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The Giant Logical Hole in Monetarist Thinking: So-Called “Spending”

May 3rd, 2017 4 comments

Ralph Musgrave, who knows a thing or two about modern economic thinking, perfectly articulates the giant logical hole in monetarist thinking in a recent comment (emphasis mine):

If the private sector’s stock of saving is what it wants at current rates of interest, then additional public spending will push savings above the latter desired level, which will result in the private sector trying to spend the surplus away (hot potato effect).

Really? People/households say to themselves, “Wow, I’ve got too many assets, too much net worth. I’d better spend more to get rid of it.”

Here’s the verbal and logical sleight of hand that monetarists pull to hide this obviously inane assertion, and that Ralph doesn’t seem to have spotted: they game the word “spending.”

When government deficit-spends, it deposits (helicopter-drops) new assets, created ab nihilo, onto private-sector balance sheets. And since that deficit spending doesn’t create new private-sector liabilities, voila: there’s more private-sector net worth.

Those new assets hit balance sheets in the form of “cash”: checking-account deposits, money-market fund balances, etc. So people might end with a higher proportion of cash in their portfolios than they would like.

But they don’t try to “spend it away” to get rid of it. They rebalance their portfolios by buying riskier/higher-return financial instruments — bonds, equities, titles to real estate. This drives up the prices of those instruments.

These market runups create new balance-sheet assets (and net worth) — while leaving the collective stock of fixed-price “cash” unchanged. (That’s pretty much the definition of “cash”: financial instruments whose price is pegged to the unit of account — the instruments that monetary aggregates try to tally up.)

With a larger percentage of bonds, stocks, etc in their portfolios, and the same amount of cash, people have the portfolio mixes they want. Full stop. No hot potato. Likewise this is no game of musical chairs; market runups create more chairs. This is how “liquidity preferences” play out in the markets.

Those purchases of riskier financial instruments are not “spending.” People aren’t “spending down” their balances on newly produced goods and services. They’re just asset swaps — cash for Apple stock (and the reverse), or whatever. Through the magic of market-makers’ bid/offer order books, these asset swaps create new assets, collectively achieving investors’ preferred or “desired” portfolio mixes.

(Note: investors could also adjust their portfolios by paying off debt, simply shrinking their individual, and the collective private sector’s, balance sheets by disappearing both assets and liabilities into a hole in the ground. As Milton Friedman said, banks have both printing presses and furnaces.)

Now you might suggest: when people bid up Apple stock, that “causes” there to be more investment spending, spending to create more long-lived goods. I’m hoping I don’t have to explain all the logical flaws in that thinking, or point out the empirical disproofs. (It’s basically a freshman error: confusing “investment” with investment.)

Sure: when people buy into IPOs and new private bond issues, or buy titles to new (spec-built?) houses, there’s a quite plausible causal link between those asset swaps and actual increased investment spending. An excess proportion of cash in investors’ portfolios could certainly drive this economic effect.

But: 1. These purchases of newly issued financial instruments constitute a tiny proportion of the portfolio rebalancing we’re talking about; the magnitude of holding gains on existing instruments swamps these measures, and 2. It has nothing to do with investors trying to “spend down” and get rid of their balances, cash or otherwise. That notion is individually implausible, and collectively incoherent.

 

Liberals Getting It Wrong on the Job Guarantee

February 25th, 2017 4 comments

I’ve been quite troubled lately by voices I’ve been hearing from my compatriots on the Left discussing the Job Guarantee — especially in relation to an alternative, Universal Basic Income. A new Jacobin article by  displays several of the aspects that make me uncomfortable.

Get the Math Right. Right off the bat, I’m troubled by the article’s flawed arithmetic — not what I would like to be seeing from left economists who need to be scrupulous in their role as authoritative voices for the left.

…we argue for a FJG that would pay a minimum annual wage of at least $23,000 (the poverty line for a family of four), rising to a mean of $32,500. … In comparison, many of the UBI proposals promise around $10,000 annually to every citizen…half the rate that would be available under the FJG.

$10K per citizen versus $23K per worker is not “half the rate.”

How do the two policies actually compare? I have no idea. This is exactly the kind of difficult calculation that we need economists to do for us (it’s way beyond our abilities), so we can evaluate different policies. Absent analysis with clearly stated parameters (Who counts as a citizen? Children? Etc.) this kind of statement carries no import or information value.

These analyses have been done by economists. I’ve seen them around. But I don’t have them to hand; they’re exactly what I’d like this article to point me to. Are these authors unaware of this work, or did they just not bother to look at it, draw on it, or cite/link to it in this article?

Perhaps most important: this kind of slipshod analysis delivers live and loaded rhetorical ammunition to the enemy. It’s an invitation to (very effective) hippie-punching.

Get outside economists’ fetishistic obsession with short-term business cycles, and with the automation versus globalization debate. We’re facing decades-long campaigns to get any JG or UBI implemented, and decades- or centuries-long technological and job-market trends. If Ray Kurzweil’s exponential productivity growth is even somewhat valid (choose your exponent), we’re facing at a world where Star Trek-style replicators can turn a pile of dirt into a skyscraper or a thousand Thanksgiving dinners — and potentially, where a small handful of people own all those replicators.

In this world, nobody would ever pay a human to produce goods. It would be stupid. Will service work deliver the kind of jobs and wages that let a worker share the fruits of that spectacular prosperity? It doesn’t seem likely. Will the highest-paying service jobs themselves be automated? It seems likely.

That’s an extreme vision, but it embodies the long-term issues these policy discussions need to address. Instead we get from the authors:

The dangers of imminent full automation are overstated…. No doubt, stable and high-paid employment opportunities are dwindling, but we shouldn’t blame the robots. Workers aren’t being replaced by automatons; they are being replaced with other workers — ones lower-paid and more precariously employed.

They’re pooh-poohing the technological future — continuing centuries of Luddite-bashing — because (quoting Dean Baker):

In the last decade, however, productivity growth has risen at a sluggish 1.4 percent annual rate. In the last two years it has limped along at a pace of less than 1 percent annually.

Issues here, in very short form: 1. Productivity and “economic capacity” measures are wildly problematic, both theoretically and empirically. The econ on this is a mess. 2. A decade, much less two years, is not even close to a trend. 3. The automation vs offshoring debate is specious; they’re inextricably intertwined, like nature and nurture. 4. They’re (I think unconsciously) buying into the whole economic worldview and conceptual infrastructure (think: “factors of production”) that delivered us unto these times.

The authors are certainly correct that:

…the balance of forces over the last few decades has been skewed so dramatically in the favor of capital. … It’s time to get the rules right

But this fairly muddled (and hidebound) depiction of the issues at hand does little or nothing to suggest what the new rules should be. We need left economists to unpack these long-term secular forces and trends far more cogently — and radically. They need to be examining the very foundations of their economic thinking and beliefs.

The “Dignity of Work.” It actually makes me squirm in discomfort to hear liberals with very cool, interesting, high-paying jobs going on about the dignity of work. I’m just like, “how dare you?” That kind of supercilious presumption arguably explains why liberals have been losing elections for decades — especially the latest one.

Here’s the full passage on this:

Conventional wisdom holds that people dislike work. Introductory economics classes will explain the disutility of labor, which is a direct trade-off with leisure. Granted, employment isn’t always fun, and many forms of employment are dangerous and exploitative. But the UBI misses the way in which employment structurally empowers workers at the point of production and has by its own merits positive dimensions.

This touches on a heated debate on the Left. But for now, there is no doubt that people want jobs, but they want good jobs that provide flexibility and opportunity. They want to contribute, to have a purpose, to participate in the economy and, most importantly, in society. Nevertheless, the private sector continues to leave millions without work, even during supposed “strong” economic times.

The workplace is social, a place where we spend a great deal of our time interacting with others. In addition to the stress associated with limited resources, the loneliness that plagues many unemployed workers can exacerbate mental health problems. Employment — especially employment that provides added social benefits like communal coffee breaks — adds to workers’ well-being and productivity. A federal job guarantee can provide workers with socially beneficial employment — providing the dignity of a job to all that seek it.

The variations on the “dignity” thing are endless. Our authors here give us:

employment structurally empowers workers at the point of production

This is clearly something that working-class workers and voters are clamoring for.

by its own merits positive dimensions

Sure: in our current system where only wage/salary work provides “dignified” income, you’re gonna see positive second- and third-order effects from employment. Does a program where government provides the income (in most implementations, channeled through private-sector employers) change that pernicious social environment?

But wait: workers get communal coffee breaks!

The whole thing actually, rather remarkably, turns Marx on his head. The alienation that he imputes to working-for-the-man, wage labor is here transformed into the sole, primary, or at least necessary source of human dignity and self-worth. It’s the only way for the working class “to contribute, to have a purpose, to participate in the economy and, most importantly, in society.” Contra David Graeber, if there’s not a money transaction involved, it’s not “valuable” or worthy.

This before even considering the freedom to innovate and thrive that arises when you don’t have to go to work. (Every startup I’ve ever been involved in — many — began with endless hours of hanging out and drinking beer with friends.)

Like so much so-called left thinking over the last half century (think: The Washington Consensus), this thinking unquestioningly, even blindly, unconsciously, adopts and is entrapped by one of conservatism’s core economic mantras: “incentives to work.”

Why in the hell do we want people to work more? We know why conservatives do: because it allows rich people to profit from that labor and grab a bigger piece of a bigger pie. But isn’t the whole point of increasing productivity (or a/the main point) to work less while having a comfortable and secure life?

What the authors dismiss as “conventional wisdom” is in fact largely correct: Most people don’t want to go to work. Or they don’t want to work nearly as much as they do. They can manage their “relationships” and social well-being just fine, thank you. Sure, they enjoy the social interaction at work, to the extent that… But they go to work because they want and need the money. Full stop.

In 1930 Keynes predicted a future of 15-hour work weeks. Sounds idyllic to me. Does anyone think workers would object? Or do we have a better handle on their wants and needs than they do?

We haven’t even come close to that future. Two-earner households are now the necessary norm, and hours worked per worker has been flat since — surprise — 1980, after a very nice decline postwar. Here’s annual hours worked per household, even as households have gotten steadily smaller:

A job guarantee as I understand it does nothing to advance that Keynesian bright future. Given the pro-work rhetoric we hear from JG enthusiasts, it might just further entrench what you see above.

So three takeaways here:

• Get the math right. Do the careful, difficult analysis for us so we can make informed judgments. Or point us to the work that’s already been done.

• Look to your theoretical and empirical fundamentals. They’re often inherited, often unconsciously. They’ve been indoctrinated and inscribed into economists’ invisible System 1 thinking. Many of them are not conceptually coherent, or morally valid.

• Just stop talking about the “dignity of work.” It’s a huge own-goal — both the policy results (more work for workers), and the electoral results of that presumption.

If we want that Keynesian utopia — comfortable, secure lives with not a lot of work required — UBI seems like a far more direct path to getting there. If you want to give people comfort, security, dignity, well-being, power, the opportunity to thrive on their own terms, and economic security…give them money.

 

My Letter to the Fed: Stop Misrepresenting the National Debt

February 14th, 2017 Comments off

The Fed data portal, Fred, just posted a blog item that I take exception to, “suggested” by Christian Zimmermann, Assistant Vice President of Research Information Services. Here’s my response.

Dear Mr. Zimmerman:

I’m pleased to see that this post focuses on the interest burden of the federal debt. It’s an important measure that doesn’t get enough attention in discussions of the subject.

But still I’m shocked by how many things are poorly represented in the post. I have no doubt you know all of this, but:

1. Public Debt is not Debt Held by the Public. (“The Public” here meaning the private sector.) Public debt includes money owed by government to itself (SS trust fund, etc.).

Almost every economist agrees that Debt Held by the Public, not “Gross Debt,” is the economically significant measure. Highlighting gross debt is not useful in educating the public on this subject. Quite the contrary.

This measure of course paints a very different (and less dire) picture:

2. This of course impacts the interest burden, and also paints a very different picture.

3. Even for Debt Held by the Public: Federal Reserve Banks are included in “the public” for this measure — even though their balance sheets and profits/losses redound to Treasury, IOW government, not “the public.”

Here’s actual Debt Held by The actual Public — only 60% of GDP:

One can discuss whether the Fed will ever shrink its balance sheet, and how it would do so, but this is the current condition.

4. Again, the interest burden: Treasury’s interest payments to Fed banks on their bond holdings cycle directly back to Treasury. So true, total government out-of-pocket interest payments:

Less than 1% of GDP.

5. Circa 50% of those interest payments are to the U.S. domestic private sector, so are in no way a drain on the U.S. domestic sector.

Interest payments to foreign entities come to less than .5% of GDP.

Probably unintentionally, this Fred post contributes to the widespread “scare tactics” that result in such economically destructive fiscal decisions by our legislators.

Thanks for listening,

Steve Roth
Publisher, Evonomics

What’s All Our Stuff Worth? Tobin’s Q for America

December 7th, 2016 5 comments

In recent posts on the Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts, I’ve highlighted that we have two market estimates of what America’s “capital” is worth — the cumulative sum of net investment (roughly, “book value”), and total household wealth (“market value”). I got curious: how to they compare over the decades? What’s America’s market-to-book ratio, or Tobin’s Q?

Here are two pictures depicting that:

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-01-07-am

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-9-59-47-am

And here’s how I calculated them based on the IMA’s table S.2.a, plus BEA inflation measures (spreadsheet here):

Start with the IMA’s estimate of total household net worth in 1960 (expressed in 1960 dollars), as the asset markets’ best estimate of what all America’s stuff (“capital”) was worth at that moment.

Inflation-adjust that value to show it in 2015 dollars. (Choose your deflator; I tried a few, but settled on simple old CPI.)

Add net capital formation (net of capital consumption) for 1960, again expressed in 2015 dollars. This is the value of stuff added to our stock. That gives you book value of our stuff in 1961 (the 1960 stock of stuff, plus new stuff added).

Repeat for each ensuing year, ending in 2015 with a cumulative sum of all those years’ net capital formation. This is the 2015 “book value” of that accumulated stuff, expressed in 2015 dollars. (See: Perpetual Inventory Method.)

Now for comparison, look at the IMAs’ annual estimates of household net worth, with each year converted to 2015 dollars. These are the asset-markets’ year-by-year estimates of the value of all our stuff. (Alternatively you could use “U.S. Net Wealth” from Table B.1, which excludes the value of land and nonproduced nonfinancial assets.)

Is this interesting or significant? Do these pictures tell us anything useful?

The main takeaway, I think: since the mid 90s, the measures of capital formation have been having a lot of trouble capturing the value of…new capital formation. Hard-to-measure intellectual, human, and social capital have increasingly dominated our economy. The existing-asset markets incorporate that new “capital” into their estimate of our total worth, but measures of sales in the new-goods markets have trouble doing so. (This even after the 2013 GDP revisions, which added much “intangible” value to its measures, notably intellectual property and even “brand value.”)

For example, how valuable are the services from Facebook, Twitter, and Google? Nobody pays anything for them. And the advertising spending that supports them (in case you were wondering) is not counted as part of GDP. Advertising is considered an “intermediate good,” an “input to production,” so is excluded from the “value added” that is GDP. (For reference, U.S. advertising spending is about $150 billion a year — 0.8% of GDP.) The stock market knows (thinks) those firms have value, but how much “capital formation” do they do? It’s a pretty dicey question.

Apply the same kind of thinking to even harder-to-measure human intangibles like knowledge and skills, developed through education and training, and you probably have a pretty good explanation of the divergence between the book and market lines over recent decades.

 

No: Money Is Not Debt

August 27th, 2016 19 comments

A quick note in response to recent twitter thread, and to a widespread usage that I find to be deeply problematic.

You constantly hear very smart thinkers about money saying that money is debt. I strongly disagree. It’s not a useful way to think about money. Quite the contrary.

Balance-sheet assets designating the value of claims may have offsetting liabilities/debts on other balance sheets. (Not all do; that’s why, for instance, U.S. households have positive net worth — assets minus liabilities, credit minus debt — of $88 trillion.) But in any case, the asset being “held” is credit, not debt. A holder of a Target gift card is holding Target credit, not debt — the “claim” side of the tally stick.

“Holding debt” is handy and ubiquitous (Wall Street) shorthand, but it’s conceptually incoherent. You can’t own an obligation; it’s not an asset. Money is not “debt.” Exactly the opposite.

I think this “money is debt” confution cripples our our conversations, our collective thinking, and our collective understanding.

Semi-aside: a dollar-bill is best thought of as a handy, exchangeable physical token representing a balance-sheet asset. Sure, that asset has an offsetting nominal “liability” on the government balance sheet (which we devoutly hope will never be “paid off”). That’s immaterial; the dollar bill represents credit, an asset. It’s incoherent to suggest that when you have a dollar bill in your pocket, you are holding “debt.”

Even if the asset you’re holding will someday be redeemed by the original issuer, the thing you’re holding holding is an asset, which you can transfer to someone else’s balance sheet in exchange for work, or real stuff or…some other financial instrument, be it a Euro bill a bond, a title to land, or whatever (which is also a credit, or asset). They’re all financial instruments (with various rights designated). Claims. Credits.

Economists Agree: Democratic Presidents are Better at Making Us Rich. Eight Reasons Why.

August 13th, 2016 Comments off

In 2013, economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson — no wild-eyed liberals, they — asked a very important question: Why has the U.S. economy performed better under Democratic than Republican presidents, “almost regardless of how one measures performance”?

Start with their “performed better” assertion: it’s uncontestable. While you can easily cherry-pick brief periods and economic measures that show superior economic performance under Republicans, over any lengthy comparison period (say, 25 years more), by pretty much any economic measure, Democrats have outperformed Republicans for a century. Even Tyler Cowen, director of the Koch-brothers-funded libertarian/conservative Mercatus Center, stipulates to that fact without demur.

Here’s just one bald picture of that relative performance, showing a very basic measure, GDP growth:

CHeQhvLWcAAvfRA

The difference is big. At those rates, over thirty years your $50,000 income compounds up to $105,000 under Republicans, $182,000 under Democrats — 73% higher. (And this is all before even considering distribution — whether the growing prosperity is widely enjoyed, or narrowly concentrated.)

Hundreds of similar pictures are easily assembled — different time periods, different measures, aggregate and per-capita, inflation-adjusted or not — all telling the same general story. No amount of hand-waving, smoke-blowing, and definition-quibbling will alter that reality. (If you feel you must try to debunk Blinder, Watson, and Cowen: be aware that you almost certainly don’t have an original argument. Read the paper, and follow the footnotes. You’ll also find more hereherehereherehere, and here.)

So what explains that superior performance? Blinder and Watson’s regression model basically says, “we dunno.” Their model, for whatever it’s worth, rules out a whole slew of possibilities — only finding a significant correlation with oil price shocks (uh…okay…) and Total Factor Productivity (the black-box residual economic measure that’s left when the other growth factors economists can think of are accounted for in their models).

Standing empty-handed after all their work, Blinder and Watson punt. They attribute Democrats’ consistently superior performance to…luck. Yes, really.

On its face, the bare fact of Democrats’ consistent outperformance suggests a straightforward explanation: Democrat policies and priorities, in their myriad interacting forms, expressions, and implementations, directly cause faster growth, more progress, greater and more widespread prosperity. (Blinder and Watson pooh-pooh this idea, simply because they don’t find short-term correlation with the rather bare measure of fiscal balances.)

So the question remains: what could it be about the Democratic economic policy mix that delivers superior performance? Here are eight possibilities:

1. Wisdom of the Crowds. Democrats’ dispersed government spending — education, health care, infrastructure, social support — puts money (hence power) in the hands of individuals, instead of delivering concentrated streams to big entities like defense, finance, and business. Those individuals’ free choices on where to spend the money allocate resources where they’re most valuable — to truly productive industries that deliver goods that humans actually want.

2. Preventing Government “Capture.” Money that goes to millions of individuals is much harder for powerful players to “capture,” so it is much less likely to be used to then “capture” government via political donations, sweetheart deals, and crony capitalism.

3. Labor Market Flexibility. When people feel confident that they and their families won’t end up on the streets — they know that their children will have health care, a good education, and a decent safety net if the worst happens — they feel free to move to a different job that better fits their talents — better allocating labor resources. “Labor market flexibility” often suggests the employers’ freedom to hire and (especially) fire, but the freedom of hundreds of millions of employees is far more profound, economically.

4. Freedom to Innovate. Individuals who are standing on that social springboard that Democratic policies provide — who have that stable platform of economic security beneath them — can do more than just shift jobs. They have the freedom to strike out on their own and develop the kind of innovative, entrepreneurial ventures that drive long-term growth and prosperity (and personal freedom and satisfaction) — without worrying that their children will suffer if the risk goes wrong. Give ten, twenty, or thirty million more Americans a place to stand, and they’ll move the world.

5. Profitable Investments in Long-Term Growth. From education to infrastructure to scientific research, Democratic priorities deliver money to projects that free market don’t support on their own, and that have been thoroughly demonstrated to pay off many times over in widespread public prosperity.

6. Power to the Producers. The dispersal of income and wealth under Democratic policies provides the widespread demand (read: sales) that producers need to succeed, to expand, and to take risks on innovative new ventures. Rather than assuming that government knows best and giving money directly to businesses (or cutting their taxes), Democratic policies trust the markets to direct that money to the most productive producers.

7. Fiscal Prudence. True conservatives pay their bills. From the 35 years of declining debt after World War II (until 1982), to the years of budget surpluses and declining debt under Bill Clinton, to the radical shrinking of the budget deficit under Obama, Democratic policies demonstrate which party merits the name “fiscal conservatives.”

8. Labor and Trade Efficiencies. The social support programs that Democrats champion — if they truly provide an adequate level of support and income — give policy makers much more freedom to put in place what are otherwise draconian, but arguably efficient, trade and labor policies. If everyone can confidently rely on a decent income, we have less need for the sometimes economically constricting effects of unions and trade protectionism.

To go back to Blinder and Watson’s “luck” explanation: A non-economist might suggest that “to a great extent, you make your own luck.” And: “hire the lucky.”

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

Noahpinion: What Causes Recessions? Debt Runups or Wealth Declines?

June 7th, 2016 Comments off

Noah Smith asks what seems to be an interesting question in a recent post: “what leads to big recessions: wealth or debt”?

But I’d like to suggest that it’s actually a confused question. Like: is it the heat or the (relative) humidity that makes you feel so hot? Is it the voltage or the amperage that gives you a shock, or drives an electric motor? The answer in all these cases is obviously “Yes. Both.”

The question’s confused because wealth and debt are inextricably intertwined. “Wealth” is household net worth — household assets (including the market value of all firms’ equity shares) minus household sector debt. Debt is part (the negative part) of wealth.

Still, it’s interesting to look at time series for household-sector assets, debt, and net worth, and see how they behave in the lead-ins to recessions.

I’ve pointed out repeatedly that year-over-year declines in real (inflation-adjusted) household net worth are great predictors of recessions. Over the last 65 years, (almost) every time real household net worth declined, we were just into or about to be into a recession (click for interactive version):

Update 6/8: This was mistakenly showing the assets version (see next image); it’s now correctly showing the net worth version.

This measure is eight-for-seven in predicting recessions since the late sixties. (The exception is Q4 2011 — false positive.) It makes sense: when households have less money, they spend less, and recession ensues.

But now here’s what interesting: YOY change in real household assets is an equally good predictor:

Adding the liability side of the household-sector balance sheet (by using net worth instead of assets) doesn’t seem to improve this predictor one bit. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. Household-sector liabilities, at about $14 trillion, are pretty small relative to assets ($101 trillion). Even if levels of household debt make big percentage moves (see the next graph), the actual dollar volume of change isn’t all that great compared to asset-market price runups and drawdowns. Asset levels make much bigger moves than debt levels.

It’s also interesting to look at changes in real household-sector assets (or net worth) compared to changes in real household-sector liabilities:

As we get closer to recessions, the household sector takes on debt progressively more slowly, with that shift happening over multiple years. (2000 is the exception here.) That speaks to a very different dynamic than the sudden plunges in real assets and net worth at the beginning of the last seven recessions. Perhaps: household’s portfolios are growing in these halcyon days between recessions, so they have steadily less need to borrow. And as those days continue, they start to sniff the next recession coming, so they slow down their borrowing.

My impressionistic take, unsupported by the data shown here: Higher levels of debt increase the odds that market drawdowns will go south of the border, driving the economy into recession. And they increase the likely depth of the drawdown, as lots of players (households and others) frantically need to shrink and deleverage their balance sheets, driving a downward spiral.

If the humidity’s high, and it gets hotter, you’re really gonna notice the change.

My obstreperous, categorical take, cadging from the past master of same:

Recession is always and everywhere a financial phenomenon.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

How Perfect Markets Concentrate Wealth and Strangle Growth and Prosperity

June 5th, 2016 5 comments

Capitalism concentrates wealth. Ridicule Marx and his latter-day disciples all you like (I’ll help); he definitely got that right.

But capitalism is a big word with lots of meanings, and enough ideological baggage to fill a Lear Jet. Let’s talk about something more precise: perfect markets, with ownership, in which individuals compete with others to produce stuff, and store up savings. You can see this kind of perfect world in agent-based simulations like Sugarscape. Start with a bunch of sugar farmers trying to accumulate sugar in an artificial world, hit Go, and watch what happens.

Here’s what happens to wealth concentration (number of poorer farmers on the left, richer on the right):

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Wealth is pretty evenly distributed at the beginning (top). That doesn’t last long. You can see the same effect in another Sugarscape run, here compared to real-world wealth distributions:

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That’s the Gini coefficient for wealth. Zero equals perfect equality; everyone has equal wealth. 1.0 equals perfect inequality; one person has all the wealth.

Perfect markets concentrate wealth. It’s their nature. But at some point, market-generated wealth concentration strangles those very markets (compared to markets with broader distributions of wealth). If a handful of people have all the wealth, how many iPhones will Apple sell? If only a few have the wealth to buy cars, automakers will produce a handful of million-dollar Bugattis, instead of forty handfuls of $25,000 Toyotas. Sounding familiar?

But wealth concentration doesn’t just strangle the flows of spending, production, and income. It throttles the accumulation of wealth itself. Another simple simulation of an expanding economy (details here) explains this:

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 10.49.29 AM

The dynamics are straightforward here: poorer people spend a larger percentage of their income than richer people. So if less money is transferred to richer people (or more to poorer people), there’s more spending — so producers produce more (incentives matter), there’s more surplus from production, more income, more wealth…rinse and repeat.

This picture says nothing about how the wealth transfers happen (favored tax rates on ownership income, transfers to poorer and older folks, free public schools, Wall Street predation, the list is endless). It just shows the results: As wealth is transferred up to the rich, on the left, and wealth concentration increases, our total wealth increases more slowly. When that transfer is extreme, even in this growing economy the poorer people end up with less wealth. (Note how the curves get steeper on the left.) As wealth concentration declines on the right, our total wealth increases faster, and poorer people’s wealth increases much faster. Note that richer people still get richer in most scenarios — it’s a growing economy, always delivering a surplus from production, and increasing wealth — just more slowly.

And that’s just talking dollars. If we start thinking about our collective “utility,” or well-being — the total of everybody’s well-being, all summed up — the effects of wealth concentration are even more profound. Because poorer people getting more does a lot more for their well-being than richer people getting more. (Likewise, even if the richer people actually lose some of their wealth, they’re not losing as much utility.)

Because: Declining marginal utility of wealth (or consumption, or whatever). This is one of those Econ 101 psychological truisms that seems to actually be true. The fourth ice-cream cone (or Bugatti, or iPhone) just doesn’t deliver as much utility as the first one. Plus, a Bugatti in one person’s hands doesn’t deliver as much utility as forty Toyotas in forty people’s hands. (Prattle on all you want about relative and revealed preferences; you won’t alter this reality.)

So if we were to re-work the chart above showing utility instead of dollars, you’d see far greater increases in utility on the right side, especially for poorer people. Widespread prosperity both causes and is greater prosperity.

Why, then, aren’t we spending our lives on the right side of this chart? It’s a total win-win, right? The answer is not far to find. Nassim Taleb shows with some impressive math (PDF) what’s also easy to see with some arithmetic on the back of an envelope: if a few richer people (who dominate our government, financial system, and economy) have the choice between making our collective pie bigger or just grabbing a bigger slice, grabbing the bigger slice is the hands-down winner.

That’s why decades of Innovative Financial Engineering has served, mostly, not to efficiently allocate resources to efficient producers, improve productivity, or increase production. Rather, these fiendishly clever entrepreneurial inventions control who gets the income from production. You can guess who wins that game. Top wealth-holders would be nuts to play it any other way (if you go with economists’ definition of rationality…).

But for the rest of us, it’s a loser’s game — at least compared to the world we could be living in. If household incomes had increased along with GDP, productivity, and other economic-growth measures for the last two or four decades, a typical household would have tens of thousands of dollars more to spend each year — and much bigger stores of wealth to draw on. If you think that sounds like a thriving, prosperous society…you’re right.

To summarize: perfect markets, left to their own devices, concentrate wealth. Concentrated wealth results in less wealth, and far less collective well-being. (You’ll notice that I haven’t even mentioned fairness. It matters. But I’ll leave that to my gentle readers.)

This all leads one to wonder: how could we move ourselves into that happy world of rapidly increasing wealth and well-being on the right side of the graph? Hmmmm….

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

You Don’t Own That! The Evolution of Property

April 24th, 2016 4 comments

Get off my lawn.

In a recent post on the “evolution of money,” which concentrated heavily on the idea of (balance-sheet) assets, I promised to come back to the fundamental idea behind “assets”: ownership. Herewith, fulfilling that promise.

There are a large handful of things that make humans uniquely different from animals. In many other areas — language, abstract reasoning, music-making, conceptions of self and fairness, large-scale cooperation, etc. — humans and animals vary (hugely) in degree and kind. But they still share those phenotypic behavioral traits.

I’d like to explore one of those unique differences: ownership of property. Animals don’t own property. Ever. They can and do possess and control goods and territories (possession and control are importantly distinct), but they never “own” things. Ownership is a uniquely human construct.

To understand this, imagine a group of tribes living around a common water source. A spring, say. There’s ample water for all the tribes, and all draw from it freely. Nobody “owns” it. Then one day a tribe decides to take possession of the spring, take control of it. They set up camp surrounding it, and prevent other tribes from accessing it. They force the other tribes to give them goods, labor, or other concessions in return for access to water.

The other tribes might object, but if the controlling tribe can enforce their claim, there’s not much the other tribes can do about it. And after some time, maybe some generations, the other tribes may come to accept that status quo as the natural order of things. By eventual consensus (however vexed), that one tribe “owns” the spring. Other tribes even come to honor and respect that ownership, and those who claim and enforce it.

That consensus and agreement is what makes ownership ownership. Absent that, it’s just possession and control.

It’s not hard to see the crucial fact in this little fable: property rights are ultimately based, purely, on coercion and violence. If the controlling tribe can’t enforce its claim through violence, their “ownership” is meaningless. And those claimed rights are not just inclusionary (the one tribe can use the water). Property rights are primarily or even purely exclusionary. Owners can prevent others from doing anything with the owners’ property. Get off my lawn!

When push comes to shove (literally), when brass tacks meet the rubber on the road (sorry, couldn’t resist), ownership and property rights are based purely on violence and the threat of violence. Full stop, drop the mic.

In the modern world we’ve largely outsourced the execution of that violence, the monopoly on violence, to government. If a family sets up a picnic on “your” lawn, you can call the police and they’ll remove that family — by force if necessary. And we’ve multiplied the institutional and legal mechanics and machinery of ownership a zillionfold. The whole world’s financial machinery — the immensely complex web of claims, claims on claims, and claims on claims on claims, endlessly and densely iterated and interwoven — all comes down to (the threat of) physical force.

There are obviously many understandings and implications to this reality (e.g. Where did your ownership claim originate? Who got excluded, originally?), which I’ll leave to my gentle readers. But I’d like to close the loop on the the comparatively rather desiccated ideas of balance-sheet assets, and money, explored in my previous post.

When the one tribe takes control of the spring, they add that spring as an asset on lefthand side of their (implicit) balance sheet. Voila, they’ve got net worth on the righthand side! In standard modern terminology, the spring is a “real” asset — a direct claim on a real good, as opposed to a financial asset, which (by definition) has an offsetting liability on some other balance sheet — is a claim on that other balance sheet’s assets, is a “claim on claims.” The tribe’s asset — its claim to the spring and the output from the spring (capitalized using some arbitrary discount rate) — has no offsetting liability on other balance sheets. It’s a purely inclusionary claim. Right?

Wrong. It’s an exclusionary claim. Which means there is a liability, or negative net worth, on others’ balance sheet(s) — at least compared to a counterfactual fable in which all the tribes have free access to the spring. “Real” assets — balance-sheet entries representing direct claims on real goods (even your claim to the apple sitting on your kitchen counter) — have offsetting entries on the righthand side of the “everyone else” or “world” balance sheet. A truly comprehensive and coherent accounting would require first assembling such a pre-human or pan-human world balance sheet. Practically, that’s utterly quixotic. Conceptually, it’s utterly essential.

So while the distinction between real and financial assets can have conceptual and analytic value, it’s important to realize that the claims behind real and financial assets are far more similar than they are different. A deed to land — the legal instrument encoding an exclusionary claim — is quite reasonably viewed as a financial asset. There is an offsetting balance-sheet entry elsewhere, if only implicit. Donald Trump certainly views the deeds he “owns” as financial instruments, fundamentally similar to his stocks and bonds. Just: the legal terms of those financial instruments — the inclusionary and exclusionary rights they impart — vary in myriad ways. (Aside: economists really need a biology-like taxonomy of financial instruments, categorized across multiple dimensions. Where’s our Linnaeus?)

Balance sheets, accounting, and their associated concepts (assets, liabilities, net worth, equity and equity shares) are the technology humans have developed to manage, control, and allocate our (violence-enforced) ownership claims, a crucial portion of our social relationships. At first the balance sheets were only implicit — when the tribe first laid claim to the spring. But humans started writing them down and formalizing them, tallying those ownership and obligation relationships, thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. (Coins weren’t invented till about 800 BC.)

When some clever talliers started using arbitrary units of account to tally the value of diverse “assets,” and those units were adopted by consensus, we got another invention: the thing we call money. Like ownership rights, the unit of account’s value is maintained by consensus and common usage among owners and owers. But like ownership, its value is ultimately enforced by…force.

Balance sheets. All is balance sheets…

</DryAndDweebyAccountingSpeak>

I find it distressing that this kind of deep and fundamentally necessary thinking about ownership and property rights is absent from introductory (and ensuing) economics courses — both textbooks and coursework. Likewise concepts like value, utility (carefully interrogated), and yes: money (ditto). I don’t think you can think coherently about economics if you haven’t carefully considered these issues and ideas. It’s that kind of deep and broad, ultimately philosophical, thinking, in the context of a broadly-based liberal-arts education, that makes American universities — somewhat surprisingly to me — the envy of the world.

Before leaving, I have to give full props here to Matt Bruenig, who delivered this clear and coherent Aha! understanding of ownership for me after I’d struggled with it for decades. It seems so simple and obvious now; others have certainly explained it before. I feel like a dullard for taking so long.

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

Note To Economists: Saving Doesn’t Create Savings

March 31st, 2016 10 comments

Is Saving a Sin?

If you save more, if everybody collectively saves more, there are more savings, right? There’s more money that firms can borrow and invest to make us all more prosperous. Household saving “funds” business investment, so if we all save more, the world will be more productive and prosperous. You hear this all the time. And it makes sense, right?

Wrong. It’s hogwash. Incoherent codswollop. Gobbledegook faux-accounting-think. Bunkum. Think: fallacy of composition — believing something is true of the whole because it is true of the parts.

You may know the much-discussed paradox of thrift: If everybody saves more, there’s less spending, so less income, less aggregate demand. On the surface, at least, that seems rather straightforward. But the real paradox here lies in the plural: the stock of monetary “savings” that lurks, implicit, at the core of the paradox. If we save more, are there more savings?

Start by knowing this: “Savings” (the plural) is not a measure in the national accounts, even though economists and commentators use the word ubiquitously. (Think: Bernanke’s “global savings glut.”) Search the Fed’s quarterly Z.1 report, the Financial Accounts of the United States. You’ll see. There are various measures of “saving,” with various accounting definitions — “flow” measures — but there’s no named measure of our collective stock of savings. (This makes some “stock-flow consistent” models somewhat…problematic.)

Then ask yourself:

When you spend money — transferring it to someone else in return for newly-produced goods and services — does it affect our collective monetary savings? In strict accounting terms, obviously not. Your money just moves from your account to someone else’s account; it doesn’t disappear. Your bank has less deposits; the recipient’s bank has more deposits. Aggregate monetary savings is unchanged by that accounting event. (The economic effects of that transaction — what behaviors it triggers — are another matter entirely.) One person’s spending is another person’s income. And vice versa.

But what if you don’t spend? You “save” instead, leaving the money sitting untouched in your account instead of transferring it to somebody else’s account. Does that increase aggregate monetary savings? Even more obviously not. That “act” of saving (not-spending) is quite literally a non-event.

In the simplest accounting terms, household monetary saving is just a residual measure of two flows — income minus expenditures. It’s perfectly understandable on that individual, micro level of a household. Less so in the aggregate. Because in aggregate, income = expenditures. And since saving = income – expenditures, saving must equal zero. What’s with that? (Note that in the stylized world of the National Income and Product Accounts, households only consume; they don’t invest. All household spending is consumption spending. Only firms invest, and all their spending is investment spending.)

So how does saving actually work? What does it mean to “save” — as an individual or a household, as a country, or as a world? Start with individuals, and the vernacular understanding of “household saving.”

You work your whole life, spending somewhat less than you earn (“saving”), leaving the residual sitting in your checking account. Maybe you swap some of that checking-account money with others in exchange for a deed to a house, or a portfolio of stocks and bonds, which go up in value over the years. Eventually you retire and live off that stock of “savings” (plus ongoing returns from those savings). In that everyday, individual context, savings (the stock) means “net worth” — your balance sheet assets minus your balance sheet liabilities. When you hit retirement, net worth — your savings — is the financial indicator that really matters. Bottom line: “How much money do you have?”

But what about our collective monetary savings — the stock measure that’s missing from the national accounts? That’s also best represented by aggregate household assets, or net worth. (For a sector with no externally-held assets or liabilities, assets and net worth are the same. For the world, assets equals net worth. We don’t owe anything to the Martians. The righthand side of the world balance sheet is all net worth.) For reference, U.S. household assets are about $101 trillion. Net worth is about $87 trillion. The household sector owes about $14 trillion to other sectors. (Here.)

It’s important to remember: households own all firms, at zero or more removes. A company can be owned by a company, which can be owned by a company, but households are the ultimate owners. (Firms’ liabilities are netted out of their net worth, by definition.) This because: Households don’t issue equity shares — their liability-side balancing item is net worth, not shareholder equity. Firms don’t own households. (Yet.) Companies’ net worth is telescoped onto the lefthand, asset side of household balance sheets. So household net worth = private-sector net worth. When it comes to tallying up private asset ownership — claims on existing goods and future production — the accounting buck stops at households.

The monetary measure “household net worth” is national accountants’ best effort at tallying up the markets’ best estimate of what all our real stuff is worth, in dollars. (More precisely, what all the claims on those goods are worth.) It’s far from a perfect measure; its relationship to government net worth, for instance (if that’s even meaningfully measurable), is decidedly iffy. See in particular J. W. Mason’s article on Germany’s uncanilly low household net worth. But it’s pretty much the best, maybe the only, measure we have.

So if monetary saving doesn’t increase the stock of monetary savings, how do we “save,” collectively? By producing long-lived goods — goods that we don’t consume within the accounting period. Machinists create drill presses, carpenters create houses, inventors create inventions, businesspeople create companies, economists create textbooks (yeah, I know…), teachers and their students create knowledge, skills, and abilities. All that tangible and intangible stuff that we can use and consume in the future constitutes our collective “real” wealth.

The financial system creates claims on all that stuff (and on future production), in the form of financial instruments — from dollar bills to checking-account balances to deeds on houses to collateralized debt obligations. The markets assign and adjust dollar values for those claims. When you hold those instruments, you’re holding a promise that you can purchase and consume real goods in the future. They’re claims (again at zero or more removes) on existing goods and future production. The markets constantly adjust those instruments’ prices/values based on our collective expectations of future production — our optimism/pessimism, or “animal spirits.”

With that as background, here’s the crux of the “saving” problem: Economists confuse saving money with saving corn. They conflate stocks of money (claims on stuff) with stocks of stuff. Think: “financial capital.” It’s an oxymoron. Capital is real stuff — despite Piketty and others’ inconsistent and self-contradictory use of wealth and capital as synonyms. See for instance, “capital is imported (net) to fund the trade deficit,” here. (And again, see J.W. Mason on this conundrum.)

This confution of monetary and real saving — financial instruments versus real capital — is a problem because money/financial instruments are nothing like real goods. These promises, or claims, are created with zero resource inputs to production. (Promises are cheap — actually, free.) And they are not ever, cannot be, consumed or used as actual inputs to production. (You can’t eat promises, or feed them into an assembly line.) That stock of dollar-designated claims, monetary wealth, is simply created and destroyed — expanded and contracted — by the creation/destruction of financial instruments, and their repricing in the markets.

Consumption reduces our stock of stuff. If we eat less corn, we have a larger stock of corn remaining. Consumption spending doesn’t reduce the stock of anything. If we spend less money, we still have the same stock of money.

Corn is produced and consumed. Financial/monetary wealth — the netted-out, dollar-denominated value of our web of promises and claims — simply appears and vanishes. That’s the magic of this social-accounting construct we call money.

A semi-aside on the accumulation of real, long-lived goods, real wealth: There’s another widespread though often-implicit logical accounting error that merits enthusiastic eradication. Starting with accounting definitions: (C)onsumption spending is paying people to produce goods that will be consumed within the accounting period. (I)nvestment spending is paying people to produce goods which will exist beyond the accounting period. C + I = Y (GDP, or total spending).

The error: More consumption spending means less investment spending — less accumulation of real goods, real wealth. Right? Wrong. That thinking assumes Y is fixed, which is only a given in accounting retrospect. If we spend less on consumption goods, we might just spend less, total — less Y, with no effect on investment spending. Obvious behavioral/incentive thinking actually suggests even worse: if consumers spend less, firms will do less investment spending. Both categories of spending, and total Y, will be lower (relative to a counterfactual of more consumption spending).

So what are the modern mechanisms of this relationship, between monetary savings and real goods? How do we collectively “monetize” our ever-increasing stock of real goods, our “real” savings, to create monetary savings? Three ways (none of which is “personal saving”):

1. Government deficit-spends money into existence. Treasury simply deposits dollars, created out of thin air, into private-sector checking accounts, either as transfers or in return for goods and services. This increases both private-sector balance-sheet assets, and private sector net worth — because no private-sector liabilities are created in the process. (Treasury then selling bonds, and the Fed buying them back, doesn’t directly affect private-sector assets or net worth. It simply swaps asset for asset, and alters the private sector’s portfolio mix, bonds versus checking-account deposits — though again with potential carry-on economic effects.)

2. Banks issue new loans, dollars that are also created ab nihilo. This loan issuance increases private-sector assets, but the act of lending/borrowing itself does not increase net worth, because borrowers simultaneously takes on liabilities equal to the new assets. New loans from banks only increase net worth if the leveraging later pays off (an economic effect), via mechanism #3.

3. As we create more stuff and decide that existing stuff is worth more, the financial system creates new financial instruments, and the existing-asset markets bid up prices of existing instruments (stock shares, deeds, etc.) — expanding the stock of claims to approximate the expanded stock of stuff. Market runups increase household balance-sheet assets, with no increase in household liabilities. So like government deficit spending but unlike bank lending, market runups increase household net worth. Voila, households have more money. This is arguably the dominant financial mechanism for “money printing.” (This reality highlights the pervasive “conservation of money” fallacy that still plagues even much “stock-flow consistent” thinking, a fallacy that’s beautifully explicated in this paper by Charlotte Bruun and Carsten Heyn-Johnsen. It also points out the deep conceptual problems of “income” measures that don’t include capital gains income — where “saving” doesn’t equal change in net worth.)

That Econ 101 circular-flow diagram might need some rethinking.

Over the long run, our stock of real goods and our stock of dollar-valued claims on those goods (tallied as balance-sheet assets or net worth) go up roughly together. But it’s a very long-run thing, subject to variations spanning decades, even centuries, and contingent on shifts in societal attitudes, cultural norms, institutional structures, political power, monetary policy regimes, beliefs, geopolitical forces, environmental exigencies, and technological disruptions, among other things. If Piketty’s Capital depicts nothing else, it depicts that reality.

Many things affect our collective saving and savings, real and monetary. But one thing is sure: the non-act of personal monetary saving does not increase our collective monetary savings. Personal saving does not create funds (much less “loanable funds”). That notion is incoherent, in simple, straightforward accounting terms.

Rather, the economic effects work like this: more spending causes more production (incentives matter, right?), which creates more surplus and stuff — both long-lived and short-lived — more value. The value of the long-lived stuff is then monetized by the government/financial system through the creation of new dollar-denominated financial instruments/legal claims, and price runups on existing instruments/claims.

In three simple words: spending causes saving. Real, collective accumulation of real, long-lived stuff. Monetary saving — not-spending part of your income this year — doesn’t, collectively, create either real or monetary savings.

Maybe the Demon Debt is not the Great Evil after all. Maybe Selfish Saving — hoarding of claims against others — is actually the greater economic sin.

Cross-posted at Evonomics.