No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is…2013 (Plus: 7 Jan 2016 “Professor Rajan stays or goes? My answer to a query”)

7 January 2016
rajan

3 June 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

Professor Rajan’s statement “I determine the monetary policy. I say what it is….ultimately the interest rate that is set is set by me” equates Indian monetary policy with the money interest rate; but monetary policy in India has always involved far more than that, namely, the bulk of Indian banking and insurance has been in government hands for decades, all these institutions have been willy-nilly compelled to hold vast stocks of government debt, both Union and State, on their asset-sides…and unlimited unending deficit finance has led to vast expansion of money supply, making it all rather fragile. My “India’s Money” in 2012 might be found useful. http://tinyurl.com/o9dhe8d

11 April 2014

from World Economy & Central Banking Seminar at Facebook

I have to wonder, What is Professor Rajan on about? Growth in an individual country is affected by the world monetary system? Everyone for almost a century has seen it being a real phenomenon affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress… A “source country” needs to consult “recipient” countries before it starts or stops Quantitative Easing? Since when? The latter can always match policy such as to be more or less unaffected… unless of course it wants to ride along for free when the going is good and complain loudly when it is not…. Monetary policy may affect the real economy but as a general rule we may expect growth (a real phenomenon) to be affected by other real factors like savings propensities, capital accumulation, learning and productivity changes, innovation, and, broadly, technological progress..

22 September 2013

“Let us remember that the postponement of tapering is only that, a postponement. We must use this time to create a bullet proof national balance sheet and growth agenda, which creates confidence in citizens and investors alike…”

I will say the statement above is the first sensible thing I have heard Dr Rajan utter anywhere, cutting through all the hype…I should also think he may be underestimating the task at hand, so here’s some help as to what needs to be done from my 19 Aug 2013 Mint article “A wand for Raghuram Rajan” and my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi lecture:

“Rajan has apparently said, “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.” Of course there are no magic wands but there is a scientific path forward. It involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity. It also involves institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the treasury while making the planning function serve the treasury function rather than pretend to be above it. It is a road long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels. The rupee will have acquired sufficient integrity to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases. India signed the treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the IMF. Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to aim to do so because without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. An RBI governor’s single overriding goal should be to try to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s money both domestically and worldwide.”

 

 

19 August 2013

A wand for Raghuram Rajan

9 August 2013

No magic wand, Professor Rajan? Oh but there is… read up all this over some hours and you will find it… (Of course it’s not from magic really,  just hard economic science & politics)

Professor Raghuram Govind Rajan of the University of Chicago Business School deserves everyone’s congratulations on his elevation to the Reserve Bank of India’s Governorship.  But I am afraid I cannot share the wild optimism in India’s business media over this.  Of course there are several positives to the appointment.  First, having a genuine PhD and that too from a top school is a rarity among India’s policy-makers; Rajan earned a 1991 PhD in finance at MIT’s management school for a thesis titled “Essays on banking” (having to do we are told “with the downside to cozy bank-firm relationships”).   Secondly, and related,  he has not been a career bureaucrat as almost all RBI Governors have been in recent decades.  Thirdly, he has been President of the American Finance Association, he won the first Fischer Black prize in finance of that Association, and during Anne Krueger’s 2001-2006 reign as First Deputy MD at the IMF, he was given the research role made well-known by the late Michael Mussa, that of “Economic Counselor” of the IMF.

Hence, altogether, Professor Rajan has come to be well-known over the last decade in the West’s financial media. Given the dismal state of India’s credit in world capital markets, that is an asset for a new RBI Governor to have.

On the negatives, first and foremost, if Professor Rajan has renounced at any time his Indian nationality, surrendered his Indian passport and sworn the naturalization oath of the USA, then he is a US citizen with a US passport and loyalty owed to that country, and by US law he will have to enter the USA using that and no other nationality.  If that happens to be the factual case, it will be something that comes out in India’s political cauldron for sure, and there will arise legal issues and court orders  barring him from heading the RBI or representing India officially, e.g. when standing in for India’s Finance Minister at the IMF in Washington or the BIS in Basle etc.   Was he an Indian national as Economic Counselor at the IMF?   The IMF has a tradition of only European MDs and at least one American First Deputy MD.   The Economic Counselor was always American too; did Rajan break that by having remained Indian, or conform to it by having become American?  It is a simple question of fact which needs to come out clearly.   Even if Rajan is an American, he and the Government of India could perhaps try to cite to the Indian courts the new precedent set by the venerable Bank of England which recently appointed a Canadian as Governor.

Secondly, does Professor Rajan know enough (or “have enough domain knowledge” in the modern term) to comprehend let aside confront India’s myriad monetary and public finance problems?  Much of his academic experience in the USA and his approach to Western financial markets may be quite simply divorced from the reality of Indian credit markets and India’s peculiar monetary and banking system as these have evolved over decades and centuries.  Mathematical finance is a relatively new, small specialised American sub-field of economic theory, and not a part of general economics. Rajan’s academic path of engineering and management in India followed by a finance thesis in the management department of a US engineering school may have exposed him to relatively little formal textbook micro- and macroeconomics, monetary economics, public finance, international economics, economic development etc, especially as these relate to Indian circumstances  “Growing up in India, I had seen poverty all around me. I had read about John Maynard Keynes and thought, wow, here’s a guy who managed to have an enormous influence on the world. Economics must be very important.”… He ran across Robert Merton’s paper on rational option pricing, and something clicked that set him on his own intellectual path. “It all came together. You didn’t have these touchy-feely ways of describing human behavior; there were neat arbitrage ways of pricing things. It just seemed so clever and sophisticated,” he said. “And I could use the math skills that I fancied I had, so I decided to get my PhD.”

Let me take two examples.  Does Rajan realise how the important Bottomley-Chandavarkar debates of the 1960s about India’s rural credit markets influenced George Akerlof’s “Market for Lemons” theory and prompted much work on “asymmetric information”, 325.extract signalling etc in credit-markets, insurance-markets, labour-markets and markets in general, as acknowledged in the awards of several Bank of Sweden prizes?  Or will he need a tutorial on the facts of rural India’s financial and credit markets, and their relationship with the formal sector?  What the Bottomley-Chandavarkar debate referred to half a century ago still continues in rural India insofar as large arbitrage profits are still made by trading across the artificially low rates of money interest caused by financial repression of India’s “formal” monetised sector with its soft inconvertible currency against the very high real rates of return on capital in the “informal” sector.   It is obvious to the naked eye that India is a relatively labour-abundant country.  It follows the relative price of labour will be low and relative price of capital high compared to, e.g. the Western or Middle Eastern economies, with mobile factors of production like labour and capital expected to flow accordingly across national boundaries.   Indian nominal interest-rates in organized credit markets have been for decades tightly controlled, making it necessary to go back to Irving Fisher’s data to obtain benchmark interest-rates, which, as expected, are at least 2%-3% higher in India than in Western capital markets. Joan Robinson once explained “the difference between 30% in an Indian village and 3% in London” saying “side by side with the industrial revolution went great technical progress in the provision of credit and the reduction of lender’s risk.”

What is logically certain is no country can have both relatively low world prices for labour and relatively low world prices for capital!  Yet that impossibility seems to have been what India’s purported economic “planners” have planned to engineer!  The effect of financial repression over decades may have been to artificially “reverse” or “switch” the risk-premium — making it lucrative for there to be capital flight out of India, with real rates of return on capital within India being made artificially lower than those in world markets!   Just as enough export subsidies and tariffs can make a country artificially “reverse” its comparative advantage with its structure of exports and imports becoming inverted, so a labour-rich capital-scarce country may, with enough financial repression, end up causing a capital flight.  The Indian elite’s capital flight out of India exporting their adult children and savings overseas may be explained as having been induced by government policy itself.

431314_10150617690307285_69226771_n

Secondly, Professor Rajan as a finance and banking specialist, will see at once the import of this graph above that has never been produced let aside comprehended by the RBI, yet which uses the purest RBI data.  It shows India’s mostly nationalised banks have decade after decade gotten weaker and weaker financially, being kept afloat by continually pumping in of new “capital” via “recapitalisation” from the government that owns them, using more and more of the soft inconvertible currency that has been debauched merrily by government planners.  The nationalised banks with their powerful pampered employee unions, like other powerful pampered employee unions in the government sector, have been the bane of India, where a mere 30 million privileged people in a vast population work with either the government or the organised private sector.  The RBI’s own workforce at last count was perhaps 75,000… the largest central bank staff in the world by far!

Will Rajan know how to bring some system out of the institutional chaos that prevails in Indian banking and central banking?  If not, he should start with the work of James Hanson “Indian Banking: Market Liberalization and the Pressures for Institutional and Market Framework Reform”, contained in the book created by Anne Krueger who brought him into the IMF, and mentioned in my 2012 article “India’s Money” linked below.

The central question for any 21st century RBI Governor worth the name really becomes whether he or she can stand up to the Finance Ministry and insist that the RBI stop being a mere department of it — even perhaps insisting on constitutional status for its head to fulfill the one over-riding aim of trying to bring a semblance of integrity to India’s currency both domestically and worldwide.  Instead it is the so-called “Planning Commission” which has been dominating the Treasury that needs to be made a mere department of the Finance Ministry, while the RBI comes to be hived off to independence!  

Professor Rajan has apparently said “We do not have a magic wand to make the problems disappear instantaneously, but I have absolutely no doubt we will deal with them.”  Of course there are no magic wands but my 3 December 2012 talk in Delhi  has described the right path forward, complex and difficult as this may be.

The path forward involves system-wide improvements in public finance and accounting using modern information technology to comprehend government liabilities and expenditures and raise their productivity, plus institutional changes in public decision-making like separating banking and central banking from the Treasury while making the planning function serve the Treasury function rather than pretend to be above it.  The road described is long and arduous but at its end both corruption and inflation will have been reduced to minimal levels, and the rupee would have acquired integrity enough to become a hard currency of the world in the sense the average resident of, say, rural Madhya Pradesh or Mizoram may freely convert rupees and hold or trade foreign currencies or precious metals as he/she pleases.

3dec

India signed the Treaty of Versailles as a victor and was an original member of the League of Nations, UN and IMF.  Yet sovereign India has failed to develop a currency universally acceptable as a freely convertible world money. It is necessary and possible for India to do so. Without such a national aim, the integrity of the currency continues to be damaged regularly by governmental abuse. 

Professor Rajan will not want to be merely an adornment for the GoI in world capital markets for a few  years, waiting to get back to his American career and life and perhaps to the IMF again.  As RBI Governor, he can find his magic wand if he reads and reflects hard enough using his undoubted academic acumen, and then acts to lead India accordingly.  Here is the basic reading list:

“India’s Money” (2012)

“Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

“India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

“Fallacious Finance” (2007)

“Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

“Path of the Indian Rupee 1947-1993” (1993)

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

Indian Inflation

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

“How to Budget” (2008)

“Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression (2005)”

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

“Against Quackery” (2007)

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

“The Indian Revolution (2008)”

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

Enjoy!

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Two Different Models for India’s Political Economy: Mine & Dr Manmohan Singh’s (Updated Feb 24 2011)

 

From Facebook

February 24 2011

Subroto Roy does not know if he just heard Manmohan Singh say “inflation will soon come down” — excuse me Dr Singh, but how was it you and all your acolytes uniformly said back in July 2010 that inflation would be down to 6% by Dec 2010? 6%?! 16% more likely! I said. Until he explains his previous error, we may suppose he will repeat it.

January 11 2011:

Subroto Roy can stop the Indian inflation and bring integrity to the currency over time, and Manmohan Singh and his advisers cannot (because they have the wrong economic models/theories/data etc and refuse to change), but then they would have to make me a Minister and I keep getting reminded of what Groucho Marx said about clubs that would have him.

Subroto Roy does not think Dr Manmohan Singh or his acolytes and advisers, or his Finance Minister and his acolytes and advisers, understand Indian inflation. If you do not understand something, you are not likely to change it.

 

 

March 6 2010:

Subroto Roy  says the central difference between the Subroto Roy Model for India as described in 1990-1991 to Rajiv Gandhi in his last months, and the Manmohan Singh Model for India that has developed since Rajiv’s assassination, is that by my model, India’s money and public finances would have acquired integrity enough for the Indian Rupee to have become a hard currency of the world economy by now, allowing all one billion Indians access to foreign exchange and precious metals freely, whereas by the model of Dr Singh and his countless supporters, India’s money and public finance remain subject to government misuse and abuse, and access to foreign exchange remains available principally to politicians, bureaucrats, big business and its influential lobbyists, the military, as well as perhaps ten or twenty million nomenclatura in the metropolitan cities.

 

April 8 2010:

Subroto Roy notes a different way of stating his cardinal difference with the economics of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Govt: in their economics, foreign exchange is “made available” by the GoI for “business and personal uses”. That is different from my economics of aiming for all one billion Indians to have a money that has some integrity, i.e., a rupee that becomes a hard currency of the world economy. (Ditto incidentally with the PRC.)


Updates:

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  reads in *Newsweek* today  (Aug 19) Manmohan Singh “engineered the transition from stagnant socialism to a spectacular takeoff”.  This contradicts my experience with Rajiv Gandhi at 10 Janpath in 1990-91. Dr Singh had not returned to India from his years with Julius Nyerere in his final assignment before retiring from the bureaucracy when Rajiv and I first met on 18 September 1990.

“After (Rajiv Gandhi’s) assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform.  In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited… There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received…by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking…”

Subroto Roy notes that current Indian public policy discussion has thus far failed to realise that the rise in money prices of real goods and services is the same as the fall in the real value of money.

Subroto Roy  is interested to hear Mr Jaitley say in Parliament today the credibility of Government economists is at stake. Of course it is. There has been far too much greed and mendacity all around, besides sheer ignorance. (When I taught for a year or so at the Delhi School of Economics as a 22 year old Visiting Assistant Professor in 1977-78, I was told Mr Jaitley was in the law school and a student leader of note. I though was more interested in teaching the usefulness of Roy Radner’s “information structures” in a course on “advanced economic theory”.)





July 31 2010

Subroto Roy reads in today’s pink business newspaper the GoI’s debt level at Rs 38 trillion & three large states (WB, MH, UP) is at Rs 6 trillion, add another 18 for all other large states together, another 5 for all small states & 3 for errors and omissions, making my One Minute Estimate of India’s Public Debt Stock Rs 70 trillion (70 lakh crores). Interest payments at, say, 9%, keep the banking system afloat, extracting oxygen from the public finances like a cyanide capsule.

 

July 28 2010

Subroto Roy observes Parliament to be discussing Indian inflation but expects a solution will not be found until the problem has been comprehended.

July 27 2010:

Subroto Roy continues to weep at New Delhi’s continual debauching of the rupee.

July 25 2010:

Subroto Roy  has no idea why Dr Manmohan Singh has himself (along with all his acolytes and flatterers in the Government and media and big business), gone about predicting Indian inflation will fall to 6% by December. 16% may be a more likely figure given a public debt at Rs 40 trillion perhaps plus money supply growth above 20%! (Of course, the higher the figure the Government admits, the more it has to pay in dearness allowance to those poor unionized unfortunates known as Government employees, so perhaps the official misunderestimation (sic) of Indian inflation is a strategy of public finance!)

 

July 12 2010:

Subroto Roy is amused to read Dr Manmohan Singh’s Chief Acolyte say in today’s pink business newspaper how important accounting is in project-appraisal — does the sinner repent after almost single-handedly helping to ruin project-appraisal  & government accounting & macroeconomic planning over decades?  I  rather doubt it.   For myself, I am amused to see chastity now being suddenly preached from within you-know-where.

 

July 4 2010:

Subroto Roy does not think the Rs 90 billion (mostly in foreign exchange) spent by the Manmohan Singh Government on New Delhi’s “Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3” is conducive to the welfare of the common man (“aam admi”) who travels, if at all, mostly within India and by rail.

Subroto Roy hears Dr Manmohan Singh say yesterday “Global economic recession did not have much impact on us as it had on other countries”. Of course it didn’t. I had said India was hardly affected but for a collapse of exports & some fall in foreign investment. Why did he & his acolytes then waste vast public resources claiming they were rescuing India using a purported Keynesian fiscal “stimulus” (aka corporate/lobbyist pork)?

 

May 26 2010:

Subroto Roy  would like to know how & when Dr Manmohan Singh will assess he has finished the task/assignment he thinks has been assigned to him & finally retire from his post-retirement career: when his Chief Acolyte declares on TV that 10% real GDP growth has been reached? (Excuse me, but is that per capita? And about those inequalities….?)

(Yet Another) Memo to Dr Kaushik Basu

Dear Kaushik,

Apropos your reported predictions, I have had to say at Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is appalled the GoI’s Chief Economic Adviser has declared (as the PM and the PM’s Chief Acolyte had  declared in earlier months) that prices are trending downwards stochastically but amused that at least a stochastic (“fluctuating”) trend got mentioned.

Governor Subbarao has been set a small challenge the other day to release asap for public scrutiny the comprehensive macroeconomic model he says he believes the RBI has — which may be  hard if no such model may exist at the RBI.   Nor does your Ministry or anyone else in New Delhi have such a model.  So what is the Government’s precise scientific basis for predicting a slowing of inflation?  Nothing at all?

The Government needs to begin to try to understand that inflation does not slow down in circumstances where real public debt per capita and money supply have been growing exponentially for decades — to the contrary, inflation tends to rise to dangerous heights!  Debauching of  fiat money would hardly have been allowed if the rupee was a hard currency because we would have seen an honest exchange-rate crashing through the floor with this kind of inflationary finance the Government has given us over the decades. There is, sad to say, zero chance of the rupee becoming a hard currency that all one billion Indians may feel confident about so long as such inflationary finance continues unabated.

Cordially yours

Suby

A New Drachma? Thinking further on the need for a new Greek domestic currency to revive trade: Is the Greek/German Eurozone problem the mathematical dual of Gresham’s Law?

From Facebook (March 2010):

…My view on Greece appears different. In my view, a transition to a new Drachma will be drastic but will not be any more catastrophic than the present trap Greece has put itself in.

The current path makes a fetish of the fiscal side when the problem at root has been monetary, arising from a purported monetary union, a *superficial* monetary union being created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences.

Money has two main functions, being a medium of exchange and a store of value; the Euro has become too (implicitly) expensive for Greeks to be an effective medium of exchange, while the threat of a Greek default makes the Euro a risky store of value for Germans, Dutch et al. Greeks would have been hoarding Euros, reducing the velocity of circulation, and causing domestic trade to turnover more slowly and hence damaging national income; at the same time, others would have been wondering about a flight to safety outside the Euro. Introducing a soft inconvertible domestic money in Greece would allow the medium of exchange function to be fulfilled and revive domestic trade and income; it would have to be accompanied by exchange and import controls, leaving the Euro as a hard currency for external transactions. The present route being followed of trying to improve Greece’s fiscal situation by compulsion may worsen the situation without any new equilibrium path being anywhere near to be found.

The aim is to have a soft flexible inconvertible domestic currency *which facilitates, indeed stimulates, the turnover of domestic trade*, and allows equilibrium domestic relative prices to be found and adjusted towards. There would have to be a

(a) clamping down overnight on capital exports followed by forex rationing;
(b) closing the trade borders and imposing import controls (smuggling is inevitable);
(c) deciding a new price for the Drachma, say something like 500 or 1000 to the Euro (the aim is for equilibrium domestic relative prices to be adjusted towards and for domestic trade to turnover properly and expeditiously and indeed stop its collapse);
(d) exchanging all forex/Euro-denominated financial assets held by domestic residents to New Drachma-denominations at the new rate automatically;
(e) Euro-denominated liabilities incurred by domestic residents remain Euro-denominated: if it is the Government, they can negotiate how much or all if it they will repay over time; if it is private, private assets may be converted to pay it and/or there will be individual defaults or delays (restructuring) or write-offs.
(f) Exchanging all cash forex/Euro held by domestic residents to New Drachmas, through “licensed authorised dealers” as well as e.g. by ordering all commercial establishments to give New Drachma change in transactions.

Would Greece have “left the Euro”? Yes and No. It would not be part of the Euro Area but the New Drachma would be a Euro-standard currency where the Government guaranteed to buy up all Euro held by domestic residents at the fixed price in exchange for New Drachmas and held its forex reserves in Euros.

I have spent decades arguing *against* all this in the Indian case but have to say it is what Greece may need now, for a period of adjustment of half a dozen or so years.

Is the Greek/German Eurozone problem the mathematical dual of Gresham’s Law?
by Subroto Roy on Monday, 17 October 2011 at 16:13 ·
 
Money according to economic theory has two main functions, namely, being a medium of exchange and a store of value; I have been saying that I think the Euro has become too (implicitly) expensive for Greeks to be an effective medium of exchange, while the threat of a Greek default would make the Euro a risky store of value for Germans, Danes et al. If I am right, Greeks would have been hoarding Euros, reducing the velocity of circulation, and causing domestic trade to turnover more slowly and hence damaging national income; at the same time, the Germans, Danes et al would have been wondering about a flight to safety outside the Euro. Some young mathematical economist may take my idea and develop it it intelligently as the *dual* problem to Gresham’s law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gresham%27s_law inasmuch as weak fiscal positions are causing, through a common money, stronger fiscal positions to weaken…
 
Addendum Oct 25 2011
My guess has been the Euro has become a de facto hard currency for Greeks, who will then hoard it and slow the velocity of circulation, damaging the turnover of normal domestic trade and hence damaging national income; i.e. it has become too expensive as a currency to properly fulfill the medium of exchange function of money in Greece; at the same time, Germans, Dutch and others in fiscally strong economies relatively have to account for the added risk of Greek infirmity and hence find the Euro less of a store of value than otherwise, causing incentives to flee to other denominations. Introducing a soft inconvertible domestic money in Greece would allow the medium of exchange function to be fulfilled and revive domestic trade and income; it would have to be accompanied by exchange and import controls, leaving the Euro as a hard currency for external transactions. The present route being followed of trying to improve Greece’s fiscal situation by compulsion may well worsen the situation without any new equilibrium path being anywhere near to be found.
 

Thinking further on the need for a new Greek domestic currency to revive trade
by Subroto Roy on Friday, 16 September 2011 at 07:35 ·
 
Subroto Roy: Re  “it is still not clear what will actually happen”, what will happen is there will be an inevitable recognition that the introduction of the Euro was premature, probably irreversible, and likely to be catastrophic as it unwinds.
 
Edward Hugh Yes, well…. and apart from that little detail Suby, what else do you forsee. I absolutely agree, by the way, that these madmen (and women) have taken the global economy to the brink of disaster through their inability to listen.
 
Maria Tadd When words like catastrophic are used, they obviously send fear into the hearts of many. Suby and Ed, how do you envision the fall out to look like?
 
Subroto Roy    There has to be a clear way out for a currency to exit; that has never been thought out beforehand; creating a monetary union is the *final* step from a free trade area to a customs union to an economic union to a monetary union.  A purported monetary union, or rather a *superficial* monetary union was created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences. Now Greece needs, as I have said over two years, an inexpensive inconvertible domestic money which allows domestic trade and savings to take place normally; the Euro would have to become a hard currency for external use.
 
Edward Hugh Do you mean like what has been happening in Croatia Suby?
Subroto Roy I am afraid I have to admit ignorance of Europe’s facts, what I am working on is my (quite sound) knowledge of monetary economics acquired from Hahn, Friedman, Walters, ACL Day, Griffths, Hicks via Miller, etc. Thinking about Greece overnight: if the Euro has become a de facto hard currency there, its velocity of circulation will fall as people tend to hoard it, causing domestic transactions & trade and hence national income to fall too; hence further the need for an inexpensive domestic currency (under capital controls) for domestic trade and transactions to be revived.
 
(Capital controls imply import restrictions and the rationing of foreign exchange so Greeks will not be big tourists in the rest of the world for a while but what the heck they have so much to see in their own country.)
 
 
From Facebook Oct 3 2011:
 Subroto Roy:
 
“What I have said for two years now is that Greece needs to introduce a soft inconvertible domestic money to facilitate domestic trade and revive growth; it would have to be accompanied by import controls and forex rationing with the Euro becoming a hard currency in Greece for external transactions. Why? Because the Euro has probably become a de facto hard currency for Greeks who would then tend to hoard it, slowing velocity of circulation and causing domestic transactions to be reduced. (At the same time, Germans, Danes and others have an incentive to leave the Euro for the safety of some other hard currency in view of a possible Greek default.) Money has two main functions, being a store of value and a medium of exchange. In present circumstances, the Euro is becoming a dubious store of value for the Germans et al while becoming too scarce to be a proper medium of exchange for the Greeks. All this is good standard monetary economics, which no one in the ECB, IMF, financial journalism etc somehow seems to be able to recall. Instead they have made a fetish of the fiscal side, and that is destined to neither address the root problem nor to bring civil peace….”

My “Reverse Euro” Model of June 1998, and my writings on a new money for Greece: letter to the Wolfson Economics Prize donors by Subroto Royon Thursday, 20 October 2011 at 18:51 ·
 

Hello,
In June 1998, I gave an invited lecture at the Institute of Economic Affairs on a “Reverse Euro” model for India, i.e., on how India could and should consider creating (under certain conditions) more than a dozen state-monies to coexist with a national currency too in the interests of a better fisc and some slight pretence to monetary integrity. In doing so, I also expressed my very grave foreboding about what the Euro was intended to be doing the following year in actual practice in Europe; I remember visiting a prominent British  Euro-optimist too and making my argument in contrast about the Euro’s arrival.

Subsequently, Milton Friedman and I corresponded too about my idea, and he found merit in it in describing an exit route for, he said, Italy for example, if that country needed such an exit route given its fiscal condition to depart from the Euro in due course. I also talked briefly about the subject at an invited lecture at the Reserve Bank of India in April 2000, as well as elsewhere.

Over the last two years, I have (and I think was the first to do so) suggested Greece needs a New Drachma, and how this should be gone about.  This has been outlined by me with many economists informally by email, as well as discussed at Facebook at some length.

I have little doubt what I am saying is broadly right — in the sense that it is the most consistent with the formal body of economic theory known as monetary economics.  I was taught monetary economics very well in the mid 1970s at the LSE by, for example, ACL Day, Alan Walters, Brian Griffiths, Marcus Miller (a student of JR Hicks) and others which came to be followed by my doctoral dissertation at Cambridge under Frank Hahn, and postdoctoral work in America with Jim Buchanan.  Plus Milton Friedman became a friend and stood for me as an expert witness in a US federal court (the only time he ever did that)!  My most recent work is a book edited with John Clark titled Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant published by Continuum in 2005 — that has an essay relevant to this subject commissioned by us and done by Patrick Minford of Cardiff.

So I do plan to write something for your prize but whatever I do write will not be worth the vast sum of money you are offering — in fact, I would say you need to break it up into little bits in due course and parcel it out to the most fruitful ideas.  The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing… This is a fox problem, not a hedgehog one.  Perhaps you should commission a journal or a multi-essay volume or a set of volumes or monographs rather than hand out one big cheque to someone who will not deserve it. (And please say no more about the moneys the Bank of Sweden gives away every year in the name of the advancement of knowledge in economics…)  

The problem you have raised is a fundamental one and should have been raised decades ago, not merely by Eurosceptics in the occasional lecture or newspaper article but in many formal academic doctoral theses and journals all over Europe, long before the Euro came to be introduced — and note that the jump from the unification of Germany (with the 1:1 DM:Ostmark problem) was less than a decade before that.  That did not happen.  So now your belated initiative is most welcome, better late than never, better something than nothing.

Do let me know please what else I need to know to send in my theoretical thoughts on this.

Cordially

Suby Roy

From Facebook (February 21 2012)

My idea has been far better (because it is based on standard monetary economics which the ECB, IMF etc bureaucrats appear to have all forgotten or never learnt) …

[Devaluation refers to exchange-rates. There are no exchange-rates, that is precisely the problem; exchange-rates are prices, and as such market signals. By getting rid of them, market signals were lost. The point I am making in my notes is that there is still an *implicit* shadow exchange-rate if you like, so the Euro being used in Greece actually has a different local price in terms of real goods and services than the same Euro being used in Germany!]

Hans Suter: A Drachma at a discount of 40% would certainly push tourism by a 20% ? That would be a 3 to 4% jump of GDP.)

Subroto Roy: A New Drachma can be at 0.1 of a Euro, or less. But at least *local* trade and business will be revived and slowly national income will grow. The Greeks will feel free and self-confident and sovereign. Yes they cannot buy any more BMWs or tour Paris or Italy any more. But they can go and visit the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids perhaps. [And they can take 100 years to repay their Euro debts instead of 50 years…]

Subroto Roy hears “If the Baltics can, then why not Greece?”, and says the Baltics are the Baltics, God Bless them, Greece is Greece… I have no idea about the Baltics. The closest I got to them was an Estonian friend in Helsinki many years ago. In Greece what I am saying is that the money that is being used, the Euro, is no longer a natural money, and for that matter, it never was a natural money — money and banking evolve naturally out of trade and commerce, and to truck, barter and exchange are natural human propensities. Creating a monetary union is the *final* step from a free trade area to a customs union to an economic union to a monetary union. A purported monetary union, or rather a *superficial* monetary union was created, when there were wildly different underlying fiscal histories and fiscal propensities and preferences. The Euro has been an artificial money that eradicated the vital market signalling function that exchange-rates played (since exchange-rates are prices). A new inconvertible soft domestic money for Greece would allow domestic transactions to turnover properly once more and hence revive trade and national income. Greece could still be “in” the Eurozone nominally in the sense of having a fixed exchange-rate with the Euro which would be used for external trade. But there would have to be capital controls and import controls and foreign exchange rationing. At least for a while, probably a long while. Greece’s Euro debt would take 100 years instead of 50 years to repay. But at least the Greeks would feel free and sovereign and self-confident again, and adjust to their domestic economic realities in peace.

From Facebook May 14 2012
Diran Majarian
“The big issue here is how to deal with the debt overhang after the drachma transition since this must apply to both assets and liabilities.”

Subroto Roy The New Drachma has to be an inconvertible soft currency and Greece has to have import controls and capital export controls. Euro denominated assets held by domestic residents become Drachma-denominated (at a fixed, not a market-determined rate, e.g. 1:500 or 1:1000); Euro-denominated liabilities incurred by domestic residents remain Euro-denominated: if it is the Government, they can negotiate how much or all if it they will repay over time; if it is private, private assets may be converted to pay it and/or there will be individual defaults or delays (restructuring) or write-offs.


May 14 2012
The famous Professor Wilhelm Buiter (Cambridge BA 1971, Yale PhD 1975) has said this? “The instant before Greece exits it (somehow) introduces a new currency (the New Drachma or ND, say). Assume for simplicity that at the moment of its introduction the exchange rate between the ND and the euro is 1 for 1. This currency then immediately depreciates sharply vis-à-vis the euro (by 40 percent seems a reasonable point estimate). All pre-existing financial instruments and contracts under Greek law are redenominated into ND at the 1 for 1 exchange rate. What this means is that, as soon as the possibility of a Greek exit becomes known, there will be a bank run in Greece and denial of further funding to any and all entities, private or public, through instruments and contracts under Greek law. Holders of existing euro-denominated contracts under Greek law want to avoid their conversion into ND and the subsequent sharp depreciation of the ND. The Greek banking system would be destroyed even before Greece had left the euro area”…

Excuse me? This from the Chief Economist at Citi bank and “Professor of European Political Economy” at my alma mater, the London School of Economics and Political Science? What a load of rubbish Professor Buiter! Whom did you learn your monetary economics from? OK, ok, I should be polite: what makes you think a 1:1 exchange-rate should be fixed? Why not 1:500? Or 1:1000? The aim is to have a soft flexible inconvertible domestic currency *which facilitates, indeed stimulates, the turnover of domestic trade*, and allows equilibrium domestic relative prices to be found and adjusted towards. And why should Greece default on its Euro debt?! It might merely take a little longer to repay it. The change in currency is a conceptually distinct problem from that of credit-worthiness. Here is what I have said instead over two years, and for free:

Reintroducing the New Drachma would require

(a) clamping down overnight on capital exports followed by forex rationing;
(b) closing the trade borders and imposing import controls;
(c) deciding a new price for the Drachma, I would say something like 500 or 1000 to the Euro (the aim is for equilibrium domestic relative prices to be adjusted towards and for domestic trade to turnover properly and expeditiously and indeed stop its collapse);
(d) exchanging all forex/Euro-denominated financial assets held by domestic residents to New Drachma-denominations at the new rate automatically;
(e) exchanging all cash forex/Euro held by domestic residents to New Drachmas, through “licensed authorised dealers” as well as e.g. by ordering all commercial establishments to give New Drachma change in transactions. Would Greece have “left the Euro”? Yes and No. It would not be part of the Euro Area but the New Drachma would be a Euro-standard currency where the Government guaranteed to buy up all Euro held by domestic residents at the fixed price in exchange for New Drachmas and held its forex reserves in Euros.

A New Drachma?
From Facebook:
 April 29 2010:
Subroto Roy thinks a New Drachma is inevitable sooner or later but remains deeply puzzled at the possible ways it may get reintroduced. The examples of such monetary reforms are all long gone from memory, in the immediate aftermath of WWII. It seems clear the Euro will become an increasingly scarce currency not suitable for fulfilling the normal medium of exchange function in domestic Greek transactions and will become a rationed hard currency under capital controls for external transactions only. It may already be hard or impossible to restrain a capital flight, perhaps underway. How will the actual transition be made? Perhaps by allowing Greek government debt denominated in a new local money, call it the New Drachma, to become tradeable? I said in my *Reverse Euro* model for India lecture in June 1998 at London’s IEA that the Eurozone could end up looking less like America’s monetary union than India’s.
 
April 8 2010:
Subroto Roy, reading “It is hard to know how to interpret this large decline in deposits”, says “Not really. The Euro is becoming a *scarce hard currency* in Greece, i.e., it is becoming too expensive to use Euros to satisfy Greece’s transactions demand for money, the medium of exchange function, hence Greece has an increasing need for a new local currency which will satisfy that function while the Euro is retained for use in Greece’s international transactions”.
 
Subroto Roy thinks the only sustainable long-term solution may be the reintroduction of a New Drachma, which will need time to stabilize behind a period of foreign exchange controls and rationing. The DM/FFr-based Euro would become a hard currency relative to a New Drachma.
 
March 24 2010:
Subroto Roy expects the US, Britain, ANZ and everyone else in the IMF who is not in the Eurozone may legitimately ask why the effective subsidy of Greece by its Eurozone partners should be transferred to the rest of the world.
Subroto Roy thinks the Europeans have enough clout in the IMF to, say, insist some of their own IMF-directed resources be directed towards Greece specifically, which would spell the unravelling of the IMF if it became a general habit.
 
Subroto Roy says “I had a very productive few months in 1993 as a high-level consultant working for Hubert Neiss at the IMF (consultants are, or at least were, very rare at the IMF unlike at the World Bank etc) when I came to understand a little of how the place works (leaving aside all the theory). The French Managing Director is a politician and not an economist or even a central banker, and I am sure France and Germany can swing some IMF money towards Greece. But of course, the IMF can by definition give no *monetary* or exchange-rate advice to Greece because there is no sovereign monetary authority in Greece any more. Hence all it can do is add the same fiscal (and political) advice and conditions as the rest of the Eurozone countries have done plus make the piggy bank larger with some IMF money. It may work once, but if France and Germany then say, right, Portugal, Spain, Italy are next in line, that is the end of the IMF, because its European members may as well be asked to pull out altogether. On the other hand, my radical advice to the IMF might have been to propose to help Greece to reintroduce the drachma and re-establish a sovereign monetary authority of its own, which would take IMF advice and expertise as a New Drachma would take time to stabilize and there would be a period of capital controls on foreign exchange transactions.”
 
Subroto Roy gave a Jun ’98 lecture at London’s IEA on why India should have a  *Reverse-Euro* model: eg 16 major states have their own (domestic) monies with a national rupee coexisting too & free currency markets everywhere. I said I feared a Eurozone may end up *looking like India* rather than the US in this. India has papered over wild fiscal mismanagement by the States by even wilder fiscal mismanagement by the Union!
 
Subroto Roy says Europe could have been a confederation & an economic union for practical purposes without individual monetary sovereignties being lost. E.g., the drachma or peso or escudo or punt or lira could each have chosen to appropriately link to some combination of the DM, FFR, sterling etc. And a Europe-wide Euro from an ECB could have coexisted as well.
 
Subroto Roy  finds Mr Constanzo mention Gresham’s Law, and says, “Certainly there might have been currency competition in Europe, and some of the smaller currencies may have chosen to go to *that* Euro — but DM would not have done, and would have been an alternative to it.”
 
Subroto Roy  thought imposing a single newly invented money on different economies a bit like imposing a single newly invented language (like Esperanto) on different peoples.
 
Subroto Roy  says India has papered over the wild fiscal mismanagement by the States by even wilder fiscal mismanagement by the Union!
 
Subroto Roy  thinks the effective subsidy French farmers et al were getting from Germany in pre-Euro days all came to be subsumed within Euro-economics; an alternative would have been to *leave* DM as it was, & perhaps FFR too, & to have introduced a Euro for smaller economies to use (presumably to save transactions costs);*that* Euro could have been linked to the DM etc. The Germans would have been happy & the problems avoided.
 
Subroto Roy  says German unification hit the Germans badly enough and they seem hardly in any mood to keep on playing Sugar-Daddy to everyone else while still having to defer to the putative victors of WWII (France and Britain) for political leadership.
 

On gold and central banks

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy thinks the simplest argument against gold (or any precious metal) as a unique monetary standard has been that there is not enough of it to suffice for the vast volume of world trade and payments…. (and that has been the case for at least a half century)….

Subroto Roy: Someone says in response to my suggestion there has not been enough gold, “just put the price of gold high enough”.  My response: “Who will? Central Banks as per the old gold exchange standard? There are well-known problems with all fixed exchange rate systems.”

Subroto Roy: The working of the gold, or at least the gold exchange, standard does not depend on actual holdings of course but one reason given for its abandonment had been that the vast expansion of the volume of trade and payments gave gold-producing countries a windfall bonanza and a potentially destabilising/disruptive advantage. Use of a fiduciary standard in world trade was as expected a development as its use in domestic trade and for the same kind of reasons. Of course gold retained some kind of “anchoring” role before Aug 15 1971 during the Bretton Woods era.

Subroto Roy: Yes, I agree “The development of new payment instruments that economized on gold kept pace with increased trade” — there is an economics of institutional change to be written there. Re., the “windfall bonanza” argument, I think it is merely that gold-producing countries have a kind of seignorage advantage under a pure gold standard — as the US may have had under Bretton Woods.

Subroto Roy is reminded of his brief time on Wall Street in the 1990s when he learnt it is not actually gold producers who earn the seignorage advantage but a cartel of a half dozen or so central banks (led by the Fed & Bank of England) who work together and between them possess vast inventories that can effectively control the supply-side completely.

Waffle not institutional reform is what (I predict) the “G-20 summit” will produce

“Summits”  of global political leaders require competent “sherpas”  to do the preparations.  From what I gather about the London “G-20 summit” this has not happened adequately enough, so I expect only a lot of waffle to emerge.  (If they suddenly start talking about Global Warming or AIDS in Africa or whatever, we will know the actual talks have failed badly.)

Reforming the IMF?   Hmmm, let’s see, what happened to all that talk four years ago about reforming the Big Daddy of them all, the UN?   Oh yes,  I forget, India is now a permanent veto-wielding Security Council Member, NOT!

It has been said that academic syllabus reform at a university is like ‘”moving a graveyard”.  Reforming the world monetary system and its major institutions would be like moving thousands of graveyards.   And there is no one with the brains of a White or a Keynes to help things along.  But we should not be surprised if there were pronouncements  of this or that high-powered commission of pompous worthies  who will make recommendations for reform some time in the future.    In general, little more than waffle will emerge now — I cannot even see the UK Government following informal British  advice to stand down from its founding role at the IMF.

There is no clear path to solving the great (alleged) economic and financial crisis because no one wants to admit its roots were the overvaluation (over decades) of American real-estate, and hence American assets in general.

India’s PM shall be seen at least up and about after several months out of action, indeed he will be up and about for the  first time in months doing what he (like India’s nomenclatura in general) likes doing best, which is to travel outside India.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” 1989 etc: sundry thoughts on US economic policy discourse

I have said here recently that some of the wisest advice President Obama or any leader anywhere can receive is that contained in Oliver Cromwell’s famous words “Think it possible you may be mistaken”.

This seems especially significant in context of new American macroeconomic and financial policies.  Mr Steve Clemons reports today there may be less intellectual diversity in the new President’s economic team than is possible or desirable; if so, conversation may become stifled and a greater propensity towards groupthink may arise, hence a greater likelihood of mistakes.

It is possible the directions that different people might like to see the conversation extended are different, and that would be a good sign of course!  For example, someone might think a Barro or a Mishkin could be the right addition of intellectual diversity, whereas others might suppose that to be the wrong direction towards more “market fundamentalism”.    But it would be a pity if the economic conversation within the new Administration came to be artificially or ideologically circumscribed in any direction.

Certainly I believe macroeconomic policy-discourse in the United States or elsewhere needs to proceed to a recognition of the existence of JM Keynes’s original concept of “involuntary unemployment” as well as to ask whether the actual unemployment happens to be or  not be of this sort.   (It may be “frictional” or “structural” or “voluntary” or “seasonal” etc, not the involuntary unemployment Keynes had meant.)  Furthermore, even if significant involuntary unemployment is identified, it needs to be asked whether government policy can be expected to improve or worsen outcomes.   The argument must be made either way, and, in John Wisdom’s phrase,  “Argument must be heard”.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” which was Chapter 8 of my 1989 book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge,  Library of Congress HB 72.R69)  may provide some useful ballast.  The saga  that followed the  book’s publication left me unable to write about the US economy anymore, except briefly in 1992 and 1994-95 in Washington and New York, read only by a few friends.   Now in late 2008, I have published “October 1929? Not!” and “America’s divided economists” which may be of interest too, and which are republished below as well.

I have also added a couple of sundry points from an international perspective that I pointed to last September-October, namely

(i)  foreign central banks might have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered, and dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years;

(ii) all those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States; restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fueled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

Subroto Roy

I.

from Philosophy of Economics Routledge 1989

“Chapter 8.
A Dialogue in Macroeconomics

OUR next example is of quite a different sort, namely, the academic debate which has occurred in macroeconomics and monetary theory since Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. This has of course received a great amount of attention, with innumerable commentaries having been written by many scores of protagonists and moderators around the world. Only a brief and highly simplified summary of these many conversations can be attempted here, within our limited objective of illustrating once more how it may be possible for critical discussion to be seen to proceed freely and yet objectively in economics. In the previous chapter we were fortunate to have had an actual conversation to consider; here our method shall have to be one of constructing a model of a conversation. In honour of Plato, we might name our conversants Athenian and Stranger.

ATHENIAN Tell me, have you perhaps been following the discussions among macroeconomists? I shall be interested to know what you take their present state to be.

STRANGER Indeed I have, though of course it is not possible or worthwhile to follow all of what has been said. But yes I have followed some of it, and certainly we can make it a topic of conversation.

ATHENIAN Please begin.

STRANGER Very well. Shall we do so in ‘36 with the publication of Keynes’s book? Rightly or wrongly, this must be considered a watershed in the history of modern economics, if only because most economists since have had either to admit its arguments in some measure or define and explain their disagreement. You’ll remember at one time it was said by many that Keynes had fathered a revolution in economic science.

ATHENIAN Except Chicago and the Austrians.

STRANGER Quite so. Now more recently a renewal of neoclassical thought has been under way, and many doubts have been raised about the keynesian consensus, so much so that some of the main questions of the thirties seem in modern form to continue to be at issue today.

ATHENIAN The more things change, the more they stay the same! But when you say Keynes has been a central figure, I take it you mean only that he has been among the most influential and most discussed and nothing more. It is not to preclude judgement on the merits of his book, which is itself of very uneven clarity. Besides there has been too much idolatry and hagiography.

STRANGER Yes, there is so often a rush to belief and worship. There may have been less if Keynes had survived longer. Yet I should say the broad aim of the work is not hard to see. Keynes himself clearly believes that he is starting a revolution — going so far as to suggest a comparison with contemporary physics. The first chapter says the book aims to provide a “general” theory, which will explain the traditional model as a “limiting” case. The second chapter says the theory of value has been hitherto concerned with the allocation of given resources between competing ends; Keynes is going to explain how the actual level of employment comes to be what it is.

ATHENIAN And so begs the question?

STRANGER Or does traditional theory? That seems to be at the heart of it.

ATHENIAN Go on.

STRANGER The theory will be of the short run in Marshall’s sense of taking capital as a fixed factor. Traditional theory is said to postulate about the labour market (i) that the real wage equals the marginal product of labour, so there is an assumption of profit maximization by competitive producers giving rise to a short run demand curve for labour; and (ii) that the utility of the wage at a given level of employment equals the marginal disutility of that amount of employment; i.e., the real wage is just sufficient to induce the volume of labour which is actually forthcoming. So it can account for unemployment due to temporary miscalculations, or intermittent demand, or the refusal or inability of labour to accept a job at a given wage due to legislation or social practices or collective bargaining or obstinacy, or merely a rational choice of leisure — i.e., it can account for frictional and voluntary unemployment but not for what Keynes wants to call involuntary unemployment. What it can suggest is either such things as improvements in foresight, information, organization and productivity, or a lowering of the real wage. But Keynes’s critique will not have to do with such causes of the contemporary unemployment; instead the population is said to be seldom “doing as much work as it would like to do on the basis of the current wage…. More labour would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money wage if it were demanded.” But it is not being demanded, and it is not being demanded because there has been a shortfall of “effective demand”. That is why there is as much unemployment as there is.

ATHENIAN Or so Keynes claims. And he would take it the neoclassical view would be that it must be the real wage is too high; it is only because the real wage has not fallen by enough that unemployment continues.

STRANGER Right. To which there are two observations. The first has to do with the actual attitude of workers towards the money wage and the real wage respectively. The traditional supply function of labour is a function of the latter; Keynes claims that at least within a certain range it must be workers are concerned more with the former.

ATHENIAN How so?

STRANGER By the interesting and perhaps plausible claim that workers are found to withdraw labour if the money wage falls but do not seem to do the same if the price level rises. A real wage reduction caused by a fall in the money wage and the same real wage reduction caused by an increase in prices seem to have different effects on labour supply. “Whether logical or illogical, experience shows that this is how labour in fact behaves.” And he cites U. S. data for ‘32 to say labour did not refuse reductions in the money wage nor did the physical productivity of labour fall yet the real wage fell and unemployment continued. “Labour is not more truculent in the depression than in the boom — far from it.”

ATHENIAN And the second observation?

STRANGER This may be of more interest. “Classical theory assumes that it is always open to labour to reduce its real wage by accepting a reduction in its money wage… [it] presumes that labour itself is in a position to decide the real wage for which it works…” Keynes does not find a traditional explanation why prices tend to follow wages, and suggests it could be because the price level is being supposed to be determined by the money supply according to the quantity theory. Keynes wants to dispute the proposition “that the general level of real wages is directly determined by the character of the wage bargain…. For there may be no method available to labour as a whole whereby…. [it] can reduce its real wage to a given figure by making revised money bargains with the entrepreneurs.” Hence he arrives at his central definition of involuntary unemployment: if the real wage falls marginally as a consequence of the price level rising with the money wage constant, and there is greater employment demanded and supplied in consequence, the initial state was one of involuntary unemployment.

ATHENIAN You are saying then that Keynes’s intent is to establish the existence of involuntary unemployment?

STRANGER At least a major part of the intent yes. To make the concept meaningful, to argue that it refers to a logical possibility, and also that much of the actual unemployment of the time may be falling under it, and is a result of lack of “effective demand”.

ATHENIAN The neoclassicals have been said to be cavalier about fluctuations in economic activity, when in fact Wicksell and Marshall and Thornton, let alone Hawtrey or Hayek as Keynes’s own critics, certainly had profound enough theories of the cycle. Before we go further, I think we should remind ourselves of what they actually said.

STRANGER Very well.

ATHENIAN Would you agree that can be summarized, then as now, as the quantity theory of money married to the theory of general equilibrium?

STRANGER Though it may be better to speak of divorce perhaps rather than marriage, in view of the dichotomy.

ATHENIAN From Smith to Mill, political economists broadly agree the role of government should extend and be restricted to such activities as defence, civil protection, the rule of law, the provision of public goods, education, the encouragement of competition, and so on. The traditional agenda does not as a rule include direct activity to restrain or otherwise change the natural course of trade, production, or consumption, and certainly no theory of what today is called macroeconomic policy. Underlying it is a broad belief that the competitive pursuit of private welfare within the necessary and minimal framework of the institutions of government, will result in tolerable social outcomes, and any further activity may be counterproductive. The State is after all endogenous to the economy, without any resources to its own name.

STRANGER The minimal state, though not so minimal perhaps as we sometimes think.

ATHENIAN The main function of money is seen to be that of facilitating real transactions. Hence the main component of the demand for money is the transactions demand, and the broad objective of monetary policy is the maintenance of the stability of the price of money. But this is recognized to be something elusive in practice, and fluctuations in economic activity are expected to occur in spite of the best intentions of the monetary authorities.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well we might imagine two or three distinct but related markets: one for real investment and savings determined by intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies; one a market for investment and savings defined in terms of money; one a short term credit market. The market for real investment and savings is, as it were, unobservable to the naked eye. Yet it drives the second and third markets for nominal savings and investment in which we actually participate. Monetary equilibrium requires the observable money rates of interest to equal the unobservable real rate of return on the market for physical capital. In particular, the real or natural rate of interest determined in the equilibrium of the first market is not, and perhaps ultimately cannot be, affected by nominal or monetary disturbances in the second or third markets.

STRANGER Why call it “natural”?

ATHENIAN In the sense it is a function of the real data of intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies being what they are. If these data changed it should be expected to change too. But given these data, it would be the rate at which intertemporal constrained maximizations by individual agents resulted in planned present consumption equaling planned present production at the same time as planned future consumption equaled planned future production.

STRANGER In other words, real planned savings equal real planned investment.

ATHENIAN Exactly. It is the real interest rate, or rather the whole structure of own-rates and cross-rates at various terms, which is the key price signal for macroeconomic equilibrium.

STRANGER “Natural” seems to me to carry a physiocratic connotation. A better nomenclature would replace it with something else — perhaps “equilibrium real rate” or just “walrasian” rate.

ATHENIAN Very well, though I for one do not bias myself against the physiocrats! Now consider how a simple business cycle might occur on wicksellian lines. From a position of full real and monetary equilibrium, an expansion of credit has its first effect on the banks, increasing reserves and inducing more lending for reserve/deposit ratios to be restored, and so lowering the loan rate. But customers are only able to perceive a lowering of this nominal rate of interest and cannot know the equilibrium real rate has not changed. As far as households know, the relative price of present consumption has fallen and there is an incentive for greater consumption and lesser savings. As far as businesses know, the relative price of the future good has risen, and there is an incentive for greater investment. Inventories are run down, and markets for both consumer goods and capital goods are stimulated and show signs of excess demand. But if there was a walrasian equilibrium initially, then the economy will now show signs of inflation; with a gold standard, there would be increased demand for imports and an external drain of reserves, and even perhaps an internal drain if there was a panic and a run on the banks. The loan rate will have to rise once more to reign in reserves, but if the rate is now raised too high relative to the still unchanged real rate, there would be the makings of a recession.

STRANGER Your point being that economists before Keynes had recognized the decentralized economy may be fluctuating continually.

ATHENIAN Surely they had done so quite fully. A first set of causes such as wars, disasters, discoveries and migrations would change the real data of the economy, while a second set would be monetary disturbances like the failure of the authorities to adequately follow the dictates of the real data of the economy, i.e., failure to observe the equilibrium real rate of interest. It may even be intrinsic to the problem that they must fail in the attempt to observe, let aside compute, the equilibrium real rate warranted at a given time by the structure of the real data.

STRANGER Hence the conclusion that they cannot hope to do better than establish a climate of monetary and fiscal stability, such as by declaring a long term policy and staying with it.

ATHENIAN Exactly. Private economic agents already face endemic uncertainty with respect to changes in the real data, and must be assumed to not want more added by government policy. You appear to have seen my point nicely.

STRANGER Very well. But you have jumped ahead as this kind of a conclusion sounds very modern to me. You made me stop all the way back at Keynes’s notion of effective demand!

ATHENIAN As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

STRANGER Let us go back a little. I think we may be able to rejoin our initial route at a point which may bring us close to where we seem to have come by the route you have taken. Specifically suppose we go back to the question of the money wage and the real wage, and of the real wage being “too high”.

ATHENIAN That has been interpreted a number of ways, has it not?

STRANGER Yes it has. One would be to say Keynes was merely simple minded and assumed money illusion on the part of workers. Another would be to say Keynes assumed a short run context of fixed prices, so it would not make a difference whether labour happened to be concerned with changes in the real or the money wage. Yet a third would be to say Keynes, whether he realized it or not, had come upon a recondite truth about the sort of complex monetary economy in which we live — namely, that when transactions are quoted and made in a monetary economy, it may become difficult ipso facto for the walrasian equilibrium to be achieved. Even workers might fully recognize the real wage to be too high and be prepared to work more at a lower wage, but be unable to signal this willingness to potential employers.

ATHENIAN So involuntary unemployment becomes another sort of equilibrium outcome.

STRANGER Exactly. Not only of labour but of machines too, along with the unintended holding of inventories. It is as if firms would have sold what they had planned to if only workers had the income to buy it, which they would have done if only they had been able to sell as much labour they had planned to, which they would have done if only there had been an effective demand for it, which there would have been if firms had not cut back on production because they found themselves unable to sell what they had planned to sell. A kind of vicious circle, due to pessimistic and self-fulfilling expectations all around.

ATHENIAN An unhappy solution to a non-cooperative game you might say.

STRANGER Quite so. Keynes does not deny there may be a monetary route out of the impasse. A wage deflation would eventually lead to price deflation, raising the real value of money holdings, so via liquidity preference lead to an increased demand for bonds, raising their price and lowering money interest rates, which through the investment function would lead eventually to increased effective demand. But the fiscal route may be more direct and quicker in its effect on expectations. Trying to deflate across the board in the face of what seem to be excess supplies of goods and labour might be counterproductive, causing unexpected transfers from debtors to creditors and precipitating bankruptcies. Instead: “Government investment will break the vicious circle. If you can do that for a couple of years, it will have the effect, if my diagnosis is right, of restoring business profits more nearly to normal, and if that can be achieved then private enterprise will be revived. I believe you have first of all to do something to restore profits and then rely on private enterprise to carry the thing along….”

ATHENIAN A shot in the arm for enterprise in the hope of breaking the pessimism. But Keynes was hardly alone in such thinking.

STRANGER Quite true.

ATHENIAN And he certainly seemed to treat the opinions of others without due respect, which is to say he may have exaggerated the significance of his own. Hinting that he was the Einstein of economics set an especially bad example. Only the other day one eminence was comparing himself to Newton, and another was calling his friend Shakespeare. It will be Joyce and Pasternak next!

STRANGER Flattery and nepotism are common weaknesses, my friend. Like the rush to belief and worship.

ATHENIAN Besides you would have to assume the government to be outside the game, and only so being able to see the problem which private agents could not from inside the game. That may be too large an assumption, don’t you think?

STRANGER Yes it may. Yet it seems to me pump-priming was a possible solution being offered to a temporary problem. Many of the controversies may have come about because it became institutionalized, because discretionary fiscal policy became a permanent part of the government agenda.

ATHENIAN And a more direct route out was available too, was it not? With wealth placed in the consumption function directly, a deflation would increase the real value and affect effective demand directly. We would not have to wait for the roundabout effects through so-called liquidity preference.

STRANGER Which in a way brings us back to a central pillar of traditional theory: with given real data and given velocity of circulation, desired holding of real money balances will roughly be constant. In particular the demand for real money balances should not be seen as a function of the interest rate.

ATHENIAN The real rate or the monetary rate?

STRANGER For neoclassicals certainly the real; Keynes does not seem clear.

ATHENIAN There may lie a problem.

STRANGER The title of the book says “Employment, Interest, and Money”. No question employment is real and money is money — interest is the bridge. If you ask me to bet I would say Keynes’s agents make real responses to signals expressed as they must be in a large economy in monetary terms.

ATHENIAN Perhaps we ought to move on. Tell me, if you think Keynes’s book rightly or wrongly ranks as the most influential document of the last fifty years, would you agree it is Friedman’s address on the role of monetary policy which must rank second to it if not on a par with it?

STRANGER Certainly there can be few competitors.

ATHENIAN Well then, it appears to me the net effect of Friedman’s critique has been a restoration of the wicksellian theory and a banishment of the keynesian theory.

STRANGER Friedman of course makes his approach via a critique of the Phillips’ Curve.

ATHENIAN Yes, but it is Wicksell whom he acknowledges in advancing the notion of a natural rate of unemployment, one which has been “ground out by the walrasian system of general equilibrium equations” — in other words, one which happens to be consistent with the structure of the real data of the economy at a particular time.

STRANGER Though again we may as well speak of walrasian instead of natural.

ATHENIAN A monetary policy which tried to peg unemployment at lower than such a rate (if such a rate could be determined, which it cannot) is likely to be counterproductive. The initial effect of an expansionary policy on a walrasian equilibrium may be to increase real output. Workers assume the increase to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their services, and hence they expect a higher real wage. Businesses see the same and assume it to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their goods. But given there was no real excess demand in the first place for either labour or goods, the effect outside anything but the short run will be a return to the initial structure of real wages, and the temporary decline in unemployment is reversed to the walrasian rate at higher prices. If the government tries to maintain unemployment at less than the walrasian rate, it will have to concede — indeed it will have caused — accelerating inflation without any real fall in unemployment.

STRANGER And vice versa perhaps, so there would be a kind of knife-edge.

ATHENIAN Now your remark about Friedman making his approach via the Phillips Curve seems to me interesting. We may have been too hasty to make a comparison with the debate in the thirties. For the world suffers a very real and severe shock between Keynes’s book and the keynesian consensus, which is the Second World War itself.

STRANGER I am not sure I follow.

ATHENIAN Well think of the consensus afterwards on the need for macroeconomic policy — it is actually Tinbergen’s notion of a “policy-maker” which is married to what seems to be Phillips’s finding of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. It becomes the role of the macroeconomist to advise the politician on how to minimize social disutility from inflation and unemployment subject to the Phillips Curve. Macroeconomics becomes a so-called “policy science”. Give your expert economist your social utility function, and he will tell you where to slide to on your Phillips Curve.

STRANGER The available instruments being money supply and tax rates. That is what I meant in saying Keynes’s idea became institutionalized.

ATHENIAN It seems to me this consensus is born out of the War.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well just think of the structural problems of the time: demobilization of large armies, reconstruction, all the displaced peoples, and so on. What are democratic governments to do? Say to their voters, right, thank you very much, now could you please go home quietly? What could have been expected except an Employment Act? Governments were going to help their returning citizens find work, or at least it would have seemed irresponsible if they had not said they were going to.

STRANGER You are saying then that Friedman may have been arguing against a new orthodoxy, grown out of what might have been a sensible idea.

ATHENIAN Exactly. The world is a very different place now than in 1945, in ‘45 than in ‘33, in ‘33 than in 1914. Real shocks every time. It may be a grave mistake for us to look for a unique and universal theory which is supposed to explain all particular circumstances, all of history.

STRANGER Reminds me of the historical school.

ATHENIAN Why not? Again I hold no prejudice against them! Anyhow, consider that Lucas and others have followed Friedman to argue it is a mistake to formulate the problem as Tinbergen had done, with unemployment as a target in a social utility function along with inflation. If it ought to be assumed that people will not continually make the same mistakes in predicting policy, then a systematic employment policy is going to be discovered quickly enough and rendered either ineffective or counterproductive. This idea too has its origins in Wicksell. Examining an opinion that inflation might stimulate enterprise and free debtors, Wicksell says: “It need only be said that if this fall in the value of money is the result of our own deliberate policy, or indeed can be anticipated and foreseen, then these supposed beneficial effects will never occur, since the approaching rise in prices will be taken into account in all transactions by reasonably intelligent people.”

STRANGER Wicksell said that?

ATHENIAN Precisely that.

STRANGER It does sound very modern.

ATHENIAN Now Lucas speaks of how the advice that economists give should be limited only to “the well understood and empirically substantiated propositions of monetary economics, discouragingly modest as these may be.” What can we take him to mean? It seems to me he is sharing Friedman’s scepticism of the possibilities which had been claimed for macroeconomics by the keynesian consensus. And that surely has been a healthy scepticism, befitting good economists.

STRANGER As I said, there is so often a rush to belief.

ATHENIAN Which is really disastrous when combined with the craving for power.

STRANGER But the question remains, does it not, as to which propositions of monetary economics are to be considered “well understood and empirically substantiated”. I cannot help think the propositions taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Chicago may be very different from those taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Cambridge, or for that matter, those in the U. S. from those in Europe.

ATHENIAN I don’t see any difficulty in this. For first, it would have been granted there are propositions in economics which can be well understood and empirically substantiated. And that must be counted as progress! For something cannot be well understood if it cannot be understood at all, and where there is the possibility of understanding there must be the possibility of objective knowledge as well. And second, why should we not say the most appropriate task of economic theory or analytical economics is simply one of clarification and elucidation of the conceptual basis of economic thinking and expression? All theory ultimately is, or ought to be, “Critique of Language”. When we are faced with a particular and concrete problematic situation, the theorist is to whom we turn for conceptual guidance and criticism. If instead you take the role of the theorist to be one of searching the universe for grand and general and absolute and abstract truths, which need to be discovered before we can say anything about some concrete set of particulars, then it seems to me you will be either struck dumb by a total and debilitating scepticism or become very shrill in your dogmatism or alternate wildly between the two. To me it seems unimportant ultimately to whose flag one shows allegiance, or indeed that allegiance to any flag must be shown.

STRANGER It seems again I will not disagree. But you have sketched the critique of Friedman and Lucas and indeed the ghost of Wicksell addressed to the dogmas of the keynesian orthodoxy. And I have agreed with you this has been a healthy criticism of the sort we should expect economists to provide. But there has been serious question too of the framework used by Friedman and Lucas, hasn’t there? I am thinking especially of Tobin and Hahn.

ATHENIAN Tobin has done much to add clear and reasonable thinking about Keynes — his suggestion that a certain amount of inflation may be the only way to bring down real wages towards their walrasian rates in complex monetary economics is especially interesting; it shows how wide the common ground can be upon which the debate may occur. But you will have to tell me what Hahn’s criticisms have been. I have always found them too abstract and too caustic.

STRANGER That they tend to be, but don’t let that deter you. As I see it, Hahn argues somewhat as follows. We should grant Friedman and Lucas two important points: first, the government is itself a large economic agent whose actions and announced plans enter the calculations of private agents; secondly, erratic changes in monetary policy away from a steady k% rule may have perverse effects “by confusing signals of relative scarcity with those that arose from the monetary policy”. Also, we may accept that the assumptions sufficient for a full walrasian equilibrium with rational expectations suffice for the absence of any persistent involuntary unemployment by Keynes’s definition. But Hahn would say this may not be the relevant empirical description.

ATHENIAN In what way?

STRANGER Well for one thing the pricing axiom or the recontracting assumption of stability theory remains unexplained. It is possible traders will face quantity constraints, and this often seems so in markets for labour and credit. We may simply find prices not moving in the direction of excess demand even when a quantity constraint happens to be binding. The structure of wages may be “neither fixed, nor arbritrary, nor inflexible; it is what it is because given conjectures, no agent finds it advantageous to change it.” Moreover, it may not be plausible to suppose there will be convergence after arbitrary displacements back towards a stable equilibrium, because the conditions for stability are very stringent and uniqueness of equilibrium may also need to be postulated. Furthermore, it may be quite unsatisfactory to treat money in models which are isomorphic to the Arrow-Debreu model, because in such a world there is no logical use for money, so there must be some essential features of reality which have failed to be features of the model.

ATHENIAN You don’t think Patinkin’s integration was adequate?

STRANGER For many practical purposes perhaps, but certainly not to full logical satisfaction. If you put real money balances into the utility function and treat money just about like any other good, you have to be prepared to accept a possible equilibrium in which the price of money is zero. Lastly, if there are internal debts denominated in money as there are in fact, you may not assume equiproportional changes in all prices will not have real effects, unless you are prepared to assume away redistributions between creditors and debtors, which you can do only under another assumption that all households have parallel and linear Engel curves through the origin. Hahn’s line of argument is admittedly abstract, but you will have to admit it raises some fundamental questions.

ATHENIAN Another example we might say of the healthy scepticism of the theorist. It seems my turn to agree with you. But we can imagine replies too can we not?

STRANGER What do you have in mind?

ATHENIAN Well to argue there can be unemployment which is involuntary is not to have argued that an employment policy can be expected to remove it. This seems a premise and conclusion too frequently confounded by both keynesians and their critics, with disastrous consequences. Then, Buchanan would argue that a more thorough characterization needs to be given of the making of government policy, especially when it is proposed to supplant the market outcome. Policies are after all proposed, enacted, and put into effect by actual people — all of whom may need to be assumed to be pursuing private rewards as well in the course of their public duties. The relevant description for the economist needs to be one including this further fact that actual proposals of public policy can embody the private interests of the proposers too.

STRANGER Making it that much more difficult to determine what is in the public interest in a given case.

ATHENIAN Exactly. And so reinforcing the case for predictability and an orderliness in the framework of government.

STRANGER But we have been talking now for quite long enough my friend. I seem to feel a fear too that we have not gained anything at all in our discussions.

ATHENIAN Don’t be so pessimistic! Surely the point of reconstructing such conversations as we have done is not to hold absolutely to the matters raised in them. You and I after all have been making summary and highly simplified and unauthorized interpretations. I take the point of it to have been clarifying our thoughts, and perhaps to show ourselves how discussion can proceed between economists of different schools of thought. Arguments might come to a halt for any of a number of reasons, but they needn’t be supposed to have any logical or necessary end. Too often we let people retreat into different dogmatic positions, fostering the belief that each is starting from some set of absolute axioms ultimately irreconcilable with those of the other. We may need to keep insisting instead that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is an open-ended activity with potentially indefinite limits. It yields conclusive results but has no absolute end. You or I might call a halt and retire from it, but that will not mean it cannot or will not continue without us.

STRANGER Perhaps so. But you are younger than I, and I have become tired by all these thrusts and parries. Besides, there has been the enjoyment of conversation itself.”

II

October 1929? Not!  by Subroto Roy / First published in Business Standard September 18, 2008

“Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decisionmakers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.”


III

America’s divided economists by Subroto Roy First published in Business Standard October 26, 2008

“Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of the monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.”

IV

Would not a few million new immigrants solve America’s mortgage crisis?
October 10, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

America was at its best when it was open to mass immigration, and America is at its worst when it treats immigrants with racism and worse (for seeming “uppity”).

All those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States.  They would pour in from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, South America,  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and yes, Pakistan too, and more.  They would happily buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in all those desolate  dismal locations.  If the USA’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a  new wave of  immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.   But yes, nativist feelings of racism towards the outsider or the newcomer would have to be controlled  especially in employment — racists after all are often rather “sub-prime” themselves and hence unable to accept characters who may be “prime” or at least less “sub-prime” from foreign immigrant communities.   Restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fuelled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

V

122 Sensible American economists

September 26, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

“$700 billion comes to more than, uhhhm, $6,000 per income taxpayer in the USA.

I was glad to see the sensible letter of 122 American economists to US legislators regarding the Paulson-Bernanke plan to address America’s financial crisis.

Somehow, I have an inkling that foreign central banks have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered — which would explain the embarrassment of Messrs Paulson and Bernanke vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts… Dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years.”