Ramping the Markets: Banking on Ponzi Finance. Thought of the Day 112.0

China Minsky

When funded pension schemes were first put forward at the beginning of the 1970s as a private sector alternative to state earnings-related pensions, the merchant (investment) banks and stockbroking firms that promoted them did not anticipate how successful they would become in that, by the following decades, pension schemes and allied forms of life assurance would come to own most of the stocks and shares quoted on the world’s stock markets. When pension funds held a minority of stocks, the funds could altogether put money into stock markets by buying stocks, or withdraw it by selling, without significantly affecting prices or the liquidity of the market as a whole. Now that pension funds and allied life assurance and mutual funds constitute the majority of the market, it is not possible for them to withdraw funds altogether without causing a fall in prices, or even a stock market crash.

Because of their success, pension funds have become the newest and possibly the most catastrophic example of Ponzi finance. The term Ponzi finance was invented by the American economist Hyman P. Minsky as part of his analysis of financial market inflation. It describes a form of finance in which new liabilities are issued to finance existing liabilities. According to Minsky, financial crises are caused by the collapse of ‘financial structures’ whose failure is precipitated by their increasing ‘financial fragility’. Financial structures are simply commitments to make payments in the future, against claims that result in incoming payments in the future. For Minsky, the characteristic feature of financial markets and financial speculation is that they afford opportunities for economic units to enter into future financial commitments, in the expectation of gain. In this respect, at least, they are similar to fixed capital investment. Success in securing gains persuades speculators to enter into further commitments, which become more ‘fragile’, i.e., more prone to collapse because future commitments become more speculative and less covered by assured financial inflows.

Minsky identifies three types of financial commitments, which are distinguished by the different degree of financial risk that they entail. In hedge finance, future commitments are exactly matched by cash inflows. A common example is the practice in banking of lending at variable or floating rates of interest. In this way, if a bank has to pay more interest to its depositors, it can recoup the increase by raising the interest rates that it charges to its borrowers (assuming that its depositors cannot withdraw their deposits before the term of the loan expires).

Speculative finance is characterized by certain commitments which have to be covered by cash inflows which may rise or fall, or uncertain commitments against a fixed cash inflow. If a bank lends money at a fixed rate of interest it is engaging in speculative finance, because it is running the risk that it may have to pay a higher rate of interest to depositors if interest rates rise. However, to set against this risk it has the possibility that the interest rates paid to depositors may fall, and it will thereby make additional gains from a wider margin between lending and borrowing rates.

Ponzi finance, in Minsky’s view, is a situation in which both commitments and cash inflows are uncertain, so that there is a possibility of an even more enhanced profit if commitments fall and the cash inflow rises. Against this has to be set the possibility that commitments and the cash inflow will move together so that only a minimal profit will be secured, or that commitments will rise and the cash inflow will fall, in which case a much more serious loss will be entered than would have occurred under speculative finance.

Ponzi finance lies behind the view that is no less erroneous for being widely repeated, that a higher return reflects the ‘greater risk’ of an enterprise. This is exemplified in the practice of banks charging higher rates of interest for what they perceive as greater risks. Behind this view lies the Austrian tradition, from Böhm-Bawerk onwards, of regarding economic outcomes as analogous to the gains and lotteries obtainable from repeated routine games, such as the tossing of a dice. The certain pay-off (or ‘certainty-equivalent’) is held to be lower than some possible pay-off. The association of the greater payoff with its lower probability then leads to a presumption that the latter ‘causes’ the former. However, the profits of companies and financial institutions are not the proceeds of gaming, however much enterprise in an unstable market system may appear similar to gambling. In fact, these profits are the outcomes of financial flows that ebb and progress through the economy, propelled by actual expenditure and financing decisions. The systems of financial claims and liabilities arising from those decisions become more fragile, as first speculative and then Ponzi financing structures come to predominate, and larger gains and larger losses may then be made. But the possibility of extraordinary profits or losses in Ponzi financing structures in no way means that realization of such profits is caused or justified by the possibility of the losses. Ponzi finance arises out of objective contractual obligations. The ‘greater risk’, which is held to justify a higher cost of finance, may be entirely subjective or a cover for monopoly profits in finance.

The simplest example of Ponzi finance is borrowing money to pay interest on a loan. In this case, the financial liability is increased, with no reduction in the original loan. Pyramid bank deposit schemes were the schemes after which this phenomenon is named, and they are perhaps the most extreme example of such financial structures. In a pyramid deposit scheme, the financier might take, say, Rs. 100 from a depositor, and promise to double this money after a month if the depositor introduces two new depositors at the end of that month. The two new depositors get the same terms and when they pay in their Rs. 100 respectively, Rs. 100 goes to double the money of the first depositor, and the other Rs. 100 is the financier’s profit. The two new depositors get their profit at the end of the next month from the new deposits paid in by the four new depositors that they introduce to the scheme, and so on. Initially, such schemes promise and deliver good profits. But their flaw lies in the fact that they require deposits to rise exponentially in order to pay the promised rewards to depositors. In the example that is described above, deposits have to double each month so that after one year, the scheme requires Rs. 409,600 in deposits just to keep solvent. After the thirteenth month, Rs. 819,200 would need to be deposited to keep up promised payments to depositors. Such schemes therefore usually collapse when they run out of gullible people to deposit their savings in them. While their life can be briefly extended by persuading depositors not to withdraw their profits, this cannot work for more than one or two payment periods, because such schemes are so dependent on increasing amounts of additional money being paid into them in each successive period.

Ponzi schemes are named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who swindled Boston investors in 1919 and 1920 with a pyramid banking scheme. Minsky noted that Ponzi’s scheme ‘swept through the working classes and even affected “respectable” folk’. Because they prey on the poor and the ignorant, Ponzi schemes in banking are usually banned, although this does not prevent them from occurring in countries where it is difficult to regulate them. In Minsky’s view, financial collapses occur because booms in financial markets result in sufficient profits for speculative and Ponzi finance to induce a shift from hedge finance to speculative and Ponzi finance.

Ponzi finance in securities markets is much more common than in banking. Indeed, it is arguable that such finance is essential for the liquidity of markets in long-term securities: if a security is bought, it may have an assured ‘residual liquidity’ if it is a bond in that, when it matures, the money will then be returned to the investor. If, however, the security is a share which is not repaid by the issuer except on liquidation of the company, then it has no assured residual liquidity. Its liquidity depends on some other investor wishing to buy it at a reasonable price. If the share is to be sold at a profit, then the condition for this to happen is that demand for it has risen since it was bought. In this respect, liquidity and capital gains in the markets for long-term securities depend on Ponzi finance.

Ponzi finance was present at the very inception of modern stock markets. The South Sea Company and the Mississippi Company, whose stocks featured in the first stock market collapse of 1720, both ended up issuing stocks to raise finance in order to buy stocks to keep the market in their stocks liquid and stable. In modern times, this is a common feature of merger and takeover activity in capital markets. Corporate takeovers are frequently financed by issuing securities. The proceeds of the new issue are used to buy in the target company’s stock ‘at a premium’, i.e., at a price that is greater than the pre-takeover market price. The money raised by issuing the new stocks is used to pay the higher return to the stock-holders of the company being taken over. In this case, issuing new stock is exactly equivalent to the pyramid banking practice of taking in new deposits in order to pay an enhanced return to older depositors, which is the premium on the target company’s stock. The main difference between the two types of operation is that, during such takeover activity, the stock market as a whole functions as a pyramid banking scheme. However, precisely because it is the market as a whole which is operating in this Ponzi way, the pyramid nature of the venture is less obvious, and the gains are greater, because more and wealthier contributors are involved. Since this is an outcome of the normal functioning of the market, which may hitherto have been acting in a perfectly proper and respectable fashion, raising finance for industry and providing for widows and orphans, it is not possible to ‘finger’ the perpetrator of the pyramid scheme.

A more obviously controversial kind of Ponzi finance is the practice known as ‘ramping’ the market. A financier discreetly buys up a particular stock over a period of time, and then announces with great fanfare that he or she is buying in the stock. There are few markets in which emulatory competition is as strong as financial markets, where being conservative in practice and faddish in innovation are preconditions for a ‘sound’ reputation. The ‘sounder’ that reputation, the more likely it is other investors will imitate the buying strategy. Indeed, there is an element of compulsion about it, depending on the reputation of the investor. Those investors without reputation must follow for whatever reasons the investment direction signalled by investors with reputation, or else languish among lower-growth stocks. As the price of the stock rises due to the increased demand for it, such reputable financiers quietly sell out at a profit to their imitators, thereby confirming their reputation for financial ‘soundness’. Obviously, the better the reputation of the financier, the greater the gain from such an operation. To support such a reputation and legitimize the profits from trading on it, financiers will obviously attribute the gains from this practice to their own financial acumen, rather than confessing to having ramped the market.

The almost instantaneous dissemination of relevant information on which modern financial markets pride themselves (and which many financial economists believe makes them near perfect), also facilitates this kind of market manipulation. In securities markets, the investors emulating the financier are the equivalent of the new depositors. They too may make money, if they too can persuade subsequent new investors to buy at higher prices. As with the pyramid banking case, ramping markets depends on increasing interest by additional investors. Because in practice it is indistinguishable from normal trading (unlike pyramid banking, which is rather more obvious), and because any losers usually have other wealth to fall back on, such practices are frowned upon in securities markets, but cannot be eliminated. However, in the case of pension funds, the eventual losers will be ordinary working people, who will only have a minimal state pension in the future to fall back on. This makes it all the more important to understand how a reputable system for financing pensions has become a Ponzi finance scheme which will in future collapse.

Austrian Economics. Ruminations. End Part.

von-hayek

Mainstream economics originates from Jevons’ and Menger’s marginal utility and Walras’ and Marshall’s equilibrium approach. While their foundations are similar, their presentation looks quite different, according to the two schools which typically represent these two approaches: the Austrian school initiated by Menger and the general equilibrium theory initiated by Walras. An important, albeit only formal, difference is that the former presents economic theory mainly in a literary form using ordinary logic, while the latter prefers mathematical expressions and logic.

Lachmann, who excludes determinism from economics since acts of mind are concerned, connects determinism with the equilibrium approach. However, equilibrium theory is not necessarily deterministic, also because it does not establish relationships of succession, but only relationships of coexistence. In this respect, equilibrium theory is not more deterministic than the theory of the Austrian school. Even though the Austrian school does not comprehensively analyze equilibrium, all its main results strictly depend on the assumption that the economy is in equilibrium (intended as a state everybody prefers not to unilaterally deviate from, not necessarily a competitive equilibrium). Considering both competition and monopoly, Menger examines the market for only two commodities in a barter economy. His analysis is the best to be obtained without using mathematics, but it is too limited for determining all the implications of the theory. For instance, it is unclear how the market for a specific commodity is affected by the conditions of the markets for other commodities. However, interdependence is not excluded by the Austrian school. For instance, Böhm-Bawerk examines at length the interdependence between the markets for labor and capital. Despite the incomplete analysis of equilibrium carried out by the Austrian school, many of its results imply that the economy is in equilibrium, as shown by the following examples.

a) The Gossen-Menger loss principle. This principle states that the price of a good can be determined by analyzing the effect of the loss (or the acquisition) of a small quantity of the same good.

b) Wieser’s theory of imputation. Wieser’s theory of imputation attempts to determine the value of the goods used for production in terms of the value (marginal utility) of the consumption goods produced.

c) Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital. Böhm-Bawerk proposed a longitudinal theory of capital, where production consists of a time process. A sequence of inputs of labor is employed in order to obtain, at the final stage, a given consumption good. Capital goods, which are the products obtained in the intermediate stages, are seen as a kind of consumption goods in the process of maturing.

A historically specific theory of capital inspired by the Austrian school focuses on the way profit-oriented enterprises organize the allocation of goods and resources in capitalism. One major issue is the relationship between acquisition and production. How does the homogeneity of money figures that entrepreneurs employ in their acquisitive plans connect to the unquestionable heterogeneity of the capital goods in production that these monetary figures depict? The differentiation between acquisition and production distinguishes this theory from the neoclassical approach to capital. The homogeneity of the money figures on the level of acquisition that is important to such a historically specific theory is not due to the assumption of equilibrium, but simply to the existence of money prices. It is real-life homogeneity, so to speak. It does not imply any homogeneity on the level of production, but rather explains the principle according to which the production process is conducted.

In neoclassical economics, in contrast, production and acquisition, the two different levels of analysis, are not separated but are amalgamated by means of the vague term “value”. In equilibrium, assets are valued according to their marginal productivity, and therefore their “value” signifies both their price and their importance to the production process. Capital understood in this way, i.e., as the value of capital goods, can take on the “double meaning of money or goods”. By concentrating on the value of capital goods, the neoclassical approach assumes homogeneity not only on the level of acquisition with its input and output prices, but also on the level of production. The neoclassical approach to capital assumes that the valuation process has already been accomplished. It does not explain how assets come to be valued originally according to their marginal product. In this, an elaborated historically specific theory of capital would provide the necessary tools. In capitalism, inputs and outputs are interrelated by entrepreneurs who are guided by price signals. In their efforts to maximize their monetary profits, they aim to benefit from the spread between input and output prices. Therefore, money tends to be invested where this spread appears to be wide enough to be worth the risk. In other words, business capital flows to those industries and businesses where it yields the largest profit. Competition among entrepreneurs brings about a tendency for price spreads to diminish. The prices of the factors of production are bid up and the prices of the output are bid down until, in the hypothetical state of equilibrium, the factor prices sum up to the price of the product. A historically specific theory of capital is able to describe and analyze the market process that results – or tends to result – in marginal productivity prices, and can therefore also formulate positions concerning endogenous and exogenous misdirections of this process which lead to disequilibrium prices. Consider Mises,

In balance sheets and in profit-and-loss statements, […] it is necessary to enter the estimated money equivalent of all assets and liabilities other than cash. These items should be appraised according to the prices at which they could probably be sold in the future or, as is especially the case with equipment for production processes, in reference to the prices to be expected in the sale of merchandise manufactured with their aid.

According to this, not the monetary costs of the assets, which can be verified unambiguously, but their values are supposed to be the basis of entrepreneurial calculation. As the words indicate, this procedure involves a tremendous amount of uncertainty and can therefore only lead to fair values if equilibrium conditions are assumed.

Austrian Economics. Some Further Ruminations. Part 2.

There are two Austrian theories of capital, at least surfacially with two completely different objectives. The first one concentrates on the physical activities roundabout, time-consuming production processes which are common to all economic systems, and it defines capital as a parameter of production. This theory is considered to be universal and ahistorical, and the present connotation of Austrian Theory of Capital falls congruent with this view. This is often denoted by physical capital and consists of concrete and heterogenous capital goods, which is nothing but an alternative expression for production goods. The second and relatively lesser known theory is the beginning point for a historically specific theory, and shies away with the production process and falls in tune with the economic system called capitalism. Capital isn’t anymore dealing with the production processes, but exclusively with the amount of money invested in a business venture. It is regarded as the central tool of economic calculations by profit-oriented enterprises, and rests on the social role of financial accounting. This historically specific theory of capital is termed business capital and is in a sense simply money invested in business assets.

A deeper analysis, however, projects that these divisions are unnecessary, and that physical capital is not a theory of physical capital at all. Its tacit but implicit research object is always the specific framework of the market economy where production is exercised nearly exclusively by profit-oriented enterprises calculating in monetary terms. Austrian capital theory is used as an element of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. This business cycle theory, if expounded consistently, deals with the way the monetary calculations of enterprises are distorted by changes in the rate of interest, not with the production process as such. In a long and rather unnoticed essay on the theory of capital, Menger (German, 1888) recanted what he had said in his Principles about the role of capital theory in economics. He criticized his fellow economists for creating artificial definitions of capital only because it dovetailed into their personal vision of the task of economics. In respect of the Austrian theory of capital as expounded by himself in his Principles and elaborated on by Böhm-Bawerk, he declared that the division of goods into production goods and consumption goods, important as it may be, cannot serve as a basis for the definition of capital and therefore cannot be used as a foundation of a theory of capital. As for entrepreneurs and lawyers, according to Menger, only sums of money dedicated to the acquisition of income are denoted by this word. Of course, Menger’s real-life oriented notion of capital does not only comprise concrete pieces of money but

all assets of a business, of whichever technical nature they may be, in so far as their monetary value is the object of our economic calculations, i.e., when they calculatorily constitute sums of money for us that are dedicated to the acquisition of income.

An analysis of capital presupposes the historically specific framework of capitalism, characterized by profit-oriented enterprises.

Some economists concluded therefrom that “capital” is a category of all human production, that it is present in every thinkable system of the conduct of production processes—i.e., no less in Robinson Crusoe’s involuntary hermitage than in a socialist society—and that it does not depend upon the practice of monetary calculation. This is, however, a confusion (Mises).

Capital, for Mises, is a device that stems from and belongs to financial accounting of businesses under conditions of capitalism. For him, the term “capital” does not signify anything peculiar to the production process as such. It belongs to the sphere of acquisition, not to the sphere of production.  Accordingly, there is no theory of physical capital as an element or factor in the production process. There is rather a theory of capitalism. For him, the existence of financial accounting on the basis of (business) capital invested in an enterprise is the defining characteristic of this economic system. Capital is “the fundamental notion of economic calculation” which is the foremost mental tool used in the conduct of affairs in the market economy. A more elaborate historically specific theory of capital that expands upon Mises’s thoughts would analyze the function of economic calculation based on business capital in the coordination of plans and the allocation of resources in capitalism. It would not deal with the production process as such but, generally, would concern itself with the allocation and distribution of goods and resources by a system of profit-oriented enterprises.