Posts Tagged ‘crisis’

Every time someone like David Leonhardt [ht: ja] writes a review of economic ideas and texts, I realize how narrow their conception of economics truly is—and how, once again, I and many of my friends and colleagues are simply defined out of the discussion.

In the beginning, for Leonhardt, there was Adam Smith. Then, somewhat later, we have the classical liberalism of the Chicago school and the flexible models of Dani Rodrick (who, in his book, refers to Milton Friedman as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest economists”). All three the New York Times writer distinguishes from the contemporary economists Lanny Ebenstein refers as the “utopians working toward and often living in a mythical land, ‘Libertania’”—the contemporary right-wing libertarians.

For writers like Leonhardt, that’s pretty much the beginning and end of economics, the limits of the discipline and of the debate. Everything and everyone else fall outside the walls he and many economists are so intent on erecting and policing.

It’s a view of economic theory focused entirely on markets, as if there are no other ways human beings, now and historically, have organized economic life. It’s a view of economic policy that celebrates markets, with a modicum of government intervention, as if more free-market and more government-regulated forms of capitalism are the limits of the debate of the possible.

That’s the narrow definition of economics that emerges from Ebenstein’s and Rodrick’s books and from Leonhardt’s approving review of those books. Ultimately, it amounts to a call for moderation—in theory and policy—which reduces the relevant debate to one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics.

What Leonhardt and Co. refuse to acknowledge is that mainstream economic theory and policy are what got us into the current mess in the first place, and that mainstream economists have had no answer to the current crises of capitalism—except to impose even more suffering on workers and the vast majority of people in order to attempt to engineer their particular notion of recovery.

In the end, mainstream economists are the real utopians, who imagine that capitalism works (or can be made to work) by being modeled in and through the correct economic theories, which they alone possess.

René Magritte,

René Magritte, “Song of the Storm” (1937)

Are we seeing the signs of a global economic meltdown?

Marxist and other radical economists often remind people of the inherent instability of capitalism—unlike their mainstream counterparts, who tend to focus on equilibrium and the invisible hand of free markets.

But, right now, the warnings about new sources of instability are coming from quarters that are anything but radical. And they’re all saying pretty much the same thing: National monetary policy is increasingly ineffective. Central banks are largely impotent. The IMF points to increased global economic risk because of impossible amounts of debt that will never be repaid. Creditors are way too overextended. Finance capital is out of control. Growth everywhere is threatened. China and emerging-market nations are mostly to “blame.” And so on and so forth.

Here’s a recent sample of three recent articles [ht: ja]: from the BBC, Reuters, and the Guardian.

Andrew Walker (for the BBC) cites the latest IMF World Economic Outlook, according to which emerging and developing economies will register slowing growth in 2015 for the fifth consecutive year, to argue that (a) economic growth in China is slowing down (and helping to pull down the rest of the world, both directly and indirectly) and (b) lackluster growth in rich countries is failing to pull the rest of the world along. In addition, according to the latest IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report, the explosion of dollar-denominated credit in recent years, along with the rise in the value of the dollar, is going to make it difficult to repay those debts, a growing problem which is in turn exacerbated by the reverse “flight to safety” of financial capital. And then, of course, there are the negative effects—in Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, and elsewhere—of falling oil prices.

David Chance (for Reuters) cites the recent report by the Group of Thirty according to which low interest-rate rates and money creation not only were not sufficient to revive economic growth, but risked becoming problems in their own right.

The flow of easy money has inflated asset prices like stocks and housing in many countries even as they failed to stimulate economic growth. With growth estimates trending lower and easy money increasing company leverage, the specter of a debt trap is now haunting advanced economies.

At the same time, we’re listening to a growing chorus, at least in the United States (first from Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard and then Fed governor Daniel Tarullo) against the prospect of changing central bank policy and raising interest-rates anytime soon.

Finally, Will Hutton (for the Guardian) warns that capital flight and bank fragility threaten to create new asset bubbles and the eventual bursting of such bubbles—and there’s no prospect of global coordination to prevent the resulting economic dislocations.*

The emergence of a global banking system means central banks are much less able to monitor and control what is going on. And because few countries now limit capital flows, in part because they want access to potential credit, cash generated out of nothing can be lent in countries where the economic prospects look superficially good. This provokes floods of credit, rather like the movements of refugees.

The upshot? My view is these three commentators are on to something, backed up by the research taking place within the IMF and other international entities. Clearly, they are concerned that the anarchy of production—the anarchy of both “real” production and of finance, within and across countries—and the absence of any new ways for central bankers to regulate that anarchy are creating new fissures and cracks within the global economy.

The problem of course is, the same search for profits mainstream economists and policymakers hoped would lead the recovery from the crash of 2007-08, along with the initially hesitant and then increasingly desperate measures central bankers have adopted to enhance the prospect of that search, now seems to be undermining that fragile recovery.

That’s the gathering storm they—and we—should be worried about.

*I do have one bone to pick with Hutton, who argues that excessive credit is created by banks lending out money based on existing deposits, which in turn is based on “the truth that not all depositors will want their money back simultaneously.” The latter may be the case but Hutton gets the order wrong: it’s bank credit that creates deposits (like fairy dust), not the collection of deposits that serves as the basis for the expansion of credit.


As readers know, I have long been referring to the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 as the Second Great Depression. Best I can tell, on this blog, since at least October 2010.

Apparently, at least one other economist—none other than Ben Bernanke [ht: ja]—agrees with me.

Just one year after Ben Bernanke became Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the economic alarm bells started going off. Now, a year after leaving the Fed behind, Bernanke is putting the crisis into perspective — HIS perspective.

He described the financial crisis as “the “worst in human history.”

Worse than the Depression? “The financial crisis itself, the collapse of asset prices, the near-collapse of so many large financial institutions, in my view, was a worse crisis than even what we saw in 1929, 1930.”

The summer of 2008 saw panic across the globe.

“If you look at the major financial firms, most of them either failed or came close to failing or needed some kind of help,” he said.

“And it would have taken down the entire economy,” said O’Donnell.

“It did!”

Just sayin’. . .


Harmen de Hoop and Jan Ubøe, “Permanent Education (a mural about the beauty of knowledge)” (Nuart 2015, Stavanger, Norway)

Ubøe, Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at the Norwegian School Of Economics, gives a 30-minute lecture on the streets of Stavanger on the subject of option pricing.

Drawing on Black and Scholes explanation of how to price options, Ubøe will explain how banks can eliminate risk when they issue options. Black and Scholes explained how banks (by trading continuously in the market) can meet their obligations no matter what happens. The option price is the minimum amount of money that a bank needs to carry out such a strategy.

While the core argument is perfectly sound, it has an interesting flaw. If the market suddenly makes a jump, i.e. reacts so fast that the bank does not have sufficient time to reposition their assets, the bank will be exposed to risk. This flaw goes a long way to explain the devastating financial crisis.

This theory, and similar other theories, led banks to believe that risk no longer existed, so why not lend money to whoever is in need of money? In the end the losses peaked at 13,000 billion dollars – more than the total profits from banking since the dawn of time.

My guess is, most of the members of the audience did not understand the mathematics. However, Ubøe assures them it works—both as a form of knowledge (the manipulation of the mathematics) and as a strategy for banks (to eliminate risk)—and they can’t but believe him. It has a kind of beauty.

And then he explains that other effect of the math: it led banks to believe they had found a way of eliminating risk (because, like the audience, they believed the mathematicians), which fell apart when markets made sudden jumps and the traders weren’t able to reposition their assets quickly enough.

In that case, the beauty of the knowledge is undermined by the ugliness of the results.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 3 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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Oldie but goodie. . .


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