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.


Bitcoins are forever

This is a story of mania, panic, and crash. It’s not new. 

Today’s market cap is roughly $150 billion. Averaged over, say, 3 million holders, that’s $50,000 each. Peanuts, if you belong to the 1%.

The trick is to kite the price to anywhere from 5 to 20 times the current level of $4,000.

The sales are essentially wash sales, as coins just go round and round. That’s why they’re coins, see.

Spectators – the victims – then want in, and the insiders pump and dump swimmingly, until the 3 million can get out with huge profits, at the expense of the latecomers.

The end is a classic Minsky Moment, when the latecomers try to sell. The algorithms in the trading platforms would ask: ‘To whom?’ And the price spirals to nothing.

Question for economists: Can the end trigger a financial or economic crisis? A dire scenario is that the latecomers’ loss results in bankruptcies and loan defaults, a retrenchment in purchases of housing and consumer durables, or in a general malaise in business and consumer confidence. Banks may fail if they finance bitcoin purchases.

With the benefit of foresight, monetary authorities will likely institute safeguards. Trading platforms are like banks, and will need adequate capital in case of an epidemic of ‘fails,’ which can happen if traders engage in short sales, or in margin trading. The Know Your Customer rule will have to be integrated into the block chain data base, and imposed by banks on customers operating trading platforms. 

Of course, theoretically, since virtual currencies can function as money, all trading can take place outside the banking system. If that were the case, the ponzi won’t work: How would the victims’ money enter into the bitcoin system? The price would go up and down forever, but that’s all. It’s funny money after all.

Bitcoin as money

BITCOIN Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.04.16 AM

The following is a note found on Facebook.

Random ideas on what makes money money
by Kermit Kefafel,  Friday, January 29, 2016

Is money a public or private good? It is a private good imbued with public interest. The public goods that attach to money are the safety of the banking system and price stability, as conventionally promised by a central bank.

What are cryptocurrencies? They act as substitutes for the use of cash in untraceable transactions, the idea of Bitcoin. You can even buy bitcoins at your local 7-Eleven.

The market for Bitcoin has lately been shaken with the arrest of one of its principals; there is talk that it could collapse. Will other cryptocurrencies have the same problems?

I suspect that for a cryptocurrency to become viable, it must hurdle the trust problem — its users and holders must be assured that its supply and valuation are, in some sense, sacrosanct. That its price could bubble up and down like a financial asset is a negative. Even fiat-currency central banks pay some kind of lip service to exchange stability under the current system of floating exchange rates.

Because of the public-goods aspect of money, a stateless currency requires an enforcement mechanism that is private but viable. Does such an enforcement mechanism exist?

Or, are cryptocurrencies just another Ponzi scheme?


For reference, see Lawrence White’s article in the Cato Journal.

The central bank (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) has issued an advisory regarding the lack of regulation on virtual currencies.

A recent assessment predicts continued growth of Bitcoin in the Philippines.



Capitalism, Blood, and Gore

Is there such a thing as “sustainable” capitalism?

Long ago, Keynes warned that laissez faire capitalism was doomed, not in the sense set out by Karl Marx, but because of Marx: Supposedly labor unions got to be strong enough to ‘fix’ wages, and then was born the basic Keynesian ‘inadequate’ aggregate demand explanation of recession, which meant that capitalism was inherently unstable. Keynes response was for governments to fill the gap, and so here we are, still wondering what hit us in 2008. 

Continue reading “Capitalism, Blood, and Gore”

Clipping Groupon

Robert Shiller once proposed that well-meaning economists should point out instances of irrational exuberance.

I could go one step more.  When you see a Ponzi-IPO, not in the criminal sense, but in the Minsky one, it’s time to point it out.  Or, if you have the guts, go short soon after the IPO.

Where is this headed?  One word: Groupon.  And a descriptor: Flawed business model.

The IPO has a tell-tale tell:”The company has used 85 percent of the $1.11 billion it has raised from venture capitalists and other investors to buy equity from early investors eager for a return, instead of funding growth…”

Amazing!  The early birds have cashed out more than $943M gross (not sure how much they had put in, but presumably they came out more than whole).  An unwitting IPO buyer is being asked to come in as a “middle bird.”

The saying goes:  Better to be safe than sorry.  Another: Caveat emptor.

Efficiency and rationality of stock markets

Can an efficient market exhibit irrational pricing?

The answer is Yes. The answer given here is based on a re-reading of Robert Shiller’s 2005 book, Irrational Exuberance

Let us first define terms.  An efficient market is one where all profitable trades have been exploited; in the textbook sense, it is one where the price observed is the market-clearing price, or where the demand and supply curves intersect.  Irrationality is a defect in the perceptions of market participants; they may be subject to excesses of optimism or pessimism, which may cause them to buy more or less than they would if they had been rational.

Continue reading “Efficiency and rationality of stock markets”