What went wrong with economics?

It is commonplace to suggest that economics, as taught in our schools and universities, badly failed prior to the great financial crisis of 2007/08. But beyond this, things get a lot less clear. People tend to pipe up and attack aspects of the discipline that they have never liked; in the circles I move this tends to be the “neoliberal” ideas of well-functioning markets. This does not seem to be based on any real analysis, though. And universities plough on teaching the same old stuff as if nothing had happened, no doubt because nothing particularly coherent has replaced the old models. It is worth looking at the substance behind the remarkable failure of this discipline, which attracts so much intellectual heft in our era.

The failure of economics, and the imperious discipline of macroeconomics in particular, has been described brilliantly by Adair Turner in a recent lecture. I have already referred to this in an earlier post, but now I have been able to lay my hands on a copy of the text. It’s a challenge to read the 38 pages if you don’t have an academic economics training; but it’s well worth a try if you are not too daunted by this.

My personal perspective comes from the fact that I was a mature student on the BSc undergraduate course in Economics at UCL in the years 2005-08, just as the boom years were coming to an end, and the crisis started to develop, though before the seminal bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the full blown crisis that followed in its wake. We were taught the standard macroeconomic model, referred to as the neo-Keynesian model, which nearly comprised a consensus at the time, although our lecturers were not beyond a little healthy scepticism.

Three related failures stand out. The first was an indifference to the potential macroeconomic impact of finance, and debt in particular. The fact that debt levels were exploding did not affect the models at all. You may think that economists are obsessed with money, but they treat it as a veil, and they try to see through it to a “real” economy of people and things. Finance is just tactics; a means to and which should not bother the imperial-level grand strategists too much. Besides, debt is two sided; for every debtor there is a creditor, and it all cancels out. If Matthew lends Mark £100, who in turn lends it to Luke, who in his turn lends it to John, who actual invests it in something, what has happened? £100 of debt has turned into £300 but there is still only £100 of investment. The bottom line is that Matthew lent £100 and John spent it; Mark and Luke are where they were beforehand. Do the machinations of intermediaries really matter?

This was much too complacent. Suppose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are financially stretched, and a £100 loss will push them over the edge. If John’s investment fails, and he goes bust; he can’t pay Luke, who can’t pay back Mark, who can’t pay back Matthew. All four go bust, whereas just two would have done if Matthew had lent directly to John. The more overall levels of debt ramp up, the more likely it is that such contagion effects occur. I remember British policymakers expressing disbelief that a little trouble in the U.S. subprime property market could possibly have such a big global impact. And it isn’t just bankruptcy that is the issue; financial difficulties could simply cause a reduction in consumption – which would cause excessive saving in the economy at large, with bad macroeconomic effects, which can be very widespread from a rather small proximate cause.

The second problem was the fact that so little of the borrowing was invested in new investment projects, as theory supposed, with the majority being directed towards buying existing assets, and some to support additional consumption based on increased asset values. Hyman Minsky long ago pointed out that this type of investment simply led to asset price bubbles. And even if it had been directed towards “proper” investment, a similar bubble effect can occur. The latter was a point made by Friedrich Hayek. In spite of these warnings, the possibility of asset price bubbles, and what to do about them, was widely ignored.

The third problem centred on monetary policy. Economists used a theory of money that  had scarcely moved on from the use of notes and coins. They assumed that bank money works in an equivalent way; that banks only lend money that has already been deposited, and that the whole money creation process is controlled by the central bank. Over a century ago the Swedish economist, Knut Wicksell pointed out the absurdity of this. Commercial banks effectively have the power to create money out of nowhere. And in any case, it really isn’t possible to distinguish the “transaction money” on which the theory depends, from other sorts of money, for example that being held just for safekeeping. I have frequently blogged about this blindness of conventional economists, shown by their frequent references to non-existent printing presses, and talk of throwing bundles of banknotes out of helicopters. This is almost as nonsensical as a metaphor as it is literally, and shows an utter failure of imagination.

The outcome of these failures was that most economists thought that high levels of debt, and the possibility of asset price bubbles, were just details that should not detain the grand strategist, and that the main thing was for central banks to watch consumer price inflation, while finance ministers should simply keep budget deficits small.

So, as the world’s finance sector boomed, finding ever cleverer ways to hide slimmer margins by increasing leverage, and debt levels exploded in many developed economies, the world’s policymakers looked on without too much concern. Inflation and budget deficits looked fine; everything else would sort itself out in due course. Indeed, since the world economy was delivering steady growth, many thought they had found the answer to life, the world and everything. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And many economists made a fortune from the finance boom. Most of the students on my course chose it as a path to get rich via investment banking or management consultancy.

It is, incidentally, easier to say that economists were wrong, than it is to say that the disaster was their fault. If more economists had piped up to sound warnings, the political pressures to ignore them would have been overwhelming. If they had been heeded, then maybe banking would have been a bit less out of control. But there were other factors driving the instability, including the huge export surpluses of China and oil exporters – which pumped money into the developed world financial system, creating near-on insoluble problems. The situation would have been a bit like global warming – strong awareness from the academic community quite unable to stop overwhelming global political forces and the power of sheer human greed.

Still, the discipline of economics has been left in a sorry state. As Lord Turner points out, in the 1950s they had all the knowledge and insights needed to take it in a less blinkered direction. Wicksell, Hayek and Minsky were all highly respected economists; Maynard Keynes highlighted all the issues lucidly in his General Theory. But instead economists went up a forty year blind alley, becoming more sophisticated with the detail even as the fundamentals became more and more unrealistic. East coast liberals were as badly off track as Chicago supply-siders. It’s no wonder that so many are still in denial and still teaching the discredited models, as if only a few details here and there need to fixed. How can you discard such a huge volume of thinking in one go?

But the economic disaster is too big to be glossed over. Whether or not economic theory has caught up, policymakers understand that the banking system is a major problem, and that you can have too much debt. The last time such a disaster hit economics was in the stagflation era of the 1970s; let’s hope economists’ response to this crisis is more robust than that one!


Are the Muslims right about debt?

The Biblical invocation against usury, making loans for interest, has been discarded by the two older Abrahamic religions, the Jews and the Christians, though it persists in Islam. I used to think the prohibition was another obsolete idea, based on a misunderstanding of the usefulness of finance. But as time goes by, the more I come to see that the biblical fathers, or God if you prefer, were on to something. The dysfunctional nature of financial markets is one of the modern world’s most pressing problems.

This reflection comes on the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which was the point at which the current financial crisis broke out into the open. This has lead to a flurry of newspaper comment. I was most drawn to an article by Gillian Tett in the FT, covering a talk given by Adair Turner, the former head of Britain’s financial regulator, the FSA. Unfortunately this behind the FT paywall, and I cannot find coverage anywhere else. Lord Turner produced a blog, but this only covers part of the subject matter, and not the most interesting bit reported by Ms Tett. Lord Turner says that we have not really come to grips with the failure of financial markets that became evident with the Lehman episode.

The most eye-catching thing about financial markets, which is the main point made in the blog, is the explosion of private sector debt. In 1960, according to Lord Turner, household debt in the UK was just 15% of total income; by 2008 it has risen to 200%. If you start to add up loans made by financial institutions to each other, then even that figure looks pretty tame (837% according to this rather good Economist School’s Brief on the subject – though this suggests a little confusion in Lord Turner’s numbers on household debt). But the statistic that hit me most forcibly was the claim that only 15% of the money that flows into financial products actually gets invested in proper wealth-creating projects.

Macroeconomists have long been dismissive of the significance of debt and financial markets in their imperious declarations about the state of national and global economies. These are just means to an end, and they all cancel out – one person’s debt is another’s asset; what matters is the real world of what is produced and consumed. Economists are reluctantly having to rethink this, though most would still rather divert the discussion into conventional subjects about austerity and money supply. Lord Turner’s 15% statistic, however, should translate the issue into one which even an old-fashioned macroeconomist can understand. There is a massive gap between what people set aside to save, and what is actually invested. Financial markets are meant to be the channel by which savings are turned into investments – but instead they are simply a smokescreen hiding a black hole, as it were.

Let’s pause for breath, and look at the problem from another angle. One of the critical points of economics, too often forgotten, is that money and financial assets have no intrinsic value. They are simply useful tools by which we can coordinate the process of producing work and consuming its output. You can think of it as being a bit like electricity. You cannot store it. If people want work now, and consume later at leisure, the simple act of putting aside money won’t do the trick. You have to persuade other people to be around to do the work for you when you want to do your consumption. The wider purpose behind financial products is to help us to do this, to balance our over-production now (i.e. saving) with over-consumption later, or vice versa. Theses activities depend on coordination with people who want to do the opposite, and that is what financial markets are meant to do. How? Through investment. Investment is work that is done now to produce things that can be consumed later. This allows production without consumption in money terms to be balanced by a real world equivalent. Maynard Keynes’s great breakthrough was understanding that the failure of the money and real worlds to match was the main cause of recessions.

So if 85% of savings are not actually invested, there is a problem. Where does the money go? There seem to be two main places. Firstly a lot of it consumed by intermediaries – those fat-cat salaries included – to no real purpose. Secondly a lot of it goes into inflating the prices of assets, real estate or financial assets, that exist already. In other words it is a colossal waste of time which simply serves to make a lucky few rich. And meanwhile huge volumes of debt are being created, much of which can never be repaid. Or, to put it another way, we have manufactured vast banks of financial assets which are not worth anything like what we think.

This spells trouble ahead, as this situation will only resolve itself through, one way or another, debt being forgiven and assets written down. The owners of those assets show no sign that they understand this; or if they do, they simply assume that it is somebody else that will pay. Meanwhile the best we can do is not to make things worse. Amongst other things that means continuing to make life miserable for the banks and the financial sector, and hope that, as they shrink, they concentrate on the more socially useful aspects of it work.

What those old Jewish and Christian fathers understood, and Islamic scholars still understand, is that debt creates moral problems by dehumanising the relationship between debtor and creditor. Financial assets are in fact human relationships between real people, which we are attempting to abdicate responsibility for. Alas though, it is unthinkable that our current economic system, with its manifold benefits, can be created or sustained without them. But we would all be better off if we understood the moral and personal implications, and consequent limitations, of financial assets and the markets through which we acquire them.