Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Great Repression (aka the Keynesian Delusion)

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who just finished a massive book on the history of money, and who doesn't represent any extreme ideological position either left or right, writes:

It began as a sub-prime surprise, then became a credit crunch and is now a global financial crisis. At last week's World Economic Forum at Davos there was much retrospective finger-pointing--Russia and China blamed America, everyone blamed the bankers, the bankers blamed everyone--but little in the way of forward-looking ideas. From where I was sitting, the majority of attendees were still stuck in the Great Repression: deeply anxious, but fundamentally in denial about the nature and magnitude of the problem.

There is something desperate about the way people on both sides of the Atlantic are clinging to their dog-eared copies of John Maynard Keynes's General Theory. Uneasily aware that their discipline almost entirely failed to anticipate the current crisis, economists seemed to be regressing to macroeconomic childhood, clutching the multiplier like an old teddy bear.

The harsh reality that is being repressed is this: the Western world is suffering a crisis of excessive indebtedness. Many governments are too highly leveraged, as are many corporations. More importantly, households are groaning under unprecedented debt burdens. Average household sector debt has reached 141 per cent of disposable income in the United States and 177 per cent in the United Kingdom. Worst of all are the banks. Some of the best-known names in American and European finance have balance sheets forty, sixty or even a hundred times the size of their capital. Average U.S. investment bank leverage was above 25 to 1 at the end of 2008. Eurozone bank leverage was more than 30 to 1. British bank balance sheets are equal to a staggering 440 per cent of gross domestic product.

The delusion that a crisis of excess debt can be solved by creating more debt is at the heart of the Great Repression. Yet that is precisely what most governments currently propose to do.

The born-again Keynesians seem to have forgotten that their prescription stood the best chance of working in a more or less closed economy. But this is a globalized world, where uncoordinated profligacy by national governments is more likely to generate bond market and currency market volatility than a return to growth. After all, a rising proportion of U.S. public and private borrowing since 2000 has been financed from foreign sources, as a result of negligible domestic saving. The dramatic contraction of world trade means the end of the process of Asian and Middle Eastern reserve accumulation that previously funded American deficits. Already foreign investors are net sellers of long-term U.S. securities. Soon it is going to become painfully clear that new debt is not the solution, but could in fact make matters worse by driving up long-term rates, or pushing down the dollar to the point that Europe and Japan can justly accuse the Americans of "currency manipulation."

There is a better way to go, but is in the opposite direction. The aim must be not to increase debt, but to reduce it. In past debt crises--which usually affected emerging market sovereign debt--this tended to happen in one of two ways. If, say, Argentina had an excessively large domestic debt, denominated in Argentine currency, it could be inflated away. If it was an external debt, then the government simply defaulted on payments and forced the creditors to accept a rescheduling of debt and principal payments.
Today, Argentina is us. Former investment banks and German universal banks are Argentina. American households are Argentina. But it will not be so easy for us to inflate away our debts. The deflationary pressures unleashed by the financial crisis are too strong (consumer prices in the U.S. have now been falling for three consecutive months; the annualized rate of decline for the last quarter of 2008 was minus 12.7 per cent.)

The second step we need to take is a generalized conversion of American mortgages to lower-interest rates and longer maturities. Currently around 2.3 million U.S. households face foreclosure. That number is certain to rise. For example, $97 billion of $200 billion of option adjustable-rate mortgages will reset in the next two years. The average monthly payment will increase by more than 60 per cent. As a result, up to 8 million households could be driven into foreclosure, driving down home prices even further. Few of those affected have any realistic prospect of refinancing at more affordable rates. So, once again, what is needed is state intervention.

Americans, Churchill once remarked, will always do the right thing--after they have exhausted all the other alternatives. But if we are still waiting for Keynes to save us when Davos comes around next year, it may well be too late. Only a Great Restructuring can end the Great Repression. It needs to happen soon.

I'm hoping that Obama's economists will listen to Ferguson and other voices of common sense.

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