What next, after 2008? A book review

Mervyn King (The End of Alchemy, W. W. Norton, 2016) has a message. We are not safe. The economics profession has failed us. So have the economic policy makers of the US, Germany, China, and Europe. The banks still play a game that King calls ‘alchemy.’ Central banks won’t or can’t escape the infamous Keynesian liquidity trap. And we are prisoners facing dilemmas, macroeconomic policy is a paradox, sovereign debts are unbearable, and the world is full of ‘radical’ uncertainty.

In short, what we have today is pretty much a lull before the end of the world; 2008 was just the preview trailer. Alternatively, the world may not end but it will take a long while for robust economic growth to re-emerge, and there is very little that can be done about the matter. Either way, it’s a sobering conclusion.

Is the book worth reading? Yes, if only to get a handle on how central banks thought as they dealt with 2008 and its immediate aftermath. In addition, the curious but uninitiated reader gets introduced to the concepts of Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Keynesian Liquidity trap, liquidity transformation by banks, and the difference between risk and uncertainty.

King’s book also contains a longish but bureaucratic take on why 2008 happened. King gets to it on pp. 26-39 and pp. 317-328. Going by his view, as well as that of others in the fields of central banking and macroeconomics, the ‘conventional wisdom’ on 2008 might be summarized as follows.

It began with the fall of the Wall in 1989, also known as The End of History, that ushered in the Great Stability, an era of low inflation and robust economic growth all around. The main central banks finally imbibed the religion of the Quantity Theory in the 1990s and early 2000s, making themselves accountable to the public through pledges to abide by (low) inflation targets. King calls this period The Great Stability. (Never mind the hiccups of the 1997 Asian crisis or the bubble-crash of dotcoms in 1997-2001.)

Beneath the gloss of prosperity were gathering problems. Banks were raising their leverage in the hunt for profit. Prices in stock and real estate markets outpaced inflation of everyday goods, and central banks felt that paper wealth was not a worrisome thing (after all, one cannot eat stocks or houses), and the US Fed actually thought it would boost consumer spending. Some countries pushed their luck with foreign borrowings, notably Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Argentina.

The failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 is considered the trigger of the crisis. It was, with hindsight, the outcome of the unexpected fall of real estate prices in the summer of 2007 and associated mortgage defaults in the US. The failure exposed the extreme leverage in the US financial system, and with banks unwilling to recognize their paper losses in the derivatives market for sub-prime mortgages, a run for liquidity, called The Great Panic, ensued. The panic was arrested only by official rescues. Consequently, in 2008-2009, the financial crisis affected real economies, with world trade falling and global GDP decelerating into The Great Recession.

King, as do other observers such as Edwin Truman, believes that underlying macroeconomic imbalances were also to blame. The extreme example often cited was the ‘savings glut’ in China that fueled ‘overconsumption’ in the US. Supposedly, the excess saving in China was intermediated by the banking systems of both countries. The theory is that without such imbalances, there would have been no resources that could fuel the asset price inflation in the US and in other countries.

So far so good. King then ends up suggesting that the re-capitalization of major banks since 2008 is a good thing but probably not enough.

As to the book’s shortcomings, they are:

King seemingly ignores the work of Charles Kindleberger (Manias, Panics, and Crashes, 2005) where Kindleberger had formulated an economic model of financial crises, based on the work of Hyman Minsky. King does mention Minsky but in a somewhat negative light.

King nonetheless cites (on p. 34), with some tongue in cheek, two ‘laws’ on financial crises, which he attributes to Dornbusch. One is that ‘an unsustainable position can continue for far longer than you would believe possible.’ The other is: ‘When an unsustainable position ends it happens faster than you could imagine.’ It is of course almost vintage Minsky.

And yet, to date, the economics profession’s best ever model of financial crises still seems to be the Kindleberger-Minsky model. That model cannot be used to make precise predictions, but it does give the best explanation, ex post, of how a financial crisis plays out. The major central banks had been using, in 2008, something called DSGE (‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’) macro models. These models were not at all designed to incorporate Keynes’ deus ex machina of ‘animal spirits,’ except as ‘shocks’ external to the structure of DSGE models, which meant that the central banks had essentially no inkling of the crisis before it hit. The IMF insiders called it ‘group think.’

If we could ask Kindleberger or Minsky today on their views on 2008, most likely they would say that it fits their model that sees a financial crisis in three parts — mania, panic, crash. The story is not much different from King’s, except that Minsky would give greater emphasis on the trigger of 2008 as one rooted in overconfidence, what Greenspan had called ‘irrational exuberance.’ That there had to be other villains is a given. In 2008, they included the toxification of bank balance sheets (with inexplicable financial derivatives) that was an outcome of a ‘deregulation’ tilt that allowed subprime debts to be brazenly sold by lenders as ‘almost prime.’ Since King doesn’t like the fractional reserve nature of modern banking, he gives more emphasis to the alchemy-like leveraging that modern banks practice. In effect, King would not disagree with Minsky that it was a kind of Ponzi game that allowed banks to trap themselves into a corner that would eventually ‘blow up.’

This comparison of models means that King’s main proposal — his view that central banks should act like a ‘pawnbroker for all seasons’ — to narrow monetary base creation to ‘safe’ banks, while widening the securitization of other lending by bank-like institutions, is just another way of allowing excessive exuberance to be seen as a can to be kicked down the (future) road of ‘fundamental uncertainty.’ In short, since King has set up the medium and long term as a problem of fundamental uncertainty, there isn’t much that central banks or governments can do to tame business cycles. That is not different from Minsky and his ‘moments.’ There is an inexorable underlying tension between free capital markets and macroeconomic management by governments and central banks, something Robert Shiller and others had more or less also observed (see Shiller and Akerlof’s Animal Spirits, 2009).

King does not quite succeed in explaining the arcana of modern economics in the areas of: (a) how Keynes was co-opted into the ‘neoclassical synthesis’ (King merely says that Keynes was at odds with ‘neoclassical economics,’ a basic lesson from an introductory economics class); (b) the ‘paradox of policy,’ where he asserts that the short-run need to overcome the liquidity trap is inconsistent with the need in the long run to let the private sector decide how to correct ‘structural imbalances’ in the economy; and (c) how ‘fixed’ exchange rates and differences in saving rates across countries lead to ‘imbalances’ that in the long run need to be addressed.

It appears that it is up to others to try to make better sense of what King wants to recommend as a way out of the economic doldrums post-2008. Perhaps this explains why the book blurbs on the outside back cover hint of mystery amid faint praise from the usual suspects.

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Will Bitcoin crash and resurrect?

NOT BITCOIN but better.

One use of Bitcoin is for anonymous transactions, i.e., as a substitute for ordinary cash or bank notes.

The problem is that the currently available bitcoins fluctuate in value. The ideal is a bitcoin that is stable for at least a certain determinate or even indefinite time against a major currency, such as the US dollar. In short, we want or need an alternative bitcoin that is like a dollar banknote. We imagine this alternative works better than keeping banknotes under the mattress or in a safe deposit box, because it avoids thievery and the transaction costs of going to the safe deposit box.

It can be done. The easiest is for the US Fed to do it. It would allow anyone to buy something we might call the official bitcoin dollar in exchange for a guarantee that bitcoin dollars are exchangeable into US banknotes. If this works, it will be because it would reduce the costs now paid by the central bank for printing currency and going after counterfeits. In this scenario, the blockchain ensures that counterfeit official bitcoins cannot exist.

Another way is for a major private bank to ‘create’ its bitcoin dollar. Imagine that Chase does it, and calls it the Chase bitcoin dollar. All it is is a special debit card account where Chase guarantees to make the Chase bitcoin dollar exchangeable for cash. The guarantee is in effect a promise that Chase will honor Chase bitcoin dollar liabilities ahead of its any other liabilities. To ensure such a guarantee, Chase would enter into a ‘currency board’ arrangement with the US Fed by maintaining Fed fund balances in a separate special account solely for the purpose of redeeming Chase bitcoin dollars. In short, the fractional nature of the private banking system will not apply to bitcoin dollars.  

The blockchain also allows Chase to ensure that no other entity can create Chase bitcoin dollars. The ‘supply’ of Chase bitcoin dollars will always be the same as the demand for such dollars.

Any other private bank would be allowed to participate in a ‘branded’ bitcoin currency. I can imagine HSBC issuing special debit cards for HSBC bitcoin dollars, HSBC bitcoin euros, or HSBC bitcoin yen. They may be allowed to compete through enhancements on convenience of use, allowing for fee-free global transfers, or even the payment of interest.  

One important enhancement would be US consumer protections against fraud now being given to users of credit cards. Any merchant declining to honor a bitcoin debit card would be presumed to be up to no good.

The similarity with bank notes will have to be carried to an extreme that meets certain anonymity and privacy standards. The issuer of a bitcoin dollar will have to honor the bearer of the account provided that said bearer satisfies identity requirements. 

At the same time, the use of such accounts will have to be protected by bank secrecy rules, but subject to money-laundering limits. For example, bitcoin dollar transactions in a particular account cannot exceed $10,000 per day, and a bank cannot allow a depositor more than one bitcoin dollar account. A maximum-balance limit of, say, $100,000 per account, could be imposed, in parallel with limits now applied under existing deposit insurance schemes.
Central banks could also impose limits on how many bitcoin dollar accounts an individual can have. To protect banks from money-laundering, bitcoin dollar accounts would not be available to corporations.

Will the advent of such official or private bitcoin dollars kill the existing bitcoins? It could, especially if bitcoins continue to be more attractive as speculation vehicles than as means of payment.

But bitcoin exchanges could create ‘hybrid’ bitcoins whose ‘mining’ or supply-side arrangements are fully transparent, and whose value could be stabilized in some fashion desired by the bitcoin holder. In short, there could be different bitcoins for different purposes. Caveat emptor and ‘know your customer’ rules would still be needed. However, such bitcoins would remain without guarantees similar to deposit insurance, and they may still be vehicles for speculation.

My best guess: Bitcoins will evolve, i.e., the fittest will survive. The Dutch tulip variety will become extinct. As of now, they’re pretty much as primitive as Dutch tulips.

Some (maybe strange) economics questions

 

1. Can economics say anything about unforeseeable (uninsurable) disasters? I’m thinking about the idea that a butterfly moving its wings can cause a global tsunami.

2. Will robots cause permanent unemployment? Rephrase this question. In ancient history, the nobility didn’t do the work because they had vassals and slaves. Were the nobles unemployed? Was that a bad thing? Is employment/underemployment/unemployment an issue of quality of life?

3. What exactly is poverty? If stray dogs are poor, and pet dogs are rich, is it good policy to control the population of stray dogs? Or is it better policy to have feeding stations for stray dogs? Or is it an even better policy to mandate that those who have pet dogs also feed the poor and hungry humans nearby? After all, we seem to always say that humans have rights that animals don’t.

HW for EC 11 – Macroeconomics and Unemployment

For readings, please refer to my lecture notes on macroeconomics, and to Mankiw’s chapter on the natural rate of unemployment. For extra-credit questions, you may have to do further research or readings.

Please answer the following questions, and submit your answers by email by March 2, 2016.

  1. What is the most important difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics?
  2. Explain Say’s Law. Why is it important for an understanding of macroeconomics?
  3. How does Mankiw define the natural rate of unemployment?
  4. According to Mankiw, what are the four reasons why the natural rate of unemployment is not zero? Are these reasons important in the context of the Philippine economy?
  5. It is said that macroeconomics is essentially the economics of unemployment and inflation. Why, in your opinion (based on your readings or research), do policy-makers not aim for zero unemployment and zero inflation?
  6. Extra credit: What is the Okun Index of Misery? Can it be improved by including a poverty index?
  7. Even more extra credit: Construct an Okun Misery Index for the Philippine economy. How far back in time could you go? (Hint: data may be available in the websites of BSP and IMF.) Is it affected by the prevailing economic policies of various Presidents? (Anyone – even a group of up to three – answering this question well will be exempted from taking a final exam.)
  8. Extra credit: Explain in your own words the Neoclassical Synthesis (this is from previous studies in EC 12, History of Economic Thought).

How are money and inflation institutions?

The macro textbooks usually say that inflation comes from the supply of money. In a regime of fiat monies, central banks “compete” at providing stable money. However, some central banks’ hands are tied by their governments’ desire to use the inflation tax. If you don’t trust the local money, you can always switch to foreign exchange, gold, or even Bitcoin.

But if money is what folks accept as such, its devaluation must also come from folks collectively thinking that the central bank intends to print more.  Its rise in purchasing power can also come from holders thinking of it as a “safe” money.

Veblen once defined institutions as collective habits of thought (at p.107).  That means that to predict inflation, one must anticipate the price expectations and strategies of buyers and sellers of money. Today, cash is king, so that it makes sense to see low or even negative inflation and interest rates.

This means that the macro textbooks don’t have the full story. Inflation is also a story of institutions in the sense of Veblen.

Forced Saving

Early in the history of the debate between Keynes and Hayek, the two struggled without success to clarify the meaning of something called “forced saving.”

It turns out that they didn’t really disagree; they just didn’t agree on definitions.

The following are notes based on excerpts of an article by Roger Garrison.

EXCERPTS FROM Garrison. http://www.auburn.edu/~garriro/strigl.htm

Hayek and Keynes:
The problem with Hayek’s “forced saving,” then, is that it presents itself syntactically as a kind of saving while referring contextually to a pattern of investment. Hayek himself was certainly alive to this point even as early as his Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. In a chapter titled “Unsettled Problems in Trade Cycle Theory,” Hayek ([1928] 1975, p. 220) referred to the term as a “rather unfortunate expression.” He preferred the phrase “artificially induced capital accumulation.” In his subsequent “Note on the Development,” Hayek ([1939] 1975, p. 197) mentions Keynes’s avoidance of the term in his Treatise on Money: “Keynes … rejects this terminology [forced saving] and prefers to speak simply of investment being in excess of saving; and there is much to be said in favor of this.” But despite Hayek’s and others’ dissatisfaction with using the term to refer to a pattern of investment rather than a kind of saving, forced saving (both the term and the concept) has come to be considered the sine qua non of Austrian business cycle theory and particularly of Hayek’s rendition of that theory.

Mises and Hayek:
There is an easy—though only partial—reconciliation between Mises’s and Hayek’s contrasting formulations. It comes from our recognition that Hayek’s “forced saving,” rather than being the antonym of “overconsumption,” is actually a synonym for “malinvestment.” With unduly favorable credit conditions, the business community is investing as if saving has increased when in fact saving has decreased. There is no contradiction here between Mises and Hayek but rather a contradiction recognized by both in the market forces associated with a credit-driven boom. It is this contradiction, if fact, that lies at the root of the boom’s unsustainability. A fuller resolution of the differences between Mises and Hayek requires a closer look at “forced saving” and “overconsumption” as used by each.

MY NOTES
Hayek had a concept of “forced saving” that is equivalent to “malinvestment” or investment in excess of what is optimal (optimal being consistent with maximizing society’s welfare). Indeed, he accepted that he really meant it to mean “artificially induced capital accumulation.”

Keynes tried to wrestle with the idea, and used it, according to Hayek, to mean something else: the excess of (desired) aggregate investment by firms over (actual) saving of households (assuming that only firms invest and only households save). The term would then cover an unwanted and unexpected increase in business inventories (that might signal that producers are producing more than quantity demanded at the prevailing prices). The concept, in the language of Keynes, could easily have been named “forced investment.”

We can then reconcile Keynes with Hayek. In either of these two’s views, forced saving comes at the down-turn of the business cycle. But in Hayek’s views, forced saving also happens at the boom, when there is over-investment by firms who have a too-rosy projection of future demand; the forcing factor here is artificially low interest rates arising from too-easy monetary policy.

Garrison states that the concept of forced saving is central to Austrian business cycle theory.

Econ 12 – Assignment No. 4 due Feb. 10, 2015

Prepare, individually, short written answers to the following questions, and submit them to me by e-mail (oroncesval@gmail.com) on or before February 10, 2015. Most of the answers can be found in Chs. 8, 9, 10, and part of Ch. 13 of the Backhouse textbook. You should also do some independent research using other sources.

1.Summarize the ideas and theories in institutional economics. Include the economic thought of Veblen, Commons, Wesley Mitchell, and Galbraith.
2.What is the Tragedy of the Commons? Explain. (Here, you may consult: http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/misc/webfeat/sotp/pdfs/162-3859-1243.pdf.)
3.What is Keynesian economics? What is the role of ‘animal spirits’ in Keynesian economics?
4.What is the so-called neoclassical synthesis between neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics?
5.What is the main difference between the ideas in Keynesian economics and the so-called New Classical Macroeconomics?
6.What is general equilibrium theory, and what’s wrong with it?

Please bring hard copies of your submissions for giving out to me and your classmates when we meet again on February 11.