resilience, not stability

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An Update

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Over the next few months, I will post a lot more frequently on this blog. But most of my posts will not be long essays but shorter off-the-cuff notes and responses to blog posts elsewhere.

The primary reason for this change is that I’m writing a longer, book-length piece on the ‘invisible foot’. Hence its unlikely that I will find the time and energy to write too many other long-form essays on economics. But my reading and writing sessions generate quite a few byproducts which will find their way here.

Thanks for reading.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

June 27th, 2013 at 1:40 pm

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New Essay

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I have written a new essay in the economics section of my new project reconciling the possibility of technological unemployment during a time of innovative stagnation titled Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation. Most of it is just a rehash of arguments that I have made on this blog especially in the posts Innovation, Stagnation and Unemployment and Advances in Technology and Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Education and Employment but about 25-30% of the essay is new material and the overall essay itself is written in a much simpler manner than many of my posts here.

Do let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

January 4th, 2013 at 12:00 am

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An Experiment

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Most of my posts on this blog tackle different topics from essentially the same perspective, which is a biological/ecological systems-influenced take on the concept of system resilience. But the basic concepts of this underlying framework are spread out among a bunch of overlapping posts. In an attempt to make each post stand on its own, I find myself spending more and more time repeating past arguments in new posts in order to set the stage for new ideas. I find this repetition incredibly boring and at the same time, this half-hearted repetition probably doesn’t do much to help a new reader either.

To try and resolve this problem, I’m going to write most of my interdisciplinary resilience material in a more hierarchical format. The format I’m going to adopt here is to distil the essential framework into short summary essay and organise the rest of my writing by domain – economics, biology, ecology, technology etc. The idea is that you should be able to read the summary essays and then dive into whichever domain takes your fancy. Conversely the core ideas explored in each domain should mostly be summarised in the summary essays. These essays will be relatively simple but the material within the domain sections will be much more detailed and often messy.

This format also allows me to reconcile my desire to draw generalised parallels across domains while at the same time exploring each domain in detail. So to kick off this experiment, I’ve posted the initial summary essay titled “All Systems Need A Little Disorder” at The basic idea in this essay – that systems that need to be robust and generate novelty need some chaos (not a lot of chaos, just a little bit) – underlies pretty much all of the posts I have written on this blog. In the next few months, I will apply and elaborate upon the basic concepts in this essay across a wider array of domains than I have explored so far.

By adopting this format, I can hopefully increase the output of material that I post online and explore new topics more easily without having to rehash old posts. At the same time new readers will hopefully have a more coherent way of navigating through my ideas. I will post links to any new material on this blog as well for those of you who subscribe to the RSS feed here. I will continue to write here but the material will probably be more limited to macroeconomics and finance than it has previously been.

As always any feedback is much appreciated. Thanks for reading.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

December 11th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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SNB’s Swiss Franc Dilemma: A Solution

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As I highlighted in my previous post, the honeymoon period for the SNB in its enforcement of the 1.20 floor on the EURCHF exchange rate is well and truly over. In May, the SNB needed to intervene to the tune of CHF 66 bn to defend the floor. There’s even speculation that the SNB may be forced to implement capital controls or negative interest rates on offshore deposits in the event of a disorderly Greek exit from the Eurozone.

Increasingly, the SNB is caught between a rock and a hard place. Either it can continue to defend the peg and accumulate increasing amounts of foreign exchange reserves on which it faces the prospect of correspondingly increasing losses. Or it can abandon the peg, allow the CHF to appreciate 20-25% and risk deflation and a collapse in exports and GDP. It is not difficult to see why the SNB is being forced to defend the peg – the EUR in the current environment is a risky asset and the CHF is a safe asset. By committing to sell a safe asset at a below-market price, the SNB is subsidising the price of safety. It is no wonder then that this offer finds so many takers when there is a flight to safety.

Some argue that the continued deflation in the Swiss economy allows the SNB to maintain its peg but this argument ignores the fact that it is the continued deflation that also maintains the safe status of the Swiss Franc. Deflation provides the impetus for the safe-haven flows due to which the required intervention by the SNB and the SNB’s risk exposure are that much greater in magnitude. Therefore, if the SNB is eventually forced to abandon the floor, the earlier the better. A prolonged period of deflation punctuated by occasional flights to safety will compel the SNB to accumulate an unsustainable level of foreign exchange reserves to defend the floor. By the same logic, the SNB would obviously prefer that the Eurozone not implode but if it does implode, then it would rather that the Euro implodes sooner rather than later.

So what does the SNB need to do? It needs to engineer an outcome where the market price of the EURCHF moves up and the CHF devalues by itself. The only sustainable way to achieve this is to provide a significant dose of inflation to the Swiss economy and it needs to do so in a manner that does not provide an even larger subsidy to those running away from risk. For example, raising the EURCHF floor by itself only increases the temptation to buy the Franc and at best provides a one-time dose of inflation. The SNB could decide to buy CHF private sector assets but the safe-haven inflows and relatively strong performance of the Swiss economy mean that asset markets, especially housing, are already frothy.

The more sustainable and equitable solution is to simply make the safe asset unsafe by generating the requisite inflation for which money-financed helicopter drops are the best solution. Money-financed fiscal transfers will create inflation, deter the safe-haven inflow and shore up the balance sheet of the Swiss household sector. The robustness of this solution in creating sustainable inflation will not come as a shock to any emerging market central banker or finance minister. The crucial difference between this plan and that implemented by banana republics around the world is that instead of printing money and funnelling it to corrupt government officials we will distribute the money to the masses.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

June 12th, 2012 at 11:21 am

The Euro and the Resilience-Stability Tradeoff

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In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.

The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.

Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.

One way to analyse this evolution is via Axel Leijonhufvud’s ‘corridor hypothesis’. Leijonhufvud postulated that a macroeconomy will adapt well to small shocks but “outside of a certain zone or “corridor” around its long-run growth path, it will only very sluggishly react to sufficiently large, infrequent shocks.” In Leijonhufvud’s own view, the driver of this “demand failure” outside the corridor was the “exhaustion of liquid buffers reinforced by dysfunctional revisions of permanent income expectations” Stability reduces the width of the corridor to the point where even a small shock is enough to push the system outside the corridor – the primary driver of this process is a progressive reduction of liquid buffers in the good times such that even a small shock will exhaust them.

In my earlier posts comparing the dilemmas of managing a stabilised economic system to those of a fire-suppressed forest and a flood-suppressed river system, I claimed that managing a stabilised and fragile system is akin to choosing between the frying pan and the fire. Minsky too recognised that the stabilisation program would eventually run into a cul-de-sac where “the choice seems to become whether to accomodate to an increasing inflation or to induce a debt-deflation process that can lead to a serious depression”. What he could not possibly have foreseen is that instead of turning towards the safety valve of inflation, the developed world would instead choose to abandon the goal of full employment. This of course simply chooses social fragility over macroeconomic fragility. The consequences of the abandonment of the Euro project pale in comparison to the forces that may be unleashed by the combination of social fragility via unemployment and a perceived democratic deficit.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

November 14th, 2011 at 12:17 pm

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The Case For Allowing Banks to Fail

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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.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

October 10th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

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Coming Out of Anonymity

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I recently exited banking to start work on an entrepreneurial venture I’ve been excited about for a while which means that I have updated my “About” page. The most rewarding aspect of writing on this blog has been the feedback that I’ve received. Hopefully, my “unanonymisation” will encourage some of you who are uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with an anonymous person to converse with me. Thanks for reading.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

August 9th, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized