The fallout

Back in November, I observed that Australia’s economic situation felt something the opening of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach, where a nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere. Australia has not been hit, but a lethal cloud of fallout is gradually drifting southwards.

The fallout has certainly hit now. Huge job losses are being announced across the board, but particularly in the mining sector, which was booming only a few months ago. The government is already contemplating radical action to respond to the likely withdrawal of most foreign banks from our financial markets, and it needs to be similarly radical in its response to the imminent collapse of the labour market. For now, I’ll restate what I wrote in November, hopefully with more to come on this topic

Job creation gets a bad name from silly projects exemplified by the (apparently apocryphal) case of ‘painting rocks white’, so they tend to be a last resort. But the alternative of wage subsidies is least effective during the initial contraction phase of a recession, when employers are cutting back or freezing their staff numbers.

It’s precisely at this time when some well-timed projects could do a lot of good. In this respect the recently-announced assistance to local governments looks like a good idea.

Finally, while there are good reasons for governments to pick up the private sector slack as regards infrastructure investment, it’s important to remember that the days of large gangs of workers swinging picks and shovels are long gone. Physical infrastructure projects have many potential merits, but large-scale job creation is not among them.

The biggest employment gains nowadays come from expanding the services sector, and particularly human services such as health and education. The financial services sector has also been an important source of growth since the 1970s, but the jobs being cut there now are unlikely to return for some years, if they ever do.

In which I disagree with Paul Krugman

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As James Surowiecki points out here, my views on what’s entailed in bank nationalisation differ significantly from those of Paul Krugman[1]. Krugman, like quite a few other advocates of nationalisation, has in mind models like the Resolution Trust Corporation and the Swedish nationalizations of the 1990s, where the government took insolvent institutions into temporary public ownership, liquidated the bad assets and returned them to the private sector. These solutions worked well because the global financial system as a whole was solvent and liquid, even though some sectors (US S&Ls, Swedish banks) were not.

What’s needed in the present case is not only to fix the problems of individual banks, problems on a much bigger scale than have been seen before (even in the leadup to the Great Depression, the financial sector played a smaller role in the economy than in the recent bubble), but to reconstruct a failed global financial system. It’s kind of like rewiring an electrical system in near-meltdown, while keeping the power on (this is possible, but tricky and dangerous). The job is likely to be much slower than the rescues mentioned above, and the institutions that emerge from it will be very different from those that went in.

But, contra Surowiecki this time, this only strengthens the argument for nationalisation. Financial restructuring is going to be a huge challenge, involving both a radical redesign of national regulations and the construction of an almost completely new global financial architecture. To attempt this task while leaving the banks under the control of discredited managers nominally responsible to shareholders whose equity has, in the absence of massive transfers from taxpayers, been wiped out by bad debts, seems like doing live electrical work while wearing a blindfold and standing in a pool of water.

fn1. Krugman is well-known for being right when lots of others have been wrong, so take this into account in assessing the arguments.

China, me old China

This is a long overdue post, promised as a thankyou to my old friend Martin Ellison who managed the transfer of the blog from the old, slow and unreliable shared server to the new accelerated server a few months back. Anyone who has noticed the difference is welcome to add their thanks in comments.

As a return in kind, I promised a post on any selected topic within reason, and Martin asked about the Chinese economy, a subject on which I’ve regularly promised myself I will get up to date. So, here goes.

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What to do with nationalised banks ?

All reasonableTM commentators now agree that nationalisation of big banks like Citigroup, Bank of America and Royal Bank of Scotland must take place soon, explicitly or otherwise. As I said at just before the second (failed) Citigroup bailout) banks like Citi are not only too big to fail, they’re too big to rescue with any of the half-measures that have been tried so far.

It’s obvious that “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly” and cleanly, without any dodges designed to hide the reality of nationalisation. The longer these zombie institutions are allowed to run on public money, but under the existing discredited managers, legally answerable to the private shareholders, the bigger the costs the public will ultimately face.

Nationalisation would resolve a lot of the difficult questions around ideas such as the creation of a “bad bank” to hold all the toxic assets accumulated during the boom. That’s critical as long as policy is aimed at turning the troubled banks around while keeping them private, but it’s unimportant once all the debts and assets have been taken on to the public balance sheet. Once the big banks are nationalized, the government can take its time salvaging whatever assets are still worthwhile and preparing for the reconstruction of a private banking system under a completely new system of regulation, a task that is likely to take several years.

The big question is, what should governments do with the banks once they own them? Clearly, there’s an imperative for banks to start lending again, but there is no benefit in making yet more bad loans. And, right at the moment, credit-worthy borrowers are hard to find. The immediate concern must be to ensure that commercially sound loans aren’t being constrained by the need to bolster bank balance sheets. Then, governments need to consider whether some form of support for loans, such as interest rate subsidies or guarantees (secured against assets seen as having a long-term value that exceeds their current market value) should be part of the policy response to the recession. Such policies have plenty of risk associated with them, but the risks are mitigated a bit if the guarantor and the bank owner are ultimately the same (in this case, the public).

Obviously, this is not the kind of question economists have spent a lot of time thinking about until fairly recently. I don’t imagine many of us would have expected, a year ago, to be reading the Wall Street Journal castigating Henry Paulson and the Bush Administration for the (partial) nationalisation of the Bank of America. No doubt plenty of mistakes will be made. But there is no time for leisurely reflection here. As in 1933, the next hundred days will make a big difference, one way or another.

Windschuttles and weathercocks

Amid the voluminous commentary on the Windschuttle hoax(es), the most telling, for me, was a summary of his political peregrinations from Guy Rundle at Crikey. It’s paywalled but I’ll quote the best bit:

The man who’s now editing Australia’s premier conservative magazine was advocating the revolutionary potential of LSD in the 60s, media studies as “radical pedagogy” in the early 70s, was enthusiastic for Pol Pot peasant-style revolts in the late 70s (“the oil is almost gone — soon the Aborigines and poor whites will rise up” he wrote in Nation Review in the late 70s) and re-emerged in the 90s, after the global collapse of the left, as a man who thought there was no Tasmanian genocide, that the White Australia policy was a left-wing plot, that John Steinbeck made up the Great Depression and that the British Empire could not have been cruel because its officers were Christians.

Like a mendicant Pope, he’s spent his life wandering from one state of certainty to the next, in the search for godknowswhat.

The only stage missed was his (“Killing of History”) period as a scourge of postmodernist and relativist theory and fan of the empirical approach of researchers like Henry Reynolds.

That brings to mind the more general phenomenon of migration from dogmatic left to dogmatic right, which I discussed quite a while ago here, and linked to Paul Norton.