“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.

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.

Varieties of Keynesianism

Here’s something interesting from Axel Leijonhufvud. It’s a response to Luigi Pasinetti’s book on Keynes, but really it’s an assessment of the Keynesian revolution in general.

There really was a revolution, according to Pasinetti, and it can be dated precisely, to 1932. Leijonhufvud:

By the Spring of that year, Keynes had concluded that the Treatise could not be salvaged by a revised edition. He still gave his “Pure Theory of Money” lecture series which was largely based on it but members of his ‘Circus’ attended and gave him trouble. The summer of that year appears to have been a critical period. In the Fall, Keynes announced a new series of lectures with the title “The Monetary Theory of Production”. The new title signaled a break with his previous work and a break with tradition. From this point onward, Keynes felt himself to be doing work that was revolutionary in nature. 

What was revolutionary about these lectures was that they weren’t about extending or modifying the established framework of economics, but about adopting a new starting point. A paradigm in economics can be thought of as defined by the minimal model — the model that (in Pasinetti’s words) “contains those analytical features, and only those features, which the theory cannot do without.” Or as I’ve suggested here, the minimal model is the benchmark of simplicity in terms of which Occam’s razor is applied.

For the orthodox economics of Keynes’s day (and ours), the minimal model was one of “real exchange” in which a given endowment of goods and a given set of preferences yielded a vector of relative prices. Money, production, time, etc. can then be introduced as extensions of this minimal model. In Keynes’ “monetary production” model, on the other hand, the “analytical features which the theory cannot do without” are a set of income flows generated in production, and a set of expenditure flows out of income. The minimal model does not include any prices or quantities. Nor does it necessarily include exchange — it’s natural to think of the income flows as consisting of profits and wages and the expenditure flows as consumption and investment, but they can just as naturally include taxes, interest payments, asset sales, and so on.

I don’t want to suggest that the monetary production paradigm has ever been as well-defined as the real exchange paradigm. One of Leijonhufvud’s main points is that there has never been a consensus on the content of the Keynesian revolution. There are many smart people who will tell you what “Keynes really meant.” With due respect (and I mean it) I’m not convinced by any of them. I don’t think anyone knows what Keynes really meant —including Keynes himself. The truth is, the Hicks-Patinkin-Samuelson version of Keynes is no bastard; its legitimate paternity is amply documented in the General Theory. Pasinetti quotes Joan Robinson: “There were moments when we had some trouble in getting Maynard to see what the point of his revolution really was.” Which doesn’t, of course, means that Hicks-Patinkin-Samuelson is the only legitimate Keynes — here even more than  in most questions of theory, we have to tolerate ambiguity and cultivate the ability to hold more than one reading in mind at once.

One basic ambiguity is in that term, “monetary production.” Which of those words is the important one?

For Pasinetti, the critical divide is between Keynes’ theory of production and the orthodox theory of exchange. Pasinetti’s production-based Keynesianism

starts from the technological imperatives stemming from the division and specialization of labor. In this context, exchange is derivative, stemming from specialization in production. How it is institutionalized and organized is a matter that the minimal production paradigm leaves open (whereas the exchange paradigm necessarily starts by assuming at least private property and often also organized markets). Prices in the production paradigm are indices of technologically determined resource costs and, as such, leave open the question whether the system does or does not have a tendency towards the full utilization of scarce resources and, in particular, of labor. …

The exchange paradigm relies on individual self-interest, on consumer’s sovereignty, and on markets and private property as the principal institutions needed to bring about a socially desirable and harmonious outcome. In putting the division of labor and specialization at center stage, the pure production model, in contrast, highlights the “necessarily cooperative aspects of any organized society…

To an unsympathetic audience, I admit, this could come across as a bunch of commencement-speech pieties. For a rigorous statement of the pure production paradigm we need to turn to Sraffa. In Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities he starts from the pure engineering facts — the input-output matrices governing production at current levels using current technology. There’s nothing about prices, demand, distribution. His system “does not explain anything about the allocation of resources. Instead, the focus is altogether on finding a logical basis for objective measurement. It is a system for coherent, internally coherent macroeconomic accounting.”

In other words: We cannot reduce the heterogeneous material of productive activity to a single objective quantity of need-satisfaction. There is no such thing. Mengers, Jevons, Walras and their successors set off after the will-o-the-wisp of utility and, to coin a phrase, vanished into a swamp, never to be heard from by positive social science again.

The question then is, how can we consistently describe economic activity using only objective, observable data? (This was also the classical question.) Sraffa answers in terms of a “snapshot” of production at a given moment. Or as Sen puts it, in a perceptive essay, he is showing how one can do economics without the use of counterfactuals.

For Pasinetti, Keynes’ revolution and Sraffa’s anti-subjectivist revival of classical economics — his effort to ground economics in engineering data — were part of the same project, of throwing out subjectivism in favor of engineering. Leijonhufvud is not convinced. “Keynes was above all a monetary economist,” he notes, “and there are good reasons to believe” that it was monetary and not production that was the key term in the “theory of monetary production.” Keynes made no use of the theory of imperfect competition, despite its development by members of his inner circle (Richard Kahn and Joan Robinson). Or consider his famous reversal on wages — in the General Theory, he assumed they were equal to the marginal product of labor, which declined with the level of output. But after this claim was challenged Dunlop, Tarshis and others, he admitted there was no real evidence for it and good reason to think it was not true. [1] The fact that JMK didn’t think anything important in his theory hinged on how wages were set, at least suggests that production side of economy was not central to his project.

The important point for us is that there is one strand of Cambridge that rejects orthodoxy on the grounds that it misrepresents a system of production based on objective relationships between inputs and outputs, as a system of exchange based on subjective preferences. But this is not the only vantage point from which one can criticize the Walrasian system and it’s not clear it’s the one occupied by Keynes or by Keynesianism — whatever that may be.

The alternative standpoint is still monetary production, but with the stress on the first word rather than the second. Leijonhufvud doesn’t talk much about this here, since this is an essay about Pasinetti. But it’s evidently something along the lines of Mehrling’s “money view” or “finance view.” [2] It seems to me this view has three overlapping elements: 1. The atomic units of the economy are money flows (and commitments to future money flows), as opposed to prices and quantities. 2. Quantities are quantities of money; productive activity is not measurable except insofar as it involves money payments. 3. The active agents of the economy are seeking to maximize money income or wealth, not to end up with some preferred consumption basket. Beside Mehrling, I would include Minsky, Paul Davidson and Wynne Godley here, among others.

I’m not going to try to summarize this work here. Let me just say how I’m coming at this.

As I wrote in comments to an earlier post, what I want is to think more systematically about the relationship between the network of financial assets and liabilities recorded on balance sheets, on the one hand, and the concrete social activities of production and consumption, on the other. What we have now, it seems to me, is either a “real” view that collapses these two domains into one, with changes in ownership and debt commitments treated as if they were decisions about production and consumption; or else a “finance” view that treats balance-sheet transactions as a closed system. I think the finance view is more correct, in the sense that at least it sees half of the problem clearly. The “real” view is a hopeless muddle because it tries to treat the concrete social activity of production and consumption as if it were a set of fungible quantities like money, and to treat money commitments as if they were decisions about production and consumption. The strength of the finance view is that it recognizes the system of contingent money payments recorded on balance sheets as a distinct social activity, and not simply a reflection of the allocation of goods and services. To be clear: The purpose of recognizing finance as a distinct thing isn’t to study it in isolation, but rather to explore the specific ways in which it interacts with other kinds of social activity. This is the agenda that Fisher dynamics, disgorge the cash, functional finance and the other projects I’m working on are intended to contribute to.

[1] It’s a bit embarrassing that this “First Classical Postulate,” which Keynes himself said “is the portion of my book which most needs to be revised,” is the first positive claim in the book.

[2] Mehrling prefers to trace his intellectual lineage to the independent tradition of American monetary economics of Young, Hansen and Shaw.  But I think the essential content is similar.

Don’t Start from the Coin

Schumpeter:

Even today, textbooks on Money, Currency, and Banking are more likely than not to begin with an analysis of a state of things in which legal-tender ‘money’ is the only means of paying and lending. The huge system of credits and debits, of claims and debts, by which capitalist society carries on its daily business of production and consumption is then built up step by step by introducing claims to money or credit instruments that act as substitutes for legal tender… Even when there is very little left of [money’s] fundamental role in practice, everything that happens in the sphere of currency, credit, and banking is construed from it, just as the case of money itself is construed from barter. 

Historically, this method of building up the analysis of money, currency, and banking is readily understandable… Legal constructions, too, … were geared to a sharp distinction between money as the only genuine and ultimate means of payment and the credit instrument that embodied a claim to money. But logically, it is by no means clear that the most useful method is to start from the coin—even if, making a concession to realism, we add inconvertible government paper—in order to proceed to the credit transactions of reality. It may be more useful to start from these in the first place, to look upon capitalist finance as a clearing system that cancels claims and debts and carries forward the differences—so that ‘money’ payments come in only as a special case without any particularly fundamental importance. In other words: practically and analytically, a credit theory of money is possibly preferable to a monetary theory of credit.

Perry Mehrling quotes this passage at the start of his essay Modern Money: Credit or Fiat. If you’re someone who worries about the vexed question of what is money anyway, you will benefit from the sustained intelligence Perry brings to bear on it.

Readers of this blog may not be familiar with Perry’s work, so let me suggest a few things. The Credit or Fiat essay is a review of one of Randy Wray’s books, but it makes important positive arguments along with the negative criticism of MMT. [1] A good recent statement of Mehrling’s own views on the monetary system is The Inherent Hierarchy of Money. Two superb essays on monetary thought in the postwar neoclassical synthesis are The Money Muddle and MIT and Money. [2] The former of these coins the term “monetary Walrasianism.” This refers to  the idea that the way to think of a monetary economy is a barter system where, for whatever reason, the nth good serves as unit of account and must be on one side of all trades.  This way of thinking about money is so ingrained that I suspect that many economists would be puzzled by the suggestion that there is any other way of thinking about money. But as Perry shows, this is a specific idea with its own history, to which we can and should imagine alternatives. Finally, The Vision of Hyman Minsky is one of the two best essays I know giving a systematic account of Minsky’s, well, vision. (The other is Minsky as Hedgehog by Dymski and Pollin.) Anyone interested in what money is, what “money” means, and what’s wrong with economists’ answers, could save themselves a lot of trouble and wrong turns by reading those essays. [3]

But let’s talk about the Schumpeter quote.  I think it is right. To understand the monetary nature of modern economies, you need to begin with the credit system, that is, the network of money obligations. Where we want to start from is a world of IOUs. Suppose the only means of payment is a promise to pay. Suppose it’s not only possible for me to tell the bartender at the end of the night, I’ll pay you later, suppose there’s nothing else I can tell him — there’s no cash register at the bar, just a box where my tab goes. Money still exists in this system, but it is only a money of account — concretely we can imagine either an arbitrary unit of value, or some notional commodity that does not circulate, or even exist. (Historical example: non-circulating gold in medieval Europe.) If you give something to me, or do something for me, the only thing I can pay you with now is a promise to pay you later.

This might seem paradoxical — jam tomorrow but never jam today — but it’s not. Debts in this system are eventually settled. As Schumpeter says, they’re settled by netting my IOUs to you from your IOUs to me. An important question then becomes, how big is the universe across which we can cancel out debts? If A owes B, B owes C, and C owes A, it’s not hard to settle everyone up. But suppose A owes B who owes C who owes …. who owes M who owes … who owes Z, who owes A. It’s not so easy now for the dbets to be transferred back along the chain for settlement. In any case, though, my willingness to accept your IOUs depends on my belief that I will want to make some payment to you in the future, or that I’ll want to make some payment to someone who will want to make a payment to someone …. who will eventually want to make a payment to you. The longer the chain, the more important it is for their to be some setting where all the various debts are toted up and canceled out.

The great fairs of medieval Europe were exactly this. During their normal dealings, merchants paid each other with bills of exchange, essentially IOUs that could be transferred to third parties. Merchants would pay suppliers by transferring (with their own endorsement) bills from their customers. Then periodically, merchant houses would send representatives to Champagne or wherever, where the various bills could be presented for payment. Almost all the obligations would end up being offsetting. From Braudel, Capitalism and Civilization Vol. 2:

… the real business of the fairs, economically speaking, was the activity of the great merchant houses. … No fair failed to end with a ‘payment session’ as at Linz, the great fair in Austria; at Leipzig, from its early days of prosperity, the last week was for settling up, the Zahlwoche. Even at Lanciano, a little town in the Papal States which was regularly submerged by its fair (though the latter was only of modest dimensions), handfuls of bills of exchange converged on the fair. The same was true of Pezenas or Montagnac, whose fairs relayed those of Beaucaire and were of similar quality: a whole series of bills of exchange on Paris or Lyons travelled to them. 

The fairs were effectively a settling of accounts, in which debts met and cancelled each other out, melting like snow in the sun: such were the miracles of scontro, compensation. A hundred thousand or so “ecus d’or en or” – that is real coins – might at the clearing-house of Lyons settle business worth millions; all the more so as a good part of the remaining debts would be settled either by a promise of payment on another exchange (a bill of exchange) or by carrying over payment until the next fair: this was the deposito which was usually paid for at 10% a year (2.5% for three months). 

This was not a pure credit-money system, since coin could be used to settle obligations for which there was no offsetting bill. But note that a “good part” of the net obligations remaining at the end of the fair were simply carried over to the next fair.

I think it would be helpful if we replaced truck-and-barter with something like these medieval fairs, when we imagine the original economic situation. [4] Starting from a credit view of money modifies our intuitions in several, as I see it, helpful ways.

1. Your budget constraint is always a matter of how much people will lend you, or how safe you feel borrowing. Conversely, the consequences of failing to pay your debts is a fundamental parameter. We can’t push bankruptcy onto the back burner as a tricky but secondary question to be dealt with later.

2. The extension of credit goes with an extension of the realm of the market. The more things you might be willing to do to settle your debts, the more willing I am to lend to you. And conversely, the further what you owe runs beyond your normal income, the more the question of what you won’t do for money comes up for negotiation.

3. Liquidity, money, demand, depend ultimately on people’s willingness to trust each other, to accept promises, to have confidence in things working out according to plan. Liquidity exists on the liability side of balance sheets as much as on the asset side.

4. When we speak of more or less liquidity, we don’t mean a greater or lesser quantity of some commodity designated “money,” but a greater or lesser degree of willingness to extend credit. So at bottom, conventional monetary policy, quantitative easing, lender of last resort operations, bank regulations — they’re all the same thing.

When Minsky says that the fundamental function of banks is “acceptance,” this is what he means. The fundamental question faced by the financial system is, whose promises are good?

[1] I don’t want to get into Perry criticisms of MMT here. Anyone interested should read the article, it’s not long.

[2] MIT and Money also makes it clear that I was wrong to pick Samuelson’s famous consumption-loan essay as an illustration of the neoclassical position on interest rates. The point of that essay, he explains, was not to offer a theory of interest rate determination, but rather to challenge economic conservatives by demonstrating that even in a simple, rigorous model of rational optimization, a public pension system could could be an unambiguous welfare improvement over private retirement saving. My argument wasn’t wrong, but I should have picked a better example of what I was arguing against.

[3] Perry has also written three books. The only one I’ve read is The New Lombard Street. I can’t recommend it as a starting point for someone new to his work: It’s too focused on the specific circumstances of the financial crisis of 2008, and assumes too much familiarity with his larger perspective.

EDIT: I removed some overly belligerent language from the first footnote.

Default and the Dollar

Government shutdown, debt ceiling deadline just around the corner. Were you watching this show when it was first on, in the summer of 2011? People were predicting that even the possibility of a technical default (which almost happened), or credit-rating downgrade (which did happen, on Aug. 11) should lead to a sharp rise in US interest rates and a fall in the dollar. Neither of these things took place. There were some interesting discussions why not, which are worth revisiting now.

Here is something I wrote at the time:

How is it possible that a downgrade in federal debt could increase demand for it? One obvious reason is that it could increase the political pressure for austerity, making lower growth more likely, and owners of financial assets might recognize this.
But there’s another explanation, which is the that federal debt is a kind of Giffen good. This Baseline Scenario post makes one version of the argument. Here’s my version. 

Wealthholders choose their portfolio to maximize risk-adjusted return, but subject to a survival constraint such that expected probability of returns at each future time t falling below some floor is subjectively zero (less than epsilon, we can say.) The existence of this kind of floor is one of the central things that distinguishes the Minskyan view of the world. (Minsky would talk here about cashflows rather than returns, but the logic is the same.) 

Now suppose the riskiness of the portfolio increases. Then to keep the distribution of returns from crossing the floor, investors need to shift toward lower-risk assets. This is true even if the increased riskiness of the portfolio came from the lower risk assets themselves. 

Here’s another way of looking at it, more in the spirit of Holmstrom and Tirole. Making a risky/illiquid investment requires holding a greater quantity of money-like assets to ensure a zero (or less than epsilon) probability of the investment pulling you below your survival constraint. In effect, this lowers the return on the investment, since the total return has to be calculated on the cost of the asset itself plus the cushion of money-like assets you need to purchase along with it. If safe assets are less safe, you have to hold more of them to cushion the same risky asset. This means that an increase in the riskiness of safe assets implies a shift in demand toward safe assets and away from risky ones.

I also wrote this, about the appreciation of the dollar following the downgrade:

There was a very interesting piece from the BIS recently about why a fall in the price of US assets may be associated with an appreciation of the dollar. (It’s the McCauley chapter in the linked document.) They argue that many purchasers of dollar assets wanted the asset, not the foreign-exchange risk, so they hedged it by simultaneously selling the dollar forward, or otherwise issuing a dollar liability of equal value to the asset. But this means if the value of the US asset declines, they are overhedged, they now have a short position in the dollar. To get rid of that foreign-exchange risk they have to liquidate the dollar liability, which means buying dollars. 

If this sort of hedging were universal, it would have somewhat counterintuitive implications for the exchange rate. Changes in demand for dollar assets would then have no effect on the value of the dollar. And changes in the dollar value of US assets would induce opposite-signed changes in the value of the dollar. According to the BIS, this kind of hedging is very common among European investors in US assets, but not at all common among US purchasers of foreign assets — for US purchasers, the foreign-exchange risk is part of the asset, not something they want to get rid of.

I don’t see any reason to have a strong prior that hedging the forex risk cannot be common among purchasers of foreign assets. If it is common, this sort of “perverse” movement of exchange rates in response to asset-price changes is not just possible, but predictable. And if the hedging is asymmetric, as the BIS study suggests, then we would expect a global rise in asset prices to lead to a decline in the value of the dollar, and a global fall in asset prices to lead to a rise in the price of the dollar.  

Going a step beyond the BIS study, I think there’s a sociological element here. Actual portfolio choices are very seldom made by the ultimate owners, they’re made by intermediaries who are typically specialists of some kind. Now if, let’s say, European purchasers of US equities are largely made by intermediaries, who specialize in equities (domestic and foreign), then they’re going to want to hedge the forex risk — that’s not what they have the expertise to manage. Whereas if US purchases of European equities are largely made by intermediaries who specialize in European or in general foreign assets (equities and otherwise) then they are not going to want to hedge the forex risk, managing it is part of how they get their returns. And I think this question is going to depend on the specific kinds of financial institutions that have developed historically in each place, you can’t deduce it from any underlying tastes or endowments.  

But in any case I think we have to accept that it’s perfectly possible for a decline in the value of US assets to lead to a rise in the value of the dollar, even if it seems implausible at first glance.

Did We Have a Crisis Because Deficits Were Too Small?

In comments to the previous post on fiscal policy, Steve Roth points to a couple posts from his own (excellent) blog pointing to a similar argument by Randy Wray, that falling federal debt-GDP ratios nominal volumes of government debt have consistently preceded financial crises historically.

Also in comments, Chris Mealy asks,

Isn’t the idea that sufficient government debts will prevent phony safe assets and the financial crises they lead to?

Right, exactly!
A couple years ago, VoxEU ran several good pieces making exactly this argument — that it was the lack of sufficient government debt that spurred the growth of mortgage securitization. Here is one:

The increased demand for US government debt by emerging economy central banks led to lower yields, thus forcing those savers in the OECD countries who would normally have held government assets to frantically “search for returns”. … The AAA tranches on securitised US mortgages … seemed to provide the safety plus a “yield pick up” without any risk… 

The key technology that permitted the transformation of US mortgages into safe liquid assets was securitisation. … The massive buying of US government paper by emerging market central banks had displaced other investors whose preference previously had been for safe, short-term, liquid assets.  … The excess demand for short-term, safe, liquid assets created by emerging economies’ accumulation of reserves could not have been satisfied by the securitisation of US mortgages (and consumer credit) without massive credit and liquidity “enhancements” by the banking system. … 

Looking forward, this analysis implies that the current (smaller but still sizeable) US current account deficit should not lead to similar asset supply and demand mismatches since US households are now starting to save and it is the US government which is running the deficit, thus supplying exactly the kind of assets needed

And here is another, from an impeccably mainstream author:

The entire world had an insatiable demand for safe debt instruments – including foreign central banks and investors, but also many US financial institutions. This put enormous pressure on the US financial system… The financial sector was able to create micro-AAA assets from the securitisation of lower quality ones, but at the cost of exposing the system to a panic… In this view, the surge of safe-asset demand was a key factor behind the rise in leverage and macroeconomic risk concentration in financial institutions… These institutions sought the profits generated from bridging the gap between this rise in demand and the expansion of its natural supply. … 

[Once the crisis began], the underlying structural deficit of safe assets worsened as the … triple-A assets from the securitisation industry dried up and the spike in perceived uncertainty further increased demand for these assets. Safe interest rates plummeted to record low levels. … Global imbalances and their feared sudden reversal never played a significant role for the US during this deep crisis. In fact, the worse things became, the more domestic and foreign investors ran to US Treasuries for cover and treasury rates plummeted (and the dollar appreciated). … 

One approach to addressing these issues prospectively would be for governments to explicitly bear a greater share of the systemic risk. … If the governments in asset-producing countries were to do it directly, then they would have to issue bonds beyond their fiscal needs.

The logic is very clear and, to me at least, compelling: For a variety of reasons (including but not limited to reserve accumulation by developing-country central banks) there was an increase in demand for safe, liquid assets, the private supply of which is generally inelastic. The excess demand pushed up the price of the existing stock of safe assets (especially Treasuries), and increased pressure to develop substitutes. (This went beyond the usual pressure to develop new methods of producing any good with a rising price, since a number of financial actors have some minimum yield — i.e. maximum price — of safe assets as a condition of their continued existence.) Mortgage-backed securities were thought to be such substitutes. Once the technology of securitization was developed, you also had a rise in mortgage lending and the supply of MBSs continued growing under its own momentum; but in this story, the original impetus came unequivocally from the demand for substitutes for scarce government debt. It’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that if the US government had only issued more debt in the decade before the crisis, the housing bubble and subsequent crash would have been much milder.
*
While we’re at it, I can resist reposting the old post where I first mentioned this stuff:
A focus on cyclical stabilization assumes that there is no systematic long-term divergence between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. But Keynes believed that there was a secular tendency toward stagnation in advanced capitalist economies, so that maintaining full employment meant not just using public expenditure to stabilize private investment demand, but to incrementally replace it.
Another way of looking at this is that the steady shift from small-scale to industrial production implies a growing weight of illiquid assets in the form of fixed capital. There is not, however, any corresponding long-term increase in the demand for illiquid liabilities. If anything, the sociological patterns of capitalism point the other way, as industrial dynasties whose social existence was linked to particular enterprises have been steadily replaced by rentiers. The whole line of financial innovations from the first joint-stock companies to the recent securitization boom have been attempts to bridge this gap. But this requires ever-deepening financialization, with all the social waste and instability that implies.
It’s the government’s ability to issue liabilities backed by the whole economic output that makes it uniquely able to satisfy the demands of wealth-holders for liquid assets. In the functional finance tradition going back to Lerner, modern states do not possess a budget constraint in the same way households or firms do. Public borrowing has nothing to do with “funding” spending, it’s all about how much government debt the authorities want the banking system to hold. If the demand for safe, liquid assets rises secularly over time, so should government borrowing.
From this point of view, one important source of the recent financial crisis was the surpluses of the 1990s, and insufficient borrowing by the US government in general. By restricting the supply of Treasuries, this excessive fiscal restraint spurred the creation of private sector substitutes purporting to offer similar liquidity properties, in the form of various asset-backed securities. But these new financial assets remained at bottom claims on specific illiquid real assets and their liquidity remained vulnerable to shifts in (expectations of) the value of those assets.
The response to the crisis in 2008 then consists of the Fed retroactively correcting the undersupply of government liabilities by engaging in a wholesale swap of public for private liabilities, leaving banks (and liquidity-demanding wealth owners) holding government liabilities instead of private financial assets. The increase in public debt wasn’t an unfortunate side-effect of the solution to the financial crisis, it was the solution.
Along the same lines, I sometimes wonder how much the huge proportion of government debt on bank balance sheets — 75 percent of assets in 1945 vs. 1.5 percent in 2005 — contributed to the financial stability of the immediate postwar era. With that many safe assets sloshing around, it didn’t take financial engineering or speculative bubbles to convince banks to hold claims on fixed capital and housing. But as the supply of government debt has dwindled the inducements to hold other assets have had to grow increasingly garish.
From which I conclude that ever-increasing government deficits may in fact be better Keynesianism – theoretically, historically and pragmatically – than countercyclical demand management.
(What’s striking to me, rereading this now, is that when I wrote it I had not read any Leijonhufvud. Yet the argument that capitalism suffers from a chronic oversupply of long, illiquid assets is one of the central messages of Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes — “no mortal being can hold land to maturity,” etc. I got the idea from Minsky, I suppose, or maybe from Michael Perelman, who are both very clear that the specific institutions of capitalism are in many ways in deep tension with the development of long-lived capital goods.)

UPDATE: Hey look, The Economist agrees. I think that means it’s time to move on.

UPDATE 2: So does Joe Weisenthal at the The Business Insider. His argument (and Stephanie Kelton’s) is different from the one here — it focuses on the fact that net savings across sectors have to sum to zero, as opposed to the government’s advantage in providing liquidity. But the fundamental point is the same, that the important thing about the government fiscal position is the implications it has for private balance sheets.

UPDATE 3: Steve R. points out that I misread his posts — Wray’s argument is about the nominal volume of federal debt outstanding, not the debt-GDP ratio. Hmm. I’m not sure I buy that relationship as evidence of anything … but it’s still good to see that Wray is asking this question. Steve also points to this paper, which looks very interesting.

Prolegomena to Any Future Post on Fiscal Policy

Hyman Minsky famously asked, Can “it” happen again? No, he answered, it can’t: A deep depression on the scale of the 1930s is not possible in the post-World War II US. One reason why not:

There is a large outstanding government debt… This both sets a floor to liquidity and weakens the link between the money supply and business borrowing.

In other words, a large government debt is stabilizing, because it means that the supply of liquidity — assets that can serve as, and can readily be converted into, means of payment — depends less on the state of the financial system. 
Let’s take a step back. Any unit in a capitalist economy incurs various money obligations, and receives various streams of money payments. [1] If a unit cannot meet its contracted payments in any period, it must default, with whatever legal consequences that entails. To avoid this, economic units, especially banks, must manage both market liquidity (the ability to convert assets in their portfolio into means of payment) and funding liquidity (the ability to issue new liabilities.) In general, when a bank expands its balance sheet, it becomes less liquid — that is, it increases the number of possible future states of the world in which it is unable to acquire the means of payment to meet its current obligations. This is why interest rates tend to rise in response to increased private borrowing. 
Or rather, a bank that expands its balance sheet in order to acquire private debt becomes less liquid, or is likely to find itself less liquid in a crisis. A bank that acquires public debt, on the other hand, becomes more liquid. This is why banks hold government liabilities as reserves, beyond any statutory requirements. Government bonds are, in Minsky’s words, “ultimate liquidity” — the only assets that can always be converted to means of payment as needed. This is why interest rates do not rise in response to public borrowing, even when government deficits are very large. [2]

DR is the federal deficit as a percent of GDP. It’s the one that goes way up during the war. CPR and RRBR are the two main private interest rate indices for the period. They’re the ones that don’t.
This all respectable mainstream economic theory. But I don’t think the Minskyan implications are really acknowledged in mainstream policy discussions. Do we agree that one of the main reasons that a crisis on the scale of 1929-1933 was impossible postwar was the “floor to liquidity” provided by banks’ holdings of federal debt? Then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a crisis of that scale almost did occur in 2007, when the share of federal debt in financial-system assets had fallen to less than 5 percent, compared with 15 percent when Minsky wrote those lines.
Indeed, much of the Fed’s response to the crisis was various policies to raise this ratio; and one danger of deficit reduction is that the banking system still needs more government bonds. Or as Brad DeLong says:

When the world is short of safe assets–and investors are desperate to hold them–to complain about budget deficits in rock-solid reserve-currency countries and thus about safe asset issuance is profoundly stupid.

Right on; Delong has read his Minsky.

Now, Brad, will you take the next step with me and Hyman? Can we also agree that even when there isn’t a shortage of safe assets today, it’s good to keep a stock on hand, just in case? Can we agree that if there’s a chance that in the next decade the world economy will fly apart due to a lack of safe assets, then it’s a bit foolhardy to deliberately reduce the supply of them? Can we agree that, in retrospect, those big Clinton surpluses were — well, I won’t say profoundly stupid, but maybe not the best idea?

And then we can agree that whenever anyone talks about “tackling our long-term government debt problem,” what they really mean is “making future financial crises more likely.”

EDIT: Obviously, this sounds a lot like Modern Monetary Theory. But while I agree substantively with MMT, I think it’s better to think of government liabilities being special because they increase the net liquidity of the financial system, rather than because they can be used to satisfy tax obligations.

There’s one other analytic issue, which I haven’t seen dealt with satisfactorily. Government deficits operate through two channels: They increase the flow of demand for currently-produced goods and services, and they increase the stock of government debt in private hands. Now, under certain assumptions, you might say these are just two ways of describing the same phenomenon. If you think of the economy as a market with two goods, current output and bonds, then increasing the demand for one and increasing the supply of the other are logically equivalent. But this is not the only way of thinking of the economy. (Among other things, while markets certainly exist as social phenomena, describing the economy as a whole as a market is only a metaphor — one that may be more or less illuminating depending on the questions we are interested in.) In general, the two channels are going to have two distinct effects, and it would be nice to be able to think them through separately. But almost everyone, across the whole spectrum, tends to collapse them into one.

[1] One reason I like David Graeber is that he understands that this is a better starting point for economic analysis than the exchange of goods.
[2] Obviously this claim applies only to the United States and similar countries. I am going to leave aside for now what “similar” means.