Economics

In a post a few days ago, (After subverting bank insolvency, our leaders are now about to make a mess of liquidity) , I argued that hard budget constraints were the defining characteristic of a well-functioning market economy. Many/most of the advanced industrial countries were weakening or even undermining the capacity of their financial sectors to intermediate efficiently by permitting a softening of the budget constraints of banks and other financial institutions that were deemed systemically important and/or were too politically connected to fail.  I noted that the concept of the soft budget constraint (SBC) came from professor János Kornai, a great economist and a Nobel prize winner (the overlap is by no means perfect – there are type I and type II errors)(CORRECTION: As pointed out in a comment on this post, Professor Kornai has not (yet) won the Nobel prize. My bad, as the teenagers in my family would say.  In my defense, he ought to have been awarded the prize already, preferably instead of the large efficient markets cohort that did receive it.)

Professor Kornai’s classic book Economics of Shortage, analyses a fatal internal contradiction in central planning – how soft budget constraints became a defining feature of a centrally planned economy and were central to its astonishing inefficiency and eventual downfall.  In a paper co-authored with Eric Maskin and Gerard Roland (“Understanding the Soft Budget Constrained”, published in the Journal of Economic Literature, December 2003, vol. 41(4), pages 1095-1136), Kornai argues the wider applicability of the SBC concept to economies other than centrally planned economies. For those with access to JStor, the paper can be found here.

I am pleased and honoured that this blog can bring you the following short note in which professor Kornai explains the relevance of the SBC to an understanding of the causes and consequences of the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

The G-7 (USA, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy, Canada) was taken off life support at the IMF – World Bank Annual Meetings. So was the G-8 (the G-7 plus Russia), although even fewer observers noticed or cared.  Since international organisations are never formally killed off, the G-7 and G-8 will simply be allowed to fade away. They reflected the economic and geopolitical distribution of power in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  When reality changes, even international organisations eventually catch on and up.  Germany, the UK, France and Italy are global bit players at best now.  They only matter if they act jointly.  The way to do this is through the EU – but with a twist.

For global economic and financial governance, the G-20 is supposed to take over from the G-7/8.  It consists of the ministers of finance and central bank governors of the G-8 plus Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi-Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey. The tally is completed by the European Union, represented by the rotating Council presidency and the European Central Bank President. The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund  and the President of the World Bank, plus the chairs of the International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) and Development Committee of the IMF and World Bank, also participate in G-20 meetings on an ex-officio basis.

In addition, a few countries have managed to elbow their way into the G-20 meetings for specific issues where they view themselves as playing a globally significant role.  As far as I can tell they achieved this by throwing their toys out of the pram and/or threatening to hold their breath and making a scene. The Netherlands fall into this category.  They base their claim to be invited (which was effective on three occasions thus far) on the country’s generosity as development aid donors, obviously not heeding the Talmudic view that giving charity and boasting about it, is actually a sin.

I spent the past weekend in Istanbul at the seminar jamboree that precedes the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings.  Ministers of finance, central bankers, government officials and international civil servants all agreed on one thing: there would be no premature exit from quantitative easing, credit easing and other unconventional expansionary monetary policy measures such as the ECB’s enhanced credit support.

All those in a position of authority subscribed to the view that there was a major asymmetry between the risk of exiting too late and exiting too early: exiting too late would only cause minor overheating problems that could easily be corrected.  Exiting too soon would cause irreversible damage, because after a too early exit, policy could not be re-activated again.

Nobody explained the analytics or empirics to support that view.  It simply became an accepted truth.  In the world of mathematics and formal logic, there are two modes of proof: deduction and induction.  In economics, as in the other social sciences, we have three modes of proof: proof by induction, proof by deduction and proof by repeated assertion.

Be that as it may, the world is being flooded with official liquidity by the leading central banks of the overdeveloped world.  Because of the depressed state of the real economy in most advanced industrial countries (large negative output gaps whose magnitude continues to grow, high and rising unemployment rates), this official liquidity flood is unlikely to generate an overall (private plus public) liquidity flood in the overdeveloped world.  Commercial banks either hoard the newly injected central bank liquidity at the central bank in the form of deposits or use it to purchase safe liquid assets, such as the sovereign debt instruments of reasonably solvent nation states.  This has the further advantage of keeping the regulators happy, even if it does not do much for would-be private borrowers from the zombified banking system.

Broad monetary aggregates are growing little if at all in the overdeveloped world and credit growth to the non-financial enterprise sector and to the household sector remains minuscule.  We are therefore unlikely to see a credit boom or asset market frenzy any time soon in the advanced industrial countries, let alone any pick-up in domestically generated inflation for indices like the CPI. The massive injection of official liquidity by the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and other central banks in the north-Atlantic region is much more likely to show up as credit and asset market booms, bubbles and – eventually – busts in those emerging markets that are growing rapidly again, that is, most emerging markets other than those in Central and Eastern Europe.  China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey and Peru are but some of the countries at risk.

Unless there is a major change of direction among global economic and financial officialdom, we are at risk of ending up with a world in which liquidity provision is privatised and insolvency risk for banks is socialised.  This would be the exact opposite of what makes sense: solvency is (or should be) a private good and liquidity is (or should be) a public good.

Sometimes economics can be helpful even if it does not allow you to make point predictions with any degree of confidence. This is the case, for instance, when it can rule out certain combinations of outcomes for different economic variables as unlikely or even nigh-on impossible. An example of such an unlikely configuration of outcomes is (a) a strong and sustainable recovery of the US economy and (b) a strong (let alone a strengthening) US dollar. A very similar statement can be made about the prospects for a speedy recovery of the UK economy

Quantitative easing (QE – the purchase of government securities by the central bank, financed through increases in base money) in the UK is not working.  I should have written “not yet”, for posterior coverage reasons, but I’m running out of patience with a policy that (a) has been ineffective for the half year of its existence and (b) can be easily modified to make it more effective.  Credit easing (CE – the outright purchase of private securities by the central bank) in the UK really hasn’t been tried.  Of the total Asset Purchase Facility limit of £175 bn, up to £50 bn could have been used to purchase private securities outright.  Instead, out of the just under £154 billion purchased up to 24 September 2009 (see here), only £2 bn of private securities have been purchased by the Bank of England.  The rest of the £175 bn Facility has been or will be devoted to purchases of UK Treasury securities.  No doubt this gives the Chancellor of the Exchequer a warm feeling inside, but from every other perspective it looks like a poor use of Bank of England resources.

Since QE started in January 2009, the Bank of England’s balance sheet has continued to explode, as is clear from the Table below, which shows the Bank of England’s Balance Sheet at the end of July 2007 (just before the crisis) and at the end of August 2009.  The total size of the balance sheet rose from £80.3 bn to £220.3 bn.  The peak of the Bank of England’s balance sheet size so far was at the end of July 2009, when it stood at £245.3 bn, more than three times its July 2009 size.  This is the largest proportional increase in the size of the balance sheet of any of the leading central banks.

(VI) Will a fiscal stimulus work as effectively when the economy has been hit by a credit crunch?

The credit crunch is now hitting the non-financial enterprise sector hard.  How does a fiscal boost affect demand when the enterprise sector is credit-constrained?  If the constraints are tight enough, they will weaken and may even completely neutralise the effect of a fiscal stimulus on output and employment not (just) because of financial crowding out of consumer and business demand, but because of credit constraints on supply, what Alan Blinder (1987) has called effective supply failure.  This is most easily seen if production is subject to a lag (inputs go in before saleable output comes out).  This means that firms need working capital to get production going.  Increased demand can be met from inventories, and that may provide some working capital, but once inventories have been worked off, the credit constraint on production and employment becomes binding.

The notion that a credit crunch could lead to effective supply constraints being binding in the market for goods and services, even if demand is depressed, was first developed by the South-American structuralist school of Raul Prebisch and Celso Furtado, and its neo-Structuralist successors (e.g. Lance Taylor and Domingo Cavallo (1977)), although its antecedents go back much further to the Austrian school of Hayek, Mises and to Marx.

(IV). When does a fiscal stimulus boost aggregate demand?

A fiscal stimulus is a key weapon in the policy arsenal used to address an undesirable weakening of aggregate demand.  For the policy to make sense, either an increase in public spending on goods and services (public consumption or investment) or a tax cut (an increase in transfer payments) must raise aggregate demand at a given price level, wage, interest rates, exchange rates and other asset prices.  In the textbook IS-LM model this means that the fiscal measure shifts the IS curve to the right in output – interest rate space – there is no full direct crowding out, Ricardian equivalence or Minsky equivalence.

We may still not get any effect on output and employment, even if the IS curve shifts to the right, either because there could be ‘financial crowding out’ through higher interest rates, lower asset prices or a stronger exchange rate or because there is ‘real crowding out’ through scare real resources on the supply side; real crowding out or ‘factor market crowding out’ occurs through rising real wages and other real factor costs, and through rising inflationary pressures.

But unless the fiscal stimulus shifts the IS curve to the right, it achieves nothing at all – we don’t even have to investigate whether there is financial or real crowding out.

(III) Fiscal policy

With monetary policy, both conventional and unconventional, having reached the limits of its effectiveness in most of the advanced industrial countries, the only instrument left for boosting demand is fiscal policy.  By this I mean, until further notice) a cut in taxes or an increase in public spending financed either by borrowing from the public (domestic or foreign) or by borrowing from the central bank, that is, by creating base money.

Like all debt, public debt is both a wonderful and a dangerous social invention.  It permits individuals and groups of individuals, including nations, to smooth consumption over time – it permits saving to be de-coupled from investment.  In what follows it will be important not to use the word ‘debt’ as equivalent to ‘financial instrument’ or ‘financial claim’.  Equity and other profit-, loss- and risk-sharing instruments also permit the de-coupling of saving and investment and the smoothing of consumption over time and across generations.  When I refer to debt, it is narrowly defined as a financial instrument imposing fixed, non-contingent payment obligations on the borrower. Borrowing in this narrow sense creates a legal obligation to repay the debt with interest at some future date.

On September 16 and 17, the Earth Institute at Columbia University (well, at least it’s not called the Universe Institute) and the Asian Development Bank organised a conference at Columbia University on The Future of the Global Reserve System.  Papers were presented by the members of the Asian Development Bank’s International Monetary Advisory Group (IMAG), of which I am one (the other members are Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Dr. Nirupam Bajpai, Dr. Maria Socorro G. Bautista, Prof. Barry Eichengreen, Dr. Masahiro Kawai, Prof. Felipe Larrain, Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, Prof. Charles Wyplosz, Dr. Yu Yongding).

The paper “Is there a case for a further co-ordinated global fiscal stimulus” is my take on the subject assigned to me for the New York conference: Are the coordinated stimulus plans working and are they effective? Should we continue with fiscal stimulus? Are there other approaches to aggregate demand management?”

I will publish the paper in this blog in two or three installments, as I revise the initial draft.  Installment one follows below.

Introduction

For further internationally co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy measures to be desirable today, a number of conditions must be satisfied.

First, there must be idle resources – involuntary unemployment of labour and unwanted excess capacity.  Output and employment must be demand-constrained.

Second, there must be no more effective way of stimulating demand, say through expansionary monetary policy.

Third, expansionary fiscal policy must not drive up interest rates, either by raising the risk-free real interest rate or by raising the sovereign default risk premium, to such an extent that the fiscal stimulus is emasculated through financial crowding out.

Fourth, at given interest rates, the expansionary fiscal policy measures are not neutralised by direct crowding out (the displacement of private spending by public spending or of public dissaving by private saving at given present and future interest rates, prices and activity levels).  Such direct crowding out can occur in the case of tax cuts (strictly speaking, cuts in lump-sum taxes matched by future increases in lump-sum taxes of equal present discounted value) because of Ricardian equivalence/debt neutrality.  In economies with very highly indebted households, debt neutrality can occur when taxes on households are cut, because of what I shall call “Minsky equivalence” (see Minsky (2008)).  Increases in public spending on real goods and services (“exhaustive” public spending) can fail to boost aggregate demand because of a high degree of substitutability (in the utility functions or the production technology) between private consumption and investment on the one hand and public consumption and investment on the other.

Fifth, there must be cross-border externalities from expansionary fiscal policies that cause decentralised, uncoordinated national fiscal expansions to be suboptimal.

This paper will consider these issues in turn.  After reaching some fairly discouraging conclusions on the scope for further conventional expansionary fiscal policy now, unless there are significant political realignments in fiscally challenged nations that support coalitions in favour of significant future fiscal tightening through tax increases or public spending cuts, I briefly outline some unconventional fiscal/financial policies that may be effective in their own right and may help to enhance the effectiveness of conventional expansionary fiscal policy.  Collectively, they can be characterised as the equitization of debt – household mortgage debt, bank debt and public debt.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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