In Which I Dare to Correct Felix Salmon

Felix Salmon is my favorite business blogger — super smart, cosmopolitan and impressively unimpressed by the Masters of the Universe he spends his days observing. In general, I’d expect him to be much more on top of current financial data than I am. But in today’s post on the commercial paper market, he makes an uncharacteristic mistake — or rather, uncharacteristic for him but highly characteristic of the larger conversation around finance.

According to Felix:

The commercial paper market has to a first approximation become an entirely financial market, a place for banks and shadow banks to do their short-term borrowing while the interbank market remains closed.

According to David S. Scharfstein of Harvard Business School, who also testified last week, of the 50 largest issuers of debt to money market funds today, only two are nonfinancial firms; the rest are banks and other financial companies, many of them foreign.

Once upon a time, before the financial crisis, money-market funds were a mechanism whereby individual investors could make safe, short-term loans to big corporates, disintermediating the banks. But all that has changed now. For one thing, says Davidoff, “about two-thirds of money market users are sophisticated finance investors”. For another, the corporates have evaporated away, to be replaced by financials. In the corporate world, it seems, the price mechanism isn’t working any more: either you’re a big and safe corporate and don’t want to run the refinancing risk of money-market funds suddenly drying up, or else you’re small enough and risky enough that the money market funds don’t want to lend to you at any price.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s right.

Reading Felix, you get the clear impression that before the crisis, or anyway not too long ago, most borrowers in the commercial paper market were nonfinancial corporations. It has only “become an entirely financial market” relatively recently, he suggests, as nonfinancial borrowers have dropped out. But, to me at least, the real picture looks rather different.

Source: Flow of Funds

The graph shows outstanding financial and nonfinancial commercial paper on the left scale, and the financial share of the total on the right scale. As you can see the story is almost the opposite of the one Felix tells. Financial borrowers have always dominated the commercial paper market, and their share has fallen, not risen, in the wake of the financial crisis and recession. Relative to the economy, nonfinancial commercial paper outstanding is close to where it was at the peak of the past cycle. But financial paper is down by almost two-thirds. As a result, the nonfinancial share of the commercial paper market has doubled, from 7 to 15 percent — the highest it’s been since the 1990s.

Why does this matter? Well, of course, it’s important to get these things right. But I think Felix’s mistake here is revealing of a larger problem.

One of the most dramatic features of the financial crisis of fall 2008, bringing the Fed as close as it got to socializing the means of intermediation, was the collapse of the commercial paper market. But as I’ve written here before, it was almost never acknowledged that the collapse was largely limited to financial commercial paper. Nonfinancial borrowers did not lose access to credit in the way that banks and shadow banks did. The gap between the financial and nonfinancial commercial paper markets wasn’t discussed, I believe, because of the way the crisis was seen entirely through the eyes of finance.

I suspect the same thing is happening with the evolution of the commercial paper market in the past few years. The Flow of Funds shows clearly that commercial borrowing by nonfinancial borrowers has held up reasonably well; the fall in commercial paper lending is limited to financial borrowers. But that banks’ problems are everyone’s problems is taken for granted, or at most justified with a pious handwave about the importance of credit to the real economy.

And that’s the second  assumption, again usually unstated, at issue here: that providing credit to households and businesses is normally the main activity of finance, with departures from that role an anomalous recent development. But what if the main action in the financial system has never been intermediating between ultimate lenders and borrowers? What if banks have always mostly been, not to put too fine a point on it, parasites?

During the crisis of 2008 one big question was if it was possible to let the big banks fail, or if the consequences for the real economy would be prohibitively awful. On the left, Dean Baker took the first position while Doug Henwood took the second, arguing that the alternative to bailouts could be a second Great Depression. I was ambivalent at the time, but I’ve been moving toward the let-them-fail view. (Especially if the counterfactual is that governments and central banks putting comparable resources into sheltering the real economy from collapsing banks, as they have into propping them up.) The evolution of the commercial paper market looks to me like one more datapoint supporting that view. The collapse of interbank lending doesn’t seem to have affected nonbank borrowers much.

(Which brings us to a larger point, of whether the continued depressed state of the real economy is due to a lack of access to credit. Obviously I think not, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

An insidious feature of the world we live in is an unconscious tendency to adopt finance’s point of view. This is as true of intellectuals as of everyone else. An anthropologist of my acquaintance, for instance, did his fieldwork on the New York financial industry. Nothing wrong with that — he’s got some very smart things to say about it — but you really can’t imagine someone doing a similar project on any other industry, apart from high-tech internet stuff. In our culture, finance is just interesting in a way that other businesses are not. I’m not exempting myself from this, by the way. The financial crisis and its aftermath was the most exciting time in memory to be thinking about economics; I’m not going to deny it, it was fun. And there are plenty of people on the left who would say that a tendency, which I confess to, to let the conflict between Wall Street and the real economy displace the conflict between labor and capital in our political language, is a symptom — a kind of reaction-formation — of the same intellectual capture.

But that is perhaps over-broadening the point, which is just this: That someone as smart as Felix Salmon could so badly misread the commercial paper market is a sign of how hard we have to work to distinguish the state of the banks, from the state of the economy.

Welcome Wonkupy

When I first started reading blogs a decade ago (I’m pretty sure the first blogpost I ever read was one of these Eschaton posts on Trent Lott) there was a distinctly truncated Left in the blog world, especially on economics. Just mainstream liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as far as the eye could see. Which, what else is new, right? Except that it really wasn’t true of mailing lists, the predecessor medium, where you had super active lists like PEN-L and LBO Talk. I used to wonder if there was something specific about the formats that made mailing lists more hospitable to radical politics. Like, flatteringly, maybe we prefer collective discussions rather than one-man shows? Anyway, the question is moot now, because there’s certainly no shortage of left/radical blogs now, economics-oriented and otherwise.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to introducing a new progressive economics blog, Wonkupy. It’s by “Rotwang,” a very sharp comrade who needs to remain pseudonymous for professional reasons. It bills itself as “Occupy for wonks,” but my sense is it’s going to be more the other way round; well worth reading either way.

That said, I have some disagreements with his current post, arguing that criticism of private equity is a distraction. I put them in comments there, but since it touches on some regular themes at the Slack Wire, I thought I’d post an abridged version here.

Rotwang’s argument is that it’s wrong to suggest that buyouts and takeovers of firms by private equity funds and the like have any systematic effect on the way those firms are managed: profit maximization at the expense of workers and the pubic is the order of the day whether the bosses are vulture capitalists or just the regular kind. (It’s sort of a political-economic version of the Modigliani-Miller theorem.) Rotwang:

In [private equity] discussions, it is easy to focus on outright theft, abuse of borrowing, and inefficient government subsidies. We suggest this is not unique to PE, but is generic to Capitalism. One could imagine regulatory responses to such problems, but we insist the problems are part of the system, not tumorous growths on something otherwise fundamentally healthy. A narrow focus on PE glosses over the features it shares in common with Capitalism in general, now and throughout history. The narrow view plays to limited and ineffective remedies that fail to engage the long-standing, systematic problems of capital markets.

I disagree — tentatively on the substance, but emphatically on this way of framing it.

Suppose for the moment it’s true that the problems with private equity are no different from the problems with capitalism in general. I still don’t think that’s a valid reason to not talk about private equity in particular. After all, “X in general” is just all the specific instances of X. To the extent that the way productive enterprises are treated by PE firms like Bain is a representative example of why an economy oriented around the private pursuit of profit is incompatible with a humane and decent society, I don’t see what’s wrong with starting with it as a particularly vivid and timely example. Of course you have to then move on to a more general critique — there’s nothing that stops management at companies that aren’t subject to buyouts from acting like Bain, and many do — but a ban on discussion of particular cases doesn’t smooth the way to that general critique.

The other question is, is it really true that there is no difference between what a firm like Bain does and what a “normal” capitalist firm does? Rotwang writes, “From the worker’s standpoint, it makes little difference if her life is ruined by PE or by old management,” which is inarguable. But are we sure ruination is equally likely in either case?

It seems to me that while capitalist firms always pursue profit, and this pursuit is always ultimately inimical to the interests of workers, it’s not always equally single-minded. Managers want their firms (and themselves personally) to make money, but they also want them to survive, to grow, to gain market share, to be perceived as prestigious, cutting-edge, etc., and, in a non-trivial number of cases, to make genuinely good products by whatever objective standard of the business that they’re in. To the extent that finance exercises more active control of the firm, those other motives get subordinated to pure pursuit of profits. And I think that does tend to make life worse for their workers, and communities and customers, and everyone else who depends on the business as an ongoing enterprise.

No question, there is (or was; is Occupy still a thing?) a strong anti-finance vibe around OWS. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing that — especially in its weirder Ron Paulish forms — but it seems to me this is a case where “Yes, and” is distinctly preferable to “no, but”. For some people, a criticism of private equity may be an alternative to a broader critique of capitalism, but for many more, I suspect, it’s a starting point towards it.

What is the Liquidity Trap?

In the common usage, popularized by Krugman, a liquidity trap is just a situation where the interest rate set by the central bank has reached zero. Since it can’t go below that (the Zero Lower Bound), if more expansionary policy is needed it will have to take the form of fiscal policy or unconventional monetary policy — quantitative easing and so on. But if there were some technical fix (a tax on excess reserves, say, or abolishing cash) that allowed central banks to make the policy rate negative, there would be no limit to the capacity of monetary policy to overcome any shortfall in demand. The idea — expressed by modern monetarists in the form of the negative natural rate — is that there are so few investment opportunities with positive expected returns that if investment rose enough to equal desired saving at full employment, the expected return on the marginal new unit of capital would be negative. So you’d need a negative cost of capital to get businesses to undertake it.

That makes sense, I guess. But it’s not what Keynes meant by liquidity trap. And Keynes’ version, I think, is more relevant to our current predicament.

Keynes himself doesn’t use the term, and his explanation of the phenomenon, in chapters 13 and 15 of the General Theory, is rather confusing. (Lance Taylor has a much clearer statement of it in Reconstructing Macroeconomics, which I may add a summary or excerpt of to this post when I get home tonight and have the book.) So rather than quote chapter and verse, I’m just going to lay out what I understand the argument to be.

Interest, says Keynes, is not, as the classical economists said, the price of consuming in the future relative to the consuming in the present. It is the price of holding an illiquid rather than a liquid asset today. (This is one of the main points of the book.) The cost of holding an illiquid asset (a bond, let’s say) is the inconvenience that it can’t be used for transaction purposes, but also the opportunity cost of not being able to buy a bond later, if interest rates rise. Another way of saying the same thing: The risk of holding a bond is not just that you won’t have access to means of payment when you need it; it is also the capital loss you will suffer if interest rates rise while you are holding the bond. (Remember, the price of an existing bond always moves inversely with the interest rate.)

This last factor isn’t so important in normal times, when opinions about the future rates of bonds vary; if the supply of liquidity rises, there will be somebody who finds themselves more liquid than they need to be and who doesn’t expect a rise in interest rates in the near future, who will purchase bonds, driving up their price and driving the interest rate down. The problem arises when there is a consensus about the future level of interest rates. At that point, anyone who holds a bond yielding below that level will be anxious to sell it, to avoid the capital loss when interest rates inevitably rise. (Or equivalently, to be able to purchase a higher yield bond when they do.) This effect is strongest at low interest rates, since bondholders not only are more likely to expect a capital loss in the future, but are getting very little interest in the present to compensate them for it. Or as Keynes says,

Nevertheless, circumstances can develop in which even a large increase in the quantity of money may exert a comparatively small influence on the rate of interest. For … opinion about the future of the rate of interest may be so unanimous that a small [decrease] in present rates may cause a mass movement into cash. It is interesting that the stability of the system and its sensitiveness to changes in the quantity of money should be so dependent on the existence of a variety of opinion about what is uncertain. Best of all that we should know the future. But if not, then, if we are to control the activity of the economic system by changing the quantity of money, it is important that opinions should differ.

In other words, the essence of the liquidity trap is a convention about the normal level of interest rates. It’s important to note that this convention is self-stabilizing — if everyone believes that interest rates on a particular class of bond cannot be below 3 percent, say, for any extended period of time, then anyone who finds themselves holding a bond yield less than 3 percent will be anxious to sell it. And their efforts to do so will push the price of the bonds down, which itself will increase their yield back to 3 percent, so that the people who did not share the convention are the ones who end up suffering the loss.

This probably seems confusing and tedious to most readers (and tediously familiar to most of the rest.) Maybe it will be clearer and more interesting with some pictures:

10-Year Treasury Rate and the Federal Funds Rate
BAA Bond Rates and the Federal Funds Rate

The horizontal axis of this scatterplot is the Federal Funds rate. The vertical axis shows a market interest rate — the 10-year Treasury bond rate in the first one, and the BAA corporate bond rate in the second. The heavy black diagonal corresponds to a market rate equal to the Fed Funds rate. In both cases, there’s a clear positive relationship over normal ranges of policy rates — 3 percent to 8 percent or so. But outside of this range, particularly at the bottom end, the relationship breaks down. The floor on Treasuries is a hard 3 percent or so, while the floor on BAA bonds varies from time to time but also doesn’t go below 3 percent. [1] This is Keynes’ liquidity trap. [2] And when you look at it, it becomes much less clear that the inability to extend the black line past the origin — Krugman’s liquidity trap — is the problem here. What good would it do, if market rates stop following the policy rate well before that?

UPDATE: A smart, skeptical comment by Bruce Wilder leads me to reformulate the argument in a hopefully clearer way.

The necessary and sufficient condition for a liquidity trap is a consensus among market participants that nominal interest rates are more likely to rise than to fall over the relevant time horizon. Obviously, one basis for such a consensus might be that it is literally impossible for short rates to fall any further. [3] In this sense the ZLB liquidity trap is a special case of the Keynesian liquidity trap. But the Keynesian concept is broader, because conventions about the floor of interest rates can be strongly self-stabilizing, especially where they are backed up by the political power of rentiers.

[1] “The most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners. If a tolerable level of employment requires a rate of interest much below the average rates which ruled in the nineteenth century, it is most doubtful whether it can be achieved merely by manipulating the quantity of money. … Cf. the nineteenth-century saying, quoted by Bagehot, that ‘John Bull can stand many things, but he cannot stand 2 per cent.'”

[2] It also, not coincidentally, looks like the textbook LM curve. The replacement of LM with an central bank-determined interest rate curve in newer textbooks, is not progress.

[3] Note that it is not in fact the case that nominal interests cannot be negative, because in the real world cash has substantial carrying costs.

No More ZLB

Can we please stop talking about the zero lower bound?

Krugman today insists that we do, in fact, face a problem of inadequate demand. And he’s right! But he glosses this as an “excess supply of savings even at a zero interest rate,” which isn’t right at all.

Let’s be clear: There is not “an” interest rate, certainly not a zero one. There are various interest rates, and the ones that are relevant to saving and investment remain high. The BAA corporate bond rate (the red line in the figure below) is currently at 5.7 percent — pretty much exactly where it was in the first half of 2005. And given that inflation is substantially lower than it was five years ago, that particular real interest rate is not only not zero, it’s gone up.


The real question is, can reducing the federal funds rate reduce the economically important interest rates? Now, obviously the answer is No if the fed funds rate (the blue line in the graph) is as low as it can go; in this sense the ZLB is real. But the answer can also be No when the fed funds rate is well above zero, if there’s no reliable link between the overnight Treasury rate and the rates businesses borrow at; and that seems to have been the case since sometime in the ’90s. As the figure shows, the Fed’s recent rate reductions didn’t reduce bond rates at all, even before the Fed Funds rate hit zero; and all the hikes earlier in the decade didn’t raise bond rates either. You’d see a similar picture if you looked at any other economically relevant interest rate. In general, as my friend Hasan Comert shows in his just-defended dissertation, the Fed lost control of the important interest rates some time ago. So the best thing you can say for the zero lower bound, is that arriving there has dramatized a truth that should have been evident for some time already.

As usual, Keynes got it right: “The acuteness and the peculiarity of our contemporary problem arises out of the possibility that the average rate of interest which will allow a reasonable average level of employment is one so unacceptable to wealth-owners that it cannot be readily established merely by manipulating the quantity of money. … The most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners.” The failure of interest rates to move to a level compatible with full employment is not a technical problem, but a structural one.

What’s the Difference Between Money and Debt?

(An idea I’ve been playing with lately, just wanted to get something on virtual paper.)

Currency, dollar bills, are liabilities of the Federal Reserve. Federal debt is a liability of the US Treasury. Leaving aside some deliberate obscurity around the precise legal status of the Fed, both are liabilities of the US government. Of course there are various formal differences, but economically, wouldn’t it be simplest to regard them the same?

In other words, while we are taught that there are no close substitutes for money but that government and private debt are substitutes for each other, wouldn’t it be better to say that money and government debt are substitutes for each other and both are complements for private debt? More concretely, given lenders’ need for liquidity, an increase in their holding of government debt may make them more willing to hold private debt, i.e. under some circumstances, an increase in government debt could put downward rather than upward pressure on interest rates further out the yield curve.

The canonical case is the recent financial crisis. As I’ve discussed before, there’s an argument (which gets at least some support from non-crazies like Perry Mehrling and Brad DeLong) that insufficient federal debt contributed to the crisis, by creating demand for equivalently liquid but higher-return substitutes, thus fueling the financial innovation of the 1990s and 2000s. Of course this dynamic would have increased the availability of credit for private borrowers whose liabilities were (a) seen as implicitly enjoying a federal guarantee and (b) easily securitizable. But for borrowers that didn’t meet those criteria, the lack of enough new federal debt may have made banks less willing to lend to them, in exactly the same way a lack of reserves would have in the old days. And even if the restriction of credit to non-securitizable borrowers was not that big in the boom, the lack of federal debt certainly exacerbated the crash.

So far this is just thinking aloud. But a bunch of smart people seem to be heading in this direction. Take for instance Roger Farmer’s call for more quantitative easing (via DeLong). Says Farmer, “Even if the Bank of England were to buy the entire UK national debt, this policy would not be inflationary.” This is just a dramatic way of making the point that as government debt and money have become closer substitutes, the economic consequences of shifts between them have become smaller. As Farmer says, money no longer occupies a discrete, unique role. Instead, there is a continuum of assets: “At the safe end of the spectrum there is cash. At the risky end there is equity and low grade bonds.” And in a rich country like the US or UK, government debt is very close to the money end. Where Farmer is less convincing is his idea that the interchangeability of money and public debt came about all at once, when central banks began paying interest on reserves. Seems to me it was a longer process of institutional evolution.

One implication of this, again, is that a smoothly functioning financial system requires more public debt, indefinitely. (Another reason to agree with Davidson, Galbraith and Skidelsky that austerity tomorrow is no more desirable than austerity today.) But there’s a second implication: If money as a discrete category is obsolete, then so is monetary policy as we know it. If Treasuries are as liquid as so-called high-powered money, then monetary policy — which comes down to injecting and removing liquidity — must work on the former and not just the latter; but of course the volume of federal debt is orders of magnitude greater than the volume of reserves. Which suggests that quantitative easing may be the only kind of easing there is, from here on out, that is, no more distinction between monetary and fiscal policy.

EDIT: What’s the affinity between cranks and money? Everyone knows that discussions of monetary theory bring all the cranks to the yard. But am I the only one who finds that writing about this stuff, makes me feel like a crank?