How tightly will organised Big Business be able to control economic policies this time?

The power of organised Big Business over New Delhi’s economic policies (whether Congress-led or BJP-led) was signalled by the presence in the audience at Rashtrapati Bhavan last week of several prominent lobbyists when Dr Manmohan Singh and his senior-most Cabinet colleagues were being sworn-in by the President of India. Why were such witnesses needed at such an auspicious national occasion?

Organised Big Business (both private sector and public sector) along with organised Big Labour (whose interests are represented most ably by New Delhi’s official communist parties like the CPI-M and CPI), are astutely aware of how best to advance their own economic interests; this usually gets assisted nicely enough through clever use of our comprador English-language TV, newspaper and magazine media. Shortly after the election results, lobbyists were all over commercial TV proposing things like FDI in insurance and airports etc– as if that was the meaning of the Sonia-Rahul mandate or were issues of high national priority. A typical piece of such “pretend-economics” appears in today’s business-press from a formerly Leftist Indian bureaucrat: “With its decisive victory, the new Manmohan Singh government should at last be able to implement the required second generation reforms. Their lineaments (sic) are well known and with the removal of the Left’s veto, many of those stalled in the legislature as well as those which were forestalled can now be implemented. These should be able to put India back on a 9-10 per cent per annum growth rate…”

Today’s business-press also reports that the new Government is planning to create a fresh “Disinvestment Ministry” and Dr Singh’s chief economic policy aide is “a frontrunner among the names short-listed to head the new ministry” with Cabinet rank.

Now if any enterprising doctoral student was to investigate the question, I think the evidence would show that I, and I alone – not even BR Shenoy or AD Shroff or Jagdish Bhagwati — may have been the first among Indian economists to have argued in favour of the privatisation of India’s public sector. I did so precisely 25 years ago in Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India, which was so unusual for its time that it attracted the lead editorial of The Times of London on the day it was published May 29 1984, and had its due impact on Indian economic policy then and since, as has been described elsewhere here.  In 1990-1991 while with Rajiv Gandhi, I had floated an idea of literally giving away shares of the public sector to the public that owned it (as several other countries had been doing at that time), specifically perhaps giving them to the poorest panchayats in aid of their development.  In 2004-2005, upon returning to Britain after many years, I helped create the book Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, and Margaret Thatcher if anyone was a paragon of privatisation.

That being said, I have to say I think a new Indian policy of creating a Ministry to privatise India’s public sector is probably a very BAD idea indeed in present circumstances — mainly because it will be driven by the interests of the organised Big Business lobbies that have so profoundly and subtly been able to control the New Delhi Government’s behaviour in recent decades.

Such lobbyist control is exercised often without the Government even realising or comprehending its parameters. For example, ask yourself: Is there any record anywhere of Dr Manmohan Singh, in his long career as a Government economist and then as a Rajya Sabha MP, having ever proposed before 2004-2005 that nuclear reactors were something vitally important to India’s future? And why do you suppose the most prominent Indian business lobby spent a million dollars and registered itself as an official lobbyist in Washington DC to promote the nuclear deal among American legislators? Because Big Business was feeling generous and altruistic towards the “energy security” of the ordinary people of India? Hardly.  Indian Big Business calculates and acts in its own interests, as is only to be expected under economic assumptions; those interests are frequently camouflaged by their lobbyist and media friends into seeming to be economic policy for the country as a whole.

Now our Government every year produces paper rupees and bank deposits in  practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Why we do not hear about this at all is because the most prominent Government economists themselves remain clueless — sometimes by choice, mostly by sheer ignorance — about the nature of the macroeconomic process that they are or have been part of.  (See my  “India’s Macroeconomics”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc elsewhere here). As for the Opposition’s economists, the less said about the CPI-M’s economists the better while the BJP, poor thing, has absolutely no economists at all!

Briefly speaking, Indian Big Business has acquired an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and as a result acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy.  It is not rocket-science  to realise the long-term path of the Indian rupee is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

The Statesman of November 15 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy. It said:

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

Mamata Banerjee started her famous protest fast-unto-death in Kolkata not long afterwards, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007.

What goes for the government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy.  If Dr Singh’s new Government wishes to see real public sector assets being sold, let the Government seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees which the Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but rather in forex or gold-units instead!

Today’s headline says “Short of cash, govt. plans to revive disinvestment ministry”. Big Business’s powerful lobbies will suggest  that real public assets must be sold  (to whom? to organised Big Business of course!) in order to solve the grave fiscal problems in an inflationary economy caused precisely by those grave  fiscal problems! What I said in 2002 at IndiaSeminar may still be found to apply: I said the BJP’s privatisation ideas “deserve to be condemned…because they have made themselves believe that the proceeds of selling the public sector should merely go into patching up the bleeding haemorrhage which is India’s fiscal and monetary situation… (w)hile…Congress were largely responsible for that haemorrhage to have occurred in the first place.”

If the new Government would like to know how to proceed more wisely, they need to read and grasp, in the book edited by myself and Professor John Clarke in 2004-2005, the chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) before they read the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics).  India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Thatcher came in.

During the recent Election Campaign, I contrasted Dr Singh’s flattering praise in 2005 of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Mamata line in 2009 saying the CPI-M had taken land away from the poor.  This may soon signal a new fault-line in the new Cabinet too on economic policy with respect to not only land but also public sector privatisation – with Dr Singh’s pro-Big Business acolytes on one side and Mamata Banerjee’s stance in favour of small-scale unorganised business and labour on the other.  Party heavyweights like Dr Singh himself and Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee will weigh in one side or the other with Sonia being asked in due course to referee.

I personally am delighted to see the New Rahul Gandhi deciding not to be in Government and to instead reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his father talking to me on September 18 1990 at his home. Certainly the “aam admi” is not someone to be found among India’s organised Big Business or organised Big Labour nor their paid lobbyists in the big cities.

Subroto Roy

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Can President Obama resist the financial zombies (let alone slay them)? His economists need to consult Dr Anna J Schwartz

The wonders of the Internet continue to surprise (and yes Virginia, there was a world before SMS and before the Internet too).  In early January, in context of India’s Satyam fraud (of a size of perhaps 1 or perhaps 2 billion dollars),  I referred here  to what seemed to me the likelihood of Satyam becoming a zombie company and I said “we in India have many such zombies walking around in the organised business sector”.    I drew attention to Andrew Beattie’s astute  definition of zombies and other such ghoulish phenomena in the financial world, and also referred to John Stepek’s excellent if brief November 2008 analysis “How zombie companies suck the life from an economy”.  Today I find Ms Arianna Huffington has made reference to Mr Martin Wolf’s reference a couple of days ago to zombie companies and to his statement that President Obama needs to “Admit reality, restructure banks and, above all, slay zombie institutions at once.”  Ms Huffington has agreed, though of course all this slaying may be easier said than done.  (It is better that zombies not be created in the first place.)

Mr Wolf has pointedly asked a question that many around the world may have half-thought about but not articulated: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?”   It would be  a grave and appalling  state of affairs if it has, within less than a month of entering office.   I am grateful to find in Ms Huffington’s article a reference to an October 2008  Wall Stret Journal interview of Dr Anna Jacobson Schwartz, perhaps the most respected voice in monetary economics today.  There have been numerous people claiming to have predicted America’s financial crisis but none may have as much credibility as Dr Schwartz.   Six years ago, in a National Bureau of Economic Research study dated November 2002, “Asset Price Inflation and Monetary Policy”,Working Paper 9321 she had said with utmost clarity: “It is crucial that central banks and regulatory authorities be aware of effects of asset price inflation on the stability of the financial system. Lending activity based on asset collateral during the boom is hazardous to the health of lenders when the boom collapses. One way that authorities can curb the distortion of lenders’ portfolios during asset price booms is to have in place capital requirements that increase with the growth of credit extensions collateralized by assets whose prices have escalated. If financial institutions avoid this pitfall, their soundness will not be impaired when assets backing loans fall in value. Rather than trying to gauge the effects of asset prices on core inflation, central banks may be better advised to be alert to the weakening of financial balance sheets in the aftermath of a fall in value of asset collateral backing loans….”

Most poignantly too, Dr Schwartz was present when Ben Bernanke said  in  a 2002 speech honouring the late Milton Friedman “I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”   Dr Schwartz told the Wall Street Journal ‘”This was [his] claim to be worthy of running the Fed”.  “He was ‘familiar with history. He knew what had been done.’ But perhaps this is actually Mr. Bernanke’s biggest problem. Today’s crisis isn’t a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. ‘I don’t see that they’ve achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job.'”

President Obama’s economists need to urgently consult Anna J Schwartz.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript:  My own brief views on the subject are at “October 1929? Not!” dated September 18 2008, and “America’s divided economists” dated October 26 2008.  The latter article suggested that playing the demographic card and inducing a wave of immigration into the United States may be the surest way to move the housing demand-curve firmly upwards.

“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.”

Could the Satyam/PwC fraud be the visible part of an iceberg? Where are India’s “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”? Isn’t governance rather poor all over corporate India? Bad public finance may be a root cause

In a March 5 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.”

In a September 23-24 2007 article in The Sunday Statesman I said:

“… Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.”

In a February 4 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press…. the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.”

All three articles are available elsewhere here and are republished below together.  I have published elsewhere today my brief 2006 lecture on corporate governance.  (See also my “The Indian Revolution”, “Monetary Integrity & the Rupee”, “Indian Inflation”,  “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Growth & Government Delusion”, etc).

The fraud at Satyam amounts to it having been long bankrupt but not seemingly so.  The fact it was long bankrupt was apparently overlooked or condoned by its auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers! This may be big news today but the response of corporate India and the Indian business media seems utterly insincere (and there has been a lot of fake pontificating on TV by some notorious frauds).  Remember the head of Satyam received awards with all the other honchos at those fake ceremonies that businessmen and the business media keep holding at this or that hotel.  (See my several articles here under the categories “Satyam corporate fraud”, “Corporate governance” etc.)

Government agencies, as enforcers of the law, must be seen in such circumstances to have greater credibility than the violators, but who can say that Government accounting and audit and corporate governance in India is not as bad as that of the private sector?    It may be in fact far, far worse.   Poor accounting, endless deficit finance, unlimited paper money creation, false convertibility of the rupee etc is what emerges from our supposedly wise economic policy-makers.

When was the last time some major businessman or top politician spoke publicly about the importance of “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”?   The answer is never.   Government (of this party or that) has become well-oiled by political lobbyists and is hand-in-glove with organized business, especially in a few cities.  Until Government gets its own accounts straight, stops its endless deficit finance, reins in unlimited paper money-creation, creates an honest currency domestically and externally, there is no proper example or standard set for the private sector, and such scandals will erupt along with insincere responses from the cartels of corporate India.

What emerges from New Delhi’s economists seems often to have as much to do with economics as Bollywood has to do with cinema.

Subroto Roy

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, March 5 2007 Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Against Quackery

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

By Subroto Roy

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

2. A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his 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. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

Rule of Law

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, 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, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

Government accounts
Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

Fiscal Instabilty

Interest payments quickly suck dry every year’s Budget. And rolling over old public debt means that Government Borrowing in fact much exceeds the Fiscal Deficit

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, February 4 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

While releasing Mr Chidambaram’s book some days ago, our PM said that as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister in 1991 he had caused “fiscal stabilization” of the country. Unfortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh may have been believing the flattery of his sycophants, since the facts point differently.

The Fiscal Deficit is new borrowing by Government added for a given year. In 1994-1995 for example, the Union Government’s expenditure net of operational and other income was some Rs 1,295 billion (1 billion = 100 crore). Rs. 674 billion was generated for the Union Government by taxation that year (Rs 184 billion from direct taxes, Rs 653 billion from indirect and miscellaneous taxes, less Rs 163 billion as the States’ share). The difference between Rs 1,295 billion and Rs. 674 billion, that is Rs. 621 billion had to be borrowed by the Government of India in the name of future unborn generations of Indian citizens. That was the “Fiscal Deficit” that year. If the stock of Public Debt already accumulated has been B,this Fiscal Deficit, C, adds to the interest burden that will be faced next year since interest will have to be then paid on B + C.

Interest payments on Government debt have dominated all public finance in recent decades, quickly sucking dry the budgets every year both of the Union and each of our more than two dozen States. Some Rs. 440 billion was paid by the Union Government as interest in 1994-1995, and this had risen to some Rs. 1,281 billion by 2003-2004. As a percentage of tax revenue, interest expenditure by the Government of India on its own debt rose from 40% in 1991 to 68% in 2004 ~ through the Finance Ministerships of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.

Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press.

For example, contrary to the impression created by the Finance Ministry, RBI and Union Cabinet (whether of the UPA or NDA, while the Communists would only be worse), the Fiscal Deficit has been in fact very far from being all that the Government of India borrows from financial markets in a given year. The stock of Public Debt at any given moment consists of numerous debt-instruments of various sorts at different terms. Some fraction of these come to maturity every year and hence their principal amounts (not merely their interest) must be repaid by Government. What our Government has been doing routinely over decades is to roll over these debts, i.e. issue fresh public debt of the same amount as that being extinguished and more. For example, some Rs. 720 billion, Rs. 1,180 billion, Rs.1,330 billion and Rs. 1,390 billion were amounts spent in extinguishing maturing public debt in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively. No special taxes were raised in those years specifically for that purpose. Instead the Government merely issued additional new debt or “rolled over” or “converted” the old debt in the same amounts and more in the portfolios of the captive nationalized banking system (see graph).

Plainly, the Government of India’s actual “Borrowing Requirement”, as the difference between its Income and Expenditure, when accounted for properly, will be the sum of this rolled over old debt and the Fiscal Deficit (which is merely the additional borrowing required by a single year’s Budget). In other words, the Government’s Borrowing Requirement is the Fiscal Deficit plus the much larger amount required to annually roll over maturing debt. Because the latter expenditure does not appear at all in calculation of the Fiscal Deficit by the subterfuge of having been routinely rolled over every year, the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.

On the expenditure side, Current Expenditure (anachronistically named “Revenue Expenditure” in India as it is supposed to be met by current revenue) meets recurrent liabilities from one budget-date to the next, like salaries of school-staff or coupon payments on Government debt.

Investment Expenditure “of a capital nature” is supposed to increase “concrete assets of a material and permanent character” like spending on a new public library, or reducing “recurring liabilities” by setting aside a sinking fund to reduce Government debt. Some public resources need to be spent to yield benefits or reduce costs not immediately but in the future. Besides roads, bridges and libraries, these may include less tangible investments too like ensuring proper working of law-courts or training police-officers and school-teachers.

Also, there has been large outright direct lending by the Government of India bypassing normal capital markets on the pattern of old Soviet “central planning”, whereby “credit” is disbursed to chosen recipients.

“Current”, “Investment” and “Loan” expenditure decisions of this kind are made on the same activities. For example, in 1994-1995, the Government of India spent Rs. 2.7 billion as “Loans for Power Projects” in addition to Rs. 9.8 billion under Current Expenditure on “Power” and Rs. 15.5 billion as Investment Expenditure on “Power Projects”. By 2003-2004, these had grown to Rs. 50.94 billion, Rs. 31.02 billion, Rs. 28.5 billion respectively. Yet the opaqueness of Government accounts, finances and economic decision-making today is such that nowhere will such data be found in one table giving a full picture of public expenditure on the Power sector as a whole. On the revenue side, Government’s “Current Income” includes direct and indirect taxes, operational income from public utilities (like railways or the post office), and dividends and profits from public assets. There has been a small “Investment Income” too received from sale of public assets like Maruti. Also, since loans are made directly, there has to be a category for their recovery.

“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state”, said Montesquieu; while De Marco in the same vein said “the greatest satisfaction of collective needs” has to be sought by “the least possible waste of private wealth”. Even Mao Zedong reportedly said: “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. The C&AG requires Government determine “how little money it need take out of the pockets of the taxpayers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”.

Yet India’s top politicians and bureaucrats spend wildly ~ driven by the organised special interest groups on whom they depend, while ostentatiously consuming public time, space and resources themselves “quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego” (Veblen).

For Government to do what it need not or should not do contributes to its failure to do what it must. Thus we have armies of indolent soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats and piles of rotting supplies in government warehouses while there are queues outside hospitals, schools, courts etc.

Parliament and State Legislatures need to first ask of an annual budget whether it is efficient: “Is expenditure being allocated to enhance the public interest to the greatest extent possible, and if not, how may it be made to do so?” National welfare overall should increase the same whichever public good or service the final million of public rupees has been spent on.

Fundamentally, government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.

Will the Government of India’s new macroeconomic policy dampen or worsen the business-cycle (if such a cycle exists at all)? No one knows! “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

I began a two part article published in The Statesman last year (September 23-24 2007) titled “Against Quackery” saying:

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties…. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.  The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….

The cheap money policy announced yesterday and now the so-called “fiscal stimulus” announced today may be a case in point.  Dr Manmohan Singh’s main economic policy aide said the aim was for Government to act in a “contra-cyclical”  manner,  presumably referring to an attempted “counter cyclical policy” to dampen the amplitude of a business-cycle.

But has anyone asked — let aside, does anyone know — where precisely, in terms of phase, period and amplitude, India’s macro-economy happens to be on its presumed business-cycle?  Of course not.   No one has the faintest clue.   There are no models of such a cycle existing and there are no data which have been fit to such non-existent models.   Not in Delhi, not in Mumbai, not with any international agency.

[Inspector Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock  Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock  Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”]

A cheap money policy and a so-called “fiscal stimulus” may in fact, for all that anyone in the Government of India or outside it really knows, exacerbate the amplitude of a business-cycle — making it worse, not better.

In such a  state of ignorance,  it is odd for policy-makers to go about glibly formulating and announcing so many policy-changes at once.   (It may all add up to be just incoherent waffle.)   Such has been the typical pattern to emerge from the process of political lobbying by “well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups”.   Organised capital and organised labour (as well as of course bureaucrats and politicians) will likely do very well from all this as usual, at the expense of  “ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens” of India.


America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 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 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.

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee

 

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee: Three British Raj relics have dominated our macroeconomic policy-making

First published in Business Standard 28 September 2008

 

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money”. Philip Cagan said this in a pioneering 1956 study of hyperinflations worldwide. Britain’s Hugh Dalton observed how government deficits could be met by “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money” to pay government creditors either directly “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz pointed to America’s wartime resort to inflation.

 

Government debt held by a central bank quickly filters through to appear as an asset in balance-sheets of commercial banks, causing expansion of bank-lending and hence of bank-deposits and broad money. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Treasury could get from the Federal Reserve or commercial banks “any funds that it needed beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources”. America’s wartime banking system became “a mechanism for providing funds to finance government expenditure” — deposits grew because “bank buying of government securities increases bank deposits”.

 

In RF Harrod’s words: “There is a well-known aphorism that ‘bank loans create deposits’…. if the central bank has an increase of assets, whether through a gold inflow or its own increase of ‘lending’ (including the purchase of bills or bonds), some commercial bank will have an increase of assets of equal amount, in the form of claims on the central bank (deposits at it or notes issued by it) and an increase of deposit liabilities of equal amount to its customers”.

 

India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the USA and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank-deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit-finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy-makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food-stocks, jewellery etc.

 

Almost 50% of annual public revenues in real terms may have been arising from inflationary finance in recent decades. To take a specific example, during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Finance Minister, Union Government expenditure net of operational income was some Rs. 1.3 trillion (Rs 1.3 lakh crore) in 1994-1995. Some Rs. 675 billion (1 bn= 100 crore) was raised from all taxation that year, Rs 183 billion from direct taxes. The remaining Rs. 620.8 billion was borrowed on behalf of future generations of citizens using the Government of India’s credit. What is termed “Gross Fiscal Deficit” is this additional or marginal annual borrowing — it adds itself to the ongoing stock of public debt every year and has been continually monetised insofar as our mostly nationalized banking system annually comes to hold government securities to that additional amount.

 

India’s inflation-history shows a first phase from the 1870s until the Second World War when money prices fluctuated in response to real shocks, positive and negative, domestic and international. E.g., the US Civil War and First World War caused demand surges for Indian manufactures like cotton textiles and steel railway-tracks, while the Great Depression saw Indian prices crashing with world prices.

 

During the Second World War, money prices in India rose at their fastest rate ever, caused by deliberate British policy to pay for war expenditure by printing money. The British resort to inflationary wartime finance saw the highest money supply growth rates in India ever to occur to date. This pattern came to be adopted and institutionalised by independent India’s socialist authorities, so there has been a third phase of steady inflationary finance from the 1950s until today, along with negative shocks like military and civil conflicts, droughts and oil price-rises, as well as happier developments like technological progress leading to growth of real income (see graph).

 

Two more relics from the wartime British Raj continue to dominate Indian macroeconomic policy to this day. One is unlimited spending on vast standing armies — our supposed adversary itself being a political remnant of the Raj with similar macroeconomic problems to ourselves. India’s army has some 19 divisions facing Pakistan, Pakistan’s army has 19 divisions facing India!

 

The other relic has been the Indian rupee becoming inconvertible as a world money ever since import quotas were imposed across the Sterling Area in 1940-1942.  Lack of convertibility has made all government finance in India unlike that in modern Western economies. US government bonds are held freely in foreign portfolios so a Swiss household or Japanese bank may trade these as they please. Bond prices vary inversely with interest-rates, and yield curves would be attempted to be defined reflecting the maturity-structure and state of expectations. Competitive arbitrage in international capital markets may succeed in ensuring government debt is priced accurately.

 

A central bank with a convertible currency sells debt to raise monetary interest rates and attract capital flows, buys up its debt to lower rates and cause capital outflows. Money growth unwarranted by real growth depreciates the currency under floating exchange rates; a partial export of inflation occurs under fixed-rates. Debt instruments are liquid near-moneys, and it is because US Government debt has been liquid that debt instruments of its sub-sovereign divisions like States or municipalities are almost as liquid. If sovereign debt is not liquid, nor will be sub-sovereign debt.

 

In India, bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally. Government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios. The same holds *a fortiori* for debt issued by more than two dozen State Governments. “Mutual funds” created in recent years do contain government debt on modern principles of portfolio-selection but amounts involved are small. The Rupee achieving monetary integrity after more than six decades of governmental misuse would be indicated only when any ordinary Indian resident can freely hold or trade India’s money for foreign moneys or precious metals as he/she pleases. India’s economy and money can begin to move towards coherence and integrity only when we put to rest the three relics from the wartime British Raj which we unthinkingly have allowed to dominate our macroeconomic policy-making ever since.

 

The Excel graphs built on my data were made into a nice picture by Business Standard but seem to have been removed from their website, and hence are reproduced here now for the first time today, Oct 2, 2011:

 

See also, more recently,

India’s Money, 2012,

Critical assessments of India’s economic policy, plus my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s money, Interview on Lok Sabha TV 2012, GDI Impuls Zürich Interview, Sunday Guardian Interview & Asian Age/Deccan Herald coverage

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