Too much finance – misallocation, corruption and ideology

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_Monday“[T]he financial sector has become much more profitable than the non-financial sector, which has not always been the case. This has enabled it to offer salaries and bonuses that are much higher than those offered by other sectors, attracting the brightest people, regardless of the subjects they studied in universities. Unfortunately, this leads to a misallocation of talents, as people who would be a lot more productive in other professions – engineering, chemistry and what not – are busy trading derivatives or building mathematical models for their pricing. It also means that a lot of higher-educational spending has been wasted, as many people are not using the skills they were originally trained for.

The disproportionate amount of wealth concentrated in the financial sector also enables it to most effectively lobby against regulations, even when they are socially beneficial. The growing two-way flow of staff between the financial industry and the regulatory agencies means that lobbying is often not even necessary. A lot of regulators, who are former employees of the financial sector, are instinctively sympathetic to the industry that they are trying to regulate – this is known as the problem of the ‘revolving door’.

More problematically, the revolving door has also encouraged an insidious form of corruption. Regulators may bend the rules – sometimes to the breaking point – to help their potential future employers. Some top regulators are even cleverer. When they leave their jobs, they don’t bother to look for a new one. They just set up their own private equity funds or hedge funds, into which the beneficiaries of their past rule-bending will deposit money, even though the former regulators may have little experience in managing an investment fund.

Even more difficult to deal with is the dominance of pro-finance ideology, which results from the sector being so powerful and rewarding to people who work in – or for – it. It is not simply because of the sector’s lobbying power that most politicians and regulators have been reluctant to radically reform the financial regulatory system after the 2008 crisis, despite the incompetence, recklessness and cynicism in the industry which it has revealed. It is also because of their ideological conviction that maximum freedom for the financial industry is in the national interest.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Penguin Books, p.306-7.

Inequality, global imbalances and crisis

Tracing a connection between rising inequality and the Great Recession of 2008 is appealing to leftist economists. It suggests that what they see as two of the potential downsides of capitalism and in particular the neoliberal economic order can perhaps be mitigated via appropriate policies. Thus, a more egalitarian capitalism can become less prone to crisis or recession.

Of course, what is appealing as social and economic outcomes is not a good enough reason to investigate linkages between them, though I suspect that I am far from the only one who is drawn to particular ideas as a matter of bias.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with that as a starting point, followed by economic analysis of the chosen object of study.

An article in the latest issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics explores the potential linkages between the distribution of income and current account imbalances in a simplified model of the global economy consisting of the US, Germany and China, prior to the 2008 recession.

These three countries had the largest current account imbalances in absolute terms in the run-up to the recession. The US ran a deficit, and Germany and China were running surpluses. Since these imbalances have been pinpointed by some economists as a cause of the recession itself, analysing them is important. Continue reading

Heterodox critiques of quantitative easing

Following last week’s quote from Michael Hudson on quantitative easing (QE), here are some other insightful perspectives which for me offer explanatory power, given the course of economic and financial events over the decade since the crisis began.

The aim of QE is to reduce long-term interest rates, boost private sector lending, and raise asset prices to generate a positive wealth effect on private spending. Altogether, these are meant to raise private sector consumption and investment, and thus economic growth.

Richard Koo, economist at Nomura and originator of the theory of balance sheet recessions, has outlined the potential problem of the ‘QE Trap’ (2015). While QE might have the effect of mitigating such a recession, once the recovery is underway, its withdrawal could lead to slower growth than otherwise. In other words, over the longer term, its overall effect might be negligible or even negative: Continue reading

Michael Hudson on Quantitative Easing

Plenty of economists, investors and others have been wondering what will happen to financial markets and the real economy as monetary stimulus in the form of Quantitative Easing is wound down by central banks from the US to the Eurozone in the face of stronger growth.

I will be writing more about it next week, considering the perspectives of critic Richard Koo among others, but here is Michael Hudson from, as ever, his iconoclastic and insightful ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (p.189-91): Continue reading

Yanis Varoufakis on the paradox of success

“Self-restraint, as the philosophers know, is a rare and bewildering virtue. It is also a virtue that tends to come unstuck the more powerful we become. In this it resembles the relationship between trust and success: the stronger the bonds of trust between us, the greater our collective and individual success. But success breeds greed, and greed is a solvent of trust. Similarly with self-restraint: having it can help one succeed. But then success poses a threat to one’s self-restraint.”

Yanis Varoufakis (2015), The Global Minotaur – America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy (p.249)

This thought-provoking quote is taken from the postscript of Varoufakis‘s enlightening book on the roots and evolution of the Global Financial Crisis, originally published in 2011.

The author describes how post-war US hegemony produced a ‘Global Plan’ which helped to underpin a successful capitalism for twenty years; its ‘finest hour’, according to Varoufakis, and what has often been called the Golden Age. This gave way to his ‘Global Minotaur’ in the 1970s, which ultimately led us to the crisis of 2008 and its collapse.

The key that links these systemic ideas, and the possibility of a successful global capitalist future is what he calls the ‘global surplus recycling mechanism’ (GSRM). The evolution of the GSRM is the unifying theme which unites the book, which I will discuss in a future post.

Some of The Global Minotaur‘s ideas overlap with those of Michael Pettis, particularly in the latter’s book The Great Rebalancing. In fact the two are largely complementary, as Pettis describes the domestic policies in countries such as China and Germany, which helped to create the financial imbalances that caused the crisis.

Trumponomics Part 1: Causes of the phenomenon

TrumponomicsAs promised, here is a review of some of the ideas covered in the fairly weighty tome Trumponomics – Causes and Consequences, recently published by the World Economics Association.

The book consists of 30 chapters, each one written by a different author. They are wide-ranging, but all come from a left perspective on economics and politics.

I am not going to review it chapter by chapter, but thought I would discuss some of the main ideas. As there is plenty to get through, I have divided it into three posts to be published this week: part 1 – causes, part 2 – consequences, and part 3 – alternatives.

Part 1 – Causes

A number of the chapters discuss the reasons for the electoral success of Donald Trump. The book is written by economists, so inevitably many of them have an economic basis. However, since their sympathies are with left wing heterodox thinking, much of it could be classed as political economy, which often incorporates political, historical and sociological ideas to an interdisciplinary analysis.

Broadly speaking, the rise of Trump can be explained by patterns of socio-economic change in recent decades which have left many behind; by the perception that particular elites, including the Democrats, have become disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people and have been captured by Wall Street and the ideology of neoliberalism; and by a campaign whose rhetoric successfully appealed to raw emotion rather than to rationality alone. Continue reading

In brief: the economics of Hyman Minsky

MinskyAs the 2008 financial crisis broke, the term ‘Minsky moment’ became widely used by commentators and financiers (it was originally coined in 1998), as the work of this relatively obscure economist came into fashion. Since then, his major works have been reprinted, and his ideas widely cited, especially among those critical of the financialization of recent decades.

Once again, from Michael Hudson‘s heterodox ‘dictionary’ of economics J is for Junk Economics (p.154-5): Continue reading

Michael Hudson on housing, student debt and economic stagnation

An interview with Professor Michael Hudson on the Real News Network, where he focuses on US house prices, the ongoing problem of private sector debt (particularly student debt) and the lacklustre performance of the economy.

Richard Koo explains balance sheet recessions

Economist Richard Koo is well known for his concept of  a ‘balance sheet recession’. In this short video he explains how the recent Great Recession, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Japan’s economic stagnation since the 1990s are all examples of this, and what can be done about it.

A number of somewhat iconoclastic economists have explored the nature and consequences of asset-price bubbles, fueled by the accumulation of private sector debt, and their subsequent collapse, followed by private sector deleveraging (paying down debt). They include Koo, Michael Pettis, Steve Keen and Michael Hudson, the latter three being influenced by the late Hyman Minsky and his Financial Instability Hypothesis. The four of them proffer somewhat different solutions to the long stagnation that can follow the collapse of a debt-fueled asset-price bubble, which we are arguably still living through.

Koo favours a fiscal stimulus in which government spending exceeds revenue at a rate sufficient to prevent the economy collapsing as a large number of firms use their cash flow to pay down debt, rather than invest. This is what has been done intermittently in Japan. Koo argues that without the stimulus the Japanese economy would have experienced its own Great Depression, rather than simply years of stagnation.

Keen and Hudson favour a Modern Debt Jubilee in which much private debt is simply forgiven and wiped out, allowing households and firms to raise their spending on consumption and investment and drive economic recovery.

Pettis focuses his analysis on the current account imbalances across the global economy which in his view caused the build-up of debt. The unwinding of these imbalances is required to secure a more sustainable global recovery.

There is something to be said for the ideas of all of the above. I am keen to compare them and integrate the most important aspects, as their thinking overlaps to a significant extent. That will be the subject of a future post! In the meantime, I can definitely recommend watching the video as an introduction to Koo’s thinking.