Crashed

Adam Tooze’s much-praised history of global political economy from the period just before the Great Financial Crisis to the present – Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World – is indeed a terrific read. It’s a detailed (600+ pages) synoptic account of the political forces that enabled a few dozen banks to entwine the world’s economies in an interlinked web of credit at massive scale, and the political reactions to and consequences of the crisis. One might quibble that some parts of the story are sketchier than others, but then it’s always a good sign to be hankering after more of a book rather than less. Making the parts into a convincing whole is a major achievement.

There are several central points the book emphasises. One is the extent to which the dollar underpinned the whole global financial market construct – and consequently the extent to which the Fed bailed out the whole world after the crisis. Another is busting the myth that the crisis was Anglo-Saxon: the continental European banks were in it up to their eyeballs, with equally ineffective regulatory oversight, such that they too had massive maturity mismatches (like the US banks) and also massive currency mismatches (whereas it was all dollars for the US banks). Tooze is also forensically critical of the lack of a coherent European policy response – both the ECB (especially under Trichet) and the German political establishment come in for particular fire. The policy response to the Greek crisis in particular was abysmal – as was clear at the time. It was always apparent, certainly by 2012, that debt restructuring was essential, and that the bailout was for German and French banks more than for Greece.

The book explores the interplay between the financial crisis and geopolitics, particularly the desire of both China and Russia to ensure the transition – already heralded but revealed by the role of the dollar to be exaggerated – from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Above all, it draws the lines from the possibility of the crisis, and the crisis response, to the current political situation: “Though it is hardly a secret that we inhabit a world dominated by business oligopolies, during the crisis and its aftermath this reality and its implications for the priorities of government stood nakedly exposed. It is an unpalatable and explosive truth that democratic politics on both sides of the Atlantic has choked on.”

Quite so. Here in Brexit Britain, those working in the City have by and large continued to draw their large bonuses, retire early, holiday in exotic places, while post-crisis ‘austerity’ due to the way the crisis torpedoed public finances means many fellow citizens need to use food banks and are seeing local services like social care and libraries starved. Whatever you think about the consequences, the anti-establishment protest vote, in the UK and elsewhere, is entirely understandable. I’ve been completely gobsmacked by how little consequence of the crisis there has been for the financial sector and those working in it. The same went for the rest of Europe, creating “the sense that Europe’s welfare state was being subjected to a relentless program of rollback driven by the demands of bankers and bond markets.”

So too in the US. Tooze describes the election of Trump as the “most disorienting event experienced by the American political class in generations.” It seems likely to me to be even more damaging for the United States than Brexit will be for Britain. Disorienting, but really hardly surprising. It isn’t only the lasting, scarring financial, emotional, health costs the crisis inflicted on millions of Americans (“The grief and distress caused by the crisis were forces to be reckoned with”) but also the way the Fed’s crisis response and the Obama administration programs contributed to polarising American politics. This happened elsewhere, too. Inevitably perhaps, during the firefighting technocratic responses took priority over democratic legitimacy. We see the lasting consequences in the (slightly abstract) disdain for ‘experts’.

Nobody comes out of Tooze’s account particularly well, although some fare less badly than others (eg Bernanke vis a vis Trichet). Some readers will disagree with the economic diagnosis – for there are people who believe the austerity was essential, the fiscal bomb having been detonated by the crisis. There is more sympathy for the Syriza government than many of its interlocutors in Brussels, Berlin and Paris would share. There will be too much detail for some readers – it helps to know what haircuts and CDOs and repos are. Nevertheless, ten years on, Crashed is an essential read to understand the state of the world, and a troubling read, thinking ahead to the next ten years.

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The slow demise of a company town

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story is one of the books on the Financial Times business book of the year shortlist & I have quite enjoyed reading it. It consists of reportage over several years (2008-2013) of a small Wisconsin town whose prosperity had long depended on the well-paying jobs provided by a General Motors plant and its suppliers. When the GM plant is mothballed and later permanently closed, the economic fortunes of the town and its families spiral down. As people use up their unemployment benefits and savings, or scrape by with low-paid service sector jobs, families that were solidly middle class find they need to rely on charitable food handouts, or supplies a teacher at school collects for the kids – shampoo, jeans.

The portraits of the individuals are mainly sympathetic – perhaps least so the Republican-supporting bank manager, although the results of her role as a cheerleader for Janesville’s economic future without GM are acknowledged. It is always a shock to a Briton to be reminded that people in the US with no job have no access to healthcare, and that private philanthropy has to fulfil (inadequately) the role the welfare state plays here. The American healthcare debate is, like the gun control debate, absolutely unfathomable to Europeans. There are some interesting insights into the reasons what support there is for retraining fails to achieve its aims – bureaucratic constraints on access to funding and how it’s used. It was also a surprise to learn that the ex-auto workers who had opted for retraining were doing less well, five years later, than those who had just taken the first job they could find and stayed in the labour market. All in all, it’s a sobering tale of the heart being wrenched out of a company town.

Having said all this, I thought the book was less compelling than George Packer’s The Unwinding. The Janesville tales are not set in a wider context of progressive deindustrialisation and the prospects of automation. Janesville is also silent on race, and I can’t decode the names. Unless it’s an all-white town – surely not? – this must be one of the relevant aspects of how families cope after an economic shock? Or subsequent American politics? There was also less insight into family finance than in the recent detailed study of income uncertainty and its corrosive effects in The Financial Diaries: How Americans Cope in a World of Uncertainty, or in Lisa Servon’s The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. (I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy – should I?)

This shouldn’t put off readers as Janesville is worthwhile, but I’d be slightly surprised if it emerges the winner of the FT prize.

Price: Check on Amazon

Price: £15.20
Was: £21.99

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Global gloom and community currencies

I’m late to Mervyn King’s The End of Alchemy, which as all the reviewers have noted is a very well written and interesting book. It isn’t exactly cheering. On the contrary, it cast me into gloom.

As the final chapter puts it, “Without reform of the financial system, as proposed in Chapter 7 [a set of reforms with approximately zero chance of happening…..] another crisis is certain, and the failure to tackle the disequilibrium in the world economy makes it likely it will come sooner rather than later.” The chapter goes on to say not to worry, there’s something that can be done: forgive Greek debt and break up the Euro (or go for a full political union). Globally, stop struggling with Dani Rodrik’s trilemma of democracy, national sovereignity and economic intergration – King seems prepared to give up on the third leg. Change policies in China, Japan and Germany. In short, just tackle the underlying global imbalances and all the other problems or symptoms – debt overhangs, zero interest rates etc – will resolve themselves. No problem then.

To be fair, King does speak of “the audacity of pessimism”. Trouble is, you need a lot of people to get a lot more pessimistic before such policy changes would come about. As the book also points out, the last time there was such a big re-ordering was after the 1930s and 2nd world war.

More cheering is Dave Birch’s wonderful forthcoming book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin, the latest in the Perspectives series (and the first full-length one). It surveys the history and the future of money. In this blog post, Dave suggests an e-currency for Manchester (and other cities). As in his previous work, Identity is the New Money, Dave points out the close link between money and trust – indeed, Mervyn King makes this point too. So financial stability is a question of communities of trust. It’s more comforting to think about trust from the ground up rather than global imbalances and crises….

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Financial crises, past, recent and future

Very late in the day, I’ve finally read Barry Eichengreen’s Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, The Great Recession and the Uses – and Misuses – of History. The subtitle is a concise capsule summary. The book does a neat job weaving between the 1920s/30s and the 2000s, underlining the similarities and the significant differences. There is some nice storytelling as well, particularly in the Great Depression chapters, using colourful figures and their exploits to draw in the reader, starting with the notorious Charles Ponzi but with many others too. In fact, there’s a 20 page Dramatis Personae, so this is no abstract text but a story of actual people doing actual (bad/stupid/short-sighted) things.

Given the number of books already available about both episodes, the added value of this one needs to be in the compare and contrast, and I think it succeeds in this. The common features (apart from human frailty) lie in the dynamics of bubbles, and their roots in periods of stability and optimism; in the global character of financial market reactions and the way decisions that seem either sensible or politically necessary in one country can have immense negative externalities for others; and in the interplay between politics and economics or between democracy and technocracy. Perhaps the most important difference emphasised here is the greater scale and complexity of financial markets now. Even when people are not trying to hide misdeeds, it is not easy to identify dangerous flows or accumulations of risk.

But the book also points to the difference in policy responses: in the Great Depression the answer was more government. Given the way politics has moved, it was not the answer to the Great Financial Crisis. Eichengreen – relatively gently – points to the under-regulation of big banks and other financial institutions in key dimensions, such as the only modestly higher capital ratios and lower leverage; or the failure to reform credit ratings agencies. This gently touch, he argues, reflects the success of the monetary and fiscal policy action to avert another Great Depression: “Thus the very success with which policy makers limited the damage from the worst financial crisis in eighty years means we are likely to see another such crisis in less than eighty years.

Much less, I’d say, given how little has changed.

Anyway, I enjoyed Hall of Mirrors. I think it helps to have read other books on both episodes, as in effect half a book on each of the Great Depression and the Financial Crisis is pretty compressed. A combination of Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance and John Lanchester’s Whoops! would be perfect preparation (the latter was IOU in the US).

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Mainstream macro and Minsky the maverick

I was one of the many economists who had barely heard of Hyman Minsky, still less read any of his work, before the financial crisis. One of the many who, seeking to understand, quickly devoured his . And found it pretty sensible. Macro isn’t my field, but there didn’t seem to be anything in that book a sensible mainstream macro person should have objected to. Should being the operative word. Because of course everyday, mainstream DSGE models in use in 2008 ruled out the very possibility of a crisis, whereas Minsky believed in their inevitability in some shape.

[amazon_image id=”0071592997″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Stabilizing an Unstable Economy[/amazon_image]

This week I’ve been reading Randall Wray’s , which is a useful and accessible overview of both what Minsky said and – as the title puts it – why it matters. I recommend the book (perhaps particularly to mainstream macro people!).

[amazon_image id=”0691159122″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Minsky Matters: An Introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist[/amazon_image]

The first chapter gives an overview of Minsky’s arguments. The second chapter was to me the most interesting. It’s called ‘The Road Not taken’ and sets out the broad mainstream approach against which Minsky developed his arguments. This is the neoclassical synthesis, whose foundations were laid by John Hicks and Alvin ‘Secular Stagnation’ Hansen in the early years after Keynes’s death, then by both ‘Keynesians’ like Patinkin and Tobin and ‘Monetarists’ such as Friedman. Wray argues that these camps disagreed largely over parameter values, and that they essentially bowdlerised Keynes by ignoring his emphasis on investment, finance and uncertainty.

Debates about what Keynes ‘really’ meant in are not all that interesting – and by the by a good reason for emphasising the importance of maths as well as words in economics. The mathematical notation is a way of enforcing logical consistency and expressing arguments with precision; the words can then explain more clearly, and introduce reality while keeping it rooted in logica and clarity. Anyway, what’s interesting about the chapter is its brief account of how finance vanished from macro, to our great cost.

[amazon_image id=”1502423588″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (Classic John Maynard Keynes)[/amazon_image]

The later chapters of Wray’s primer set out Minsky’s views on specific issues, starting with his now-famous financial instability hypothesis: that market forces must be constrained in finance to prevent instability, but the consequent stability is itself destabilizing. The final chapter ends with some thoughts about how to proceed in the face of this paradox – in Wray’s view, tougher regulation especially of the shadow banking sector, and a smaller financial sector overall focusing on industrial investment. I agree, not least because the (as Sir Charles Bean also pointed out in his recent interim report on economic statistics), and its contribution to economic welfare might well be a net negative.

This seems like common sense. I don’t entirely understand the unwillingness of the political classes to address the finance problem (despite the lobbying and campaign contributions)  – will it really take another crisis? The reluctance of people who did pre-2008 macro to ditch their human capital is entirely understandable, and I’m constantly told that anyway there has nevertheless been a lot of change in macroeconomics. Still (and to repeat, this is not my field) I’d be interested to know what proper macroeconomists think about Minsky now. If Minsky is still, as the book jacket claims, a maverick shunned by the mainstream – why?

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