Of Reinhart & Rogoff & the Emperor’s New Clothes

The brutal smashing that Reinhart and Rogoff’s work has taken in the past 24 hours, was inevitable even without the catalogue of serious methodological errors in their paper.

Reinhart and Rogoff’s empirical result posited a clear threshold. Reinhart and Rogoff were clear that  debt-to-GDP ratio above 90% spelled doom for growth. The actual data is far less clear:

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There is some correlation, but that correlation was loose enough to suggest that this was just one factor of many, and it never said anything at all about whether high debt caused low growth, or low growth caused high debt, or whether some exogenous factor was causing both. The real questions are all about causation.

Far from being a magical no-growth threshold, the UK experienced some of its strongest growth at a public debt level above 90% of GDP, suggesting very strongly that there are many other factors in play. In general, I would tend to caution against the use of arbitrary thresholds to establish principles in economics, whether that is the debt level necessary to lower growth, or the leverage level necessary to trigger a bank run, etc. The evidence suggests these almost certainly vary on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, much of the pro-austerity case seems to have been built on Reinhart and Rogoff.

Olli Rehn of the European Commission defended austerity as follows:

[I]t is widely acknowledged, based on serious research, that when public debt levels rise about 90% they tend to have a negative economic dynamism, which translates into low growth for many years.

Paul Ryan defended austerity using the same criteria:

Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 percent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis.

Timothy Geithner too:

It’s an excellent study, although in some ways what you’ve summarized understates the risks.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick (an adviser to David Cameron) agreed:

[W]e would soon get to a situation in which a debt-to-GDP ratio would be 100%. As economists such as Reinhart and Rogoff have argued, that is the level at which the overall stock of debt becomes dangerous for the long-term growth of an economy. They would argue that that is why Japan has had such a bad time for such a long period. If deficits really solved long-term economic growth, Japan would not have been stranded in the situation in which it has been for such a long time.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, Chairman of the American Action Forum:

The debt hurts the economy already. The canonical work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and its successors carry a clear message: countries that have gross government debt in excess of 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are in the debt danger zone. Entering the zone means slower economic growth.

This all feels very much like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Those shining robes that cloaked the austerian case for austerity now and at-all-costs were based on serious methodological errors — as opposed to more nuanced criteria for fiscal consolidation during the boomtime, when interest rates on government debt exceed the unemployment rate. All those serious people who praised Reinhart and Rogoff’s seriousness clearly didn’t read it very well, or study the underlying data. Much more like they formed an opinion on the necessity of austerity now, and looked around for whatever evidence they could find for their preconception, whether Reinhart and Rogoff, or Alessina and Ardagna.

The fact that Reinhart and Rogoff did not, and are still not prepared to issue some clarification to their study to prevent its abuse by austerity-obsessed policymakers is sad given the copious evidence that austerity under present conditions is self-defeating. The fact that their response has so far consisted of defending their very weak conclusions — in full knowledge of the political implications of their work, and how it has been used to justify harsh austerity in very slack economic conditions — is very sad indeed.

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Of Krugman & Minsky

Paul Krugman just did something mind-bending.

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In a recent column, he cited Minsky ostensibly to defend Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies:

Business Insider reports on a Bloomberg TV interview with hedge fund legend Stan Druckenmiller that helped crystallize in my mind what, exactly, I find so appalling about people who say that we must tighten monetary policy to avoid bubbles — even in the face of high unemployment and low inflation.

Druckenmiller blames Alan Greenspan’s loose-money policies for the whole disaster; that’s a highly dubious proposition, in fact rejected by all the serious studies I’ve seen. (Remember, the ECB was much less expansionary, but Europe had just as big a housing bubble; I vote for Minsky’s notion that financial systems run amok when people forget about risk, not because central bankers are a bit too liberal)

Krugman correctly identifies the mechanism here — prior to 2008, people forgot about risk. But why did people forget about risk, if not for the Greenspan put? Central bankers were perfectly happy to take credit for the prolonged growth and stability while the good times lasted.

Greenspan put the pedal to the metal each time the US hit a recession and flooded markets with liquidity. He was prepared to create bubbles to replace old bubbles, just as Krugman’s friend Paul McCulley once put it. Bernanke called it the Great Moderation; that through monetary policy, the Fed had effectively smoothed the business cycle to the extent that the old days of boom and bust were gone. It was boom and boom and boom.

So, people forgot about risk. Macroeconomic stability bred complacency. And the longer the perceived good times last, the more fragile the economy becomes, as more and more risky behaviour becomes the norm.

Stability is destabilising. The Great Moderation was intimately connected to markets becoming forgetful of risk. And bubbles formed. Not just housing, not just stocks. The truly unsustainable bubble underlying all the others was debt. This is the Federal Funds rate — rate cuts were Greenspan’s main tool — versus total debt as a percentage of GDP:

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More damningly, as Matthew C. Klein notes, the outgrowth in debt very clearly coincided with an outgrowth in risk taking:

To any competent central banker, it should have been obvious that the debt load was becoming unsustainable and that dropping interest rates while the debt load soared was irresponsible and dangerous. Unfortunately Greenspan didn’t see it. And now, we’re in the long, slow deleveraging part of the business cycle. We’re in a depression.

In endorsing Minsky’s view, Krugman is coming closer to the truth. But he is still one crucial step away. If stability is destabilising, we must embrace the business cycle. Smaller cyclical booms, and smaller cyclical busts. Not boom, boom, boom and then a grand mal seizure.

Do Creditors Exploit Debtors, or Vice Versa?

I’m asking this question because I think a proper understanding of the answer is a giant leap toward grasping the geopolitical realities of the relationship between America and China.

This discussion was triggered by Noah Smith’s discussion of David Graeber’s ideas on debt, and particularly his idea that debt is a means to “extract wealth” out of others.

Noah Smith on David Graeber:

“Debt,” says Graeber, “is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us.” But sometimes he seems to claim that creditors are extracting wealth from debtors, and sometimes he seems to claim that debtors extract wealth from creditors.

For example, in the Nation article, Graeber tells that The 1% are creditors. We, the people, have had our wealth extracted from us by the lenders. But in his book, Graeber writes that empires extract tribute from less powerful nations by forcing them to lend the empires money. In the last chapter of Debt, Graeber gives the example of the U.S. and China, and claims that the vast sums owed to China by America are, in fact, China’s wealth being extracted as tribute. And in this Businessweek article, Graeber explains that “throughout history, debt has served as a way for states to control their subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance wars).”

But in both of these latter cases, the “extractor” is the debtor, not the creditor. Governments do not lend to finance wars; they borrow. And the U.S. does not lend to China; we borrow.

So is debt a means by which creditors extract wealth from debtors? Or a means by which debtors extract wealth from creditors? (Can it be both? Does it depend? If so, what does it depend on? How do we look at a debtor-creditor-relationship and decide who extracted wealth from whom?) Graeber seems to view the debtor/creditor relationship as clearly, obviously skewed toward the lender in some sentences, and then clearly, obviously skewed toward the borrower in other sentences.

But these can’t both be clear and obvious.

What Graeber means by “extracting wealth” in the context of a relationship between, say a mortgager and a mortgagee seems to mean the net transfer of interest. It is certainly true on the surface that there is a transfer of wealth from the debtor to the creditor (or from the creditor to the debtor if the debtor defaults).

However, between nations Graeber sees the relationship reversed — that China is being heavily and forcefully encouraged to reinvest its newly-amassed wealth in American debt (something that some Chinese government sources have suggested to be true). But if the flow of interest payments — i.e. from America to China — is the same debtor-to-creditor direction as between any creditor and debtor, then is the relationship really reversed? If China is being forced to amass American debt by the American government, is America effectively forcing China into “extracting its wealth”?

The thing Graeber seems to miss is that the transfer of interest is the payment for a service. That is, the money upfront, with the risk of non-repayment, the risk that the borrower will run off with the money. That risk has existed for eternity. In this context, the debtor-creditor relationship is a double-edged sword. Potentially, a debtor-creditor relationship could be a vehicle for both parties to get something that benefits them — in the case of the debtor, access to capital, and in the case of the creditor, a return on capital.

In the case of China and America, America may choose to pay off the debt in massively devalued currency, or repudiate the debt outright. That’s the risk China takes for the interest payments. (And the counter-risk of course being that if America chooses to repudiate its debt, it risks a war, which could be called the interstate equivalent of debtors’ prison).

Of course, the early signs are that China’s lending will be worth it. Why? Because sustained American demand provided by Chinese liquidity has allowed China to grow into the world’s greatest industrial base, and the world’s biggest trading nation. And it can’t be said that these benefits are not trickling down to the Chinese working class — China’s industrial strength has fuelled serious wage growth in the last few years. Yes — the Chinese central bank is worried about their American dollar holdings being devalued. But I think an inevitable devaluation of their dollar-denominated assets is a small price for the Chinese to pay for becoming a global trading hub, and the world’s greatest industrial base. Similarly, if American firms and governments use cheap Chinese liquidity to strengthen America, for example funding a transition to energy independence, then the cost of interest payments to China are probably worth it. And that is a principle that extends to other debtors — if the credit funds something productive that otherwise could not have been funded, then that is hardly “wealth extraction”. There is the potential for both parties to benefit from the relationship, and the opportunity costs of a world without debt-based funding would seem to be massive.

But what if tensions over debt lead to conflict? It would be foolish to rule out those kinds of possibilities, given the superficial similarities in the relationship between China-America and that of Britain-Germany prior to World War I. It is more than possible for an international creditor-debtor relationship to lead to conflict, perhaps beginning with a trade war, and escalating —  in fact, it has happened multiple times in history.

It is certainly true that devious creditors and debtors can extract wealth from each other, but so can any devious economic agent — used car salesmen, stockbrokers, etc. The actual danger of creditor-debtor relationships, is not so much wealth extraction as it is conflict arising from the competition inherent to a creditor-debtor relationship. Creditors want their pound of flesh plus interest. Debtors often prefer to be able to shirk their debts, and monetary sovereign debtors have the ability to subtly shirk their debts via the printing press. That is potentially a recipe for instability and conflict.

There is also the problem of counter-party risk. The more interconnected different parties become financially, the greater the systemic risks from a default. As we saw in 2008 following the breakdown of Lehman Brothers, systemic interconnectivity can potentially lead to default cascades. In that case, debt can be seen as a mutual incendiary device. 

So the debtor-creditor relationship is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if all parties act honestly and responsibly debt can be beneficial, allowing debtors access to capital, and allowing creditors a return on capital — a mutual benefit. In the real world things are often a lot messier than that.

Securitisation and Risk

João Santos of the New York Fed notes what forward-thinking financial writers have been thinking for a long, long time:

There’s ample evidence that securitization led mortgage lenders to take more risk, thereby contributing to a large increase in mortgage delinquencies during the financial crisis. In this post, I discuss evidence from a recent research study I undertook with Vitaly Bord suggesting that securitization also led to riskier corporate lending. We show that during the boom years of securitization, corporate loans that banks securitized at loan origination underperformed similar, unsecuritized loans originated by the same banks. Additionally, we report evidence suggesting that the performance gap reflects looser underwriting standards applied by banks to loans they securitize.

Historically, banks kept on their books the loans they originated. However, over time they increasingly replaced this originate-to-hold model with the originate-to-distribute model, by syndicating the loans they originated or by selling them in the secondary loan market. The growth of securitization provided banks with yet another opportunity to expand the originate-to-distribute model of lending. The securitization of corporate loans grew spectacularly in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Prior to 2003, the annual volume of new collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) issued in the United States rarely surpassed $20 billion. Since then, this activity grew rapidly, eclipsing $180 billion in 2007. 

Corporate loan securitization appealed to banks because it gave them an opportunity to sell loans off their balance sheets—particularly riskier loans, which have been traditionally more difficult to syndicate. By securitizing loans, banks could lower the risk on their balance sheets and free up capital for other business while continuing to earn origination fees. As with the securitization of other securities, the securitization of corporate loans, however, may lead to looser underwriting standards. For example, if banks anticipate that they won’t retain in their balance sheets the loans they originate, their incentives to screen loan applicants at origination will be reduced. Further, once a bank securitizes a loan, its incentives to monitor the borrower during the life of the loan will also be reduced.

Santos’ study found that the dual phenomena of lax lending standards and securitisation existed as much for corporate debt as it did for housing debt:

To investigate whether securitization affected the riskiness of banks’ corporate lending, my paper with Bord compared the performance of corporate loans originated between 2004 and 2008 and securitized at the time of loan origination with other loans that banks originated but didn’t securitize. We found that the loans banks securitize are more than twice as likely to default or become nonaccrual in the three years after origination. While only 6 percent of the syndicated loans that banks don’t securitize default or become nonaccrual in those three years, 13 percent of the loans they do securitize wind up in default or nonaccrual. This difference in performance persists, even when we compared loans originated by the same bank and even when we compared loans that are “similar” and we controlled for loan- and borrower-specific variables that proxy for loan risk.

This is an important study, because it emphasises that this is a universal financial phenomenon, and not one merely confined to mortgage lenders that were encouraged by the Federal government into lending to risky mortgagees. The ability to securitise lending and so move the risk off your balance sheet leads to riskier lending, period.

This exemplifies the problem with shadow finance. Without the incentive of failure for lenders who lend to those who cannot repay, standards become laxer, and the system begins to accrue junk loans that are shipped off the lenders’ balance sheets and onto someone else’s. This seems like no problem to the originating lender, who can amass profits quickly by throwing liquidity at dubious debtors who may not be able to repay without having to worry about whether the loan will be repaid. The trouble is that as the junk debt amasses, the entire system becomes endangered, as more and more counterparties’ balance sheets become clogged up with toxic junk lent by lenders with lax standards and rubber-stamped as Triple-A by corrupt or incompetent ratings agencies. As more laxly-vetted debtors default on their obligations, financial firms — and the wider financial system, including those issuers who first issued the junk debt and sold it to other counterparties  — come under pressure. If enough debtors default, financial firms may become bankrupt, defaulting on their own obligations, and throwing the entire system into mass bankruptcy and meltdown. This “risk management” — that lowers lending standards, and spreads toxic debt throughout the system — actually concentrates and systematises risk. Daron Acemoglu produced a mathematical model consistent with this phenomenon.

In a bailout-free environment, these kinds of practices would become severely discouraged by the fact that firms that practiced them and firms that engaged with those firms as counterparties would be bankrupted. The practice of making lax loans, and shipping the risk onto someone else’s balance sheet would be ended, either by severely tightened lending standards, or by the fact that the market for securitisation would be killed off. However, the Federal Reserve has stepped into the shadow securities market, acting as a buyer-of-last-resort. While this has certainly stabilised a financial system that post-2008 was undergoing the severest liquidity panic the world has probably ever seen, it has also created a huge moral hazard, backstopping a fundamentally perverse and unsustainable practice.

Shadow finance is still deleveraging (although not as fast as it once was):

But so long as the Federal Reserve continues to act as a buyer-of-last-resort for toxic junk securities produced by lax lending, the fundamentally risk-magnifying practices of lax lending and securitisation won’t go away. Having the Federal Reserve absorb the losses created by moral hazard is no cure for moral hazard, because it creates more moral hazard. This issue soon enough will rise to the surface again with predictably awful consequences, whether in another jurisdiction (China?), or another market (securitised corporate debt? securitised student loan debt?).

Why China is Holding All That Debt

What does it mean that China are making a lot of noise about the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy?

 Via Reuters:

A senior Chinese official said on Friday that the United States should cut back on printing money to stimulate its economy if the world is to have confidence in the dollar.

Asked whether he was worried about the dollar, the chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, Jin Liqun, told the World Economic Forum in Davos: “I am a little bit worried.”

“There will be no winners in currency wars. But it is important for a central bank that the money goes to the right place,” Li said.

At first glance, this seems like pretty absurd stuff. Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that the Federal Reserve could just print up a shit-tonne of money for whatever reason it likes? Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that given a severe economic recession that Ben Bernanke would throw trillions and trillions of dollars new money at the problem? On the surface, it would seem like the Chinese government has shot itself in the foot by holding trillions and trillions of dollars and debt instruments denominated in a currency that can be easily depreciated. If they wanted hard assets, they should have bought hard assets.

As John Maynard Keynes famously said:

The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

But I think Keynes is wrong. I don’t think China’s goal in the international currency game was ever to accumulate a Scrooge McDuck-style hoard of American currency. I think that that was a side-effect of their bigger Mercantilist geopolitical strategy. So China’s big pile of cash is not really the issue.

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It is often said that China is a currency manipulator. But it is too often assumed that China’s sole goal in its currency operations is to create growth and employment for China’s huge population. There is a greater phenomenon — by becoming the key global manufacturing hub for a huge array of resources, components and finished goods, China has really rendered the rest of the world that dependent on the flow of goods out of China. If for any reason any nation decided to attack China, they would in effect be attacking themselves, as they would be cutting off the free flow of goods and components essential to the function of a modern economy. China as a global trade hub — now producing 20% of global manufacturing output, and having a monopoly in key resources and components — has become, in a way, too big to fail. This means that at least in the near future China has a lot of leverage.

So we must correct Keynes’ statement. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed; owe him £1 trillion, and become dependent on his manufacturing output, and the position is reversed again.

The currency war, of course, started a long time ago, and the trajectory for the Asian economies and particularly China is now diversifying out of holding predominantly dollar-denominated assets. The BRICs and particularly China have gone to great length to set up the basis of a new reserve currency system.

But getting out of the old reserve currency system and setting up a new one is really a side story to China’s real goal, which appears to have always been that of becoming a global trade hub, and gaining a monopoly on critical resources and components.

Whether China can successfully consolidate its newfound power base, or whether the Chinese system will soon collapse due to overcentralisation and mismanagement remains to be seen.

Why Modern Monetary Theory is Wrong About Government Debt

I’ve taken some criticism — particularly from advocates of modern monetary theory and sectoral balances and all that — for using total debt rather than just private debt in my work.

The modern monetary theory line (in one sentence, and also in video form) is that government debt levels are nothing to worry about, because governments are the issuer of the currency, and can always print more.

This evokes the words of Alan Greenspan:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default.

Of course, the point I am trying to make in worrying about total debt levels is not the danger of mass default (although certainly default cascades a la Lehman are a concern in any interconnective financial system), but that large debt loads can lead to painful spells of deleveraging and economic depression as has occurred in Japan for most of the last twenty years:

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Of course, before the crisis in America (as was the case in Japan at the beginning of their crisis) government debt was not really a great contributor to the total debt level, meaning that the total debt graph looks far more similar to the private debt line than the public debt line, which means that when I talk about the dangers of growing total debt I am talking much more about private debt than public debt:

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But what Japan empirically illustrates is the fact that all debt matters. Japan’s private debt levels have reset to below the pre-crisis norm, yet the economy remains depressed while public debt continues to climb (both in absolute terms, and as a percentage of GDP). If excessive private debt was the sole factor in Japan’s depression, Japan would have recovered long ago. What we have seen in Japan has been the transfer of the debt load from the private sector to the public, with only a relative small level of net deleveraging.

And high and growing public sector deficits often lead to contractionary tax hikes and spending cuts. This happened time and again during Japan’s lost decades. Peter Tasker of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, public finances were in surplus and government debt was a mere 20 per cent of gross domestic product. Twenty years on, the government is running a yawning deficit and gross public debt has swollen to a sumo-sized 200 per cent of GDP.

How did it get from there to here? Not by lavish public spending, as is sometimes assumed. Japan’s experiment with Keynesian-style public works programmes ended in 1997. True, they had failed to trigger durable economic recovery. But the alternative hypothesis – that fiscal and monetary virtue would be enough – proved woefully mistaken. Economic growth had been positive in the first half of the “lost decade”, but after the government raised consumption tax in 1998 any momentum vanished. Today Japan’s nominal GDP is lower than in 1992.

The real cause of fiscal deterioration was the damage done to tax revenues by this protracted slump. Central government outlays as a percentage of GDP are no higher now than in the early 1980s, but the tax take has fallen by 5 per cent of GDP since 1989, the year that consumption taxes were introduced.

A rise in debt relative to income has historically tended to lead to contractionary deleveraging irrespective of whether the debt is public or private.

The notion at the heart of modern monetary theory that governments that control their own currency do not have to engage in contractionary deleveraging remains largely ignored. Just because nations can (in a worst case scenario) always print money to pay their debt, doesn’t mean that they will always print money to pay their debt. They will often choose to adopt an austerity program (as is often mandated by the IMF), or default outright instead (as happened in Russia in the 1990s).

And what governments cannot guarantee is that the money they print will have value. This is determined by market participants. In the real economy people in general and creditors (and Germans) in particular are very afraid of inflation and increases in the money supply. History is littered with currency collapses, where citizens have lost confidence in the currency (although in truth most hyperinflations have occurred after some great shock to the real economy like a war or famine, and not solely as a result of excessive money printing).

And there has always been a significant danger of currency, trade and political retaliations by creditors and creditor nations, as a result of the perception of “money printing”. Many, many wars have been fought over national debts, and over currencies and their devaluation. One only has to look at China’s frustrated rhetoric regarding America’s various monetary expansions, the fact that many Eurasian creditor nations are moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency, as well as the growth of American-Chinese trade measures and retaliations, to see how policy of a far lesser order than the sort of thing advocated in modern monetary theory can exacerbate frictions in the global currency system (although nothing bad has come to pass yet).

Governments controlling their own currencies are likely to continue to defy the prescriptions of the modern monetary theorists for years to come. And that means that expansionary increases in government debt relative to the underlying economy will continue to be a prelude to contractionary deleveraging, just as is the case with the private sector. All debt matters.

The Interconnective Web of Global Debt

It’s very big:

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Andrew Haldane:

Interconnected networks exhibit a knife-edge, or tipping point, property. Within a certain range, connections serve as a shock-absorber. The system acts as a mutual insurance device with disturbances dispersed and dissipated. But beyond a certain range, the system can tip the wrong side of the knife-edge. Interconnections serve as shock-ampli ers, not dampeners, as losses cascade.The system acts not as a mutual insurance device but as a mutual incendiary device.

A mutual incendiary device sounds about right.