Causes of the Crisis

Critical Review has started a new blog “Causes of the Crisis” featuring contributors to the journal’s stellar issue on the topic. The papers in CRs special issue add up to the best and most comprehensive autopsy of the financial collapse available anywhere. The blog looks terrific too. Some excerpts…

David Colander:

Using models within economics or within any other social science, is especially treacherous. That’s because social science involves a higher degree of complexity than the natural sciences. The reason why social science is so complex is that the basic unit in social science, which economists call agents, are strategic, whereas the basic unit of the natural sciences are not. Economics can be thought of the physics with strategic atoms, who keep trying to foil any efforts to understand them and bring them under control. Strategic agents complicate modeling enormously; they make it impossible to have a perfect model since they increase the number of calculations one would have to make in order to solve the model beyond the calculations the fastest computer one can hypothesize could process in a finite amount of time.


This recognition that the economy is complex is not a new discovery. Earlier economists, such as John Stuart Mill, recognized the economy’s complexity and were very modest in their claims about the usefulness of their models. They carefully presented their models as aids to a broader informed common sense. They built this modesty into their policy advice and told policy makers that the most we can expect from models is half-truths. To make sure that they did not claim too much for their scientific models, they divided the field of economics into two branches—one a scientific branch, which worked on formal models, and the other political economy, which was the branch of economics that addressed policy. Political economy was seen as an art which did not have the backing of science, but instead relied on the insights from models developed in the scientific branch supplemented by educated common sense to guide policy prescriptions.

In the early 1900s that two-part division broke down, and economists became a bit less modest in their claims for models, and more aggressive in their application of models directly to policy questions. The two branches were merged, and the result was a tragedy for both the science of economics and for the applied policy branch of economics.

Vernon Smith:

Hayek made a similar charge [to Krugman’s in his long NYT piece] in his Nobel Lecture of December 11, 1974, The Pretence of Knowledge:

… the economists are at this moment called upon to say how to extricate the free world from the serious threat of accelerating inflation which, it must be admitted, has been brought about by policies which the majority of economists recommended and even urged governments to pursue. We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: as a profession we have made a mess of things.

Although Hayek saw the problem as stemming from an inappropriate “scientistic” attitude, he explicitly wanted “…to avoid giving the impression that I generally reject the mathematical method in economics.” Rather, his main message was that

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible…The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

Economic scientists have precious little understanding of this rule governed complex order, and how to keep it on its demonstrated long term path of growth and human betterment without suffering too irreparably from the kind of unpredictable reverses that we are now mired in. Less pretence and a commitment to learn from the new data being generated as I write, will be both humbling and informative, after the inevitable human political impulse to blame one’s long standing political adversaries has run its course.

I look forward to posts from the other contributors.

Ezra Klein on Consumption, Debt, and Inequality

Ezra and I chatted a bit on Bloggingheads about the ideas in his post replying to a bit of my paper, but I had yet to read the post, my response was off-the-cuff, and I think I can do better.

So, I noted in my paper that nominal consumption inequality has increased much less than income inequality (and I go on to argue that real consumption inequality may have dropped). Ezra says:

You’d think the fact that our ears are still ringing from the deafening “pop!” of the consumption bubble would, in some way, impact this analysis. But it doesn’t. Nor does the word “debt.” But that’s how many households have kept their consumption high amid widespread wage stagnation.

Megan McArdle posted an excellent reply, for which I am grateful:

I think it’s easy to overstate the contribution of debt, for two reasons.  First, many of the discussions on consumption equality focus on the poor, who were still relatively credit constrained even at the height of the bubble.  And second, income inequality figures exclude both taxes and government benefits.  Things like the EITC and Section 8 vouchers really have made a quite substantial improvement in the ability of the poor to consume.

So I don’t think we actually know how much of a difference consumer credit made to equalizing consumption between rich and poor.  I suspect that the continued mechanization of formerly labor-intensive tasks has made a greater difference, but then you’d expect me to say that.  The data we want will not be available for several years, especially since period immediately following the financial crisis will be very atypical*, and therefore not useful in assessing the longer term trend.

Let me add that I don’t think pre-recession wage stagnation has been exactly widespread. It has been suprisingly focused on low-skill, male workers. Also, to be exactish, money wages can stagnate or fall while total compensation rises. And total labor-market compensation can stagnate or fall while total disposable income, including government transfers, increases. (Additionally, income from “informal” markets tends to be under-reported, but likely shows up in consumption surveys.) So, as Megan points out, a steady level of consumption for a household with stagnant wages (and no savings) needn’t imply increasing debt. That said, I suspect many lower-income households have over recent years increased their level of debt, and I suspect that this has played some small role in keeping consumption inequality in check. But we shouldn’t infer from the bust following the boom that this was mostly “bad” debt. I think improved access to formal credit markets has been a net plus for lower-income households. And even if some of this increase in debt took the form of sub-prime mortgages, not all of that turned out bad.

More to the point, the economy tanked due to a burst housing bubble. I agree that there was, in some relatively clear sense, overconsumption of houses–a good generally bought on credit. The reasons for this are many, but first among them is that the government, in many ways, rather encouraged house-buying. The economy-wide delusion about the long-term trend of housing prices seems to have been both a cause and effect of the bubble, as well as a cause of highly unrealistic individual/household estimates of wealth that could safely be borrowed against now. So, yeah, lots of people who wrongly thought they were house-rich ran up their credit cards. I think it’s safe to say that there was “too much” debt-financed consumption. But I would hazard to guess that, on the whole, this would tend to widen rather than narrow the income and consumption gaps. As I note in my latest column for The Week:

“High-income households are highly exposed to aggregate booms and busts,” report Northwestern University economists Jonathan A. Parker and Annette Vissing-Jorgensen in a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They estimate that our current bust is hitting the income and consumption of households in the top 20 percent of income earners significantly harder than the households in the 80 percent below. And the higher up the distribution you go, the harder the hit is likely to be.

That incomes at the top are now so sensitive to aggregate consumption (it didn’t use to be that way, Parker and VIssing-Jorgensen say) would seem to at least partly explain the coincidence of very high average debt-levels and high levels of inequality that Ezra emphasizes later in his post.

Folks were running up their credit cards because they thought they were house-rich. They thought they were house-rich because they were in the middle of a housing boom that made the current and future value of their houses look a lot higher than they really were. Those with compensation schemes highly sensitive to changes in aggregate demand–high income households–saw a disproportionate rise in already high income as consumption boomed. So income inquality went up. And now they same households have likely seen a rapid drop as consumption has fallen off a cliff. So income inequality went down. At least that’s part of the story. And it remains conjectural until the relevant stats finally roll it. (Also, I think it remains that the primary cause of rising income inequality has been the rise in returns to human capital investment [pdf], and that hasn’t gone anywhere.)

So, I think Ezra is probably right to suspect some kind of correlation between high levels of income inequality and high levels of average indebtedness. Both levels partially reflect the housing-bubble-driven boom in consumption. But I don’t think it would be right to imply (as Ezra seems to in his post) that the high level of inequality somehow independently contributed to the crash.

How the Promise of Future Subsidies Can Freeze Markets

I think Casey Mulligan nails it:

The [Chicago city] council has debated mandating hybrid purchases. But the rumor among taxi drivers is that in addition, or perhaps instead, the city or other government agency will eventually subsidize the purchase of a hybrid.

Drivers have decided that they should not purchase a Prius or other hybrid until the subsidy arrived. Buying one now would mean over-paying.

Regardless of whether it is realistic to expect Chicago to someday subsidize purchases of hybrid taxis, the fact is that some cab drivers are considering the possibility. If taxi drivers consider future subsidies in their industry, then so must bank executives.

Last fall the public learned that banks were not selling many of their legacy mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, despite the impression that ownership of the assets were hindering the banks’ lending. A variety of theories have been put forward to explain this failure, and to suggest what the government might do to fix it.

But the lack of trade in mortgage-backed securities may have something in common with the lack of trade in hybrid Chicago taxicabs. The secondary market for legacy mortgages may have stagnated largely because of the (ultimately correct) anticipation of a huge government subsidy.

Taleb's Ten Principles

To prevent future crashes. I think most of these are pretty good. Explanations for each principle in Taleb’s FT piece

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning 

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

Dani Rodrik on Simon Johnson

Of Johnson’s widely cited and highly regarded Atlantic piece, Rodrik writes:

Simon’s account is based on a very simple, and I believe misguided, theory of politics and economics.  It is an odd marriage of populist and technocratic visions.  Countries fail because political elites always end up in bed with economic elites.  The solution, apparently, is to let the technocrats (read the IMF) run your affairs.

On the whole, I think I side more strongly with Rodrik than Johnson. (I find it hard to have a firm opinion in these matters.) That said, perhaps it’s “populist” to think political elites always end up in bed with economic elites, but it seems, as a matter of fact, they often do. My opinion is that a certain “populist” enthusiasm for democracy, in the absence of strong legal and cultural constraints on government action, almost inevitably delivers a great deal of regulatory capture–that is, tucks political elites snugly in bed with corporate elites. Isn’t that a cynical vision? Moreover, when the incentives of insufficiently-limited democracies lead to this kind of result, supra-national technocratic institutions can in fact act as a salutary check on governments precisely because they are undemocratic.

Free Exchange’s Washington blogger seems to have something like this in mind:

Of course, the IMF can’t hold America’s feet to the fire in the way that the WTO can. But the WTO achieved that power, in part, because American leaders wanted an outside force to be able to tie their hands, so they could shrug at angry voters and say, “Sorry, them’s the rules”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see national leaders constrained in crisis response by domestic politics seeking to empower the IMF in the near term.

That’s a really interesting thought. Now, I am not, and have never been, the biggest fan of the IMF and Rodrik is right that it’s weird for Johnson to talk about the Fund as if everyone knows all about its totally awesome track record. That’s just a little too convenient for Johnson, an old IMF hand. Nevertheless, it’s not crazy to look for a disciplining force external to national democratic politics when the interest group dynamics of national democratic politics has helped create the problem and persist in blocking the solution.

Galbraith: Listen to Galbraith or the Economy Gets It!

James K. Galbraith’s Washington Monthly piece “No Return to Normal” is a mix of the completely sensible (propping up bad banks is a recipe for further looting by insiders and more stupid risk-taking) and a totally crazy conviction that modern states are economically magical institutions. That is, it is a James K. Galbraith piece. Here is some crazy:

Apart from cash—protected by deposit insurance and now desperately being conserved—the American middle class finds today that its major source of wealth is the implicit value of Social Security and Medicare—illiquid and intangible but real and inalienable in a way that home and equity values are not. And so it will remain, as long as future benefits are not cut.

Yes, 401(k)s are down, and Galbraith’s thesis seems to be that they always will be unless… guess what? But, okay, suppose he’s right and there is no recovery if we fail to embrace James K. Galbraithianism. In what crazy world does the economy both (a) fail to recover and (b) the government make good on already completely infeasible entitlement commitments? And how bizarre is it to say in the space of two sentences that a source of wealth is “real and inalienable” just as long as benefits are not cut through the democratic process — which of course they can be and probably must be if Galbraith is right about the likelihood of a no-recovery future. If voters can lose some portion of future government transfers by voting for politicians who vote them away, then those transfers are obviously alienable. (The courts clearly say there is no legal right whatsoever to these transfers.) And alienable future transfers from the government that are conditional on political will and economic feasibility are about as “real” as my future lovechild with Gisele Bundchen. Does anyone have an interpretation of Galbraith’s passage that makes sense?

He later goes on to claim, amazingly, that increasing spending on Social Security is “an economic recovery ace in the hole.” So the best I can do is guess that Galbraith is incoherently shuffling back and forth from a scenario in which we don’t use his “ace in the hole” (investments and home values worthless forever!) and one in which we do (Social Security checks good as gold.) But that’s hardly fair, is it? 

A main theme of Galbraith’s article is that things are so bad that mainstream economics can be of no assistance, so you’ve got to go heterodox. But he says nothing to clarify why, if we must abandon the consensus views of professional economics, one should prefer Galbraithianism over other departures from othodoxy. He seems to infer his own views from the alleged failure of standard views. It is rather gentle to note that that doesn’t follow. For example:

In short, if we are in a true collapse of finance, our models will not serve. It is then appropriate to reach back, past the postwar years, to the experience of the Great Depression. And this can only be done by qualitative and historical analysis. Our modern numerical models just don’t capture the key feature of that crisis—which is, precisely, the collapse of the financial system.

I largely agree about the inapplicability of many models, but it’s not at all obvious that the experience of the Great Depression is more rather than less applicable than those models. The Depression was a long time ago. The economy was a lot different then. If one is going to do “qualitative and historical analysis” then it seems that recent collpases in the financial systems of other countries are rather more germane. Why not look at those instead of reaching back “past the postwar years”? Because there’s some ineffable but essential Americanness to the American economy? Galbraith actually seems to think so, which is why one must look away from the examples of Argentina and Indonesia! This seems arbitrary and I don’t get it. Of course, if we go back to the Great Depression, we just become mired in competing “qualitative and historical” analyses, which in reality tends to sound a lot like “Must destroy Amity Shlaes!!!” And that’s obviously a lot more intellectually rigorous and helpful than stupid mainstream economists with their stupid mainstream models.

The Opportunity Cost of the Bailouts

Richard Florida offers some insight

The bailouts and stimulus, while they may help at the margins, also pose an enormous opportunity costs.  One the one hand, they impede necessary and long-deferred economic adjustments. The auto and auto-related industries suffer from massive over-capacity and must shrink.  The housing bubble not only helped spur the financial crisis, it also produced an enormous mis-allocation of resources. Housing prices must come a lot further down before we can reset the economy – and consumer demand – for a new round of growth. The financial and banking sector grew massively bloated – in terms of employment, share of GDP and wages, as the detailed research of NYU’s Thomas Phillipon has shown – and likewise have to come back to earth.

On the other hand,  there is the classic question: What better and more effective things might have been done with these trillions?  That’s for historians to ponder and decide. But the combination of the massively misallocated resources produced by the bubble (plus the costs of military adventures)  combined with humongous bailout spending puts the US behind the economic eight-ball in a way it has not been in more than the century. Having hold on the reserve currency helps, but it cannot absolve all these compounded sins.  Sooner or later the money will run out; bills will come due.

That creates a wide open structural opportunity to accelerate what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed the “rise of the rest” to accelerate.  Crises are periods where the relative position of nations and regions can and do  change dramatically.   (Do I think the US will lose its hegemonic position: Of course not.  My hunch is that the US is in the same position structurally as England at the onset of the Long Depression of 1873.  It was not until the next major crisis – the Great Depression of 1929 and the onset of WWII that it lost its position  [to] the United States. So worst case: The US has one more long-cycle at the top of the heap).   But, just think of all the ways the trillions of bailout money could be used to build the economy of the future. And while you’re doing that imagine that some other places … that have been patiently building and conserving their resources may start to figure out how to do just that.

I don’t give a fig about the U.S.’s relative position, but I do care about the absolute level of welfare and thus the absolute level of innovation and it is here that I worry about the costs of American decline.

Can Obama Lead the U.S. Out of Recession?

Russ Roberts rightly says “no,” and also strikes the right note of professional modesty:

So it’s a time for humility rather than hubris in my profession. Obama’s economic team, for all its brain power and good intentions, is in uncharted territory. There’s no recipe or manual or roadmap for getting the economy back on track. No one is quite sure how to correct imbalances in financial markets and the housing market. And no one knows how to create confidence, the biggest element lacking in the current economic climate.

No man or woman runs the economy. No man or woman or team of people can possibly plan the evolution of the economy in the coming months. America will come out of the recession but the time and pace are unknown. Obama can help. But he can just as easily slow down any recovery. Some part of the current mess we’re in is the result of erratic government policy that has added to the uncertainty facing consumer, investors, and entrepreneurs.

I certainly don’t mind aggregate demand economics as long as folks realize the limits of the stuff. I take it that one of the main lessons of living macro is that a stable framework of well-wrought rules tends to do better in the long run than periodic attempts to trick folks with the government’s amazing money-printing and money rearranging powers. I think this sort of thing would get through to people better if it were possible to to communciate the economy’s strategic micro-foundations: an economy is a massive, immensely complex coordination game. Maybe we’d like to think that there are Big Chiefs with scalpels and tweezers for fingers, but the fact is Big Chiefs have hams for hands. If the economy is a glassed-in ant colony and a recession is a confusion of non-connecting tunnels then “corrective” government intervention is banging the glass with a fat fist, like Fonzie banging a Jukebox. Barack Obama may be one cool cat, but the government ain’t no Fonzie. Mostly you get disoriented ants.

John Cochrane on Keynesianism

I’m not sure how to link soley to John Cochrane’s contribution to the Delong v. Zingales debate, so I’ll just reprint it here:

Nobody is Keynesian now, really. Keynes distrusted investment and did not think about growth. Now, we all understand that growth, fuelled by higher productivity, is the key to prosperity. Keynes and his followers famously did not understand inflation, leading to the stagflation of the 1970s. We now understand the links between money and inflation, and the natural rate of unemployment below which inflation will rise. A few months before his death in 1946 Keynes declared:1 “I find myself more and more relying for a solution of our problems on the invisible hand [of the market] which I tried to eject from economics twenty years ago.” His ejection attempt failed. We all now understand the inescapable need for markets and price signals, and the sclerosis induced by high marginal tax rates, especially on investment. Keynes recommended that Britain pay for the second world war with taxes. We now understand that it is best to finance wars by borrowing, so as to spread the disincentive effects of taxes more broadly over time.

Really, the only remaining Keynesian question is a resurrection of fiscal stimulus, the idea that governments should borrow trillions of dollars and spend them quickly to address our current economic problems. We professional economists  are certainly not all in favour. For example, several hundred economists quickly signed the CATO Institute’s letter2opposing fiscal stimulus. 

Why not? Most of all, modern economics gives very little reason to believe that fiscal stimulus will do much to raise output or lower unemployment. How can borrowing money from A and giving it to B do anything? Every dollar that B spends is a dollar that A does not spend.3 The basic Keynesian analysis of this question is simply wrong. Professional economists abandoned it 30 years ago when Bob Lucas, Tom Sargent and Ed Prescott pointed out its logical inconsistencies. It has not appeared in graduate programmes or professional journals since. Policy simulations from Keynesian models disappeared as well, and even authors who call themselves Keynesian authors do not believe explicit models enough to use them. New Keynesian economics produces an interesting analysis of monetary policy focused on interest rate rules, not a resurrection of fiscal stimulus. 

Our situation is remarkable. Imagine that an august group of Nobel-prize-winning scientists and government advisers on climate change were to say: “Yes, global warming has been all the rage for 30 years, but all these whippersnappers with their fancy computer models, satellite measurements and stacks of publications in unintelligible academic journals have lost touch with the real world. We still believe the world is headed for an ice age, just as we were taught as undergraduates back in the 1960s.” Who would seem out of touch in that debate? Yet this is exactly where we stand with fiscal stimulus. 

Robert Barro’s Ricardian equivalence theorem was one nail in the coffin. This theorem says that stimulus cannot work because people know their taxes must rise in the future. Now, one can argue with that result. Perhaps more people ignore the fact that taxes will go up than overestimate those tax increases. But once enlightened, we cannot ignore this central question. We cannot return to mechanically adding up today’s consumption, investment and export demands, and prescribe the government demand necessary to attain some desired level of output. Every economist now knows that to get stimulus to work, at a minimum, government must fool people into forgetting about future taxes, an issue Keynes and Keynesians never thought of. It also raises the fascinating question of why our Keynesian government is so loudly announcing large and distortionary tax increases if it wants stimulus to work.
There is little empirical evidence to suggest that stimulus will work either. Empirical work without a plausible mechanism is always suspect, and work here suffers desperately from the correlation problem. Quack medicine seems to work, because people take it when they are sick. We do know three things. First, countries that borrow a lot and spend a lot do not grow quickly. Second, we have had credit crunches periodically for centuries, and most have passed quickly without stimulus. Whether the long duration of the great depression was caused or helped by stimulus is still hotly debated. Third, many crises have been precipitated by too much government borrowing. 

Neither fiscal stimulus nor conventional monetary policy (exchanging government debt for more cash) diagnoses or addresses the central problem: frozen credit markets. Policy needs first of all to focus on the credit crunch. Rebuilding credit markets does not lend itself to quick fixes that sound sexy in a short op-ed or a speech, but that is the problem, so that is what we should focus on fixing. 

The government can also help by not causing more harm. The credit markets are partly paralysed by the fear of what great plan will come next. Why buy bank stock knowing that the next rescue plan will surely wipe you out, and all the legal rights that defend the value of your investment could easily be trampled on? And the government needs to keep its fiscal powder dry. When the crisis passes, our governments will have to try to soak up vast quantities of debt without causing inflation. The more debt there is, the harder that will be.

Of course we are not all Keynesians now. Economics is, or at least tries to be, a science, not a religion. Economic understanding does not lie in a return to eternal verities written down in long , convoluted old books, or in the wisdom of fondly remembered sages, whether Keynes, Friedman or even Smith himself. Economics is a live and active discipline, and it is no disrespect to Keynes to say that we have learned a lot in 70 years. Let us stop talking about labels and appealing to long dead authorities. Let us instead apply the best of modern economics to talk about what has a chance of working in the present situation and why. 

Here is some Keynesian wisdom I think we should accept. 

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

“How can I accept the doctrine, which sets up as its bible, above and beyond criticism, an obsolete textbook which I know not only to be scientifically erroneous but without interest or application to the modern world?”

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

I think Cochrane is right about bizarre denialist flavor of the recent vogue for undead Keynesianism and — about  most other stuff, too. But I’d also like to see him acknowledge the limits of post-Lucas macro modeling as well. I think the lesson for the economics profession is now pretty clear. Macroeconomics that is useful for policymaking needs to (1) include a lot more political economy and (2) work from more empirically-grounded behavioral assumptions. That is to say, it would be nice to see more top-flight economists like Cochrane acknowledging that macro policy is politics and that people act like people. I suppose doing this would make the math seem impossible, but nobody ever said science was easy.

Christina Romer's Six Lessons

David Frum’s new column for The Week nicely lays out what the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors really thinks of the administration’s economic policy: 

Invited by a reporter Monday to criticize President Obama’s economic plans, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, naturally brushed the question aside. “You want me to tell you what’s wrong with the fiscal stimulus package?” she said. “SO not going to do that!” 
Too late! As it happens, the lecture Romer had just finished delivering at the Brookings Institute on Monday afternoon was criticism enough. 
An expert on the Great Depression, Romer organized her lecture around six lessons distilled from the era. The administration she serves seems to be disregarding every one of them. 

Read the rest for the lessons.