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:


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.

Nassim Taleb’s Big Idea: Transforming Debt Into Equity

I have mentioned, in passing, the possibility of transforming debt into equity as a solution for many of the troubles in the global financial system.

I borrowed the idea from Nassim Taleb and Mark Spitznagel, who floated it in 2009. It is unfortunate that the idea has not yet been taken very seriously. There are probably two reasons for this: firstly Taleb and Spitznagel never fully fleshed it out, and secondly because the political and media punditry don’t really recognise the graveness of the present situation. Largely it is hoped that we can muddle through; radical solutions tend to get left on the shelf.

It is my view that it is much better to fix the system in a fundamental way, rather than clobber together solutions piecemeal. The latter approach has been the norm — from the bailouts of Greece and euro austerity, to the bailout of AIG and the wider financial system, to quantitative easing and LTRO, to Obama’s stimulus package — the focus has been on keeping a system that is falling apart at the seams from crumbling completely into dust.

So what is the problem that governments fear so hugely?

As we learned a long time ago, big defaults on the order of billions don’t just panic markets. They congest the system, because the system is predicated around the idea that everyone owes things to everyone else. The $18 billion that Greece owes to the banks are in turn owed on to other banks and other institutions. Failure to meet that payment doesn’t just mean one default, it could mean many more. The great cyclical wheel of international debt is only as strong as its weakest link. This kind of breakdown is known as a default cascade. In an international financial system which is ever-more interconnected, we will soon see how far the cascade might travel.

The concept of too big to fail — and thus the justification for all the bailouts — comes out of these default cascades; if a default were to trigger such a cascade, the cycle of payments would break down. Thus, the logic goes, if a bankruptcy would break the system, then the government should step in and prevent that bankruptcy. Thus, the system can continue operating. Alas, this is the road to a zombie economy. If bad companies can succeed just as easily as well-run ones, then the market mechanism is rendered meaningless. Why innovate and create when instead you can run on government largesse? Why seek efficiency when inefficiency gets you cash just as easily? Furthermore, this government largesse starves new businesses of opportunities and cash. Every dollar taxed to pay for bailouts is a dollar that could have instead been invested in a startup. And every juggernaut that is saved is a hole in the marketplace that could instead have been filled by a new and better company.

The problem then, is the huge overhanging cyclical structure of debt and interest. In a free market — without bailouts and largesse — it would have collapsed into the sand long ago. That would have been painful and contractionary, but after the storm there would have been aggressive new growth; without the debt overhang, new lending would have been easier. There would be holes in the market to fill. But governments have determined that it must be saved, that there is no alternative to this strange mess.

It is not good enough to imagine a new beginning, either. For we already have this mess, and we have to get out of it. A route out — toward a place where the system is no longer so fragile. If we ignore the mess, our route out of it will be messy — systemic collapse, currency crises, trade breakdown, war or worse.

Now, I believe that the most significant factors in robustifying society are economic, as opposed to financial. The West’s greatest fragilities stem not from its weak financial system, but from its energy dependency and susceptibility to energy costs (for example, the financial crisis in 2008 might never have been so severe had there been such a huge spike in energy costs), its deteriorating infrastructure, and its imperial largesse (the cost, the blowback, the shortage of manpower). Simply, if America and the West were fuelled by decentralised domestic energy production (e.g. solar), and decentralised local production and resource extraction, the ululations of the global financial system would be irrelevant to the common people.

But, in reality, we live in a globalised and interdependent system. So anything that might robustify the financial system would be welcome.

Here’s what Taleb and Spitznagel originally wrote:

The core of the problem, the unavoidable truth, is that our economic system is laden with debt, about triple the amount relative to gross domestic product that we had in the 1980s. This does not sit well with globalisation. Our view is that government policies worldwide are causing more instability rather than curing the trouble in the system. The only solution is the immediate, forcible and systematic conversion of debt to equity. There is no other option.

Our analysis is as follows. First, debt and leverage cause fragility; they leave less room for errors as the economic system loses its ability to withstand extreme variations in the prices of securities and goods. Equity, by contrast, is robust: the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000 did not have significant consequences because internet companies, while able to raise large amounts of equity, had no access to credit markets.

Second, the complexity created by globalisation and the internet causes economic and business values (such as company revenues, commodity prices or unemployment) to experience more extreme variations than ever before. Add to that the proliferation of systems that run more smoothly than before, but experience rare, but violent blow-ups.

The only solution is to transform debt into equity across all sectors, in an organised and systematic way. Instead of sending hate mail to near-insolvent homeowners, banks should reach out to borrowers and offer lower interest payments in exchange for equity. Instead of debt becoming “binary” – in default or not – it could take smoothly-varying prices and banks would not need to wait for foreclosures to take action. Banks would turn from “hopers”, hiding risks from themselves, into agents more engaged in economic activity. Hidden risks become visible; hopers become doers. 

The strongest advantage, though, goes unmentioned. Systematically transforming debt into equity would end the problem of financial entities being too big to fail, as failure would no longer lead to a breakdown in the debt cycle. This is because insolvent positions would simply default to a majority-minority equity position, and — if the debtor’s equity position were high enough, say about 33% — liquidation could be avoided.

A huge philosophical problem is that such a complete transformation would alter (violate?) a huge number of existing contracts. It would be a top-down and coercive solution, and that is always open to legal challenge. Furthermore, curtailing the issuance of debt means curtailing the freedom of society and individuals to enter into any contract seen fit.

But the larger picture is rather intriguing — in a world where all debt has become equity, there is no such thing as a default, because an equity position is one of ownership, and thus a claim on future earnings.

Simply, lending would be done through lenders buying a share in a person or company’s or government’s future earnings, rather than through creating debt. Loan contracts could still be structured precisely the way they are today. But, as Taleb and Spitznagel insinuate in saying that “banks would turn from “hopers”, hiding risks from themselves, into agents more engaged in economic activity”, lenders would have much more of an incentive to assist in the development of their equity position, as this would surely be the best way to get back their initial investment. And — as an equity position, rather than a cast-in-stone lending contract — terms could be far more easily renegotiated.

Of course, this new system would surely pose a whole new universe of challenges and moral and regulatory quandaries, not least the moral and philosophical problems of government effectively banning debt-based lending.

But, if we are looking to avoid the moral hazard of bailouts, and the dangers of default cascades, the architects of the global financial system — including banks themselves, who could of their own volition choose to cease debt-based lending, and adopt equity-based lending — could do much worse. While systematically transforming debt to equity is too difficult and controversial (not least for contractual reasons), we must remember that in a purely free-market, all of those debt-based lenders would have gone bust a long time ago.