But isn’t there a better way to increase a borrowing limit — and one that doesn’t freak out markets, investors, and, well, just about everyone every few months?
Paying For Our Past Sins
Michael Kinsley’s argument for immediate austerity is about “paying for our past sins”:
Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.
Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert.
To Kinsley, austerity is the necessary spinach. I don’t really understand this. In the United States a crisis in shadow finance spread into the banking industry leading to a default cascade throughout the financial system, which resulted in a wider crisis throughout the economy, and ever since 2008 even after the banking sector was propped-up, unemployment throughout the wider economy has been rife, economic output has fallen far below its long-term trend line, and bank deposits are soaring as the weak economy has damaged confidence and convinced possessors of money to save and not spend or invest.
So many activities in the boom — from home speculation, to NINJA loans, to subprime securitisation, and ultimately the 40-year cycle of total credit growth that led to the Minsky Moment in 2008 — proved unsustainable. But a huge cost has already been paid for those unsustainable activities in the form of the initial crash, and depressed growth, and unemployment, etc. The structure of production has been irrevocably changed by the bust. But are the people suffering the unemployment, the depressed real wage growth, etc, the people who created the total debt growth? No, of course not. Any connection is arbitrary — the people creating the credit default swaps and structured securitised products (ABS, MBS, etc) and NINJA loans that triggered the banking crises in many cases have kept their jobs and been promoted. Certainly, some bankers like Dick Fuld who were involved in creating the crisis lost their jobs, but while people who had nothing whatever to do with the banking crisis have lost their jobs or worse have never even got a job.
So who does Kinsley want to consume the spinach? The people who take the hit to their purchasing power in an austerity program aren’t the ones who caused the financial crisis. Perhaps financial regulators and central bankers were to some degree responsible, but the overwhelming majority of people dependent on government income had nothing whatever to do with financial regulation. Though certainly one side-effect of the crisis has been falling tax revenues, which has meant bigger deficits. But structural deficits are actually relatively low, and nominal deficits are rapidly falling. And the actual interest rate cost of servicing the deficits are at record lows and with current soaring savings levels, unlikely to start rising anytime soon. So any appearance of a deficit problem is a side-effect of a depressed economy. Ultimately, austerity will reduce the government’s use of resources — capital, and labour. And what is the problem with the economy at the moment? Slack resources in capital and labour to such an extent that interest rates are at record lows and unemployment is very high. Kinsley’s “spinach” has nothing whatever to do with the problem. In the long run, once the economy is at full-employment and businesses are booming, and interest rates have risen some austerity will be helpful, not least to take the edge off the boom. But why now? Immediate austerity is iatrogenic medicine — misidentifying the problem, and prescribing a cure that harms the patient.
In my view a bust after an economic boom may be to some degree be unavoidable as an artefact of human psychology. Ultimately, we should remember that a credit-driven boom isn’t a sign of overproduction of goods and services, or a society living beyond its means. After all, the demand for goods and services really existed, and the capacity for the production and use of goods and services really existed. Humans are excitable animals, prone to strange twinges of spirit both in mania and depression. The business cycle delivers the dessert and the spinach in recurrent cycles. Actions have consequences, and the actions leading into the slump have had huge consequences. But what about our present sins? Having the government force more spinach onto a society already suffering from massive unemployment of people, resources and capital is a strange and cruel prescription. We have already had our spinach in the crash of 2008 and the following slump. Huge numbers of people are unemployed, or have dropped out of the labour force, or have not had the chance to enter the labour force. That is the spinach. If the economy was a man, spinach would be coming out of his ears. Michael Kinsley and his intellectual cousins want to offset spinach with more spinach. Yet the economy has much the same or higher pre-slump capacity for ice cream, and pizza and milkshakes and marshmallows. In the long run, society will rediscover its taste for economic growth, for income growth, and all the slack resources will be used up to produce things that people actually want and need. Yet that does not help the unemployed who have eaten plateful after plateful of spinach as a consequence of actions for which they were mostly not responsible. What could help the unemployed? Job creation and putting slack resources to use.
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.
“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.
Explaining The WTI-Brent Spread Divergence
Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe.
This graph is the elephant in the room:
And this graph shows how truly historic a move this has been:
The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. That’s right — American oil companies have supposedly been producing much, much more than they can sell:
This is hilarious if prices weren`t so damn high, but despite a robust export market for finished products, crude oil is backing up all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma, and is only going to get worse in 2013.
Now that Enterprise Products Partners LLP has let the cat out of the bag that less than a month after expanding the Seaway pipeline capacity to 400,000 barrels per day, The Jones Creek terminal has storage capacity of 2.6 million barrels, and it is basically maxed out in available storage.
But there’s something fishy about this explanation. I don’t know for sure about the underlying causality — and it is not impossible that the oil companies are acting incompetently — but are we really supposed to believe that today’s oil conglomerates in America are so bad at managing their supply chain that they will oversupply the market to such an extent that oil sells at a 25% discount on the price in Europe? Even at an expanded capacity, is it really so hard for oil producers to shut down the pipeline, and clear inventories until the price rises so that they are at least not haemorrhaging such a huge chunk of potential profit on every barrel of oil they are selling? I mean, that’s what corporations do (or at least, what they’re supposed to do) — they manage the supply chain to maximise profit.
To me, this huge disparity seems like funny business. What could possibly be making US oil producers behave so ridiculously, massively non-competitively?
The answer could be government intervention. Let’s not forget that the National Resource Defence Preparedness Order gives the President and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to:
(c) be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology, for national defense requirements;
(d) improve the efficiency and responsiveness of the domestic industrial base to support national defense requirements; and
(e) foster cooperation between the defense and commercial sectors for research and development and for acquisition of materials, services, components, and equipment to enhance industrial base efficiency and responsiveness.
And the ability to:
(e) The Secretary of each resource department, when necessary, shall make the finding required under section 101(b) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(b). This finding shall be submitted for the President’s approval through the Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. Upon such approval, the Secretary of the resource department that made the finding may use the authority of section 101(a) of the Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 2071(a), to control the general distribution of any material (including applicable services) in the civilian market.
My intuition is that it is possible that oil companies may have been advised (or ordered) under the NDRP (or under the 1950 Defense Production Act) to keep some slack in the supply chain in case of a war, or other national or global emergency. This would provide a capacity buffer in addition to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
If that’s the case, the question we need to ask is what does the US government know that other governments don’t? Is this just a prudent measure to reduce the danger of a resource or energy shock, or does the US government have some specific information of a specific threat?
The other possible explanation, of course, is ridiculous incompetence on the part of US oil producers. Which, I suppose, is almost believable in the wake of Deepwater Horizon…
Is War Coming Between China And Japan?
Last month, I looked at the legal implications of a conflict between China and Japan, concluding that the likelihood remains low, and that America would not be legally bound to defend Japan:
First of all, it is critical to note that the United States is not legally obligated under its with Japan treaty to intercede on Japan’s behalf. The treaty states that the United States is required to report any such event to the UN Security Council, instead:
Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
Very simply, this means that China can attack Japan without fearing an inevitable American retaliation. That fact alone makes a small skirmish fairly likely.
So what if China successfully captured the islands — and perhaps even more Japanese territory — as we can perhaps assume given China’s overwhelming size and military-spending advantages? Well, the United States and presumably the international community other than China’s allies would seek to diplomatically pressure China to stand down and reach a peaceful arbitrated resolution via the UN.
If China refused to stand down and accept a diplomatic solution — that is, if China was absolutely set on staring down the United States — then the United States would be forced to choose between providing military support to Japan — and possibly ultimately escalating up to a global war between China and her allies and the United States and her allies — or facing a humiliating climbdown, and accepting both Chinese sovereignty over the islands, as well as any other Japanese territory that China might have captured, as well as face the possibility of further Chinese incursions and expansionism in the Pacific in the future.
In the last day it has been reported that Chinese forces have been mobilising.
A report out of China by NTDTV (in very broken English) notes:
February 3, Nan’an, Fujian Highway 308, artillery units practical exercise for several days.
February 3 to 6, Fujian, Xiamen, Zhangzhou, Huzhou, a large troop movements, nearly 100 vehicles of various types of military vehicles, armored vehicles, artillery filled the entire road, endless, Xiamen and even the scene of a traffic jam 10 kilometers.
In addition, on February 3 in Shiyan, Hubei, a large number of tanks, wheeled military base from Shiyan room counties is delivered to the coastal areas. Many local residents of the tense situation of some concern.
Prior to this allegation, January 15 and 30, the Chinese navy guided missile frigate, twice the fire control radar lock frigates and ship-borne helicopters of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, is also considered to enter a combat state.
According to mainland media quoted the “People’s Daily” front-page article claiming that China will not change in point of view on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands , and have to prepare to win the war.
The international media alleged that China has purchased from Russia 239 engine, used in the manufacture of the H-6K. Combat covering the Diaoyu Islands, in this model, the engine can also be used to manufacture transported -20 transport aircraft purchased.
If the engine assembled, will greatly enhance China’s military power.
This may turn out to be much ado about nothing, propaganda released to make a hullabaloo. With China gradually growing relatively stronger, and the United States and her allies growing relatively weaker, China on the surface may seem to have very little incentive to do much other than wait. But with global economic conditions worsening, and both China and Japan becoming more fierce in their rhetoric, it becomes likelier and likelier that China may choose to project its economic problems outward by starting a hot war. Most importantly, with the United States not committed to materially defend Japan, it appears to me like China may see this as a golden opportunity to impose itself on the region, to humiliate the already overstretched United States, and make a statement by pushing Japan out of the islands, or perhaps even by going postal and invading other Japanese islands or even Taiwan. With the world dependent on goods and components produced and assembled in China, China already has a lot of leverage to push the rest of the world into accepting a Chinese-dominated regional order.
Still I would say that by far the most rational course for China is to not start a war. But if China starts, it becomes increasingly likely that the United States will respond.
Governments around the globe are advised to remember that while war may increase GDP, and while it may lower unemployment, it destroys an unquantifiably larger amount of real wealth — lives, businesses, physical capital, social capital.
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?
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.
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.
The Return of Mercantilism
Mercantilist trade policies have returned in a big, big way.
The liberal model views the state as necessarily predatory and the private sector as inherently rent-seeking. So it advocates a strict separation between the state and private business. Mercantilism, by contrast, offers a corporatist vision in which the state and private business are allies and cooperate in pursuit of common objectives, such as domestic economic growth or national power.
The mercantilist model can be derided as state capitalism or cronyism. But when it works, as it has so often in Asia, the model’s “government-business collaboration” or “pro-business state” quickly garners heavy praise. Lagging economies have not failed to notice that mercantilism can be their friend. Even in Britain, classical liberalism arrived only in the mid-nineteenth century – that is, after the country had become the world’s dominant industrial power.
A second difference between the two models lies in whether consumer or producer interests are privileged. For liberals, consumers are king. The ultimate objective of economic policy is to increase households’ consumption potential, which requires giving them unhindered access to the cheapest-possible goods and services.
Mercantilists, by contrast, emphasize the productive side of the economy. For them, a sound economy requires a sound production structure. And consumption needs to be underpinned by high employment at adequate wages.
These different models have predictable implications for international economic policies. The logic of the liberal approach is that the economic benefits of trade arise from imports: the cheaper the imports, the better, even if the result is a trade deficit. Mercantilists, however, view trade as a means of supporting domestic production and employment, and prefer to spur exports rather than imports.
Today’s China is the leading bearer of the mercantilist torch, though Chinese leaders would never admit it – too much opprobrium still attaches to the term.
I have three things to add.
First, states around the world including in the West, and especially America, have massively adopted corporatist domestic policies, even while spouting the rhetoric of free trade and economic liberalism publicly. One only has to look at the growth trend in American Federal spending to see that America has drifted further and further and further away from its free market rhetoric, and toward a centrally planned economy.
Second, the key difference between a free market economy, and a corporatist command economy is the misallocation of capital by the central planning process. While mercantile economies can be hugely productive, the historic tendency in the long run has been toward the command economies — which allocate capital based on the preferences of the central planner — being out-innovated and out-grown by the dynamic free market economies, which allocate capital based on the spending preferences of consumers in the wider economy.
Third, these two facts taken together mean that the inherent long-term advantage of the free market system — and by implication, of the United States over the BRICs — has to some degree been eradicated. This means that the competition is now over who can run the most successful corporatist-mercantilist system. The BRIC nations, particularly China, are committed to domestic production and employment, to domestic supply chains and domestic resource strength. America continues to largely ignore such factors, and allow its productive base to emigrate to other nations. And the production factor in which America still has some significant advantage — design, innovation, and inventions — has been eroded by the fact that the BRIC nations can easily appropriate American designs and innovations, because these designs are now being manufactured predominantly outside of America, and because of (American) communication technologies like the internet. This is the worst of both worlds for America. All of the disadvantages of mercantilism — the rent-seeking corporate-industrial complex, the misallocation of capital through central planning, the fragility of a centralised system — without the advantage of a strong domestic productive base.
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:
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:
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 Real 2013 Cliff
There’s a much bigger cliff than the so-called fiscal cliff. The absolute worst result of the fiscal cliff would be a moderate uniform tax increase at a bad time, resulting in a moderate contraction. It is an obvious — but ultimately rather cosmetic — stumbling block on the so-called “road to recovery”.
The much bigger cliff stems from the fact that the so-called recovery itself is built on nothing but sand. This is a result of underlying systemic fragilities that have never been allowed to break. I have spent the last year and a half writing about this graph — the total debt in the economy as a proportion of the economy’s output:
This is the bubble that won’t go away. This is the zombified mess that the Federal Reserve won’t let dissolve (as happened regularly in the 19th century and early 20th century each time there was an unsustainable debt bubble). This is the shifting sand — preserved by the massive monetary stimulus programs — that the so-called recovery is built upon. During the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s cheap money pumped up the debt level in America. In 2008, the bubble burst, and the hyper-connective fragile financial system was set to burn. Then central banks around the world stepped in to “stabilise” (or as Nassim Taleb puts it, overstabilise) the financial system. The unsustainable reality of debt vastly exceeding income was put on life support.
A high pre-existing residual debt level makes growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load, they are drained by pre-existing debt service costs, and they are wary about taking on debt or investing in a weak and depressed environment. It’s a classic Catch-22. The only true panacea for the depression is growth, but the economy cannot grow because it is depressed and zombified. That’s where a crash comes in — the junk is liquidated, clearing the field for new growth. That is what Schumpeter meant when he talked of “the work of depressions”, something that many mainstream economists still fail to grasp. (In fairness, a similar effect can probably be achieved without a depression through a very large scale debt relief program.)
Japan has been stuck in a deleveraging trap for twenty years, to no avail, all that has really occurred is that the private debt load has been transferred onto the central bank balance sheet — there has been very little net deleveraging) and while the Japanese central bank has completed round after round of quantitative easing — sustaining and preserving the past malinvestment and high debt load — the Japanese economy is still depressed.
That is the road America and most of the West are now on. And just as Japan’s bank stocks did multiple times even after the Japanese housing bubble burst, American banking stocks — even in spite of a year of fraud, abuse, mismanagement and uber-fragility — have been shooting up, up, up and away:
The zombie financial sector is the real cliff — as interconnective as ever, as corrupt as ever, and most importantly, nearly as leveraged as ever:
This is a reinflated bubble built on foundations of sand. I don’t know which straw will break the illusion (middle eastern war? Hostility between China and Japan? Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown? Student debt? Eurozone? Natural disasters? Who knows…) but this bubble poses a far greater threat in 2013 than the fiscal shenanigans and the Boehner-Obama “Boner-Droner” snoozefest.