Steven Pinker on Money as a Consensual Hallucination

He writes,

Life in complex societies is built on social realities, the most obvious examples being money and the rule of law. But a social fact depends entirely on the willingness of people to treat it as a fact. It is specific to a community, as we see when people refuse to honor a foreign currency or fail to recognize the sovereignty of a self-proclaimed leader. And it can dissolve with changes in the collective psychology, as when a currency becomes worthless through hyperinflation or a regime collapses because people defy the policy and army en masse.

That is from p. 65 of The Blank Slate, which I am re-reading.

I would quibble that you do not get hyperinflation from a sudden loss of confidence in the currency. You get it when the government spends more than it taxes and loses the ability to borrow, so its only choice is to print money–and then people lose confidence in the currency.

The important social reality is that people are willing to lend to the government at affordable interest rates. That is what has the potential to suddenly change (see Greece) and that is why large deficits create potential instability.

Bernanke vs. Warren-Vitter

He writes,

The problem is what economists call the stigma of borrowing from the central bank. Imagine a financial institution that is facing a run but has good assets usable as collateral for a central bank loan. If all goes well, it will borrow, replacing the funding lost to the run; when the panic subsides, it can repay. However, if the financial institution believes that its borrowing from the central bank will become publicly known, it will be concerned about the inferences that its private-sector counterparties will draw. It may worry, for example, that its providers of funding will conclude that the firm is in danger of failing, and, consequently, that they will pull their funding even more quickly. Then borrowing from the central bank will be self-defeating, and firms facing runs will do all they can to avoid it. This is the stigma problem, and it affects everyone, not just the potential borrower. If financial institutions and other market participants are unwilling to borrow from the central bank, then the central bank will be unable to put into the system the liquidity necessary to stop the panic. Instead of borrowing, financial firms will hoard cash, cut back credit, refuse to make markets, and dump assets for what they can get, forcing down asset prices and putting financial pressure on other firms. The whole economy will feel the effects, not just the financial sector.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

In effect, Bernanke is saying that you have to make firms that get into trouble want to be bailed out. If you make bailouts too painful for them, then “financial firms will hoard cash, cut back credit, refuse to make markets, and dump assets.”

I am not impressed by his reasoning. What he calls “stigma” is not a bug of the Bagehot principle. It is a feature.

Derailing the Narrative

Various politicians and pundits seized on the Amtrak derailment as a narrative of failure to spend on infrastructure. Then it turned out that at 100 miles per hour the train was going twice the speed limit in the area.

Similarly, when the financial crisis struck, politicians and pundits seized on it as showing an excess of greed and exploitation by banks and an “atmosphere of deregulation” that allowed the banks to run amok. In my view, this is as misleading as the narrative about the train derailment.

Some further comments.

1. Perhaps in the end both misleading narratives will dominate. Maybe that is just the way things work in matters where what matters is the political orientation of most journalists and historians.

2. Perhaps the misleading narrative of the train derailment will not stand. Perhaps the facts will stand in the way. On the other hand, the complexity of the financial crisis makes it difficult to sift through the facts, and by the same token makes it easy to impose a dubious narrative.

3. Perhaps eventually historians will look more carefully and objectively at the financial crisis, and the misleading narrative will be set aside.

As of this writing, my money is on (1).

I Was (somewhat) Right About Greece

I wrote,

I think that the route by which German money gets to the Greek government will be opaque and circuitous for face-saving reasons, but I expect such an outcome.

The WSJ writes,

Greece‘s latest bailout repayment to the International Monetary Fund may turn out to be one of the debt-saddled nation’s least expensive payments ever.

The article goes on to describe what it calls a “shell game,” a shorter way of saying “opaque and circuitous.”

AIG in Hindsight

That is the title of a new NBER working paper by Robert McDonald and Anna Paulson (ungated versions). They conclude,

Much of the discussion about the crisis has focused on liquidity versus solvency. The two cannot always be disentangled, but an examination of the performance of AIG’s underlying real estate securities indicates that AIG’s problems were not purely about liquidity. The assets represented in both Maiden Lane vehicles have experienced write-downs that disprove the claim that they are money-good. While it may seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight that not all of these securities would make their scheduled interest and principal payments in every state of the world, the belief that they could not suffer solvency problems and that any price decline would be temporary and due to illiquidity was an important factor in their creation and purchase.

My random comments:

1. This is valuable work. I am really glad to see a retrospective audit of this important bailout.

2. I view the conclusion as saying that this truly was a bailout. The Fed was not acting as a hedge fund of last resort, buying temporarily undervalued assets that otherwise were just fine.

3. This also throws Gary Gorton under the bus. Gorton said that AIG’s problems were collateral calls, meaning illiquidity rather than insolvency. Note that Gorton is not included in the list of references, at least in the ungated version. Note also that the authors write that AIG’s problems were both liquidity and solvency.

4. Bob McDonald and I shared an apartment our first year as MIT grad students. He has written a treatise on derivatives.

Regulators and the Socialist Calculation Problem

My latest essay is on Engineering the Financial Crisis, by Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus. I think that their book demonstrates that regulation falls victim to the socialist calculation problem.

Centralizing risk assessment through regulatory risk weights and rating agency designations has several weaknesses. Local knowledge, such as detailed understanding of individual mortgages, is overlooked. At a macro level, regulators’ judgment of housing market prospects were no better than those of leading market participants. Moreover, regulators imposed a uniformity of risk judgment, rather than allowing different assessments to emerge in the market.

The Banking Crisis and the Real Economy

How important was the financial crisis as a causal factor in the economic slump? Apparently, Brad DeLong and Dean Baker disagree. Baker wrote,

The $8 trillion in equity created by the housing bubble made homeowners feel wealthier. They consumed based on this wealth, believing that it would be there for them to draw on for their children’s education, their own retirement or for other needs.

When the bubble burst, homeowners cut back their consumption since this wealth no longer existed. However contrary to what you often read in the paper, consumption is not currently low, it is actually quite high when compared with any time except the years of the stock and housing bubbles.

DeLong replies,

in the absence of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve’s lowering interest rates as consumption spending fell in response to the decline in home equity would have pushed down the value of the dollar and made further hikes in business investment a profitable proposition and so directed the additional household savings thus generated into even stronger booms in exports and business investment: in the absence of the financial crisis, what was in store for the U.S. was not a long, deep depression but, rather, a shallow recession plus a pronounced sectoral rotation.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. Conventional economics did not have a story of how stress in the financial sector could cause problems in the real economy. Even now, that view comes across as a just-so story. Baker argues that one does not need such a story, but DeLong says that we do need it.

I would note that if the financial crisis did not matter, then the bailouts, including interest payments on reserves, were simply transfers to bank shareholders. The more conventional view is that the bailouts prevented a horrible depression. So, the way I see it, the conventional view went from saying that the financial sector is nothing special to saying that you need to invoke specialness of the financial sector to explain how bad the recession was (Baker argues the opposite) and, moreover, the recession would have been even worse without the bailouts.

From a PSST perspective, I think that one must allow that it is possible that credit plays a big role in sustaining patterns of trade, and there may be something special about the financial sector. However, my own inclination is to see the financial sector as of 2007 as overgrown and to view the bailouts as making no contribution to the process of creating new patterns of specialization and trade.

The Age of Creative Ambiguity

Tyler Cowen writes,

File under “The End of Creative Ambiguity.” That file is growing larger all the time.

What is Creative Ambiguity? I would define it as the attempt by policy makers to ignore trade-offs and to deny the need to make hard choices. Consider the Fed’s balance sheet. One hard choice might be to sell its gigantic portfolio of bonds and mortgage-backed securities. That would depress the prices of those assets and make it harder for the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans. The other hard choice might be to provide whatever support is necessary to enable the government to borrow and to provide mortgage loans, even if it means printing enough money to risk hyperinflation. Creative ambiguity means convincing investors that neither hard choice will be necessary. Perhaps that is even true.

However, if the Fed’s hard choices are to be avoided, then at some point the government must get its fiscal house in order. That is where the real creative ambiguity comes in. See Lenders and Spenders.

Should the CBO Use Dynamic Scoring?

John Cochrane writes,

Greg Mankiw has a nice op-ed on dynamic scoring

The issue: When the congressional budget office “scores” legislation, figuring out how much it will raise or lower tax revenue and spending, it has been using “static” scoring. For example, it assumes that a tax cut has no effect on GDP, even if the whole point of the tax cut is to raise GDP.

My thoughts.

1. I am against dynamic scoring. Dynamic scoring means using an economic model. I think that politicians and the press give too much credence to economic models as it is. Even static scoring requires some modeling, but the modeling has more to do with spreadsheet arithmetic as opposed to claiming to be able to predict economic behavior.

2. To the extent that the CBO has to predict economic behavior, I think it should present several scenarios, as opposed to a point estimate or a range. Cochrane says it well:

It’s a fact, we don’t know the elasticities, multipliers, and mechanisms that well. So stop pretending. Stop producing only a single number, accurate to three decimals. Instead, present a range of scenarios spanning the range of reasonable uncertainty about responses.

Responding to another point from Cochrane, Mankiw writes,

you need to specify how the government is going to satisfy its present-value budget constraint. You might be tempted to ask the model what happens if the government cuts taxes and never does anything else. But you won’t get very far. The model will tell you that the government has to do something else eventually, and it won’t tell you what will happen if the government tries to do something impossible.

What I hear Greg saying is that to properly do dynamic scoring, you would need to include a model of future policy responses. That is a point well taken, but I am not sure that I would restrict those policy responses to be only doing things that are possible. Policy makers are doing impossible (that is, unsustainable) things now. The challenge is to predict the outcome of undertaking unsustainable policies until you cannot do so any more.

Of course, the traditional “static” scoring does not solve the problem of how to predict the outcome of unsustainable policies, either.

The Harm of Government Debt

Tyler Cowen writes,

I worry that the general decline of discretionary government spending may make politics less stable (but also more interesting, not necessarily in a good way). When there is plenty of spending to bicker about, politics revolves around that question, which is relatively harmless. When all the spending is tied up, we move closer to the battlefield of symbolic goods, bringing us back to “less stable and more interesting.” If that is a cause, this trend is likely to spread.

For a longer essay on the way that government borrowing creates political friction, see my essay Lenders and Spenders.