Are we doomed?

With so much bad news from the financial markets, it is becoming difficult to see the wood for the trees. This is my attempt to identify the main economic problems we face, and to explore their policy implications.

Problem 1. Sovereign Debt

Put simply, governments throughout the West have borrowed, and continue to borrow, too much money. They have become accustomed to living far beyond their means, and seem to be unable to stop. Some countries have already hit the point of no return, while others are fast approaching it. What the markets are most concerned about is the prospect of sovereign default – that is, governments holding up their hands and saying, “sorry, we just can’t pay you back.” Sovereign defaults in major economies (like Italy) would likely have disastrous knock-on effects.

Problem 2. An exposed financial sector

The reason sovereign default is such a big problem is that governments bonds have long been considered more-or-less the safest kind of investment. They form the ‘security’ part of most portfolios. Indeed, one of the main ways we have tried to make our banks safer since the financial crisis is to force them to invest more in government bonds. So if the sovereigns go, so do many of our banks. And there does come a point where more bailouts just aren’t possible.

Problem 3. Sclerotic growth

Normally, one wouldn’t be too worried about sovereign debt. Governments are seen as going concerns, with extremely secure revenue streams. How can you run out of money when you are legally entitled to force people to give it to you? The difficulty comes when your growth rates are so low that there isn’t enough money to give. Then you have a big problem.

Of course, I’ve long argued that a quick bounce back from the recent recession was unlikely. Those countries that experienced a major credit-fuelled boom were left with severe economic distortions. Unsustainable bubbles had built up in financial services, housing and construction and the public sector. Given that these sectors form a major part of many country’s GDP figures, and given that a necessary part of the economic adjustment process was that these sectors would shrink, it was always hard to see where significant growth was going to come from.

But there’s also a broader point here. We may actually be witnessing the inevitable breakdown of the modern, bureaucratic welfare state. Countries are finding themselves with too many unproductive people for a dwindling stock of productive people to support. To put it more colourfully, the parasites are taking over the host, and they are slowly strangling it to death.

Problem 4. Low private sector confidence

The one peculiar thing about the current outbreak of economic doom mongering is the there a lot of private enterprises that actually look pretty good. Particularly in the US, there have been strong earnings and good profits reported, and cash flow looks very positive. Yet businesses aren’t investing. Why? The main reason is a lack of confidence – they don’t want to invest in projects that will take time to come to fruition when the future is so uncertain. And who can blame them? When political failure is raising the spectre of sovereign default and financial collapse, when severe deflation and hyperinflation both look like genuine possibilities, and when you don’t know where the next tax or regulatory burden is coming from, who would want to take on any extra risk?

Policy implications

The first policy implication is straightforward enough. Governments have to come up with credible plans to eliminate their deficits and stabilize, then reduce, their levels of accumulated debt. Put simply they need to cut spending and live within their means. But they also need to do more than that. They need to fundamentally reform the state. They need to roll back bureaucracy, free up entrepreneurs, and reduce the burden of welfare. We cannot achieve what we need to achieve through efficiency alone. And we cannot pretend that governments can continue to do everything they currently do. We need a programme of reform that rivals the post-war settlement in its radicalism, but which heads in precisely the opposite direction.

The second policy implication concerns the financial sector. We need to accept the fact that we can’t keep bailing out failure, and find a way of managing it instead. The government needs to develop a credible method for ‘resolving’ banks that become insolvent. It needs to come up with a plan for winding up failed financial institutions without threatening the system as a whole. We’ve wasted three years obsessing over bank bonuses and arguing about whether retail and investment banking should be separated, but it’s not too late to switch our focus to something that would actually make a difference.

The third policy implication is that central banks desperately need to maintain monetary stability. That means keeping the money supply constant in the absence of changes in velocity, but increasing it if velocity falls and decreasing it if velocity rises. The second half of that task is not easy. Indeed, there’s a good case to be made for it being impossible. Firstly, in times of uncertainty, velocity tends to be volatile. Secondly, velocity can’t be observed directly. Thirdly, changes in the money supply take time to filter through the system. Fourthly, even if you could overcome those first three points, you still wouldn’t have a simple formula to work to – the economy is full of complex interrelationships and feedback loops, and people’s psychology and expectations play a far more important (and unpredictable) role than economic ‘scientists’ care to admit. Simply avoiding a severe deflation, on the one hand, or a hyperinflation, on the other, might be the best we can expect from central banks.

The bigger picture

What we are witnessing now are the concluding chapters of a credit-cycle that began in the early 2000s, when the US Federal Reserve decided to avoid the recession that should have followed the collapse of the dot-com bubble by flooding markets with easy money and cheap credit. But one could also argue – as Detlev Schlichter does – that we are really approaching the endgame of a much larger economic super-cycle that began when President Nixon closed the gold window in 1971 and removed the last vestige of restraint from government’s fiat money systems.

It is easy to construct an apocalyptic narrative from where we are today. One can easily imagine sovereign defaults triggering bank failures, which in turn would trigger more sovereign defaults as incompetent governments rushed to throw money at every emerging problem. You can picture financial collapse sparking a severe monetary contraction and plunging us into a 30s-style depression. Or you can see governments making a last-ditch attempt to monetize out-of-control debts, and prompting a hyperinflation that would also lead to systemic collapse and widespread economic depression.

And while, yes, there are those who argue that a more rational system would emerge phoenix-like from the ashes – ushering in fiscally-disciplined governments, a sounder international monetary regime, and greater freedom for private enterprise – it is more likely that wholesale collapse would lead to the resurgence of nationalist socialism. That would spell an end for liberty and private wealth-creation, and could even mark the return of large-scale international conflict. This is a Road to Serfdom that the world has walked before.

But as I said, it is easy to contruct an apocalyptic narrative. And when the headlines are dominated by doom and gloom, it is very tempting to do so. But we should also remember what Adam Smith said: “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. The reality is that doomsday is probably not upon us. If we get things wrong, then, yes, we may face a prolonged period of Japanese-style stagnation. But it is also possible that we could get things right. We could emerge from our current troubles with a brand of capitalism that is more robust, and better able to deliver real, lasting, sustainable prosperity than ever.

Ultimately, economics is all about choices. Right now, we just need to make the correct ones.

This article was first published by the Adam Smith Institute.


Hayek and monetary stabilization

This article was first published at the Adam Smith Institute on Saturday, 30 July 2011

At the Hayek v Keynes debate at the LSE on Tuesday, George Selgin probably raised a few eyebrows when he pointed out that Hayek would, in theory, have been in favour of quantitative easing to prevent a deflation. That doesn’t really chime with the extreme do-nothing image many people have of the Austrian school of economics.

Yet as Lawrence White pointed out in this paper, Hayek’s position on the correct monetary response to a downturn is more nuanced than is commonly imagined:

Hayek’s business cycle theory led him to the conclusion that intertemporal price equilibrium is best maintained in a monetary economy by constancy of “the total money stream,” or in Fisherian terms the money stock times its velocity of circulation, MV. Hayek was clear about his policy recommendations: the money stock M should vary to offset changes in the velocity of money V, but should be constant in the absence of changes in V.

Essentially, Hayek wanted money to be ‘neutral’ and that meant that it had to be constant. For it to be constant, changes in velocity had to be offset by changes in the money supply. The central bank should not, therefore, permit the kind of monetary deflation that occurred after the crash of 1929 to take place. On this basic point, there is actually little difference between the Hayekian view and the approach taken by Milton Friedman.

Does that make Hayek an apologist for central planning? Well, not exactly. Those in the modern free banking school (like Lawrence White and George Selgin) would argue that in a wholly denationalized banking system, private banks would react to a fall in velocity by issuing more base money (if people were hoarding cash) or by reducing their reserve ratios and lending more (if people were sitting on large deposit balances). That would achieve the constancy of the ‘total money stream’ that Hayek favoured, but would do so spontaneously rather than according to some central plan.

The argument goes, therefore, that central banks should try to mimic this process if faced with the same set of circumstances. Hence Selgin’s comment that Hayek would have favoured quantitative easing. But note that he only said ‘in principle’. In practice, there are a whole host of other considerations.

Firstly, central banks have limited information. As with all central planners, their chances of replicating the outcomes that would prevail in a free market are slim. Secondly, modern central banks tend to have a strong bias towards inflation. The upshot of these two points is that a policy like QE should only be pursued when the downside of doing nothing outweighs the potential cost of getting it wrong. Outside of severe crises, that’s unlikely to be the case. Thirdly, QE as practised today (using ‘new’ money to buy government bonds from a bust banking sector) might not be the best way of achieving the objective of monetary stabilisation. The old-fashioned Bagehot rule – providing liquidity support to solvent banks at a penalty rate – might well be preferable.

Finally, it’s worth stressing that the Hayekian / Free Banking approach is not about stimulating the economy, or bailing out failed institutions. It does not aim to re-inflate old bubbles, or create new ones. Nor is the idea to support wages or prices. The goal is simply to create a stable monetary environment so that economic adjustment and recalculation can take place.


On the IMF’s bank tax proposals

The BBC reports that the IMF has unveiled its interim proposals on a new international tax on the financial sector, ahead of a meeting of finance ministers this weekend.

In fact, the IMF’s paper suggests two new taxes. The first, a ‘financial stability contribution’ would be levied on all financial institutions, initially at a flat rate, to help cover the ‘fiscal cost of any future government support to the sector’. The second, is a ‘financial activities tax’, which would be levied ‘on the sum of the profits and remuneration of financial institutions’.

The first point to be made is that justifying these taxes on the grounds that the proceeds will help governments deal with future crises is a straightforward con. The proceeds of the first tax could either ‘accumulate in a fund to facilitate the resolution of weak institutions or be paid into general revenue’ say the IMF, but you don’t need to be psychic to work out which of those is more likely – governments will just spend the money on current expenditure, as they always do. The second tax doesn’t even come with an either/or fig leaf – proceeds will go into general revenue, for governments to spend as they see fit.

So it is pretty clear that what we have here isn’t so much a policy to ensure financial stability, but rather to bail out profligate governments. Moreover, this could in itself worsen financial instability by making fiscal policy even more pro-cyclical (revenues would be highest during financial booms), and exacerbating boom and bust cycles.

There are other problems too. For example, the idea of compulsory ‘insurance’ against failure for banks (this is the direction the ‘financial stability contribution’ moves us in) is likely to make moral hazard – already a major issue – an even more severe problem. Even now, government guarantees to banks are largely implicit, but the IMF’s tax proposal would make them explicit. Indeed, the ‘financial stability contribution’ is not just an overt indication that irresponsible banks will be bailed out – it could easily be read as creating an obligation that they must be bailed out. And that’s hardly a way to encourage less risk-taking.

It is also problematic that these taxes will be applied to all financial institutions (including insurers, hedge funds and so on), most of which had little to do with the financial crisis. They are thus likely to damage the wider financial economy, without actually doing anything much to deal with the real offenders.

Which brings me neatly to the most depressing aspect of these proposals: the complete lack of understanding they exhibit about the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, ramped up by unrestrained fractional reserve banking, and amplified by fiscal incontinence. The saddest thing is that the world’s financial system desperately does need reform. Without a radically new approach to controlling the money supply and taming the credit cycle, history is doomed to repeat itself. But the IMF’s proposals do not even qualify as a step in the right direction.