Mark Blyth on the Creditor’s Paradise

There’s a lot to like in this talk by Mark Blyth, reposted in Jacobin. I will certainly be quoting him in the future on the euro system as a “creditor’s paradise.” But I can’t help noting that the piece repeats exactly the two bits of conventional wisdom that I’ve been criticizing in my recent posts here on Europe. [1]

First, the uncritical adoption of the orthodox view that if Greece defaults on its debts to the euro system, it will have to leave the single currency.  Admittedly it’s just a line in passing. But I really wish that Blyth would not write “default or ‘Grexit’,” as if they were synonyms. Given that the assumption that they have to go together is one of the strongest weapons on the side of orthodoxy, opponents of austerity should at least pause a moment and ask if they necessarily do.

Second, this:

Austerity as economic policy simply doesn’t work. … European reforms … simply ask everyone to become “more competitive” — and who could be against that? Until one remembers that being competitive against each other’s main trading partners in the same currency union generates a “moving average” problem of continental proportions. 

It is statistically absurd to all become more competitive. It’s like everyone trying to be above average. It sounds like a good idea until we think about the intelligence of the children in a classroom. By definition, someone has to be the “not bright” one, even in a class of geniuses.

In comments to my last post, a couple people doubted if critics of austerity really say it’s impossible for all the countries in the euro to become more competitive. If you were one of the doubters, here you go: Mark Blyth says exactly that. Notice the slippage in the referent of “everyone,” from all countries in the euro system, to all countries in the world. Contra Blyth, since the eurozone is not a closed trading system, it is not inherently absurd to suggest that everyone in it can become more competitive. If competitiveness is measured by the trade balance, it’s not only not absurd, it’s an accomplished fact.

Obviously — but I guess it isn’t obvious — I don’t personally think that the shift toward trade surpluses throughout the eurozone represents any kind of improvement in the human condition. But it does directly falsify the claim Blyth is making here. And this is a problem if the stance we are trying to criticize austerity from is a neutral technocratic one, in which disagreements are about means rather than ends.

Austerity is part of the program of reinforcing and extending the logic of the market in political and social life. Personally I find that program repugnant. But on its own terms, austerity can work just fine.

[1] One of my posts was also cross-posted at Jacobin. Everybody should read Jacobin.

“Disgorge the Cash” at the Roosevelt Institute

I have a working paper up at the Roosevelt Institute, as part of their new Financialization Project. Much of the content will be familiar to readers of this blog, but I think the argument is clearer and, I hope, more convincing in the paper.

The paper has gotten a nice writeup at the Washington Post, and at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

UPDATE. And in the International Business Times.

“The Idea Was to Create a Modern Gold Standard”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What If the ECB Pulls the Trigger?

Over the past week, it’s become clear that the real leverage the European authorities have over Greece is via the banking system. What does Greek need continued loans for? Not to pay for public expenditures, thanks to the primary surplus. Not to pay for imports — Greece has a (small) trade surplus. Not to service current debt, if it defaults. What does need to be financed, is the flow of deposits out of Greek banks to the rest of Europe.

So what happens if that financing is cut off, as the ECB is threatening? The usual answer is collapse of the Greek banking system, followed immediately by a forced exit of Greece.  But the other night I was talking to some friends about the situation, and we found ourselves wondering: What concretely are the mechanics of this? What is the exact chain of events from an end to ECB financing to Greek exit from the euro? I don’t know the answer to this, but the more I think about it, the less confident I am in the conventional wisdom.

What concretely does it mean that the ECB is providing liquidity support to Greek banks? As far as I can tell, it is this. When a holder of a deposit in a Greek bank wants to make a payment elsewhere, either to purchase a good or asset outside Greece or to move the deposit elsewhere, the Greek bank must transfer an equal quantity of settlement assets to the bank receiving the deposits. These settlement assets are normally acquired on the fly, by issuing a new liability in the interbank market, but if other banks are unwilling to accept the liabilities of Geek banks, they can be borrowed directly from the ECB, against suitable collateral. This is the lending that the ECB is threatening to cut off.

What if the Greek banks can’t acquire settlement assets? Then other banks will not accept the deposits, and it will be impossible to use deposits in Greek banks to make payments. Depositors will find their accounts frozen and, in the normal course of events, the banks would be shut down by regulators.

But Greece still does have a central bank. My understanding is that much of the day to day business of central banking in Europe is carried out by the national central banks. In principle, even if Greek banks can’t acquire settlement assets by borrowing from the ECB, they can still borrow from the Greek central bank. This doesn’t help with payments to the rest of Europe, since reserve balances at the Greek central bank won’t be accepted elsewhere. But I don’t see why the Greek central bank can’t keep the payments system working within Greece itself. If the Greek central bank is willing to provide liquidity on the same terms as the ECB, what’s going to force the Greek banks to shut down? It’s not as though there’s any Europe-wide bank regulator that can do it.

In a sense, this is a kind of soft exit, since there will now be a Greek euro that is not freely convertible into a non-Greek euro. But I don’t see why it has to be catastrophic or irreversible. Transactions within Greece can continue as before. And for routine trade it might not make much difference either, since the majority of Greek imports come from outside the EU. Where it would make a difference is precisely that it would prevent Greek depositors from moving their funds out of the country. [1] In effect, by cutting Greece off from the European interbank payment system, the ECB will be imposing capital controls on Greece’s behalf. You could even say that, if the threat of cutting off liquidity support can trigger a run on Greek banks, actually doing so will ensure that there isn’t one.

Now maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe there is a good reason why the Greek central bank can’t maintain the payment system within Greece. But I also think there’s a larger point here. I’m thinking about the end of the gold standard in the 1930s, when breaking the link with gold was considered an unthinkable catastrophe. And yet the objective basis of the money system in gold turned out to be irrelevant. I think, in the same way, the current crisis may be revealing the reflexive, self-referential nature of money. On a certain level, the threat against Greece comes down to: “You must make your money payments, or we will deprive you of the means to make your money payments.”

The rule of the money system requires that real productive activity be organized around the need for money. This in turn requires that money not be too freely available, but also that it not be too scarce. Think of Aunt Agatha in Daniel Davies’ parable. Suppose her real goal is to run her nephew’s life — to boss him around, have him at her beck and call, to know that he won’t make any choices without asking if she approves. In that case she always has to be threatening to cut him off, but she can’t ever really do it. If he knows he’s getting money from her he won’t care what she thinks — but if he knows he isn’t, he won’t care either. He has to be perpetually unsure. And in keeping with Davies’ story, the only thing Jim actually needs the money for, is to continue servicing his debt to Aunt Agatha. The only real power she has is a superstitious horror at the idea of unpaid debts.

In this way I’ve tentatively convinced myself that all Syriza needs to do is hold firm. The only way they can lose is if they lose their nerve. Conversely, the worst outcome for the ECB and its allies would be if they force Greece into default — and everyone watches as the vengeful money-gods fail to appear.

UPDATE: It turns out that Daniel Davies is making a similar argument:

Capital controls are arguably what Greece needs right now – they have
balanced the primary budget, and they need to stop capital flight.
From the ECB’s point of view, I’d agree that the move is political, but
it also means that they are no longer financing capital flight.

a sensible negotiated solution here – with a lower primary surplus than
the program (in which context I think Varoufakis’ suggestion of 1.5% is
not nearly ambitious enough), a return to the structural programs (the
Port of Piraeus really does need to be taken out of the political
sphere), and an agreement to kick the headline debt amount into the far
future (in service of which aim I don’t think all the funny financial
engineering is helping).

The fall-back is a kind of soft exit,
with capital controls.
But the massive, massive advantage of capital
controls over drachmaisation is that they  preserve foreign exchange.
Greece imports fuel and food. With capital controls, it can be sure of
financing vital imports.

The fact that Davies is thinking the same way makes me a lot more confident about the argument in this post.

[1] Greek banks would also presumably be limited in their ability provide physical cash to depositors, but I don’t think this is important.

Minsky on the Non-Neutrality of Money

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to Minsky: A system of markets

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

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

Minsky continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Daniel Davies should appreciate this.

Review of Dumenil and Levy

The new issue of Rethinking Marxism has my review of The Crisis of Neoliberalism by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy. Since RM is paywalled — a topic for another day — I’m putting the full text here.

Incidentally, I do recommend the book, but I would suggest just reading chapters 3-6, where the core arguments are developed, and then skipping to the final three chapters, 23-25.  The intervening material is narrowly focused on the 2008-2009 financial crisis and is of less interest today.

* * *

Historical turning points aren’t usually visible until well after the fact. But the period of financial and economic turmoil that began in 2008 may be one of the rare exceptions. If capitalism historically has evolved through a series of distinct regimes — from competition to monopoly in the late 19th century, to a regulated capitalism after World War II and then to neoliberalism after the crises of the 1970s, then 2008 may mark the beginning of another sharp turn.

That, anyway, is the central claim of The Crisis of Neoliberalism, by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy (hereafter D&L). The book brings together a great deal of material, broadly grouped under two heads. First is an argument about the sociology of  capitalism, hinging on the relationship between capitalists in the strict sense and the managerial class. And second is an account of the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. A concluding survey of possibilities for the post-neoliberal world unites the two strands.

For D&L, the key to understanding the transformations of capitalism over the past hundred years lies in the sociology of the capitalist class. With the rise of the modern corporation at the turn of the 20th century, it became more problematic to follow Marx in treating the capitalist as simply the “personification of capital.” While the logic of capital is the same — it remains, in their preferred formulation, “value in a movement of self-expansion” — distinct groups of human beings now stand at different points in that process. In particular, “the emergence of a bourgeois class more or less separated from the enterprise” (13) created a new sociological gulf between the ownership of capital and the management of production.

Bridging this gulf was a new social actor, Finance. While banks and other financial institutions predate industrial capitalism, they now took on an important new role: representation of the capitalist class vis-a-vis corporate management, a function not needed when ownership and management were united in the same person. “Financial institutions,” D&L write, “are an instrument in the hands of the capitalist class as a whole in the domination they exercise over the entire economy.” (57) This gives finance a dual character, as on the one hand one industry among others providing a particular good (intermediation, liquidity, etc.) but also as, on the other hand, the enforcers or administrators who ensure that industry as a whole remains organized according to the logic of profit.

The stringency of this enforcement varies over time. For D&L, the pre-Depression and post-Volcker eras are two periods of “financial hegemony,” in which holders of financial claims actively intervened in the governance of nonfinancial firms, compelling mergers of industrial companies in the first period, and engineering leveraged buyouts and takeovers in the second. By contrast, the postwar period was one of relative autonomy for the managerial class, with the owners of capital accepting a relatively passive role. One way to think of it is that since capital is a process, its expression as an active subject can occur at different moments of that process. Under financial hegemony, the political and sociological projections of capital emanated mostly from the M moment, but in the mid-century more from C-C’. Concretely, this means firms pursued objectives like growth, technical efficiency, market share or technological advance rather than (or in addition to) profit maximization – this is the “soulful corporation” of Galbraith or Chandler. Unlike those writers, however, D&L see this corporation-as-polis, balancing the interests of its various stakeholders under the steady hand of technocratic management, as neither the result of a natural evolution nor a normative ideal; instead, it’s a specific political-economic configuration that existed under certain historical conditions. In particular, managerial capitalism was the result of both the crisis of the previous period of financial hegemony and, crucially, of the mobilization of the popular classes, which opened up space for the top managers to pursue a strategy of “compromise to the left” while continuing to pay the necessary tribute to “the big capitalist families.”

Those families — the owners of capital, in the form of financial assets — were willing to accept a relatively passive role as long as the tribute flowed. But the fall in the profit rate in the 1970s forced the owners to recohere as a class for themselves. Their most important project was, of course, the attack on labor, in which capital and management were united. But a second, less visible fight was the capitalists’ attack on the managers, with finance as their weapon. The wave of corporate takeovers, buyouts and restructurings of the 1980s was not just a normal competitive push for efficiencies, nor was it the work of a few freebooting pirates and swindlers. As theorized by people like Michael Jensen, it was a self-conscious project to reorient management’s goals from the survival and growth of the firm, to “shareholder value”. In this, it succeeded – first by bullying and bludgeoning recalcitrant managers, then by incorporating their top tier into the capitalist class. “During the 1980s the disciplinary aspect of the new relationship between the capitalist and managerial classes was dominant,” write D&L, but “after 2000, … managers had become a pillar of Finance.” (84) Today, the “financial facet of management tends to overwhelmingly dominate” and “a process of ‘hybridization’ or merger is under way.” (85)

These are not entirely new ideas. D&L cite Veblen, certainly one of the first to critically investigate the separation of management and control, and to observe that the “importance of securities in ownership of the means of production [gives] … the capitalist class a strong financial character.” But they make no mention of the important debates on these issues among Marxists in the 1970s, especially Fitch and Oppenheimer’s Socialist Revolution articles on “Who Rules the Corporations?” and David Kotz’s Bank Control of Large Corporations in the United States. Most glaringly, they fail to cite Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, whose Chapter 6 gives a strikingly similar account of the revolt of the rentiers, and which remains the best guide to relations between finance and nonfinancial businesses within a broad Marxist framework. While Henwood shares the same basic analysis as The Crisis of Neoliberalism, he backs it up with a wealth of concrete examples and careful attention to the language of the financiers and their apologists. D&L, by contrast, despite their welcome interest in the sociology of the capitalist class, never descend from a high level of abstraction. D&L would have advanced the conversation more if they had tried to build on the contributions of Fitch and Oppenheimer, Kotz, and Henwood, instead of reinventing them.

Still, it’s an immensely valuable book. Both mainstream economists and Marxists often imbue capitalist firms with a false homogeneity, as if the pursuit of profit was just a natural fact or imposed straightforwardly by competition. D&L offer an important corrective, that firms (and social life in general) are only kept subordinate to the self-expansion of value through active, ongoing efforts to enforce and universalize financial criteria.

The last third of the book is an account of the global financial crisis of the past five years. Much of the specifics will be familiar to readers of the business press, but the central argument makes sense only in light of the earlier chapters: that the ultimate source of the crisis was precisely the success of the reestablishment of financial hegemony. In particular, deregulation — especially the freeing of cross-border capital flows — weakened the tools states had previously used to keep the growth of financial claims in line with the productive capacity of the economy. (It’s an irony of history that the cult of central banking “maestros” reached its height at the point when they had lost most of their real power.) Meanwhile, increased payouts to shareholders and other financial claimants starved firms of funds for accumulation. A corollary of this second point is that the crisis was characterized by underaccumulation rather than by underconsumption. The underlying demand problem wasn’t insufficient funds flowing to workers for consumption — the rich consume plenty — but insufficient funds remaining within corporations for the purpose of investment. Just as investment suffered at the end of the postwar boom when the surplus available to capitalist firms was squeezed from below by rising wage claims, it suffered in the past decade when that surplus was squeezed from above by the claims of rentiers. So higher wages might only have made the crisis worse. This argument needs to be taken seriously, unpalatable though it may be. We need to avoid the theodicy of liberal economists, in which the conditions of social justice and the conditions of steady accumulation are always the same.

The Crisis of Neoliberalism is not the last word on the crisis, but it is one of the more convincing efforts to situate it in the longer-term trajectory of capitalism. The most likely outcome of the crisis, they suggest, is a shift in the locus of power back toward managers. Profit maximization will again be subordinated to other objectives. The maintenance of US hegemony will require a “reterritorialization” of production, which will inevitably weaken the position of fincance. There is an inherent conflict between a reassertion of state authority and the borderless class constituted by ownership of financial claims. But there is no such conflict between the interests of particular states, and the class constituted by authority within particular firms. “This is an important factor … strengthening of the comparative position of nonfinancial managers.”

Are we starting to see the dethroning of Finance, a return to the soulful corporation, and a retreat from the universalizing logic of profit? It’s too soon to tell. It’s interesting, though, to see Michael Jensen, the master theorist of the shareholder revolution, sounding a more soulful note. Shareholder value, he recently told The New Yorker, “is the score that shows up on the scoreboard. It’s not the objective… Your life can’t just be about you, or your life will be shit. You see that on Wall Street.” That  business serves a higher calling than Wall Street, is the first item in the managerialist catechism.  We might look at Occupy Wall Street and the growing movement against student debt in the same light: By singling out as the enemy those elites whose power takes directly financial form, they implicitly legitimate power more linked to control of the production process. Strange to think that a movement of anarchists could be heralding a return to power of corporate management. But history can be funny that way.

Liquidity Preference on the F Line

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

the Borro ad was the next one to the left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boulding on Interest

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

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

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

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

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

Boulding continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varieties of Keynesianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Do Interest Rates Come From?

What determines the level of interest rates? It seems like a simple question, but I don’t think economics — orthodox or heterodox — has an adequate answer.

One problem is that there are many different interest rates. So we have two questions: What determines the overall level of interest rates, and what determines the spreads between different interest rates? The latter in turn we can divide into the question of differences in rates between otherwise similar loans of different lengths (term spreads), differences in rates between otherwise similar loans denominated in different currencies, and all the remaining differences, grouped together under the possibly misleading name risk spreads.

In any case, economic theory offers various answers:

1. The orthodox answer, going back to the 18th century, is that the interest rate is a price that equates the desire to save with the desire to borrow. As reformulated in the later 19th century by Bohm-Bawerk, Cassel, etc., that means: The interest rate is the price of goods today relative to goods tomorrow. The interest rate is the price that balances the gains from deferring consumption with our willingness to do so. People generally prefer consumption today to consumption in the future, and because it will be possible to produce more in the future than today, so the interest rate is (normally) positive. This is a theory of all transactions that exchange spending in one period for spending (or income) in another, not specifically a theory of the interest rate on loans.

The Wicksell variant of this, which is today’s central-bank orthodoxy, is that there is a well-defined natural interest rate in this sense but that for some reason markets get this one price wrong.

2. An equally old idea is that the interest rate is the price of money. In Hume’s writings on money and interest, for instance, he vacillates between this and the previous story. It’s not a popular view in the economics profession but it’s well-represented in the business world and among populists and monetary reformers,. In this view, money is just another input to the production process, and the interest rate is its price. A creditor, in this view, isn’t someone deferring consumption to the future, but someone who — like a landlord — receives an income thanks to control of a necessary component of the production process. A business, let’s say, that needs to maintain a certain amount of working capital in the form of money or similarly liquid assets, may need to finance it with a loan on which it pays interest. Interest payments are in effect the rental price of money, set by supply and demand like anything else. As I say, this has never been a respectable view in economic theory, but you can find it in more empirical work, like this paper by Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, where credit is described in exactly these terms as an input to current production.

3. Keynes’ liquidity-preference story in The General Theory. Here again the interest rate is the price of money. But now instead of asking how much the marginal business borrower will pay for the use of money, we ask how much the marginal wealth owner needs to be compensated to give up the liquidity of money for a less-liquid bond. The other side of the market is given by a fixed stock of bonds; evidently we are dealing with a short enough period that the flow of new borrowing can be ignored, and the bond stock treated as exogenously fixed. With no new borrowing, the link from the interest rate is liked to the real economy because it is used to discount the expected flow of profits from new investment — not by business owners themselves, but by the stock market. It’s an oddly convoluted story.

4. A more general liquidity-preference story. Jorg Bibow, in a couple of his essential articles on the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference, suggests that many of the odd features of the theory are due to Keynes’ decision to drop the sophisticated analysis of the financial system from The Treatise on Money and replace it with an assumption of an exogenously fixed money stock. (It’s striking that banks play no role in in the General Theory.) But I’m not sure how much simpler this “simplification” actually makes the story, or whether it is even logically coherent; and in any case it’s clearly inapplicable to our modern world of bank-created credit money. In principle, it should be possible to tell a more general version of the liquidity preference story, where, instead of wealth holders balancing the income from holding a bond against the liquidity from holding “money,” you have banks balancing net income against incremental illiquidity from simultaneously extending a loan and creating a deposit. I’m afraid to say I haven’t read the Treatise, so I don’t know how much you can find that story there. In any case it doesn’t seem to have been developed systematically in later theories of endogenous money, which typically assume that the supply of credit is infinitely elastic except insofar as it’s limited by regulation.

5. The interest rate is set by the central bank. This is the orthodox story when we turn to the macro textbook. It’s also the story in most heterodox writers. From Wicksell onward, the whole discussion about interest rates in a macroeconomic context is about how the central bank can keep the interest rate at the level that keeps current expenditure at the appropriate level, and what happens if it fails to do so. It is sometimes suggested that the optimal or “natural” interest rate chosen by the central bank should be the the Walrasian intertemporal exchange rate — explicitly by Hayek, Friedman and sometimes by New Keynesians like Michael Woodford, and more cautiously by Wicksell. But the question of how the central bank sets the interest rate tends to drop out of view. Formally, Woodford has the central bank set the interest rate by giving it a monopoly on lending and borrowing. This hardly describes real economies, of course, but Woodford insists that it doesn’t matter since central banks could control the interest rate by standing ready to lend or borrow unlimited amounts at thresholds just above and below their target. The quite different procedures followed by real central banks are irrelevant. [1]

A variation of this (call it 5a) is where reserve requirements bind and the central bank sets the total quantity of bank credit or money. (In a world of bind reserve requirements, these will be equivalent.) In this case, the long rate is set by the demand for credit, given the policy-determined quantity. The interbank rate is then presumably bid up to the minimum spread banks are willing to lend at. In this setting causality runs from long rates to short rates, and short rates don’t really matter.

6. The interest rate is set by convention. This is Keynes’ other theory of the interest rate, also introduced in the General Theory but more fully developed in his 1937 article “Alternative Theories of the Rate of Interest.” The idea here is that changes in interest rates imply inverse changes in the price of outstanding bonds. So from the lenders’ point of view, the expected return on a loan includes not only the yield (as adjusted for default risk), but also the capital gain or loss that will result if interest rates change while the loan is still on their books. The longer the term of the loan, the larger these capital gains or losses will be. I’ve discussed this on the blog before and may come back to it in the future, but the essential point is that if people are very confident about the future value of long rates (or at least that they will not fall below some floor) then the current rate cannot get very far from that future expected rate, no matter what short rates are doing, because as the current long rate moves away from the expected long rate expected capital gains come to dominate the current yield. Take the extreme case of a perpetuity where market participants are sure that the rate will be 5% a year from now. Suppose the short rate is initially 5% also, and falls to 0. Then the rate on the perpetuity will fall to just under 4.8% and no lower, because at that rate the nearly 5% spread over the short rate just compensates market participants for the capital loss they expect when long rates return to their normal level. (Obviously, this is not consistent with rational expectations.) These kinds of self-stabilizing conventional expectations are the reason why, as Bibow puts it, “a liquidity trap … may arise at any level of interest.” A liquidity trap is an anti-bubble, if you like.

What do we think about these different stories?

I’m confident that the first story is wrong. There is no useful sense in which the interest rate on debt contracts — either as set by markets or as target by the central bank — is the price of goods today in terms of goods tomorrow. The attempt to understand interest rates in terms of the allocation across time of scarce means to alternative ends is a dead end. Some other intellectual baggage that should overboard with the “natural” rate of interest are the “real”rate of interest, the idea of consumption loans, and the intertemporal budget constraint.

But negative criticism of orthodoxy is too easy. The real work is to make a positive case for an alternative. I don’t see a satisfactory one here.

The second and third stories depend on the existence of “money” as a distinct asset with a measurable, exogenously fixed quantity. This might be a usable assumption in some historical contexts — or it might not — but it clearly does not describe modern financial systems. Woodford is right about that.

The fifth story is clearly right with respect short rates, or at least it was until recently. But it’s incomplete. As an empirical matter, it is true that interbank rates and similar short market rates closely follow the policy rate. The question is, why? The usual answer is that the central bank is the monopoly supplier of base money, and base money is used for settlement between banks. This may be so, but it doesn’t have to be. Plenty of financial systems have existed without central banks, and banks still managed to make payments to each other somehow. And where central banks exist, they don’t always have a monopoly on interbank settlement. During the 19th century, the primary tool of monetary policy at the Bank of England was the discount rate — the discount off of face value that the bank would pay for eligible securities (usually trade credit). But if the discount rate was too high — if the bank offered too little cash for securities — private banks would stop discounting securities at the central bank, and instead find some other bank that was willing to give them cash on more favorable terms. This was the problem of “making bank rate effective,” and it was a serious concern for 19th century central banks. If they tried to raise interest rates too high, they would “lose contact with the market” as banks simply went elsewhere for liquidity.

Obviously, this isn’t a problem today — when the Fed last raised policy rates in the mid-2000s, short market rates rose right along with it. Or more dramatically, Brazil’s central bank held nominal interest rates around 20 percent for nearly a decade, while inflation averaged around 8 percent. [2] In cases like these, the central bank evidently is able to keep short rates high by limiting the supply of reserves. But why in that case doesn’t the financial system develop private substitutes for reserves? Mervyn King blandly dismisses this question by saying that “it does not matter in principle whether the disequilibrium in the money market is an aggregate net shortage or a net surplus of funds—control of prices or quantities carries across irrespective of whether the central bank is the monopoly supplier or demander of its own liabilities.” [3] Clearly, the central bank cannot be both the monopoly supplier and the monopoly demander of reserves, at least not if it wants to have any effect on the rest of the world. The relevant question — to which King offers no answer — is why there are no private substitutes for central bank reserves. Is it simply a matter of legal restrictions on interbank settlements using any other asset? But then why has this one regulatory barrier remained impassable while banks have tunneled through so many others? Anyway, going forward the question may be moot if reserves remain abundant, as they will if the Fed does not shrink its balance sheet back to pre-crisis levels. In that case, new tools will be required to make the policy rate effective.

The sixth story is the one I’m most certain of. First, because it can be stated precisely in terms of asset market equilibrium. Second, because it is consistent with what we see historically. Long term interest rates are quite stable over very long periods. Third, it’s consistent with what market participants say: It’s easy to find bond market participants saying that some rate is “too low” and won’t continue, regardless of what the Fed might think. Last, but not least from my point of view, this view is clearly articulated by Keynes and by Post Keynesians like Bibow. But while I feel sure this is part of the story, it can’t be the whole story. First, because even if a conventional level of interest rates is self-stabilizing in the long run, there are clearly forces of supply and demand in credit markets that push long rates away from this level in the short run. This is even more true if what convention sets is less a level of interest rates, than a floor. And second, because Keynes also says clearly that conventions can change, and in particular that a central bank that holds short rates outside the range bond markets consider reasonable for long enough, will be able to change the definition of reasonable. So that brings us back to the question of how it is that central banks are able to set short rates.

I think the fundamental answer lies behind door number 4. I think there should be a way of describing interest rates as the price of liquidity, where liquidity refers to the capacity to honor one’s promises, and not just to some particular asset. In this sense, the scarce resource that interest is pricing is trust. And monetary policy then is at root indistinguishable from the lender of last resort function — both are aspects of the central bank’s role of standing in as guarantor for commitments within the financial system.  You can find elements of this view in the Keynesian literature, and in earlier writers going back to Thornton 200-plus years ago. But I haven’t seen it stated systematically in way that I find satisfactory.

UPDATE: For some reason I brought up the idea of the interest rate as the price of money without mentioning the classic statement of this view by Walter Bagehot. Bagehot uses the term “price of money” or “value of money” interchangeably with “discount rate” as synonyms for the interest rate. The discussion in chapter 5 of Lombard Street is worth quoting at length:

Many persons believe that the Bank of England has some peculiar power of fixing the value of money. They see that the Bank of England varies its minimum rate of discount from time to time, and that, more or less, all other banks follow its lead, and charge much as it charges; and they are puzzled why this should be. ‘Money,’ as economists teach, ‘is a commodity, and only a commodity;’ why then, it is asked, is its value fixed in so odd a way, and not the way in which the value of all other commodities is fixed? 

There is at bottom, however, no difficulty in the matter. The value of money is settled, like that of all other commodities, by supply and demand… A very considerable holder of an article may, for a time, vitally affect its value if he lay down the minimum price which he will take, and obstinately adhere to it. This is the way in which the value of money in Lombard Street is settled. The Bank of England used to be a predominant, and is still a most important, dealer in money. It lays down the least price at which alone it will dispose of its stock, and this, for the most part, enables other dealers to obtain that price, or something near it. … 

There is, therefore, no ground for believing, as is so common, that the value of money is settled by different causes than those which affect the value of other commodities, or that the Bank of England has any despotism in that matter. It has the power of a large holder of money, and no more. Even formerly, when its monetary powers were greater and its rivals weaker, it had no absolute control. It was simply a large corporate dealer, making bids and much influencing—though in no sense compelling—other dealers thereby. 

But though the value of money is not settled in an exceptional way, there is nevertheless a peculiarity about it, as there is about many articles. It is a commodity subject to great fluctuations of value, and those fluctuations are easily produced by a slight excess or a slight deficiency of quantity. Up to a certain point money is a necessity. If a merchant has acceptances to meet to-morrow, money he must and will find today at some price or other. And it is this urgent need of the whole body of merchants which runs up the value of money so wildly and to such a height in a great panic…. 

If money were all held by the owners of it, or by banks which did not pay an interest for it, the value of money might not fall so fast. … The possessors would be under no necessity to employ it all; they might employ part at a high rate rather than all at a low rate. But in Lombard Street money is very largely held by those who do pay an interest for it, and such persons must employ it all, or almost all, for they have much to pay out with one hand, and unless they receive much with the other they will be ruined. Such persons do not so much care what is the rate of interest at which they employ their money: they can reduce the interest they pay in proportion to that which they can make. The vital point to them is to employ it at some rate… 

The fluctuations in the value of money are therefore greater than those on the value of most other commodities. At times there is an excessive pressure to borrow it, and at times an excessive pressure to lend it, and so the price is forced up and down.

The relevant point in this context is the explicit statement that the interest, or discount, rate is set by the supply and demand for money. But there are a couple other noteworthy things. First, the concept of supply and demand is one of monopolistic competition, in which lenders are not price takers, but actively trade off markup against market share. And second, that the demand for money (i.e. credit) is highly inelastic because money is needed not only or mainly to purchase goods and services, but first and foremost to meet contractual money commitments.

[1] See Perry Mehrling’s useful review. Most of the text of Woodford’s textbook can be downloaded for free here. The introduction is nontechnical and is fascinating reading if you’re interested in this stuff.

[2] Which is sort of a problem for Noah Smith’s neo-Fisherite view.

[3] in the same speech, King observes that “During the 19th century, the Bank of England devoted considerable attention to making bank rate ‘effective’.” His implication is that central banks have always been able to control interest rates. But this is somewhat misleading, from my point of view: the Bank devoted so much attention to making its rate “effective” precisely because of the occasions when it failed to do so.