In this post, I apply the framework outlined previously to some empirical patterns in the financial markets and the broader economy. The objective is not to posit crony capitalism as the sole explanation of the below patterns, but merely to argue that the below patterns are consistent with an increasingly crony capitalist economy.
The Paradox of Low Volatility and High Correlation
As many commentators have pointed out [1,2,3], the spike in volatility experienced during the depths of the financial crisis has largely reversed itself but correlation within equities and between various risky asset classes has kept on moving higher. The combination of high volatility and high correlation is associated with the process of collapse and typical of the Minsky moment when the system undergoes a rapid delevering. However the combination of high correlation and low volatility post the Minsky moment is unusual. In the absence of bailouts or protectionism, the economy should undergo a process of creative destruction and intense exploratory activity which by its diffuse nature results in low correlation. The combination of high correlation and low volatility instead signifies stasis and the absence of sufficient exploration in the economy, alongwith the presence of significant slack at firm level (micro-resilience).
As I mentioned in a previous post, financing constraints faced by small businesses hinder new firm entry across industries. Expanding lending to new firms is an act of exploration and incumbent banks are almost certainly content with exploiting their known and low-risk sources of income instead.
The Paradox of High Corporate Profitability, Rising Productivity and High Unemployment and The Paradox of High Cash Balances and High Debt Issuance
Although corporate profitability is not at an all-time high, it has recovered at an unusually rapid pace compared to the nonexistent recovery in employment and wages. The recovery in corporate profits has been driven by a rise in worker productivity and increased efficiency but the lag between an output recovery and an employment recovery seems to have increased dramatically. So far, this increased profitability has led not to increased business investment but to increased cash holdings by corporates. Big corporates with easy access to debt markets have even chosen to tap the debt markets simply for the purpose of increasing cash holdings.
Again, incumbent corporates are eager to squeeze efficiencies out of their current operations including downsizing the labour force but instead of channeling the savings from this increased efficiency into exploratory investment, they choose to increase holdings of liquid assets. In an environment where incumbents are under limited threat of being superceded by exploratory new entrants, holding cash is an extremely effective way to retain optionality (a strategy that is much less effective if the pace of exploratory innovation is high as an extended period of standing on the sidelines of exploratory activity can degrade the ability of the incumbent to rejoin the fray). Old jobs are being destroyed by the optimising activities of incumbents but the exploration required to create new jobs does not take place.
This discussion of profitability and unemployment echoes many of the common concerns of the far left. This is not a coincidence – one of the most damaging effects of Olsonian cronyism is its malformation of the economy from a positive-sum game into an increasingly zero-sum game. The dynamics of a predominantly crony capitalist economy are closer to a Marxian class struggle than they are to a competitive free-market economy. However, where I differ significantly from the left is in the proposed cure for the disease. For example, incumbent investment can be triggered by an increase in leverage by another sector – given the indebted state of the consumer, the government is the most likely candidate. But such a policy does nothing to tackle the reduced evolvability of the economy or the dominance of the incumbent special interest groups. Moreover, increased taxation and transfers of wealth to other organised groups such as labour only aggravate the ossification of the economic system into an increasingly zero-sum game. A sustainable solution must restore the positive-sum dynamics that are the essence of Schumpeterian capitalism. Such a solution involves reducing the power of the incumbent corporates and transferring wealth from incumbent corporates towards households not by taxation or protectionism but by restoring the invisible foot of new firm entry.