as possible to protect yourself from the post-bubble fall in prices. Picking the right individual properties doesn’t matter so much, and managing the properties well doesn’t matter at all.

In this analysis, the repeated bankruptcies of Trump-controlled properties don’t undermine his claims of business success, nor are they just an incidental footnote to it; they are an integral part of how he got so rich. Because the flipside of extracting cash from his properties through “what was in effect a home equity credit line” is that there was less equity left for the entity that actually owned them.

The trick to making money in an asset bubble is to cash out before it pops. Doing this by selling at the peak is hard; you have to time it just right. It’s easier and much more reliable to cash out the capital gains as they accrue; that just requires some way of moving them to a different legal entity. The precedent for Trump, in this reading, would be the utility holding companies that played such a big part in the stock market boom of the 1920s and were such a big target for regulation in the 1930s. Another parallel would be today’s private equity funds. To the extent that the funds cash out via so-called “dividend recapitalization” (special dividends paid by the acquired company to the PE fund) rather than eventual resale, an acquired company that doesn’t end in bankruptcy is money left on the table. It’s interesting, in this context, to think about Romney and Trump as successive Republican nominees: They may embody different cultural stereotypes (prissy Mormon patriarch vs womanizing New York vulgarian) but fundamentally they are in the same business of financial value extraction.

What Is Foreign Investment For?

The top of the front page in today’s Financial Times shows Steve Forbes’ scowling face with the caption, “We want our money!” Really, that should be there every day — it could be their new logo.

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Further down the page, the big story is the election of the opposition candidate Mauricio Macri as president of Argentina. I’ll wait to see what Marc Weisbrot has to say before guessing what this means substantively for the direction of the Argentine state. What I want to call attention to now is the consistent theme of the coverage.

The front page headline in the FT is “Markets cheer Argentina’s new order”; the opening words of the article are “Investors hailed the election of Mauricio Macri….” After mentioning his call for the leaders of Argentina’s central bank to step down — the apparent unobjectionableness of which is evidence on the real content of central bank “independence” — the first substantive claims of the article are that “markets reacted positively” and that “Macri has promised to eliminate strict exchange controls” — evidently the most important policy issue from the perspective of the FT reporter.

Over the fold, we learn again that “Investors yesterday cheered the election of Mauricio Macri”; that “dollar bonds issued by Argentina … extended their winning streak”; and that “markets have hoped for an end to ‘Kirchnerismo’.” The only people quoted in the article other than Macri himself are three European investment bankers. One says that “Macri understands what the country needs to do to regain the confidence of international investors and get the country back on its feet” — presumably in that order. Another instructs the new government that “Argentina must normalise relations with the capital markets and start attracting the all- important foreign investors”.

The accompanying think piece explains that among the “most pressing issues” for Macri are that “the country is shut out of international markets by its long court case with holdout creditors” and that “the economy suffers from a web of distortions, including energy subsidies that can shrink a household’s monthly energy bill to the price of a cup of coffee.” (The horror!) It emphasizes again that Macri’s only firm policy commitment at this point is to remove capital controls, and suggests that “Argentina will need to have recourse to multilateral financial support.” The conclusion: “The biggest area where Macri needs to effect change is the investment climate. Investors have cheered his rise … but Mr Macri’s job is to convert Argentina into a destination for real money investment rather than hedge fund speculation … a decisive change for a country that … is unique in having lost its ‘rich nation status’.”

So that’s the job of the president of Argentina, making the country a destination for real money. Good to have that clear!

Now, you might say, if you don’t want to read every story through the frame of “Is it good for the bondholders,” then why are you reading the FT? Fair enough — but the FT is a good newspaper. (The Forbes story is fascinating.) Anyway, it’s worth being reminded every so often that in the higher consciousness of the bourgeoisie, nations and all other social arrangements exist only in order to generate payments to owners of financial assets. [1]

*

The question I’m interested in, though, is the converse one — are the bondholders good for Argentina? The claim that foreign investors are “all-important” is obviously an expression of the extraordinary narcissism of finance. But is there a rational core to it? Are foreign investors at least somewhat important?

This is a question that critical economists need to investigate more systematically. Even among heterodox writers, there’s a disproportionate focus on the development of the financial superstructure and the ways in which it can break down. [2] The importance of this superstructure for the concrete activities of social production and reproduction is too often taken for granted. Or else we make the case against free cross-border financial commitments too quickly, without assessing what might be the arguments for them.

So, concretely, what is the benefit to Argentina of regaining “access to the markets,” to enjoying the goodwill of foreign investors, to being a destination for real money? To answer this properly would involve citing lots of literature and looking at data. I’m not going to do that. The rest of this post is just me thinking through this issue, without directly referring to the literature. One result of this is that the post is too long.

*

Let’s start by distinguishing foreign direct investment (FDI) from portfolio investment.

The case for FDI is essentially that there are productive processes that can be carried out successfully only if owned and managed by foreigners. Now, obviously there are real advantages to the ways in which production is organized in rich countries, which poorer countries can benefit from adopting. But the idea that the only way this technical knowledge can reach poorer countries is via foreign ownership rests, I think, on racism, that simple. The claim that domestically-owned firms cannot adopt foreign technology is contradicted by, basically, the entire history of industrialization.

A more plausible advantage of foreign ownership is that foreign companies have more favorable access to markets and supply networks. It would be at least defensible to claim that Polish manufacturing has benefited from integration into the German auto industry — not because German management has any inherent superiority, but because German car companies are more likely to source from their own subsidiaries than from independent Polish firms. I don’t see this kind of argument being made for Argentina. When we hear about “regaining the confidence of international investors,” that pretty clearly means owners of financial wealth considering whether to include Argentine assets in their portfolios, not multinational corproations considering expanding their operations there. In other words, we are interested in portfolio investment.

So what are the benefits that are supposed to come from attracting portfolio inflows? I wonder if the people quoted in the FT piece, or the author of it, ever even ask this question. This may be a case where the debate over what “capital” means is not just academic. If financial wealth is conflated with concrete means of production, then it’s natural to think that the goodwill of the owners of the first is all-important, since obviously no productive activity can take place without the second. But purchasers of Argentine stocks and bonds are not, in fact, providing the country with new machines or software or engineers or land. (For this reason, I prefer to avoid the terms “capital flows” and “capital mobility”.) What then are the bond buyers providing?

Macroeconomically, it seems to me that there are really only two arguments to be made for portfolio inflows. First, they allow a current account deficit to be financed. Second, they might allow the interest rate to be lower. Beyond macro considerations, we might also want to keep international investors happy because of their political influence, or because they control access to the international (or even domestic) payments system. And of course, if a country is already committed to free financial flows then this commitment will only be sustainable if net financial inflows are kept above a certain level. But that just begs the question of why you would make such a commitment in the first place.

Let’s consider these arguments in turn.

‘The first benefit, that portfolio inflows allow a country to have a deficit on current account, is certainly real. I think this is the only generally credible macroeconomic story for the benefits of capital account liberalization.

In a world with no international financial flows, countries would have to a balanced current account (or in practice balanced trade, since most income flows are the result of past financial flows) in every period. But there might be good reasons for some countries. to have transitory or persistent trade imbalances If a country’s trade balance moves toward deficit for whatever reason, the ability to reduce foreign assets and increase foreign liabilities allows the movement back toward balance to be deferred. If faster growth would lead to higher import demand (which cannot be limited otherwise) or requires specific imported intermediate or capital goods (that cannot be financed otherwise) then the foreign exchange provided by portfolio inflows can allow faster growth than would otherwise be possible.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about the practical value of portfolio inflows as finance of current account deficits. But there’s nothing wrong with the argument in principle. If that is the argument you are making, though, you have to be clear about the implications.

First, if this is your argument, then saying that Argentina has suffered because of its lack of access to foreign capital markets, is equivalent to saying that Argentina suffered because of its inability to run a trade deficit. I don’t think this is what people are saying — and it would not be plausible if they were, since Argentina has had a large trade surplus over the whole Kirchner period. No help from foreign investors would have been needed to reduce that surplus.

Second, if the benefit of portfolio flows is to finance current account imbalances, then only the net flows matter. There is no purpose to the large offsetting gross flows — you could just as well have the central bank alone borrow from abroad, and then sell the resulting foreign exchange at the market price (or distribute it in some other way). That would deliver all the macroeconomic benefits of international financial flows and avoid one of the major costs — the central bank’s inability to act as lender of last resort or resolve financial crises when financial institutions have liabilities that cannot be settled with central bank’ money.

Again, the only unambiguous macroeconomic reason to support capital-account liberalization, or to make attracting portfolio inflows a priority, is if you want to see larger current account deficits. In an undergraduate textbook, this is the whole story — to say that international lending permits countries to substitute present for future expenditure, or to raise investment above domestic saving, are just different ways of saying it permits current account deficits. If you think larger current account imbalances are unnecessary or dangerous, then, it’s not clear what the macroeconomic function of portfolio investment is supposed to be. The only thing that portfolio investment directly provides is foreign exchange.

The second possible macroeconomic benefit is that foreign portfolio investment allows the interest rate to be lower than it otherwise could be. This is certainly possible as a matter of logic. Let’s imagine a firm with an investment project that will generate income in the future. The firm needs to issue liabilities in order to exercise claims on the labor and other inputs it needs to carry out the project. Wealth owners must be willing to hold the liabilities of entrepreneur on terms that make the project viable; if they demand a yield that is too high, the project won’t go forward. But there may be some foreign intermediary that is both willing to hold entrepreneur’s liabilities on more favorable terms, and issues liabilities that wealth owners are more willing to hold. In this case, the creation of financial claims across borders is a necessary condition for the project to go forward. Note that this case covers all the macroeconomic benefits of diversification, risk-bearing, etc. — the ability to hold an internationally diversified portfolio may be very valuable to wealth owners, but that matters to the rest of us only insofar as that value allows real activity to be financed on more favorable terms.

That story makes sense where there is no domestic financial system, or a very underdeveloped one; it’s a good reason why financial self-sufficiency is not a realistic goal for small subnational units. But it’s not clear to me how it applies to a country with its own banking system and its own central bank. Is it plausibly the case that in the absence of financial flows, the Argentine central bank would be unable to achieve an interest rate as low as would be macroeconomically desirable? Is it plausibly the case that there are productive enterprises in Argentina that are unable to secure domestic-currency loans from the local banking system even given expansionary policy by the central bank, but would be able to do so from foreign lenders?  [3]

If this is your argument, you should at least be able to identify the kinds of firms (or I suppose households) that you think should be borrowing more, are unable to secure loans from the domestic banking system, but would be able to borrow internationally. (Or that would be able to borrow more from domestic banks, if the banks themselves could borrow internationally.)

It’s hard for me to see how a reasonably developed banking system with a central bank could be constrained in its ability to provide domestic-currency liquidity by a lack of portfolio inflows. And I doubt that’s what the gentlemen from Credit Suisse etc. are saying. On the contrary, the usual claim is that portfolio flows reduce the feasible range of domestic interest rates. Of course the people saying this never explain why it is desirable — the ability to conduct financial transactions across borders is just presented as a fact of life, to which policy must adapt. [4]

In any case, my goal here isn’t to dispute the arguments for the importance of portfolio inflows, but to clarify what they are, and their logical implications. Do you think that the benefits of portfolio flows are that they finance current account deficits and allow easier credit than the domestic bank system could provide? Then you can’t, for instance, turn around and blame the euro crisis on current account deficits and too-easy credit. Or at least, you can’t do that and still hold up “free movement of capital” as one of the central virtues of the system.

*

There are two other non-macroeconomic arguments you sometimes hear for the importance of foreign investors, focused less on what they offer than with what they can threaten. First, the political importance of international creditors in the US and other states may allow them to use the power of those states against government they are unhappy with.

Historically, this is the decisive argument in factor of keeping foreign investors happy. Through most of the period from the 1870s through the 1950s, the possible consequences of a poor “investment climate” included gunboats in your harbor, the surrender of tariff collection and other basic state functions to creditor governments, military coups, even the end of your national existence. [5] (Let’s not forget that the pretext for the war in which the United States claimed half of Mexico’s territory was the mistreatment of American businessmen there.)

That sort of direct state violence in support of foreign creditors has been less common in recent decades, though of course we shouldn’t exclude the possibility of its revival. But there are less overt versions. The extraordinary steps taken by the Judge Griesa on behalf of Argentina’s holdout creditors go far beyond anything the investors could have done on their own. If the point of the FT pieces is that Argentina needs to settle with its creditors because otherwise it will face endless, escalating harassment from the US legal system, then they may have a point. I’d just like them to come out and say it.

A related argument is that failure to get on good terms with finance as a cartel of asset owners, will mean loss of access to finance as a routine service. The version of this you hear most often is that defaulting on or otherwise annoying foreign investors will result in loss of access to trade finance. So that even if the country has a current account in overall balance, its imports and/or exports will be restricted by a sudden need to conduct trade on a pure cash basis. I’ve seen this claim made much more than I’ve seen any evidence for it — which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course. But who are the providers of trade finance? Are they so resolutely class-conscious that they would refuse otherwise profitable transactions out of solidarity with their investor brethren? It doesn’t seem terribly likely — if foreign investors are willing to continue buying sovereign bonds post-default, as they unequivocally are, it’s hard to see them refusing this basic financial service to private businesses. Or coming back to Argentina, is there any evidence that the demand for Argentine exports was reduced by the default, or that Argentina was unable to convert its foreign exchange earnings into imports because foreign exporters couldn’t finance the usual 60- or 90- or whatever-day delay before receiving payment?

Another version of this argument — which Nathan Cedric Tankus in particular made in the case of Greece — is that a country that breaks with its creditors will lose access to the routine payment system — credit cards and so on — since it is all administered by foreign banks. In the case of a eurosystem country this may have some plausibility, at least as an acute problem of the transition — over a longer term, I can’t see any reason why this is a service that can’t be provided domestically. But leave aside how plausible they are, let’s be clear what these claims mean. They are arguments that foreign investors matter not because of anything of value they themselves provide, but because of their ability to provoke a sort of secondary strike or embargo by other segments of finance if they don’t get what they want. These are political arguments, not economic ones. In the longer view, they also support Keynes’ argument that finance should be “homespun” wherever possible. If trade finance really is so critical, and so readily withdrawn, wouldn’t it be wise to develop those facilities yourself?

The final argument is that, if you have committed yourself to permitting the free creation of cross-border payment commitments, you will be unable to honor those commitments without a sufficient willingness of foreign units to take net long positions in your country’s assets. [6]

This one is correct. If, let’s say, banks in Argentina have accumulated large foreign currency liabilities (on their own, or more likely, as counterparties to other units accumulating net foreign asset positions) then their ability to meet their survival constraint will at some point depend on the willingness of foreign units to continue holding their liabilities. And unlike in the case of a bank with only domestic-currency liabilities, the central bank cannot act as lender of resort. In other words, the central bank can always maintain the integrity of the payment system as long as its own liabilities serve as the ultimate means of settlement; but it loses this ability insofar as the balance sheets of the domestic financial system includes commitments to pay foreign moneys. [7]

This, probably, is the real practical content of stories about how important it is to maintain the goodwill of footloose capital. If you don’t honor your promises to foreign investors, you won’t be able to honor your promises to foreign investors. The weird circularity is part of the fact of the matter.

 

[1] Needless to say, not every political development is covered this way. The fact that the bondholder’s view of the world so dominates coverage of Argentine politics is evidently related to the specific way that Argentina is integrated into the global circuits of capital.

[2] I really wish people would stop talking about “the crisis” as some kind of watershed or vindication for radical ideas.

[3] I emphasize domestic currency. Of course domestic banks cannot provide foreign -currency loans. But again, this is only a macroeconomic issue if the country is running a trade deficit. Otherwise, the foreign exchange needed for imports will, in the aggregate, be provided by exports. The same goes for arguments that portfolio flows allow the central bank to target a lower interest rate, as opposed to achieving one.

[4] It would be worth going back and seeing what positive arguments the original framers of the policy trilemma made in favor of “capital mobility.” Or is it just treated as unavoidable?

[5] In the 19th century, “default might even be welcomed as a way of enhancing political influence.”

[6] It would be more conventional to express this thought in the language of capital mobility or international financial flows, but I think the metaphor of “capital” as a fluid “flowing” from one country to another is particularly misleading here.

[7] The capacity of the central bank to maintain payments integrity by substituting its own liabilities for impaired institutions’ is preserved even in the case of foreign-currency liabilities insofar as the central bank’s liabilities are accepted by foreign units. So the development of unlimited swap lines between major central banks represents, at least potentially, an important relaxation of the external constraint and a closer approximation of at least the rich-country portion of the global economy to an ideal closed economy. I’m glad to see that the question of swap lines is being taken up by MMT.

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

The European Crisis in Sixteen Tweets

Much confusion comes from the idea that “a single currency” is a straightforward, normal state and “exit” from it a dramatic rupture.

Ensuring that claims on all banks are treated as equivalent is a utopian dream even in a single political unit; it requires constant intervention to even approximate.

“Greece” is simply the label currently put on the underlying contradictions of euro project.

Whether Greece” exits” or not, that project remains allowing unlimited financial flows based on the unanchored expectations of financial markets…

… and then demanding that real productive activity and standards of living adjust to accommodate them.

Since this would destroy society if really adhered to, the system is buffered with offsetting public flows, on conditions set by unaccountable authorities.

 


 

There is no sense in which default “leads to” exit. Creditors will attempt to force exit, as punishment for default.

Greek default will stress banks throughout Europe. In response ECB says it will increase liquidity for non-Greek banks, cut off liquidity for Greek banks.

Recall that in 2011-2012, sovereign debt yields reached 7% in Spain and Italy, 12% in Ireland, 14% in Portugal. Certain default if they had stayed there.

Rates fell only after ECB intervened in markets & explicitly promised to prevent defaults. ECB commitment convinced private holders to accept lower yields.

ECB continues to support markets for sovereign debt of countries other than Greece, in order to keep them at small premium to German debt.

Recall that after 2011, Spain and Italy both accumulated Target balances that dwarfed official aid to Greece…

… in part because ECB loosened collateral requirements for banks there. Meanwhile, collateral requirements for Greek banks have been tightened.

If ECB treated Greece the same as Spain, Italy etc, there would be no crisis. With “whatever it takes” guarantee, markets would be happy to hold Greek debt.

If ECB treated Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland as they’ve treated Greece, those countries would have crises like Greece, including defaults.

There is a crisis in Greece and not the other deficit countries because the authorities have chosen for the crisis to be in Greece.

 

 

What If the ECB Pulls the Trigger?

Over the past week, it’s become clear that the real leverage the European authorities have over Greece is via the banking system. What does Greek need continued loans for? Not to pay for public expenditures, thanks to the primary surplus. Not to pay for imports — Greece has a (small) trade surplus. Not to service current debt, if it defaults. What does need to be financed, is the flow of deposits out of Greek banks to the rest of Europe.

So what happens if that financing is cut off, as the ECB is threatening? The usual answer is collapse of the Greek banking system, followed immediately by a forced exit of Greece.  But the other night I was talking to some friends about the situation, and we found ourselves wondering: What concretely are the mechanics of this? What is the exact chain of events from an end to ECB financing to Greek exit from the euro? I don’t know the answer to this, but the more I think about it, the less confident I am in the conventional wisdom.

What concretely does it mean that the ECB is providing liquidity support to Greek banks? As far as I can tell, it is this. When a holder of a deposit in a Greek bank wants to make a payment elsewhere, either to purchase a good or asset outside Greece or to move the deposit elsewhere, the Greek bank must transfer an equal quantity of settlement assets to the bank receiving the deposits. These settlement assets are normally acquired on the fly, by issuing a new liability in the interbank market, but if other banks are unwilling to accept the liabilities of Geek banks, they can be borrowed directly from the ECB, against suitable collateral. This is the lending that the ECB is threatening to cut off.

What if the Greek banks can’t acquire settlement assets? Then other banks will not accept the deposits, and it will be impossible to use deposits in Greek banks to make payments. Depositors will find their accounts frozen and, in the normal course of events, the banks would be shut down by regulators.

But Greece still does have a central bank. My understanding is that much of the day to day business of central banking in Europe is carried out by the national central banks. In principle, even if Greek banks can’t acquire settlement assets by borrowing from the ECB, they can still borrow from the Greek central bank. This doesn’t help with payments to the rest of Europe, since reserve balances at the Greek central bank won’t be accepted elsewhere. But I don’t see why the Greek central bank can’t keep the payments system working within Greece itself. If the Greek central bank is willing to provide liquidity on the same terms as the ECB, what’s going to force the Greek banks to shut down? It’s not as though there’s any Europe-wide bank regulator that can do it.

In a sense, this is a kind of soft exit, since there will now be a Greek euro that is not freely convertible into a non-Greek euro. But I don’t see why it has to be catastrophic or irreversible. Transactions within Greece can continue as before. And for routine trade it might not make much difference either, since the majority of Greek imports come from outside the EU. Where it would make a difference is precisely that it would prevent Greek depositors from moving their funds out of the country. [1] In effect, by cutting Greece off from the European interbank payment system, the ECB will be imposing capital controls on Greece’s behalf. You could even say that, if the threat of cutting off liquidity support can trigger a run on Greek banks, actually doing so will ensure that there isn’t one.

Now maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe there is a good reason why the Greek central bank can’t maintain the payment system within Greece. But I also think there’s a larger point here. I’m thinking about the end of the gold standard in the 1930s, when breaking the link with gold was considered an unthinkable catastrophe. And yet the objective basis of the money system in gold turned out to be irrelevant. I think, in the same way, the current crisis may be revealing the reflexive, self-referential nature of money. On a certain level, the threat against Greece comes down to: “You must make your money payments, or we will deprive you of the means to make your money payments.”

The rule of the money system requires that real productive activity be organized around the need for money. This in turn requires that money not be too freely available, but also that it not be too scarce. Think of Aunt Agatha in Daniel Davies’ parable. Suppose her real goal is to run her nephew’s life — to boss him around, have him at her beck and call, to know that he won’t make any choices without asking if she approves. In that case she always has to be threatening to cut him off, but she can’t ever really do it. If he knows he’s getting money from her he won’t care what she thinks — but if he knows he isn’t, he won’t care either. He has to be perpetually unsure. And in keeping with Davies’ story, the only thing Jim actually needs the money for, is to continue servicing his debt to Aunt Agatha. The only real power she has is a superstitious horror at the idea of unpaid debts.

In this way I’ve tentatively convinced myself that all Syriza needs to do is hold firm. The only way they can lose is if they lose their nerve. Conversely, the worst outcome for the ECB and its allies would be if they force Greece into default — and everyone watches as the vengeful money-gods fail to appear.

UPDATE: It turns out that Daniel Davies is making a similar argument:

Capital controls are arguably what Greece needs right now – they have
balanced the primary budget, and they need to stop capital flight.
From the ECB’s point of view, I’d agree that the move is political, but
it also means that they are no longer financing capital flight.

There’s
a sensible negotiated solution here – with a lower primary surplus than
the program (in which context I think Varoufakis’ suggestion of 1.5% is
not nearly ambitious enough), a return to the structural programs (the
Port of Piraeus really does need to be taken out of the political
sphere), and an agreement to kick the headline debt amount into the far
future (in service of which aim I don’t think all the funny financial
engineering is helping).

The fall-back is a kind of soft exit,
with capital controls.
But the massive, massive advantage of capital
controls over drachmaisation is that they  preserve foreign exchange.
Greece imports fuel and food. With capital controls, it can be sure of
financing vital imports.

The fact that Davies is thinking the same way makes me a lot more confident about the argument in this post.

[1] Greek banks would also presumably be limited in their ability provide physical cash to depositors, but I don’t think this is important.

Why Not Just Mail Out Checks?

A friend writes:

Let’s suppose that the United States could get a Universal Basic Income, but it had to trade a bunch of stuff for it. What would be important to keep after a UBI?

Obviously, various income support could right out the door (food stamps, unemployment insurance). But would we be willing to trade labor regulations (minimum wage, union laws)? Public schools? Medicare? Curious as to your thoughts.

This sort of choice comes up all the time these days. Of course in practice it’s a false choice: They take our parks and public insurance, and never send out those UBI checks. Or occasionally, as in New York, they give us our universal pre-K and parks and bike lanes, and we don’t have to give up our meager income-support checks to get them.

Still, it’s an interesting question. How should we answer it?

1. At least for an important current on the left, the goal isn’t to distribute commodities more equally, but to liberate human life from the logic of the market. Or, a society that maximizes positive freedom and the development of people’s capacities, as opposed to one that maximizes consumption of goods. From that point of view, diminishing the scope of the market — incremental decommodification, as Naomi Klein used to say — is the important thing, so we’d always reject this kind of trade. (Assuming it’s on more or less “even” terms.)

2. Setting that aside. Shouldn’t we have a presumption that the goods that are currently publicly supplied are subject to some kind of market failure? Presumably there’s some reason why many governments provide insurance against old age and health costs, housing, education, police and fire services, and very few governments provide clothing or restaurant meals. Of course one wouldn’t want to say the current mix of public-private provision is ideal. But one wouldn’t want to say it carries no information, either.

3. There’s a genuine value in institutions that pursue a public purpose, rather than profit. We can debate whether hospitals should be public, nonprofit or even private at the level of management, but presumably in the operating room we want our doctor thinking about what’s most likely to make this surgery successful and not what’s most likely to make him money. (And we don’t think reputation costs are enough to guarantee those motives coincide — so back to market failures as above.) In the same category, and close to many of our hearts, are professors and other teachers, who teach better when they’re focused on just that, and not worrying about their paycheck.

4. Related to (3), how do we manage a system in which the public sector is disappearing? Seems to me the logical outcome of the UBI-and-let-markets-do-the-rest approach is stuff like this. Either you agree that intrinsic motivation is important, in which case you have to honestly ask in each particular case whether self-interest adds more than it detracts. Or you deny it, but then you’re left with the problem of how to you assure the honesty of the people sending out the checks. (Not to mention all the zillion commercial transactions that happen every day.) DeLong somewhere calls neoliberalism a counsel of despair, which makes sense only once you’ve given up on the capacity of the state. But without minimal state capacity even neoliberalism doesn’t work. If the nightwatchman won’t do what’s right because it is right, you can’t have markets either. Better pledge yourself to a feudal lord. And if the nightwatchman will, then why not the doctor, teacher, etc.?

5. How confident are we that unfettered markets plus UBI is politically sustainable? Being a worker expecting a certain wage gives you some social power. Being a participant in a public institution gives you, arguably, some social power, an identity, it helps solve the collective action problem of the poor. (Which is the big problem in all of this.) But receiving your UBI check doesn’t give you any power, any capacity to disrupt, it doesn’t give you a sense of collective identity, it doesn’t form a basis of collective action. My hypothesis is that the parents at the local public school are more able to act together — they have the PTA, to begin with — than the same number of voucher recipients are.