Revolutionary money

Today I finished reading properly Rebecca Spang’s marvellous Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, having only dipped in when I first bought it. It really repays the attention. What seems to be a book about a specific aspect of the historical episode is really a reflection on the nature of money and its intrinsic relationship with politics and with conceptions of property. Set in the 1780s and 90s, it could not be more relevant to the bitcoin/ledger debate.

I learnt much from it, starting with the insight that the problems with the infamous assignats issued after the revolution stemmed from the unquestioned belief that the venal offices sold by the old regime, raising much government revenue, could not be cancelled or expropriated. Spang writes: “Throughout the debate, no one (not even Marat or Robespierre) took the truly revolutionary position of suggesting venal offices might be illegitimate privileges that could be cancelled without payment.” But, she adds, “Simply aboloshing the offices was unthinkable but so too was leaving the debt on the books, since officeholders who had not been repaid woulf retain their property and ‘privilege’ would still exist.” Settling the debts in one go would would consign the ancien regime to history and complete the revolution. Hence the issue of assignats backed by the expropriated land of the church.

The book also has a fascinating section on The Big Problem of Small Change (to quote the title of Tom Sargent and François Velde’s book on this): the cost of manufacturing the low-denomination coins used by most people exceeded their face value. A shortage of usable cash led to the proliferation of private currencies in many areas, and eventually their replacement by breaking up the assignats into smaller denominations, so that they morphed from something like bills of exchange, backed by specific property, into generic paper money. A sophisticated credit network built on personal relationships and specificities gave way to anonymity and ultimately distrust. But the distrust was the product of political uncertainty, the dissolution of everything familiar and the clear invalidation of the assumption that the future would be enough like the present that credit – and money – could be relied on.

The book concludes with a reminder that the past is different from the present but what it does serve to underline is the culturally specific character of not only money but other foundation stones of economic relationships – property and value. These “have never been naturally given categories but are historically produced.” And, perhaps, poised for another revolution, as digital everything continues to strain conventional ideas of property and value to breaking point and beyond.


American exceptionalism, inequality version

Yesterday on my travels I read a short book, Income Inequality: why it matters and why most economists didn’t notice, by Matthew Drennan. Professor Drennan is an urban planning expert, so having read the book’s blurb, I expected it to be a critique of the economics profession, and braced myself.

It ended up not being what I expected. In fact, the book repeats Raghuram Rajan’s argument in Fault Lines – that low-income Americans went into debt to increase their consumption levels as well as buy homes, keeping up somewhat with the rich thanks to easy credit. One of the central chapters has a long appendix reporting some econometric work claiming to establish causality between higher income inequality and higher debt. However, it is not sufficiently detailed to be able to assess the empirical work, while too technical to be of interest to the general reader. So the central section of the book is a bit odd.

It’s a fair cop to say the generality of the economics profession did not pay enough attention to rising income inequality. The biggest lasting impact of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and the work with Atkinson and Saez on which it was based, will turn out to have been consciousness raising. Nobody is ignoring it now. However, there are now several important books on this subject: as well as Faultlines and Capital in the 21st Century, Mian and Sufi’s House of Debt, Atkinson’s Inequality, Francois Bourguignon’s The Globalization of Inequality and Branko Milanovic’s forthcoming Global Inequality: a new approach for the age of globalisation. I didn’t find much novelty in Drennan’s Income Inequality, although it is at least a short introduction.

Above all, though, my reaction to the book wasn’t that it was about economics, more that it was about America. We do tend to forget that inequality is greater in the US than most other OECD countries, and has risen more. Perhaps it can act as the canary in the cage for the rest of us, but a good part of the story lies in US politics and institutions. After all, just look at the Republican primary contenders.

OECD income inequality

OECD income inequality

Bankrupt banks

I’ve been browsing through a new book, Making Failure Feasible: How Bankruptcy Reform Can End Too Big to Fail, edited by Kenneth Scott, Thomas Jackons and John Taylor. The book is the product of a Hoover Institution project formed in 2009 to address concerns about the moral hazard that would result from bank bailouts. The project quickly concluded that a bank ‘resolution’ procedure was vital, and proposed a Chapter 14 of the US Bankruptcy Code to create a mechanism ready to be applied to restructure or liquidate any large financial institution of systemic importance that gets into trouble.

The book spells out the rationale for a bank resolution mechanism and explains in more detail how the Chapter 14 would work. It argues that the proposal would make it easier for US banks to comply with the ‘living will’ requirement of the Dodd-Frank Act. As the book notes in a later chapter, however, a domestic resolution procedure, even for the US, is only a partial answer for banks that are of global importance. The Bank of England and IMF have said there are 16 of these institutions. And there is, the cross border chapter here says, no consensus internationally about the right approach to bankruptcy. So if there is another global financial crisis in the short term, we will be in huge trouble again.

Still, it is good to see that people have been working on detailed bankruptcy proposals – although the detail will be of interest mainly to banking specialists, which I’m not. Let’s hope the regulators get on to the global complexities soon.

So you want to be a superforecaster?

On my travels to and from the fabulous Kilkenomics Festival this weekend, I read Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. It’s a very interesting book. If you liked Daniel Kahenman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, and Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy, you’ll like this book too.

Essentially the book describes the outcome of the research project that followed on from Tetlock’s famous demonstration in Expert Political Judgment that experts are not good at predictions. One group of experts failed to do better than random guesswork – and did worse for long term forecasts. Another group did better than this but could rarely beat a simple rule of thumb such as ‘predict no change’ or ‘extrapolate the trend’. The follow up project was stimulated by the introspection of the US intelligence community post 9/11, looking to see whether it would be possible to make forecasts of political or economic events any better than the earlier dispiriting results suggested.

The bulk of the book explains that yes, it is, but it’s hard work requiring techniques and habits that help people avoid the normal cognitive short cuts (‘fast thinking’) we humans take. For example, make sure you start with what the authors call ‘the outside view’. Looking at the drop in popularity of a prime minister after an election? Start out by seeing what has happened to the ratings in the past. Watch out for the ‘bait and switch’ habit of answering an easy question rather than the hard one. Break up complex questions into smaller questions to narrow the territory of your ignorance. Take as many different perspectives as you can. Consult others and welcome diverse views – be on the alert for groupthink.  Be prepared to change your mind. Be alert to conclusions based on your strong feelings or beliefs about an issue (the Keynesians vs Austerians debate is singled out as one where the participants are captive to their prior beliefs). All of the tips are gathered in a how-to-be-a-superforecaster appendix to the book.

Summarised like this, it sounds obvious perhaps. But the book is stuffed with examples demonstrating how hard it is to put the advice into practice. Indeed, the experiment showed that some people can do far, far better than the majority, including ‘experts’ – but there are not many of them. They have specific characteristics: for example, clever (but not Mensa geniuses), open-minded, self-critical, numerate, comfortable with probabilities, willing to change their mind – plus determination. Tetlock is still looking for volunteers to have a go (

The book ends with a discussion of two critiques. One is whether Nassim Taleb’s Black Swans imply superforecasting is a chimera – if history moves in jumps because a black swan appears, that must be unforecastable. The other is Daniel Kahneman’s hypothesis that even superforecasters will lose their mojo because their very success will make them as vulnerable to the same cognitive patterns as the ‘experts’ who did no better than randomness or algorithms; we are all vulnerable to complacency or ‘fast thinking’. Tetlock concludes that history does show that the possibilities for the future are radically open but nevertheless argues that his results show that: “People can, with considerable effort, make accurate forecasts about at least some developments that really do matter.”

He does, for me, describe his results convincingly, although the ‘considerable effort’ bit seems a huge barrier to seeing superforecasting habits spreading more widely. But it doesn’t matter if you end up agreeing more with the critiques; this is still a very useful guide to cultivating your own good cognitive habits and critical thinking abilities. I’ll be trying to put the lessons here into practice myself – although not to the extent of starting anything foolish like macroeconomic forecasting.

The devil take the debt

Adair Turner’s Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance – 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 Other People’s Money, with its emphasis on globalisation, financialisation and the switch from relationship to transactional finance. Between Debt and the Devil 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.

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. Minsky 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 Fault Lines.)

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 Kay and Rajan, Admati and Hellwig, Mian and Sufi, for example. As Between Debt and the Devil 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.