Saving and Borrowing: A Response to Klein

Matthew Klein has a characteristically thoughtful post disagreeing with my new paper on income distribution and debt. I think his post has some valid arguments, but also, from my point of view, some misunderstandings. In any case, this is the conversation we should be having.

I want to respond on the specific points Klein raises. But first, in this post, I want to clarify some background conceptual issues. In particular, I want to explain why I think it’s unhelpful to think about the issues of debt and demand in terms of saving.

Klein talks a great deal about saving in his post. Like most people writing on these issues, he treats the concepts of rising debt-income ratios, higher borrowing and lower saving as if they were interchangeable. In common parlance, the question “why have households borrowed more?” is equivalent to “why have households saved less?” And either way, the spending that raises debt and reduces saving, is also understood to contribute to aggregate demand.

This conception is laid out in Figure 1 below. These are accounting rather than causal relationships. A minus sign in the link means the relationship is negative.

 

We start with households’ decision to consume more or less out of their income. Implicitly, all household outlays are for consumption, or at least, this is the only flow of household spending that varies significantly. An additional dollar of household consumption spending means an additional dollar of demand for goods and services; it also means a dollar less of savings. A dollar less of savings equals a dollar more of borrowing. More borrowing obviously means higher debt, or — equivalently in this view — a higher debt-GDP ratio.

There’s nothing particularly orthodox or heterodox about this way of looking at things. You can hear the claim that a rise in the household debt-income ratio contributes more or less one for one to aggregate demand as easily from Paul Krugman as from Steve Keen. Similarly, the idea that a decline in savings rates is equivalent to an increase in borrowing is used by Marxists as well as by mainstream economists, not to mention eclectic business journalists like Klein. Of course no one actually says “we assume that household assets are fixed or nonexistent.” But implicitly that’s what you’re doing when you treat the question of what has happened to household borrowing as if it were the equivalent of what has happened to household saving.

There is nothing wrong, in principle, with thinking in terms of the logic of Figure 1, or constructing models on that basis. Social science is impossible without abstraction. It’s often useful, even necessary, to think through the implications of a small subset of the relationships between economic variables, while ignoring the rest. But when we turn to  the concrete historical changes in macroeconomic quantities like household debt and aggregate demand in the US, the ceteris paribus condition is no longer available. We can’t reason in terms of the hypothetical case where all else was equal. We have to take into account all the factors that actually did contribute to those changes.

This is one of the main points of the debt-inequality paper, and of my work with Arjun Jayadev on household debt. In reality, much of the historical variation in debt-income ratios and related variables cannot be explained in terms of the factors in Figure 1. You need something more like Figure 2.

Figure 2 shows a broader set of factors that we need to include in a historical account of household sector balances. I should emphasize, again, that this is not about cause and effect. The links shown in the diagram are accounting relationships. You cannot explain the outcomes at the bottom without the factors shown here. [1] I realize it looks like a lot of detail. But this is not complexity for complexity’s sake. All the links shown in Figure 2 are quantitatively important.

The dark black links are the same as in the previous diagram. It is still true that higher household consumption spending reduces saving and raises aggregate demand, and contributes to lower saving and higher borrowing, which in turn contributes to lower net wealth and an increase in the debt ratio. Note, though, that I’ve separated saving from balance sheet improvement. The economic saving used in the national accounts is quite different from the financial saving that results in changes in the household balance sheet.

In addition to the factors the debt-demand story of Figure 1 focuses on, we also have to consider: various actual and imputed payment flows that the national accounts attribute to the household sector, but which do not involve any money payments to or fro households (blue); the asset side of household balance sheets (gray); factors other than current spending that contribute to changes in debt-income ratios (red); and change in value of existing assets (cyan).

The blue factors are discussed in Section 5 of the debt-distribution paper. There is a much fuller discussion in a superb paper by Barry Cynamon and Steve Fazzari, which should be read by anyone who uses macroeconomic data on household income and consumption. Saving, remember, is defined as the difference between income and consumption. But as Cynamon and Fazzari point out, on the order of a quarter of both household income and consumption spending in the national accounts is accounted for by items that involve no actual money income or payments for households, and thus cannot affect household balance sheets.

These transactions include, first, payments by third parties for services used by households, mainly employer-paid premiums for health insurance and payments to healthcare providers by Medicaid and Medicare. These payments are counted as both income and consumption spending for households, exactly as if Medicare were a cash transfer program that recipients then chose to use to purchase healthcare. If we are interested in changes in household balance sheets, we must exclude these payments, since they do not involve any actual outlays by households; but they still do contribute to aggregate demand. Second, there are imputed purchases where no money really changes hands at all.  The most important of these are owners’ equivalent rent that homeowners are imputed to pay to themselves, and the imputed financial services that households are supposed to purchase (paid for with imputed interest income) when they hold bank deposits and similar assets paying less than the market interest rate. Like the third party payments, these imputed interest payments are counted as both income and expenditure for households. Owners’ equivalent rent is also added to household income, but net of mortgage interest, property taxes and maintenance costs. Finally, the national accounts treat the assets of pension and similar trust funds as if they were directly owned by households. This means that employer contributions and asset income for these funds are counted as household income (and therefore add to measured saving) while benefit payments are not.

These items make up a substantial part of household payments as recorded in the national accounts – Medicare, Medicaid and employer-paid health premiums together account for 14 percent of official household consumption; owners’ equivalent rent accounts for another 10 percent; and imputed financial services for 4 percent; while consolidating pension funds with households adds about 2 percent to household income (down from 5 percent in the 1980s). More importantly, the relative size of these components has changed substantially in the past generation, enough to substantially change the picture of household consumption and income.

Incidentally, Klein says I exclude all healthcare spending in my adjusted consumption series. This is a misunderstanding on his part. I exclude only third-party health care spending — healthcare spending by employers and the federal government. I’m not surprised he missed this point, given how counterintuitive it is that Medicare is counted as household consumption spending in the first place.

This is all shown in Figure 3 below (an improved version of the paper’s Figure 1):

The two dotted lines remove public and employer payments for healthcare, respectively, from household consumption. As you can see, the bulk of the reported increase in household consumption as a share of GDP is accounted for by healthcare spending by units other than households. The gray line then removes owners’ equivalent rent. The final, heavy black line removes imputed financial services, pension income net of benefits payments, and a few other, much smaller imputed items. What we are left with is monetary expenditure for consumption by households. The trend here is essentially flat since 1980; it is simply not the case that household consumption spending has increased as a share of GDP.

So Figure 3 is showing the contributions of the blue factors in Figure 2. Note that while these do not involve any monetary outlay by households and thus cannot affect household balance sheets or debt, they do all contribute to measured household saving.

The gray factors involve household assets. No one denies, in principle, that balance sheets have both an asset side and a liability side; but it’s striking how much this is ignored in practice, with net and gross measures used interchangeably. In the first place, we have to take into account residential investment. Purchase of new housing is considered investment, and does not reduce measured saving; but it does of course involve monetary outlay and affects household balance sheets just as consumption spending does. [2] We also have take into account net acquisition of financial assets. An increase in spending relative to income moves household balance sheets toward deficit; this may be accommodated by increased borrowing, but it can just as well be accommodated by lower net purchases of financial assets. In some cases, higher desired accumulation of financial asset can also be an autonomous factor requiring balance sheet adjustment. (This is probably more important for other sectors, especially state and local governments, than for households.) The fact that adjustment can take place on the asset as well as the liability side is another reason there is no necessary connection between saving and debt growth.

Net accumulation of financial assets affects household borrowing, but not saving or aggregate demand. Residential investment also does not reduce measured saving, but it does increase aggregate demand as well as borrowing. The red line in Figure 3 adds residential investment by households to adjusted consumption spending. Now we can see that household spending on goods and services did indeed increase during the housing bubble period – conventional wisdom is right on that point. But this was a  spike of limited duration, not the secular increase that the standard consumption figures suggest.

Again, this is not just an issue in principle; historical variation in net acquisition of assets by the household sector is comparable to variation in borrowing. The decline in observed savings rates in the 1980s, in particular, was much more reflected in slower acquisition of assets than faster growth of debt. And the sharp fall in saving immediately prior to the great recession in part reflects the decline in residential investment, which peaked in 2005 and fell rapidly thereafter.

The cyan item is capital gains, the other factor, along with net accumulation, in growth of assets and net wealth. For the debt-demand story this is not important. But in other contexts it is. As I pointed out in my Crooked Timber post on Piketty, the growth in capital relative to GDP in the US is entirely explained by capital gains on existing assets, not by the accumulation dynamics described by his formula “r > g”.

Finally, the red items in Figure 2 are factors other than current spending and income that affect the debt-income ratio. Arjun Jayadev and I call this set of factors “Fisher dynamics,” after Irving Fisher’s discussion of them in his famous paper on the Great Depression. Interest payments reduce measured saving and shift balance sheets toward deficit, just like consumption; but they don’t contribute to aggregate demand. Defaults or charge-offs reduce the outstanding stock of debt, without affecting demand or measured savings. Like capital gains, they are a change in a stock without any corresponding flow. [3] Finally, the debt-income ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator; it can be raised just as well by slower nominal income growth as by higher borrowing.

These factors are the subject of two papers you can find here and here. The bottom line is that a large part of historical changes in debt ratios — including the entire long-term increase since 1980 — are the result of the items shown in red here.

So what’s the point of all this?

First, borrowing is not the opposite of saving. Not even roughly. Matthew Klein, like most people, immediately translates rising debt into declining saving. The first half of his post is all about that. But saving and debt are very different things. True, increased consumption spending does reduce saving and increase debt, all else equal. But saving also depends on third party spending and imputed spending and income that has no effect on household balance sheets. While debt growth depends, in addition to saving, on residential investment, net acquisition of financial assets, and the rate of chargeoffs; if we are talking about the debt-income ratio, as we usually are, then it also depends on nominal income growth. And these differences matter, historically. If you are interested in debt and household expenditure, you have to look at debt and expenditure. Not saving.

Second, when we do look at expenditure by households, there is no long-term increase in consumption. Consumption spending is flat since 1980. Housing investment – which does involve outlays by households and may require debt financing – does increase in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before falling back. Yes, this investment was associated with a big rise in borrowing, and yes, this borrowing did come significantly lower in the income distribution that borrowing in most periods. (Though still almost all in the upper half.) There was a debt-financed housing bubble. But we need to be careful to distinguish this episode from the longer-term rise in household debt, which has different roots.

 

[1] Think of it this way: If I ask why the return on an investment was 20 percent, there is no end to causal factors you can bring in, from favorable macroeconomic conditions to a sound business plan to your investing savvy or inside knowledge. But in accounting terms, the return is always explained by the income and the capital gains over the period. If you know both those components, you know the return; if you don’t, you don’t. The relationships in the figure are the second kind of explanation.

[2] Improvement of existing housing is also counted as investment, as are brokers’ commissions and other ownership transfer costs. This kind of spending will absorb some part of the flow of mortgage financing to the household sector — including the cash-out refinancing of the bubble period — but I haven’t seen an estimate of how much.

[3] There’s a strand of heterodox macro called “stock-flow consistent modeling.” Insofar as this simply means macroeconomics that takes aggregate accounting relationships seriously, I’m very much in favor of it. Social accounting matrices (SAMs) are an important and underused tool. But it’s important not to take the name too literally — economic reality is not stock-flow consistent!

 

Two Papers in Progress

There are two new papers on the articles page on this site. Both are work in progress – they haven’t been submitted anywhere yet.

 

[I’ve taken the debt-distribution paper down. It’s being revised.]

The Evolution of State-Local Balance Sheets in the US, 1953-2013

Slides

The first paper, which I presented in January in Chicago, is a critical assessment of the idea of a close link between income distribution and household debt. The idea is that rising debt is the result of rising inequality as lower-income households borrowed to maintain rising consumption standards in the face of stagnant incomes; this debt-financed consumption was critical to supporting aggregate demand in the period before 2008. This story is often associated with Ragnuram Rajan and Mian and Sufi but is also widely embraced on the left; it’s become almost conventional wisdom among Post Keynesian and Marxist economists. In my paper, I suggest some reasons for skepticism. First, there is not necessarily a close link between rising aggregate debt ratios and higher borrowing, and even less with higher consumption. Debt ratios depend on nominal income growth and interest payments as well as new borrowing, and debt mainly finances asset ownership, not current consumption. Second, aggregate consumption spending has not, contrary to common perceptions, risen as a share of GDP; it’s essentially flat since 1980. The apparent rise in the consumption share is entirely due to the combination of higher imputed noncash expenditure, such as owners’ equivalent rent; and third party health care spending (mostly Medicare). Both of these expenditure flows are  treated as household consumption in the national accounts. But neither involves cash outlays by households, so they cannot affect household balance sheets. Third, household debt is concentrated near the top of the income distribution, not the bottom. Debt-income ratios peak between the 85th and 90th percentiles, with very low ratios in the lower half of the distribution. Most household debt is owed by the top 20 percent by income. Finally, most studies of consumption inequality find that it has risen hand-in-hand with income inequality; it appears that stagnant incomes for most households have simply meant stagnant living standards. To the extent demand has been sustained by “excess” consumption, it was more likely by the top 5 percent.

The paper as written is too polemical. I need to make the tone more neutral, tentative, exploratory. But I think the points here are important and have not been sufficiently grappled with by almost anyone claiming a strong link between debt and distribution.

The second paper is on state and local debt – I’ve blogged a bit about it here in the past few months. The paper uses budget and balance sheet data from the census of governments to make two main points. First, rising state and local government debt does not imply state and local government budget deficits. higher debt does not imply higher deficits: Debt ratios can also rise either because nominal income growth slows, or because governments are accumulating assets more rapidly. For the state and local sector as a whole, both these latter factors explain more of the rise in debt ratios than does the fiscal balance. (For variation in debt ratios across state governments, nominal income growth is not important, but asset accumulation is.) Second, despite balanced budget requirements, state and local governments do show substantial variation in fiscal balances, with the sector as a whole showing deficits and surpluses up to almost one percent of GDP. But unlike the federal government, the state and local governments accommodate fiscal imbalances entirely by varying the pace of asset accumulation. Credit-market borrowing does not seem to play any role — either in the aggregate or in individual states — in bridging gaps between current expenditure and revenue.

I will try to blog some more about both these papers in the coming days. Needless to say, comments are very welcome.

How State Budgets Adjust

Here is a figure from the paper I’m presenting at the Eastern Economics Association meetings next weekend, on state and local government balance sheets:

State Government Finances 1999-2013. Source: Census of Governments, author’s analysis

This figure is just for aggregate state governments. It shows total borrowing (red), net acquisition of financial assets (blue), and the overall fiscal balance (black, with surplus as positive). It also shows the year over year change in the ratio of state debt to GDP (the gray dotted line). A number of interesting points come out here:

  • Despite statutory balanced-budget requirements, state budgets do show significant cyclical movement, from aggregate deficits of around 0.5 percent of GDP in recent recessions to surpluses as high as 0.5 percent of GDP in the expansions of the 1980s and 1990s (not shown here). Individual state governments show larger movements.
  • Shifts in state government fiscal balances are accommodated almost entirely on the asset side of the balance sheet. When state government revenue exceeds current expenditure, they buy financial assets; when revenue falls or expenditure rises, they sell financial assets (or buy less). State governments borrow in order to finance specific capital projects; unlike the federal government, they do not use credit-market borrowing to close gaps between current expenditure and revenue. (As I show in the paper, this is still true when we look at state governments cross-sectionally rather than aggregate data.) Between 2005 and 2009, state budgets moved from an aggregate surplus of around 0.3 percent of GDP to an aggregate deficit of around 0.5 percent. But borrowing over this period was completely flat – the entire shortfall was made up by reduced acquisition of financial assets.
  • The ratio of state government debt to GDP rose over the Great Recession period, by a total of about 2 points. While this is small compared with the increase in federal debt over the same period, it is certainly not trivial. Among other things, rising state debt ratios have been used as arguments for austerity and attacks on pubic-sector unions in a number of states. But as we see here, the entire rise in state debt-GDP ratios over this period is explained by slower growth. The ratio rose because of a smaller denominator, not a bigger numerator.
  • State debt ratios rose around the same time that state budgets moved into deficit. But there is no direct relationship between these two developments. Deficits were financed entirely through a reduction in assets. Simultaneously, the drastic slowdown in growth mean that even though state governments significantly reduced their borrowing, in dollar terms, during the recession, the ratio of debt to income rose. It is true, of course, that both the deficits and the growth slowdown were the result of the recession. But the increase in state debt ratios would have been exactly the same if state budgets had not moved to deficit at all.
  • Since 2010 there has been a simultaneous fall in state government borrowing and acquisition of assets. When these two variables vary together (as they also do across governments in some periods) it suggests that there is some autonomous balance sheet adjustment going on that can’t be reduced to the net financial position changing to accommodate real flows. (The fact that offsetting financial positions cannot in general be netted out is one of the main planks of Bezemer’s accounting view of economics.)

The pattern is similar in the previous recession. Although there was some increase in borrowing as state governments moved into deficit in 2002-2003, the large majority of the financing was on the asset side.

The larger significance of all this, and the data underlying it, is discussed more in the paper.  I will post that here next week. In the meantime, the two big takeaways are, first, that a lot of historical variation in debt ratios are driven by the effect of different nominal growth rates on the existing debt stock rather than by new borrowing; and that state governments don’t finance budget imbalances on the liability side of their balance sheets, but on the asset side.

(Earlier posts based on the same work here and here.)

At Jacobin: Socializing Finance

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

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Action Is on the Asset Side

Let’s talk about state and local government balance sheets.

Like most sectors of the US economy, state and local governments have seen a long-term increase in credit-market debt, from about 8 percent of GDP in 1950 to 19 percent of GDP in 2010, before falling back a bit to 17 percent in 2013. [1] While this is modest compared with federal-government and household debt, it is not trivial. Municipal bonds are important assets in financial markets. On the liability side, state and local debt operates as a political constraint at the state level and often plays a prominent role in public discussions of state budgets. Cuts to state services and public employee wages and pensions are often justified by the problem of public debt, municipal bond offerings are a focal point for local politics, and you don’t have to look far to find scare stories about an approaching state  or local debt crisis.

muni-debt
State and Local Government Debt, 1953-2013

 

My interest in state and local debt is an extension of my work (with Arjun Jayadev) on household debt and on sovereign debt. The question is: To what extent to historical changes in debt ratios reflect the balance between revenue and expenditure, and to what extent do they represent monetary-financial factors like inflation and interest rates? The exact balance of course depends on the sector and period; what we want to steer people away from is the habit of assuming that balance sheet changes are a straightforward record of real income and spending flows. [2]

The first thing to note about state and local debt is that, as the first figure shows, only about 40 percent of it is owed by state governments, with the majority is owed by the thousands of local governments of various types. Of the 10 percent of GDP or so owed by local governments, about half is owed by general-purpose governments (cities, counties and towns, in that order), and half by special purpose districts, with school districts accounting for about half of this (or a bit over 2 percent of GDP). This is interesting because, as the  figure below shows, the majority of state and local spending is at the state level.

muni-spending
State and Local Government Spending, 1953-2013

 

This imbalance goes back to at least the 1950s and 1960s, when local governments accounted for just over half of combined state and local spending, but more than three-quarters of combined state and local government debt. The explanation for the different distributions of spending and debt over different levels of government is simple: While state governments account for a larger share of total state and local spending, local governments account for about two-thirds of state and local capital spending. In the US, most infrastructure spending is the responsibility of local governments; direct service provision, which requires buildings and other fixed assets, is also disproportionately local. State government budgets, on the other hand, include a large proportion of transfer spending, which is negligible at the local level. Since debt is mainly used to finance capital spending, it’s no surprise that the distribution of debt looks more like the distribution of capital spending than like the distribution of spending in general.

This is an interesting fact in itself, but it also is a good illustration of an important larger point that should be obvious but is often ignored: The main use of debt is to finance assets. This simple point is for some reason almost always ignored by economists — both mainstream and heterodox economists regard the paradigmatic loan as a consumption loan. [3] Among other things, this leads to the mistaken idea that credit-market debt reflects — or at least is somehow related to — dissaving. When in fact there’s no connection.

For households and businesses, just as for state and local governments, the majority of debt finances investment. [4] This means that additions to the liability side of the balance sheet are normally simultaneous with additions to the asset side, with no effect on saving. If anything, since most assets are not financed entirely with debt, most transactions that increase debt require saving to increase also. (Homebuyers normally get a mortgage and make a downpayment.) Sovereign governments are the only economic units whose borrowing mainly finances gaps between current revenue and current expenditure. Again, this point is missed as much by heterodoxy as by the mainstream. Just flipping over to the next tab in my browser, I find a Marxist writing that “Debt has become so high that the personal savings rate in the United States actually became negative.” Which is a non sequitur.

The fact that most state-local debt is at the local level, while most spending is at the state level, is a reflection of the fact that debt is used to finance capital spending and not spending in general. But in and of itself this fact doesn’t tell us anything about how much changes in the state-local debt ratio reflect fiscal deficits or dissaving. It still could be true that state and local debt mainly reflects accumulated fiscal deficits.

As it turns out, though, it isn’t true at all. As the next figure shows, historically there is no relationship between changes in the state-local debt ratio and the state-local fiscal balance.

muni-debtyears

Here, the vertical axis shows the change in the ratio of aggregate state and local debt to GDP over the year. The horizontal axis shows the aggregate fiscal balance, with surpluses positive and deficits negative. So for instance, in 2009 the debt ratio increased by about one point, while state and local governments ran an aggregate budget deficit of close to 6 percent of GDP. [5] If changes in the debt ratio mainly reflected fiscal deficits, we would expect most of the points to fall along a line sloping down from upper left to lower right. They really don’t. Yes, 2009 has both very large deficits and a large rise in the debt ratio; but 2007 has the largest aggregate surpluses, and the debt ratio rose by almost as much. Eyeballing the figure you might see a weak negative relationship; but in this case your eyeballs are fooling you. In fact, the correlation is positive. A regression of the change in on debt on the fiscal balance yields a coefficient of positive 0.11, significant at the 5 percent level. As I’ll discuss later, I’m not sure a regression is a good tool for this job. But it is good enough to answer the question, “Is state and local debt mainly the result of past deficits?” with a definite No.

How can state and local fiscal balances vary without changing the sector’s debt? The key thing to recognize about state and local government balance sheets is that they also have large financial asset positions. In the aggregate, the sector’s net financial wealth is positive; unlike the federal government, state and local governments are net creditors, not net borrowers, in financial markets. As of 2013, the sector as a whole had total debt of 18 percent of GDP, and financial assets of 34 percent of GDP. As the following figures show, the long-term rise in state and local assets is much bigger than the rise in debt. Now it is true that most of these assets are held in pension funds, rather than directly. But a lot of them are not. In fact, for state governments — though not for the state-local sector as a whole — even nontrust assets exceed total debt. And whether or not you want to attribute pension assets to the sponsoring government, contributions to pension funds are important margin on which state budgets adjust.

State and Local Financial Assets, 1953-2013
State and Local Financial Assets, 1953-2013

 

Combined State-Local Financial Net Wealth

 

As the final figure shows, since the mid 1990s the aggregate financial assets of state-local government have exceeded aggregate debt in every single state. (Alaska, with government net financial wealth in excess of 100 percent of gross state product, is off the top of the chart, as is Wyoming.) This is a change from the 1950s and 1960s, when positive and negative net positions were about equally common. Nationally, the net credit position of state and local governments was equal to 16 percent of GDP in 2013, down from over 20 percent in 2007.

These large asset positions have a number of important implications:

1. To the extent that state and local governments run deficits in recessions, they are can be financed by reducing net acquisition of assets rather than by issuing more debt. And historically it seems that this is how they mostly are financed, especially in recent cycles. So if we are interested in whether state and local budgets behave procyclically or anticyclically, the degree of flexibility these governments have on the asset side is going to be a key factor.

2. Some large part of the long-term increase in state and local debt can be attributed to increased net acquisition of assets. This is especially notable in the 1980s, when there were simultaneous rises in both state debt and state financial assets. And changes in assets are strongly correlated across states. I.e. the states that increase their debt the most in a given year, tend to also be the ones that increased their assets the most — in some periods, higher debt is actually associated with a shift toward a net creditor position.

3. Low interest rates are not so clear an argument for increased infrastructure spending as people often assume, given that little of this spending currently happens at the federal level. Yes, an individual project may still look more cost-effective, but set against that is the pressure to increase trust fund contributions.

4. If state and local governments face financial constraints on current spending, these are at least as likely to reflect the terms on which they must prefund future expenses as the terms on which they can borrow.

The second point is the key one for my larger argument. Debt is part of a financial system that evolves independently of the system comprising “real” income and expenditure. They connect with each other, but they don’t correspond to each other. The case of state and local governments is somewhat different from households and the federal government — for the latter two, changes in interest rates play a major role in the evolution of debt ratios (along with changing default rates for households), while net acquisition of financial assets is not important for the federal government. But in all cases, purely financial factors play a major role in the evolution of debt ratios, along with changes in nominal income growth rates, which explain about a third of the variation in state-local debt ratios over time. And in all cases the divergence between the real and financial variables is especially visible in the 1980s.

With respect to state and local governments specifically, point 4 may be the most interesting one. Why do state and local governments hold so much bigger asset positions than they used to? What is the argument for prefunding pension benefits and similar future expenses, rather than meeting them on a pay-as-you-go basis? And how do those arguments change if we think the current regime of low interest rates is likely to persist indefinitely? It’s not obvious to me that either public employees or public employers are better off with funded pensions. Unlike in the private sector, public employees don’t need insurance against outliving their employer. It’s not obvious why governments should hold reserves against future pension payments but not against other equally large, equally predictable future payments. Nor is it obvious how much protection funded pensions offer against benefit cuts. And if interest rates remain lower than growth rates, prefunding pensions is actually more expensive than treating them as a current expense. I see lots of discussion about how state and local government funds should be managed, but does anyone ask whether they should hold these big funds at all?

In any case, given the very large asset positions of state and local governments, and the large cyclical and secular variation in net acquisition of assets, it’s clear that we shouldn’t imagine there’s any connection between sate and local debt and state and local fiscal positions. And we shouldn’t assume that the main financial problem faced by state and local governments is the terms they can borrow on. Most of the action is on the asset side.

 

[1] My critique of Piketty comes from the same place.

[2] All data in this post comes from the Census of Governments.

[3] This is true of economic theory obviously, but it’s also true of a lot of empirical work. When Gabriel Chodorow-Reich was hired at Harvard a few years ago, for instance, his job market paper was an empirical study of credit constraints on business borrowers that ignored investment and treated credit as an input into current production.

[4] For households, nearly 70 percent of debt is accounted for by mortgages, with auto loans and student debt accounting for another 10 percent each. (Admittedly, spending in the latter two categories is counted as consumption the national accounts; but functionally, cars and diplomas are assets.) Less than 10 percent of household debt looks like consumption loans.

[5] This is different from the number you will find in the national accounts. The main reasons for the difference are, first, that the Census works on a strict cashflow basis, and, second, that it consolidates pension and other trust funds with the sponsoring government. (See here.) This means that if a pension fund’s benefit payments exceed its income in a given year, that contributes to the deficit of the sponsoring government in the Census data, but not in the national accounts. This is what’s responsible for the very large deficits reported for 2009. If we are interested in credit-market debt the Census approach seems preferable, but there are some tricky questions for sure. All this will be discussed in more detail in the paper I’m writing on state and local balance sheets.

 

EDIT: Followup here.

Thinking about Monetary Policy

There’s been even more ink spilled lately than usual over the reasons monetary policy seems to have lost its mojo, and what it would take to get it back. Admittedly a lot of it is the same dueling pronouncements over whether helicopter money must always or can never work, but with the volume turned up a notch.

From my point of view, the conceptual issues here are simpler than you’d guess from the shouting. It comes down to two questions. First, how much control does the central bank have over the terms on which various economic units can adjust their balance sheets by selling assets or issuing new liabilities? And second, how many units would increase their spending on goods and services if they could more easily make the required balance sheet adjustments? Obviously, these questions are not straightforward. And they have to be answered jointly — to be effective, monetary policy has to reach not just the elasticity of the financial system in general, but its elasticity at the points where it meets financially-constrained units. But in principle, it’s simple enough.

The whole question, it seems to me, is made more confusing than it needs to be by two bad habits of economists. First is the tendency to think of the economy as a tightly articulated system, with just a few degrees of freedom. (This is one way of describing the focus on equilibrium.) To an economist, the economy is like a pool of water, where a disturbance to any part of it leads to a rapid adjustment of the whole system to a final state that can be described on the basis of a few parameters, without any information about specific components. What’s the alternative? The economy is like a pile of rocks: Disturbances may remain local rather than being transmitted to the whole system; less information about the structure can be derived from a few global parameters and more depends on the contingent states of the individual components; and stability is the result not of rapid adjustment, but rather of buffers that make adjustment unnecessary. Economists’ fixation on tightly-articulated systems tempts us to think about a single parameter (the interest rate, the money supply) changing uniformly through the economy (and often over all of time), and economic units fully adjusting their behavior in response.  It leads to a focus on the ultimate endpoint of an adjustment process rather than its next step. This yields stronger, and often paradoxical, conclusions than you would reach if you imagined beliefs and behavior changing locally and incrementally.

The second vice is economists’ incorrigible tendency to mistake the map for the territory. Like the first, this leads us to overvalue formal logical analysis at the expense of the concrete and historical. It also leads us to take an abstract representation that was adopted to clarify a particular question in a particular context, and treat it as an object in itself, as if it descried a self-contained world. Anyone who’s spent time around economists will have noticed their habit of regarding any label on a variable in an equation, as a physical object out there in the world. There’s nothing wrong — it should go without saying — with formal, logical analysis; as Marx said, abstraction is the social scientist’s equivalent of the microscope or telescope. The difference is that economists treat models as toy train sets rather than as tools. In the case of monetary policy, it works like this. The central bank adopts a policy tool which, in the institutional context at the time, gives them adequate control over the overall pace of credit expansion. Economists abstract from the — genuinely, but only for the moment  — irrelevant details of exactly how this instrument works, and postulate a direct connection with the economic outcome it is meant to control. To make communication with other economists easier, they often also construct a model where just exactly the intervention carried out by the central bank is what’s needed to restore the Walrasian optimum. This may be harmless enough as long as the policy framework persists. But the dogmatic insistence that “the central bank sets the money supply” or “the central bank sets the interest rate” is a source of endless confusion when the instrument is changing to something else.

So coming back to the concrete situation, how much can the Fed influence the expansion of bank balance sheets, and how much is expenditure on current production held down by the inelasticity of bank balance sheets? In the idealized financial world of circa 1950, the answer was simple. Commercial bank liabilities were deposits; deposits expanded through investment loans to business and households; and the total volume of deposits was strictly limited by the reserves made available by the Fed. The situation today is more complicated. But we have a better chance of making sense of it if we don’t get distracted by brain teasers about “M”.

 

I wrote this a month or two ago and didn’t post it for some reason. As a critical post, it really ought to have links to examples of the positions being criticized; but at this point it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

Potential Output: Why Should We Care?

Brian Romanchuk has a characteristically thoughtful post making “the case against growth and stimulus.” He’s responding to pieces by Larry Summers and John Cochrane arguing that macroeconomic policy should focus more on output growth.

Brian has two objections to this. First, environmental resource constraints are real. Not in an absolute sense — in principle a given throughput of physical inputs can be associated with an arbitrarily high GDP. But in our economies as currently organized there is a tight connection between rising GDP and increased use of fossil fuels. Even leaving aside climate change concerns, that means that faster growth may well be cut off by a spike in oil prices. [1] The second objection is that the link between higher growth and better labor-market outcomes may not be as tight as Summers suggests. In Brian’s view, things like public investment may not do much for incomes at the bottom because the

U.S. labour market is obviously segmented. The “high skill” segments are doing relatively well… Non-targeted “demand management” (such as infrastructure spending) is probably going to require creating jobs for college-educated workers. (You need an engineering degree to sign off on plans, for example.) It is a safe bet that the job market for college graduates would become extremely tight before the U-6 unemployment rate even begins to close on its historical lows. This would cause inflationary pressures…

This suggests that the focus should be on direct job-creation programs for people left out of the private market, rather than policies to raise aggregate demand.

Since I am (very slowly) making an argument that there is space for more expansionary policy, evidently I disagree.

Before saying why, I should add one other argument on Brian’s side. One reason to be against “growth” as a political project is that higher GDP does not increase people’s wellbeing. In my view this is clearly true for countries with per-capita GDP above $15,000-20,000 or so. This is a moderately respectable view these days, though obviously a minority one. For most economists the case for growth is still so obvious it doesn’t even need stating — having more stuff makes people happier.

I don’t believe that. But I still think it’s worth arguing that there is more space for expansionary policy to raise GDP. For three reasons:

First, I think Summers and Cochrane are right (!) about the importance of tight labor markets to raise wages, flatten the income distribution and increase the social power of working people more broadly. I don’t think you would have had the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s (even on such apparently non-economic ones as feminism and gay rights) if there hadn’t been a long period of very tight labor markets. [2] The threat of unemployment maintains the power of the boss in the workplace, and that reinforces all kinds of other hierarchies as well.

Corollary to this, I’m not convinced that the labor market is as segmented as Brian suggests. I think that in many cases, people with more credentials get to the front of the queue for the same jobs, as opposed to competing for a distinct pool of jobs. It seems to me the historical evidence is unambiguous that when overall unemployment falls there are disproportionate gains for those at the bottom.

Second, I think the idea of a hard ceiling to potential output is an important part of the logic of scarcity that hems in our political imagination in all kinds of harmful ways. Yes, infrastructure spending, and sometimes also increased social spending, even a basic income, can be presented as measures to boost demand and output. But you can also look at it the other way — these are good things on the merits, and the claim that they will boost output is just a way of defusing arguments that we “can’t afford” them. To me, the policy importance of saying we are far from any real supply constraint is not that higher output is desirable in itself (apart from its labor-market effects); it’s that it strengthens the argument for public spending that’s desirable for its own sake.

Third, on a more academic level, I think the idea of a fixed exogenous potential output is one of the most important patches (along with the “natural rate of interest”) covering up the disconnect between the “real exchange” world of economic theory and the actual monetary production economy we live in. Assuming that the long-run path of output is fixed by real supply-side factors is a way of quarantining monetary and demand factors to the short run. So the more space we open up for demand-side effects, the more space we have to analyze the economy as a system of money claims and payments and coordination problems rather than the efficient allocation of scare resources

 

[1] As it happens, this was the the topic of the first real post on this blog.

[2] The best discussion of this link I know of is in Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison’s Capitalism Since 1945. Jefferson Cowie’s more recent book on the ’70s makes a similar case for the US specifically.

 

(I wrote this post a month ago and for some reason never posted it.)

 

UPDATE: There’s another argument I meant to mention. When I look around I see a world full of energetic, talented, creative people forced to spend their days doing tedious shitwork and performing servility. I find it morally offensive to claim that a job at McDonald’s or in a nail salon or Amazon warehouse is the fullest use of anyone’s potential. When Keynes says that we will build “our New Jerusalem out of the labour which in our former vain folly we were keeping unused and unhappy in enforced idleness,” he doesn’t have to mean literal idleness. In a society in which aggregate expenditure was constantly pushing against supply constraints, millions of people today who spend the working hours of the day having the humanity slowly ground out of them would instead be developing their capacities as engineers, artists, electricians, doctors, scientists. To say that most of the jobs we expect people to do today make full use of their potential is a vile slander, even if we are only measuring potential by the narrow standards of GDP.

How Should We Count Debt Owed to the Fed?

How big is US government debt? If you google this question looking for a number, your first hit is likely to be a site like this, giving a figure (as of June 2016) around $19.5 trillion, or a bit over 100 percent of GDP. That’s the total public debt as reported by the US Treasury.

If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t take that number at face value. You probably know the preferred number is federal debt held by the public. As of June 2016, that’s $14 trillion, or a bit over 70 percent of GDP. That’s the number more likely to be used in academic papers or by official bodies. (Wikipedia seems to mix the two numbers at random.)

Debt held by the public is meant to exclude debt the federal government owes to itself.  For the US, that means subtracting the $2.8 trillion in debt held by the Social Security trust fund, the $1.7 trillion held by by federal employee retirement funds, and $1 trillion various other federal trust funds. It leaves in, however, the debt held by the Federal Reserve.

I wonder how many people, the sort of people who read this blog, know that. I wonder how many people know that today, one fifth of the federal debt “held by the public” is actually held by the Fed. I certainly didn’t, until recently.

Here’s a breakdown of federal debt by who owns it. Total public debt is the whole thing. Debt held by the public is the heavy black line. Debt held by the Fed is the blue area just below that line. (Source is various series from the Financial Accounts.)

debt-holdingsAs you can see, the Fed accounts for quite a bit of federal debt holdings — $2.5 trillion, 16 percent of GDP, or 19 percent of debt “held by the public”.

There’s some other interesting stuff in there. Most obviously, the dramatic fall in the share of debt held by households and nonfinancial businesses (the orange area), and rise of the foreign share (yellow). In the 1950s Abba Lerner could talk with some plausibility about the demand-boosting effects of federal interest payments to households; but it’s silly to suggest — as some modern Lernerians do — that higher rates might boost demand through this channel today. The declining share of the financial sector (red) is also interesting. I’ve suggested that this was a factor in rising liquidity premiums and financial fragility. If, as Zoltan Pozsar argues, we’re seeing a lasting shift from “market liquidity” to “base liquidity” this may include a permanently larger share of federal debt on bank balance sheets.

But what about the Fed share? Should it be counted in debt held by the public, or not? I can’t find the reference at the moment, but I believe there is no consistent rule on this between countries. (As I recall, the UK excludes it.) In any case, the phenomenon of large central bank holdings of government debt is not unique to the US. Here, from the OECD (p. 41), are the shares of government debt held by central banks in various countries:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.33.51 AM

If you want to say that debt held by the Fed definitely shouldn’t be counted, I won’t object. After all, any interest earnings on the debt are simply returned to the Treasury at the end of the year, so this debt literally represents payments the government is making to itself. But that’s not what I want to say. To be honest, I can see valid arguments on both sides — yes, the Fed is a part of government just as much as the Social Security Administration; but on the other hand, the Fed’s holdings were acquired in market purchases from the private sector, while the holdings of the various trust funds are nonmarketable securities that exist only as bookkeeping devices for future payments to beneficiaries. And if you think the Fed will reduce its holdings in the near future, then it makes sense to count them for any target you might have for holdings by the private sector. But of course, in that case how much you count them will depend on whether, when and how much you think the Fed will unwind its 2009-2013 balance sheet expansions. And this is my point: There is no true level of the federal debt. The “debt” is not an object out in the world. It is a way of talking about some set of the payment commitments by some set of economic units, sets whose boundaries are inherently arbitrary.

Again, debt “held by the public” does not include the notional debt in the Social Security Trust Fund, or in the various retirement funds for  federal employees. But what about the debt (currently about 5 percent of GDP) held by state and local governments in similar trust funds? Fundamentally, these represent commitments by the federal government to help with pension payments to retired state and local government employees. But this is the same commitment embodied in the Social Security Trust Fund. And on the other hand, the federal government has a vast number of payment commitments to state and local governments — transfers from the federal government make up more than a quarter of total state government revenue. Why count the commitments that happen to be recorded as debt holding in retirement funds as federal debt but not the rest of them?

For that matter, what about the future claims of Social Security recipients? They certainly represent payment commitments by the federal government. Lawrence Kotlikoff thinks there is no difference between the commitment to make future Social Security payments and the commitment to make payments on the debt, so we should add them up and say debt held by the public is over 200 percent of GDP. Other people want to add in public pensions of all kinds. Why not throw in Medicare, too? True, retirement benefits are not marketable, but checking your expected benefits at https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount is not much harder than checking your bank balance online. And for the MMT-inclined, don’t future Social Security benefits have as good a claim to be “net wealth” for the private sector as federal debt, maybe better?

One takeaway from all this is the point eloquently made by Merijn Knibbe, that one of the big problems in the economics profession today is the complete disconnect between theory and measurement. Most public discussions and economic models — and a lot of empirical work for that matter — treat “debt”  as an object that simply exists in the world. (It’s worth noting that the question of how exactly debt is defined, and who it is owed to, does get some attention in undergraduate econ textbooks, but none at all in graduate ones.) It seems to me that the large share of debt held by central banks is a case in point of how we have to make a conscious choice about which commitments we classify as “debt”, and recognize that the best place to draw the line is going to depend on the question we’re asking. We need to treat economic categories like debt not as primitives but as provisional shorthand, and we need to be constantly walking back and forth between our abstractions and the concrete phenomena they are trying to describe. You can’t, it seems to me, do useful scholarship on something like government debt, except on the basis of a deep engagement with the concrete practices and public debates that the term is part of.

More concretely: Whenever you take a functional finance line, someone is going to stand up and start demanding in a prosecutorial tone whether you really think government debt could rise to 10 times or 100 times GDP. How about 1,000 times? a million times? — until you say something noncommittal and move on to the next question (or mute them on Twitter). But of course the answer is, it depends. It depends, first, on the concrete institutional arrangements under which debt is held, which determine both economic impacts and financial constraints, if any.  (For example, whether the debt held by central banks should be counted as held by the public depends on when or if those positions will be unwound.) And it depends, second, on how we are counting debt.

Consider a trust fund holding federal debt. What the federal government has actually committed to is a stream of payments in the future which in turn will allow the fund to fulfill its own payment commitments. Converting that flow of future payments to a liability stock in the present depends on the discount rate we assign to them. But we can follow that same procedure for any future spending, whether or not it is officially recognized as someone’s asset. As Dean Baker likes to say, given that we don’t prefund education, the military, etc., pretty much all government spending could be called an unfunded liability for the federal government. How big a liability depends on the discount rate. If the discount rate is less than the nominal growth rate, then the present value of future spending grows without limit as we consider longer periods.

Here’s an exercise. Let’s go full Kotlikoff and call all future government spending a liability of taxpayers today. Say that federal spending is a constant 20 percent of GDP and nominal growth is 5 percent per year.  If we use the current 10-year Treasury rate of around 2 percent as our discount rate, then the present value of federal spending over the next 20 years works out to, let’s see, $10 quadrillion, or 55,000 percent of GDP. That’s $30 million per person. Whoa. Can I have a Time magazine cover story now? [No I cannot, because I am bad at math. See below.]

So yeah. 20 percent of debt “held by the public” is actually owed to the Fed. An interesting fact which perhaps you did not know.

 

UPDATE: As commenter Matt points out below, the math in the next-to-last paragraph is wrong. The calculation as given yields $110  trillion, a measly 600 percent of GDP. On the other hand, if we stretch it out to the next 30 years, we get nearly $200 trillion, which is 1,000 percent of GDP or more than $600,000 per person. I guess that will do.

Links for June 15, 2016

“Huge foreign demand for Treasuries”. Via Across the Curve, here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The global hunger for U.S. government debt is intensifying as investors seek better returns from the negative yields and record-low rates found in Japan and Europe. On Thursday, an auction of 30-year Treasury debt attracted some of the highest demand ever from overseas buyers…

Thirty-year bonds typically attract a specialized audience, largely pension funds and other investors trying to buy assets to match long-term liabilities. There are few viable alternatives for such buyers around the world. The frenzy of buying has sparked warnings about the potential of large losses if interest rates rise. …

One auction is hardly dispositive, but that huge foreign demand is worth keeping in mind when we think about the US fiscal and external deficits. A point that Ryan Cooper also makes well.

 

You get the debt, I get the cash. When I pointed out Minsky’s take on Trump on this blog a few months ago, there were some doubts. How exactly, did Trump extract equity from his businesses? Why didn’t the other investors sue?  In its fascinating long piece on Trump’s adventures in Atlantic City, the Times answers these questions in great detail. Rread the whole thing. But if you don’t, Trump himself has the tl;dr:

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”

 

 

Unto the tenth generation. If you are going to make an argument for Britain leaving the euro, it seems to me that Steve Keen has the right one. The fundamental issue is not the direct economic effects of membership in the EU (which are probably exaggerated in any case.) The issue is the political economy. First, the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, it effectively shifts power away from elected national governments, while Europe-wide democracy remains an empty shell. And second, European institutions are committed to an agenda of liberalization and austerity.

From the other side, we get this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.52.44 PM

I wish I knew where this sort of thing came from. Maybe Brexit would reduce employment in the UK, maybe it wouldn’t — this is not the sort of thing that can be asserted as an unambiguous matter of fact. Whether it’s EU membership or taxes or trade or the minimum wage, everyone claims their preferred policy will lead to higher living standards than the alternatives. Chris Bertram seems like a reasonable person, I doubt that, in general, he wishes suffering on the children of people who see policy questions differently than he does. But on this one, disagreement is impermissible. Why?

 

I like hanging out in coffeehouses. Over at Bloomberg, Noah Smith offers a typology of macroeconomics:

The first is what I call “coffee-house macro,” and it’s what you hear in a lot of casual discussions. It often revolves around the ideas of dead sages — Friedrich Hayek, Hyman Minsky and John Maynard Keynes.

The second is finance macro. This consists of private-sector economists and consultants who try to read the tea leaves on interest rates, unemployment, inflation and other indicators in order to predict the future of asset prices (usually bond prices). It mostly uses simple math, … always includes a hefty dose of personal guesswork.

The third is academic macro. This traditionally involves professors making toy models of the economy — since the early ’80s, these have almost exclusively been DSGE models … most people outside the discipline who take one look at these models immediately think they’re kind of a joke.

The fourth type I call Fed macro…

It’s fair to say a lot of us here in the coffeehouses were pleased by this piece. Obviously, you can quibble with the details of his list. But it gets a couple of big things right. First, the fundamental problem with academic macroeconomics is not that it’s a  study of the concrete phenomena of “the economy” that has gone wrong in some way, but a self-contained activity. The purpose of models isn’t to explain anything, it’s just to satisfy the aesthetic standards of the profession. As my friend Suresh put it once, the best way to think about economics is a kind of haiku with Euler equations. I think a lot of people on the left miss this — they think that you can criticize economic by pointing out some discrepancy with the real world. But that’s like saying that chess is flawed because in medieval Europe there were many more knights than bishops.

The other thing I think Noah’s piece gets right is there is no such thing as “economic orthodoxy.” There are various different orthodoxies — the orthodoxy of the academy, the orthodoxy of business and finance, the orthodoxy of policymakers — and they don’t agree with each other. On some important dimensions they hardly even make contact.

Merijn Knibbe also likes the Bloomberg piece. (He’s doing very good work exploring these same cleavages.) Noah follows up on his blog. Justin Wolfers rejects basically everything taught as macroeconomics in grad school. DeLong makes a distinction between good and bad academic economics which to me, frankly, looks like wishful thinking. Brian Romanchuk has some interesting thoughts on this conversation.

 

Are there really excess reserves? I’ve just been reading Zoltan Pozsar’s Global Money Notes for Credit Suisse. Man they are good. If you’re interested in money, finance, central banks, monetary policy, any of that, you should be reading this guy. Anyway, in this one he makes a provocative argument that I think is right:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no excess reserves – not one penny. Labelling the trillions of reserves created as a byproduct of QE as “excess” was appropriate only until the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) went live, but not after. …

Before the LCR, banks were required to hold reserves only against demand deposits issued in the U.S. … As banks went about their usual business of making loans and creating deposits, they routinely fell short of reserve requirements. To top up their reserve balances, banks with a shortfall of reserves … borrowed fed funds from banks with a surplus of reserves… These transactions comprised the fed funds market.

Under the LCR, banks are required to hold reserves (and more broadly, high-quality liquid assets) not only against overnight deposits, but all short-term liabilities that mature in less than 30 days, regardless of whether those liabilities were issued by a bank subsidiary, a broker-dealer subsidiary or a holding company onshore or offshore …

The idea is this: Under the new Basel III rules, which the US has adopted, banks are required to hold liquid assets equal to their total liabilities due in 30 days or less. This calculation is supposed to include liabilities of all kinds, across all the bank’s affiliates and subsidiaries, inside and outside the US. Most of this requirement must be satisfied with a short list of “Tier I” assets, which includes central bank reserves. So reserves that are excess with respect to the old (effectively moot) reserve requirements, will not be to the extent that they are held to satisfy these new rules.

Pozsar’s discussion of these issues is extremely informative. But his “no one penny” language may be a bit exaggerated. While the exact rules are still being finalized, it looks like current reserve holdings could still be excessive under LCR. Whie banks have to hold unencumbered liquid assets equal to thier short-term liabilities, the fraction that has to be reserves specifically is still being determined — Pozsar suggests the most likely fraction is 15 percent. He gives data for six big banks, four of which hold more reserves than required by that standard — though on the other hand, five of the six hold less total Tier I liquid assets than they will need. (That’s the “max” line in the figure — the “min” line is 15 percent.) But even if current reserve holdings turn out to be more than is required by LCR, it’s clear that there are far less excess reserves than one would think using the old requirements.

Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities. Source: Credit Suisse
Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities, selected banks. Source: Credit Suisse

Pozsar draws several interesting conclusions from these facts. First, the Federal Funds rate is dead for good as a tool of policy. (I wonder how long it will take textbook writers to catch up.) Second, central bank balance sheets are not going to shrink back to “normal” any time in the foreseeable future. Third, this is a step along the way to the Fed becoming the world’s central bank, de facto in even in a sense de jure. (Especially in conjunction with the permanent swap lines with other central banks, another insitutional evolution that has not gotten the attention it deserves.) A conclusion that he does not draw, but perhaps should have, is that this is another reason not to worry about demand for Treasury debt. There are good prudential reasons for requiring banks to hold government liabilities, but in effect it is also a form of financial repression.

This is also a good illustration of Noah’s point about the disconnect between academic economics and policy/finance economics. Academic economists are obsessed with “the” interest rate, which they map to the entirely unrelated intertemporal price called “interest rate” in the Walrasian system. Fundamentally what central banks do is determine the pace of credit expansion, which historically has involved a great variety of policy tools. Yes, for a while the tool of choice was an overnight interbank rate. But not anymore. And whatever the mix of immediate targets and instruments will be going forward, it’s a safe bet it won’t return to what it was in the past.

What to Do about the Trade Deficit: Nothing

Roosevelt Institute has a new roundup of policy advice for the next administration. There is a lot of useful stuff in there, which perhaps I’ll post more on later. My own contribution is on international trade. Here’s the summary:

It is natural to look to measures to improve the trade balance — through a weaker dollar, or through tariffs or other direct limits on imports — as a way to raise demand and boost output and employment. While the U.S. has done little to boost net exports in recent decades, there is increasing public discussion of such measures today…

We argue that while the orthodox view is wrong about trade being macroeconomically neutral, measures to improve the U.S. trade balance would nonetheless be a mistake. All else equal, a more favorable trade balance will raise demand and boost employment. But all else
is not equal, thanks to the special role of the U.S. in the world economy. The global economy today operates on what is effectively a dollar standard: The U.S. dollar serves as the international currency, the way gold did under under the gold standard. In part for this reason, the U.S. can finance trade deficits indefinitely while most other countries cannot. For many of our trade partners, any reduction of net exports would imply unsustainable trade deficits. So policies intended to improve the U.S. trade balance are likely to instead lead to lower growth elsewhere, imposing large costs on the rest of the world with little or no benefits here.

We do not deny that the trade deficit has negative effects on demand and employment in the U.S., but we argue this is only a reason to redouble efforts to boost domestic demand. The solution to the contractionary effects of the trade deficit is not a costly, and probably futile, effort to move toward a trade surplus, but rather measures to boost investment in both the public and private sector.

You can read the rest of my piece here.

There were a couple figures that didn’t make it into the final piece. Here is one, showing the stability of the international role of the dollar over the past 20 years.

dollars

The dotted line shows the share of central bank reserves held in dollars (source). The heavy line shows the share of foreign-exchange transactions that involve the dollar (source). About two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in dollars, and close to 90 percent of foreign-exchange transactions involve the dollar and some other currency. These shares have not diminished at all over the past 20 years, despite continuous US trade deficits.

In my opinion, the international role of the dollar makes it exceedingly unlikely that the US could face a sudden outflow of foreign investment. (And given that US liabilities are overwhelmingly dollar-denominated, it is not clear what the costs of such an outflow would be.) It also makes it highly unlikely that the US can achieve balanced trade through conventional measures, unless we come up with some other mechanism to provide the rest of the world with dollar liquidity.