Krugman, Newton & Zombie Banks

Paul Krugman:

Mitt Romney – supposedly advised by Mankiw among others – is outraged:

[T]he American economy doesn’t need more artificial and ineffective measures. We should be creating wealth, not printing dollars.

That word “artificial” caught my eye, because it’s the same word liquidationists used to denounce any efforts to fight the Great Depression with monetary policy. Schumpeter declared that

Any revival which is merely due to artificial stimulus leaves part of the work of depressions undone

Hayek similarly decried any recovery led by the “creation of artificial demand”.

Milton Friedman – who thought he had liberated conservatism from this kind of nonsense –must be spinning in his grave.

The Romney/liquidationist view only makes sense if you believe that the problem with our economy lies on the supply side – that workers lack the incentive to work, or are stuck with the wrong skills, or something.

Perhaps Krugman ought to consider more seriously the reality that since both Japan and now America have gone down the path of continually bailing out a corrupt, dysfunctional and parasitic financial system that neither nation has truly recovered.

Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish. While some surely perished from misfortune, and some surely survived from luck, this basic antifragile mechanism ensured the survival of the fittest agriculturalists and the transmission of their methods, ideas and genes to further generations. In the financial sector today the Darwinian mechanism has been turned on its head; in both Japan and the West, financiers have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure with injections of liquidity. Markets have become hypnotised and junkified, trading the possibility of the next injection of central banking liquidity instead of market fundamentals.

So it should be no surprise that financial institutions have continued making exactly the same mistakes that created the crisis in 2008. That crisis was caused by excessive financial debt. Many Wall Street banks in 2008 had forty or fifty times as much leverage as they had equity. The problem with leverage is that while successful bets can very quickly lead to massive profits, bad bets can very quickly lead to insolvency, liquidity panics and default cascades.

Following 2008, many on Wall Street promised they had learned their lesson, and that the days of excessive leverage and risk-taking with borrowed money were over. But, in October 2011, another Wall Street bank was taken down by bad bets financed by excessive leverage: MF Global. Their leverage ratio? 40:1.

So why was the banking system bailed out in the first place? Defenders of the bailouts have correctly pointed out that not bailing out certain banks would have caused the entire system to collapse. This is because the global financial system is an interconnected web. If a particularly interconnected bank disappears from the system, and cannot repay its creditors, the creditors themselves become threatened with insolvency. Without state intervention, a single massive bankruptcy can quickly snowball into systemic destruction. The system itself is fundamentally unsound, fundamentally fragile, and prone to collapse.

Government life-support has given Wall Street failures the resources to continue their dangerous and risky business practices which caused the last crisis. Effectively, Wall Street and the international financial system has become a government-funded zombie — unable to sustain itself in times of crisis through its own means, dependent on suckling the taxpayer’s teat, alive but yet failing to invest in small business and entrepreneurs.

My theory is this: our depression is not a problem of insufficient demand. It is systemic; most prominently and immediately financial fragility, financial zombification, moral hazard, and excessive private debt, alongside a huge number of other long-term systemic problems.

The new policy of unlimited quantitative easing is an experiment. If those theorists of insufficient aggregate demand are right, then the problem will soon be solved, and we will return to strong long-term organic growth, low unemployment and prosperity. I would be overjoyed at such a prospect, and would gladly admit that I was wrong in my claim that depressed aggregate demand has merely been a symptom and not a cause. On the other hand, if economies remain depressed, or quickly return to elevated unemployment and weak growth, or if the new policy has severe adverse side effects, it is a signal that those who proposed this experiment were wrong.

Certainty is something that economists in particular should be particularly guarded against, even as a public relations strategy. Isaac Newton famously noted in the aftermath of the South Sea bubble that “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” In the sphere of human action, there are no clear and definitive mathematical principles as there are in astronomy or thermodynamics; there have always been oddities, exceptions and quirks. There has always been wildness, even if it is at times hidden.

So we shall see who is right. I lean toward the idea— as Schumpeter did — that the work of depressions and crises is clearing out unsustainable debt, unsustainable business models, unsustainable companies, unsustainable banks and — as much as anything else — unsustainable economic theories.

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The Cantillon Effect

Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced.

How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money. This is illustrated below.

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of the monetary base:

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

And here’s GDP expressed in terms of total debt:

What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s.

While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.

This focus on reflationary money supply expansion was fully expected by those familiar with Ben Bernanke’s academic record. What I find more surprising, though, is the Fed’s focus on banks and financial institutions rather than the wider population.

It’s not just the banks that are struggling to deleverage. The overwhelming majority of nongovernment debt is held by households and nonfinancials:

The nonfinancial sectors need debt relief much, much more than the financial sector. Yet the Fed shoots off new money solely into the financial system, to Wall Street and the TBTF banks. It is the financial institutions that have gained the most from these transfers of purchasing power, building up huge hoards of excess reserves:

There is a way to counteract the Cantillon Effect, and expand the money supply without transferring purchasing power to the financial sector (or any other sector). This is to directly distribute the new money uniformly to individuals for the purpose of debt relief; those with debt have to use the new money to pay it down (thus reducing the debt load), those without debt are free to invest it or spend it as they like.

Steve Keen notes:

While we delever, investment by American corporations will be timid, and economic growth will be faltering at best. The stimulus imparted by government deficits will attenuate the downturn — and the much larger scale of government spending now than in the 1930s explains why this far greater deleveraging process has not led to as severe a Depression — but deficits alone will not be enough. If America is to avoid two “lost decades”, the level of private debt has to be reduced by deliberate cancellation, as well as by the slow processes of deleveraging and bankruptcy.

In ancient times, this was done by a Jubilee, but the securitization of debt since the 1980s has complicated this enormously. Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a “Modern Debt Jubilee” should take the form of “Quantitative Easing for the Public”: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.

Without a policy of this nature, America is destined to spend up to two decades learning the truth of Michael Hudson’s simple aphorism that “Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid”.

The Fed’s singular focus on the financial sector is perplexing and frustrating, not least because growth remains stagnant, unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains weak and America’s financial sector remains a seething cesspit of corruption and moral hazard, where segregated accounts are routinely raided by corrupt CEOs, and where government-backstopped TBTF banks still routinely speculate with the taxpayers’ money.

The corrupt and overblown financial sector is the last sector that deserves a boost in purchasing power. It’s time this ended.