...Archive for January 2009

London calling

So, I like to go on about how we don’t have a financial system, how the system we have is inadequate and structurally broken, how we need to invent new institutions. I think we need to experiment, in a startup-y, techy kind of way, with more flexible, fine-grained, and transparent exchanges that could augment and perhaps replace traditional capital markets. Really, that’s what I want to do someday.

Unfortunately, I’m slow and lazy. But occasional commenter Thomas Barker is not. He writes to say he’s helping to organize an informal meeting in London of people interested in pursuing just these kinds of projects. I desperately want to go, though I’m afraid the odds are slim. The event will take place on February 14th. (Yes, how romantic.) For more information, try here.

Winterspeak wonderland & miraculous Mencius

I’ve been flabbergasted by just how good Winterspeak has been lately. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but the perspective he’s developing is quite beautiful, and very useful. I’m going to highlight a few of the bits I really like, and add a bit of spin.

I want to start with a related insight from the excellent Mencius Moldbug. Apologies to Mencius if this isn’t the best reference, but the point is very clearly stated, in a comment at Brad Setser’s:

Money is the bubble that doesn’t need to pop. As long as there is demand for indirect exchange, at least one asset will be stockpiled by hoarders, hence experience demand that is not a consequence of any direct utility, hence be overvalued. As long as the storage cost for this asset is zero and the supply in existence is fixed, you have a perfect Nash equilibrium – using any other asset as a medium of indirect exchange provides no advantage, and runs the risk of buying into a bubble which will subsequently pop as punters revert back to the stable standard.

This idea stands in stark contrast to the view recently offered by John Cochrane:

The value of government debt, including money, is equal to the present value of the primary surpluses that the government will run in order to pay off the debt. Nominal debt is stock in the government, a claim to its taxing power.

I think Mencius’ view is more accurate. [1]

The next insight I will attribute jointly to Mencius and Winterspeak (while quoting neither): When a government implicitly or explicitly guarantees deposits and other bank debt, it is useful and in some ways more accurate to describe the arrangement as loans by individuals to the government and then separate loans by the government to banks. If bank loans sour, it is the government who is out the money. Bank creditors do not discipline banks, or select banks based on their investing acumen. The connection between the deposit base of a bank and that institution’s ability to lend is formal and vestigal, and is disappearing as reserve requirements become an ever less binding constraint on bank lending. (I’m pretty sure I’ve read both Winterspeak and Mencius make this point, but I can’t find great quotes. Here’s an example from Winterspeak.)

This idea foreshadows the new Winterspeakian synthesis that has me suddenly awestruck. Winterspeak presents a view of the monetary/finacial system in which the government is ultimately the hub. As above, when we “save” without explicitly investing, we don’t lend to banks which then lend to businesses. We lend to the state — we hold instruments that are ultimately claims against the state — while the government organizes the distribution of loans, implicitly via how it structures bank lending or explicitly by various forms of directed credit. But the government’s role is deeper than that. Here’s Winterspeak’s counterintuitive, but obvious-once-you-think-about-it view of taxation:

Everyone agrees, more or less, that the Federal Government has the power to print money. That’s what fiat money means by definition. Since the Federal Government can print it’s own money, in whatever quantity it chooses, have you ever wondered why it taxes at all? In fact, if you chose to mail in your 2009 taxes in crisp Federal Reserve Notes, the Government would take that paper money and shred it.

The Federal Government does not need taxes in order to spend. At the Federal level, because the Fed is a currency issuer, the sole purpose of taxes is to extinguish money, reduce aggregate supply, and therefore limit inflation to a tolerable level.

But if the government destroys money, it also creates it:

The Government creates money and transfers it to the private sector by spending. The private sector transfers the money amongst itself (spending, investment) and puts the rest in the bank. If the private sector wants to put more money in the bank, that money can either come at the expense of transactions, or it can come from the Government simply running a larger deficit, and thus creating additional money for the private sector. So long as the private sector uses this money to save, it’s creation is not inflationary and will not show up in the CPI. Inflation is caused by too many dollars chasing too few goods, and dollars under the mattress are not chasing anything.

There’s an elegance to this perspective that comes with what is of course oversimplification. Winterspeak invites us to consider the government, the central bank, and the private banking system as a consolidated entity. Money taxed, lent to the government or deposited in a bank is money destroyed (at least temporarily). Money spent by the government, or borrowed from a bank is money created. Questions of control are not addressed — we don’t know whether it is Congress, the Fed chair, or private bankers who most influence this public-private hybrid at the core of the monetary system. But thinking about money this way cuts through a lot of confusion.

Let’s combine all this with the Moldbugian insight that money is the bubble that needn’t break, that its value is due to the stability of a Nash equilibrium — as long as everyone wants it, it is rational for everyone to want it. The government/banking system, then, has the incredible power of creating what everyone wants or destroying it, as it sees fit via spending and taxation, but also via lending and borrowing. However, there may be constraints on its ability to use that power, for institutional and political reasons, but most profoundly because of the dynamics and potential fragility of Nash equilibria. We’ll come back to this.

Both John Cochrane and Paul Krugman would agree that the current crisis, at least in part, is a phenomenon related to an unusual increase in people’s desire to hold money. Moldbug’s Nash equilibrium is on overdrive somehow: all everyone wants is what everyone wants, claims against the government that the government can create or destroy at will. To understand the implications of this phenomenon, we have to add a bit more substance to the meaning of “savings” and “investment”. We’ll follow Winterspeak’s treatment first, which is remarkably insightful, although I don’t entirely agree. (I hope W— will for give me for lifting such a large chunk of his post, but I’d not do it justice in paraphrase.) Winterspeak:

The Issue

Essentially, Cochrane and Fama both assert that savings = investment (+ capital account), and so say that any Government stimulus will crowd out private investment. Here’s the derivation (by identity) to get you S = I

Y = C + I + G

National savings can be thought of as the amount of remaining money that is not consumed, or spent by government. In a simple model of a closed economy, anything that is not spent is assumed to be invested:

NationalSavings = Y – C – G = I

If you think that banks make (investment) loans based on their deposits, then it’s reasonable to assume that all money not spent (ie. saved) is invested. But banks do not take deposits and loan them out. In fact, banks make loans first and then those loans become deposits. Remember — loans create deposits, deposits do not “enable” loans.

Loans create deposits

Banks, by way of their Federal charter, can expand both sides of their balance sheet at will, subject to capital requirements. This money is created ex-nihilo, but always nets out to zero in the private sector, as each (private) asset that a bank creates must be matched by a (private) liability. Government can create money outside of the system, but banks always need to net out and balance the balance sheet.

People believe that fractional reserve banking, in some weird way, has banks taking deposits, multiplying it (through what seems like a strange and fraudulent process), and then making a larger quantity of loans. In fact, banks make whatever loans they think make sense from a credit perspective, and then borrow the money they need from the interbank market to meet their reserve requirements. If the banking sector as a whole is net short of deposits, it can borrow the extra money it needs from the Fed. If you think this is a weird and pointless regulation you are correct. Canada, for example, has no reserve requirements and yet seems to have a banking sector. The quantity banks can loan out is constrained by capital requirements and credit assessments.

Facts on the ground

If a description of how banks actually work doesn’t shatter your belief that savings = investment, consider Reality. From about 2000-2006, American savings went negative, yet banks loaned out huge amounts of money (made huge investments). In fact, they came up with all kinds of clever ways to skirt capital requirements so they could make even more investments. If savings = investments, and savings fall, how can investments rise? By the same token, from 2006 to now, the private sector has actually delevered, saved, but banks aren’t making any loans (investments). What’s up with that?

More Facts on the ground

Anyone who thought they were saving by putting money in the S&P500 has had a rude wakeup call. They were not saving, they were investing, and now 40% of that money is gone. I don’t think they will confuse saving with investing in the near future.

So, what is savings?

A better way to think of savings is to think of it as what’s left after taxes, consumption, and investment.

Y = C + I + G

Net Private Savings = Y – C – I – T = G – T

Austrians will howl that it is unreasonable to define savings as a residual, there should be a term S for active savings, but people have to save in currency, and in a fiat, floating fx, non-convertible world, currency is not a store of value. Fiat currency trades bankruptcy risk for inflation risk, and fiat currency is all that’s sitting in bank accounts. So the Austrians are right, there should be some way to actively save, but they are wrong, because fiat currency in a bank is not it.

You split out savings from investment and you get Net Private Savings = Government spending – Taxes, also known as the deficit. So, the Government runs a deficit (spends more than it taxes) in order for the private sector to have the extra money it needs, after consumption, investment, and paying those taxes, to net save. This idea totally blew my mind when I first encountered it, but it actually makes total sense.

So, if you acknowledge that savings does not equal investment, then you see that Government deficit enables private savings. This is the OPPOSITE of all the Chicago guys who argue that the Government deficit REDUCES national savings. Government is a currency issuer, why does it need to save? Does a bowling alley need to hoard the points it awards for strikes and spares? Everyone acknowledges that the Fed can print money, but few people actually think about what that means.

There is so much meat in this. First, a quibble. Winterspeak is disingenuous when he suggests that the disconnect between the miniscule savings rate and the maxicule investment rate argues against the traditional closed-economy identity S = I. The US very much was not a closed economy. The US was importing capital at a breathtaking rate to fund its investment boom, and globally the traditional S = I identity always held. In Bernanke-speak, a Chinese and Middle Eastern savings glut funded an American investment boom. That Americans saved less than they invested hardly mattered, as long as foreigners were willing to lend.

Winterspeak has not really disproved anything here. He has just derived a different definition of savings. The reason this is important is because we talk about savings, economists and real Americans alike slip between the two definitions unconsciously, which badly muddles things. On the one hand, we talk about the savings rate, which most certainly includes investment: If you were contributing to your 401-K or buying farm machinery, you were doing your part to keep the US savings rate above zero. But on the other hand, when we say that during this crisis, Americans’ shift to savings is proving disruptive of aggregate demand, what we are talking about sudden desire to hold claims on money rather than to invest in real capital. Let’s disentagle these two phenomena. Keeping with a closed economy, we’ll define:

Investment = Y – G – C (Traditional savings)
ΔClaimsOnGovt = Y – C – I – T = G – T (Gov’t deficit = Winterspeakian savings)

Actually, this is my party, and I hate how private expenditures are conventionally disaggregated into investment and consumption, while government expenditures are just “G”. So, let PC be private consumption, PI be private investment, GC be government consumption, and GI be government investment. Then:

Investment = Y – GC – PC = GI + PI (Traditional savings)
ΔClaimsOnGovt = Y – PC – PI – T = GC + GI – T (Gov’t deficit = Winterspeakian savings)

So here’s a bit of insight: We can increase Winterspeakian savings in three ways: by increasing government consumption, increasing government investment, or reducing taxes. But note that an increase in Winterspeakian savings only results in traditional savings (current new investment) if the government purchases investment goods. I don’t wish to take a side on the stimulus debate now, but I do want to point out that when people use the normatively charged word “savings” to imply investment, a tax reduction that enables purchases of bonds doesn’t cut it. A tax reduction increases claims against the government without increasing aggregate investment. Individuals imagine they have saved, but collectively, we have only reorganized claims surrounding the consumption and investing we were already doing. (Arguably a tax reduction could saturate the demand for government claims and lead to more real private investment. But that’s a dynamic scoring kind of story.)

Fundamentally, Winterspeakian savings is about restructuring our collective balance sheet in a way that leaves individuals with more claims on government. If the private sector reduces investment and the government increases investment to take up the slack, the ultimate result is the government controlling more real capital, and individuals holding claims on the government. In other words, what the private sector is doing right now is using financial markets to demand more socialism. Individuals no longer want to hold direct claims on private enterprise. They wish to hold claims on government, which implies the government must own and direct the productive activity that will enable it to make good on all those claims.

Regular readers may have noticed that I love telling ironic capitalists-are-socialists kind of stories. But I don’t think a shift towards public ownership of the means of production is a good thing. A consumption-centered stimulus or tax cut would keep the government out of the business of investing while enabling people to hold more money, but that would lead to reduced future production despite an increase in “risk free” claims against government. Today’s “savings” would be a losing investment, in real terms. That is, if we satisy the public’s demand for an increase in government claims, but do not invest the proceeds well, we should expect a great inflation. Hopefully, we are capable of identifying sufficiently productive infrastructure and public goods investments that the government can earn a real return without interfering in the traditional private sphere. But in the intermediate term, there will be no substitute for increasing PI. We need to persuade individuals to undertake investments whose risk they hold and bear if we want to have a capitalist economy. We need a private financial system.

But did we ever have one? If you buy the Moldbug/Winterspeakian view of banking, we did not to the extent that individuals used the banking system to intermediate investment. Instead, the government effectively created incentives for bankers to invest in good projects by letting them keep the proceeds when they chose well, while punishing them a bit but then eating their losses if they chose poorly. We could reproduce that system more directly by having the government invest in private equity funds. Is that what we want?

We really need to think clearly about what we used to have, what was good and what was broken about it, and what we want going forward. How much should investment risk be socialized, to encourage entrepreneurship, vs how much should be borne privately, to encourage discrimination? Would it be possible to build the right mix transparently, rather than to rely on hidden guarantees and subsidies as we have until now? (It may be that subterfuge is prerequisite to an effective financial system in a political world. But I don’t like to believe that.) To the degree that the investors will actually bear investment risk, can we define instruments that they can productively invest in? As index investors have learned, bearing risk without discriminating between good and bad is a prescription for disaster, eventually.

This has gotten terribly long, and terribly rambling, but I do want to come back to one idea. Early on, I described a Winterspeak/Moldbug synthesis in which the government comes off as incredibly powerful. Government money is what everybody wants because everybody wants it. The government destroys money through taxation and borrowing, and creates it by spending and lending, and can do so at will. A very large fraction of “private” lending is in the influence of government, by how it organizes the pseudoprivate banking system as well as via direct market interventions. With so much power, what are the government’s constraints? Why can’t it get an outcome that it wants, presumably a good economy with a bit of corruption on the side? Let’s put aside the institutional stuff. (For example, governments usually have to pretend private banks are private; their ability to direct the loans they guarantee is limited; in fact, a bankers-control-government-expenditure story is historically more compelling than government-controls-bank-expenditure). Right now, the government can pretty much do what it wants with the banking system, can expand the quantity of risk-free claims to meet demand at will, can lend to whomever it pleases. Why can’t it fix the country?

Cassandra had a brilliant post not long ago called “an idea crunch“. Read it if you haven’t. Ultimately, a financial system has to find productive projects for the private parties to invest in. The government can invest directly, can delegate investment to the best and the brightest, can saturate the public’s demand for money until private parties try to find other means of storing wealth. But it’s what real human beings do with real resources that ultimately matters. Our financial system didn’t fail because it was overlevered. It failed because it was uncreative: It could not conjure up worthwhile things to do with the capital it was asked to invest, and instead of owning up to that, it pretended that poor projects were good. Financial markets are ultimately information systems. The only way out of this is to discover worthwhile things to do, or more importantly, to develop better means of generating a diverse menu of worthwhile things to do going forward. Right now, the government is being asked to do what the semi-private financial system could not: generate a positive real return on trillions of dollars of undifferentiated future claims. The stakes are very high — that Moldbugian monetary Nash equilibrium can be a bitch. Money is the bubble that need not pop, but that’s no guarantee that it won’t. Anything that’s desirable only because everybody desires it is just a single major failure away from being yesterday’s darling. If unthinkable banking system failures can occur, so can unthinkable failures of the monetary system.


[1] I think Cochrane’s essay has been too roughly treated in the blogosphere, and I don’t wish to pile on. A fair reading of the piece makes it clear that Cochrane is not making the elementary errors that an excerpt from the beginning might suggest. I quote Cochrane’s essay here with some affection. I think his view of money is wrong, but like nearly all of economics it is better read as a form of organized hope that the world might be rendered coherent than as a reliable description of the world as it is.

Did the Swedes nationalize? What does that mean, anyway?

In an earlier post, I took Kevin Drum to task for referring to partially state-owned, but publicly listed Nordbanken, as “the state bank”. I noted then that I didn’t know what percentage of the bank was state-owned.

Kevin Drum is not lazy. He’s managed to dig that up. In an e-mail, he reports that at the time of Nordbanken’s nationalization, it was 77% state-owned, and private shareholders were bought out at better than the market price. At 77% government ownership Kevin’s characterization of Nordbanken as a state bank seems pretty defensible. (That the Swedes bought out the old shareholders doesn’t interest me very much, as long as the bank’s price had already collapsed. For example, paying Citi’s shareholders a substantially above-market $4 per share — Citi closed at $3.11 today — after the shares have fallen in value by more than 90% wouldn’t much change the incentives of pre-crisis shareholders.)

“Nationalizing” a bank already 77% owned by the state might not seem like a big deal. But, reading an insider’s account of the Swedish crisis, it was a big deal:

The crisis continued. We had to make a big quick fix for Nordbanken. However, it was soon clear that the quick fix was not enough. So we decided to nationalize the bank and recapitalize it. Nordbanken was very large, as its asset base equaled 23 percent of GDP. The initial cost of recapitalizing Nordbanken equaled 3 percent of GDP. A few years later we were able turn it around at a profit for the taxpayers and that transaction, more or less, paid for the banking crisis.

The restructuring of Nordbanken was really important in that it served as a showcase for the rest of our work. It demonstrated the government’s determination to address and resolve the crisis and it helped us to gain respect.

Britain is in a similar situation today. The British government already owns 68% of RBS, but the question of whether or not to “fully” nationalize the firm remains important. Why? What’s the difference between a “full nationalization” and majority ownership? Does “full nationalization” matter?

I think it does matter, quite a bit. First, there is the obvious matter of unity of control. A fully nationalized bank can be reorganized in the public interest, e.g. by division into smaller firms, without minority shareholders complaining or even suing on the theory that a different structure would be more profitable.

More importantly, only full nationalization eliminates investors’ incentives to concentrate capital in “too big to fail” banks before the crisis. Assume that a bank is insolvent, such that if it were not “too big to fail”, regulators would insist it merge or wind down at a cost the the deposit insurance fund. But the bank in question is too big to fail, so regulators cannot wind it down. The government is then forced to become the capital provider of last resort. Existing shares would be worthless under this scenario, if the bank had no power to threaten a chaotic failure. However, after a recapitalization, the reorganized bank might become a very valuable. The bank retains its existing network of branches, benefits from the deposits and habits of its old customers, and may leap from sickest bank to safest bank with a single “bold” injection of government capital. If the old shareholders are permitted to ride along after the reorganization, they reap a large reward from having invested in a bank that was too important to fail.

Suppose that a bank whose true book equity is $0 has failed to mark down some assets, and shows a position of $10B. The bank receives a $90B capital injection, valuing existing shares at book. Then the old equity whose true value was precisely zero prior to the recapitalization suddenly has a real book value of $9B. That is, old shareholders reap an immediate windfall from the recapitalization, and the size of the windfall increases in direct proportion with the amount to which management had lied about the banks losses! Further, the market value of old equity should rise by much more than that $9B, since all of a sudden, the bank switches from a horseman of the apocalypse to a going concern with a bright future. Failing to exclude old shareholders from a post-recapitalization bank results in a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to shareholders in proportion to the degree to which i) they invest in “too big to fail” banks, and ii) encourage management to understate asset impairments in their books. Those are really bad incentives. The details of this story change a bit if, for example, the recapaitalization comes in the form of preferred equity with warrants, or if market values rather than book values are used to estimate the how much dilution old shareholders suffer. But the core bad incentives do not change.

By eliminating private shareholders entirely, full nationalization permits regulators to “do what needs to be done” to restructure the firm without having to hew to a fiduciary duty of profit maximization in designing the new structure. Full nationalization limits the ability of shareholders to extract windfalls from taxpayers by becoming “too big or interconnected to fail”. Finally, full nationalization makes it possible to value assets ruthlessly, thereby eliminating market uncertainty about whether a bank is really fixed. Either to maximize their share of a recapitalized firm or to maximize the subsidy in a “toxic asset” purchase, legacy shareholders will always insist on optimistic asset values. But getting past a banking crisis requires working from an assumption of extremely pessimistic values.

So I do think that Nordbanken still “counts” importantly as a nationalization (and that AIG, for example, remains importantly undernationalized). But kudos to Kevin Drum for unearthing the public/private split. What do you think? Does a shift from 77% government-owned to 100% government-owned really matter?

Nationalize like real capitalists

It will come to no surprise of readers of this blog that I favor nationalization of failed, systemically important banks. But James Surowiecki and Floyd Norris have a point. We absolutely should not nationalize as a means of persuading banks to issue credit more freely. If the government (idiotically) wants looser lending than banks are willing to provide, it oughtn’t take their money and lend it. The government can lend its own damned money (well, our own damned money) if it thinks that profitable loans are not being made, or that for the good of the economy unprofitable loans must be made.

The reason to nationalize a bank is because the bank has failed and its former owners have no legitimate claim to its assets. The government has been forced to offer support with public money, thereby purchasing the corpse fair and square. We take the bank into public ownership because taxpayers who have been conscripted to accept extraordinary losses are entitled to whatever gains follow the reorganization they finance.

When a bank is nationalized, shareholder equity should be written to zero, and existing management should be handled as roughly as the law allows. If we have a bit of courage, we should impose haircuts or debt-to-equity conversions on unsecured creditors, but I don’t think we have that kind of courage. “Toxic” assets should be revalued at pennies-on-the-dollar market bids or else written to zero and hived into “bad banks”. Once we have a conservative valuation of the assets and know exactly what is owed, we’ll know how much public money would be required to cobble a robustly funded bank from the wreckage. However, if we recapitalize “too big to fail” banks without restructuring them, we will quite deserve our next mugging. We had better cut these monsters into little, itty, bitty pieces. We should embed strict size and leverage limits into their itty, bitty charters, restrict their ability to recombine, and then hire management to run the little things on strictly commercial terms. Hopefully we will change what it means for a bank to run on commercial terms — We should create a tax and regulatory structure that penalizes scale and leverage across the board. Better yet we should decouple the payment system from risk investment by reorganizing banking functions into “narrow banks” and credibly not-guaranteed investment vehicles. But whatever the banking industry comes to look like, nationalized banks should be recapitalized once, then managed to compete in it, and for no other purpose. Taxpayers should seek to extract maximum value from their eventual privatization. But should any of the reorganized banks seek a second helping of at the public trough, they should be ostentatiously permitted to fail. Rather than an implicit government guarantee, successors of nationalized banks should face a particularly itchy trigger finger.

Having nationalized “banks” make loans that prudent managers of a well-capitalized bank would not make is just a way of obscuring a subsidy and ensuring permanent quasipublic status by requiring on-going guarantees, bail-outs, and capital injections. Further, putting easy-lending public banks in competition with ordinary thrifts would resuscitate the destructive dynamic we have just put behind us, wherein bank managers must match the idiocy of their most foolish counterparts or watch their businesses wither.

If we want to stimulate the economy, put idle resources to work, stoke animal spirits, whatever, we should do that with some combination of transfers, investment subsidies, inflation, and public works. But if we are dumb enough to force-feed credit into the economy, let’s not hide that behind a bunch of puppet banks. And let’s keep it very clear that we are not confiscating private firms in order to make them tools of the state. We nationalize reluctantly, when we have had no choice but to inject public money (or guarantee assets, which amounts to the same thing) in banks that otherwise would have failed. We nationalize because, in a capitalist economy, investors get to keep the profits they endow, even when the investors happen to be taxpayers.


Some nationalization links

Update History:
  • 20-Jan-2009, 7:00 p.m. EST: Eliminated an artless overuse of “guaranteeing” by changing to “ensuring”.

Guaranteeing obligations vs guaranteeing assets

I don’t mean to pick on Kevin Drum, whom I really admire (and who offered a very nice response to my previous piece). But in the post I already picked on, he wrote this…

So what are the lessons [of the Swedish experience] for us? …[W]e could consider a systemwide guarantee of all bank obligations, instead of the one-offs we’ve (partially) applied to Citi and BofA.

And then I read this (ht Felix Salmon):

Another top option under discussion would be to broaden a technique the government has already used in its rescue of Citigroup and Bank of America. In both instances, the government agreed to share losses with the banks on a certain group of assets. The banks agreed to take the first hit, and taxpayers are on the hook for much of the rest. In the case of Citigroup, the total amount of assets protected is more than $300 billion. This loss-insuring plan under discussion would be available to banks large and small. Ms. Bair said she and other regulators are keen to provide sweeping solutions instead of the ad hoc approaches of last year. Officials don’t agree, though, on whether guarantees could be offered broadly, given the complexity and variety of instruments held by many institutions.

I think it is very important to point out that what we have done as “one-offs” for Citi and Bank of America bears absolutely no resemblance, and is quite opposed in spirit, to what the Nordics did during their banking crisis. Yes, Sweden issued a blanket guarantee of bank obligations. That was a bail-out to customers and creditors of Swedish banks, who otherwise might have seen deposits lost or loans defaulted.

What the US has done for Citi and Bank of America is put a floor under the value of the particular “toxic” assets. That means the government takes the loss before shareholders do. In Sweden they bailed out the creditors, but insisted that the stockholders, and at least in the case of Nordbanken the management, take losses before taxpayers. In the hypercapitalist US of A, we prefer to bail out creditors, stockholders, and management, full stop.

Guaranteeing obligations is arguably necessary as a means of protecting the financial system and the economy at large. Guaranteeing assets is a means of protecting incumbent institutions that might otherwise participate in the miracle of creative destruction.

If I had any more capacity for apoplexy, I would go totally apoplectic about a proposal to institutionalize transfers targeted at the most negligent and devious stakeholders in the banking crisis. Fortunately, my brain exploded months ago.

The Swedes did nationalize

Of Sweden’s banking crisis in the early 1990s, Kevin Drum writes (ht Tyler Cowen, Mark Thoma):

A lot of the sentiment in favor of nationalization appears to be driven by admiration for Sweden’s “quick and decisive” action to clean up its own banking mess in the early 90s, so let’s take a look at what Sweden did and didn’t do. First off, here’s what they didn’t do:

  • They didn’t act all that quickly. The real estate crash and the resulting credit losses began in late 1990, solvency problems started to become acute in late 1991, and a variety of treasury guarantees and capital injections were tried for another year after that. (Sound familiar?) It wasn’t until late 1992 that the Swedish government finally took serious, systemic action.

  • They didn’t nationalize the banking system. Only one bank, Gota, was taken over, and that happened only after it had collapsed. And aside from Gota, only one bank received a substantial amount of capital injection: the state bank, Nordbanken, which had much bigger problems than most of the private banks.

  • Generally speaking, they didn’t fire existing bank management.

So what did the Swedes do? The main thing was simple: in late 1992 the Swedish government guaranteed all bank obligations throughout the system…

What else? Not too much, actually. An agency was formed to dig into the portfolios of nearly every major bank, and this resulted in a capital requirement guarantee for one bank that was never used. In addition, the shareholders of Gota and Nordbanken were mostly wiped out.

So what are the lessons for us? First, we don’t necessarily need to nationalize. If we have to, then we have to, but with the exception of Gota that’s not what the Swedes did.

Second, we could consider a systemwide guarantee of all bank obligations, instead of the one-offs we’ve (partially) applied to Citi and BofA.

Third, we still have to take care of the toxic assets clogging up bank balance sheets. The Swedes did this for Nordbanken and Gota by hiving off “bad banks” to handle the valuation and eventual sale of their bad assets.

I’ve a great deal of respect for Kevin Drum. He’s a trustworthy guy. And there’s murkiness in the definition of what it means for a bank to be nationalized. (Has AIG been nationalized in the US? How about Fannie Mae?)

But substantively, Drum is just wrong here. The state took full ownership and control over Nordbanken in 1992, actively cleaned it up, and eventually reprivatized it. During the crisis, Nordbanken purchased Gota, effectively nationalizing the smaller bank. It is true that only these two banks were nationalized, and a Swedish government description of the crisis is careful to note that, as a matter of policy “the state would not endeavour to become an owner of banks or other institutions.” But Nordbanken alone had an asset base of 23% of GDP. To put that in perspective, in US terms that’s almost as large as Citi and Bank of America. (Citi and Bank of America together had an asset base of 26% of US GDP at the end of 2007.) Nordbanken was not just some little bank. (I don’t think it’s fair to characterize Nordbanken prior to the crisis as “the state bank” either, as Drum does. Nordbanken was a product of mergers, and one of its parents was a large state-owned postal bank. Other parents were private. Nordbanken was a listed public company, and was not actively controlled by the state prior to the nationalization. I do not know how much of the firm was owned by the government prior to the banking crisis. [Update 23-Jan-2009: 77% state-owned — thanks Kevin! — see here for more.])

Other banks were not nationalized for the simple reason that only Nordbanken and Gota required significant recapitalization by the state. Other banks faced a liquidity crisis, which was resolved by a blanket guarantee and central bank lending. But Nordbanken and Gota were insolvent, were unable to raise private capital, and were nationalized. (A third bank did receive a very small amount of public capital without being nationalized.)

Again, nationalization was never a grand policy. It was the natural result of the principles that defined the Swedish response to the crisis. From a 1997 speech at Jackson Hole by Swedish cental bank governor Urban Backstrom:

In September 1992 the Government and the Opposition jointly announced a general guarantee for the whole of the banking system… The bank guarantee provided protection from losses for all creditors except share-holders… The decision was of course troublesome and far-reaching. Besides involving difficult considerations to do, for example, with the cost to the public sector, it raised such questions as the risk of moral hazard… One way of limiting moral hazard problems was to engage in tough negotiations with the banks that needed support and to enforce the principle that losses were to be covered in the first place with the capital provided by shareholders

Banks applying for support had their assets valued by the Bank Support Authority, using uniform criteria… The Swedish Bank Support Authority had to choose between two alternative strategies. The first method involves deferring the reporting of losses for as long as is legally possible and using the bank’s current income for a gradual write-down of the loss making assets. One advantage of this method is that it helps to avoid the bank being forced to massive sales of assets at prices below long run market values. A serious disadvantage is that the method presupposes that the bank problems can be resolved relatively quickly; otherwise the difficulties compound, leading to much greater problems when they ultimately materialise. The handling of problems among savings and loan institution in the United States in the 1980s is a case in point. With the other method, an open account of all expected losses and writedowns is presented at an early stage. This clarifies the extent of the problems and the support that is required. Provided the authorities and the banks make it credible that no additional problems have been concealed, this procedure also promotes confidence. It entails a risk of creating an exaggerated perception of the magnitude of the problems, for instance if real estate that has been taken over at unduly cautiously estimated values in a market that is temporarily depressed. This can lead, for instance, to borrowers in temporary difficulties being forced to accept harsher terms, which in turn can result in payments being suspended.

The Swedish authorities opted for the second method: disclose expected loan losses and assign realistic values to real estate and other assets. This method was consistent with other basic principles for the bank support, such as the need to restore confidence. Looking back, it can be said that in general the level of valuation was realistic. [bold mine, italics original]

Why did the Swedes nationalize? Not because they wanted to, but because the (sound) principles under which they provided capital demanded it: They required aggressive write-downs prior to the provision of public capital, and they demanded that shareholders take losses before taxpayers. Nordbanken was insolvent. The value of shareholders’ equity was negative. The first dollar krona of public capital bought the bank.

Drum also points out that during the Swedish crisis, existing bank management was not generally shown the door. But Nordbanken’s management was replaced. Whether or not the Swedes insisted on management changes as a policy matter, in practice they did defenestrate the managers of their largest bank. The neighboring Norweigians made changing the board and senior management of failed banks an explicit condition of state support during their contemporaneous crisis. The Norweigians didn’t issue a blanket guarantee to bank creditors. (Norway, like Sweden, is viewed as having responded to its banking crisis effectively and successfully. Rather than the “Swedish model”, people sometimes refer to the “Nordic model”. Both Sweden and Norway forced exhaustive write-downs and wrote off shareholders prior to committing public capital, effectively nationalizing the recapitalized banks.)

Anyway, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. My sources are below. (I’ve no special expertise on this — Drum’s post challenged conventional wisdom that I had accepted, so I decided to have a look around.)

Update: Added the bit about Nordbanken’s prior state affiliation (postal bank was a parent), and the replacement of Nordbanken’s management.

Update History:
  • 18-Jan-2009, 3:30 p.m. EST: Added information about Nordbanken’s previous state affiliation and replacement of Nordbanken’s management.
  • 18-Jan-2009, 3:30 p.m. EST: Corrected my dyslexic multiple spellings of Nordbanken.
  • 18-Jan-2009, 3:30 p.m. EST: Changed dollar to krona…
  • 18-Jan-2009, 7:30 p.m. EST: Removed an “also”, and also “myself”.
  • 23-Jan-2009, 5:15 a.m. EST: Added update with info from Kevin Drum on Nordbanken’s prenationalization share of public ownership [77%].

Expand transfers, not credit

I have a little secret. Please don’t tell anyone. I am glad that the banks, for all the hundreds of billions of dollars we are giving them, are not lending. That is not because I want banks to improve the quality of their balance sheets. On the contrary, I don’t want banks at all, at least not banks anything like what we’ve had. I don’t want to “use all of our resources to preserve the strength of our banking institutions“. Since we have already bought and paid for our nation’s banking institutions, we are within our rights to, um, transition them to a different business model. Let’s do that.

But credit is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, right? I keep hearing that line. It’s a dumb line.

Credit, also known as debt, is one of several arrangements by which a party with the power to command resources but lacking aptitude or interest in managing a productive enterprise delegates wealth to another party who is capable of creating value but unable to command sufficient resources. You would be forgiven for not noticing, given how habitually we misuse credit, but supplying credit is really just a subspecies of the practice that used to be called “investing”. There are a variety of other arrangements that serve the same economic function. Perhaps you have heard the terms like “common stock” and “cumulative preferred equity”? In fact, credit is to investing what heroin is to painkillers: Unusually appealing, in a certain way. Hard to kick once you’re on it. Almost certain to, um, cause problems, eventually. Our overall goal ought not be to kickstart the credit economy, but to kick the habit and move towards financing arrangements that are more equity-like than debt-like. That’s going to be hard to do, because historically, we’ve subsidized the hell out of debt financing, especially bank credit, and alternatives are underdeveloped. But with the exception of war, no still-practiced human institution provokes catastrophe as regularly or as grandly as the misuse of debt. We ought to phase out banks as we’ve known them since before Bagehot’s time, and move to a regime of what are lately referred to as “narrow banks” (banks that lend only to the government that issues the currency of their deposits). We should encourage the development fine-grained equity markets and local-market investment funds to replace bank financing.

The rush to ramp up “consumer credit” is particularly dumb. Usually, financial investing involves funding wealth generating projects in exchange for a share of the anticipated wealth. Consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of, um, what exactly?

In theory, there’s a good answer: consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of anticipated future wealth that is believed to be endowed already. Economists talk about consumption smoothing, how it may be optimal for a consumer whose income is volatile to borrow during periods of low income and repay (or save) during periods of high income in order to maintain a constant standard of living. That’s very well in models where consumers know the true distribution of their future income, where the spread between borrowing and lending interest rates is not very large, and where consumer preferences are time-consistent. In practice, none of these conditions hold even approximately. As we are learning, the future is a very uncertain place. Consumers, like Wall Street quants, may inadequately extrapolate the distribution of their future income from recent observations. They have no access to the true distribution. The interest rates consumers pay for unsecured credit (think credit card rates) are often several times what they receive on money they save. In the world as it is, consumers ought to borrow only to counter severe downward shocks to income, pay off borrowings quickly, and build buffers of precautionary savings, since the cost of dissaving is much less then the cost of borrowing. (You lose 4% interest on your CD, rather than paying 12% interest on your credit card.)

Some consumers behave this way, but very many do not, suggesting that consumers are myopic, overvaluing consumption today in a manner that they themselves will come to regret in the future. If consumers are myopic, if self-today has different preferences than self-tomorrow, then whether taking on credit is a good idea is beyond the comfort zone of positive economics. Credit availability creates winners (self-today) and losers (self-tomorrow), while interest payments reduce the size of the overall pie available to the time series of selves. In the way that economists suggest “free trade” to be good — winners, losers, gains overall — myopic consumers imply that the absense of a credit constraint is bad. Thank goodness the banks aren’t lending!

There are obvious wrinkles and objections — What about credit for cars, or home mortgages, or education? The analysis changes when the borrowing is exchanging one pre-existing long-term liability for another. (We are born short basic shelter, and, in much of America at least, short a cheap car as well.) Education can be viewed as an ordinary, wealth generating investment project that in theory could be equity rather than debt financed, but that might be too tricky in practice. It’s not my intention to suggest that consumer credit is always bad, only to defend the commonplace notion that for many people and under many circumstances, even loans that will be never be defaulted can be positively harmful, and as a matter of policy we should not be exhorting banks to issue or consumers to accept credit.

But if we let consumer credit contract, and if investment demand is derived from consumption demand, doesn’t that spell macroeconomic disaster? There is an alternative. It is called “transfers”. What’s good about credit from a simple Keynesian perspective isn’t that loans get repaid tomorrow, but that they get spent today. If what consumers would do with funds would be better for the economy than what banks are doing with funds, we ought to stop the massive transfers of funds from buyers of government debt to banks, and transfer the funds directly to consumers. If you think that Americans consume too much, and that we need to grit our teeth and endure a “reduction in our standard of living”, fine. I disagree, strongly, but at least you’re consistent. Then the government shouldn’t transfer to anyone, banks shouldn’t be encouraged to lend, consumption, investment, and GDP should be allowed to fall until we find a new level. I think that’s foolishly pessimistic, though. Americans may need to change the mix of our consumption, but overall I think our standard of living is not only supportable, but improvable, and that our goal should be to get the rest of the world to live as well as we do, rather than to reconcile ourselves with some pseudomoral poverty. The world is full of human want, which we should strive to meet by working to increase our capacity to produce. Problems arise when want and purchasing power are misaligned. We can improve that by redistributing some of the purchasing power from those with lesser to those with greater use for current consumption. If that sounds Commie to you, note that is precisely the function that consumer credit traditionally serves, just without all the residual claims, a large fraction of which will prove to be illusory (at least in real terms). That is, transfers are just a more honest way of doing precisely what a credit expansion does, except without the trauma that comes from learning that much of the money lent to fund current consumption will never be repaid.

I’m trying to come up with a reasonable opposing view, a case for pushing consumer credit but opposing transfers. Perhaps you can help, because I just can’t do it. One might argue on philosophical grounds against coercive transfers, but coercive transfers are a precondition of restarting bank lending, and we’ve already made transfers to banks on such a scale that banning them now would be like robbing a jewelry store, then piously arguing future looters should be shot. One might argue that bank lending is “smarter” than public transfers would be, that the patterns of consumption and investment that result from private sector credit allocation will lead to superior productive capacity and more sustainable patterns of consumption than direct transfers. Given the awful quality of aggregate investment this decade and the volatility now faced by consumers who were recently credit flush but who under any reasonable lending standard must now be credit constrained, it is hard to be enthusiastic about the special wisdom of bank-mediated credit allocation.

Of course, once we start redistributing purchasing power, there’s the thorny question of who gets what. I have an answer to that, it is my new mantra. Transfer flat. Cut checks to every adult in the economy of interest, regardless of whether they pay taxes or have a job. Flat transfers are easy to understand and they pass the smell test for “fair”. As an income source unrelated to work, flat transfers increase workers’ bargaining power with employers by reducing the cost of refusing a raw deal. (Supplementary income is a better means of enhancing labor bargaining power than unionization, which serves the same purpose but may limit the flexibility and efficiency of production.) Finally, flat transfers align purchasing power in the economy with the problem that we want markets to solve — We want an economy that serves some people dramatically more than others, in order to preserve incentives to produce and excel. But we also want an economy that meets every person’s basic needs, even those of people who are unable or unwilling to offer marketable goods or services. We won’t let people starve, so why not fund a basic income, however miserly, rather than relying on an inefficient social services bureaucracy or taxing the virtuous by relying on charity?

Tax Pigou and progressive. Transfer flat. Encourage equity. Contain the banks.

Compete to give, give to compete

‘Tis better to give than to receive.

A nice sentiment, surely. But is it good economics? My takeaway from China’s experience is that it is, or it can be. There are lots of ways to spin China’s policy of limiting the appreciation of its currency in order to promote export-led capital formation and growth. One story is simply that the policy amounted to a export subsidy: Purchasing power was withdrawn from Chinese workers and transferred to dollar and euro spending foreign consumers.

It’s unmistakable that the policy “worked”, in some sense. China’s growth, along with the scale and pace of change in that country, have been remarkable.

I’ve mulled over the question of subsidy before. Simple economic reasoning suggests that subsidies harm the subsidizers and help the subsidizees. Yet nations often do subsidize their exports, overtly and covertly. Instead of welcoming cheap goods with open arms, the recipients of the subsidized merchandise usually complain, and sometimes slap on “anti-dumping” tariffs to keep cheap goods from being too cheap. Economists often tsk-tsk at all this, blaming both the subsidies and the tariffs on rent-seeking politically connected manufacturers. It’s all “protectionism”, they say.

A fair review of the history of “protectionism” would be much more mixed than the economic mainstream would like us to believe, with their stories of comparative advantage and expanding production possibility frontiers. (Thankfully, economists like Dani Rodrik and Paul Krugman weave more nuanced tales, but still “protectionism” rates somewhere just below coprophagia on the economic profession’s list of distasteful things.) In some times and places, trade barriers have served to isolate and impoverish people. In other times and places, tariffs have protected infant industries that grew into powerhouses in countries (like the United States) that otherwise might have remained agricultural backwaters. That said, I think we should avoid tariffs, not in deference to economic pseudoscience, but because they are stultifying. Intercourse across borders is a per se good. A mixed-up, intermingling world is better than one made up of insulated national tribes. We should avoid tariffs not because of their adverse economic consequences, but despite their potential economic benefits.

But subsidy is a different story. Export subsidies do not diminish international commerce, they, um, subsidize it. From a libertarian perspective, there is a strong case against tariffs. Trade restrictions prevent free people across borders from interacting as they wish. But subsidies restrict no one. Sure, libertarians might complain of the wealth expropriated to fund the subsidy, but that critique applies to nearly all functions of modern government. Until we abolish public schools and the NIH, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have export subsidies.

The more serious case against subsidies is that they are “distortionary”. But for even the most ham-handed sort of subsidies, where governments favor particular firms or industries, it is not at all clear that this is so. Investment is not a “distortion”, even though it involves accepting an up-front cost. When local governments offer tax abatements, free infrastructure, and other perqs to attract economic activity, there’s a clear payoff from taxpayers to particular private parties. Yet sometimes these inducements do pay for themselves, in financial terms as growth increases the long-term tax base by more than the upfront costs, and in nonfinancial terms as residents reap direct and indirect benefits from prosperity of place. Sure, governments make poor investments sometimes, whether corruptly or out of innocent miscalculation. Firm managers also make bad investments, and sometimes their motivations in doing so are not aligned with the welfare of shareholders. Sometimes firms are large, and capable of investing on a scale that deters potentially superior upstarts from entering a market. But we don’t prohibit corporate investment as “distortionary”. In both the public and private sector, restricting investment implies preventing potentially welfare-enhancing projects from taking root. Subsidies, when they are not a form of corruption, are a form of investment. We should be very careful in designing public subsidies to private parties, since the potential for crooked dealing is obvious. But forbidding subsidy outright is prima facie welfare destructive. Preventing governments from internalizing the external benefits their communities would receive from economic development would itself be “distortionary”. (I dislike the language of optimality and distortion favored by economists. But when in Rome…)

The example of the United States is often held up as a model of a free-trade zone, as a reducto ad absurdiam. If protectionism is such a good idea, asks some supercilious hypothetical interlocutor, why shouldn’t we have tariffs between Tennessee and Alabama? Of course we don’t, and shouldn’t. But Tennessee and Alabama can and do compete in bidding wars with firms deciding where they ought to put their factories. The “free trade” that has worked so well among the 50 United States is actually a trade regime involving ubiquitous and competitive subsidies. Maybe that’s not a flaw, but a feature.

At this moment, there’s a fear that “Smoot-Hawley”, “beggar-thy-neighbor” protectionism will take hold, condemning us to a depression more harmful than the one we already face. If insufficient aggregate demand is the problem, then competitive tariffs are a negative sum game: They not only confine demand within borders, but they eliminate demand that would otherwise exist for goods and services that could be provided internationally. So, the fear of tariffs is not misplaced.

But competitive export subsidies are a different thing entirely. If the people from whom funds are borrowed or taxed would otherwise have saved, then export subsidies can increase effective aggregate demand. A trade war in which the nations of the world strive to outgive one another in order to help support their own industries would amount to a collaborative global stimulus. Angloamerican economists are tut-tutting over how “surplus countries” aren’t doing their part in stimulating domestic consumption. Instead, export-heavy nations are stimulating consumption elsewhere, by stepping up their export subsidies. If China wants to support American consumption, then why shouldn’t America support Chinese consumption? Rather than digging holes again and filling them back in again, why not give the world’s “bottom billion” perishable gift cards redeemable for US goods and services, and let the jobs follow?

I don’t think this is only a matter of “depression economics“. It really is better to give than to receive, even in good times. But it is impolite to give but then refuse the gifts of others. And it is best to be up front about what you are doing. Making “loans” that are unlikely to be repaid is the worst form of giving. Everyone ends up unhappy when the inevitable comes to pass.

I started with the example of China, and I’ll end with it. A year or two ago, China looked unstoppable, but suddenly conventional wisdom is that chickens are coming home to roost. China has subsidized exports, but its subsidy has been synthetic, implicit and deniable, and therein lies its problem. As Brad Setser has described for years, in order to maintain a “crawling” currency peg, China’s central bank has been forced to purchase US dollar assets on which it must expect an eventual loss in real terms. China’s subsidy to foreign consumers has been hidden in this overpayment. China’s policy of giving worked very well for it, but executing that policy by pretending to lend rather than to give has put the nation in a bind. The technocrats responsible for China’s huge currency reserves must continually expand their losses by purchasing more dollars to keep the value of the dollar high and hide the costs of subsidies already granted. If they do not, the exposure of large financial losses might create a firestorm of domestic outrage. China’s central bank might be able to hide reserve losses by engineering a large domestic inflation, so that its US dollar portfolio does not lose value in nominal terms. In either case, even though the development gains were almost certainly worth the financial cost of China’s export support, China’s leaders face a problem since they pretended there was no subsidy when in fact the subsidy was very large.

It would have been better for China as well as for its trade partners (who face traumatic currency devaluations) if its policies had involved explicit, sustainable, and broad-based subsidies to foreign consumers. Explicit subsidies paid over time are more politically palatable than sharp losses suddenly revealed. China’s covert, financial-engineered subsidies relied upon complex chains of financial intermediation, which eventually could not withstand the stress. China is still trying to subsidize, but lending to the US Treasury no longer translates to increased consumption by American consumers. China’s approach to subsidy contributed to instability in the financial arrangements of its customers, which has unsurprisingly boomeranged, creating economic instability in China.

Here is my proposal for the WTO. I know it will be greeted enthusiastically. Explicit export subsidies in the form of time-limited direct-to-consumer vouchers redeemable towards substantially all of a country’s domestically produced goods and services should be deemed permissible, and the inevitable bureaucracy should be created to quibble over the terms of the institutionalized subsidy. Nations may choose to opt out of the program, but if they wish to offer subsidies, they must accept all other nations’ subsidies. (Nations may accept subsidies without offering them, though.) Each subsidizing nation then sets an annual lump-sum amount, which is distributed in the form of equal-valued vouchers to adults in all participating nations worldwide. (Goverments that cannot brook direct-to-consumer payments would be excluded both from offering or accepting subsidies under the program.) Vouchers would be transferrable, but redeemable only by non-residents of the issuing country, for delivery outside of the issuing country. (Yes, for electronically deliverable services that might be hard to enforce. But that’s what we have bureaucracies for.) In particular, subsidy vouchers could be bought and sold on organized exchanges, so that recipients who need food more than imports could sell them, for example to entrepreneurs hoping to purchase foreign capital goods at a discount.

I know this will grate on some of my “free-trade” luvin’ readers, but please compare this proposal with the actual status quo rather than hypothetical optimization problem. Governments will subsidize, sometime corruptly, sometimes mistakenly, and sometimes because it is a good idea that they do so. This scheme does not directly address narrowly tailored subsidies (e.g. US farm subsidies), but it does provide an alternative and “less distorting” means by which nations can broadly support their tradable industries while picking winners and losers as little as possible. It will also provide an alternative to the current practice of synthetic subsidy via currency and financial market intervention, which has led us to the brink of depression and dramatically increased the likelihood of serious conflict, economic or otherwise, between major powers. Since governments will always subsidize, we should try to devise and institutionalize least-harmful-means by which governments can do what they will (and sometimes should) do. This proposal avoids government picking of winners and losers, encouraging governments to subsidize tradables very broadly defined but let markets fill in the details. It prevents governments from targeting and undermining tradables production in particular countries. It avoids the obscenity of the current decade, wherein the mechanics by which export subsides were arranged meant that the wealth transfer went primarily towards the consumption of the already wealthy (owners of real estate or financial assets). The aggregate demand required to mobilize China might have been generated by entrepreneurs building factories in Africa rather than homeowners buying lawn furniture in America. Also, the structure of the proposed subsidy means that poor countries can choose to accept it as a form of foreign aid whose direct-to-consumer requirement might limit corrupt misuse, and whose breadth renders the subsidy less harmful to domestic producers than, say, dumping underpriced grains onto the market in the name of charity.

I think this is a pretty good idea. Tell me why I am wrong.

Good morning 2009

I cannot believe it is 2009. I’ve made it to about 1978 on my own personal to-do list. I’m running just a little bit behind.

Time comes at you like a freight train, but it is bad form not to smile and wave as it screeches by. So here’s to 2009, which I am told is the number of the current year.

Some pundits now suggest it was obvious that 2008 would collapse suddenly into 2009. 2008 was not sustainable, they say. It was a bubble, and as a matter of simple arithmetic, 2009 was sure to follow. It was inevitable, they say, like a Kondratieff winter.

Readers of Interfluidity are not so gullible as to fall for that kind of rear-view forecasting. It was always improbable that 2009 would attach itself to any year present or past. After all, 1984 is eternally the number of a dystopian future, and logically the present can be no later than the future. We have not found babies on Jupiter, an event that would be past in any year subsequent to 2001. Sure, strictly speaking, this kind of reasoning should have ruled out 2008 too. But what are the odds that a rent in the fabric of Keynes-Einstein space-time would endure for half a femtosecond, let alone for a whole ‘nother year? No. The smart money expected a correction back to 1931, or 1974, or 1982. 2009 wasn’t even in the running. But here we are. Anybody got a road map?

Who knows. Maybe this peculiar dimension will turn out not to be so bad. Here’s hoping. May it be all sparkly and strange for you. Perhaps we will encounter a benevolent and impossibly advanced alien race, and then discover at the last moment that the comm-screen through which we speak with them is actually a mirror.


I want to take a moment to thank Interfluidity‘s commenters, who continually amaze me. This is one of those websites where the quality of comments almost always exceeds that of the headline posts. I’m off in some sunny place right now. I just had a read of the comments attached to my previous, kind of crappy post. Wow. Amazing. Thank you.