...Archive for August 2008

Inequality and the Credit Crisis

It’s a clich&eacute, of course, that the 2000s are the new Gilded Age, that inequality in America is at levels not seen since the original Gilded Age, which you may recall was ended by a terrible depression.

During this decade’s tiresome debates about inequality, the don’t-worry-be-happy side of the argument frequently, and correctly, noted that income inequality statistics overstate the lived experience of inequality, since the poor spent more than they earn and the rich spent less.

Of course, the poor spend more than they earn primarily by taking on debt. In the halcyon days of 2006, that was no problem. Credit flowed like honey, and what could always be refinanced need never be repaid. It’s a wonder we didn’t do away with the whole “money” thing entirely. If you can spend all the way down to negative infinity, it hardly matters whether your starting wealth is one dollar or a billion dollars. Why keep track?

But, alas, people did keep track. They also stopped lending to people who might not be able to repay, people who, you know, spend more than they earn. Which means, even putting aside the terrible hardship of bankruptcy, or struggling to pay down old loans, all of a sudden the lived experience of inequality must come very much to resemble those unpleasant income inequality statistics. Are we cool with that?

In a way, the credit crisis comes out of a tension between the broad-middle-class America of our collective imagination and the economically polarized nation we have in fact come to be. We borrowed to finance an illusory Mayberry. The crisis won’t be over until this tension is resolved. Either we modify the facts of our economic relations, or we come to terms with a new America more comfortable with distinct and enduring social classes.

Tanta and Calculated Risk have popularized the notion that “We are all subprime now.” But that simply isn’t true. The vast majority may be subprime now, but not all of us. To use an old expression, as the easy money falls away, we are being left to “find our own level”. For many, it may be quite a bit lower than we had imagined.

I’m sure this is a bit polemic, but I don’t think it is much overstated. Credit was the means by which we reconciled the social ideals of America with an economic reality that increasingly resembles a “banana republic“. We are making a choice, in how we respond to this crisis, and so far I’d say we are making the wrong choice. We are bailing out creditors and going all personal-responsibility on debtors. We are coddling large institutions of prestige and power, despite their having made allocative errors that would put a Soviet 5-year plan to shame. We applaud the fact that “wage pressures are contained”, protecting the macroeconomy of the wealthy from the microeconomy of the middle class.

The credit crisis will end, and life in America will go on. What we have to decide now is, when the floodwaters clear, what kind of country will be revealed. Peering down through the murk, I don’t like what I am seeing.

Addendum: Tyler Cowen was prophetic on this point. He wrote in January, 2007 on income vs. consumption inequality:

People may be borrowing and accumulating large debts. Note that in this case, however, the comeuppance, however bad it may be, has yet to come. It could instead be argued that “inequality will (someday, when the debts come due) be a serious problem.”

Welcome to someday, Labor Day, 2008.

FD: I’m still very stagflation-oriented in my personal portfolio (precious metals, short long bonds and stocks), so the wage-price spiral demagoguing might be interpreted as self-interested. That said, no apologies. It astonishes me that even very liberal economists take comfort in the evisceration of wage-earners’ bargaining power. Yes, it means that Ben doesn’t need to hike, regardless of what commodities do. But what kind of economy are we building when we take the price of past mistakes out of future wage-earners’ pay packets, while protecting the accumulated wealth of those who profited by erring?

Why inflation?

In the more eschatological corners of the financial blogosphere, a debate has raged for centuries: Inflation or deflation?

I recommend Michael Shedlock as a thoughtful and passionate proponent of the deflationary view. (See e.g. here and here, but he’s been making the case for years and it’s worth searching the archives.) Also, Karl Denninger recently offered a nice deflationary tract.

I’m more certain of monetary and price volatility than I am of inflation or deflation. But on balance, even as commodities crash and the dollar rallies, my best guess is inflation.

Do read today’s excellent post by the always excellent Brad Setser, The changing balance of global financial power. Take a look at his graphs, showing the external official claims of “democracies” vs “autocracies”. You’ll notice that the autocracies are owed a great deal more money than the democracies are. Mostly, money is owed by the democracies to the autocracies in the form of debt denominated in the democracies’ currencies.

[Note: For the purpose of this piece, it matters only that policy in the “democracies” be sensitive to public pressure. The internals of the “autocracies”, and whether they are justly characterized as such, is not relevant to the argument, and not anything I want to get into here.]

Inflation helps debtors at the expense of creditors. In democracies where those who can vote are, on balance, debtors, one would expect collective indebtedness to favor inflation. Not all citizens are debtors, there would be domestic winners and losers. But on balance, voters gain by printing currency. If that’s a good argument for free trade, why should it not be an argument for weak money?

There are, of course, institutional constraints, “independent” central banks and all. It is one thing for a nation’s central bank to stand above the fray with respect to competing domestic interests, but quite another for the bank to put foreign interests or economic ideals above a collective national interest. That’s especially true if the alternative to devaluation is deflation. Under a deflation, American workers (those who remain employed!) would have to work more to pay off their fixed dollar debts. Individuals can declare bankruptcy and default, but collectively we cannot default on official debt (pace Felix Salmon, whose heretical idea I adore). One way or another, as reckless debtors or noble taxpayers, Americans would have to work harder under a deflation than they had signed on for when they took on the debt. Americans are having a hard time coming to grips with their nominal debt burden, public and private. I think it implausible that they would accept a large increase in the real interest rate they must pay. Officially it is the policy of the American central bank to maintain price stability and full employment regardless of the external value of the dollar. If the Fed faces a choice between deflation and high unemployment, or tolerating a significant inflation (with or without high unemployment), I’m pretty certain it would choose the latter as the less-bad option.

Japan’s experience in the 1990s and the US’ in the 1930s are often cited to suggest the inevitability of deflation, despite monetary policy heroics. But in both cases, the deflating country had a large, positive international asset position. To the degree money was owed by foreigners in domestic or pegged currency, the “national interest”, looking past winners and losers, was to tolerate deflation.

All of this ignores the secondary consequences of a partial default through inflation and devaluation. A wise polity would weigh the immediate collective benefit of reduced debt load against costs including higher future interest rates (foreign creditors get spooked), more expensive tradables, and a nationalistic backlash by creditor states. Of course, it would also have to consider the secondary effects of tolerating deflation, such as a spike in bankruptcies combined with a large tax spike to avoid a sovereign default. It seems to me that the adverse consequences of deflation would be sharp and domestic, while high prices and interest rates can be billed as “facts of nature” in a market economy, and other people’s hostile nationalism often helps domestic politicians, who can provoke some hostile nationalism of their own.

It is not impossible that the Fed will square the circle, maintaining something close to price stability while the US gears up its tradables economy and foreign creditors silently ease our debt burden via real appreciation. Obviously, that’s the best outcome (at least for the United States). But if deflationary winds do blow, if the Fed is faced with the choice of tolerating a spiraling credit contraction, falling prices, and bankruptcies or overshooting with “quantitive easing” into inflation, well, as Ben Bernanke famously put it

[T]he U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.

FD: My investment portfolio includes inflation hedges such as precious metals and short positions on long bonds. My portfolio return over the past several weeks has been large and negative, and if you take anything here as investment advice please expect a similar outcome.

Too much risk?

One of the more depressing bits of emerging conventional wisdom is the notion that the financial system took on “too much risk” in recent years. I think it is equally accurate to suggest that the financial system took on too little risk.

Consider the risks that were not taken during the recent credit and “investment” boom. While hundreds of billions of dollars were poured into new suburbs, very little capital was devoted to the alternative energy sector that is suddenly all the rage. Despite a “global savings glut” and record-breaking levels of “investment” in the United States between 2005 and 2007, capital was withdrawn from a variety of industries deemed “uncompetitive” in large part due to obviously unsustainable capital flows. Very few brave capitalists took the risk of mothballing rather than dismantling factories and maintaining critical human capital through the temporary downspike. Under the two to five year time horizon of our most far-sighted managers, whatever is temporarily unprofitable must be permanently destroyed. To gamble on recovery is far too great a risk.

I don’t pretend to know where all that capital, that incredible swell of human energy and physical resources, ought to have gone. But it doesn’t take an Einstein to know that it probably should not have gone into building Foxboro Court. Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But lack of foresight really wasn’t the problem here. In 2005, how many macroeconomists or big-picture thinkers were arguing that the US economy lacked suburban housing stock of sufficient size and luxury? We gave the building boom the benefit of the doubt because it was a “market outcome”. But the shape of that outcome was more matter of institutional idiosyncrasies than textbook theories of optimal choice. It resulted as much from people shirking risk as it did from people taking big bets.

The big central banks, whose investment largely drove the credit boom, were (and still are) seeking safety, not risk. The banks and SIVs that bought up “super-senior AAA” tranches of CDOs were looking for safe assets, not risky assets. We had a housing boom, rather than a Pez dispenser bubble, because housing collateral is (well, was) the preferred raw material for fabricating safe paper. Investors were never enthusiastic about cul-de-sacs and McMansions. They wanted safe assets, never mind what backed ’em, and mortgages are what Wall Street knew how to lipstick into safe assets. The housing boom was born less from inordinate risk-taking than from the unwillingness of investors to take and bear considered risks. Agencies, asset-backed securities, it was all just AAA paper. It was “safe”, so who cared what it was funding?

Finance is not a closed system, a zoology of exotic contracts and rocket scientist equations. The job of a financial system is to make real-world decisions, “What should we do?” A good investment is a simple answer to that question, with clear consequences for getting it right or wrong. Mom and Pop can have FDIC insured bank accounts, and imagine that there is such thing as a “risk-free return”. But that’s a lie, a sugarcoated subsidy. Foregone consumption does not automatically convert itself into future abundance. People have to make smart decisions about what to do with today’s capital. If they don’t, no amount of regulation or insurance will prevent all those savings accounts from going worthless. When huge institutions treat the financial system like a bank, depositing trillions in generic “safe” instruments and expecting wealth to somehow appear, they are delegating the economic substance of aggregate investment to middlemen in it for the fees, and politicians in it for whatever politicians are in it for. And we are surprised when that doesn’t work out?

Of course we should regulate and manage the risks that were the proximate cause of the credit crisis. Anything too big to fail should be no more leveraged than a teddy bear, and fragile, poorly designed markets should be fixed. But that won’t be enough. We’ve trained a generation of professionals to forget that investing is precisely the art of taking economic risks, then delivering the goods or eating the losses. The exotica of modern finance is fascinating, and I’ve nothing against any acronym that you care to name. But until owners of capital stop hiding behind cleverness and diversification and take responsibility for the resources they steward, finance will remain a shell game, a tournament in evading responsibility for poor outcomes.

Investors’ childlike demand for safety has made the financial world terribly risky. As we rebuild our broken financial system, we must not pretend that risk can be regulated or innovated away. We must demand that investors choose risks and bear consequences. We need more, and more creative, risk-taking, not false promises of safety that taxpayers will inevitably be called upon to keep.