It’s time (on time for once) for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.
Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve been very interested in the relationship between technical and cultural innovation. Among other things, I make the point that this is now a two-way street: the development of the Internet is driven as much by cultural innovations, like the manifold uses of blogs, as by technical innovation, and in many cases it’s hard to distinguish between the two.
I gave a presentation on this at the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) Conference a few months ago, and was invited to turn it into a paper for a special issue of a new journal, Cultural Science.
I was very favorably impressed by the issue when it came out, and also by the interval between submission and publication, which was quite a bit shorter than I’ve experienced in the past. To be precise …
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about Steve Keen‘s work on debt, presented (among other places) in this paper for the Centre for Policy Development last year. I made some comments at the time, as follows:
I’m generally in sympathy with the arguments presented here. However, having made similar arguments for a long time and having been continually surprised by the durability of the asset price boom/bubble let me offer a couple of counterarguments/cautions:
(1) The increase in house prices can be partially explained (on the supply side) by the increase in the size/quality of the average/median house and, particularly in the last decade, by increases in the cost of labour and materials
(2) On the demand side, given the above and the fixity of land, some increase in prices would be expected as a result of population growth and income growth. If you suppose that housing is a superior good, this would imply that the value of houses should grow faster than GDP, and probably that debt would also rise relative to GDP.
(3) Looking at the big picture of the rise in debt, it has gone on for so long (40+ years) that it must cast some doubt on arguments based on the claim that bubbles always burst. I still think the arguments are valid, but the objection can’t just be dismissed
(4) A fuller version of the optimistic story would say that credit markets have become steadily more efficient with the result that households are able to manage much larger volumes of debt. A plausible version of this story might include the concession that the debt growth of the past decade has outrun the capacity of households and markets to manage it, implying the need for a painful correction as is now happening in the US, but also allowing for a continued upward trend in, or stabilisation of, debt/income ratios.
On balance, having thought through all this, I still think the story in Steve Keen’s piece is the right one. But it’s important to confront the opposing argument in its strongest possible form.
Obviously, the opposing arguments I wanted Keen to respond to look a lot weaker now. Whatever qualifications I might still want to make, Keen got the basic points right, and those who are criticising him now should concede this.
The Australian has long since ceased to be a serious newspaper. Its opinion pages are devoted to recycling talking points from the US-centred rightwing parallel universe (some more serious conservatives have described it as the “conservative cocoon”, a term coined by conservative blogger Ross Douthat, recently elaborated here). Its political writers, who straddle the gap between news and commentary have long been in the tank for the conservative parties or for particular conservative politicians. Its war on science (Tim Lambert is now up to instalment XXII and he’s not comprehensive) has long passed beyond the point of absurdity.
Even so, I don’t think I’ve seen a front page headline as brazenly defiant of the facts as today’s. Having claimed, falsely, that the Reserve Bank opposed the government’s deposit guarantee, and been put down, mildly but firmly, by RBA Governor Glenn Stevens, the Oz doubles down and announces a “backflip” on the basis of the marginal adjustments discussed here yesterday.
For the correct story, you have to go the Fin (paywalled unfortunately). While the Fin is just as rightwing as the Oz on most issues, its readership consists primarily of businesspeople who need accurate information, not delusional rightwingers who need their prejudices confirmed. From the Fin it is clear that the Bank pushed for an unlimited guarantee (for much the same reasons as given here) and that it was Treasury that initially wanted the silly $20 000 limit.
The Oz is now essentially worthless as a source of information. Some individual journalists are still pretty good, and articles with their bylines are worth reading. But if their weather report predicted sunshine, I’d pack an umbrella, just in case.
Update The Oz goes for the trifecta, despite their claim that the RBA opposed an unlimited guarantee now being denied outright by both Glenn Stevens and Ken Henry. They have a document showing that the RBA wants to charge wholesale depositors directly for the guarantee and using the term “cap” to describe the amount that would be used to distinguish between wholesale and retail. This kind of ex post tweak is unsurprising, but still news and if the Oz had stuck to that a couple of days ago, they (and the Opposition) would be in less trouble now. Instead they have beaten it up into a full-scale war with the Government, Treasury and RBA which is going to cost them a lot in the long run.
To restate the point, the original announcement said nothing (at least nothing I saw) to indicate that the government guarantee would be free, and deposit insurance schemes normally involve a premium. In due course, I expect that the government will charge the protected institutions for the guarantee. It’s turned out to be necessary to move more quickly at the wholesale level, but this is a step in the right direction. The silly pointscoring of the Opposition (and its representatives in the press) is grossly irresponsible.
As the odds shorten on an Obama victory, the undoubted enthusiasm for Obama is tempered by doubts that a new Democratic Administration, even backed up by strong majorities in both houses of Congress, will really change that much.
However, there’s a case for a much more optimistic view. Given a supermajority in the Senate, or even a win that’s near enough, with some RINO support to override Republican filibusters, some widely respected analysts are predicting marvellous things from Obama including:
* Medicare for all
* Serious financial reregulation
* Union rights
* Ending tax cuts for the rich
* A green ‘revolution’
* Voting rights for all, including DC
In the light of the lame record of the last congress, and of the Democratic Congresses in the 90s, this might seem unlikely. But an article I’ve just read points to a string of quite radical measures passed by the House in the last Congress and blocked only by the filibuster. Furthermore, as the writer observes the conversion of Southern Democrats into Republicans since the 90s means that most Democrats will hold the line on issues like health care.
All in all, it’s given me more cause for optimism than anything I’ve read for a while.
I did a radio interview this morning, in response to a couple of stories about the second-round impacts of the government’s decision to guarantee bank deposits. Both at retail and wholesale levels, the decision has produced a rush to move funds where they can benefit from the guarantee. Those at the losing end, including foreign investment banks and mortgage funds are, unsurprisingly, upset.
This process was in fact underway before the announcement of an explicit guarantee, though the main trend was from smaller banks to the “too big to fail” Big Four. The guarantee benefitted the small banks, but put the pressure onto nonbanks and foreign banks. This was more or less inevitable and raises the question of the next steps.
Two responses are necessary. First, the government has to define the boundaries of its guarantee, making it clear that any investment outside the guarantee will not be bailed out under any circumstances. Second, it has to make it clear that there is a significant price to be paid for the guarantee. The price will include both an insurance premium and restrictions on risk-taking.
In the long run, this should lead to the kind of narrow banking model I’ve long advocated, in which publicly guaranteed banks stick to a tightly regulated range of well understood activities. This allows for a completely separate set of financial institutions, of which stock markets are the exemplar, where government guarantees are ruled out in advance*. These would offer higher returns but no possibility of transferring risk to the public.
The ultimate losers from the process are likely to be the Big Four, which previously got the benefit of “too big to fail” status at zero costs.
* It’s probably impossible to preclude emergency rescues of firms seen as vital, like Chrysler in the US or Rolls-Royce in the UK. But, where such rescues are unavoidable, they should be done on terms that wipe out the great bulk of shareholder equity and require a substantial haircut for bondholders as well.
It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any issue. Civilised discussion only. Please avoid snarks and trolling and strictly no coarse language.