Davies on “Economics in Denial”
Howard Davies, writing about “Economics in Denial,” has this on the importance of economic history:
Some of the recommendations that emerged from that conference [a Bank of England conference called What's the Use of Economics?] are straightforward and concrete. For example, there should be more teaching of economic history.We all have good reason to be grateful that US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is an expert on the Great Depression and the authorities’ flawed policy responses then, rather than in the finer points of dynamic stochastic general equilibrium theory. As a result, he was ready to adopt unconventional measures when the crisis erupted, and was persuasive in influencing his colleagues.
Many conference participants agreed that the study of economics should be set in a broader political context, with greater emphasis on the role of institutions. Students should also be taught some humility. The models to which they are still exposed have some explanatory value, but within constrained parameters. And painful experience tells us that economic agents may not behave as the models suppose they will.
But it is not clear that a majority of the profession yet accepts even these modest proposals. The so-called “Chicago School” has mounted a robust defense of its rational expectations-based approach, rejecting the notion that a rethink is required. The Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas has argued that the crisis was not predicted because economic theory predicts that such events cannot be predicted. So all is well.
I’m doubtful that the urgent need for reintegrating economic history (and the history of economic thought) into economics education will occur, at least on the scale that is required. But just imagine how things might have been different if, rather than obsessing over a misplaced desire to become “real” mathematicians, we instead learned the lessons of Charles Kindleberger, who wrote:
We start with the model of the late Hyman Minsky, a man with a reputation among monetary theorists for being particularly pessimistic, even lugubrious, in his emphasis on the fragility of the monetary system and its propensity to disaster. Although Minsky was a monetary theorist rather than an economic historian, his model lends itself effectively to the interpretation of economic and financial history. Indeed, in its emphasis on the instability of the credit system, it is a lineal descendant of a model, set out with personal variations, by a host of classical economists including John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Knut Wicksell, and Irving Fisher. Like Fisher, Minsky attached great importance to the role of debt structures in causing financial difficulties, and especially debt contracted to leverage the acquisition of speculative assets for subsequent resale.
According to Minsky, events leading up to a crisis start with a “displacement,” some exogenous, outside shock to the macroeconomic system. The nature of this displacement varies from one speculative boom to another. It may be the outbreak or end of a war, a bumper harvest or crop failure, the widespread adoption of an invention with pervasive effects—canals, railroads, the automobile—some political event or surprising financial success, or debt conversion that precipitously lowers interest rates. An unanticipated change of monetary policy might constitute such a displacement and some economists who think markets have it right and governments wrong blame “policy-switching” for some financial instability. But whatever the source of the displacement, if it is sufficiently large and pervasive, it will alter the economic outlook by changing profit opportunities in at least one important sector of the economy. Displacement brings opportunities for profit in some new or existing lines and closes out others. As a result, business firms and individuals with savings or credit seek to take advantage of the former and retreat from the latter. If the new opportunities dominate those that lose, investment and production pick up. A boom is under way.
In Minsky’s model, the boom is fed by an expansion of bank credit that enlarges the total money supply. Banks typically can expand money, whether by the issue of bank’s notes under earlier institutional arrangements or by lending in the form of addictions to bank deposits. Bank credit is, or at least has been, notoriously unstable, and the Minsky model rests squarely on that fact. This feature of the Minsky model is incorporated in what follows, but we go further. Before banks had evolved, and afterward, additional means of payment to fuel a speculative mania were available in the virtually infinitely expansible nature of personal credit. For a given banking system at a given time, monetary means of payment may be expanded not only within the existing system of banks but also by the formation of new banks, the development of new credit instruments, and the expansion of personal credit outside of banks. Crucial questions of policy turn on how to control all these avenues of monetary expansion. But even if the instability of old and potential new banks were corrected, instability of personal credit would remain to provide means of payment to finance the boom, given a sufficiently throughgoing stimulus.
Let us assume, then, that the urge to speculate is present and transmuted into effective demand for goods or financial assets. After a time, increased demand presses against the capacity to produce goods or the supply of existing financial assets. Prices increase, giving rise to new profit opportunities and attracting still further firms and investors. Positive feedback develops, as new investment leads to increases in income that stimulate further investment and further income increases. At this stage we may well get what Minsky called “euphoria.” Speculation for price increases is added to investment for production and sale. If this process builds up, the result is often, though not inevitably, what Adam Smith and his contemporaries called “overtrading.”
Now, overtrading is by no means a clear concept. It may involve pure speculation for a price rise, an overestimate of prospective returns, or excessive “gearing.” Pure speculation, of course involves buying for resale rather than use in the case of comodities or for resale rather than income in the case of financial assets. Overestimation of profits comes from euphoria, affects firms engaged in the production and distributive processes, and requires no explanation. Excessive gearing arises from cash requirements that are low relative both to the prevailing price of a good or asset and to possible changes in its price. It means buying on margin, or by installments, under circumstances in which one can sell the asset and transfer with it the obligation to make future payments. As firms or households see others making profits from speculative purchases and resales, they tend to follow: “Monkey see, monkey do.” In my talks about financial crisis over the last decades, I have polished one line that always gets a nervous laugh: “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich. When the number of firms and households indulging in these practices grows large, bringing in segments of the population that are normally aloof from such ventures, speculation for profit leads away from normal, rational behavior to what has been described as “manias” or “bubbles.” The word mania emphasizes the irrationality; bubble foreshadows the bursting. In the technical language of some economists, a bubble is any deviation from “fundamentals,” whether up or down, leading to the possibility and even the reality of negative bubbles, which rather gets away from the thrust of the metaphor. More often small price variations about fundamental values (as prices) are called “noise.” In this book, a bubble is an upward price movement over an extended range that then implodes. An extended negative bubble is a crash.