• Governments As Banks

    The G20 summit seems certain to demonstrate that for most world leaders the conversion to Keynesian economics is no more than skin-deep. The global crisis may have compelled some re-assessment of the “free” market doctrines previously thought to be unchallengeable, but many of those attending the summit are reluctant to accept the responsibilities that a Keynesian approach would require of them.

    It is worth rehearsing therefore what the global recession now demands of governments if we are to avoid a further plunge into full-scale depression. Like so much of Keynes’ approach, the prescription rests on common sense rather than ideological prejudice or mathematical models.

    The key feature of a recession is a shortage of demand or purchasing power in the economy. The danger is that, once that condition applies, it feeds upon itself. Despite the urgings of politicians, individual actors in the economy – both in their personal lives and in their businesses – understand that times are hard and that the economy is flat or shrinking, and they act accordingly in their own self-interest. They cut their personal spending and their business costs. They employ fewer people and they invest less. Their concern is entirely for their individual or family or business interests.

    They cannot be criticised for this. Their behaviour is entirely rational. The problem is that the sum total of all these individual decisions is that the economy shrinks further – a kind of multiplier in reverse.

    An economy left to resolve this for itself will take a long and damaging time to come right. If the process is to be short-circuited, and depression is to be avoided, there is only one agency that is capable of taking effective action. That agency is the government.

    Only governments have the capability and the duty to act in the wider interest, to take decisions that would be directly contrary to their self-interest if they were individuals or businesses, and to act consciously to defy market logic by spending when others can and will not. Governments can afford to do this, if they choose, because their ability to borrow to fund investment for the future is – by the standards of any other agency – virtually unlimited, and their responsibility is not to particular economic actors, like banks or shopkeepers, but to the economy as a whole. They alone can afford to take a long view – long enough to live with a growing deficit while the economy regains its buoyancy.

    It is governments in the end, not banks, who are the funders of last resort. If there was ever any doubt about this, it must surely have been put to rest by the collapse of the banks in most parts of the world, and the taxpayer-funded bail-outs that governments have had to organise. Why, then, are political leaders still so reluctant to recognise that is they, not the banks, who must provide the kind of stimulus to spending that is needed if we are to turn the recession round?

    The reason is that they are still prisoners of the same intellectual straitjacket that created the crisis in the first place. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they are still convinced that the major decisions in the economy should be taken by banks – or the private sector more generally – rather than governments. Even when they have spent billions on bail-outs, and the billions have disappeared into the banks’ balance sheets, they still somehow expect that the banks’ self-interested pursuit of their shareholders’ interests will revive the economy as a whole.

    Old habits die hard. Privately owned banks have been allowed to develop a virtual monopoly of credit creation for more than 200 years. It is such a familiar feature of our landscape that it has been scarcely remarked, even when bank credit became by far the most significant element in the rapid growth of the money supply – and therefore the greatest factor in inflation. The banks’ impact on monetary policy – and the exclusive focus on that monetary policy – was itself a huge abdication of responsibility in favour of private interests. But just to make absolutely sure that the banks would not only monopolise credit creation but would also control monetary policy itself, governments surrendered the task they had been elected to fulfil by handing monetary policy over to an “independent” central bank.

    Our politicians are still at it. We are told that we must give the banks some “breathing space”. That is after they have walked away with billions of our money. It does not seem to have occurred to our political leaders that it was not the interests of bank shareholders and the survival of banks as institutions that mattered. The focus of policy should have been, first, the security of deposits, and secondly, a re-thinking of whether the banking function should remain a private monopoly or should be seen properly as a public responsibility – as, de facto, it has become. If governments – for which read us – have had to put up the money, why should we not call the shots?

    Bryan Gould

    30 March 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 30 March

  • Lessons from the Crisis

    As the global crisis unfolds, the great gurus of the world economy – those who have presided over its fortunes for much of the last two or three decades – have largely ducked for cover. Some – like Alan Greenspan – have had the courage to admit that there was a “flaw” in his thinking. Others – like Gordon Brown – have made an apparently effortless overnight conversion to Keynesian economics after decades of monetarist orthodoxy. A few – like Bernard Madoff – have been unmasked as fraudulent, as well as foolishly irresponsible. But most have watched from the sidelines, silent and confused, as the results of their handiwork have become apparent.

    The immediate task and focus of governments around the world is, of course, to put in place measures which will limit the damage, avoid a depression, and restore the world economy to some semblance of health as soon as possible. In this endeavour, the supposed experts of yesterday necessarily have little to say. It is, after all, their nostrums that have driven us to this point, and the crisis has cruelly exposed the limitations of the monetary policy which they said was all that was needed. What does liquidity matter if no one wants to borrow and spend?

    But, once the authorities have done their best, and the course to recovery of a sort is (hopefully) set, the debate will move on. The issue then will be not so much the steps needed for recovery as the lessons to be learned if the disaster is not to be repeated in the future.

    At that point, we can expect the champions of “free” markets to re-enter the debate. The battle will then be on to write (or re-write) history, and what now seems undeniable will again become hotly contested. There will be no shortage of explanations and excuses for what has happened, ranging from the nonchalant (the crisis was a minor blip in what has otherwise been a triumph for the “free” market) to the aggressively ideological (it was the failures and mistake of governments that frustrated and distorted legitimate market operations).

    It is vital, therefore, that – while reality still imposes itself on perceptions – an account is drawn up of the lessons we must learn from this disastrous episode. Some of those lessons will be widely accepted, but others – even for those who are most critical of the errors of recent times – will be more difficult to digest.

    The crisis has been so damaging and so all-engulfing that it might be argued that virtually nothing of past doctrine can survive. There are some particular lessons, however, that absolutely demand attention. I would select six leading contenders.

    The first and most obvious is that “free” or unregulated markets are extremely dangerous mechanisms which inevitably go wrong. All markets, left unregulated, will produce extremes, and that is particularly true, as Keynes pointed out, of financial markets, because of their inherent instability. The case for regulation cannot be disputed, but even so, the counter-attack will certainly come. The merits of self-regulation, the salutary effects of competition, and the advantages of a “light hand” will again be rolled out in order to deflect any real attempt at disciplining market operators. That is when our public authorities must be strong-minded, and remind themselves that is their responsibility to the public interest that demands effective regulation.

    The second lesson is that government involvement in the management of the economy is essential. After decades of being told that the only thing we should ask of government is that it “get off our backs”, we can now see that it is governments – not banks or the private sector – that, as the authority of last resort, maintain the value of the currency, guarantee appropriate levels of liquidity and credit, and make irreplaceable investments in essential infrastructure. We must not wait again until the eleventh hour before we deploy the power, responsibility and legitimacy of government to keep the economy on the right track.

    The third lesson is that fiscal policy, decided by governments, is more important and effective than monetary policy. We have again been told for decades that monetary policy is all that is necessary, and indeed all that is effective, both in controlling inflation and in setting the real economy on a sustainable course. We now know that using monetary policy to ward off recession is no more effective than pushing on a piece of string and that an exclusive reliance on monetary policy to restrain inflation is just another reflection of the view – now surely discredited – that the markets always get it right.

    My fourth inescapable lesson is that gross imbalances in the world economy will inevitably cause it to topple off the high wire. The growing gap between rich and poor nations is bad enough, from both an economic and moral viewpoint. But the imbalance between surplus and deficit countries is equally damaging as a strictly economic phenomenon. The surpluses drive us toward recession because they represent resources that are hoarded rather than spent, while those countries with deficits are likely, as Keynes pointed out, to try to control them through deflating their economies, thereby reinforcing the deflationary bias. To the extent that others are willing to finance the deficits (as, for example, China’s financing of the US deficit), this simply encourages uneconomic production and an excessive reliance on credit, meaning that the world economy wobbles perilously on an unsustainable foundation.

    A related and fifth lesson is that the freedom to move capital at will around the world has exacted a heavy price. The total removal of exchange controls meant that international investors could ignore and, if necessary, blackmail national governments; this became a major factor in allowing market operators to escape and defy any attempt at regulatory controls. We have to make up our minds whether we trust accountable governments, with all their imperfections, or the unrestrained and totally irresponsible market. Our recent experience surely makes this a no-brainer. What we now need is a new international regime, negotiated between governments, to regulate exchange rate volatility, international lending practices, and the obligations of international investors.

    My final lesson is that bankers should not be trusted with the most important decisions in economic policy. No policy measure was more widely welcomed than the handing of monetary policy over to “independent” central banks. We now have good reason to know that their decisions are not only likely to be wrong, but will certainly be self-serving – no more reliable or impartial than those of casino operators who will always set the odds in their own favour. If we are truly to grapple with the lessons set out above, we need to restore the main decisions of economic policy, including the effective regulation of markets, to democratic control.

    Bryan Gould

    18 January 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 19 January and the New Zealand Herald on 26 January.

  • Yes, There Is An Alternative

    The horror stories keep coming but even so it is doubtful whether we have yet grasped the scale and seriousness of what is happening in the global economy. And, as we stand transfixed by the need to surmount the current crisis, few will lift their eyes to the longer-term implications of what is sure to be a seismic change in the way the global economy operates.

    We do not yet recognise that the imperatives that have driven governments around the world to take steps that would have been unthinkable just a couple of months ago will not lose their force just because the immediate crisis is past. The measures that are now being put in place are essential in the short term, but they also point the way to a post-meltdown future where the world will (hopefully) never be the same again.

    The last couple of weeks have seen the unwilling slaughter of sacred cows to which we have been solemnly assured for nearly three decades “there is no alternative”:

    • Governments must be kept well away from the main levers of economic policy? No. As even George Bush agrees, government action is essential.

    • Monetary policy is all that matters? No. Fiscal policy now takes its proper place in the armoury.

    • Only bankers are to be entrusted with the important decisions in our economy? No. As is apparent to everyone, banks worldwide have been irresponsible, foolish and greedy and their deficiencies mean that they must in many cases be taken into public ownership.

    • “Free” markets must be left unregulated and will always produce the best results? No. The market has failed and created a catastrophe.

    • All that matters is the bottom line? No. The goals of economic activity are wider than profit for a few.

    The truth is, in other words, that if we are to survive the crisis in reasonable shape and look to a better future, we must now abandon the nostrums that have ruled our affairs and have proved so destructive. We need governments to acknowledge their responsibilities, to take a major role in first rescuing and then regulating our economy, to use a much wider range of policy instruments, and to treat markets as hugely valuable servants but dangerous masters. John Maynard Keynes, take a bow!

    We may well be living through one of those seminal moments when the tectonic plates that go to make up the most important debate in modern politics have begun to move. For as long as we have had what might be recognised as an economy – in other words, for 200 years – the pendulum of intellectual fashion has swung between two contrasting views of the proper role of government in managing the economy.

    On the one hand has been the view that governments have very limited capacity to manage the economy. Any pretension to extend that power will not only be self-defeating but also – because of the distorting effect on the proper and unfettered operation of the free market – positively damaging. Governments, according to this view, should limit themselves to those aims – such as the defence of the realm and maintaining the value of the currency – that are their proper concern.

    The other view is that government is a major player in the economy, both as an actor in its own right and as a coordinator of other actors and a maker of policy. It should accept, and perhaps seek and welcome, a responsibility for the performance of the economy – a performance to be measured not just according to monetary criteria but according to real phenomena such as output, employment and investment. The economy will perform better if the power of government is harnessed to the needs and interests of industry, and if government undertakes those functions – such as the provision of major infrastructure – that cannot easily be carried out by private industry.

    This latter view has a significant political dimension as well. If government is to do its job properly, it must use the power of democratic legitimacy to regulate and restrain the market so that society as a whole is protected against the depredations of powerful market operators. This view is on the whole (and not surprisingly) rejected by the right. But it is one of the most surprising and shameful aspects of modern political history that it has also been rejected – and enthusiastically so – by today’s “left”. New Labour has a question or two to answer.

    The lesson of this crisis is that unregulated markets certainly lead to economic disaster; but, even more importantly, they are incompatible with democracy. If markets are always right and must not be challenged, the result is not only economic meltdown but government by a handful of greedy oligarchs rather than by elected representatives. If democratic governments do not, will not or cannot exercise that power to protect their electorates, the course is then set inevitably not only for the crisis we now face but also for the abuses and failures that disfigured our economies in the years preceding the crisis.

    Shouldn’t our politicians be called to account?

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 14 October

  • The Beginning of the End of the Road

    Let’s hear it, for once, for our politicians. It’s not every country that has a Finance Minister with the good sense to recognise a policy dead-end when he sees one and with the courage to try to do something about it.

    The mere prospect of a discussion about a mortgage interest levy is enough to send some people into a panic attack. Those who are ready to consider more complex solutions to difficult problems will always be easy targets for the self-interested and short-sighted. But most thoughtful people will accept that an informed debate about possible alternatives to current orthodoxy is long overdue.

    Spare a thought, for example, for Alan Bollard and the plight in which the Reserve Bank governor finds himself. He is like a doctor who prescribes a drug to treat a fever, only to find that the treatment is less and less effective in controlling the fever, but more and more damaging to the patient’s overall health. What is he to do? Does he continue with the drug, and risk long-term damage to the patient, or does he seek a different and more effective treatment?

    Most commentators now expect that a commitment to monetarist orthodoxy will require an early hike in interest rates. This can only be regarded as a counsel of despair. The outcome of such a step is all too predictable – an inflow of “hot money” producing a further rise in an already over-valued dollar, a further loss of productive capacity, a further (and unsustainable) worsening of our current account, and the certainty that the day of reckoning, when it comes, will be terrible.

    Yet, for as long as current orthodoxy remains dominant, he has no other option. The across-the-board raising of interest rates is his only weapon, even though it is increasingly ineffective and increasingly damaging.

    We do not need to look far for the reasons. Much is made of the high proportion of New Zealanders with fixed-rate mortgages who are therefore insulated against the immediate effects of rate rises. I believe, however, that the problems are more deep-seated than this.

    The New Zealand economy is now, as most commentators recognise, and as a consequence of decades of monetarist orthodoxy, seriously out of balance. The reality (and when not actual, the prospect) of an overvalued currency has meant increasingly a low-productivity, low-profit productive sector. The housing sector, by contrast, has been buoyant and a much more attractive prospect for investment. That has produced its own momentum. The higher house prices go, the more convinced people are that housing is the best investment, and the buoyant demand pushes house prices higher again.

    In this scenario, interest rate rises are not only unhelpful to the counter-inflationary battle. They threaten to make matters worse. They raise the costs of building and buying houses, but so buoyant is the housing market that that cost increase is painlessly absorbed into the price structure, and provides a further fillip to rising prices.

    If Alan Bollard is to bring that process under control, he will have to raise interest rates to dizzying levels, sufficient to stop economic activity dead in its tracks. The price for relying on across-the-board interest rate hikes in order to control inflation is, in other words, a further and debilitating blow to the health of our overall economy.

    Those who are already squealing at the (still remote) prospect of new measures like a mortgage rate levy should recognise, in other words, that the alternative to new thinking is not “do nothing”. The only other option is a general rise in interest rates, which will still raise mortgage payments for home-owners, but will also threaten economic activity on the grand scale. Those who fear for their homes will have to look to their jobs as a well.

    It is very much to the credit of Michael Cullen and Alan Bollard that they have had the intellectual and political fortitude to think the hitherto unthinkable. New Zealand is probably the first advanced country in the world to have first committed itself to monetarist orthodoxy, then tested it virtually to destruction, recognised its limitations, and then dared to contemplate better ways of doing things.

    No one is saying that monetary policy should be abandoned as a counter-inflationary instrument. But the old simple certainties – that controlling the money supply through regulating its price was an effective and painless way of controlling inflation – have now been fatally undermined. A mortgage interest rate levy may or may not prove to be useful, but selective measures and fiscal policy will surely now play a larger role. A new era has begun.

    Bryan Gould
    9 February 2007