The devil take the debt

Adair Turner’s [amazon_link id=”0691169640″ target=”_blank” ]Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance[/amazon_link] – out this month – joins a select group of books that provide as clear an explanation of the financial crisis as one could hope for. It complements John Kay’s [amazon_link id=”1781254435″ target=”_blank” ]Other People’s Money[/amazon_link], with its emphasis on globalisation, financialisation and the switch from relationship to transactional finance. [amazon_link id=”0691169640″ target=”_blank” ]Between Debt and the Devil[/amazon_link] emphasises above all the inherent instability of banks’ ability to create credit, when not restrained by policy, especially given the scarce supply of that all-important asset, real estate. The growth of the shadow banking sector amplified this pre-existing source of volatility.

[amazon_image id=”0691169640″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance[/amazon_image]

The book starts by pointing out that it was always foolish to think financial markets would satisfy the criteria for efficient (and stable) outcomes. The pre-crisis orthodoxy of liberalisation ignored the pervasive information asymmetries and non-rational choices in finance. [amazon_link id=”0071592997″ target=”_blank” ]Minsky[/amazon_link] features prominently here. As Turner points out, it isn’t as if there was any shortage of evidence from history that financial crises occur reasonably frequently. He adds the distinctive feature of the recent crisis, the increased inequality of incomes driving demand for easy credit, which banks were only too happy to meet. (Echoes of of Raghuram Rajan’s [amazon_link id=”B005CQAJD0″ target=”_blank” ]Fault Lines[/amazon_link].)

The third part of the book covers the global dimensions of the crisis, in particular the China-US flows, and the role of the Euro. The financial flows not intended for direct investment were both immense and destabilizing, he writes. Among the high income countries, gross cross-border flows increased from less than 10 times GDP in the 1970s to 37 times GDP in the 2000s, with even larger proportionate increases for middle income countries. There is no evidence at all, he argues, that financial flows on this scale play any socially useful role at all.

And in this context of unsustainable credit growth at home and destabilizing flows across borders, only a minority of banks proved able to manage their balance sheet risks. To make matters worse, those that were good at risk management looked after themselves by offloading their bad risks onto other financial institutions, less well able to manage them. So the outcome for the system as a whole was even worse.

Given the difficulty of tackling the three drivers of the crisis – a limited supply of land and real estate, income inequality and global imbalances – what does Turner, a former head of the FSA, recommend? His answers are interventionist, suggesting a total rejection of the idea that finance can be left to ‘the market’. “To achieve a less credit-intensive and more stable economy, we must … deliberately manage and constrain lending against real estate assets,” he writes. He also advocates central bank monitoring of credit growth, constraining it when necessary; taxation of land values; taxation of debt to bring its treatment in line with taxation of equity; and raising bank equity ratios and minimum liquidity requirements (a step advocated by every, but every, economist who has given a moment’s thought to the crisis – shocking that the banks have lobbied their way out of this minimal step towards systemic stability).

Indeed, the book’s final chapter has some sympathy for even stronger measures: outlawing private money and credit creation; taxing credit creation funded by debt; and encouraging equity and hybrid instruments in place of debt.

However, the book concludes with a caution: “We face a choice of imperfections, and some of the imperfections are unfixable.” Financial markets are imperfect; so are policy-makers. Simple rules will never deliver stability, Turner argues. Far tougher constraints on the financial sector are needed. But policymakers will always have to make judgments as conditions change, and will get it wrong sometimes. Still, he suggests, not as wrong as in the mid-2000s.

Turner is at the tougher end of the spectrum in terms of his recommendations for constraints on the financial sector. But his calls for reforms join an honourable roll call of economists – as well as [amazon_link id=”B00UJD8AS2″ target=”_blank” ]Kay[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”B005CQAJD0″ target=”_blank” ]Rajan[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B00LLPSU4Q” target=”_blank” ]Admati and Hellwig[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”022627165X” target=”_blank” ]Mian and Sufi[/amazon_link], for example. As [amazon_link id=”0691169640″ target=”_blank” ]Between Debt and the Devil[/amazon_link] points out, millions of people are still suffering from the effects of the financial crisis. Yet the policy response has been minimal, and there is nothing to stop the whole thing from happening all over again. At least if it does, nobody will be able to blame the economists this time for not having sounded the warning.

One thought on “The devil take the debt

  1. Lived & worked through the crisis while in the financial sector.Was lucky enough to anticipate the debacle the credit for which ie my avoidance of loss 0, I attrbute almost entirely to standing on the shoulders of giants ie listening to and reading the warnings issued in the years leading up to the crisis by a small selection of largely discredited at the time ( twill always be so) financial commentators.

    Agree with almost everything Adair Turner has written in this book and see a strong veiled warning here that if there is not considerably greater change,relatively quickly, he would not be at all surprised to see history repeat itself in the not too distant future.

    The banking lobby contributed greatly to the financial crisis and within the last few days ( see today”s FT) there is continued evidence of their power and the potential cost ,again, to the can carrying tax payer.They have successfully had the proposed rules on moving risky swaps off their balance sheets repealled (moving them off wopuld reduce their profitability) so don”t relax and think this is all over .
    My guess is the worst is yet to come and I have invested,or not accordingly.

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