Links for April 21

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What Is Foreign Investment For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s consider these arguments in turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Idea Was to Create a Modern Gold Standard”

My view on the euro is that it has become a project to restore the rule of money over humanity. To move us back toward a world where in every sphere of life, and especially in collective choices made through government, the overriding question is, “what is most consistent with the accumulation of money claims?” or, “what will the markets think?” The euro is a project to roll back social democracy and to reimpose the “discipline of the market” on the state — or in other words to restore the logic of the gold standard, whose essential condition was that preservation of money-claims had priority over democratic government. From this point of view, crises are not a failure of the system but an essential part of its functioning, since discipline requires that punishment be sometimes visibly meted out.

This kind of Polanyian perspective is typically found on the left. But it’s increasingly clear that many of those on the other side think this way too. Here is a striking recent op-ed from the FT, by one Thomas Mayer:

Germany relied on the Maastricht treaty to make it possible to share a currency without sacrificing political accountability. The idea was to create an economic framework that was in some ways the modern equivalent of a gold standard. Monetary decisions would be made by the European Central Bank, whose only goal would be price stability. The lack of shared political institutions did not matter, because the ECB was to operate in total independence from all political influence. It would never lend to member states, even ones that were at risk of going bankrupt. 

Despite these provisions, the Germans did not entirely trust their partners’ fiscal discipline, so they imposed strict limits to government budget deficits and debt…. With the benefit of hindsight, it was all rather naive. Germany should have insisted on a procedure for government insolvency, and a way of showing the door to states that were unable or unwilling to respect the rules. 

Mayer, the head of a German think tank, does not mention that in the first decade of the euro Germany was one of the most frequent violators of the “strict limits” on fiscal deficits. But it’s helpful to see the idea of the euro as a new gold standard stated so plainly by a supporter. And he makes another important point, which is that even under a new gold standard, the discipline of the markets is unreliable, and needs to be supplemented with (or simulated by) overt political authority.

From early 2010, when a Greek default was narrowly avoided, until early 2012, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, attempted to re-establish the Maastricht model … and contemplated the possibility that Greece might leave the euro. But she is risk-averse by nature and, confronted with the incalculable risks, she changed course in the spring of 2012. The Greek debt restructuring, she now said, was “exceptional and unique”. Leaving the euro was out of question for any member country. Since this decision meant markets would no longer pressurise governments into sound economic policies, she built a pan-European “shadow state” — a web of pacts to ensure that countries followed policies consistent with sound money. 

It has not worked. From Greece to France, countries resist any infringement on their sovereignty and refuse to act in a way that is consistent with a hard currency policy. The ECB is forced to loosen its stance. Worse, it has allowed monetary policy to become a back channel for transfering economic resources between eurozone members. This is Germany’s worst nightmare… 

A century ago, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, the Austrian economist and finance minister, proclaimed laws of economics to be a higher authority than political power. Some Germans say that a hard currency is an essential part of their economic value system. If both are right, politicians will be powerless to prevent Germany’s departure from a monetary union that is at odds with the country’s economic convictions.

The essential points here are, first, that the goal of the euro system to create a situation where markets can “pressurise governments into sound economic policies,” meaning first and foremost, policies that preserve the value of money; second, that this requires limits on national sovereignty, which will be resisted by democratic governments; and third, that this resistance can only be overcome through the threat of a crisis. In this sense, from Mayer’s perspective, the steps that were taken to resolve the crisis were a terrible mistake, and required the use of direct political control by a “shadow state” to substitute for the blunted threat of financial catastrophe. This is all very clarifying; the one piece of mystification still intact is the substitution of “Germany” as the social actor, rather than European wealth owners as a class. 
Mayer is just one guy, of course, but presumably he speaks to some extent for his old colleagues at Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and the IMF. [1] And anyway this kind of language is everywhere these days.

The FT’s review of “Lords of Secrecy,” for instance, acknowledges that we increasingly seem to be subjects of “a vast secret state beyond control.” That sounds bad! But the reviewer concludes on a cheerful note:

The “lords of secrecy” do need to be kept in check, of course. But that may soon happen anyway. After all, principles go only so far in holding the clandestine arms of the state to account; money goes a lot further. But money is one thing that is not quite so freely available in Washington, or many other capitals in the west, no matter how many secrets they have.

Here, subservience to the bond markets doesn’t just require limits on democracy or the rule of law, it makes them superfluous.

Returning to the euro, here, via Bill Mitchell, is Graham Bishop on the “revolutionary political implications” of unified interbank payments in the euro area:

While payments are an intensely technical area, the political implications are immense… SEPA establishes an effective ‘referendum veto’ to be exercised by citizens whose national governments might contemplate leaving the euro. In SEPA, citizens are empowered to embed the freedom and the choices associated with the single market so deeply in the economy to make it impossible for any EU government which adopted the euro to abandon the common currency. It is hard to imagine that citizens and enterprises accustomed to these choices would want to leave the euro once they considered what they individually would give up by way of returning to narrow, national offerings for trade in goods and services. 

With SEPA, any citizen who fears that his home state is about to leave the euro to implement a major devaluation can protect themselves by transferring their liquid funds into a bank in another euro country – in an instant and at negligible cost. In effect, this is a free option for all citizens and amounts to an instantaneous referendum on government policy. Such an outflow of retail liquidity from a banking system would cause its rapid collapse. The quiet run out of deposits in the Irish banks last year demonstrated the power of depositors to force radical political change.

There’s not much to say about that unctuous, preening first paragraph, with its cant about freedom and choices, except to hope that some future novelist (or screenwriter, I guess) can do justice to the horrible people who rule us. (Also, notice the classic bait-and-switch in which the only alternative to complete liberalization of capital flows is autarchy.) But what’s interesting for the argument I’m making here is the claim that the great political innovation of the euro is that it gives money-owners the right to a veto or referendum over government policy — up to the point of forcing through “radical change,” on pain of a bank crisis. And to be clear: This is being presented as one of the great benefits of the system, and an argument for the UK to join the single currency.

(Also, if I’m correct that the effect of a withdrawal of ECB liquidity support for Greek banks would just prevent transfers to banks elsewhere, this suggests the threat is self-negating.)

The masters of the euro themselves talk the same way. The “analytic note” just released by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, “in close cooperation with Donald Tusk, Jeroen Dijsselbloem and Mario Draghi,” begins with the usual claims about the crisis as due ultimately to lack of competitiveness in the southern countries, thanks to their “labor market rigidities.” (They don’t say what specific rigidities they have in mind, but they do nod to a World Bank report that identifies such distortions as minimum wages, limitations on working hours, and requirements for severance pay.) “While the Maastricht Treaty was based on the assumption that market discipline would be a key element in preventing a divergent development of the euro area economies and their fiscal positions, with increasing government bond interest rates having a signalling effect.” But in practice divergent policies were not prevented, as bond markets were happy to lend regardless. Then, “when the crisis hit… and markets reappraised the risk and growth potential of individual countries, the loss of competitiveness became visible and led to outflows.” [2] What’s most interesting is their analysis of the political economy of removing these “rigidities” and restoring “competitiveness”:

The policy commitments of euro area countries, made individually or collectively, to growth-enhancing structural reforms have not been implemented satisfactorily. Often, commitments are strong in crisis times and then weakened again when the overall economic climate has improved. In this sense, the stabilising effect of the single currency has certain counterproductive effects with regard to the willingness of national governments to start and implement the necessary structural reforms…

Naomi Klein couldn’t have said it better. Crises are a great time to roll back “employment protection legislation” and force down labor costs — the unambiguous content of “structural reforms” in this context. If your goal is to to roll back protective legislation and re-commodify labor, then resolving economic crises too quickly is, well, counterproductive.

A couple years ago, Paul Krugman was expressing incredulity at the idea that prolonging the European crisis could be a rational act in the service of any political agenda. Last week, he was still hoping that Draghi would emerge as the defender of European democracy. No disrespect to my CUNY colleague, who understands most of this stuff much better than I ever will. But in this case, it seems simpler to take Draghi at his word. Restricting the scope of democratic government was the entire point of the euro system. And since the automatic operation of bond markets failed to do the job, a crisis is required.

UPDATE: Schauble today: “If we go deeper into the [debt] discount debate, there will be no more reforms in Europe. There will be joyful celebrations in the Elysée and probably in Rome, too, if we go down this path.” Thee is not even a pretense now that this is about resolving the crisis, as opposed to using the crisis as leverage to promote a particular policy agenda. It’s surprising, though, that he would suggest that the Euro zone’s second and third largest economies are on the side of the debtors. Would that it were so.

[1] It’s almost too good that he hosts a lecture series on “The Order of Money.”

[2] The funny thing is that, after talking about the “misallocation of financing” by markets, and describing the crisis as “a crisis of markets in terms of their capacity to price risk correctly,” they go on to recommend the removal of all remaining restrictions on capital flows: “we need to address remaining barriers to investment and the free movement of capital and make capital market integration a political priority.” Reminds me of the opening paragraphs of this Rodrik essay.

How Not to Think about Negative Rates

Last week’s big monetary-policy news was the ECB’s decision to target a negative interest rate, in the form of an 0.25 percent tax on bank reserves. This is the first time a major central bank has announced a negative policy rate, though some smaller ones (like the Bank of Sweden) have done so in the past few years.

Whether a tax on reserves is really equivalent to a negative interest rate, and whether this change should be expected to pass through to interest rates or credit availability for private borrowers, are not easy questions. I’m not going to try to answer them now. I just want to call attention to this rather extraordinary Neil Irwin column, as an example of how unsuited mainstream discussion is to addressing these questions.  
Here’s Irwin’s explanation of what a negative interest rate means:

When a bank pays a 1 percent interest rate, it’s clear what happens: If you deposit your money at the bank, it will pay you a penny each year for every dollar you deposited. When the interest rate is negative, the money goes the other direction. … Put bluntly: Normally the banks pay you to keep your money there. Under negative rates, you pay them for the privilege.

Not mentioned here, or anywhere else in the article, is that people pay interest to banks, as well as receiving interest from them. In Irwin’s world, “you” are always a creditor, never a borrower. 
Irwin continues:

The theory is that when it becomes more costly for European banks to keep money in the E.C.B., they will have incentive to do something else with it: Lend it out to consumers or businesses, for example.

Here’s the loanable funds theory in all its stupid glory. People put their “money” into a bank, which then either holds it or lends it out. Evidently it is not a requirement to be a finance columnist for the New York Times to know anything about how bank loans actually work. 
Irwin:

Banks will most likely pass these negative interest rates on to consumers, or at least try to. They may try to do so not by explicitly charging a negative interest rate, but by paying no interest and charging a fee for account maintenance.

Note that “consumers” here means depositors. The fact that banks also make loans has escaped Irwin’s attention entirely. 
Of course, most of us are already in this situation: We don’t receive any interest rate on our transaction balances, and pay are willing to pay various charges and fees for the liquidity benefits of holding them. 
The danger of negative rates, per Irwin, is that 

It is possible that, assuming banks pass along the negative rates through either fees or explicitly charging negative interest, people will withdraw their money as cash rather than keeping it on deposit at banks. … That is one big reason that the E.C.B. and other central banks are going to be reluctant to make rates highly negative; it could result in people pulling cash out of the banking system.

Again the quantity theory in its most naive and stupid form: there is a fixed quantity of “money” out there, which is either being kept in banks — which function, in Irwin’s world, as glorified safe deposit boxes — or under mattresses. Evidently he’s never thought about why the majority of us who already face negative rates on our checking accounts continue to hold them. More fundamentally, there’s no explanation of what makes negative rates special. Bank deposits don’t, in general, finance holdings of reserves, they finance bank loans. Any kind of expansionary policy must reduce the yield on bank loans and also — if margins are constant — on deposits and other bank liabilities. Making returns to creditors the acid test of policy, as Irwin does, would seem to be an argument against expansionary monetary policy in general — which of course it is.
What’s amazing to me in this piece is that here we have an article about monetary policy that literally makes no mention of loans or borrowers. In Irwin’s world, “you” are, by definition, an owner of financial assets; no other entities exist. It’s the 180-proof distillation of the bondholder’s view of the world.
Heterodox criticism of the loanable-funds theory of interest and insistence that loans create deposits, can sometimes come across as theological, almost ritual.  Articles like this are a reminder of why we can’t let these issues slide, if we want to make any sense of the financial universe in which we live.

Secular Stagnation, Progress in Economics

It’s the topic of the moment. Our starting point is this Paul Krugman post, occasioned by this talk by Lawrence Summers.

There are two ways to understand “secular stagnation.” One is that the growth rate of income and output will be slower in the future. The other is that there will be a systematic tendency for aggregate demand to fall short of the economy’s potential output. It’s the second claim that we are interested in.

For Krugman, the decisive fact about secular stagnation is that it implies a need for persistently negative interest rates. That achieved, there is no implication that growth rates or employment need to be lower in the future than in the past. He  is imagining a situation where current levels of employment and growth rates are maintained, but with permanently lower interest rates.

We could also imagine a situation where full employment was maintained by permanently higher public spending, rather than lower interest rates. Or we could imagine a situation where nothing closed the gap and output fell consistently short of potential. What matters is that aggregate expenditure by the private sector tends to fall short of the economy’s potential output, by a growing margin. For reasons I will explain down the road, I think this is a better way of stating the position than a negative “natural rate” of interest.

I think this conversation is a step forward for mainstream macroeconomic thought. There are further steps still to take. In this post I describe what, for me, are the positive elements of this new conversation. In subsequent posts, I will talk about the right way of analyzing these questions more systematically — in terms of a Harrod-type growth model — and  about the wrong way — in terms of the natural rate of interest.

The positive content of “secular stagnation”

1. Output is determined by demand.

The determination of total output by total expenditure is such a familiar part of the macroeconomics curriculum that we forget how subversive it is. It denies the logic of scarcity that is the basis of economic analysis and economic morality. Since Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, it’s been recognized that if aggregate expenditure determines aggregate income, then, as Krugman says, “vice is virtue and virtue is vice.”

A great deal of the history of macroeconomics over the past 75 years can be thought of as various efforts to expunge, exorcize or neutralize the idea of demand-determined income, or at least to safely quarantine it form the rest of economic theory. One of the most successful quarantine strategies was to recast demand constraints on aggregate output as excess demand for money, or equivalently as the wrong interest rate. What distinguished real economies from the competitive equilibrium of Jevons or Walras was the lack of a reliable aggregate demand “thermostat”. But if a central bank or other authority set that one price or that one quantity correctly, economic questions could again be reduced to allocation of scarce means to alternative ends, via markets. Both Hayek and Friedman explicitly defined the “natural rate” of interest, which monetary policy should maintain, as the rate that would exist in a Walrasian barter economy. In postwar and modern New Keynesian mainstream economics, the natural rate is defined as the market interest rate that produces full employment and stable prices, without (I think) explicit reference to the intertemporal exchange rate that is called the interest rate in models of barter economies. But he equivalence is still there implicitly, and is the source of a great deal of confusion.

I will return to the question of what connection there is, if any, between the interest rates we observe in the world around us, and what a paper like Samuelson 1958 refers to as the “interest rate.” The important thing for present purposes is:

Mainstream economic theory deals with the problems raised when expenditure determines output, by assuming that the monetary authority sets an interest rate such that expenditure just equals potential output. If such a policy is followed successfully, the economy behaves as if it were productive capacity that determined output. Then, specifically Keynesian problems can be ignored by everyone except the monetary-policy technicians. One of the positive things about the secular stagnation conversation, from my point of view, is that it lets Keynes back out of this box.

That said, he is only partway out. Even if it’s acknowledged that setting the right interest rate does not solve the problem of aggregate demand as easily as previously believed, the problem is still framed in terms of the interest rate.

2. Demand normally falls short of potential

Another strategy to limit the subversive impact of Keynes has been to consign him to the sublunary domain of the short run, with the eternal world of long run growth still classical. (It’s a notable — and to me irritating — feature of macroeconomics textbooks that the sections on growth seem to get longer over time, and to move to the front of the book.) But if deviations from full employment are persistent, we can’t assume they cancel out and ignore them when evaluating an economy’s long-run trajectory.

One of the most interesting parts of the Summers talk came when he said, “It is a central pillar of both classical models and Keynesian models, that it is all about fluctuations, fluctuations around a given mean.” (He means New Keynesian models here, not what I would consider the authentic Keynes.) “So what you need to do is have less volatility.” He introduces the idea of secular stagnation explicitly as an alternative to this view that demand matters only for the short run. (And he forthrightly acknowledges that Stanley Fischer, his MIT professor who he is there to praise, taught that demand is strictly a short-run phenomenon.) The real content of secular stagnation, for Summers, is not slower growth itself, but the possibility that the same factors that can cause aggregate expenditure to fall short of the economy’s potential output can matter in the long run as well as in the short run.

Now for Summers and Krugman, there still exists a fundamentals-determined potential growth rate, and historically the level of activity did fluctuate around it in the past. Only in this new era of secular stagnation, do we have to consider the dynamics of an economy where aggregate demand plays a role in long-term growth. From my point of view, it’s less clear that anything has changed in the behavior of the economy. “Secular stagnation” is only acknowledging what has always been true. The notion of potential output was never well defined. Labor supply and technology, the supposed fundamentals, are strongly influenced by the level of capacity utilization. As I’ve discussed before, once you allow for Verdoorn’s Law and hysteresis, it makes no sense to talk about the economy’s “potential growth rate,” even in principle. I hope the conversation may be moving in that direction. Once you’ve acknowledged that the classical allocation-of-scarce-means-to-alternative-ends model of growth doesn’t apply in present circumstances, it’s easier to take the next step and abandon it entirely.

3. Bubbles are functional

One widely-noted claim in the Summers talk is that asset bubbles have been a necessary concomitant of full employment in the US since the 1980s. Before the real estate bubble there was the tech bubble, and before that there was the commercial real estate bubble we remember as the S&L crisis. Without them, the problem of secular stagnation might have posed itself much earlier.

This claim can be understood in several different, but not mutually exclusive, senses. It may be (1) interest rates sufficiently low to produce full employment, are also low enough to provoke a bubble. It may be (2) asset bubbles are an important channel by which monetary policy affects real activity. Or it may be (3) bubbles are a substitute for the required negative interest rates. I am not sure which of these claims Summers intends. All three are plausible, but it is still important to distinguish them. In particular, the first two imply that if interest rates could fall enough to restore full employment, we would have even more bubbles — in the first case, as an unintended side effect of the low rates, in the second, as the channel through which they would work. The third claim implies that if interest rates could fall enough to restore full employment, it would be possible to do more to restrain bubbles.

An important subcase of (1) comes when there is a minimum return that owners of money capital can accept. As Keynes said (in a passage I’m fond of quoting),

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

If this is true, then asking owners of money wealth to accept rates of 2 percent, or perhaps much less, will face political resistance. More important for our purposes, it will create an inclination to believe the sales pitch for any asset that offers an acceptable return.

Randy Wray says that Summers is carrying water here for his own reputation and his masters in Finance. The case for bubbles as necessary for full employment justifies his past support for financial deregulation, and helps make the case against any new regulation in the future. That may be true. But I still think he is onto something important. There’s a long-standing criticism of market-based finance that it puts an excessive premium on liquidity and discourages investment in long-lived assets. A systematic overestimate of the returns from fixed assets might be needed to offset the systematic overestimate of the costs of illiquidity.

Another reason I like this part of Summers’ talk is that it moves us toward recognizing the fundamental symmetry between between monetary policy conventionally defined, lender of last resort operations and bank regulations. These are different ways of making the balance sheets of the financial sector more or less liquid. The recent shift from talking about monetary policy setting the money stock to talking about setting interest interest rates was in a certain sense a step toward realism, since there is nothing in modern economies that corresponds to a quantity of money. But it was also a step toward greater abstraction, since it leaves it unclear what is the relationship between the central bank and the banking system that allows the central bank to set the terms of private credit transactions. Self-interested as it may be, Summers call for regulatory forbearance here is an intellectual step forward. It moves us toward thinking of what central banks do neither in terms of money, nor in terms of interest rates, but in terms of liquidity.

Finally, note that in Ben Bernanke’s analysis of how monetary policy affects output, asset prices are an important channel. That is an argument for version (2) of the bubbles claim.

4. High interest rates are not coming back

For Summers and Krugman, the problem is still defined in terms of a negative “natural rate” of interest. (To my mind, this is the biggest flaw in their analysis.) So much of the practical discussion comes down to how you convince or compel wealth owners to hold assets with negative yields. One solution is to move to permanently higher inflation rates. (Krugman, to his credit, recognizes that this option will only be available when or if something else raises aggregate demand enough to push against supply constraints.) I am somewhat skeptical that capitalist enterprises in their current form can function well with significantly higher inflation. The entire complex of budget and invoicing practices assumes that over some short period — a month, a quarter, even a year — prices can be treated as constant. Maybe this is an easy problem to solve, but maybe not. Anyway, it would be an interesting experiment to find out!

More directly relevant is the acknowledgement that interest rates below growth rates may be a permanent feature of the economic environment for the foreseeable future. This has important implications for debt dynamics (both public and private), as we’ve discussed extensively on this blog. I give Krugman credit for saying that with i < g, it is impossible for debt to spiral out of control; a deficit of any level, maintained forever, will only ever cause the debt-GDP ratio to converge to some finite level. (I also give him credit for acknowledging that this is a change in his views.) This has the important practical effect of knocking another leg out from the case for austerity. It’s been a source of great frustration for me to see so many liberal, “Keynesian” economists follow every argument for stimulus with a pious invocation of the need for long-term deficit reduction. If people no longer feel compelled to bow before that shrine, that is progress.

On a more abstract level, the possibility of sub-g or sub-zero interest rates helps break down the quarantining of Keynes discussed above. Mainstream economists engage in a kind of doublethink about the interest rate. In the context of short-run stabilization, it is set by the central bank. But in other contexts, it is set by time preferences and technological tradeoff between current and future goods. I don’t think there was ever any coherent way to reconcile these positions. As I will explain in a following post, the term “interest rate” in these two contexts is being used to refer to two distinct and basically unrelated prices. (This was the upshot of the Sraffa-Hayek debate.) But as long as the interest rate observed in the world (call it the “finance” interest rate) behaved similarly enough to the interest rate in the models (the “time-substitution” interest rate), it was possible to ignore this contradiction without too much embarrassment.

There is no plausible way that the “time substitution” interest rate can be negative. So the secular stagnation conversation is helping reestablish the point — made by Keynes in chapter 17 of the General Theory, but largely forgotten — that the interest rates we observe in the world are something different. And in particular, it is no longer defensible to treat the interest rate as somehow exogenous to discussions about aggregate demand and fiscal policy. When I was debating fiscal policy with John Quiggin, he made the case for treating debt sustainability as a binding constraint by noting that there are long periods historically when interest rates were higher than growth rates. It never occurred to him that it makes no sense to talk about the level of interest rates as an objective fact, independent of the demand conditions that make expansionary fiscal policy desirable. I don’t mean to pick on John — at the time it wasn’t clear to me either.

Finally, on the topic of low interest forever, I liked Krugman’s scorn for the rights of interest-recipients:

How dare anyone suggest that virtuous individuals, people who are prudent and save for the future, face expropriation? How can you suggest steadily eroding their savings either through inflation or through negative interest rates? It’s tyranny!
But in a liquidity trap saving may be a personal virtue, but it’s a social vice. And in an economy facing secular stagnation, this isn’t just a temporary state of affairs, it’s the norm. Assuring people that they can get a positive rate of return on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver – it’s like farm price supports, except for rentiers.

It’s a nice line, only slightly spoiled by the part about “what the market wants to deliver.” The idea that it is immoral to deprive the owners of money wealth of their accustomed returns is widespread and deeply rooted. I think it lies behind many seemingly positive economic claims. If this conversation develops, I expect we will see more open assertions of the moral entitlement of the rentiers.

Cavafy on the Debt Ceiling

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution

Don’t Touch the Yield

There’s a widespread idea in finance and economics land that there’s something wrong, dangerous, even unnatural about persistently low interest rates.

This idea takes its perhaps most reasonable form in arguments that the fundamental cause of the Great Financial Crisis was rates that were “far too low for far too long,” and that continued low interest rates, going forward, will only encourage speculation and new asset bubbles. Behind, or anyway alongside, these kinds of claims is a more fundamentally ideological view, that owners of financial assets are morally entitled to their accustomed returns, and woe betide the society or central banker that deprives them of the fruit of their non-labor. You hear this when certain well-known economists describe low rates as the “rape and plunder” of bondowners, or when Jim Grant says that the real victims of the recession are investors in money-market funds.

I want to look today at the “reaching for yield” version of this argument, which Brad Delong flagged as PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA for the econosphere after it was endorsed by the Federal Reserve’s Jeremy Stein. [1] In DeLong’s summary:

Bankers want profits. … And a bank has costs above and beyond the returns on its portfolio. For each dollar of deposits it collects, a bank must spend 2.5 cents per year servicing those deposits. In normal times, when interest rates are well above 2.5 percent per year, banks have a normal, sensible attitude to risk and return. They will accept greater risk only if they come with returns higher enough to actually diminish the chances of reporting a loss. But when interest rates fall low enough that even the most sensible portfolio cannot reliably deliver a return on the portfolio high enough to cover the 2.5 cent per year cost of managing deposits, a bank will “reach for yield” and start writing correlated unhedged out-of-the-money puts so that it covers its 2.5 percent per year hurdle unless its little world blows up. Banks stop reducing their risk as falling returns mean that diversification and margin can no longer be counted on to manage them but instead embrace risks. 

It is Stein’s judgment that right now whatever benefits are being provided to employment and production by the Federal Reserve’s super-sub-normal interest rate policy and aggressive quantitative easing are outweighed by the risks being run by banks that are reaching for yield. 

Now on one level, this just seems like a non-sequitur. “Banks holding more risky assets” is, after all, just another way of saying “banks making more loans.” In fact, it’s hard to see how monetary policy is ever supposed to work if we rule out the possibility of shifting banks’ demand for risky private assets. [1] An Austrian, I suppose, might follow this logic to its conclusion and reject the idea of monetary policy in general; but presumably not an Obama appointee to the Fed.

But there’s an even more fundamental problem, not only with the argument here but with the broader idea — shared even by people who should know better — that low interest rates hurt bank profits. It’s natural to think that banks receive interest payments, so lower interest means less money for the bankers. But that is wrong.

Banks are the biggest borrowers as well as the biggest lenders in the economy, so what matters is not the absolute level of interest rates, but the spread — the difference between the rate at which banks borrow and the rate at which they lend. A bank covers its costs as reliably borrowing at 1 percent and lending at 4, as it does borrowing at 3 percent and lending at 6. So if we want to argue that monetary policy affects the profitability of bank lending, we have to argue that it has a differential effect on banks funding costs and lending rates.

For many people making the low-rates-are-bad-for-banks argument, this differential effect may come from a mental model in which the main bank liabilities are non-interest-bearing deposits. Look at the DeLong quote again — in the world it’s describing, banks pay a fixed rate on their liabilities. And at one point that is what the real world looked like too.

In 1960, non-interest-bearing deposits made up over two-thirds of total bank liabilities. In a system like that, it’s natural to see the effect of monetary policy as mainly on the asset side of bank balance sheets. But today’s bank balance sheets look very different: commercial banks now pay interest on around 80 percent of their liabilities. So it’s much less clear, a priori, why policy changes should affect banks interest income more than their funding costs. Since banks borrow short and lend long (that’s sort of what it means to be a bank), and since monetary policy has its strongest effects at shorter maturities, one might even expect the effect on spreads to go the other way.

And in fact, when we look at the data, that is what we see.

Average interest rate paid (red) and received (blue) by commercial banks. Source: FDIC

The black line with diamonds is the Federal Funds rate, set by monetary policy. The blue line is the average interest rate charged by commercial banks on all loans and leases; the solid red line is their average funding cost; and the dotted red line is the average interest rate on commercial banks’ interest-bearing liabilities. [3] As the figure shows, in the 1950s and ’60s changes in the federal funds rate didn’t move banks’ funding costs at all, while they did have some effect on loan rates; the reach-for-yield story might have made sense then. But in recent decades, as banks’ pool of cheap deposit funding has dried up, bank funding costs have become increasingly sensitive to the policy rate.

Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates — in other words, a one point increase in spreads. The same relationship, though weaker, is present in the previous two cycles, but not before. More generally, the correlation of changes in the federal funds rate and changes in bank spreads is 0.49 for 1955-1980, but negative 0.38 for the years 1991-2001. So Stein’s argument fails at the first step. If low bank margins are the problem, then “super-sub-normal interest rate policy” is the solution.

Let’s walk through this again. The thing that banks care about is the difference between what it costs them to borrow, and what they can charge to lend. Wider spreads mean lending is more profitable, narrower spreads mean it’s less so. And if banks need a minimum return on their lending — to cover fixed costs, or to pay executives expected bonuses or whatever — then when spreads get too narrow, banks may be tempted to take underprice risk. That’s “reaching for yield.” So turning to the figure, the spread is the space between the solid red line and the solid blue one. As we can see, in the 1950s and ’60s, when banks funded themselves mostly with deposits, the red line — their borrowing costs — doesn’t move at all with the federal funds rate. So for instance the sharp tightening at the end of the 1960s raises average bank lending rates by several points, but doesn’t move bank borrowing rates at all. So in that period, a high federal funds rate means wide bank spreads, and a low federal funds rate means narrower spreads. In that context the “reaching for yield” story has a certain logic (which is not to say it would be true, or important.) But since the 1980s, the red line — bank funding costs — has become much more responsive to the federal funds rate, so this relationship between monetary policy and bank spreads no longer exists. If anything, as I said, the correlation runs in the opposite direction.

Short version: When banks are funded by non-interest bearing deposits, low interest rates can hurt their profits, which makes them have a sad face. But when banks pay interest on almost all their liabilities, as today, low rates make them have a happy face. [4] In which case there’s no reason for them to reach for yield.

Now, it is true that the Fed has also intervened directly in the long end, where one might expect the impact on bank lending rates to be stronger. This is specifically the focus of a speech by Stein last October, where he explicitly said that if the policy rate were currently 3 percent he would have no objection to lowering it, but that he was more worried about unconventional policy to directly target long rates. [5] He offers a number of reasons why a fall in long rates due an expectation of lower short rates in the future would be expansionary, but a fall in long rates due to a lower term premium might not be. Frankly I find all these explanations ad-hoc and hand-wavey. But the key point for present purposes is that unconventional policy does not involve the central bank setting some kind of regulatory ceiling on long rates; rather, it involves lowering long rates via voluntary transactions with lenders. The way the Fed lowers rates on long bonds is by raising their price; the way it raises their price is by buying them. It is true, simply as a matter of logic, that the only way that QE can lower the market rate on a loan from, say, 4 percent to 3.9 percent, is by buying up enough loans (or rather, assets that are substitutes for loans) that the marginal lender now values a 3.9 percent loan the same as the marginal lender valued a 4 percent loan before. If a lender who previously would have considered a loan at 4 percent just worth making, does not now consider a loan at 3.9 percent worth making, then the interest rate on loans will not fall. Despite what John Taylor imagines, the Fed does not reduce interest rates by imposing a ceiling by fiat. So the statement, “if the Fed lowers long rates, bank won’t want to lend” is incoherent: the only way the Fed can lower long rates is by making banks want to lend more.

Stein’s argument is, to be honest, a bit puzzling. If it were true that banks respond to lower rates not by reducing lending or accepting lower profit margins, but by redoubling their efforts to fraudulently inflate returns, that would seem to be an argument for radically reforming the bank industry, or at least sending a bunch of bankers to jail. Stein, weirdly, wants it to be an argument for keeping rates perpetually high. But we don’t even need to have that conversation. Because what matters to banks is not the absolute level of rates, but the spread between their borrowing rate and their lending rate. And in the current institutional setting, expansionary policy implies higher spreads. Nobody needs to be reaching for yield.

[1] The DeLong post doesn’t give a link, but I think he’s responding to this February 7 speech.
[2] As Daniel Davies puts it in comments to the DeLong post:

If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone’s main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans. If Jeremy Stein worked for McDonalds, he would be warning that their latest ad campaign carried a risk that it might increase sales of delicious hamburgers.

[3] Specifically, these are commercial banks’ total interest payments from loans and leases divided by the total stock of loans and leases, and total interest payments divided by total liabilities and interest-bearing liabilities respectively.

[4] Why yes, I have been hanging around with a toddler lately. 

[5] Interesting historical aside: Keynes’ conclusion in the 1930s that central bank intereventions could not restore full employment and that fiscal policy was therefore necessary, was not — pace the postwar Keynesian mainstream — based on any skepticism about the responsiveness of economic activity to interest rates in principle. It was, rather, based on his long-standing doubts about the reliability of the link from short rates to long rates, plus a new conviction that central banks would be politically unable or unwilling to target long rates directly.

When Do Profits Count?

From today’s New York Times story about the new crop of billion-dollar internet startups:

Most of these chief executives are also veterans of the Internet bubble of the late ’90s, and confess to worries that maybe things are not so different this time. Mr. Tinker… said, “The reality is, I’ve taken $94 million in investors’ money, and we haven’t gone public yet. I feel that responsibility every day.” … 

The nagging fear is that valuations, which are turned into profits only if the company goes public successfully or is bought for a high price, could still plunge.

The cheap pleasure here is gawking at the next stupid Pets.com. (The NYC subway right now is plastered with ads for some company that, wait for it, lets you order pet food online.) But maybe all of this lot will thrive, I have no idea. What I’m interested in is that bolded phrase.

You might naively think that whether a business makes profits is independent of who happens to own it. Profits appear as soon as a commodity is sold for more than the cost of its inputs. So the bolded sentence really only makes sense with the implied addition, profits for venture capitalists or for finance. But in the disgorge-the-cash era, that’s taken as read.

Capitalism is still about M-C-C’-M’, same as it ever as. But C-C’ now includes not just the immediate process of production, but everything related to the firm as a distinct entity. Profits aren’t really profits, under the current regime, as long as the claim on them is tied to a specific business or industry. And the only real capitalists are owners of financial assets.

(Of course what is interesting about the internet economy is the extent to which this logic has not held there. Functionally, profitability for internet companies has meant a relationship of sales to costs that allows them to grow, regardless of the level of payouts to financial claimants. Whether articles like this are a sign of a convergence of Silicon Valley to the dominant culture, or just an example of the bondholder’s-eye view reflexively adopted by the Times, I don’t know.)

EDIT: From the Grundrisse:

It is important to note that wealth as such, i.e. bourgeois wealth, is always expressed to the highest power as exchange value, where it is posited as mediator, as the mediation of the extremes of exchange value and use value themselves. … Within capital itself, one form of it in turn takes up the position of use value against the other as exchange value…: the wholesaler as mediator between manufacturer and retailer, or between manufacturer and agriculturalist, or between different manufacturers; he is the same mediator at a higher level. And in turn, in the same way, the commodity brokers as against the wholesalers. Then the banker as against the industrialists and merchants; the joint-stock company as against simple production; the financier as mediator between the state and bourgeois society, on the highest level. Wealth as such presents itself more distinctly and broadly the further it is removed from direct production and is itself mediated between poles, each of which, considered for itself, is already posited as economic form. Money becomes an end rather than a means; and the higher form of mediation, as capital, everywhere posits the lower as … labour, as merely a source of surplus value. For example, the bill-broker, banker etc. as against the manufacturers and farmers, which are posited in relation to him in the role of labour (of use value); while he posits himself toward them as capital, extraction of surplus value; the wildest form of this, the financier.

Finance stands with respect to productive enterprises as capitalists in general stand with respect to labor (and raw material). So it makes sense that, from finance’s point of view, profit is not realized with the sale of the commodity, but only with the sale of the enterprise itself.

In Which I Dare to Correct Felix Salmon

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

According to Felix:

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Flow of Funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low Interest Rates = Rape and Plunder

Via Mike Konczal, here is Carmen “Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” Reinhart indulging in a bit of folly of her own:

Reinhart is the toast of economic circles these days for speaking out about the newest way Western governments are using financial repression to liquidate their debts, particularly after a financial crisis. They’re doing this on the backs of savers, including pension funds… financial repression can lead to “the rape and plunder of pension funds,” Reinhart tells Institutional Investor. Financial repression consists of very low nominal interest rates combined with captive lending by large banks or pension funds to a government. The low, stable interest rate facilitates the servicing costs of large public debts. Sometimes modest inflation is added to the mix. This results in zero to negative real interest rates that reduce government debt. Hence, broadly defined, financial repression is a wealth transfer from savers to debtors using negative real interest rates — with the government as one of the key debtors. 

… Low interest rates are a fact of postcrash economic life, designed to kick-start greater borrowing. … “Financial repression is an expedient way of reducing debt,” she says. For banks as well as the government, debt overhang is a major economic problem. But every tax has costs, including distortionary effects. Because financial repression punishes savers, it’s unknown to what degree it inhibits savings.

Rape and plunder? Owners of financial wealth definitionally are savers? Low interest rates are a transfer to debtors? (Are high interest rates a transfer to creditors, then?) Financial asset-owners are morally entitled to low inflation and high interest rates? Not getting the risk-free, passive income you expected is “punishment”? RAPE and PLUNDER, seriously? This article is so exactly everything that I’m against that I’m kind of speechless. All I can do is point at it and say, But! Gha! But it’s! Bhehe!

* * *

In possibly related news, over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies contemplates the possibility that in Europe today, there might be a conflict of interests between debtors and creditors. But no there isn’t, he decides, default would be equally bad for everyone:

The example that comes to my mind of a defaulting debtor that isn’t a commodity producer is Germany and their experiences with default have been absolutely awful. Graham Greene’s The Third Man is a story about the aftermath of debt default in a non-commodity economy.

Um yeah. Central Europe, 1946. Let’s see, what has just happened? What’s just happened in Germany (or Austria, as the case may be)? Oh yes: They’ve suspended payment on their bonds.

As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some of them seem to think that they are financial instruments. It gives them a funny point of view.