OECD: Activist Shareholders Are Bad for Investment

The OECD has just released its new Business and Finance Outlook for 2015. A lot of interesting stuff there. We’ll want to take a closer look at the discussion of the problems that low interest rates pose for pension funds and insurance companies — I’ve thought for a while that this is the most convincing form of the “reaching for yield” argument. But what I want to talk about now is the OECD’s apparent endorsement of the “disgorge the cash” thesis.

Chapter 2, “Corporate Investment and the Stagnation Puzzle,” has a very interesting discussion of shareholder activism and its effects on investment. The starting point is the puzzle that while participants in financial markets are willing to accept unprecedentedly low returns, the minimum returns on new investment projects remain high, as evidenced by depressed real investment despite sustained low interest rates. I think this apparent puzzle is, precisely, a rediscovery of Keynes’ liquidity premium. (Perhaps I will return to this in a subsequent post.) There are a number of ways to think about this, but one dimension is the pressure corporate managers face to avoid investment projects unless the returns are rapid, large, and certain.

Stock markets currently reward companies that favour dividends and buybacks and punish those that undertake more investment … which creates higher hurdle rates for investment.

Here in one sentence is the disgorge the cash argument.

Private sector companies in market-based economies allocate capital spending according to shareholder value. Earnings may be retained for capital spending and growth, but only if the return on equity exceeds the cost of equity. If this is not the case then … they will choose to use their operating cash flow in other ways (by issuing dividends, carrying out cash buybacks…) … and in the limit may close plants and shed labor.

The bolded sentence is puzzling. Is it description or prescription? (Or description of a prescription?) The rest of the section makes no sense if you think either that this is how corporate investment decisions are made, or if you think it’s how they should be made. Among other reasons, once we have different, competing discount rates, the “return on equity” no longer has a well-defined value, even in principle. Throughout, there’s a tension between the language of economic theory and the language of concrete phenomena. Fortunately the latter mostly wins out.

The last decade has seen the rising importance of activist investors who gain the support of other investors and proxy advisors to remove management, to gain influential board seats and/or to make sure that company strategy is in the best interest of shareholders… The question arises as to whether the role of such investors is working to cause short-termism strategies [sic] at the expense of long-term investment, by effectively raising the hurdle rate… Activists… favour the short-term gratification of dividends and share buybacks versus longer-term investment. Incumbent managers will certainly prefer giving in to shareholders desire for more ‘yield’ in a low-interest world to taking on the risk of uncertain long-term investment that might cause them to be punished in the share market. …

To test this idea, an index of CAPEX/(CAPEX + Dividends & Buybacks) was created for each company, and the following investment strategy was measured: sell the highest quartile of the index (capital heavy firms) and buy the lowest quartile of the index (Dividend and Buyback heavy firms). … Selling high capital spending companies and buying low CAPEX and high buyback companies would have added 50% to portfolio values in the USA, 47% in Europe, 21% in emerging economies and even 12% in Japan (where activists play little role). On balance there is a clear investor preference against capital spending companies and in favor of short-termism. This adds to the hurdle rate faced by managers in attempting to undertake large capital spending programmes — stock market investors will likely punish them. … it would be fairly logical from a management point of view to return this cash to shareholders rather than undertake uncertain long-term investment projects… The risks instead would be born more by host-country investment in capacity and infrastructure.

This is a useful exercise. The idea is to look at the ratio of investment to shareholder payouts, and ask how the stock price of the high-investment firms performed compared to the high-payout firms, over the six years 2009 through 2014. What they find is that the shares of the high-payout firms performed considerably better. This is  important because it undermines the version of the disgorge argument you get from people like Bill Lazonick, in which buybacks deliver a short-term boost the share price that benefits CEOs looking to cash in on their options, but does nothing for longer-term investors.  In Lazonick’s version of the story, managers are on one side, shareholders, workers and the rest of society on the other. But if high-payout firms perform better for shareholders over a six-year horizon (which in financial-market terms is almost geologically long term) then we have to slice things differently. On one side are shareholders and CEOs, on the other are us regular people.

The other thing that is notable here is the aggregating of dividends and buybacks in a single “shareholder payout” term. This is what I do, I think it’s unambiguously the right thing to do, but in some quarters for some reason it’s controversial. So I’m always glad to find another authority to say, a buyback is a dividend, a dividend is a buyback, the end.

Another way to see these two points is to think about so-called dividend recapitalizations. These are when a private equity firm, having taken control of a business, has it issue new debt in order to fund a special dividend payment to themselves. (It’s the private equity firm that’s being recapitalized here, not the hapless target firm.) The idea of private equity is that the acquired firm will be resold at a premium because of the productive efficiencies brought about by new management. The more or less acknowledged point of a dividend recap is to allow the private equity partners to get their money back even when they have failed to deliver the improvements, and the firm cannot be sold at a price that would allow them to recoup their investment. Dividend recaps are a small though not trivial part of the flow of payments from productive enterprises to money-owners, in recent years totaling between 5 and 10 percent of total dividends. For present purposes, there are two especially noteworthy things about them. First, they are pure value extraction, but they take the form of a dividend rather than a share repurchase. This suggests that if the SEC were to crack down on buybacks, as people Lazonick suggest, it would be easy for special dividends to take their place. Second, they take place at closely held firms, where the managers have been personally chosen by the new owners. It’s the partners at Cerberus or Apollo who want the dividends, not their hired guns in the CEO suites. It’s an interesting question why the partners want to squeeze these immediate cash payments out of their prey when, you would think, they would just reduce the sale price of the carcass dollar for dollar. But the important point is that here we have a case where there’s no entrenched management, no coordination problems among shareholders — and Lazonick’s “downsize-and-distribute” approach to corporate finance is more pronounced than ever.

Back to the OECD report. The chapter has some useful descriptive material, comparing shareholder payouts in different countries.

[In the United States,]  dividends and buybacks are running at a truly remarkable pace, even greater than capital expenditure itself in recent years. There has been plenty of scope to increase capital spending, but instead firms appear to be adjusting to the demands of investors for greater yield (dividends and buybacks). … [In Europe] dividends and buybacks are only half what United States companies pay … While there is no marked tendency for this component to rise in the aggregate in Europe, companies in the United Kingdom and Switzerland … do indeed look very similar to the United States, with very strong growth in buybacks. … [In Japan] dividends and buybacks are minuscule compared with companies in other countries. …

Here, for the US, are shareholder payouts (gray), investment (dark blue), and new borrowing (light blue, with negative values indicating an increase in debt; ignore the dotted “net borrowing” line), all given as a percent of total sales. We are interested in the lower panel.

from OECD, Business and Finance Outlook 2015

As you can see, investment is quite stable as a fraction of sales. Shareholder payouts, by contrast, dropped sharply over 2007-2009, and have since recovered even more strongly. Since 2009, US corporations have increased their borrowing (“other financing”) by about 4 percent of sales; shareholder payouts have increased by an almost exactly equal amount. This is consistent with my argument that in the shareholder-dominated corporation, real activity is largely buffered from changes in financial conditions. Shifts in the availability of credit simply result in larger or smaller payments to shareholders. The OECD report takes a similar view, that access to credit is not an important factor in variation in corporate investment spending.

The bottom line, though the OECD report doesn’t quite put it this way, is that wealth-owners strongly prefer claims on future income that take money-like forms over claims on future incomes exercised through concrete productive activity. [1] This is, again, simply Keynes’ liquidity premium, which the OECD authors knowing or unknowingly (but without crediting him) summarize well:

It was noted earlier that capital expenditures appear to have a higher hurdle rate than for financial investors. There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, real investors have a longer time frame compared to financial investors who believe (perhaps wrongly at times) that their positions can be quickly unwound.

From a social standpoint, therefore, it matters how much authority is exercised by wealth-owners, who embody the “M” moment of capital, and how much is exercised by the managers or productive capitalists (the OECD’s “real investors”) who embody its “P” moment. [2] Insofar as the former dominate, fixed investment will be discouraged, especially when its returns are further off or less certain.

Second, managers … operate in a very uncertain world and the empirical evidence … suggests that equity investors punish companies that invest too much and reward those that return cash to investors. If managers make an error of judgement they will be punished by activist investors and/or stock market reactions … hence they prefer buybacks.

Finally, it’s interesting what the OECD says about claims that high payouts are simply a way for financial markets to reallocate investment spending in more productive directions.

It is arguable that if managers do not have profitable projects, it makes sense to give the money back to investors so that they can reallocate it to those with better ideas. However, the evidence … suggests that the buyback phenomenon is not associated with rising productivity and better returns on equity.

Of course this isn’t surprising. It’s consistent with the academic literature on shareholder activism, and on the earlier takeover wave, which finds success at increasing payments to shareholders but not at increasing earnings or productive efficiency. For example, this recent study concludes:

We did not see evidence that targets’ financials improved… The targets’ leverage and payout, however, did seem to increase, suggesting that the activists are unlocking value by prompting management to return additional cash to shareholders.

Still, it’s noteworthy to see a bastion of orthodoxy like the OECD flatly stating that shareholder activism is pure extraction and does nothing for productivity.


UPDATE: Here’s James Mackintosh discussing this same material on “The Short View”:



[1] It’s worth mentioning here this interesting recent Australian survey of corporate executives, which found that new investment projects are judged by a minimum expected return or hurdle rate that is quite high — usually in excess of 10 percent — and not unresponsive to changes in interest rates. Even more interesting for our purposes, many firms report that they evaluate projects not based on a rate of return but on a payback period, often as short as three years.

[2] The language of “M and “P” moments is of course taken from Marx’s vision of capital as a process of transformation, from money to commodities to authority over a production process, back to commodities and finally back to money. In Capital Vol. 1 and much of his other writing, Marx speaks of the capitalist as straightforwardly the embodiment of capital, a reasonable simplification given his focus there and the fact that in the 1860s absentee ownership was a rare exception. There is a much more complex discussion of the ways in which the different moments of capital can take the form of distinct and possibly conflicting social actors in Capital Vol. 3, Part 5, especially chapter 27.

Minsky on the Non-Neutrality of Money

I try not to spend too much time criticizing orthodox economics. I think that heterodox people who spend all their energy pointing out the shortcomings and contradictions of the mainstream are, in a sense, making the same mistake as the ones who spend all their energy trying to make their ideas acceptable to the mainstream. We should focus on building up our positive knowledge of social reality, and let the profession fend for itself.

That said, like almost everyone in the world of heterodoxy I do end up writing a lot, and often obstreperously, about what is wrong with the economics profession. To which you can fairly respond: OK, but where is the alternative economics you’re proposing instead?

The honest answer is, it doesn’t exist. There are many heterodox economics, including a large contingent of Post Keynesians, but Post Keynesianism is not a coherent alternative research program. [1] Still, there are lots of promising pieces, which might someday be assembled into a coherent program. One of these is labeled “Minsky”. [2] Unfortunately, while Minsky is certainly known to a broader audience than most economists associated with heterodoxy, it’s mainly only for the financial fragility hypothesis, which I would argue is not central to his contribution.

I recently read a short piece he wrote in 1993, towards the end of his career, that gives an excellent overview of his approach. It’s what I’d recommend — along with the overview of his work by Perry Mehrling that I mentioned in the earlier post, and also the overview by Pollin and Dymski — as a starting point for anyone interested in his work.

* * *

“The Non-Neutrality of Money” covers the whole field of Minsky’s interests and can be read as a kind of summing-up of his mature thought. So it’s interesting that he gave it that title. Admittedly it partly reflects the particular context it was written in, but it also, I think, reflects how critical the neutrality or otherwise of money is in defining alternative visions of what an economy is.

Minsky starts out with a description of what he takes to be the conceptual framework of orthodox economics, represented here by Ben Bernanke’s “Credit in the Macroeconomy“:

The dominant paradigm is an equilibrium construct in which initial endowments of agents, preference systems and production relations, along with maximizing behavior, determine relative prices, outputs and allocation… Money and financial interrelations are not relevant to the determination of these equilibrium values … “real” factors determine “real” variables.

Some people take this construct literally. This leads to Real Business Cycles and claims that monetary policy has never had any effects. Minsky sees no point in even criticizing that approach. The alternative, which he does criticize, is to postulate some additional “frictions” that prevent the long-run equilibrium from being realized, at least right away. Often, as in the Bernanke piece, the frictions take the form of information asymmetries that prevent some mutually beneficial transactions — loans to borrowers without collateral, say — from taking place. But, Minsky says, there is a contradiction here.

On the one hand, perfect foresight is assumed … to demonstrate the existence of equilibrium, and on the other hand, imperfect foresight is assumed … to generate the existence of an underemployment equilibrium and the possibility of policy effectiveness.

Once we have admitted that money and money contracts are necessary to economic activity, and not just an arbitrary numeraire, it no longer makes sense to make simulating a world without money as the goal of policy. If money is useful, isn’t it better to have more of it, and worse to have less, or none? [3] The information-asymmetry version of this problem is actually just the latest iteration of a very old puzzle that goes back to Adam Smith, or even earlier. Smith and the other Classical economists were unanimous that the best monetary system was one that guaranteed a “perfect” circulation, by which they meant, the quantity of money that would circulate if metallic currency were used exclusively. But this posed two obvious questions: First, how could you know how much metallic currency would circulate in that counterfactual world, and exactly which forms of “money” in the real world should you compare to that hypothetical amount? And second, if the ideal monetary system was one in which the quantity of money came closest to what it would be if only metal coins were used, why did people — in the most prosperous countries especially — go to such lengths to develop forms of payment other than metallic coins? Hume, in the 18th century, could still hew to the logic of theory and and conclude that, actually, paper money, bills of exchange, banks that functioned as anything but safety-deposit boxes [4] and all the rest of the modern financial system was a big mistake. For later writers, for obvious reasons, this wasn’t a credible position, and so the problem tended to be evaded rather than addressed head on.

Or to come back to the specific way Minsky presents the problem. Suppose I have some productive project available to me but lack sufficient claim on society’s resources to carry it out. In principle, I could get them by pledging a fraction of the results of my project. But that might not work, perhaps because the results are too far in the future, or too uncertain, or — information asymmetry — I have no way of sharing the knowledge that the project is viable or credibly committing to share its fruits. In that case “welfare” will be lower than it the hypothetical perfect-information alternative, and, given some additional assumptions, we will see something that looks like unemployment. Now, perhaps the monetary authority can in some way arrange for deferred or uncertain claims to be accepted more readily. That may result in resources becoming available for my project, potentially solving the unemployment problem. But, given the assumptions that created the need for policy in the first place, there is no reason to think that the projects funded as a result of this intervention wil be exactly the same as in the perfect-information case. And there is no reason to think there are not lots of other unrealized projects whose non-undertaking happens not to show up as unemployment. [5]

Returning to Minsky: A system of markets

is not the only way that economic interrelations can be modeled. Every capitalist economy can be described in terms of interrelated balance sheets … The entries on balance sheets can be read as payment commitments (liabilities) and expected payment receipts (assets), both denominated in a common unit.

We don’t have to see an endowments of goods, tastes for consumption, and a given technology for converting the endowments to consumption goods as the atomic units of the economy. We can instead start with a set of money flows between units, and the capitalized expectations of future money flows captured on balance sheets. In the former perspective, money payments and commitments are a secondary complication that we may want to introduce for specific problems. In the latter, Minskyan perspective, exchanges of goods are just one of the various forms of money flows between economic units.

Minsky continues:

In this structure, the real and the financial dimensions of the economy are not separated. There is no “real economy” whose behavior can be studied by abstracting from financial considerations. … In this model, money is never neutral.

The point here, again, is that real economies require people to make commitments today on the basis of expectations extending far into an uncertain future. Money and credit are tools to allow these commitments to be made. The more available are money and credit, the further into the future can be deferred the results that will justify today’s activity. If we can define a level of activity that we call full employment or price stability — and I think Keynes was much too sanguine on this point — then a good monetary authority may be able to regulate the flow of money or credit (depending on the policy instrument) to keep actual activity near that level. But there is no connection, logical or practical, between that state of the economy and a hypothetical economy without money or credit at all.

For Minsky, this fundamental point is captured in Keynes’ two-price model. The price level of current output and capital assets are determined by two independent logics and vary independently. This is another way of saying that the classical dichotomy between relative prices and the overall price level, does not apply in a modern economy with a financial system and long-lived capital goods. Changes in the “supply of money,” whatever that means in practice, always affect the prices of assets relative to current output.

The price level of assets is determined by the relative value that units place on income in the future and liquidity now. …  

The price level of current output is determined by the labor costs and the markup per unit of output. … The aggregate markup for consumption goods is determined by the ratio of the wage bill in investment goods, the government deficit… , and the international trade balance, to the wage bill in the production of consumption goods. In this construct the competition of interest is between firms for profits.

Here we see Minsky’s Kaleckian side, which doesn’t get talked about much. Minsky was convinced that investment always determined profits, never the other way round. Specifically, he followed Kalecki in treating the accounting identity that “the capitalists get what they spend” as causal. That is, total profits are determined as total investment spending plus consumption by capitalists (plus the government deficit and trade surplus.)

Coming back to the question at hand, the critical point is that liquidity (or “money”) will affect these two prices differently. Think of it this way: If money is scarce, it will be costly to hold a large stock of it. So you will want to avoid committing yourself to fixed money payments in the future, you will prefer assets that can be easily converted into money as needed, and you will place a lower value on money income that is variable or uncertain. For all these reasons, long-lived capital goods will have a lower relative price in a liquidity-scare world than in a liquidity-abundant one. Or as Minsky puts it:

The non-neutrality of money … is due to the difference in the way money enters into the determination of the price level of capital assets and of current output. … the non-neutrality theorem reflects essential aspects of capitalism in that it recognizes that … assets exist and that they not only yield income streams but can also be sold or pledged.

Finally, we get to Minsky’s famous threefold classification of financial positions as hedge, speculative or Ponzi. In context, it’s clear that this was a secondary not a central concern. Minsky was not interested in finance for its own sake, but rather in understanding modern capitalist economies through the lens of finance. And it was certainly not Minsky’s intention for these terms to imply a judgement about more and less responsible financing practices. As he writes, “speculative” financing does not necessarily involve anything we would normally call speculation:

Speculative financing covers all financing that involves refinancing at market terms … Banks are always involved in speculative financing. The floating debt of companies and governments are speculative financing.

As for Ponzi finance, he admits this memorable label was a bad choice:

I would have been better served if I had labeled the situation “the capitalization of interest.” … Note that construction finance is almost always a prearranged Ponzi financing scheme. [6]

For me, the fundamental points here are (1) That our overarching vision of capitalist economies needs to be a system of “units” (including firms, governments, etc.) linked by current money payments and commitments to future money payments, not a set of agents exchanging goods; and (2) that the critical influence of liquidity comes in the terms on which long-lived commitments to particular forms of production trade off against current income.

[1] Marxism does, arguably, offer a coherent alternative — the only one at this point, I think. Anwar Shaikh recently wrote a nice piece, which I can’t locate at the moment, contrasting the Marxist-classical and Post Keynesian  strands of heterodoxy.

[2] In fact, as Perry Mehrling demonstrates in The Money Interest and the Public Interest, Minsky represents an older and largely forgotten tradition of American monetary economics, which owes relatively little to Keynes.

[3] Walras, Wicksell and many others dismiss the idea that more money can be beneficial by focusing on its function as a unit of account. You can’t consistently arrive earlier, they point out, by adjusting your watch, even if you might trick yourself the first few times. You can’t get taller by redefining the inch. Etc. But this overlooks the fact that people do actually hold money, and pay real costs to acquire  it.

[4] “The dearness of every thing, from plenty of money, is a disadvantage … This has made me entertain a doubt concerning the benefit of banks and paper-credit, which are so generally esteemed advantageous … to endeavour artificially to encrease such a credit, can never be the interest of any trading nation; but must lay them under disadvantages, by encreasing money beyond its natural proportion to labour and commodities… And in this view, it must be allowed, that no bank could be more advantageous, than such a one as locked up all the money it received, and never augmented the circulating coin, as is usual, by returning part of its treasure into commerce.” Political Discourses, 1752.

[5] This leads into Verdoorn’s law and anti-hysteresis, a topic I hope to return to.

[6] Daniel Davies should appreciate this.

What to Read on Liquidity

In comments, someone asks for references behind “the point is liquidity, the point is liquidity, the point is liquidity.” So, here are my recommended readings on liquidity.

Mike Beggs: “Liquidity as a Social Relation.” This is the best single discussion I know of the Keynesian view of liquidity. Beside laying out the fundamental conceptual issues, and sketching the historical development of the concept, this piece also has a good discussion of how the definition of liquidity used in monetary policy has been transformed over the past couple decades. This is the first thing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to understand what exactly those of us in the left-Keynsian tradition mean by “liquidity.”

John Hicks: “Liquidity.” A lucid and intelligent summary of where the discussion of liquidity stood 20 years after Keynes’ death.

Jorg Bibow: “Liquidity preference theory revisited: to ditch or to build on it?” A rigorous analysis of the role of liquidity in the Keynesian theory of interest rates, with particular attention to the dynamics of conventional expectations. If you want to know how Keynes’ ideas about liquidity fit into contemporary debates about monetary policy, Bibow is your man. Also worth reading: “On Keynesian Theories of Liquidity Preference,” and Bibow’s book.

J. M. Keynes: chapters 12, 13, 15, 17 and 23 of the General Theory. Also: “The General Theory of Employment”; “The Ex-Ante Theory of Interest. The original source. I think  the presentation in the articles is clearer than in the book. Beggs and Hicks and Bibow are even clearer.

Jean Tirole, “Illiquidity and All Its Friends.” Within the mainstream, Tirole has by far the best discussion of liquidity that I’m aware of. I have profoundly mixed feelings about his approach but I’ve certainly learned from him — for example, the distinction between funding liquidity and market liquidity is genuinely useful. If you’re tempted to criticize “mainstream” economics’ treatment of liquidity, you need to seriously engage with Tirole first — he incorporates a surprisingly large part of the Keynesian vision of liquidity into an orthodox framework.

Jim Crotty, “The Centrality of Money, Credit and Intermediation in Marx’s Crisis Theory”. Addresses liquidity in a somewhat different context than most of the above — he asks how the specifically monetary character of capitalist production shapes the dynamics of accumulation as described by Marx and his followers. It’s a bit askew to the other pieces here, but the underlying questions are, I think, the same. And it is one of the most brilliant scholarly essays I have read.

Perry Mehrling, “The Vision of Hyman Minsky.” I think this lays out the logic of Minsky’s work better than anything by Minsky himself. Also see Mehrling’s book, The Money Interest and the Public Interest. Everything we need to know about liquidity is in there, though you may have to read between the lines to find it. His “Inherent Hierarchy of Money” is also useful, making the point that any system of payments is inherently hierarchical, with the same instrument appearing as credit at one level and as money at the level below.

EDIT: Should also include Joan Robinson, “The Rate of Interest,” which has a useful taxonomy distinguishing illiquidity in the strict sense from capital uncertainty, income uncertainty and lender’s risk.

By the way, the phrasing the post starts with is taken from Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s Vietnam war novel. (I know that’s not what you were asking.) It’s the best novel I read this year, I recommend it almost unreservedly. There of course the point is Vietnam.

Liquidity Preference on the F Line

Sitting on the subway today, I was struck by the fact that the three ads immediately opposite me were all for what you might call liquidity services. On the left was an ad for “personal asset loans” from something called Borro: “With this necklace … I funded my first business,” says a satisfied customer. Next to it was an MTA ad trumpeting the fact that you can pay your fare with a credit card. And then one from AptDeco.com, which I guess is a clearinghouse for used furniture sales, with the tagline “NYC is now your furniture store.”

the Borro ad was the next one to the left

This was interesting to me because I’ve just been thinking about the neutrality of money, and what an incoherent and contradictory idea it is.

The orthodox view is that the level of “real” economic activity is determined by “real” factors — endowments, tastes, technology — and people simply hold money balances proportionate to this level of activity. In this view, a change in the money supply can’t make anyone better or worse off, at least in the long run, or change anything about the economy except the price level.

Just looking at these ads shows us why that can’t be true. First of all, the question of what constitutes money. All three of these ads are, in effect, inviting you to use something as money that you couldn’t previously. Without the specialized intermediary services being hawked here, you couldn’t pay the startup costs of a business with a necklace (what’s this thing made of, plutonium?), or pay for a subway ride with a promise to pay later, or pay for much of anything with a used couch. And this new liquidity has real benefits — otherwise, no one would be buying it, and it wouldn’t be worth the cost of producing (or advertising) it. The idea — stated explicitly in the Borro ad — is that the liquidity they provide allows transactions to take place that otherwise wouldn’t. The ability to turn a piece of jewelry or a car into cash allows people to use productive capacities that otherwise would go to waste.

And of course this makes sense. The orthodox view is that money is useful — there must be a reason that we don’t live in a barter world, and more than that, that all this huge industry of liquidity provision exists. But money, for some reason, is not subject to the same kind of smoothly diminishing returns that other useful things are. There is a fixed amount you need, you can’t get by with less, and there’s no benefit at all in having more. The problem is worse than that, since the standard view is that money demand is strictly proportionate to the volume of transactions. But, which transactions? Presumably, the amount of economic activity depends on the availability of money — that’s what it means to say that money is useful. And furthermore, as these ads implicitly make clear, some transactions are more liquidity-intensive than others. No one is offering specialized intermediary services to help you buy a hamburger. So both the level and composition of economic activity must depend on money holdings. But in that case, you can’t say that money holdings depend only on the volume of activity — that would be circular. In a world where money is used at all, it can’t be neutral. An increase in the money supply (or better, in liquidity) may raise prices, but it won’t do so proportionately, since it also enables people to benefit from increasing their money holdings (or: shifting toward more liquid balance sheet positions) and to carry out liquidity-intensive transactions that were formerly unable to.

This is a very old issue in economics. The idea that money should be neutral is as old as the discipline, and so is this line of criticism of it. You can find both already in Hume. In “Of Money,” he lays out the argument that money must be neutral in the long run, since it is just an intrinsically meaningless unit of measure; real wealth depends on real resources, not on the units we count them in. Unlike most later writers, he follows this argument to its logical conclusion, that any resources devoted to liquidity provision are wasted:

This has made me entertain a doubt concerning the benefit of banks and paper-credit, which are so generally esteemed advantageous to every nation. That provisions and labour should become dear by the encrease of trade and money, is, in many respects, an inconvenience; but an inconvenience that is unavoidable, and the effect of that public wealth and prosperity which are the end of all our wishes. … But there appears no reason for encreasing that inconvenience by a counterfeit money, which foreigners will not accept of in any payment, and which any great disorder in the state will reduce to nothing. There are, it is true, many people in every rich state, who having large sums of money, would prefer paper with good security; as being of more easy transport and more safe custody. … And therefore it is better, it may be thought, that a public company should enjoy the benefit of that paper-credit, which always will have place in every opulent kingdom. But to endeavour artificially to encrease such a credit, can never be the interest of any trading nation; but must lay them under disadvantages, by encreasing money beyond its natural proportion to labour and commodities, and thereby heightening their price to the merchant and manufacturer. And in this view, it must be allowed, that no bank could be more advantageous, than such a one as locked up all the money it received, and never augmented the circulating coin, as is usual, by returning part of its treasure into commerce.

You can find similar language in “On the Balance of Trade”:

I scarcely know any method of sinking money below its level [i.e. producing inflation], but those institutions of banks, funds, and paper-credit, which are so much practised in this kingdom. These render paper equivalent to money, circulate it throughout the whole state, make it supply the place of gold and silver, raise proportionably the price of labour and commodities, and by that means either banish a great part of those precious metals, or prevent their farther encrease. What can be more shortsighted than our reasonings on this head? We fancy, because an individual would be much richer, were his stock of money doubled, that the same good effect would follow were the money of every one encreased; not considering, that this would raise as much the price of every commodity, and reduce every man, in time, to the same condition as before.

It is indeed evident, that money is nothing but the representation of labour and commodities, and serves only as a method of rating or estimating them. Where coin is in greater plenty; as a greater quantity of it is required to represent the same quantity of goods; it can have no effect, either good or bad, taking a nation within itself; any more than it would make an alteration on a merchant’s books, if, instead of the Arabian method of notation, which requires few characters, he should make use of the Roman, which requires a great many. 

From this view — which is, again, just taking the neutrality of money to its logical conclusion — services like the ones being advertised on the F train are the exact opposite of what we want. By making more goods usable as money, they are only contributing to inflation. Rather than making it easier for people to use necklaces, furniture, etc. as means of payment, we should rather be discouraging people form using even currency as means of payment, by reducing banks to safe-deposit boxes.

That was where Hume left the matter when he first wrote the essays around 1750. But when he republished “On the Balance of Trade” in 1764, he was no longer so confident. [1] The new edition added a discussion of the development of banking in Scotland with a strikingly different tone:

It must, however, be confessed, that, as all these questions of trade and money are extremely complicated, there are certain lights, in which this subject may be placed, so as to represent the advantages of paper-credit and banks to be superior to their disadvantages. … The encrease of industry and of credit … may be promoted by the right use of paper-money. It is well known of what advantage it is to a merchant to be able to discount his bills upon occasion; and every thing that facilitates this species of traffic is favourable to the general commerce of a state. But private bankers are enabled to give such credit by the credit they receive from the depositing of money in their shops; and the bank of England in the same manner, from the liberty it has to issue its notes in all payments. There was an invention of this kind, which was fallen upon some years ago by the banks of Edinburgh; and which, as it is one of the most ingenious ideas that has been executed in commerce, has also been thought advantageous to Scotland. It is there called a Bank-Credit; and is of this nature. A man goes to the bank and finds surety to the amount, we shall suppose, of a 1000 pounds. This money, or any part of it, he has the liberty of drawing out whenever he pleases, and he pays only the ordinary interest for it, while it is in his hands. … The advantages, resulting from this contrivance, are manifold. As a man may find surety nearly to the amount of his substance, and his bank-credit is equivalent to ready money, a merchant does hereby in a manner coin his houses, his household furniture, the goods in his warehouse, the foreign debts due to him, his ships at sea; and can, upon occasion, employ them in all payments, as if they were the current money of the country.

Hume is describing something like a secured line of credit, not so different from the services being advertised on the F line, which also offer ways to coin your houses and household furniture. The puzzle is why he thinks this is a good thing. The trade credit provided by banks, which is now “favourable to the general commerce of the state,” is precisely what he was trying to prevent when he wrote that the best bank was one that “locked up all the money it received.”Why does he now think that increasing liquidity will stimulate industry, instead of just producing a rise in prices that will “reduce every man, in time, to the same condition as before”?

You can’t really hold it against Hume that he never resolved this contradiction. But what’s striking is how little the debate has advanced in the 250 years since. Indeed, in some ways it’s regressed. Hume at least drew the logical conclusion that in a world of neutral money, liquidity services like the ones advertised on the F train would not exist.

[1] I hadn’t realized this section was a later addition until reading Arie Arnon’s discussion of the essay in Monetary Theory and Policy from Hume and Smith to Wicksell. I hope to be posting more about this superb book in the near future.

Boulding on Interest

Kenneth Boulding, reviewing Maurice Allais’s  Économie et intérêt in 1951:

Much work on the theory of interest is hampered at the start by its unquestioned assumption that “the” rate of interest, or even some complex of rates, is a suitable parameter for use in the construction of systems of economic relationships, whether static or dynamic. This is an assumption which is almost universally accepted and yet which seems to me to be very much open to question. My reason for questioning it is that the rate of interest is not an objective magnitude… The rate of interest is not a “price”; its dimensions are those of a rate of growth, not of a ratio of exchange, even though it is sometimes carelessly spoken of as a “price of loanable funds.” What is determined in the market is not strictly the rate of interest but the price of certain “property rights.” These may be securities, either stocks or bonds, or they may be items or collections of physical property. Each of these property rights represents to an individual an expected series of future values, which may be both positive and negative. If this expected series of values can be given some “certainty equivalent” … then the market price of the property determines a rate of interest on the investment. This rate of interest, however, is essentially subjective and depends on the expectations of the individual; the objective phenomenon is the present market price 

It is only the fact that the fulfilment of some expectations seems practically certain that gives us the illusion that there is an objective rate of interest determined in the market. But in strict theory there is no such certainty, even for gilt-edged bonds; and when the uncertainties of life, inflation, and government are taken into consideration, it is evident that this theoretical uncertainty is also a matter of practice. What is more, we cannot assume either that there are any “certain equivalents” of uncertain series for it is the very uncertainty of the future which constitutes its special quality. What this means is that it is quite illegitimate even to begin an interest theory by abstracting from uncertainty or by assuming that this can be taken care of by some “risk premium”; still less is it legitimate to construct a whole theory on these assumptions … without any discussion of the problems which uncertainty creates. What principally governs the desired structure of assets on the part of the individual is the perpetual necessity to hedge — against inflation, against deflation, against the uncertainty in the future of all assets, money included. It is these uncertainties, therefore, which are the principal governors of the demand and supply of all assets without exception, and no theory which abstracts from these uncertainties can claim much significance for economics. Hence, Allais is attempting to do something which simply cannot be done, because it is meaningless to construct a theory of “pure” interest devoid of premiums for risk, liquidity, convenience, amortization, prestige, etc. There is simply no such animal. 

In other words: There are contexts when it is reasonable to abstract from uncertainty, and proceed on the basis that people know what will happen in the future, or at least its probability distribution. But interest rates are not such a context, you can’t abstract away from uncertainty there. Because compensation for uncertainty is precisely why interest is paid.

The point that what is set in the market, and what we observe, is never an interest rate as such, but the price of some asset today in terms of money today, is also important.

Boulding continues:

The observed facts are the prices of assets of all kinds. From these prices we may deduce the existence of purely private rates of return. The concept of a historical “yield” also has some validity. But none of these things is a “rate of interest” in the sense of something determined in a market mechanism.  

This search for a black cat that isn’t there leads Allais into several extended discussions of almost meaningless and self-constructed questions… Thus he is much worried about the “fact” that a zero rate of interest means an infinite value for land, land representing a perpetual income, which capitalized at a zero rate of interest yields an infinite value… This is a delightful example of the way in which mathematics can lead to an almost total blindness to economic reality. In fact, the income from land is no more perpetual than that from anything else and no more certain. … We might draw a conclusion from this that a really effective zero rate of interest in a world of perfect foresight would lead to an infinite inflation; but, then, perfect foresight would reduce the period of money turnover to zero anyway and would give us an infinite price level willy-nilly! This conclusion is interesting for the light it throws on the complete uselessness of the “perfect foresight” model but for little else. In fact, of course, the element which prevents both prices from rising to infinity and (private) money rates of interest from falling to zero is uncertainty – precisely the factor which Allais has abstracted from. Another of these quite unreal problems which worries him a great deal is why there is always a positive real rate of interest, the answer being of course that there isn’t! … 

Allais reflects also another weakness of “pure”interest theory, which is a failure to appreciate the true significance and function of financial institutions and of “interest” as opposed to “profit” – interest in this sense being the rate of growth of value in “securities,” especially bonds, and “profit” being the rate of growth of value of items or combinations of real capital. Even if there were no financial institutions or financial instruments … there would be subjective expected rates of profit and historical yields on past, completed investments. In such a society, however, given the institution of private property, everyone would have to administer his own property. The main purpose of the financial system is to separate “ownership” (i.e., equity) from “control,” or administration, that is, to enable some people to own assets which they do not control, and others to control assets which they do not own. This arrangement is necessitated because there is very little, in the processes by which ownership was historically determined through inheritance and saving, to insure that those who own the resources of society are … capable of administering them. Interest, in the sense of an income received by the owners of securities, is the price which society pays for correcting a defect in the otherwise fruitful institution of private property. It is, of course, desirable that the price should be as small as possible – that is, that there should be as little economic surplus as possible paid to nonadministering owners. It is quite possible, however, that this “service” has a positive supply price in the long run, and thus that, even in the stationary state, interest, as distinct from profit, is necessary to persuade the nonadministering owners to yield up the administration of their capital.

This last point is important, too. Property, we must always remember, is not a relationship between people and things. it is a relationship between people and people. Ownership of an asset means the authority to forbid other people from engaging in a certain set of productive activities. The “product” of the asset is how much other people will pay you not to exercise that right. Historically, of course, the sets of activities associated with a given asset have often been defined in relation to some particular means of production. But this need not be the case. In a sense, the patent or copyright isn’t an extension of the idea of property, but property in its pure form. And even where the rights of an asset owner are defined as those connected with some tangible object, the nature of the connection still has to be specified by convention and law.

According to Wikipedia, Économie et intérêt,  published in 1947, introduced a number of major ideas in macroeconomics a decade or more before the American economists they’re usually associated with, including the overlapping generations model and the golden rule for growth. Boulding apparently did not find these contributions worth mentioning. He does, though, have something to say about Allais’s “economic philosophy” which “is a curious combination of Geseel, Henry George and Hayek,” involving “free markets, with plenty of trust- and union-busting, depreciating currency, and 100 per cent reserves in the banking system, plus the appropriation of all scarcity rents and the nationalization of land.” Boulding describes this as “weird enough to hit the jackpot.” It doesn’t seem that weird to me. It sounds like a typical example of a political vision you can trace back to Proudhon and forward through the “Chicago plan” of the 1930s and its contemporary admirers to the various market socialisms and more or less crankish monetary reform plans. (Even Hyman Minsky was drawn to this strain of politics, according to Perry Mehrling’s superb biographical essay.)What all these have in common is that they see the obvious inconsistency between capitalism as we observe it around us and the fairy tales of ideal market exchange, but they don’t reject the ideal. Instead, they propose a program of intrusive regulations to compel people to behave as they are supposed to in an unregulated market. They want to make the fairy tales true by legislation. Allais’ proposal for currency depreciation is not normally part of this package; it’s presumably a response to late-1940s conditions in France. But other than that these market utopias are fairly consistent. In particular, it’s always essential to reestablish the objectivity of money.

Finally, in a review full of good lines, I particularly like this one:

Allais’s work is another demonstration that mathematics and economics, though good complements, are very imperfect substitutes. Mathematics can manipulate parameters once formulated and draw conclusions out which were already implicit in the assumptions. But skills of the mathematician are no substitute for the proper skill of the economist, which is that of selecting the most significant parameters to go into the system.

Liquidity Preference and Solidity Preference in the 19th Century

So I’ve been reading Homer and Sylla’s History of Interest Rates. One of the many fascinating things I’ve learned, is that in the market for federal debt, what we today call an inverted yield curve was at one time the norm.

From the book:

Three small loans floated in 1820–1821, principally to permit the continued redemption of high rate war loans, provide an interesting clue to investor preference… These were: 

$4.7 million “5s of 1820,” redeemable in 1832; sold at 100 = 5%.
“6s of 1820,” redeemable at pleasure of United States; sold at 102 = 5.88%.
“5s of 1821,” redeemable in 1835; sold at 1051⁄8 =4.50%, and at 108 = 4.25%. 

The yield was highest for the issue with early redemption risk and much lower for those with later redemption risks.

Nineteenth century government bonds were a bit different from modern bonds, in that the principal was repaid at the option of the borrower; repayment is usually not permitted until a certain date. [1] They were also sold with a fixed yield in terms of face value — that’s what the “5” and “6” refer to — but the actual yield depended on the discount or premium they were sold at. The important thing for our purposes is that the further away the earliest possible date of repayment is, the lower the interest rate — the opposite of the modern term premium. That’s what the passage above is saying.

The pattern isn’t limited to the 1820-21 bonds, either; it seems to exist through most of the 19th century, at least for the US. It’s the same with the massive borrowing during the Civil War:

In 1864, although the war was approaching its end, it had only been half financed. The Treasury was able to sell a large volume of bonds, but not at such favorable terms as the market price of its seasoned issues might suggest. Early in the year another $100 million of the 5–20s [bonds with a minimum maturity of 5 years and a maximum of 20] were sold and then a new longer issue was sold as follows: 

1864—$75 million “6s”  redeemable in 1881, tax-exempt; sold at 104.45 = 5.60%. 

The Treasury soon made an attempt to sell 5s, which met with a lukewarm reception. In order to attract investors to the lower rate the Treasury extended the term to redemption from five to ten years and the maturity from twenty to forty years

1864—$73 million “5%, 10–40s of 1864,” redeemable 1874, due in 1904, tax-exempt; sold at 100 = 5%.

Isn’t that striking? The Treasury couldn’t get investors to buy its shorter bonds at an acceptable rate, so they had to issue longer bonds instead. You wouldn’t see that story today.

The same pattern continues through the 1870s, with the new loans issue to refinance the Civil War debt. The first issue of bonds, redeemable in five to ten years sold at an interest rate of 5%; the next issue, redeemable in 13-15 years sold at 4.5%; and the last issue, redeemable in 27-29 years, sold at 4%. And it doesn’t seem like this is about expectations of a change in rates, like with a modern inverted yield curve. Investors simply were more worried about being stuck with uninvestable cash than about being stuck with unsaleable securities. This is a case where “solidity preference” dominates liquidity preference.

One possible way of explaining this in terms of Axel Leijonhufvud’s explanation of the yield curve.

The conventional story for why long loans normally have higher interest rates than short ones is that longer loans impose greater risks on lenders. They may not be able to convert the loan to cash if they need to make some payment before it matures, and they may suffer a capital loss if interest rates change during the life of the loan. But this can’t be the whole story, because short loans create the symmetric risk of not knowing what alternative asset will be available when the loan matures. In the one case, the lender risks a capital loss, but in the other case they risk getting a lower income. Why is “capital uncertainty” a greater concern than “income uncertainty”?

The answer, Leijonhufvud suggests, lies in

Keynes’ … “Vision” of a world in which currently active households must, directly or indirectly, hold their net worth in the form of titles to streams that run beyond their consumption horizon. The duration of the relevant consumption plan is limited by the sad fact that “in the Long Run, we are all dead.” But the great bulk of the “Fixed Capital of the modem world” is very long- term in nature and is thus destined to survive the generation which now owns it. This is the basis for the wealth effect of changes in asset values. 

The interesting point about this interpretation of the wealth effect is that it also provides a price-theoretical basis for Keynes’ Liquidity Preference theory. … Keynes’ (as well as Hicks’) statement of this hypothesis has been repeatedly criticized for not providing any rationale for the presumption that the system as a whole wants to shed “capital uncertainty” rather than “income uncertainty.” But Keynes’ mortal consumers cannot hold land, buildings, corporate equities, British consols, or other permanent income sources “to maturity.” When the representative, risk-averting transactor is nonetheless induced by the productivity of roundabout processes to invest his savings in such income sources, he must be resigned to suffer capital uncertainty. Forward markets will therefore generally show what Hicks called a “constitutional weakness” on the demand side.

I would prefer not to express this in terms of households’ consumption plans. And I would emphasize that the problem with wealth in the form of long-lived production processes is not just that it produces income far into the future, but that wealth in this form is always in danger of losing its character as money. Once capital is embodied in a particular production process and the organization that carries it out, it tends to evolve into the means of carrying out that organization’s intrinsic purposes, instead of the capital’s own self-expansion. But for this purpose, the difference doesn’t matter; either way, the problem only arises once you have, as Leijonhufvud puts it, “a system ‘tempted’ by the profitability of long processes to carry an asset stock which turns over more slowly than [wealth owners] would otherwise want.”

The temptation of long-lived production processes is inescapable in modern economies, and explains the constant search for liquidity. But in the pre-industrial United States? I don’t think so. Long-lived means of production were much less important, and to the extent they did exist, they weren’t an outlet for money-capital. Capital’s role in production was to finance stocks of raw materials, goods in process and inventories. There was no such thing, I don’t think, as investment by capitalists in long-lived capital goods. And even land — the long-lived asset in most settings — was not really an option, since it was abundant. The early United States is something like Samuelson’s consumption-loan world, where there is no good way to convert command over current goods into future production. [2] So there is excess demand rather than excess supply for long-lasting sources of income.

The switch over to positive term premiums comes early in the 20th century. By the 1920s, short-term loans in the New York market consistently have lower rates than corporate bonds, and 3-month Treasury bills have rates below longer bonds. Of course the organization of financial markets changed quite a lot in this period too, so one wouldn’t want to read too much into this timing. But it is at least consistent with the Leijonhufvud story. Liquidity preference becomes dominant in financial markets only once there has been a decisive shift toward industrial production by long-lived firm using capital-intensive techniques, and once claims on those firms has become a viable outlet for money-capital.

* * *

A few other interesting points about 19th century US interest rates. First, they were remarkably stable, at least before the 1870s. (This fits with the historical material on interest rates that Merijn Knibbe has been presenting in his excellent posts at Real World Economics Review.)

Second, there’s no sign of a Fisher equation. Nominal interest rates do not respond to changes in the price level, at all. Homer and Sylla mention that in earlier editions of the book, which dealt less with the 20th century, the concept of a “real” interest rate was not even mentioned.

As you can see from this graph, none of the major inflations or deflations between 1850 and 1960 had any effect on nominal interest rates. The idea that there is a fundamentals-determined “real” interest rate while the nominal rate adjusts in response to changes in the price level, clearly has no relevance outside the past 50 years. (Whether it describes the experience of the past 50 years either is a question for another time.)

Finally, there is no sign of “crowding out” of private by public borrowing. It is true that the federal government did have to pay somewhat higher rates during the periods of heavy borrowing (and of course also political uncertainty) in the War of 1812 and the Civil War. But rates for other borrowers didn’t budge. And on the other hand, the surpluses that resulted in the redemption of the entire debt in the 1830s didn’t deliver lower rates for other borrowers. Homer and Sylla:

Boston yields were about the same in 1835, when the federal debt was wiped out, as they were in 1830; this reinforces the view that there was little change in going rates of long-term interest during this five- year period of debt redemption.

If government borrowing really raises rates for private borrowers, you ought to see it here, given the absence of a central bank for most of this period and the enormous scale of federal borrowing during the Civil War. But you don’t.

[1] It seems that most, though not all, bonds were repaid at the earliest possible redemption date, so it is reasonably similar to the maturity of a modern bond.

[2] Slaves are the big exception. So the obvious test for the argument I am making here would be to find the modern pattern of term premiums in the South. Unfortunately, Homer and Sylla aren’t any help on this — it seems the only local bond markets in this period were in New England.