Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Do I agree with Steve Keen's views about the causes of the GFC and the NAR?

Who is Steve Keen? What is the NAR? And why am I wondering whether or not I agree with Steve Keen?

Steve Keen is an Australian economics professor, author of a book entitled ‘Debunking Economics’. His blog, ‘Steve Keen’s Debtwatch’, is dedicated to analysing ‘the collapse of the global debt bubble’. The NAR refers to the North Atlantic Recession, sometimes referred to as the Great Recession, that followed the GFC. I am wondering whether or not I agree with Steve Keen because of a comment on Jim Belshaw’s blog last Sunday. Jim wrote:
‘The second part of Winton's post focused on Irving Fisher's views is, if I interpret the argument correctly, very similar to views expressed by Professor Keen. Essentially, a key part of the problem was the combination of levels of private debt with income and price variations.’

My immediate response was to question whether it might be possible that I could express views similar to those of Professor Keen. While my views on economics have strayed somewhat from neoclassical orthodoxy in recent years, I still consider that the concept of equilibrium provides a useful starting point for economic analysis. Steve rejects all conventional neoclassical economics.

If my understanding is correct, there are two main elements involved in Steve’s views about the causes of the GFC and the following recession: Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis; and the concept of endogenous money creation.

Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis involves the idea that a growing economy is inherently unstable. Investments are initially conservatively financed, but it gradually becomes evident to managers and bankers that greater profits can be made by increasing leverage. Investors and bankers come to regard the previously accepted risk premium as excessive and to evaluate projects using less conservative estimates of prospective cash flows. The decline in risk aversion sets off growth in debt, growth in investment and growth in the price of assets. The euphoria is eventually brought to an end as rising interest rates and increasing debt to asset ratios affect the viability of many business activities. Holders of illiquid assets attempt to sell them in return for liquidity. The asset market becomes flooded, panic ensues, the boom becomes a slump and the cycle starts all over again. (That is an abridged version, excluding Ponzi elements, of a summary which Steve provides in his paper: ‘A monetary Minsky model of the Great Moderation and the Great Recession’).

The concept of endogenous monetary creation involves the idea that banks create credit in response to demand. If a bank lends me money, my spending power goes up without reducing anybody else’s. So, bank lending creates new money, and adds to demand when it is spent. From this perspective, ‘aggregate demand is income plus the change in debt’. (My training in economics and national income accounting makes it difficult for me to understand why or how that can be so. Nevertheless, let us proceed.) If my understanding is correct, Steve is arguing that quantitative easing does not increase the money supply, because banks don’t increase lending when central banks purchase bonds from them. (See Steve’s article: ‘Is QE quantitatively irrelevant?’).

My objection to the first element arises because I don’t understand why a growing economy should necessarily be unstable.  In my view, it is necessary to introduce into the analysis a ‘too big to fail’ policy, or something similar, to explain why banks have a tendency to take excessive risks. I have attempted to outline the regulatory issues involved in a previous post:
‘Governments seem to have managed somehow to get us into a vicious cycle where fears of contagion have led them to encourage major financial institutions in the believe that they were too big to fail, while the belief that governments would bail them out has led major financial institutions to take excessive risks. If we can't let big financial institutions fail when they become insolvent, perhaps the next best option is to find the least cost way of regulating them to make it less likely that they will become insolvent’.

My objection to the concept of endogenous monetary creation is that it flies in the face of the reality that monetary policy can increase and reduce the rate of growth in nominal GDP (aggregate demand). It would make more sense to explain the fact that money creation through quantitative easing did not result in an immediate increase in bank lending in terms of funds being used to meet demands for liquidity (or repair balance sheets) than to redefine the concept of money in order to claim that the money was not created.
In my view Scott Sumner is on the right track in arguing that nominal GDP level targeting (along a 5% growth rate) in the United States before 2008 would have helped greatly reduce the severity of the Great Recession:
‘One reason asset prices crashed in late 2008 is market participants (correctly) saw that the Fed had no plan to bring the US economy back to the old nominal GDP trend line’ (See: ‘A New View of the Great Recession’, Policy, Winter 2013. The article is gated, but Scott has expressed similar views on his blog.)

The idea of targeting nominal GDP, to bring it back to the old trend line seems to me to be similar to Irving Fisher’s advocacy of reflation, as discussed in my post about balance sheet recessions.

So, coming back to the original question, I agree with Steve Keen that debt is important in explaining the GFC and the NAR, even though I have a very different view about the way economic systems work.

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