It’s the society, stupid

There is one other thought prompted by re-reading Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities. She has an almost by-the-by section about the changes in the mass media of the day, the switch in readership away from mass circulation national daily newspapers to mass television capturing the national audience and more local, often suburban, newspapers. TV was the disruptive technology of the day, and audience habits changed. The argument Jacobs makes is that the technology wasn’t so much the cause of the transition as the enabler of it. The driving force was the growth of the suburbs, and the social changes that went alongside it.

I don’t know enough US media history to evaluate this properly, but it’s surely a good reminder that technology always, but always interacts with social change. Knowing that’s true in general has been at the heart of my work since the 1990s, but at a time of exciting and rapid technical change (pace Robert Gordon), it’s easy to forget to central role of social change in specific cases. Including the changes happening now in media habits.


Investment rats

An intriguing book has turned up: Art and Economy, the first volume of a catalogue of projects on the global economy supported by the Landia Foundation and Universität der Künste Berlin.

One project is Michael Marcovici’s Rat Trader. The book describes the training of laboratory rats to trade in foreign exchange and commodity futures markets. Marcovici says the rats “outperformed some of the world’s leading human fund managers.” The rats were trained to press a red or green button to give buy or sell signals, after listening to ticker tape movements represented as sounds. If they called the market right they were fed, if they called it wrong they got a small electric shock. Male and female rats performed equally well. The second generation of rattraders, cross-bred from the best performers in the first generation, appeared to have even better performance, although this is a preliminary result, according to the text. Marcovici’s plan, he writes, is to breed enough of them to set up a hedge fund.

The point the project makes is that trading does not require human interaction. It prompted in my mind as well the question of the circumstances in which the standard assumptions of rational self-interested maximisation apply – whether by humans or rats or any other creatures – and when we should be looking to adopt alternative ‘behavioural’ assumptions.

I also liked Anke Strauß’s The Mechanic and the Machinic: Thoughts on Economic Systems. The essay argues that machine-metaphors for the economic system – “calculable, controllable and manipulable” – are sterile. “Mechanics always need an outside stimulus, some kind of energy.” Worse, “We are the weakest link in a world that has a mechanical way of thinking.” Schumpeter is the hero of economics in this essay.

I’ve not finished reading yet but it’s a very intriguing catalogue.

art and economy


Cities, innovation and complexity

In re-reading (after many years) Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities, I’m forcibly struck by the echoes between her work on urban diversity and the recent work on complexity by Ricardo Hausmann and Cesar Hidalgo in their Atlas of Economic Complexity. Although their focus is the national level, cities drive national economies (as Jacobs so convincingly argues). What she does so magnificently is describe the process at the more disaggregated level.


Also striking is her argument about innovation as a process of branching out of new activities from old ones, in ever more intricate trees. The process is not driven by solving problems or meeting unsatisfied demands by consumers, she argues, but rather is producer-driven. “The new goods and service being added may be irrelevant to what customers of the older work want.” Or perhaps even detrimental to those customers. In one of her examples, Ida Rosenthal invented the brassiere, and in doing so abandoned the customers of her older dress-making business. Software developers are always annoying their customers, and we’ve got used to that, but I hadn’t really thought about the same phenomenon in other areas of the economy.

I also picked up recently a fabulous catalogue from a 2001 Tate Modern exhibition, Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis. It has some great essays, including Sharon Zukin on ‘How to create a culture capital: reflections on urban markets and places’: “The business of cities today is to construct a place around culture markets….. A cultural quarter is very much like a regional industrial district.” The difference being that cultural districts have to bring their consumers to them rather than taking goods to the consumers, with consequences for the built environment and amenities.

There’s a new urbanism exhibition at the Barbican that looks interesting: Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age.

PS I forgot to mention a recent book, The Atlas of Cities edited by Paul Knox, a beautiful object as well as stuffed with fascinating material.

The crisis of inaction

A guest review by Bill Allen

 The crisis in Eric Helleiner’s title is not something that has happened, but something that hasn’t happened. The aftermath of a real crisis – something that has happened - can provide the opportunity for institutional change. Helleiner’s choice of title reflects his observation that there has been very little effective change in the panoply of international financial institutions since the financial crisis of 2007 – 08. Specifically, he claims that the G20 has achieved very little, that financial regulation has remained undesirably ‘market-friendly’, and that no effective international organisation for financial regulation has been set up.

 Helleiner is quite right about the G20, whose main boast – agreement on a doubling of IMF quotas – has not been ratified by the United States Congress. He could have gone a lot further. International institutions generally were not much use in the crisis. The IMF lent very little in 2008. The Chiang Mai Initiative, which had been set up in the late 1990s as a source of mutual liquidity support in East Asia, was not used at all in 2007 – 08. There is a reason for this. International financial institutions, despite having extremely talented staff and managers, are inherently slow in reacting to fast-moving situations and lack the ability to improvise. This reflects their governance structures, and the caution that democratically-accountable governments display when faced with any new invitation to put up money. Fear of moral hazard always trumps recognition of a new urgent need. There is no getting over this problem, and it will be a considerable surprise if the recently-announced BRICS financing facility turns out not to be purely ornamental.

Just as well, then, that the Federal Reserve was unilaterally ready, able and willing to provide emergency dollar liquidity in short order and in massive amounts when it was most needed in the autumn of 2008. Chairman Bernanke received democracy’s traditional reward for doing the right thing when he was attacked for lending money to foreigners by Congressmen who either could not or would not understand that the Fed’s actions were in the interests of the United States as well as those of other countries, and that the Fed had prevented what is now known as the Great Recession from turning into a repetition of the Great Depression.

Where does this leave the international monetary system? Helleiner notes that China is in favour of a system based more heavily on Special Drawing Rights, and bemoans the failure to create more SDRs. But getting agreement to increase the SDR issue is always going to be slow and difficult, no matter how urgent the need. And in any case, an SDR is merely a right bestowed on an IMF member country to get some real money (dollars, probably, or possibly euros) from another member country which is willing to take SDRs in exchange. As Richhild Moessner and I have shown, the expansion of the SDR issue runs the risk of undermining the liquidity of the IMF itself. The key issue is what counts as real money and who controls the supply of it.

Past experience shows that it is desirable for the international monetary system to be capable of expanding international liquidity quickly in a crisis. That means that international reserve currencies have to be managed by single countries, which are sufficiently enlightened to understand that what is in the global interest may also be in their national interest. On this criterion, the dollar is the only plausible reserve currency at present and in the foreseeable future. The euro and its managers have structural problems - no single government,constipated decision making, and a penchant for looking inwards rather than outwards: the European Central Bank was dangerously slow in extending swap lines when they were needed in 2008 – 09, and bizarrely confined its swap lines to EU member countries. The renminbi, often suggested as a possible challenger to the dollar, has the crippling handicap that there is no separation in China between the government and the judiciary. No responsible reserve manager could rely on the RMB as a large-scale repository of liquid assets. Helleiner also claims that Russia was ‘strongly committed to goal of ruble internationalization’ after the crisis (p 85), but if so, Russia did nothing about it, and incomprehensibly passed up the opportunity to win influence among former Soviet Union countries by offering dollar swaps from its large reserves during the crisis.

Unfortunately the outlook for the dollar as a reserve currency is not assured, despite the Fed’s masterly crisis management of 2008. There is the perennial problem of the budget deficit, and the new threat that the Congress will force the U.S. Treasury to default by refusing to increase the Federal debt limit. Without the dollar, the international monetary system would be thrown into chaos, and an undesired return to gold would be on the cards.

What of financial regulation? Helleiner wishes that financial regulation had become less ‘market-friendly’, but he seriously underestimates the amount of new bank regulation that has been introduced and does not seem to understand its effects. For one thing, he says virtually nothing about liquidity regulation, which has been introduced into the Basel regulatory apparatus. In practice, in the UK at least, liquidity regulation has forced banks to buyenormous amounts of government securities, and to curtail lending to private borrowers. It has subsidised government borrowing and taxed private borrowing, and arguably prolonged the recession unnecessarily.

More generally, Helleiner misses what I think is the key issue in bank regulation, namely theproblem of banks that are too big to fail. They were too big to fail in 2008 and they are still too big to fail. This fact has profound implications. Too-big-to-fail imposes contingent liabilities on governments. Naturally the governments want to minimise the liability; hence official regulation of finance. As Helleiner points out, regulators cannot always be expected to co-operate with their foreign counterparts. All of them are servants of their own states, and are obliged to act in the interests of their own state and in accordance with its laws. If those interests and laws don’t conflict with those of other states, then fine; if not, not. So governments want to ensure that their contingent risk is monitored by people they control: international co-operation is limited in scope. All this explains increased capital requirements, the introduction of maximum bank leverage ratios, and the new-found aversion to foreign bank branches and pressure for subsidiarisation of international banks, country by country.

If it could be arranged that financial companies were not too big to fail, then most official financial regulation would be unnecessary; private incentives would be better aligned with social welfare and corporate governance, lamentably feeble in many cases before the recent crisis, could be expected to be more effective. It is impossible to contemplate all parts of the financial landscape being arranged in such a way: for example, the clearing houses through which financial companies are now required to settle derivative and other transactions are inevitably going to be too big to fail. But is possible to contemplate a less concentrated banking and securities-dealing industry, both in the retail and wholesale fields. Paradoxically, heavier and more intrusive regulation protects big companies, because potential competitors cannot bear the heavy fixed costs that it imposes. We have got stuck in a concentratedfinancial system/heavy regulation world, but a dispersed financial system/lighter regulation world would be much better.

 Helleiner is concerned that the banking industry has too much lobbying power, and asserts that reforms have been watered down in consequence. He provides no evidence, merely referring to similar claims by others. He complains that ‘the G20 made little effort to develop international standards that might tackle the issue of the potential “capture” of regulatory process by private financial actors’ (p 126). The United States addressed this issue in 1991when ‘Prompt Corrective Action’ was enacted, removing regulators’ discretion in managing failing banks, but that did not prevent the recent crisis. How serious is the issue of regulatory capture now? In the years before the crisis, bankers, regulators and governments shared many of the same illusions about the durability of the boom. Bankers were respected, consulted, and knighted. Financial companies had a lot of lobbying power, since they paid a disproportionately large share of taxes, in Britain at least – tax receipts that were sorely missed when the financial companies stopped making profits. But now, in many countries, the main issue between banks and governments is the ‘deadly embrace’ in which governments depend on banks to finance their deficits while banks depend on governments to guarantee their deposits. The situation in those countries is a lot more complicated than Helleiner suggests. And, as already noted, some of the post-crisis regulation that has been imposed has, predictably, had unintended bad consequences; perhaps it would have been wise to pay a little more attention to the lobbying of the banking industry.

Helleiner laments the ‘soft law’ character of international regulatory institutions like the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the Financial Stability Board. He would prefer them to have powers like those of the World Trade Organisation, which has rules and settlesdisputes between its member countries. But such an arrangement in the field of financial regulation might not be conducive to financial stability. There are signs that these bodies have become fora in which the main issue at stake is not financial stability but the financial and political interests of national governments. How else can the absurdly generous treatment of government securities for both capital and liquidity purposes be explained, and the extremely lenient treatment of mortgages for the purpose of the Net Stable Funding Ratio? Arguably, the world would be a better place if Basel 1, 2 and 3 had never been invented, because it would have been clear to bankers that it was their responsibility to judge the adequacy of their capital, and not something that could be assessed formulaically by reference to a set of complicated rules arrived at as a compromise among national negotiators in Switzerland. The truth is that nobody has yet worked out how to do bank regulation properly, and it would not be a good idea to entrench present-day customs and practices in an international treaty.

‘More regulation’ may be a good slogan but there isn’t much substance behind it. Helleiner denies this, claiming that there are a lot of new ideas in ‘the new macroprudential regulatory philosophy’, which, he says, provide a ‘broad intellectual justification for many…regulatory initiatives…such as counter-cyclical buffers, tighter controls on liquidity and SIFIs, the extension of public oversight to new sectors, transaction taxes, and support for capital controls’ (p 127). Broad, indeed. By these standards, ‘the new macroprudential regulatory philosophy’ could provide intellectual justification for just about anything. Regulation of this kind would be like doing brain surgery with a penknife.

Many of the issues arising from the crisis are unresolved and contentious. Helleiner addresses a great many of them. He has a point of view, with which readers may agree or disagree, but he is well informed and his book is a serious contribution to the continuing discussion. It is well worth reading.

 Bill Allen is a former Bank of England director and is on the sdvisory board of the Cass Business School

What have we learned since the crisis?

I’ve been looking at some of the essays in What Have We Learned: Macroeconomic Policy After the Crisis. It’s edited by a chandelier of luminaries – George Akerlof, Olivier Blanchard, David Romer and Joseph Stiglitz. The contributors are equally distinguished, including Janet Yellen, Mervyn King, Stan Fischer, Andy Haldane, Helene Rey, Jean Tirole…. and more. The essays I’ve read – and my focus has been the ones about implications for macroeconomics itself rather than specific areas of macro policy – are very interesting.

Collectively, this book adds up to an acceptance by about the most impressive cast list of macroeconomists you can imagine, that actually macro does need a lot of rethinking. Blanchard writes: “The contours of future macroeconomic policy remain vague.” Structures of policy and thinking about the relations between monetary, fiscal and macroprudential policy, is still evolving. Stiglitz, more pugnacious as one might expect, writes: “Market economies on their own are not necessarily efficient, stable, self-correcting.” George Akerlof is kinder on the profession – he says that while macroeconomists failed to predict the crisis, there has been successful post-crisis management with “good economics and common sense.” But David Romer worries that macroeconomists are not in a position to prevent another crisis: “The relatively modest changes of the types discussed [in the book] – and that policymakers are putting into place in some cases – are helpful but unlikely to be enough to prevent future financial shocks from inflicting large economic harms.” He says the academic and policy communities have not given enough serious consideration to deeper ideas and reforms.

I’m on the Romer and Stiglitz side of the debate. Still, even if you’re at the radical end, the other essays, ranging over fiscal policy, financial regulation, exchange rate arrangements, capital account issues and monetary and macroprudential policy, look very interesting. Some chapters seem standout – for instance Claudio Borio on the financial cycle, the whole section on regulation. It’s a conference volume – looks like it was an outstanding conference.