Open Market Operations. Thought of the Day 93.0

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It can be argued that it would be much more democratic if the Treasuries were allowed to borrow directly from their central bank. By electing a government on a program, we would know what deficit it intends to run and thus how much it will be willing to print, which in the long run is a debate about the possible level of inflation. Instead, it has been argued that decisions made on democratic grounds might be unstable as they are affected by elections. However, the independence of central banks is also serving the interest of commercial bankers as we argue now.

In practice, the central bank buys and sells bonds in open market operations. At least it is always doing so with short term T-bonds as part of the conventional monetary policy, and it might decide sometimes to do it as well with longer maturity T-bonds as part of the unconventional monetary policy. This blurs the lines between a model where the central bank directly finances the Treasury, and a model where this is done by commercial banks since they result in the same final situation. Indeed, before an open market operation the Treasury owes central bank money to a commercial bank, and in the final situation it owes it to the central bank itself, and the central bank money held by the commercial bank has been increased accordingly.

The commercial bank has accepted to get rid of an IOU which bears interest, in exchange of a central bank IOU which bears no interest. However the Treasury will never default on its debt, because the state also runs the central bank which can buy an infinite amount of T-bonds. Said differently, if the interest rates for short term T-bonds start to increase as the commercial banks become more and more reluctant to buy these, the central bank needs to buy as many short-term bonds as necessary to ensure the short term interest rates on T-bonds remain at the targeted level. By using these open market operations a sovereign state running a sovereign currency has the means to ensure that the banks are always willing to buy T-bonds, whatever the deficit is.

However, this system has a drawback. First when the commercial bank bought the T-bond, it had to pretend that it was worried the state might never reimburse, so as to ask for interests rates which are at least slightly higher than the interest rate at which they can borrow from the central bank, and make a profit on the difference. Of course the banks knew they would always be reimbursed, because the central bank always stands ready to buy bonds. As the interest rates departed from the target chosen by the central bank, the latter bought short term bonds to prevent the short term rate from increasing. In order to convince a commercial bank to get rid of a financial instrument which is not risky and which bears interest, the only solution is to pay more than the current value of the bond, which amounts to a decrease of the interest rate on those bonds. The bank thus makes an immediate profit instead of a larger profit later. This difference goes directly into the net worth of the banker and amounts to money creation.

To conclude, we reach the same stage as if the Treasury had sold directly its bond to the central bank, except that now we have increased by a small amount the net worth of the bankers. By first selling the bonds to the commercial banks, instead of selling directly to the central bank, the bankers were able to realize a small profit. But this profit is an immediate and easy one. So they have on one side to pretend they do not like when the Treasury goes into debt, so as to be able to ask for the highest possible interest rate, and secretly enjoy it since either they make a profit when it falls due, or even better immediately if the central bank buys the bonds to control the interest rates.

The commercial banks will always end up with a part of their assets denominated directly in central bank money, which bears no interest, and T-bonds, which bear interest. If we adopt a consolidated state point of view, where we merge the Treasury and the central bank, then the commercial banks have two types of accounts. Deposits which bear no interests, and saving accounts which generate interests, just like everybody. In order to control the interest rate, the consolidated state shifts the amounts from the interest-less to the interest-bearing account and vice-versa.

Fractional Reserve Banking. An Attempt at Demystifying.

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FRB is a technique where a bank can lend more money than it has itself available (‘deposited’ by clients). Normally, a ratio is 9:1 is used, money lent vs. the base product of banking.

This base product used to be gold. So, a bank could issue 9 times more ‘bank notes’ (‘rights to gold’) than it had gold in its vault. Imagine, a person comes with a sack of 1 kilo of gold. This person gets a note from the bank saying “you have deposited 1 kilo of gold in my bank. This note can be exchanged for that 1 kilo of gold any time you want”. But it can legally give this same note to 8 more people! 9 notes that promise 1 kilo of gold for every kilo of gold deposited. Banks are masters of promising things they in no way whatsoever can ever fulfill. And, everybody knows it. And, still we trust the banks. It is an amazing mass denial effect. We trust it, because it gives us wealth. This confidence in the system is what is, actually, essential in the economy. Our civilization depends on the low-morality of the system and our unwavering confidence in it. You are allowed to lie even if the lie is totally and utterly obvious and undeniably without a shred of doubt a lie.

In modern times, the gold standard has been abandoned, because it limits the game. Countries with the most advanced financial structures are the richest. Abandoning the gold standard creates enormous wealth. Rich, advanced nations, therefore, have abandoned the gold standard. In modern banks, no longer gold, but money itself is the base. That is, the promissory notes promise promissory notes. It is completely air. Yet, it works, because everybody trusts it’ll work.

Moreover, banks no longer issue bank notes themselves, except the central bank. The ‘real’ money of the central bank is called ‘base money’ (M0 or ‘Tier 1’) and serves as ‘gold’ in modern banks. The ‘bank notes’ from the bank promise bank notes from the central bank.

Banks use this base money no longer to directly print money (bank notes), but something that is equivalent, namely to lend money to their clients by just adding a number on their account. This, once again, works because everybody trusts it works. But is has become even thinner than air. It is equal to vacuum. There is no physical difference whatsoever anymore between having money and not having it. If I have 0 on my account, or 10000000000000000 rupees, I have the same size information on the computer of my bank. The same number of bytes (however many they may be). I just hope that one day a tiny random fluctuation occurs in their computer and sets me the first bit to a ‘1’ (unless it is the ‘sign’ bit, of course!). Nobody would notice, since there is nowhere money disappearing in the world. Simply more vacuum has been created.

But, it gets even worse. This newly created ‘money’ (the number on an account of bank A) can be deposited in other banks (write a cheque, deposit it, or make a bank transfer to bank B). In this other bank B, it can again be used as a base for creating money by adding a number to peoples’ bank account. As long as a certain amount of base money (M0, or ‘Tier 1’) is maintained. As a side mark, note that bankers do not understand the commotion of the people in calling their rewards astronomical, since they know – in contrast to the people that think that money represents earning based on hard work – that money is vacuum. Giving a bonus to the manager in the form of adding a couple of zeros to her account in her own bank is nothing but air. The most flagrant case of self-referential emptiness is the bank that was bought with its own money.

In this way, the money circulating in the economy can be much larger than the base money (of the central bank). And, all this money is completely air. The amount of money in the world is utterly baseless. Since it is air, moreover an air-system that is invented to facilitate the creation of wealth, we can intervene in the system in any way we want, if we see that this intervention is needed to optimize the creation of wealth. Think of it like this: the money and the money system was invented to enable our trade to take place. If we see that money no longer serves us (but we, instead, seem to serve the money) and decide to organize this trade in another way, we can do so without remorse. If we want to confiscate money and redistribute it, this is morally justified if that is what it takes to enable the creation of wealth.

Especially since, as will be shown, there is no justice in the distribution. It is not as if we were going to take away hard-earned money from someone. The money is just accumulated on a big pile. Intervention is adequate, required and justified. Not intervening makes things much worse for everybody.

Important to make this observation: All money thus circulating in the world is borrowed money. Money is nothing less and nothing more than debt. Without lending and borrowing, there is no debt and there is no money. Without money, there is no trade and no economy. Without debt, the economy collapses. The more debt, the bigger the economy. If everybody were to pay back his/her debt, the system would crash.

Anyway, it is technically not possible to pay back the money borrowed. Why? Because of the interest rates.

Interest is the phenomenon that somebody who lends money – or actually whatever other thing – to somebody that borrows it, wants more money back than it gave. This is impossible.

To give you an example. Imagine we have a library, and this library is the only entity in the world that can print books. Imagine it lends books to its customers and after one week, for every book that it lent out, it wants two back. For some customers it may still be possible. I may have somehow got the book from my neighbor (traded it for a DVD movie?), and I can give the two books the library demands for my one book borrowed. But that would just be passing the buck around; now my neighbor has to give back to the library two books, where he has none. This is how our economy works. And, to explain you what the current solution is of our society is that the library says “You don’t have two books? Don’t worry. We make it a new loan. Two books now. Next week you can give us four”. This is the system we have. Printing money (‘books’) is limited to banks (‘libraries’). The rest borrow the money and in no way whatsoever – absolutely out of the question, fat chance, don’t even think about it – is it possible to give back the money borrowed plus the interest, because this extra money simply does not exist, nor can it be created by the borrowers, because that is reserved to the lenders only. Bankrupt, unless these lenders refinance our loans by new loans.

When explaining this to people, they nearly always fervently oppose this idea, because they think that with money new wealth can be created, and thus the loan can be paid back including the interest, namely with the newly created wealth. This, however, is wrong thinking, because wealth and the commodity used in the loan are different things.
Imagine it like this: Imagine I lend society 100 rupees from my bank with 3% interest. The only rupees in circulation, since I am the only bank. Society invests it in tools for mining with which they find a mother lode with 200 million tons of gold. Yet, after one year, I want 103 rupees back. I don’t want gold. I want money! If they cannot give me my rightful money, I will confiscate everything they own. I will offer 2 rupees for all their possessions (do they have a better offer somewhere?!). I’ll just print 2 extra rupees and that’s it. Actually it is not even needed to print new money. I get everything. At the end of the year, I get my 100 rupees back, I get the gold and mining equipment, and they still keep a debt of 1 rupee.

A loan can only be paid back if the borrower can somehow produce the same (!) commodity that is used in the loan, so that it can give back the loan plus the interest. If gold is lent, and the borrower cannot produce gold, he cannot give back the gold plus interest. The borrower will go bankrupt. If, on the other hand, chickens or sacks of grain are borrowed, these chickens or grain can be given back with interest.

Banks are the only ones that can produce money, therefore the borrowers will go bankrupt. Full stop.

To say it in another way. If we have a system where interest is charged on debt, no way whatsoever can all borrowers pay back the money. Somebody has to go bankrupt, unless the game of refinancing goes on forever. This game of state financing can go on forever as long as the economy is growing exponentially. That is, it is growing with constant percentage. The national debt, in terms of a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) remains constant, if we continuously refinance and increase the debt, as long as the economy GDP grows steadily too. The moment the economy stagnates, it is game over! Debt will rise quickly. Countries will go bankrupt. (Note that increasing debt is thus the result of a stagnating economy and not the other way around!).

The way the system decides who is going bankrupt, is decided by a feed-back system. The first one that seems to be in trouble has more difficulty refinancing its loans (”You have low credit rating. I fear you will not give me back my books. I want a better risk reward. It is now three books for every book borrowed. Take it or leave it! If you don’t like it, you can always decide to give me my books now and we’ll call it even”).

Thus, some countries will go bankrupt, unless they are allowed to let the debt grow infinitely. If not, sooner or later one of them will go bankrupt. In other words, the average interest rate is always zero. One way or another. If x% interest is charged, about x% go bankrupt. To be more precise, y% of the borrowed money is never returned, compensating for the (100 − y%) that do return it with x% profit. In a mathematical formula: (1 − y/100) × (1 + x/100) = 1, or y = 100x/(100 + x). This percentage goes bankrupt. For example, if 100% interest is charged, 50% goes bankrupt.

To take it to the extreme. If the market is cautious – full of responsible investors – and decides to lend money only to ‘stable’ countries, like Germany, which lately (times are changing indeed) has a very good credit rating from the financial speculators, even these ‘stable’ countries go bankrupt. That is, the weakest of these stable countries. If only money is borrowed to Germany, Germany goes bankrupt. Apart from the technical mathematical certainty that a country can only have a positive trade balance – essential in getting a good credit rating – if another country has a negative trade balance (the sum, being a balance, is always zero). Germany needs countries like Greece as much as it despises them.

Well, in fact, this is not true. A country does not – nay, it cannot – go bankrupt for money borrowing. Not if it is an isolated country with its own currency, being also the currency in which the money is borrowed. It can simply print money. That is because the money is their own currency based on their own economy!!!

Financial Entanglement and Complexity Theory. An Adumbration on Financial Crisis.

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The complex system approach in finance could be described through the concept of entanglement. The concept of entanglement bears the same features as a definition of a complex system given by a group of physicists working in a field of finance (Stanley et al,). As they defined it – in a complex system all depends upon everything. Just as in the complex system the notion of entanglement is a statement acknowledging interdependence of all the counterparties in financial markets including financial and non-financial corporations, the government and the central bank. How to identify entanglement empirically? Stanley H.E. et al formulated the process of scientific study in finance as a search for patterns. Such a search, going on under the auspices of “econophysics”, could exemplify a thorough analysis of a complex and unstructured assemblage of actual data being finalized in the discovery and experimental validation of an appropriate pattern. On the other side of a spectrum, some patterns underlying the actual processes might be discovered due to synthesizing a vast amount of historical and anecdotal information by applying appropriate reasoning and logical deliberations. The Austrian School of Economic Thought which, in its extreme form, rejects application of any formalized systems, or modeling of any kind, could be viewed as an example. A logical question follows out this comparison: Does there exist any intermediate way of searching for regular patters in finance and economics?

Importantly, patterns could be discovered by developing rather simple models of money and debt interrelationships. Debt cycles were studied extensively by many schools of economic thought (Shiller, Robert J._ Akerlof, George A – Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism). The modern financial system worked by spreading risk, promoting economic efficiency and providing cheap capital. It had been formed during the years as bull markets in shares and bonds originated in the early 1990s. These markets were propelled by abundance of money, falling interest rates and new information technology. Financial markets, by combining debt and derivatives, could originate and distribute huge quantities of risky structurized products and sell them to different investors. Meanwhile, financial sector debt, only a tenth of the size of non-financial-sector debt in 1980, became half as big by the beginning of the credit crunch in 2007. As liquidity grew, banks could buy more assets, borrow more against them, and enjoy their value rose. By 2007 financial services were making 40% of America’s corporate profits while employing only 5% of its private sector workers. Thanks to cheap money, banks could have taken on more debt and, by designing complex structurized products, they were able to make their investment more profitable and risky. Securitization facilitating the emergence of the “shadow banking” system foments, simultaneously, bubbles on different segments of a global financial market.

Yet over the past decade this system, or a big part of it, began to lose touch with its ultimate purpose: to reallocate deficit resources in accordance with the social priorities. Instead of writing, managing and trading claims on future cashflows for the rest of the economy, finance became increasingly a game for fees and speculation. Due to disastrously lax regulation, investment banks did not lay aside enough capital in case something went wrong, and, as the crisis began in the middle of 2007, credit markets started to freeze up. Qualitatively, after the spectacular Lehman Brothers disaster in September 2008, laminar flows of financial activity came to an end. Banks began to suffer losses on their holdings of toxic securities and were reluctant to lend to one another that led to shortages of funding system. This only intensified in late 2007 when Nothern Rock, a British mortgage lender, experienced a bank run that started in the money markets. All of a sudden, liquidity became in a short supply, debt was unwound, and investors were forced to sell and write down the assets. For several years, up to now, the market counterparties no longer trust each other. As Walter Bagehot, an authority on bank runs, once wrote:

Every banker knows that if he has to prove that he is worth of credit, however good may be his arguments, in fact his credit is gone.

In an entangled financial system, his axiom should be stretched out to the whole market. And it means, precisely, financial meltdown or the crisis. The most fascinating feature of the post-crisis era on financial markets was the continuation of a ubiquitous liquidity expansion. To fight the market squeeze, all the major central banks have greatly expanded their balance sheets. The latter rose, roughly, from about 10 percent to 25-30 percent of GDP for the appropriate economies. For several years after the credit crunch 2007-09, central banks bought trillions of dollars of toxic and government debts thus increasing, without any precedent in modern history, money issuance. Paradoxically, this enormous credit expansion, though accelerating for several years, has been accompanied by a stagnating and depressed real economy. Yet, until now, central bankers are worried with downside risks and threats of price deflation, mainly. Otherwise, a hectic financial activity that is going on along unbounded credit expansion could be transformed by herding into autocatalytic process that, if being subject to accumulation of a new debt, might drive the entire system at a total collapse. From a financial point of view, this systemic collapse appears to be a natural result of unbounded credit expansion which is ‘supported’ with the zero real resources. Since the wealth of investors, as a whole, becomes nothing but the ‘fool’s gold’, financial process becomes a singular one, and the entire system collapses. In particular, three phases of investors’ behavior – hedge finance, speculation, and the Ponzi game, could be easily identified as a sequence of sub-cycles that unwound ultimately in the total collapse.

Austrian Economics. Some Ruminations. Part 1.

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Keynes argued that by stimulating spending on outputs, consumption, goods and services, one could increase productive investment to meet that spending, thus adding to the capital stock and increasing employment. Hayek, on the other hand furiously accused Keynes of insufficient attention to the nature of capital in production. For Hayek, capital investment does not simply add to production in a general way, but rather is embodied in concrete capital items. Rather than being an amorphous stock of generalized production power, it is an intricate structure of specific interrelated complementary components. Stimulating spending and investment, then, amounts to stimulating specific sections and components of this intricate structure. Before heading out to Austrian School of Economics, here is another important difference between the two that is cardinal, and had more do with monetary system. Keynes viewed the macro system as vulnerable to periodic declines in demand, and regarded micro adjustments such as wage and price declines as ineffective to restore growth and prosperity. Hayek viewed the market as capable of correcting itself by taking advantages of competitions, and regarded government and Central Banks’ policies to restore growth as sources of more instability.

The best known Austrian capital theorist was Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, though his teacher Carl Menger is the one who got the ball rolling, providing the central idea that Böhm-Bawerk elaborated. For the Austrians, the general belief lay in the fact that production takes time, and more roundabout the process, the more delay production needs to anticipate. Modern economies comprise complex, specialized processes in which the many steps necessary to produce any product are connected in a sequentially specific network – some things have to be done before others. There is a time structure to the capital structure. This intricate time structure is partially organized, partially spontaneous (organic). Every production process is the result of some multiperiod plan. Entrepreneurs envision the possibility of providing (new, improved, cheaper) products to consumers whose expenditure on them will be more than sufficient to cover the cost of producing them. In pursuit of this vision the entrepreneur plans to assemble the necessary capital items in a synergistic combination. These capital combinations are structurally composed modules that are the ingredients of the industry-wide or economy-wide capital structure. The latter is the result then of the dynamic interaction of multiple entrepreneurial plans in the marketplace; it is what constitutes the market process. Some plans will prove more successful than others, some will have to be modified to some degree, some will fail. What emerges is a structure that is not planned by anyone in its totality but is the result of many individual actions in the pursuit of profit. It is an unplanned structure that has a logic, a coherence, to it. It was not designed, and could not have been designed, by any human mind or committee of minds. Thinking that it is possible to design such a structure or even to micromanage it with macroeconomic policy is a fatal conceit. The division of labor reflected by the capital structure is based on a division of knowledge. Within and across firms specialized tasks are accomplished by those who know best how to accomplish them. Such localized, often unconscious, knowledge could not be communicated to or collected by centralized decision-makers. The market process is responsible not only for discovering who should do what and how, but also how to organize it so that those best able to make decisions are motivated to do so. In other words, incentives and knowledge considerations tend to get balanced spontaneously in a way that could not be planned on a grand scale. The boundaries of firms expand and contract, and new forms of organization evolve. This too is part of the capital structure broadly understood.

Hayek emphasizes that,

the static proposition that an increase in the quantity of capital will bring about a fall in its marginal productivity . . . when taken over into economic dynamics and applied to the quantity of capital goods, may become quite definitely erroneous.

Hayek stresses chains of investments and how earlier investments in the chains can increase the return to the later, complementary investments. However, Hayek is primarily concerned with applying those insights to business cycle phenomena. Also, Hayek never took the additional step that endogenous growth theory has in highlighting the effects of complementarities across intangible investments in the production of ideas and/or knowledge. Indeed, Hayek explicitly excludes their consideration:

It should be quite clear that the technical changes involved, when changes in the time structure of production are contemplated, are not changes due to changes in technical knowledge. . . . It excludes any changes in the technique of production which are made possible by new inventions.

…….

 

Nobel Prize in Economics and Crimino(logy)/(genic). How Contracts Work? Note Quote.

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How has the Swedish Central Bank’s committee that awards prizes in Economics in honor of Nobel responded to the field’s abject failures regarding the recent financial crisis and the Great Recession?  A lesser group would display humility, acknowledge its failures, and promise a fundamental rethink of the field.  Neoclassical economists, however, are made of sterner stuff.  The committee’s response is to praise the discipline for its theoretical advances and proposed policies related to finance, regulation, and corporate governance. Oliver Hart, and Bengt Holmström exemplify this pattern.

The economics prize is a bit different. It was created by Sweden’s Central Bank in 1969, nearly 75 years later. The award’s real name is the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” It was not established by Nobel, but supposedly in memory of Nobel. It’s a ruse and a PR trick, and I mean that literally. And it was done completely against the wishes of the Nobel family.

Sweden’s Central Bank quietly snuck it in with all the other Nobel Prizes to give free-market economics for the 1% credibility. One of the Federal Reserve banks explained it succinctly, “Few realize, especially outside of economists, that the prize in economics is not an “official” Nobel. . . . The award for economics came almost 70 years later—bootstrapped to the Nobel in 1968 as a bit of a marketing ploy to celebrate the Bank of Sweden’s 300th anniversary.” Yes, you read that right: “a marketing ploy.”

The Economics Prize has nestled itself in and is awarded as if it were a Nobel Prize. But it’s a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation,” Nobel’s great great nephew Peter Nobel told AFP in 2005, adding that “It’s most often awarded to stock market speculators …. There is nothing to indicate that [Alfred Nobel] would have wanted such a prize.

Members of the Nobel family are among the harshest, most persistent critics of the economics prize, and members of the family have repeatedly called for the prize to be abolished or renamed. In 2001, on the 100th anniversery of the Nobel Prizes, four family members published a letter in the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet, arguing that the economics prize degrades and cheapens the real Nobel Prizes. They aren’t the only ones.

Scientists never had much respect for the new economic Nobel prize. In fact, a scientist who headed Nixon’s Science Advisory Committee in 1969, was shocked to learn that economists were even allowed on stage to accept their award with the real Nobel laureates. He was incredulous: “You mean they sat on the platform with you?”

Why economics? To answer that question we have to go back to Sweden in the 1960s.

Around the time the prize was created, Sweden’s banking and business interests were busy trying to ram through various so-called “free-market” economic reforms. Their big objective at the time was to loosen political oversight and control over the country’s central bank. According to Philip Mirowski, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the history of economics, the

Bank of Sweden was trying to become more independent of democratic accountability in the late 60s, and there was a big political dispute in Sweden as to whether the bank could have effective political independence. In order to support that position, the bank needed to claim that it had a kind of scientific credibility that was not grounded in political support.

Promoters of central bank independence couched their arguments in the obscure language of neoclassical economic theory of market efficiency. The problem was that few people in Sweden took their neoclassical babble very seriously, and saw their plan for central bank independence for what it was: an attempt to transfer control over economic matters from democratically elected government and place into the hands of big business interests, giving them a free hand in running Sweden’s economy without pesky interference from labor unions, voters and elected officials.

For the first few years, the Swedish Central Bank Prize in Economics went to fairly mainstream and maybe even semi-respectable economists. But after establishing the award as credible and serious, the prizes took a hard turn to the right. Over the next decade, the prize was awarded to the most fanatical supporters of theories that concentrated wealth among the top 1% of industrialized society of our time. At the time of the prizes, neoclassical economics were not fully accepted by the media and political establishment. But the Nobel Prize changed all that. What started as a project to help the Bank of Sweden achieve political independence, ended up boosting the credibility of the most regressive strains of free-market economics, and paving the way for widespread acceptance of libertarian ideology.

The Swedish Riksbank awarded this year’s Nobel prize for economic sciences to Oliver Hart, a British economist at Harvard University, and Bengt Holmstrom, a Finnish economist at MIT, for their work improving our understanding of how and why contracts work, and when they can be made to work better.

Their work focuses attention on the necessity of trade-offs in setting contract terms; it is yet another in a series of recent prizes which explores the unavoidable imperfections in many critical markets. Mr Holmstrom’s analyses of insurance contracts describe the inevitable trade-off between the completeness of an insurance contract and the extent to which that contract encourages moral hazard. From an insurance perspective, the co-payments that patients must sometimes make when receiving treatment are a waste; it would be better for people to be able to insure fully. Yet because insurers cannot know that all patients are receiving only the treatment they need and no more, they employ co-payments as a way to lean against the problem of moral hazard: that some people will choose to use much more health care than they need when the pool of all those being insured picks up the bill. A common and important thread in work by Messrs Hart and Holmstrom is the role of power in planning co-operative ventures. Individuals or firms with the ability to hold up arrangements – by withholding their service or the use of a resource they own – wield economic power. That power allows them to capture more of the value generated by a co-operative effort, and potentially to sink it entirely, even if the venture would yield big gains for all participants and society as a whole. Contracts exist to shape power relationships. In some cases, they are there to limit the exercise of hold-up power so that a venture can go forward. In others, they are intended to create or protect certain power relationships in order to encourage good behaviour: workers or firms with the right to exit a relationship, for instance, force other parties to that relationship to take their interests into account. The broader lesson – that power matters – is one economics too often neglects.

The theory holds that the contracting costs between economic units are shaped by the nature of the interaction between them. These costs are not operational costs, such as commission fees or transportation costs. Instead, they stem from the lack of clarity and enforceability of the terms of the interaction and each unit’s dependence on the interaction. And, in the words of today’s prize winners, they cause contracts to be incomplete. 

Difficulties in Negotiating a Transaction

Difficulties in Monitoring an Ongoing Transaction

Difficulties in Enforcing an Agreement

When managers spot these sorts of problems on the horizon, a deal that potentially will create value may not get done because the contract is bound to be incomplete. The danger is that the contract will not specify how to resolve conflicts in the future. This is because the agreement between the parties does not cover all contingencies, all issues, or all possible states of the world. To govern a partnership successfully, then, you need to manage the gaps in the contract. Traditional management techniques call for command and control in these situations, to respond quickly and decisively to new conditions. But this solution is missing from typical partnerships, most of which are characterized by a sharing of control. It may be a formal joint venture with shared ownership or a looser arrangement whereby one party controls certain parts of the joint project and the other party controls others. So, each partner’s control in these combinations is also incomplete.

Neoclassical economic dogma is that money is the “high power” incentive.  Normal humans know that this is preposterous.  The highest power incentives are rarely monetary.  People give up their lives for others.  Some of them do so nominally for “duty, honor, country,” but actually because of the effects of “small unit cohesion.” A second neoclassical dogma is ignoring fraud and predation.  The 2016 prizes show how, despite their knowledge of the falsity of the implicit assumption, neoclassical economists repeatedly ignore the manners in which CEOs shape perverse incentives and render the Laureates’ compensation and governance policies criminogenic.  A third neoclassical dogma is, implicitly, to assume that perverse incentives do not influence CEOs and those they suborn.  Holmström and Steven N. Kaplan’s article about corporate governance in light of the Enron-era frauds unintentionally displayed this third neoclassical dogma about incentives. The fourth dogma is that regulation cannot succeed because it lacks “high power” incentives. Criminologists’ understanding of incentives and how CEOs set and pervert incentives is far more sophisticated than neoclassical economists’ myths about incentives.  Criminologists provide the content to how CEOs that predate “rig the system.”  Criminologists agree that perverse financial incentives are important contributors to white-collar crime.