From a new NBER working paper on the “Economic Effects of Runs on Early ‘Shadow Banks’” in the 1907 panic:
Using newly collected data, we find that corporations with close ties to the trust companies that faced severe runs experienced an immediate decline in their stock price, and performed worse in the years following the panic: they earned fewer profits and paid fewer dividends, and faced higher interest rates on their debt. Consistent with the notion that information asymmetries aggravated the consequences of the contraction of credit intermediation, these effects were largest for smaller firms and for industrials, whose collateral was more difficult to value than that of railroads.
Q: You make a lot of references to old economic thinkers like Smith, Keynes and so on. However, if you look at the current economic research that is published in the journals and taught at universities, the history of economic thought does not play a big role anymore…
A: Yes, absolutely. The history of economic thought has been woefully neglected by the profession in the last decades. This has been one of the major mistakes of the profession. One of the earliest reminders that we are going in the wrong direction has come from Kenneth Arrow about 30 years ago when he said: These days, I get surprised when I find the students don’t seem to know any economics that was written 25 or 30 years ago.
Q: Is there any hope that this trend can be reversed?
A: Yes, I’m quite optimistic in this regard. I get the impression that this seems to be getting corrected right now. I’m particularly delighted that the corrective has come to a great extent from student interest. I’m very struck by the fact that at the university where I teach – Harvard – the demand for more history of economic thought has mostly come from students. As a result there is a lot more attempt by the department of economics as well as history and government to look for the history of political economy. Last year, along with my wife Emma Rothschild, I offered a course on Adam Smith’s philosophy and political economy. It drew a lot of interest and we got some of the finest students at Harvard.
The great British economist Alfred Marshall “turns” 170 years old today. Here is a link to his Principles of Economics, which was one of the most influential books in the history of the discipline. Here is Keynes’ remembrance of Marshall.
From Marshall’s Principles on the “Substance of Economics”:
The advantage which economics has over other branches of social science appears then to arise from the fact that its special field of work gives rather larger opportunities for exact methods than any other branch. It concerns itself chiefly with those desires, aspirations and other affections of human nature, the outward manifestations of which appear as incentives to action in such a form that the force or quantity of the incentives can be estimated and measured with some approach to accuracy; and which therefore are in some degree amenable to treatment by scientific machinery. An opening is made for the methods and the tests of science as soon as the force of a person’s motives—not the motives themselves—can be approximately measured by the sum of money, which he will just give up in order to secure a desired satisfaction; or again by the sum which is just required to induce him to undergo a certain fatigue.
And here he is on mathematics as used in economics (he wrote this in 1906) – we would be better off as a discipline if we followed Marshall’s rules a bit more closely:
(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in (4), burn (3). This last I did often.
Via Marginal Revolution, a new book by Gary Gorton is on its way. Gorton’s work has been incredibly important in understanding financial crises and I look forward to the new one:
Misunderstanding Financial Crises offers a back-to-basics overview of financial crises, and shows that they are not rare, idiosyncratic events caused by a perfect storm of unconnected factors. Gorton shows how financial crises are, indeed, inherent to our financial system. Economists, Gorton writes, looked from a certain point of view and missed everything that was important: the evolution of capital markets and the banking system, the existence of new financial instruments, and the size of certain money markets like the sale and repurchase market. Comparing the so-called “Quiet Period” of 1934 to 2007, when there were no systemic crises, to the “Panic of 2007-2008,” Gorton ties together key issues like bank debt and liquidity, credit booms and manias, moral hazard, and too-big-too-fail–all to illustrate the true causes of financial collapse.
Ramesh Ponnuru has an interesting article in Bloomberg on how some Republicans now seem to think that government spending creates jobs after all.
Review of the new Halteman and Noell book, Reckoning with Markets: Moral Reflection in Economics.
James Hamilton on “The Fiscal Cliff and Rationality”
Paul Krugman on “Sticky Wages and the Macro Story”