The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis recently published an Economic Policy Paper (February 7, 2017) – The Great Recession: A Macroeconomic Earthquake – by Lawrence J. Christiano (who is both at Northwestern University in Chicago and the Federal Reserve), which shows us that the mainstream profession has learned very little from their failures that were exposed by the GFC. This is a paper that exudes denial while purporting to advocated awareness and progression. There is a long way to go before economics turns the corner I am afraid.
Christiano set out to answer three questions about the GFC:
Why it happened, endured and wasn’t foreseen. And how it’s changing theory.
I don’t think he gets very far in answering the crucial questions and his response to how mainstream macroeconomics is meeting its failures is downright depressing.
He is correct in his assessment that the:
The Great Recession struck individuals, the aggregate economy and the economics profession like an earthquake, and its aftershocks are still being felt. Job losses and housing foreclosures devastated many families. National economies were deeply damaged and have yet to fully recover. And economists—who failed to predict either the crisis or the recession—have been struggling to understand why they didn’t grasp the fragility of the financial system and the duration of the recession.
We don’t have to document the extent of the economic failure. It has been huge. The US economy took 14 quarters (3.5 years) before its production had returned to the December-quarter 2007 peak and is still only 10 per cent above that peak after 35 quarters. A very slow and drawn out recovery that is not over yet.
The labour market effects have been significant. Please read my blog – US labour market deteriorating – the losses from GFC will be long-lived – for more discussion on this point.
So, we agree on those points.
But the reason that “economists—who failed to predict either the crisis or the recession—have been struggling to understand why” goes to the core failings of mainstream economic theory. It is simply not a framework that is applicable to real world dynamics.
It is irrepairable despite what we Christiano thinks (see below).
He uses terms “Conventional wisdom” and “the Conventional view” and “emerging consensus”, which are all hallmarks of language of Groupthink.
The ruling elite present themselves as the reasonable ones who adopt the middle ground and form consensus views as if this gives authority to the idea(s).
If one dares speak against this view then they are labelled as unconventional or dissenters, a terminology which is intended to be perjorative.
Anyway, Christiano says that:
Conventional wisdom is now converging on a particular narrative about the cause of the Great Recession. In effect, the Great Recession was a “perfect storm” created by the concurrence of three factors …
the decline in housing prices that began in the summer of 2007 … second factor was that the financial system was heavily invested in housing-related assets, mortgage-backed securities … third was that the shadow banking system was invested in housing assets and highly vulnerable to bank runs.
There is no mention of the underlying reasons for these developments which came to a head and triggered the GFC. I refer to the relentless call for financial market deregulation, which was justified by ridiculous economic theories such as the efficient markets hypothesis.
Remember the – Interview with Eugene Fama – that the New Yorker’s John Cassidy published on January 13, 2010.
Eugene Fama is an economist at the University of Chicago and is most known for his work promoting the so-called efficient markets hypothesis.
It was a distinguishing event – distinguishing for the denial and stupidity it revealed.
The efficient markets hypothesis has been a core of mainstream macroeconomics and asserts that financial markets are driven by individuals who on average are correct and so the market allocates resources in the most efficient pattern possible. There are various versions of the EMH (weak to strong) but all suggest that excess returns are impossible because information is efficiently imparted to all “investors”. Investors are assumed to be fully informed so that they can make the best possible decisions.
Fama told John Cassidy that the financial crisis was not caused by a break down in financial markets and denied that asset price bubbles exist. He also claimed that the proliferation of sub-prime housing loans in the US “was government policy” – referring to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who he claims “were instructed to buy lower grade mortgages”.
When it was pointed out that these agencies were a small part of the market as a whole and that the “the subprime mortgage bond business overwhelmingly a private sector phenomenon”, Fama claimed that the collapse in housing prices was nothing to do with the escalation in sub-prime mortgages but rather:
What happened is we went through a big recession, people couldn’t make their mortgage payments, and, of course, the ones with the riskiest mortgages were the most likely not to be able to do it. As a consequence, we had a so-called credit crisis. It wasn’t really a credit crisis. It was an economic crisis.
John Cassidy checked if he had heard it right asking “surely the start of the credit crisis predated the recession?” to which Fama replied:
I don’t think so. How could it? People don’t walk away from their homes unless they can’t make the payments. That’s an indication that we are in a recession.
Once again he was prompted to think about that – “So you are saying the recession predated August 2007″, to which Fama replied:
Yeah. It had to, to be showing up among people who had mortgages.
He was then asked “what caused the recession if it wasn’t the financial crisis”?
(Laughs) That’s where economics has always broken down. We don’t know what causes recessions. Now, I’m not a macroeconomist so I don’t feel bad about that. (Laughs again.) …
Fama asserted that “the financial markets were a casualty of the recession, not a cause of it”.
Later, in defending the efficiency of financial markets, Fama wondered how many economists:
… would argue that the world wasn’t made a much better place by the financial development that occurred from 1980 onwards. The expansion of worldwide wealth—in developed countries, in emerging countries—all of that was facilitated, in my view, to a large extent, by the development of international markets and the way they allow saving to flow to investments, in its most productive uses. Even if you blame this episode on financial innovation, or whatever you want to blame, would that wipe out the previous thirty years of development?.
And despite him confessing that he is “not a macroeconomist” he wasn’t backward in using his position to write a stringent macroeconomic attack on the US government fiscal plans, which all the evidence now shows saved millions of jobs. Not enough jobs were saved but without the stimulus, the world would have still been wallowing in the depths of Great Depression 2.0.
The logic he used came straight out of the introductory mainstream macroeconomics textbooks and he didn’t have the guile to realise it was both operationally flawed (as a description of what actually happens) and empirically bereft (none of the major predictions of the model ever come to fruition).
Remember the comments made by Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas Jr (University of Chicago) in his 2003 presidential address to the American Economic Association:
My thesis in this lecture is that macroeconomics in this original sense has succeeded: Its central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades. There remain important gains in welfare from better fiscal policies, but I argue that these are gains from providing people with better incentives to work and to save, not from better fine tuning of spending flows. Taking U.S. performance over the past 50 years as a benchmark, the potential for welfare gains from better long-run, supply side policies exceeds by far the potential from further improvements in short-run demand management.
So the ‘business cycle’ was dead and all that governments should do was to further privatise and deregulate.
At the time, the private debt buildup and the pursuit of fiscal surpluses was leading to a perfect storm. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists wrote about the impending crisis even during the 1990s – it was not a matter of if, but when and how bad it would be.
The mainstream with their were blithely unaware.
Those modern New Keynesian models typically didn’t even have a financial sector in them because they didn’t think ‘money mattered’.
It is clear that the mainstream of my profession spend their time propagating a macroeconomics literature that has zero predictive content. We know that because Robert Lucas was wrong – the business cycle was far from dead and just four years later the financial system collapsed and we are still picking up the pieces.
It is no surprise that the mainstream macroeconomic models didn’t predict the crisis – their macroeconomic models assumed stability, did not have financial sectors (banks etc) built into the models, and were underpinned by the biased view that free market would optimally self-regulate.
That is the approach that appears in all the mainstream textbook in macroeconomics.
Remember, Ben Bernanke pontificating about the so-called ‘Great Moderation’ where a combination of financial market deregulation and inflation targetting had rendered the world of macroeconomics benign. A corollary of the ‘business cycle is dead’ claims.
Please read my blog – The Great Moderation myth – for more discussion on this point.
Remember the ‘Committee to Save the World’ front page on the February 15, 1999 edition of the Time Magazine?
The ‘Committee’ comprised Robert Rubin (then US Treasury Secretary), Alan Greenspan (then Federal Reserve Chairman) and Lawrence Summers (then Deputy US Treasury Secretary). Summers took over from Rubin in 1999.
The members of the ‘Committee’ were all major players in the deregulation that led to the banking chaos and criminal behaviour.
In October 2008, Greenspan admitted to a US Congressional Committee that his ideological world was shattered by the crisis. His ideological connection with Ayn Rand and her extremist views were key components of the financial anarchy during his reign as Federal Reserve Chairman which finally manifested in the collapse of the world financial system and the ensuing rise in unemployment and income losses. His dirty hands are well and truly all over the collapse.
For his part, Rubin was a senior member (then Chairman) of Citigroup after his political career ended. He left just before its near collapse amidst criticism of his performance. In 2001, he used a mate in the US Treasury Department to try to put pressure on the bond-rating agencies to avoid downgrading Enron’ debt which was a debtor of Citigroup.
In January 2009, he was named by Marketwatch as one of the “10 most unethical people in business”.
And Lawrence Summers did not cover himself with honours as Harvard President or in his role in the Obama administration. He has consistently championed policies that hand over billions of public money to the rich guys on Wall Street.
These three were key players in the Brooksley Born scandal. Brooksley Born became the head of the US Federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission and fought hard to limit the Over the Counter (OTC) derivatives market.
At her first lunch with Greenspan after she was appointed as head of the Commission, he expressed a “disdain for regulation” and when she raised the issue of the problem of financial fraud Greenspan said that “the market would take care of the fraudsters by self-regulating itself”.
Born’s attempts to regulate the growing and secretive OTC market met with great resistance from Rubin, Greenspan and Summers. She told the 2009 Frontline program – The Warning – that “Alan Greenspan at one point in the late ’90s said that the most important development in the financial markets in the ’90s was the development of over-the-counter derivatives”.
When asked if Greenspan knew what he was talking about, Born replied “Well, he has said recently that there was a flaw in his understanding”. The last comment is in relation to testimony that Greenspan gave to the US Congress in October 2008 which I discuss below.
Born got involved in the law suit filed by filed by Procter & Gamble against Bankers Trust. It is clear that BT were screwing Procter by selling them derivatives that were too complicated for them to understand the risk. The program reveals audio-tapes of Bankers Trust brokers talking about their deliberate “intention to fleece the company” (Procter). One said “This is a wet dream” while there was a lot of laughing about how smart BT was in “setting up” Procter as a pigeon (victim).
At that stage Born saw the need for government regulation of the financial sector (particularly the banks) but she met incredible resistance from the Adminstration and Greenspan.
But Born’s efforts to seek ways of regulating the OTC market didn’t stop the awesome trio – The Committee to Save the World. She sought to develop a “concept release” – a plan for regulation within the legal jurisdiction of the CFTC.
The Committee to Save the World with another came out publicly on May 7, 1998 which this Press Release from Rubin, Greenspan and Levitt (SEC Chair) issued by the US Treasury:
JOINT STATEMENT BY TREASURY SECRETARY ROBERT E. RUBIN, FEDERAL RESERVE BOARD CHAIRMAN ALAN GREENSPAN AND SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION CHAIRMAN ARTHUR LEVITT
On May 7, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) issued a concept release on over-the-counter derivatives. We have grave concerns about this action and its possible consequences. The OTC derivatives market is a large and important global market. We seriously question the scope of the CFTC’s jurisdiction in this area, and we are very concerned about reports that the CFTC’s action may increase the legal uncertainty concerning certain types of OTC derivatives.
The concept release raises important public policy issues that should be dealt with by the entire regulatory community working with Congress, and we are prepared to pursue, as appropriate, legislation that would provide greater certainty concerning the legal status of OTC derivatives.
This New York Times article from 2008 – Taking Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy provides a good summary of the events. It documents the fierce opposition that Greenspan, Rubin and Summers put up against any notion of regulation of the financial markets.
The PBS program shows us that Rubin set his attack dog … Deputy (Summers) onto Born. In a phone conversation where he claimed there were 13 angry bankers in his office berating him, Summers shouted at Born:
You’re going to cause the worst financial crisis since the end of World War II.
Summers later said he could not recall that conversation or ever making the statement.
Soon after, in the US summer of 1998 and unbeknown to the government, Long-term capital Management collapsed.
Born captured her feelings when she found out:
… None of us, none of the regulators had known until Long-Term Capital Management phoned the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to say they were on the verge of collapse.
Why? Because we didn’t have any information about the market. They had enormous leverage. Four billion dollars supporting $1.25 trillion in derivatives? Excessive leverage was clearly a big problem in the market. Speculation? I mean, this was speculation, gambling on prices, on interest rates and foreign exchange rates of a colossal nature. Prudential controls? I mean, all these big banks had in essence … extended unlimited loans to LTCM, and they hadn’t done their homework. They didn’t even know the extent of LTCM’s exposures in the market or the fact that the other OTC derivatives dealers had been lending to them as well.
This was massaged away by the neo-liberals as nothing to worry about and they continued to resist regulation. By 2000, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act [CFMA] that took away all regulative jurisdiction for over-the-counter derivatives from the CFTC.
Please read my blog – Being shamed and disgraced is not enough – for more discussion on this point.
The point is that the “shadow banking” sector and the housing sector were out of control long before the crisis. The cover-up was aided and abetted by mainstream macroeconomists who were pursuing their ideological zeal against active government intervention.
As the excellent 2011 investigative movie – Inside Job – revealed, academic economists had become corrupted through engagement with the corporate world.
We learned how a bunch of mainstream and very notable economists had been paid significant sums of money by the financial sector to write reports, parading as independent academic research, which stated that the deregulated financial markets were performing well and there was no risk of a collapse.
The classic case was the report by Columbia University professor (Frederick Mishkin) on Iceland. Charles Ferguson (the film’s director) wrote that Mishkin “was paid $124,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to write a paper praising its regulatory and banking systems, two years before the Icelandic banks’ Ponzi scheme collapsed, causing $100-billion in losses. His 2006 federal financial-disclosure form listed his net worth as $6-million to $17-million.”
Mishkin later altered the report’s title from ‘Financial Stability in Iceland’ to ‘Financial Instability in Iceland’ when his role was exposed and claimed that the original reference to ‘stability’ was a typographical error in his CV. I haven’t met anyone yet who believes that story.
Please read my blog – Wrong is still wrong and should be disregarded – for more discussion on this point.
For Christiano to merely skate over the manifestations of this endemic corruption and theoretical failure that infested the mainstream of my profession is a testament that not a lot has been learned as a result of the GFC.
He considers the question of why the crisis has endured for so long.
The conventional view on why the recession lasted so long is that the … [crisis] … reinforced the desire to save, relative to the desire to invest. If markets worked efficiently, then the interest rate would have fallen to balance the demand and supply of savings, without a significant fall in employment. According to the conventional view, this required that interest rates be substantially negative, something that could not be achieved because the nominal interest rate cannot be much below zero. Because interest rates could not fall enough to clear lending markets, something else had to bring the demand and supply of saving into equality. That something else was the fall in aggregate output and income, which allowed lending markets to clear by reducing saving as people tried to avoid reducing their consumption too much. This is essentially the logic of the “paradox of thrift” analyzed in undergraduate textbooks in macroeconomics. Consistent with those textbooks, the fall in output arising from this paradox-of-thrift reasoning could in principle last for a long time.
Here we have the ‘loanable funds doctrine’ being wheeled out again.
This is the old, pre-Keynes idea that was categorically refuted by Keynes in the 1930s, but still rears its ugly head.
The loanable funds doctrine is an aggregate construction of the way financial markets are meant to work according to mainstream macroeconomic thinking.
It is pre-Keynesian thinking and was a central part of the so-called classical model where perfectly flexible prices delivered self-adjusting, market-clearing aggregate markets at all times. If consumption fell, then saving would rise and this would not lead to an oversupply of goods because investment (capital goods production) would rise in proportion with saving.
So while the composition of output might change (workers would be shifted between the consumption goods sector to the capital goods sector), a full employment equilibrium was always maintained as long as price flexibility was not impeded. The interest rate became the vehicle to mediate saving and investment to ensure that there was never any gluts.
Thus, it was argued that aggregate demand could never fall short of aggregate supply because interest rate adjustments would always bring investment and saving into equality. A denial of the business cycle and mass unemployment no less!
Underpinning this erroneous hypothesis is a flawed viewed of financial markets. The so-called loanable funds market is constructed by the mainstream economists as serving to mediate saving and investment via interest rate variations.
So saving (supply of funds) is conceived of as a positive function of the real interest rate because rising rates increase the opportunity cost of current consumption and thus encourage saving. Investment (demand for funds) declines with the interest rate because the costs of funds to invest in (houses, factories, equipment etc) rises.
Changes in the interest rate thus create continuous equilibrium such that aggregate demand always equals aggregate supply and the composition of final demand (between consumption and investment) changes as interest rates adjust.
Christiano thus thinks that the enduring crisis was all to do the fact that interest rate could not go low enough to ‘clear’ the market.
The problem is that the loanable funds doctrine is a flawed explanation of the way the banking system operates and the way savings are generated.
In a modern monetary system, loans create deposits and banks do not store up savings in reserve deposits to loan out.
Banks will always provide loans (and hence deposits) on demand from credit-worthy borrowers and then accumulate the necessary reserves to ensure that all transactions will settle within the payments system (where reserve accounts banks hold at the central bank are adjusted to match all the cross bank transactions each day) – so that cheques do not bounce.
This decoupling of savings and investment then forces us to explain why investment collapsed and didn’t respond to the near zero interest rates.
It was nothing to do with the failure of markets to adjust interest rates.
It was all to do with a collapse of confidence as total spending fell. The demand for credit depends on the state of economic activity and the level of confidence in the future.
And note that Christiano and the “emerging consensus” among economists thinks the whole problem was a failure of monetary policy to be ‘flexible’ enough due to the zero bound floor of nominal interest rates.
He doesn’t mention fiscal policy at all – this continuing the denial that fiscal policy is effective. History tells us that without the large fiscal interventions in various countries, the GFC would have been much worse.
Nations that introduced discretionary fiscal stimulus programs started to recover more quickly than other nations. Australia, for example, did not even register an official recession during the GFC.
Nations that withdrew the stimulus and reversed direction with austerity experienced much larger output declines and recorded higher mass unemployment. The Eurozone is still is crisis because of austerity. Greece is a failed state because of it.
Christiano’s omission of any discussion of fiscal policy is amazing really.
He moves on to the explore “Why didn’t policymakers or economists see it coming?”
He claims that “no one, neither policymakers nor academic economists, was aware of the third factor underlying the Great Recession, the size and fragility of the shadow banking sector”.
Again, the sort of ‘don’t blame us, because everyone missed it’ reasoning that is now common as the mainstream try to resurrect their tattered credibility.
Well the fact is that there were several economists in the 1990s (including those who were developing MMT) who did raise concerns about the growing private debt situation and the consequences of the financial market deregulation and lack of oversight from financial authorities.
The same economists talked about the dangers of subjugating fiscal policy (with an austerity bias) to an inflation targetting monetary policy.
These economists (including yours truly) didn’t exactly know when it was going to explode but we knew it was only a matter of time and when it did it would be big.
The mainstream economists were blithely unaware of the dangers and as noted above, bullied policy makers who tried to do something about it.
It is true that much of “the shadow banking system existed mostly outside the normal regulatory framework”, but that was by design not inevitability. That was because mainstream economists, being handsomely paid by vested interests, wrote papers purporting to be knowledge advances to justify the massive deregulation of the financial system that allowed these ‘shadows’ to form and go unchecked.
Finally, Christiano discusses the “Impact on macroeconomics” of the GFC.
He claims it is “having an enormous impact on macroeconomics as a discipline, in two ways”.
So, first, they have decided to resurrect the “famous IS-LM … which places demand shocks like this at the heart of its theory of business cycle fluctuations”.
Christiano claims that:
The return of the dynamic version of the IS-LM model is revolutionary because that model is closely allied with the view that the economic system can sometimes become dysfunctional, necessitating some form of government intervention.
As part of the drafting of our introductory MMT textbook – Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: an Introductory Text (published March 10, 2016) – I wrote a 7-part blog series on the IS-LM framework:
- The IS-LM framework – Part 1
- The IS-LM framework – Part 2
- The IS-LM framework – Part 3
- The IS-LM framework – Part 4
- The IS-LM framework – Part 5
- The IS-LM framework – Part 6
- The IS-LM framework – Part 7
If you want chapter and verse then you should go back and read those blogs in chronological order.
In summary, the IS-LM approach is central to the bastardisation of Keynes’ work by John Hicks in the late 1930s and was consolidated into the main textbook macroeconomic exposition from then on.
This consolidation was termed the Neo-classical synthesis because it took Keynes’ damning critique of neo-classical macro (the dominant paradigm before the Great Depression), neutered it (rendered it a ‘special case’) and re-established the essential claims of the pre-General Theory dogma.
It leads to conclusions that increasing real wages will reduce employment (always), whereas in MMT, say, in terms faithful to the General Theory of Keynes, it might, but only if it squeezes the profit rate and investment expenditure falls.
So output and employment are determined by effective demand not what happens in the labour market, with demand adjusting through price flexibility.
The IS-LM framework brings together the ‘money market’, where the central bank is assumed to have control over the money supply and the demand for money is an inverse function of the interest rate and a positive function of income; and the ‘product market’, where total spending is the sum of the normal National Accounts components (consumption, investment, government, net exports) and investment is inversely related to interest rate movements.
So we get a nexus where ‘general equilibrium’ results at some unique combination of interest rates and national income (read the 7-parts to understand this better).
The money market characterisation assumes the central bank controls the money supply, which in the real world is false. If we then break with that assumption the IS-LM framework breaks down and becomes facile (even within its own logic).
Further, current investment is deemed responsive to current interest rate movements, which is nonsensical given that many investment projects are decided upon years before they are implemented.
The IS-LM framework is also used to ‘show’ that if governments increase their spending, this stimulates a rise in national income (output), which increases the demand for money (because there are more transactions going on), and with the money supply fixed, the only way the excess demand for money can be accommodated is through rising interest rates, which serve to choke of demand for money.
The rising interest rates feedback onto the ‘product market’ via their negative effect on investment spending.
Conclusion: depending on how strong these impacts are, the IS-LM framework leads economists to conclude that rising government spending crowds out private investment spending because it drives up interest rates.
Students then spend hours in excruciating exercises where the gains in output from the rise in government spending are partially, wholly, or more than wholly offset by the loss of output from private investment as interest rates rise.
They then have moral intonations forced upon them about the relative merits of public spending (which is not ‘disciplined’ by the market) and private investment spending (which is assumed to be always efficient and highly productive.
The morality play ends with students being told that fiscal deficits are bad, force out good private investment and lead to lower efficiency and degraded outcomes for all.
Then the IS-LM framework is married up to another illegitimate framework – AS-AD – which completes the horror story – fiscal deficits end in accelerating inflation.
It is really an amazing con. Going back to this framework as a central organising approach is totally regressive.
There is no educational content in studying the IS-LM framework except from an history of economic thought perspective. It has very little correspondence with the real world.
On the IS-LM resurgence, please read my blog – Paul Krugman’s ideas are part of the problem – for more discussion on this point.
Also please read – Mainstream macroeconomic fads – just a waste of time – where I provide a detailed critique of the New Keynesian approach to the IS-LM framework.
Second, Christiano claims that macroeconomists are now “actively thinking about the financial system”, remembering that the dominant New Keynesian models didn’t even have banking sectors in them and “there was a consensus among professional macroeconomists that dysfunction in the financial sector could safely be ignored by macroeconomic theory”.
That is, the efficient markets theorem was widely held.
Now new models apparently show that “liquidity mismatch between assets and liabilities captures the essential reason that real world financial institutions are vulnerable to runs.”
If the problem was only that “banks finance long-term assets with short-term liabilities”, then the solution would be simple.
But the GFC was brought on by a total failure of the financial system to live up to its mantra that it could self-regulate to deliver wealth maximisation for all.
Close to 100 per cent of all financial market transactions are wealth-shuffling in the ‘casino’ created by the financial market deregulation and serve no productive role in advancing the well-being of the population in general.
They could be outlawed without serious consequences for the real economy – where output and employment decisions and outcomes are made and delivered.
There is nothing in all the new literature Christiano thinks will save mainstream macroeconomics about the need to force banks to become banks again rather than speculators. There is nothing about the need for widespread re-regulation. There is nothing about how to eliminate products that have no productive purpose.
It is quite amazing to live through this sort of period – where a dominant paradigm has been categorically discredited and the membership of that paradigm duck and weave in an attempt to restore their tattered reputations.
It is even more amazing to actually work as an economist and see how the mainstream is trying to deny their intrinsic failure and, instead, create ‘failures’ that do not go to the heart of the problem. All of which is to defend their overly-paid positions in universities and think-tanks.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2017 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.