Archive for October, 2011
In many previous posts on this blog, I outlined why allowing the incumbent banks to fail when they become insolvent is a pre-requisite for achieving macroeconomic resilience. In my previous post I outlined how allowing such failure can be managed without causing a deflationary economic collapse in the process. Nevertheless, there are many who believe that a no-bailouts policy is tantamount to ‘financial romanticism’. In criticising the no-bailouts approach, Krugman deploys three arguments:
Policy makers will intervene anyway
It is undeniably true that policy makers will almost certainly move to stabilise the banking sector in times of economic distress. The aim of my ‘program’ was simply to sketch out a possible alternative that could be deployed rapidly during a crisis. Although I have some sympathy for policy makers asked to stabilise the economy during the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is worth noting that the same policy of implicit and explicit support has been extended to failing banks at almost every point since WW2 – even in many instances when the fallout would have been much smaller. It is this prolonged stabilisation that has left us with such a fragile financial system.
Are guarantees and safety net plus regulation the only feasible strategy?
I have no disagreement with the argument that “ bank regulation is important even in the absence of bailouts”. There are many industries which are regulated simply for the purposes of protecting their customers and banking is no different. However I disagree strongly with the notion that regulation can prevent the abuse of these guarantees. The history of banking is one of repeated circumvention of regulations by banks, a process that has only accelerated with the increased completeness of markets. Just because deregulation may have accelerated the extraction of the moral hazard subsidy (which it almost certainly did) does not imply that re-regulation can solve the problem. Banks now have at their disposal the ability to engineer synthetic exposures tailored to maximise rent extraction – the ‘synthetic CDO super-senior tranche’ that was at the heart of the losses in the investment banks in 2008 was one such invention. It is the completeness of this menu of options that banks possess to game regulations that distinguishes banking from other regulated industries. Minsky was well aware of the impact of financial innovation on the resilience of the financial system which is why he understood that the so-called golden age of the 50s and the 60s was “an accident of history, which was due to the financial residue of World War 2 following fast upon a great depression”.
Maturity Transformation and the Diamond-Dybvig framework
The core rationale of the Diamond-Dybvig framework is that banks are susceptible to self-fulfilling runs due to their unstable balance sheet comprising of long-maturity illiquid assets and on-demand liquid liabilities i.e. deposits. The implicit rationale is that maturity transformation has a beneficial impact. As William Dudley explains it, “the need for maturity transformation arises from the fact that the preferred habitat of borrowers tends toward longer-term maturities used to finance long-lived assets such as a house or a manufacturing plant, compared with the preferred habitat of investors, who generally have a preference to be able to access their funds quickly. Financial intermediaries act to span these preferences, earning profits by engaging in maturity transformation—borrowing shorter-term in order to finance longer-term lending”.
But what if there is no maturity mismatch for banks to intermediate? In a previous post I have argued that “structural changes in the economy have drastically reduced and even possibly eliminated the need for society to promote and subsidise maturity transformation.” The primary change in this regard is the increasing assets invested in pension funds and life insurers. Through these vehicles, households provide capital that strongly prefers long-maturity investments that match its long-tenor liabilities.
But how significant is this phenomenon and what does it mean for the economy-wide mismatch? In a recent research report, Patrick Artus at Natixis dug out the relevant numbers which I have summarised below:
In both the United States and Europe, household long-term savings (which includes pensions) is more than sufficient to meet the long-term borrowing needs of both the corporate and the household sector. In the case of the United States which issues its own currency, the need for maturity transformation can simply be eliminated by adjusting the government debt maturity profile accordingly. It is worth noting that even a significant proportion of the government debt in the above table is of a fairly short maturity.
The expansion that ended in 2008 was characterised by an expansion in the volume of long-term credit investments, but as Lord Adair Turner observed, in the United Kingdom “only a small proportion of those ended up in the balance sheets of long term hold-to-maturity investors such as pension funds or insurance companies. Instead the majority of UK residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) in particular were held by investing institutions, such as SIVs and mutual funds, behind which stood – at the end of the chain – short-term investors.” As Minsky might have predicted, maturity transformation was simply a tool to enter into a levered carry trade at the taxpayers’ expense.
In a world where maturity transformation does not even improve the efficiency of the economic system, Diamond-Dybvig and much of the rationale for our current banking and monetary system simply do not hold. The implications of this are not that we must ban maturity transformation. As Rajiv Sethi points out, even non-banking firms engage in maturity transformation and any attempt to stamp it out is futile. However, it is crucial that firms (banks or otherwise) that engage in maturity transformation are allowed to fail when they run into trouble.
The core logic behind my critique of macroeconomic stabilisation is that stability (and stabilisation) breeds systemic fragility. But this does not imply an opposition to all macroeconomic intervention, especially in a scenario when past stabilisation has left the macroeconomy in a fragile state. It simply insists on restricting our interventions to actions that preserve the essential adaptive character and creative destruction of our economic system.
A resilient framework of macroeconomic interventions must satisfy the following conditions:
- a focus on mitigating the most damaging consequences of disturbances on the macroeconomy rather than stamping out the disturbance at its source.
- a focus on discretionary interventions targeted at individuals rather than corporate limited-liability entities and limited to times of systemic crises.
- emphasis on maintaining general economic capacities and competences rather than protecting the specific incumbent entities that provide an economic function at any given point of time.
In theory monetary and fiscal policy interventions can easily fulfil all these criteria. In practise however, the history of both interventions is characterised by a systematic violation of all of them. The long history of propping up insolvent financial institutions via the TBTF guarantee and central bank ‘liquidity facilities’ combined with the doling out of fiscal favours to incumbent corporates has left us with a fragile and unequal economic system. As Michael Lewis puts it, we have “socialism for the capitalists and capitalism for everybody else” and the system shows no signs of changing despite the abysmal results so far. To paraphrase Robert Reich, behind every potential “resolution” of a debt crisis lies yet another bailout for the banks.
The pro-bailout proponents argue that there is no other option. According to them, allowing the banks to fail will bring about a certain economic collapse. In this post, I will argue against this notion that bank bailouts are inevitable and unavoidable. I will also lay out a coherent and simple alternative policy program to get us out of the mess that we’re currently in without having to undergo a systemic collapse to do so.
My policy proposal has three legs all of which need to be implemented simultaneously:
- Allow Failure: Allow insolvent banks and financialised corporations to fail.
- The Helicopter Drop: Institute a system of direct transfers to individuals (a helicopter drop) to mitigate the deflationary fallout from bank failure.
- Entry of New Banks: Allow fast-track approvals of new banks to restore banking capacity in the economy.
The argument against allowing bank and corporate failure is that it will trigger off a catastrophic deflationary collapse in the economy while at the same time crippling the lending capacity available to businesses and households. The helicopter drop of direct transfers helps prevent a deflationary collapse and the entry of new banks helps maintain lending capacity thus negating both concerns.
The Helicopter Drop
In order to promote system resilience and minimise moral hazard, any system of direct transfers must be directed only at individuals and it must be a discretionary policy tool utilised only to mitigate against the risk of systemic crises. The discretionary element is crucial as tail risk protection directed at individuals has minimal moral hazard implications if it is uncertain even to the slightest degree. Transfers must not be directed to corporate entities – even uncertain tail-risk protection provided to corporates will eventually be gamed. The critical difference between individuals and corporates in this regard is the ability of stockholders and creditors to spread their bets across corporate entities and ensure that failure of any one bet has only a limited impact on the individual investors’ finances. In an individual’s case, the risk of failure is by definition concentrated and the uncertain nature of the transfer will ensure that moral hazard implications are minimal. This conception of transfers as a macro-intervention tool is very different from ideas that assume constant, regular transfers or a steady safety net such as an income guarantee, job guarantee or a social credit.
Entry of New Banks
I have discussed in a previous post why entry of new banks allows us to preserve bank lending capacity without bailing out the incumbent banks. A similar idea has been laid out by David Merkel as a more resilient way to undertake TARP-like interventions. The fundamental principle is quite simple – system resilience refers to the ability to retain the same function while adapting to a disturbance. It does not imply that the function must be provided by the same incumbent entities. In fact, we are already beginning to see an expansion in non-bank credit as the era of low borrowing costs due to the implicit guarantee to bank creditors comes to an end. New banks unencumbered by the need to make up their past losses will be much better positioned to meet the credit demand from the real economy.The process of new firm entry in banking can be encouraged in many ways:
- Fast-track approvals
- Reduced capital requirements
- TARP-like seed capital participation as David Merkel has laid out.
Many commentators have criticised the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement for not having an agenda and a list of demands. But as Michael Lewis points out, their protests are not without merit. The slogan ‘We are the 99 percent’ captures the essence of the problem which is the explosion of the share of the national income captured by the richest 1% of the population. If this inequality was perceived to be fair or if it had occurred at a time of prosperity for the masses, it is unlikely that there would have been any protest at all. But as I have pointed out, the rise in income captured by the richest 1% is primarily driven by the rents captured by and through the financial sector. The same doctrine of macroeconomic stabilisation that acted as the source of these rents has also transformed the economy into a financialised and cronyist system unable to sustain a broad-based and sustainable recovery. Simply allowing the failure of insolvent banks and financialised corporations and putting an end to the flow of rents towards the banks will go a long way towards reducing the level of inequality in the economy. At the same time, the entry of new firms will restore the economy’s competitive and innovative dynamism.
The argument against stabilisation is akin to a broader, more profound form of the moral hazard argument. But the ecological ‘systems’ approach is much more widely applicable than the conventional moral hazard argument for a couple of reasons:
- The essence of the Minskyian explanation is not that economic agents get fooled by the period of stability or that they are irrational. It is that there are sufficient selective forces (especially amongst principal-agent relationships) in the modern economy that the moral hazard outcome can be achieved even without any active intentionality on the part of economic agents to game the system.
- The micro-prudential consequences of stabilisation and moral hazard are dwarfed by their macro-prudential systemic consequences. The composition of agents changes and becomes less diverse as those firms and agents that try to follow more resilient or less leveraged strategies will be outcompeted and weeded out – this loss of diversity is exacerbated by banks’ adaptation to the intervention strategies preferred by central banks in order to minimise their losses. And most critically, the suppression of disturbances increases the connectivity and reduces the ‘patchiness’ and modularity of the macroeconomic system. In the absence of disturbances, connectivity builds up within the network, both within and between scales. Increased within-scale connectivity increases the severity of disturbances and increased between-scale connectivity increases the probability that a disturbance at a lower level will propagate up to higher levels and cause systemic collapse.
Macro-stabilisation therefore breeds fragility in the financial sector. But what about the real economy? One could argue that in the long run, it is creative destruction in the real economy that drives economic growth and surely macro-stabilisation does not impede the pace of long-run innovation? Moreover, even if non-financial economic agents were ‘Ponzi borrowers’, wouldn’t real economic shocks be sufficient to deliver the “disturbances” consistent with macroeconomic resilience? Unfortunately, the assumption that nominal income stabilisation has no real impact is too simplistic. Macroeconomic stabilisation is one of the key drivers of the process of financialisation through which it transmits financial fragility throughout the real economy and hampers the process of exploratory innovation and creative destruction.
Financialisation is a term with many definitions. Since my focus is on financialisation in the corporate domain (rather than in the household sector), Greta Krippner’s definition of financialisation as a ““pattern of accumulation in which profit making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” is closest to the mark. But from a resilience perspective, it is more accurate to define financialisation as a “pattern of accumulation in which risk-taking occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production”.
In the long run, creating any source of stability in a capitalist economy incentivises economic agents to realign themselves to exploit that source of security and thereby reduce risk. Similar to how banks adaptation to the intervention strategies preferred by central banks by taking on more “macro” risks, macro-stabilisation incentivises real economy firms to shed idiosyncratic micro-risks and take on financial risks instead. Suppressing nominal volatility encourages economic agents to shed real risks and take on nominal risks. In the presence of the Greenspan/Bernanke put, a strategy focused on “macro” asset price risks and leverage outcompetes strategies focused on “risky” innovation. Just as banks that exploit the guarantees offered by central banks outcompete those that don’t, real economy firms that realign themselves to become more bank-like outcompete those that choose not to.
The poster child for this dynamic is the transformation of General Electric during the Jack Welch Era, when “GE’s no-growth, blue-chip industrial businesses were run for profits and to maintain the AAA credit rating which was then used to expand GE Capital.” Again, the financialised strategy outcompetes all others and drives out “real economy” firms. As Doug Rushkoff observed, “the closer to the creation of value you get under this scheme, the farther you are from the money”. General Electric’s strategy is an excellent example of how financialisation is not just a matter of levering up the balance sheet. It could just as easily be focused on aggressively extending leverage to one’s clients, a strategy that is just as adept at delivering low-risk profits in an environment where the central bank is focused on avoiding even the smallest snap-back in an elastic, over-extended monetary system. When central bankers are focused on preventing significant pullbacks in equity prices (the Greenspan/Bernanke put), then real-economy firms are incentivised to take on more systematic risk and reduce their idiosyncratic risk exposure.
Some Post-Keynesian and Marxian economists also claim that this process of financialisation is responsible for the reluctance of corporates to invest in innovation. As Bill Lazonick puts it, “the financialization of corporate resource allocation undermines investment in innovation”. This ‘investment deficit’ has in turn led to the secular downturn in productivity growth across the Western world since the 1970s, a phenomenon that Tyler Cowen has coined as ‘The Great Stagnation’. This thesis, appealing though it is, is too simplistic. The increased market-sensitivity combined with the macro-stabilisation commitment encourages low-risk process innovation and discourages uncertain and exploratory product innovation. The collapse in high-risk, exploratory innovation is exacerbated by the rise in the influence of special interests that accompanies any extended period of stability, a dynamic that I discussed in an earlier post.
The easiest way to explain the above dynamic is to take a slightly provocative example. Let us assume that the Fed decides to make the ‘Bernanke Put’ more explicit by either managing a floor on equity prices or buying a significant amoubt of equities outright. The initial result may be positive but in the long run, firms will simply align their risk profile to that of the broader market. The end result will be a homogenous corporate sector free of any disruptive innovation – a state of perfect equilibrium but also a state of rigor mortis.