Some Interviews

One new one, and two older ones I should have posted here a while ago.

The new one is with Seth Ackerman at Jacobin. Its starting point is a new article (co-authored with Arjun Jayadev and Enno Schroeder) I have coming out in Development and Change. But it’s also a continuation of the argument I made in my earlier Jacobin piece on the socialization of finance [*], and in my talk at this year’s Left Forum. (I still hope to get a transcript of that one at some point.)

The older two are both in response to my “What Recovery?” report for the Roosevelt Institute. This one, with David Beckworth at the Mercatus Institute, was a wide-ranging conversation that touched on a lot of topics beside the immediate question of whether we should regard the US economy as having reached full employment or potential output. This one, with Joe Weisenthal and his colleagues at “What Did You Miss” on Bloomberg, was much briefer but still managed to cover a lot of ground.

Supposedly there’s also an interview with me coming out in Der Standard, an Austrian newspaper, but I’m not sure when it will appear.

If you’re reading this blog, you’ll probably find these interviews interesting.

[*] Incidentally, my preferred title was that: The Socialization of Finance. I understand why the editors changed it to the catchier imperative form, but what I liked about my original was that it could refer both to something done to finance, and something done by finance.

At the Left Forum: What’s the Alternative to Neoliberalism?

At the Left Forum last month, I was on a panel with Miles Kampf-Lassin, Kate Aronoff and Darrick Hamilton, on “What Would a Left Alternative to Neoliberalism Look Like?” My answer was that neoliberalism is a radical, utopian project to reshape all of society around markets and property claims; if you want an alternative, just look at the world around us. This is an argument I’ve also made in Jacobin and The New Inquiry.

The panel was recorded by someone from Between the Lines. At some point there’s suppose to be a transcript. In the meantime, the audio is here:

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Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse

In my Jacobin piece on finance, I observed in passing that financial commitments across borders — what’s sometimes called capital mobility — enforce the logic of markets on national governments. This disciplining role has been on vivid display in the euro area over the past few years. Here, courtesy of yesterday’s Financial Times, is a great example of the obverse: If a state does want to resist liberal “reforms”, it needs to limit financial flows across the border.

The headline in the online edition spells it right out:

Renminbi stalls on road to being a global currency. New capital controls lead to doubt, especially over hopes of forcing economic reform.

The print edition is wordier but even clearer:

Renminbi reaches its high water mark. Fresh capital controls cast doubt over the push to increase the global use of its global currency. But what does that mean for the Chinese policymakers who saw it as a ‘Trojan horse’ to force through economic reform?

The whole article is fascinating. On the substance it’s really quite good — anyone who teaches international finance or open-economy macroeconomics should bookmark it to share with students. Along with the political-economy question I’m interested in here, it touches on almost all the most important points you’d want to make about what determines exchange rates. [1]

The article’s starting point is that for most of the past decade, international use of the Chinese renminbi (Rmb) has been steadily increasing. Some people even saw a future rival to the dollar. For most of the period, the renminbi was appreciating against the dollar, and the Chinese government was loosening restrictions on cross-border financial transactions. But recently those trends have reversed:

The share of China’s foreign trade settled in its own currency has shrunk from 26 per cent to 16 per cent over the past year while renminbi deposits in Hong Kong — the currency’s largest offshore centre — are down 30 per cent from a 2014 peak of Rmb1tn. Foreign ownership of Chinese domestic financial assets peaked at Rmb4.6tn in May 2015; it now stands at just Rmb3.3tn. In terms of turnover on global foreign exchange markets, the renminbi is only the world’s eighth most-traded currency — squeezed between the Swiss franc and Swedish krona — barely changed from ninth position in 2013.

What appeared to be structural drivers supporting greater international use of the Chinese currency now appear more like opportunism and speculation.

Large financial outflows — including capital flight by Chinese wealthholders and currency speculators reversing their bets — have led the renminbi to lose 10 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year or so. The Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China, or PBoC) has had to use a substantial part of its dollar reserves to keep the renminbi from depreciating even further.

… the PBoC remains active in the foreign exchange market as buyer and seller. Over the past 18 months, this has mostly meant selling dollars from foreign exchange reserves to counteract the depreciation pressure weighing on the renminbi.

This strategy has been expensive, contributing to a decline in reserves from $4tn in June 2014 to $3.1tn at the end of November. Defenders of the PBoC believe such aggressive action to curb depreciation has been worth the price because it prevented panic selling by global investors. Critics counter that costly forex intervention has merely delayed an inevitable exchange-rate adjustment.

For years, the IMF, US Treasury and other outside experts have urged China to embrace a floating exchange rate. In theory, such a step should eliminate the need to tighten capital controls or to spend precious foreign reserves on propping up the exchange rate. Instead, the currency would weaken until inflows and outflows balance.

In the age of Trump, it’s worth stressing this point: The Chinese central bank has been intervening to make the renminbi stronger, not weaker — to keep Chinese goods relatively expensive, not cheap. This has been true for a while, actually, although you can still find prominent liberals complaining about China boosting its exports through “currency manipulation”.  Also, as the article notes, the Washington Consensus line has been that China should end foreign-exchange interventions and abolish capital controls, allowing the renminbi to depreciate even further.

For most countries, continuing to spend down reserves would be the only alternative to uncontrolled depreciation. But China, unlike most countries, has maintained effective controls over cross-border financial flows, so it has another option: limiting the ability of households and businesses to trade renminbi claims for dollar ones.

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the regulator, last week said it would continue to encourage outbound investment deals that support the country’s efforts to transform its economy… But the agency said it would apply tighter scrutiny to acquisitions of real estate, hotels, Hollywood studios and sport teams.

That will probably mean fewer food-additive tycoons buying second-tier UK football clubs. It also suggests a crackdown on fake trade invoices, Hong Kong insurance purchases and gambling losses in Macau — all channels used to spirit money out of China. …

“They are trying to squeeze out all the low quality or suspicious or fraudulent outbound investment. But they have also made it clear they support genuine high-quality investment,” says Mr Qu.

These moves come on top of other limits on financial outflows. This passage highlights a couple additional points. First, effective controls on financial flows require controls on cross-border transactions in general. Second, there’s no sharp line between macro policy aimed at the exchange rate or other monetary aggregates, and micro-interventions aimed at channeling credit in particular directions.

Now to the political economy point:

China’s recent moves to tighten approvals for foreign acquisitions by Chinese companies, as well as other transactions that require selling renminbi for foreign currency, cast further doubt on China’s commitment to currency internationalisation.

“There is a fundamental conflict between preserving stability and allowing the freedom and flexibility required of a global currency,” says Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US Treasury official. “Now that the cost is becoming clear, Chinese policymakers may be realising they are not willing to do what it takes to maintain a global currency. Capital controls certainly set back the cause of renminbi internationalisation but they may well be the appropriate step given the outflow pressures.”

As a topic for banking conferences and think-tank seminars, renminbi internationalisation could not be beaten. It offered a way to express dissatisfaction with the US dollar-dominated monetary system, as laid bare by the 2008 financial crisis, while signalling an eagerness to do business with China’s large, fast-growing economy.

For China’s reform-minded central bank, however, renminbi internationalisation … offered something else: a Trojan horse that could be used to persuade Communist party leaders in Beijing and financial elites to accept reforms that were, in reality, more important for China’s domestic financial system than for the renminbi’s international status. Since 2010, when the internationalisation drive began, many of those reforms have been adopted…

This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over. Real or imagined pressure from the outside — from international creditors , institutions like the IMF, “the markets” in general — is needed to push through a liberal agenda that would not be accepted on its own merits. This is true in China, with its multiple competing power centers and effective if disorganized popular protests, just as it is for countries with more formally democratic political systems. What’s unusual about China’s case is that the “reform” side may no longer be winning.

What’s  unusual about this article is that it’s spelled out so clearly. “Trojan horse”: Their words, not mine.

The article continues:

The totem of currency internationalisation also served as justification for China’s moves over the past half-decade to open up its domestic financial markets to foreign investment, a process known as capital account liberalisation, that has been crucial to the global push of the renminbi. If foreign investors are to hold large quantities of China’s currency, they must have access to a deep and diverse pool of renminbi assets — and the peace of mind of knowing that they are free to sell those assets and convert proceeds back into their home currency as needed.

Again, thinking of classroom use, this is a nice illustration of liquidity preference.

Until last week, regulators had also steadily loosened approval requirements for foreign direct investment, in to and out of the country.  But those reforms occurred at a time when capital inflows and outflows were roughly balanced, which meant that liberalisation did not create strong pressure on the exchange rate. Now, the situation is very different. Beijing faces a stark choice. Either row back on freeing up capital flows — as it has already begun to do this year — or relinquish control of the exchange rate and accept a hefty devaluation.

We used to talk about a trilemma: A country cannot simultaneously peg its currency, set interest rates at the level required by the domestic economy, and allow free financial flows across its borders. At most you can manage two of the three. But it’s becoming clear that for most countries it’s  more of a dilemma: If you allow free capital mobility, you can’t control either the exchange rate or domestic credit conditions. International financial shifts are so large, and so unpredictable, that for most central banks they’ll overwhelm anything that can be done with conventional tools.

And when you accept free capital mobility, with its dubious rewards, it’s not just control over interest rates and exchange rates you’re giving up. In the absence of  controls over international financial flows, the whole range of economic policy — of public decisions in general — is potentially subject to the veto of finance. If you need foreign wealth-owners to voluntarily hold your assets, the only way to keep them happy — so goes the approved catechism — is to adopt the full range of market-friendly reforms. The FT again:

Economists argue that the fate of renminbi internationalisation ultimately depends on far-reaching economic reforms rather than short-term responses to rising capital outflows.

The list of course starts with privatization of state-owned companies and continues with deregulating finance.

“When you reimpose capital controls after having rolled them back, it can sometimes have a perverse effect,” says Mr Prasad… “What they need to do is something much harder — actually to get started on the broader reform agenda and show that they are serious about it. Right now the sense is that there is very little happening on other reforms.”

This is what it comes down to: If China is going to reach the grail of international-currency status, it is going to have to focus on the “reform” agenda dictated by financial markets — it’s going to have to earn their trust and prove it is “serious.” What exactly are the benefits of that status for China? It’s far from clear. (Of course it’s an attractive prospect for Chinese individuals who own lots of renminbi-denominated assets.) But it doesn’t matter as long as it serves as a seemingly objective basis for continued liberalization, which otherwise might face serious resistance.

“The question is which is to be the master — that’s all.”

 


 

[1] It doesn’t, of course, mention uncovered interest parity, the idea that interest rate differences between currencies exactly offset expected exchange rate changes. This doctrine dominates textbook discussion of exchange rate movements but plays no role in any real-life discussion of them.

At Jacobin: Socializing Finance

(Cross-posted from Jacobin. A shorter version appears in the Fall 2016 print issue.)

 

At its most basic level, finance is simply bookkeeping — a record of money obligations and commitments. But finance is also a form of planning – a set of institutions for allocating claims on the social product.

The fusion of these two logically distinct functions – bookkeeping and planning – is as old as capitalism, and has troubled the bourgeois conscience for almost as long. The creation of purchasing power through bank loans is hard to square with the central ideological claim about capitalism, that market prices offer a neutral measure of some preexisting material reality. The manifest failure of capitalism to conform to ideas of how this natural system should behave, is blamed on the ability of banks (abetted by the state) to drive market prices away from their true values. Somehow separating these two functions of the banking system –  bookkeeping and planning –  is the central thread running through 250 years of monetary reform proposals by bourgeois economists, populists and cranks. We can trace it from David Hume, who believed a “perfect circulation” was one where gold alone were used for payments, and who doubted whether bank loans should be permitted at all; to the 19th century advocates of a strict gold standard or the real bills doctrine, two competing rules that were supposed to restore automaticity to the creation of bank credit; to Proudhon’s proposals for giving money an objective basis in labor time; to Wicksell’s prescient fears of the instability of an unregulated system of bank money; to the oft-revived proposals for 100%-reserve banking; to Milton Friedman’s proposals for a strict money-supply growth rule; to today’s orthodoxy that dreams of a central bank following an inviolable “policy rule” that reproduces the “natural interest rate.” What these all have in common is that they seek to restore objectivity to the money system, to legislate into existence the real values that are supposed to lie behind money prices. They seek to compel money to actually be what it is imagined to be in ideology: an objective measure of value that reflects the real value of commodities, free of the human judgements of bankers and politicians.

*

Socialists reject this fantasy. We know that the development of capitalism has from the beginning been a process of “financialization” – of extension of money claims on human activity, and of representation of the social world in terms of money payments and commitments. We know that there was no precapitalist world of production and exchange on which money and then credit were later superimposed: Networks of money claims are the substrate on which commodity production has grown and been organized.  And we know that the social surplus under capitalism is not allocated by “markets,” despite the fairy tales of economists.  It is allocated by banks and other financial institutions, whose activities are not ultimately coordinated by markets either, but by planners of one sort or another.

However decentralized in theory, market production is in fact organized through a highly centralized financial system. And where something like competitive markets do exist, it is usually thanks to extensive state management, from anti-trust laws to all the elaborate machinery set up by the ACA to prop up a rickety market for private health insurance. As both Marx and Keynes recognized, the tendency of capitalism is to develop more social, collective forms of production, enlarging the domain of conscious planning and diminishing the zone of the market. (A point also understood by some smarter, more historically minded liberal economists today.) The preservation of the form of markets becomes an increasingly utopian project, requiring more and more active intervention by government. Think of the enormous public financing, investment, regulation required for our “private” provision of housing, education, transportation, etc.

In  world where production is guided by conscious planning — public or private — it makes no sense to think of  money values as reflecting the objective outcome of markets, or of financial claims as simply a record of “real’’ flows of income and expenditure. But the “illusion of the real,” as Perry Mehrling somewhere calls it, is very hard to resist. We must constantly remind ourselves that market values have never been, and can never be, an objective measure of human needs and possibilities. We must remember that values measured in money – prices and quantities, production and consumption – have no existence independent of the market transactions that give them quantitative form. We must recognize the truth that Keynes – unlike so many bourgeois economists – clearly stated: a quantitative comparison between disparate use-values is possible only when they actually come into market exchange, and only on the terms given by the concrete form of that exchange. It is meaningless to compare  economic quantities over widely separated periods of time, or in countries at very different levels of development. On such questions only qualitative, more or less subjective judgements can be made.

It follows that socialism cannot be described in terms of the quantity of commodities produced, or the distribution of them. Socialism is liberation from the commodity form. It is defined not by the disposition of things but by the condition of human beings. It is the progressive extension of the domain of human freedom, of that part of our lives governed by love and reason.

There are many critics of finance who see it as the enemy of a more humane or authentic capitalism. They may be managerial reformers (Veblen’s “Soviet of engineers”) who oppose finance as a parasite on productive enterprises; populists who hate finance as the destroyer of their own small capitals; or sincere believers in market competition who see finance as a collector of illegitimate rents. On a practical level there is much common ground between these positions and a socialist program. But we can’t accept the idea of finance as a distortion of some true market values that are natural, objective, or fair.

Finance should be seen as a moment in the capitalist process, integral to it but with two contradictory faces. On the one hand, it is finance (as a concrete institution) that generates and enforces the money claims against social persons of all kinds — human beings, firms, nations — that extend and maintain the logic of commodity production. (Student loans reinforce the discipline of wage labor, sovereign debt upholds the international division of labor.)

Yet on the other hand, the financial system is also where conscious planning takes its most fully developed form under capitalism. Banks are, in Schumpeter’s phrase, the private equivalent of Gosplan, the Soviet planning agency. Their lending decisions determine what new projects will get a share of society’s resources, and suspend — or enforce — the “judgement of the market” on money-losing enterprises. A socialist program must respond to both these faces of finance.  We oppose the power of finance if we want to progressively reduce the extent to which human life is organized around the accumulation of money. We embrace the planning already inherent in finance because we want to expand the domain of conscious choice, and reduce the domain of blind necessity. “It is a work of culture — not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.”

*

The development of finance reveals the progressive displacement of market coordination by planning. Capitalism means production for profit; but in concrete reality profit criteria are always subordinate to financial criteria. The judgement of the market has force only insofar as it is executed by finance. The world is full of businesses whose revenues exceed their costs, but are forced to scale back or shut down because of the financial claims against them. The world is full of businesses that operate for years, or indefinitely, with costs in excess of their revenues, thanks to their access to finance. And the institutions that make these financing decisions do so based on their own subjective judgement, constrained ultimately not by some objective criteria of value, but by the terms set by the central bank.

There is a basic contradiction between the principles of competition and finance. Competition is imagined as a form of natural selection: Firms that make profits reinvest them and thus grow, while firms that make losses can’t invest and must shrink and eventually disappear. This is supposed to be a great advantage of markets.

But the whole point of finance is to break this link between profits yesterday and investment today. The surplus paid out as dividends and interest is available for investment anywhere in the economy, not just where it was generated. Conversely, entrepreneurs can undertake new projects that have never been profitable in the past, if they can convince someone to bankroll them. Competition looks backward: The resources you have today depend on how you’ve performed in the past. Finance looks forward: The resources you have today depend on how you’re expect (by someone!) to perform in the future. So, contrary to the idea of firms rising and falling through natural selection, finance’s darlings — from Amazon to Uber and the whole unicorn herd — can invest and grow indefinitely without ever showing a profit. This is also supposed to be a great advantage of markets.

In the frictionless world imagined by economists, the supercession of markets by finance is already carried to its limit. Firms do not control or depend on their own surplus. All surplus is allocated centrally, by financial markets. All funds for investment comes from financial markets and all profits immediately return in money form to these markets. This has two contradictory implications. On the one hand, it eliminates  any awareness of the firm as a social organism, of the activity the firm carries out to reproduce itself, of its pursuit of ends other than maximum profit for its “owners”. The firm, in effect, is born new each day by the grace of those financing it.

But by the same token, the logic of profit maximization loses its objective basis. The quasi-evolutionary process of competition – in which successful firms grow and unsuccessful ones decline and die  – ceases to operate if the firm’s own profits are no longer its source of investment finance, but both instead flow into a common pool. In this world, which firms grow and which shrink depends on the decisions of the financial planners who allocate capital between them. Needless to say it makes no difference if we move competition “one level up” – money managers also borrow and issue shares.

The contradiction between market production and socialized finance becomes more acute as the pools of finance themselves combine or become more homogenous. This was a key point for turn-of-the-last-century Marxists like Hilferding (and Lenin), but it’s also behind the recent fuss in the business press over the rise of index funds. These funds hold all shares of all corporations listed on a given stock index; unlike actively managed funds they make no effort to pick winners, but hold shares in multiple competing firms. Per one recent study, “The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999 to around 90% in 2014.”

The problem is obvious: If corporations work for their shareholders, then why would they compete against each other if their shares are held by the same funds? Naturally, one proposed solution is more state intervention to preserve the form of markets, by limiting or disfavoring stock ownership via broad funds. Another, and perhaps more logical, response is: If we are already trusting corporate managers to be faithful agents of the rentier class as a whole, why not take the next step and make them agents of society in general?

And in any case the terms on which the financial system directs capital are ultimately set by the central bank. Its decisions — monetary policy in the narrow sense, but also the terms on which financial institutions are regulated, and rescued in crises – determine not only the overall pace of credit expansion but the criteria of profitability itself. This is acutely evident in crises, but it’s implicit in routine monetary policy as well. Unless lower interest rates turn some previously unprofitable projects into profitable ones, how are they supposed to work?

At the same time, the legitimacy of the capitalist system — the ideological justification of its obvious injustice and waste —  comes from the idea that economic outcomes are determined by “the market,” not by anyone’s choice. So the planning has to be kept out of site. Central bankers themselves are quite aware of this aspect of their role. In the early 1980s, when the Fed was changing the main instrument it used for monetary policy, officials there were concerned that their choice preserve the fiction that interest rates were being set by the markets. As Fed Governor Wayne Angell put it, it was essential to choose a technique that would “have the camouflage of market forces at work.”

Mainstream economics textbooks explicitly describe the long-term trajectory of capitalist economies in terms of an ideal planner, who is setting output and prices for all eternity in order to maximize the general wellbeing. The contradiction between this macro vision and the ideology of market competition is papered over by the assumption that over the long run this path is the same as the “natural” one that would obtain in a perfect competitive market system without money or banks. Outside of the academy, it’s harder to sustain faith that the planners at the central bank are infallibly picking the outcomes the market should have arrived at on its own. Central banks’ critics on the right — and many on the left — understand clearly that central banks are engaged in active planning, but see it as inherently illegitimate. Their belief in “natural” market outcomes goes with fantasies of a return to some monetary standard independent of human judgement – gold or bitcoin.

Socialists, who see through central bankers’ facade of neutral expertise and recognize their close association with private finance, may be tempted by similar ideas. But the path toward socialism runs the other way. We don’t seek to organize human life on an objective grid of market values, free of the distorting influence of finance and central banks. We seek rather to bring this already-existing conscious planning into the light, to make it into a terrain of politics, and to direct it toward meeting human needs rather than reinforcing relations of domination. In short: the socialization of finance.

*

in the U.S. context, this analysis suggests a transitional program perhaps along the following lines.

Decommodify money. While there is no way to separate money and markets from finance, that does not mean that the routine functions of the monetary system must be a source of private profit. Shifting responsibility for the basic monetary plumbing of the system to public or quasi-public bodies is a non-reformist reform – it addresses some of the directly visible abuse and instability of the existing monetary system while pointing the way toward more profound transformations. In particular, this could involve:

 1. A public payments system. In the not too distant past, if I wanted to give you some money and you wanted to give me a good or service, we didn’t have to pay a third party for permission to make the trade. But as electronic payments have replaced cash, routine payments have become a source of profit. Interchanges and the rest of the routine plumbing of the payments system should be a public monopoly, just as currency is.

 2. Postal banking. Banking services should similarly be provided through post offices, as in many other countries. Routine transactions accounts (check and saving) are a service that can be straightforwardly provided by the state.

 3. Public credit ratings, both for bonds and for individuals. As information that, to perform its function, must be widely available, credit ratings are a natural object for public provision even within the overarching logic of capitalism. This is also a challenge to the coercive, disciplinary function increasingly performed by private credit ratings in the US.

 4. Public housing finance. Mortgages for owner-occupied housing are another area where a patina of market transactions is laid over a system that is already substantively public. The 30-year mortgage market is entirely a creation of regulation, it is maintained by public market-makers, and public bodies are largely and increasingly the ultimate lenders. Socialists have no interest in the cultivation of a hothouse petty bourgeoisie through home ownership; but as long as the state does so, we demand that it be openly and directly rather than disguised as private transactions.

 5. Public retirement insurance. Providing for old age is the other area, along with housing, where the state does the most to foster what Gerald Davis calls the “capital fiction” – the conception of one’s relationship to society in terms of asset ownership. But here, unlike home ownership, social provision in the guise of financial claims has failed even on its own narrow terms. Many working-class households in the US and other rich countries do own their own houses, but only a tiny fraction can meet their subsistence needs in old age out of private saving. At the same time, public retirement systems are much more fully developed than public provision of housing. This suggests a program of eliminating existing programs to encourage private retirement saving, and greatly expanding Social Security and similar social insurance systems.

Repress finance. It’s not the job of socialists to keep the big casino running smoothly. But as long as private financial institutions exist, we cannot avoid the question of how to regulate them. Historically financial regulation has sometimes taken the form of “financial repression,” in which the types of assets held by financial institutions are substantially dictated by the state. This allows credit to be directed more effectively to socially useful investment. It also allows policymakers to hold market interest rates down, which — especially in the context of higher inflation — diminishes both the burden of debt and the power of creditors. The exiting deregulated financial system already has very articulate critics; there’s no need to duplicate their work with a detailed reform proposal. But we can lay out some broad principles:

1. If it isn’t permitted, it’s forbidden. Effective regulation has always depended on enumerating specific functions for specific institutions, and prohibiting anything else. Otherwise it’s too easy to bypass with something that is formally different but substantively equivalent. And whether or not central banks are going to continue with their role as the main managers of aggregate demand —  increasingly questioned by those inside the citadel as well as by outsiders — they also need this kind of regulation to effectively control the flow of credit.

2. Protect functions, not institutions. The political power of finance comes from ability to threaten routine social bookkeeping, and the security of small property owners. (“If we don’t bail out the banks, the ATMs will shut down! What about your 401(k)?”) As long as private financial institutions perform socially necessary functions, policy should focus on preserving those functions themselves, and not the institutions that perform them. This means that interventions should be as close as possible to the nonfinancial end-user, and not on the games banks play among themselves. For example: deposit insurance.

3. Require large holdings of public debt. The threat of the “bond vigilantes” against the US federal government has  been wildly exaggerated, as was demonstrated for instance by the debt-ceiling farce and downgrade of 2012. But for smaller governments – including state and local governments in the US – bond markets are not so easily ignored. And large holdings of pubic debt also reduce the frequency and severity of the periodic financial crises which are, perversely, one of the main ways in which finance’s social power is maintained.

4. Control overall debt levels with lower interest rates and higher inflation. Household leverage in the US has risen dramatically over the past 30 years; some believe that this is because debt was needed to raise living standards of living in the face of stagnant or declining real incomes. But this isn’t the case; slower income growth has simply meant slower growth in consumption. Rather, the main cause of rising household debt over the past 30 years has been the combination of low inflation and continuing high interest rates for households. Conversely, the most effective way to reduce the burden of debt – for households, and also for governments – is to hold interest rates down while allowing inflation to rise.

As a corollary to financial repression, we can reject any moral claims on behalf of interest income as such. There is no right to exercise a claim on the labor of others  through ownership of financial assets. To the extent that the private provision of socially necessary services like insurance and pensions is undermined by low interest rates, that is an argument for moving these services to the public sector, not for increasing the claims of rentiers.

Democratize central banks. Central banks have always been central planners. Choices about interest rates, and the terms on which financial institutions will be regulated and rescued, inevitably condition the profitability and the direction as well as level of productive activity. This role has been concealed behind an ideology that imagines the central bank behaving automatically, according to a rule that somehow reproduces the “natural” behavior of markets.

Central banks’ own actions since 2008 have left this ideology in tatters. The immediate response to the crisis have forced central banks to intervene more directly in credit markets, buying a wider range of assets and even replacing private financial institutions to lend directly to nonfinancial businesses. Since then, the failure of conventional monetary policy has forced central banks to inch unwillingly toward a broader range of interventions, directly channeling credit to selected borrowers. This turn to “credit policy” represents an admission – grudging, but forced by events – that the anarchy of competition is unable to coordinate production. Central banks cannot, as the textbooks imagine, stabilize the capitalists system by turning a single knob labeled “money supply” or “interest rate.” They must substitute their own judgement for market outcomes in a broad and growing range of asset and credit markets.

The challenge now is to politicize central banks — to make them the object of public debate and popular pressure.  In Europe, the national central banks – which still perform their old functions, despite the common misperception that the ECB is now the central bank of Europe – will be a central terrain of struggle for the next left government that seeks to break with austerity and liberalism. In the US, we can dispense for good with the idea that monetary policy is a domain of technocratic expertise, and bring into the open its program of keeping unemployment high in order to restrain wage growth and workers’ power. As a positive program, we might demand that the Fed aggressively using its existing legal authority to purchase municipal debt, depriving rentiers of their power over financially constrained local governments as in Detroit and Puerto Rico, and more broadly blunting the power of “the bond markets” as a constraint on popular politics at the state and local level. More broadly, central banks should be held responsible for actively directing credit to socially useful ends.

Disempower shareholders. Really existing capitalism consists of narrow streams of market transactions flowing between vast regions of non-market coordination. A core function of finance is to act as the weapon in the hands of the capitalist class to enforce the logic of value on these non-market structures. The claims of shareholders over nonfinancial businesses, and bondholders over national governments, ensure that all these domains of human activity remain subordinate to the logic of accumulation. We want to see stronger defenses against these claims – not because we have any faith in productive capitalists or national bourgeoisies, but because they occupy the space in which politics is possible.

Specifically we should stand with corporations against shareholders. The corporation, as Marx long ago noted, is “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself.” Within the corporation, activity is coordinated through plans, not markets; and the orientation of this activity is toward the production of a particular use-value rather than money as such. “The tendency of big enterprise,” Keynes wrote, “is to socialize itself.” The fundamental political function of finance is to keep this tendency in check. Without the threat of takeovers and the pressure of shareholder activists, the corporation becomes a space where workers and other stakeholders can contest control over production and the surplus it generates – a possibility that capitalist never lose sight of.

Needless to say, this does not imply any attachment to the particular individuals at the top of the corporate hierarchy, who today are most often actual or aspiring rentiers  without any organic connection to the production process. Rather, it’s a recognition of the value of the corporation as a social organism; as a space structured by relationships of trust and loyalty, and by intrinsic motivation and “professional conscience”; and as the site of consciously planned production of use-values.

The role of finance with respect to the modern corporation is not to provide it with resources for investment, but to ensure that its conditional orientation toward production as an end in itself is ultimately subordinate to the accumulation of money. Resisting this pressure is no substitute for other struggles, over the labor process and the division of resources and authority within the corporation. (History gives many examples of production of use values as an end in itself, which is carried out under conditions as coercive and alienated as under production for profit.) But resisting the pressure of finance creates more space for those struggles, and for the evolution of socialism within the corporate form.

Close borders to money (and open them to people). Just as shareholder power enforces the logic of accumulation on corporations, capital mobility does the same to states. In the universities, we hear about the supposed efficiency  of unrestrained capital flows, but in the political realm we hear more their power to “discipline” national governments. The threat of capital flight and balance of payments crises protects the logic of accumulation against incursions by national governments.

States can be vehicles for conscious control of the economy only insofar as financial claims across borders are limited. In a world where capital flows are large and unrestricted, the concrete activity of production and reproduction must constantly adjust itself to the changing whims of foreign investors. This is incompatible with any strategy for  development of the forces of production at the national level; every successful case of late industrialization has depended on the conscious direction of credit through the national banking system. More than that, the requirement that real activity accommodate cross-border financial flows is  incompatible even with the stable reproduction of capitalism in the periphery. We have learned this lesson many times in Latin America and elsewhere in the South, and are now learning it again in Europe.

So a socialist program on finance should include support for efforts of national governments to delink from the global economy, and to maintain or regain control over their financial systems. Today, such efforts are often connected to a politics of racism, nativism and xenophobia which we must uncompromisingly reject. But it is possible to move toward a world in which national borders pose no barrier to people and ideas, but limit the movement of goods and are impassible barriers to private financial claims.

In the US and other rich countries, it’s also important to oppose any use of the authority – legal or otherwise – of our own states to enforce financial claims against weaker states. Argentina and Greece, to take two recent examples, were not forced to accept the terms of their creditors by the actions of dispersed private individuals through financial markets, but respectively by the actions of Judge Griesa of the US Second Circuit and Trichet and Draghi of the ECB. For peripheral states to foster development and serve as vehicle for popular politics, they must insulate themselves from international financial markets. But the power of those markets comes ultimately from the gunboats — figurative or literal — by which private financial claims are enforced.

With respect to the strong states themselves, the markets have no hold except over the imagination. As we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years — most dramatically in the debt-limit vaudeville of 2011-2013 — there are no “bond vigilantes”; the terms on which governments borrow are fully determined by their own monetary authority. All that’s needed to break the bond market’s power here is to recognize that it’s already powerless.

In short, we should reject the idea of finance as an intrusion on a preexisting market order. We should resist the power of finance as an enforcer of the logic of accumulation. And we should reclaim as a site of democratic politics the social planning already carried out through finance.

Links for October 6

More methodenstreit. I finally read the Romer piece on the trouble with macro. Some good stuff in there. I’m glad to see someone of his stature making the  point that the Solow residual is simply the part of output growth that is not explained by a production function. It has no business being dressed up as “total factor productivity” and treated as a real thing in the world. Probably the most interesting part of the piece was the discussion of identification, though I’m not sure how much it supports his larger argument about macro.  The impossibility of extracting causal relationships from statistical data would seem to strengthen the argument for sticking with strong theoretical priors. And I found it a bit odd that his modus ponens for reality-based macro was accepting that the Fed brought down output and (eventually) inflation in the early 1980s by reducing the money supply — the mechanisms and efficacy of conventional monetary policy are not exactly settled questions. (Funnily enough, Krugman’s companion piece makes just the opposite accusation of orthodoxy — that they assumed an increase in the money supply would raise inflation.) Unlike Brian Romanchuk, I think Romer has some real insights into the methodology of economics. There’s also of course some broadsides against the policy  views of various rightwing economists. I’m sympathetic to both parts but not sure they don’t add up to less than their sum.

David Glasner’s interesting comment on Romer makes in passing a point that’s bugged me for years — that you can’t talk about transitions from one intertemporal equilibrium to another, there’s only the one. Or equivalently, you can’t have a model with rational expectations and then talk about what happens if there’s a “shock.” To say there is a shock in one period, is just to say that expectations in the previous period were wrong. Glasner:

the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here’s another take on the state of macro, from the estimable Marc Lavoie. I have to admit, I don’t care for way it’s framed around “the crisis”. It’s not like DSGE models were any more useful before 2008.

Steve Keen has his own view of where macro should go. I almost gave up on reading this piece, given Forbes’ decision to ban on adblockers (Ghostery reports 48 different trackers in their “ad-light” site) and to split the article up over six pages. But I persevered and … I’m afraid I don’t see any value in what Keen proposes. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that. Roger Farmer doesn’t see the value either.

In my opinion, the way forward, certainly for people like me — or, dear reader, like you — who have zero influence on the direction of the economics profession, is to forget about finding the right model for “the economy” in the abstract, and focus more on quantitative description of concrete historical developments. I expressed this opinion in a bunch of tweets, storified here.

 

The Gosplan of capitalism. Schumpeter described banks as capitalism’s equivalent of the Soviet planning agency — a bank loan can be thought of as an order allocating part of society’s collective resources to a particular project.  This applies even more to the central banks that set the overall terms of bank lending, but this conscious direction of the economy has been hidden behind layers of ideological obfuscation about the natural rate, policy rules and so on. As DeLong says, central banks are central planners that dare not speak their name. This silence is getting harder to maintain, though. Every day there seems to be a new news story about central banks intervening in some new credit market or administering some new price. Via Ben Bernanke, here is the Bank of Japan announcing it will start targeting the yield of 10-year Japanese government bonds, instead of limiting itself to the very short end where central banks have traditionally operated. (Although as he notes, they “muddle the message somewhat” by also announcing quantities of bonds to be purchased.)  Bernanke adds:

there is a U.S. precedent for the BOJ’s new strategy: The Federal Reserve targeted long-term yields during and immediately after World War II, in an effort to hold down the costs of war finance.

And in the FT, here is the Bank of England announcing it will begin buying corporate bonds, an unambiguous step toward direct allocation of credit:

The bank will conduct three “reverse auctions” this week, each aimed at buying the bonds from particular sectors. Tuesday’s auction focuses on utilities and industries. Individual companies include automaker Rolls-Royce, oil major Royal Dutch Shell and utilities such as Thames Water.

 

Inflation or socialism. That interventions taken in the heat of a crisis to stabilize financial markets can end up being steps toward “a more or less comprehensive socialization of investment,” may be more visible to libertarians, who are inclined to see central banks as a kind of socialism already. At any rate, Scott Sumner has been making some provocative posts lately about a choice between “inflation or socialism”. Personally I don’t have much use for NGDP targeting — Sumner’s idée fixe — or the analysis that underlies it, but I do think he is onto something important here. To translate the argument into Keynes’ terms, the problem is that the minimum return acceptable to wealth owners may be, under current conditions, too high to justify the level of investment consistent with the minimum level of growth and employment acceptable to the rest of society. Bridging this gap requires the state to increasingly take responsibility for investment, either directly or via credit policy. That’s the socialism horn of the dilemma. Or you can get inflation, which, in effect, forces wealthholders to accept a lower return; or put it more positively, as Sumner does, makes it more attractive to hold wealth in forms that finance productive investment.  The only hitch is that the wealthy — or at least their political representatives — seem to hate inflation even more than they hate socialism.

 

The corporate superorganism.  One more for the “finance-as-socialism” files. Here’s an interesting working paper from Jose Azar on the rise of cross-ownership of US corporations, thanks in part to index funds and other passive investment vehicles.

The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999Q4 to around 90% in 2014Q4 (Figure 1).1 Thus, while there has been some degree of overlap for many decades, and overlap started increasing around 2000, the ubiquity of common ownership of large blocks of stock is a relatively recent phenomenon. The increase in common ownership coincided with the period of fastest growth in corporate profits and the fastest decline in the labor share since the end of World War II…

A common element of theories of the firm boundaries is that … either firms are separately owned, or they combine. In stock market economies, however, the forces of portfolio diversification lead to … blurring firm boundaries… In the limit, when all shareholders hold market portfolios, the ownership of the firms becomes exactly identical. From the point of view of the shareholders, these firms should act “in unison” to maximize the same objective function… In this situation the firms have in some sense become branches of a larger corporate superorganism.

The same assumptions that generate the “efficiency” of market outcomes imply that public ownership could be just as efficient — or more so in the case of monopolies.

The present paper provides a precise efficiency rationale for … consumer and employee representation at firms… Consumer and employee representation can reduce the markdown of wages relative to the marginal product of labor and therefore bring the economy closer to a competitive outcome. Moreover, this provides an efficiency rationale for wealth inequality reduction –reducing inequality makes control, ownership, consumption, and labor supply more aligned… In the limit, when agents are homogeneous and all firms are commonly owned, … stakeholder representation leads to a Pareto efficient outcome … even though there is no competition in the economy.

As Azar notes, cross-ownership of firms was a major concern for progressives in the early 20th century, expressed through things like the Pujo committee. But cross-ownership also has been a central theme of Marxists like Hilferding and Lenin. Azar’s “corporate superorganism” is basically Hilferding’s finance capital, with index funds playing the role of big banks. The logic runs the same way today as 100 years ago. If production is already organized as a collective enterprise run by professional managers in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, why can’t it just as easily be managed in a broader social interest?

 

Global pivot? Gavyn Davies suggests that there has been a global turn toward more expansionary fiscal policy, with the average rich country fiscal balances shifting about 1.5 points toward deficit between 2013 and 2016. As he says,

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative.

I don’t know about that last bit, though — they don’t seem to find it that hard.

 

Taylor rule toy. The Atlanta Fed has a cool new gadget that lets you calculate the interest rate under various versions of the Taylor Rule. It will definitely be useful in the classroom. Besides the obvious pedagogical value, it also dramatizes a larger point — that macroeconomic variables like “inflation” aren’t objects simply existing in the world, but depend on all kinds of non-obvious choices about measurement and definition.

 

The new royalists. DeLong summarizes the current debates about monetary policy:

1. Do we accept economic performance that all of our predecessors would have characterized as grossly subpar—having assigned the Federal Reserve and other independent central banks a mission and then kept from them the policy tools they need to successfully accomplish it?

2. Do we return the task of managing the business cycle to the political branches of government—so that they don’t just occasionally joggle the elbows of the technocratic professionals but actually take on a co-leading or a leading role?

3. Or do we extend the Federal Reserve’s toolkit in a structured way to give it the tools it needs?

This is a useful framework, as is the discussion that precedes it. But what jumped out to me is how he reflexively rejects option two. When it comes to the core questions of economic policy — growth, employment, the competing claims of labor and capital — the democratically accountable, branches of government must play no role. This is all the more striking given his frank assessment of the performance of the technocrats who have been running the show for the past 30 years: “they—or, rather, we, for I am certainly one of the mainstream economists in the roughly consensus—were very, tragically, dismally and grossly wrong.”

I think the idea that monetary policy is a matter of neutral, technical expertise was always a dodge, a cover for class interests. The cover has gotten threadbare in the past decade, as the range and visibility of central bank interventions has grown. But it’s striking how many people still seem to believe in a kind of constitutional monarchy when it comes to central banks. They can see people who call for epistocracy — rule by knowers — rather than democracy as slightly sinister clowns (which they are). And they can simultaneously see central bank independence as essential to good government, without feeling any cognitive dissonance.

 

Did extending unemployment insurance reduce employment? Arin Dube, Ethan Kaplan, Chris Boone and Lucas Goodman have a new paper on “Unemployment Insurance Generosity and Aggregate Employment.” From the abstract:

We estimate the impact of unemployment insurance (UI) extensions on aggregate employment during the Great Recession. Using a border discontinuity design, we compare employment dynamics in border counties of states with longer maximum UI benefit duration to contiguous counties in states with shorter durations between 2007 and 2014. … We find no statistically significant impact of increasing unemployment insurance generosity on aggregate employment. … Our point estimates vary in sign, but are uniformly small in magnitude and most are estimated with sufficient precision to rule out substantial impacts of the policy…. We can reject negative impacts on the employment-to-population ratio … in excess of 0.5 percentage points from the policy expansion.

Media advisory with synopsis is here.

 

On other blogs, other wonders

Larry Summers: Low laborforce participation is mainly about weak demand, not demographics or other supply-side factors.

Nancy Folbre on Greg Mankiw’s claims that the one percent deserves whatever it gets.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin makes some familiar — but correct and important! — points about privatization of public services.

In the Baffler, Sam Kriss has some fun with the new atheists. I hadn’t encountered Kierkegaard’s parable of the madman who tells everyone who will listen “the world is round!” but it fits perfectly.

A valuable article in the Washington Post on cobalt mining in Africa. Tracing out commodity chains is something we really need more of.

Buzzfeed on Blue Apron. The reality of the robot future is often, as here, just that production has been reorganized to make workers less visible.

At Vox, Rachelle Sampson has a piece on corporate short-termism. Supports my sense that this is an area where there may be space to move left in a Clinton administration.

Sven Beckert has edited a new collection of essays on the relationship between slavery and the development of American capitalism. Should be worth looking at — his Empire of Cotton is magnificent.

At Dissent, here’s an interesting review of Jefferson Cowie’s and Robert Gordon’s very different but complementary books on the decline of American growth.

Links for May 25, 2016

Deliberately. The IMF has released its new Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece. Frances Coppola has the details, and they are something. Per the IMF,

Demographic projections suggest that working age population will decline by about 10 percentage points by 2060. At the same time, Greece will continue to struggle with high unemployment rates for decades to come. Its current unemployment rate is around 25 percent, the highest in the OECD, and after seven years of recession, its structural component is estimated at around 20 percent. Consequently, it will take significant time for unemployment to come down. Staff expects it to reach 18 percent by 2022, 12 percent by 2040, and 6 percent only by 2060.

Frances adds:

For Greece’s young people currently out of work, that is all of their working life. A whole generation will have been consigned to the scrapheap. …

The truth is that seven years of recession has wrecked the Greek economy. It is no longer capable of generating enough jobs to employ its population. The IMF estimates that even in good times, 20 percent of adults would remain unemployed. To generate the jobs that are needed there will have to be large numbers of new businesses, perhaps even whole new industries. Developing such extensive new productive capacity takes time and requires substantial investment – and Greece is not the most attractive of investment prospects. Absent something akin to a Marshall Plan, it will take many, many years to repair the damage deliberately inflicted on Greece by European authorities and the IMF in order to bail out the European banking system.

For some reason, that reminds me of this. Good times.

Also, here’s the Economist, back in 2006:

The core countries of Europe are not ready to make the economic reforms they so desperately need—and that will change, alas, only after a diabolic economic crisis. … The sad truth is that voters are not yet ready to swallow the nasty medicine of change. Reform is always painful. And there are too many cosseted insiders—those with secure jobs, those in the public sector—who see little to gain and much to lose. … One reason for believing that reform can happen … is that other European countries have shown the way. Britain faced economic and social meltdown in 1979; there followed a decade of Thatcherite reform. … The real problem, not just for Italy and France but also for Germany, is that, so far, life has continued to be too good for too many people.

I bet they’re pretty pleased right now.

 

 

Polanyism. At Dissent, Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber have a very nice introduction to Karl Polanyi. One thing I like about this piece is that they present Polanyi as a sort of theoretical back-formation for the Sanders campaign.

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters … are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. …

One of the divides within the Democratic primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has been between a social-democratic and a “progressive” but market-friendly vision of addressing social problems. Take, for example, health care. Sanders proposes a single-payer system in which the government pays and health care directly, and he frames it explicitly in the language of rights: “healthcare is a human right and should be guaranteed to all Americans regardless of wealth or income.” … Sanders offers a straightforward defense of decommodification—the idea that some things do not belong in the marketplace—that is at odds with the kind of politics that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered … Polanyi’s particular definition of socialism sounds like one Sanders would share.

 

Obamacare and the insurers. On the subject of health care and decommodification, I liked James Kwak’s piece on Obamacare.

The dirty not-so-secret of Obamacare … is that sometimes the things we don’t like about market outcomes aren’t market failures—they are exactly what markets are supposed to do. …  at the end of the day, Obamacare is based on the idea that competition is good, but tries to prevent insurers from competing on all significant dimensions except the one that the government is better at anyway. We shouldn’t be surprised when insurance policies get worse and health care costs continue to rise.

It’s too bad so many intra-Democratic policy debates are conducted in terms of the radical-incremental binary, it’s not really meaningful. You can do more or less of anything. Would be better to focus on this non-market vs market question.

In this context, I wish there’d been some discussion in the campaign of New York’s new universal pre-kindergarten, which is a great example incremental decommodification in practice. Admittedly I’m a bit biased — I live in New York, and my son will be starting pre-K next year. Still: Here’s an example of a social need being addressed not through vouchers, or tax credits, or with means tests, but through a universal public services, provided — not entirely, but mainly and increasingly — by public employees. Why isn’t this a model?

 

The prehistory of the economics profession. I really liked this long piece by Marshall Steinbaum and Bernard Weisberger on the early history of the American Economics Association. The takeaway is that the AEA’s early history was surprisingly radical, both intellectually and in its self-conception as part of larger political project. (Another good discussion of this is in Michael Perelman’s Railroading Economics.) This is history more people should know, and Steinbaum and Weisberger tell it well. I also agree with their conclusion:

That [the economics profession] abandoned “advocacy” under the banner of “objectivity” only raises the question of what that distinction really means in practice. Perhaps actual objectivity does not require that the scholar noisily disclaim advocacy. It may, in fact, require the opposite.

The more I struggle with this stuff, the more I think this is right. A field or discipline needs its internal standards to distinguish valid or well-supported claims from invalid or poorly supported ones. But evaluation of relevance, importance, correspondence to the relevant features of reality can never be made on the basis of internal criteria. They require the standpoint of some outside commitment, some engagement with the concrete reality you are studying distinct from your formal representations of it. Of course that engagement doesn’t have to be political. Hyman Minsky’s work for the Mark Twain Bank in Missouri, for example, played an equivalent role; and as Perry Mehrling observes in his wonderful essay on Minsky, “It is significant that the fullest statement of his business cycle theory was published by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.” But it has to be something. In economics, I think, even more than in other fields, the best scholarship is not going to come from people who are only scholars.

 

Negative rates, so what. Here’s a sensible look at the modest real-world impact of negative rates from Brian Romanchuk. It’s always interesting to see how these things look from the point of view of market participants. The importance of a negative policy rate has nothing to do with the terms on which present consumption trades off against future consumption, it’s about one component of the return on some assets relative to others.

 

I’m number 55. Someone made a list of the top 100 economics blogs, and put me on it. That was nice.

At Jacobin: The Fed Doesn’t Work for You

I have a new piece up at Jacobin on December’s rate hike. In my experience, the editing at Jacobin is excellent. But for better or worse, they don’t go for footnotes. So I’m reposting this here with the original notes. And also for comments, which Jacobin (perhaps wisely) doesn’t allow.

I conveyed some of the same views on “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg TV a couple weeks ago. (I come on around 13:30.)

 

To the surprise of no one, the Federal Reserve recently raised the federal funds rate — the interest rate under its direct control — from 0–0.25 percent to 0.25–0.5 percent, ending seven years of a federal funds rate of zero.

But while widely anticipated, the decision still clashes with the Fed’s supposed mandate to maintain full employment and price stability. Inflation remains well shy of the Fed’s 2 percent benchmark (its interpretation of its legal mandate to promote “price stability”) — 1.4 percent in 2015, according to the Fed’s preferred personal consumption expenditure measure, and a mere 0.4 percent using the consumer price index — and shows no sign of rising.

US GDP remains roughly 10 percent below the pre-2008 trend, so it’s hard to argue that the economy is approaching any kind of supply constraints. Set aside the fundamental incoherence of the notion of “price stability” (let alone of a single metric to measure it) — according to the Fed’s professed rulebook, the case for a rate increase is no stronger today than a year or two ago. Even the business press, for the most part, fails to see the logic for raising rates now.

Yet from another perspective, the decision to raise the federal funds rate makes perfect sense. The consensus view considers the main job of central banks to be maintaining price stability by adjusting the short-term interest rate. (Lower interest rates are supposed to raise private spending when inflation falls short of the central bank’s target, and higher interest rates are supposed to restrain spending when inflation rises above the target.) But this has never been the whole story.

More importantly, the central bank helps paper over the gap between ideals and reality — the distance between the ideological vision of the economy as a system of market exchanges of real goods, and the concrete reality of production in pursuit of money profits.

Central banks are thus, in contemporary societies, one of the main sites at which capitalism’s “Polanyi problem” is managed: a society that truly subjected itself to the logic of market exchange would tear itself to pieces. But the conscious planning that confines market outcomes within tolerable bounds has to be hidden from view because if the role of planning was acknowledged, it would undermine the idea of markets as natural and spontaneous and demonstrate the possibility of conscious planning toward other ends.

The Fed is a central planner that dare not speak its name. [1]

One particular problem for central bank planners is managing the pace of growth for the system as a whole. Fast growth doesn’t just lead to rising prices — left to their own devices, individual capitalists are liable to bid up the price of labor and drain the reserve army of the unemployed during boom times. [2] Making concessions to workers when demand is strong is rational for individual business owners, but undermines their position as a class.

Solving this coordination problem is one of modern central bankers’ central duties. They pay close attention to what is somewhat misleadingly called the labor market, and use low unemployment as a signal to raise interest rates.

So in this respect it isn’t surprising to see the Fed raising rates, given that unemployment rates have now fallen below 5 percent for the first time since the financial crisis.

Indeed, inflation targeting has always been coupled with a strong commitment to restraining the claims of workers. Paul Volcker is now widely admired as the hero who slew the inflation dragon, but as Fed chair in the 1980s, he considered rolling back the power of organized labor — in terms of both working conditions and wages — to be his number one problem. [3] Volcker described Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic controllers union as “the single most important action of the administration in helping the anti-inflation fight.”

As one of Volcker’s colleagues argued, the fundamental goal of high rates was that

labor begins to get the point that if they get too much in wages they won’t have a business to work for. I think that really is beginning to happen now and that’s why I’m more optimistic. . . . When Pan Am workers are willing to take 10 percent wage cuts because the airlines are in trouble, I think those are signs that we’re at the point where something can really start to happen.

Volcker’s successors at the Fed approached the inflation problem similarly. Alan Greenspan saw the fight against rising prices as, at its essence, a project of promoting weakness and insecurity among workers; he famously claimed that “traumatized workers” were the reason strong growth with low inflation was possible in the 1990s, unlike in previous decades.

Testifying before Congress in 1997, Greenspan attributed the “extraordinary’” and “exceptional” performance of the nineties economy to “a heightened sense of job insecurity” among workers “and, as a consequence, subdued wages.”

As Greenspan’s colleague at the Fed in the 1990s, Janet Yellen took the same view. In a 1996 Federal Open Market Committee meeting, she said her biggest worry was that “firms eventually will be forced to bid up wages to retain workers.” But, she continued, she was not too concerned at the moment because

while the labor market is tight, job insecurity also seems alive and well. Real wage aspirations appear modest, and the bargaining power of workers is surprisingly low . . . senior workers and particularly those who have earned wage premia in the past, whether it is due to the power of their unions or the generous compensation policies of their employers, seem to be struggling to defend their jobs . . . auto workers are focused on securing their own benefits during their lifetimes but appear reconciled to accepting two-tier wage structures . . .

And when a few high-profile union victories, like the Teamsters’ successful 1997 strike at UPS, seemed to indicate organized labor might be reviving, Greenspan made no effort to hide his displeasure:

I suspect we will find that the [UPS] strike has done a good deal of damage in the past couple of weeks. The settlement may go a long way toward undermining the wage flexibility that we started to get in labor markets with the air traffic controllers’ strike back in the early 1980s. Even before this strike, it appeared that the secular decline in real wages was over.

The Fed’s commitment to keeping unemployment high enough to limit wage gains is hardly a secret — it’s right there in the transcripts of FOMC meetings, and familiar to anyone who has read left critics of the Fed like William Greider and Doug Henwood. The bluntness with which Fed officials take sides in the class war is still striking, though.

Of course, Fed officials deny they’re taking sides. They justify policies that keep workers too weak, disorganized, and traumatized to demand higher wages by focusing on the purported dangers of low unemployment. Lower unemployment, they say, leads to higher money wages, and higher money wages are passed on as higher prices, ultimately leaving workers’ real pay unchanged while eroding their savings.

So while it might look like naked class warfare to deliberately raise unemployment to keep wage demands “subdued”, the Fed assures us that it’s really in the best interests of everyone, including workers.

Keeping Wages in Check

The low-unemployment-equals-high-prices story has always been problematic. But for years its naysayers were silenced by the supposed empirical fact of the Phillips curve, which links low unemployment to higher inflation.

The shaky empirical basis of the Phillips curve was the source of major macroeconomic debates in the 1970s, when monetarists claimed that any departure from unemployment’s “natural” rate would lead inflation to rise, or fall, without limit. This “vertical Phillips curve” was used to deny the possibility of any tradeoff between unemployment and inflation — a tradeoff that, in the postwar era, was supposed to be managed by a technocratic state balancing the interests of wage earners against the interest of money owners.

In the monetarist view, there were no conflicting interests to balance, since there was just one possible rate of unemployment compatible with a stable price system (the “Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment”). This is still the view one finds in most textbooks today.

In retrospect, the 1970s debates are usually taken as a decisive blow against the “bastard Keynesian” orthodoxy of the 1960s and 1970s. They were also an important factor in the victory of monetarism and rational expectations in the economics profession, and in the defeat of fiscal policy in the policy realm.

But today there’s a different breakdown in the relationship between unemployment and inflation that threatens to dislodge orthodoxy once again. Rather than a vertical curve, we now seem to face a “horizontal” Phillips curve in which changes in unemployment have no consequences for inflation one way or another.

Despite breathless claims about the end of work, there hasn’t been any change in the link between output and employment; and low unemployment is still associated with faster wage growth. But the link between wage growth and inflation has all but disappeared.

Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1965–1995.
Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1965–1995.

 

Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1995–2015.
Annual wage growth for nonsupervisory workers (X) and CPI inflation (Y), 1995–2015.

This gap in the output-unemployment-wages-inflation causal chain creates a significant problem for central bank ideology.

When Volcker eagerly waited for news on the latest Teamsters negotiations, it was ostensibly because of the future implications for inflation. Now, if there is no longer any visible link between wage growth and inflation, then central bankers might stop worrying so much about labor market outcomes. Put differently, if the Fed’s goal was truly price stability, then the degree to which workers are traumatized would no longer matter so much.

But that’s not the only possibility. Central bankers might want to maintain their focus on unemployment and wages as immediate targets of policy for other reasons. In that case they’d need to change their story.

The current tightening suggests that this is exactly what’s happening. Targeting “wage inflation” seems to be becoming a policy goal in itself, regardless of whether it spurs price increases.

recent piece by Justin Wolfers in the New York Times is a nice example of where conventional wisdom is heading: “It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned. . .”

This sounds like technical jargon, but if taken seriously it suggests a fundamental shift in the objectives of monetary policy.

By definition, the change in the wage share of output is equal to the rise in money wages minus the sum of the inflation rate and the increase in labor productivity. To say “nominal wage growth is greater than the sum of inflation and productivity growth” is just a roundabout way of saying “the wage share is rising.” So in plain English, Wolfers is saying that the Fed should raise rates if and only if the share of GDP going to workers threatens to increase.

Think for a moment about this logic. In the textbook story, wage growth is a problem insofar as it’s associated with rising inflation. But in the new version, wage growth is more likely to be a problem when inflation stays low.

Wolfers is the farthest thing from a conservative ideologue. His declaration that the Fed needs to guard against a rise in the wage share is simply an expression of conventional elite wisdom that comes straight from the Fed. A recent post by several economists at the New York Fed uses an identical definition of “overheating” as wage growth in excess of productivity growth plus inflation.

Focusing on wage growth itself, rather than the unemployment-inflation nexus, represents a subtle but far-reaching shift in the aim of policy. According to official rhetoric, an inflation-targeting central bank should only be interested in the part of wage changes that co-varies with inflation. Otherwise changes in the wage share presumably reflect social or technological factors rather than demand conditions that are not the responsibility of the central bank.

To be fair, linking demand conditions to changes in the distribution between profits and wages, rather than to inflation, is a more realistic than the old orthodoxy that greater bargaining power for workers cannot increase their share of the product. [4]

But it sits awkwardly with the central bank story that higher unemployment is necessary to keep down prices. And it undermines the broader commitment in orthodox economics to a sharp distinction — both theoretically and policy-wise — between a monetary, demand-determined short run and a technology and “real”-resources-determined long run, with distributional questions firmly located in the latter.

There’s a funny disconnect in these conversations. A rising wage share supposedly indicates an overheating economy — a macroeconomic problem that requires a central bank response. But a falling wage share is the result of deep structural forces — unrelated to aggregate demand and certainly not something with which the central bank should be concerned. An increasing wage share is viewed by elites as a sign that policy is too loose, but no one ever blames a declining wage share on policy that is too tight. Instead we’re told it’s the result of technological change, Chinese competition, etc.

Logically, central bankers shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. In practice they can and do.

The European Central Bank (ECB) — not surprisingly, given its more overtly political role — has gone further down this road than the Fed. Their standard for macroeconomic balance appears to be shifting from the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) to the NAWRU (Non-Accelerating Wage Rate of Unemployment).

If the goal all along has been lower wage growth, then this is not surprising: when the link between wages and inflation weakens, the response is not to find other tools for controlling inflation, but other arguments for controlling wages.

Indeed finding fresh arguments for keeping wages in check may be the real content of much of the “competitiveness” discourse. Replacing price stability with elevating competitiveness as the paramount policy goal creates a convenient justification for pushing down wages even when inflation is already extremely low.

It’s interesting in this context to look back at the ransom note the ECB sent to the Spanish government during the 2011 sovereign debt crisis. (Similar letters were sent to the governments of other crisis-hit countries.) One of the top demands the ECB made as a condition of stabilizing the market for government debt was the abolition of cost-of-living (COLA) clauses in employment contracts — even if adopted voluntarily by private employers.

Needless to say this is far beyond the mandate of a central bank as normally understood. [5] But the most interesting thing is the rationale for ending COLA clauses. The ECB declared that cost-of-living clauses are “a structural obstacle to the adjustment of labour costs” and “contribute to hampering competitiveness.”

This is worth unpacking. For a central bank concerned with price stability, the obvious problem with indexing wages to prices (as COLA clauses do) is that it can lead to inflationary spirals, a situation in which wages and prices rise together and real wages remain the same.

But this kind of textbook concern is not the ECB’s focus; instead, the emphasis on labor costs shows an abiding interest in tamping down real wages. In the old central bank story, wage indexing was supposedly bad because it didn’t affect (i.e., raise) real wages and only led to higher inflation. In the new dispensation, wage indexing is bad precisely because it does affect real wages. The ECB’s language only makes sense if the goal is to allow inflation to erode real wages.

The Republic of the Central Banker

Does the official story matter? Perhaps not.

The period before the 2008 crisis was characterized by a series of fulsome tributes to the wisdom of central banking maestros, whose smug and uncritical tone must be causing some embarrassment in hindsight.

Liberals in particular seemed happy to declare themselves citizens of the republic of the central bankers. Cristina Romer — soon to head President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers — described the defeat of postwar Keynesian macroeconomics as a “glorious counterrevolution” and explained that

better policy, particularly on the part of the Federal Reserve, is directly responsible for the low inflation and the virtual disappearance of the business cycle . . . The story of stabilization policy of the last quarter century is one of amazing success. We have seen the triumph of sensible ideas and have reaped the rewards in terms of macroeconomic performance. The costly wrong turn in ideas and macropolicy of the 1960s and 1970s has been righted and the future of stabilization looks bright.

The date on which the “disappearance of the business cycle” was announced? September 2007, two months before the start of the deepest recession in fifty years.

Romer’s predecessor on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (and later Fed vice-chair) Alan Blinder was so impressed by the philosopher-kings at the central bank that he proposed extending the same model to a range of decisions currently made by elected legislatures.

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. . . . [T]he argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. . . . Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? . . . The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended . . . The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if . . . left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.

The misguided consensus a decade ago about central banks’ ability to preserve growth may be just as wrong about central banks’ ability to derail it today. (Or at least, to do so with the conventional tools of monetary policy, as opposed to the more aggressive iatrogenic techniques of the ECB.)

The business press may obsess over every movement of the Fed’s steering wheel, but we should allow ourselves some doubts that the steering wheel is even connected to the wheels.

The last time the Fed tightened was ten years ago; between June 2004 and July 2006, the federal funds rate rose from 1 percent to 5 percent. Yet longer-term interest rates — which matter much more for economic activity — did not rise at all. The Baa corporate bond rate and thirty-year mortgage, for instance, were both lower in late 2006 than they had been before the Fed started tightening.

And among heterodox macroeconomists, there is a strong argumentthat conventional monetary policy no longer plays an important role in the financial markets where longer-term interest rates are set. Which means it has at best limited sway over the level of private spending. And the largest impacts of the rate increase may not be in the US at all, but in the “emerging markets” that may be faced with a reversal of capital flows back toward the United States.

Yet whatever the concrete effects of the Fed’s decision to tighten, it still offers some useful insight into the minds of our rulers.

We sometimes assume that the capitalist class wants growth at any cost, and that the capitalist state acts to promote it. But while individual capitalists are driven by competition to accumulate endlessly, that pressure doesn’t apply to the class as a whole.

A regime of sustained zero growth, by conventional measures, might be difficult to manage. But in the absence of acute threats to social stability or external competition (as from the USSR during the postwar “Golden Age”), slow growth may well be preferable to fast growth, which after all empowers workers and destabilizes existing hierarchies. In China, 10 percent annual growth may be essential to the social contract, but slow growth does not — yet — seem to threaten the legitimacy of the state in Europe, North America, or Japan.

As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch persuasively argue, even periodic crises are useful in maintaining the rule of money. They serve as reminders that the confidence of capital owners cannot be taken for granted. As Kalecki famously noted, the threat of a crisis when “business confidence” is shaken is a “powerful controlling device” for capitalists vis-à-vis the state. Too much success controlling crises is dangerous — it makes this threat less threatening.

So perhaps the most important thing about the Fed’s recent rate hike is that it’s a reminder that price stability and inflation management are always a pretext, or at best just one reason among others, for the managers of the capitalist state to control rapid growth and the potential gains for workers that follow. As the shifting justifications for restraining wage growth suggest, the republic of the central banker has always been run in the interests of money owners.

Some critics of the rate hike see it as a ploy to raise the profits of banks. In my opinion, this theory isn’t convincing. A better conspiracy theory is that it’s part of the larger project of keeping us all insecure and dependent on the goodwill of the owning class.

 

[1] The role of central banks in disguising the moment of conscious planning under capitalism and preserving the ideological fiction of spontaneous order is clearly visible in the way monetary policy is discussed by economists. From the concrete to the abstract. First, the “independent” status of central banks is supposed to place them outside the collective deliberation of democratic politics. Second, there is a constant attraction to the idea of a monetary policy “rule” that could be adopted once and for all, removing any element of deliberate choice even from the central bankers themselves. (Milton Friedman is only the best-known exponent of this idea, which is a central theme of discussion of central banks from the 18th century down to the present.) Third, in modern models, the “reaction function” of the central bank is typically taken as one of the basic equations of the model — the central bank’s reaction to a deviation of inflation from its chosen path has the same status as, say, the reaction of households to a change in prices. As Peter Dorman points out, there’s something very odd about putting policy inside the model this way. But it has the clear ideological advantage of treating the central bank as if it were simply part of the natural order of optimization by individual agents.

[2] The best analysis of the crisis of the 1970s in these terms remains Capitalism Since 1945, by Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison.

[3] The linked post by Peter Frase does an excellent job puncturing the bipartisan mythmaking around the Volcker and bringing out the centrality of his anti-labor politics. But it contains one important error. Frase describes the late-1970s crisis to which Volcker was responding as “capital refusing to invest, and labor refusing to take no for an answer.” The latter might be true but the former certainly is not: The late 1970s saw the greatest boom in business investment in modern US history; 1981 had the highest investment-GDP ratio since the records begin in 1929. High demand and negative real interest rates — which made machines and buildings more attractive than wealth in financial form — outweighed low profits, and investment boomed. (An oil boom in the southwest and generous tax subsidies also helped.) The problem Volcker was solving was not,as Frase imagines, that the process of accumulation was threatened by the refusal of unhappy money owners to participate. It was, in some ways, an even more threatening one — that real accumulation was proceeding fine despite the unhappiness of money owners. In the often-brilliant Buying Time, Wolfgang Streeck  makes a similar mistake.

[4] More precisely, it’s a return to what Anwar Shaikh calls the classical Phillips curve found in the Marxist literature, for instance in the form of Goodwin cycles. (The Shaikh article is very helpful in systematically thinking through alternative relationships between nominal wages, the wage share and inflation.)

[5] It’s worth noting that in these cases the ECB got what it wanted, or enough of it, and did aggressively intervene to stabilize government debt markets and the banking systems in almost all the crisis countries. As a result, the governments of Spain, Italy and Portugal now borrow more cheaply than ever in history. As I periodically point out, the direct cause of the crisis in Greece was the refusal of the ECB to extend it the same treatment. A common liberal criticism of the euro system is that it is too rigid, that it automatically applies a single policy to all its members even when their current needs might be different. But the reality is the opposite. The system, in the form of the ECB, has enormous discretion, and the crisis in Greece was the result of the ECB’s choice to apply a different set of policies there than elsewhere.

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 Myth of Reagan’s Debt

BloomCounty
… or at least don’t blame him for increased federal debt.

 

Arjun and I have been working lately on a paper on monetary and fiscal policy. (You can find the current version here.) The idea, which began with some posts on my blog last year, is that you have to think of the output gap and the change in the debt-GDP ratio as jointly determined by the fiscal balance and the policy interest rate. It makes no sense to talk about the “natural” (i.e. full-employment) rate of interest, or “sustainable” (i.e. constant debt ratio) levels of government spending and taxes. Both outcomes depend equally on both policy instruments. This helps, I think, to clarify some of the debates between orthodoxy and proponents of functional finance. Functional finance and sound finance aren’t different theories about how the economy works, they’re different preferred instrument assignments.

We started working on the paper with the idea of clarifying these issues in a general way. But it turns out that this framework is also useful for thinking about macroeconomic history. One interesting thing I discovered working on it is that, despite what we all think we know,  the increase in federal borrowing during the 1980s was mostly due to higher interest rate, not tax and spending decisions. Add to the Volcker rate hikes the deep recession of the early 1980s and the disinflation later in the decade, and you’ve explained the entire rise in the debt-GDP ratio under Reagan. What’s funny is that this is a straightforward matter of historical fact and yet nobody seems to be aware of it.

Here, first, are the overall and primary budget balances for the federal government since 1960.  The primary budget balance is simply the balance excluding interest payments — that is, current revenue minus . non-interest expenditure. The balances are shown in percent of GDP, with surpluses as positive values and deficits as negative. The vertical black lines are drawn at calendar years 1981 and 1990, marking the last pre-Reagan and first post-Reagan budgets.

overall_primary

The black line shows the familiar story. The federal government ran small budget deficits through the 1960s and 1970s, averaging a bit more than 0.5 percent of GDP. Then during the 1980s the deficits ballooned, to close to 5 percent of GDP during Reagan’s eight years — comparable to the highest value ever reached in the previous decades. After a brief period of renewed deficits under Bush in the early 1990s, the budget moved to surplus under Clinton in the later 1990s, back to moderate deficits under George W. Bush in the 2000s, and then to very large deficits in the Great Recession.

The red line, showing the primary deficit, mostly behaves similarly to the black one — but not in the 1980s. True, the primary balance shows a large deficit in 1984, but there is no sustained movement toward deficit. While the overall deficit was about 4.5 points higher under Reagan compared with the average of the 1960s and 1970s, the primary deficit was only 1.4 points higher. So over two-thirds of the increase in deficits was higher interest spending. For that, we can blame Paul Volcker (a Carter appointee), not Ronald Reagan.

Volcker’s interest rate hikes were, of course, justified by the need to reduce inflation, which was eventually achieved. Without debating the legitimacy of this as a policy goal, it’s important to keep in mind that lower inflation (plus the reduced growth that brings it about) mechanically raises the debt-GDP ratio, by reducing its denominator. The federal debt ratio rose faster in the 1980s than in the 1970s, in part, because inflation was no longer eroding it to the same extent.

To see the relative importance of higher interest rates, slower inflation and growth, and tax and spending decisions, the next figure presents three counterfactual debt-GDP trajectories, along with the actual historical trajectory. In the first counterfactual, shown in blue, we assume that nominal interest rates were fixed at their 1961-1981 average level. In the second counterfactual, in green, we assume that nominal GDP growth was fixed at its 1961-1981 average. And in the third, red, we assume both are fixed. In all three scenarios, current taxes and spending (the primary balance) follow their actual historical path.

counterfactuals

In the real world, the debt ratio rose from 24.5 percent in the last pre-Reagan year to 39 percent in the first post-Reagan year. In counterfactual 1, with nominal interest rates held constant, the increase is from 24.5 percent to 28 percent. So again, the large majority of the Reagan-era increase in the debt-GDP ratio is the result of higher interest rates. In counterfactual 2, with nominal growth held constant, the increase is to 34.5 percent — closer to the historical level (inflation was still quite high in the early ’80s) but still noticeably less. In counterfactual 3, with interest rates, inflation and real growth rates fixed at their 1960s-1970s average, federal debt at the end of the Reagan era is 24.5 percent — exactly the same as when he entered office. High interest rates and disinflation explain the entire increase in the federal debt-GDP ratio in the 1980s; military spending and tax cuts played no role.

After 1989, the counterfactual trajectories continue to drift downward relative to the actual one. Interest on federal debt has been somewhat higher, and nominal growth rates somewhat lower, than in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the tax and spending policies actually followed would have resulted in the complete elimination of the federal debt by 2001 if the previous i < g regime had persisted. But after the 1980s, the medium-term changes in the debt ratio were largely driven by shifts in the primary balance. Only in the 1980s was a large change in the debt ratio driven entirely by changes in interest and nominal growth rates.

So why do we care? (A question you should always ask.) Three reasons:

First, the facts themselves are interesting. If something everyone thinks they know — Reagan’s budgets blew up the federal debt in the 1980s — turns out not be true, it’s worth pointing out. Especially if you thought you knew it too.

Second is a theoretical concern which may not seem urgent to most readers of this blog but is very important to me. The particular flybottle I want to find the way out of is the idea that money is neutral,  veil —  that monetary quantities are necessarily, or anyway in practice, just reflections of “real” quantities, of the production, exchange and consumption of tangible goods and services. I am convinced that to understand our monetary production economy, we have to first understand the system of money incomes and payments, of assets and liabilities, as logically self-contained. Only then we can see how that system articulates with the concrete activity of social production. [1] This is a perfect example of why this “money view” is necessary. It’s tempting, it’s natural, to think of a money value like the federal debt in terms of the “real” activities of the federal government, spending and taxing; but it just doesn’t fit the facts.

Third, and perhaps most urgent: If high interest rates and disinflation drove the rise in the federal debt ratio in the 1980s, it could happen again. In the current debates about when the Fed will achieve liftoff, one of the arguments for higher rates is the danger that low rates lead to excessive debt growth. It’s important to understand that, historically, the relationship is just the opposite. By increasing the debt service burden of existing debt (and perhaps also by decreasing nominal incomes), high interest rates have been among the main drivers of rising debt, both public and private. A concern about rising debt burdens is an argument for hiking later, not sooner. People like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith have pointed out — correctly — that projections of rising federal debt in the future hinge critically on projections of rising interest rates. But they haven’t, as far as I know, said that it’s not just hypothetical. There’s a precedent.

 

[1] Or in other words, I want to pick up from the closing sentence of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, which describes the book as part of “a project aiming to end the rule of money, whose tyranny is sometimes a little hard to see.” We can’t end the rule of money until we see it, and we can’t see it until we understand it as something distinct from productive activity or social life in general.

The Greek Crisis and Monetary Sovereignty

Note: This post only really makes sense as a continuation of the argument in this one.

It’s a general rule that the internal logic of a system only becomes visible when it breaks down. A system that is smoothly reproducing itself provides no variation to show what forces it responds to. Constraints are invisible if they don’t bind. You don’t know where power lies until a decision is actively contested.

In that sense, the crises of the past seven years — and the responses to them — should have been very illuminating, at least if we can figure out what to learn from them. The current crisis in Greece is an ideal opportunity to learn where power is exercised in the union, and how tightly the single currency really binds national governments. Of course, we will learn more about the contours of the constraints if the Syriza government is more willing to push against them.

The particular case I’m thinking of right now is our conventional language about central banks “printing money,” and the related concept of monetary sovereignty. In periods of smooth reproduction we can think of this as a convenient metaphor without worrying too much about what exactly it is a metaphor for. But if Greece refuses to accept the ECB’s conditions for continued support for its banks, the question will become unavoidable.

We talk about governments “printing money” as if “money” always meant physical currency and banks were just safe-deposit boxes. Even Post Keynesian and MMT people use this language, even as they insist in the next breath that money is endogenously created by the banking system. But to understand concretely what power the ECB does or does not have over Greece, we need to take the idea of credit money seriously.

Money in modern economies means bank liabilities. [1] Bank liabilities constitute money insofar as a claim against one bank can be freely transferred to other units, and freely converted to a claim against another bank; and insofar as final settlement of claims between nonfinancial units normally takes the form of a transfer of bank liabilities.

Money is created by loan transactions, which create two pairs of balance-sheet entries — an asset for the borrowing unit and a liability for the bank (the deposit) and a liability for the borrowing unit and an asset for the bank (the loan). Money is destroyed by loan repayment, and also when the liabilities of a bank cease to be usable to settle claims between third parties. In familiar modern settings this lack of acceptability will be simultaneous with the bank being closed down by a regulatory authority, but historically things are not always so black and white. In the 19th century, it was common for a bank that ran out of reserves to suspend convertibility but continue operating. Deposits in such banks could not be withdrawn in the form of gold or equivalent, but could still be used to make payments, albeit not to all counterparties, and usually at a discount to other means of payment. [2]

To say, therefore, that a government controls the money supply or “prints money” is simply to say that it can control the pace of credit creation by banks, and that it can can maintain the acceptability of bank liabilities by third parties — which in practice means, by other banks. It follows that our conventional division of central bank functions between monetary policy proper (or setting the money supply), on the one hand, and bank regulation, operation of the interbank payments system, and lender of last resort operations, on the other, is meaningless. There is no distinct function of monetary policy, of setting the interest rate, or the money supply. “Monetary policy” simply describes one of the objectives toward which the central bank’s supervisory and lender-of-last-resort functions can be exercised. It appears as a distinct function only when, over an extended period, the central bank is able to achieve its goals for macroeconomic aggregates using only a narrow subset of the regulatory tools available to it.

In short: The ability to conduct monetary policy means the ability to set the pace of new bank lending, ex ante, and to guarantee the transferability of the balances thus created, ex post.

It follows that no country with a private banking system has full monetary sovereignty. The central bank will never be able to exactly control the pace of private credit creation, and to do so even approximately except by committing regulatory tools which then are unavailable to meet other objectives. In particular, it is impossible to shift the overall yield structure without affecting yield spreads between different assets, and it is impossible to change the overall pace of credit creation without also influencing the disposition of credit between different borrowers. In a system of credit money, full monetary sovereignty requires the monetary authority to act as the monopoly lender, with banks in effect serving as just its retail outlets. [3]

Now, some capitalist economies actually approximate to this pretty closely. For example the postwar Japanese system of “window guidance” or similar systems in other Asian developmental states. [4] Something along the same lines is possible with binding reserve requirements, where the central bank has tight operational control over lending volumes. (But this requires strict limits on all kinds of credit transactions, or else financial innovation will soon bypass the requirements.) Short of this, central banks have only indirect, limited influence over the pace of money and credit creation. Such control as they do have is necessarily exercised through specific regulatory authority, and involves choices about the direction as well as the volume of lending.  And it is further limited by the existence of quasi-bank substitutes that allow payments to be made outside of the formal banking system, and by capital mobility, which allows loans to be incurred, and payments made, from foreign banks.

On the other hand, a country that does not have its “own” currency still will have some tools to influence the pace of credit creation and to guarantee interbank payments, as long as there is some set of banks over which it has regulatory authority.

My conclusion is that the question of whether a country does or does not have its own currency is not a binary one, as it’s almost always imagined to be. Wealth takes to form of a variety of assets, whose prospective exchange value can be more or less reliably stated in terms of some standard unit; transactions can be settled with a variety of balance-sheet changes, which interchange more or closely to par, and which are more or less responsive to the decisions of various authorities.  We all know that there are some payments you can make using physical currency but not a credit or debit card, and other payments you can make with the card but not with currency. And we all know that you cannot always convert $1,000 in a bank account to exactly $1,000 in cash, or to a payment of exactly $1,000 – the various fees within the payment system means that one unit of “money” is not actually always worth one unit. [5]

In normal times, the various forms of payment used within one country are sufficiently close substitutes with each other, exchange sufficiently close to par, and are sufficiently responsive to the national monetary authority, relative to forms of payment used elsewhere, that, for most purposes, we can safely speak of a single imaginary asset “money.” But in the  Greek case, it seems to me, this fiction obscures essential features of the situation. In particular, it makes the question of being “in” or “out of” the euro look like a hard binary, when, in my opinion, there are many intermediate cases and no need for a sharp transiton between them.

[1] Lance Taylor, for instance, flatly defines money as bank liabilities in his superb discussion of the history of monetary thought in Reconstructing Macroeconomics.

[2] Friedman and Schwartz discuss this in their Monetary History of the United States, and suggest that if banks had been able to suspend withdrawals when their reserves ran out, rather than closed down by the authorities, that would have been an effective buffer against against the deflationary forces of the Depression.

[3] Woodford’s Interest and Prices explicitly assumes this.

[4] Window guidance is described by Richard Werner in Masters of the Yen. The importance of centralized credit allocation in Korea is discussed by the late Alice Amsden in Asia’s Next Giant. 

[5] Goodhart’s fascinating but idiosyncratic History of Central Banking ends with a proposal for money that does not seek to maintain a constant unit value – in effect, using something like mutual fund shares for payment.