Banking and Lending/Investment. How Monetary Policy Becomes Decisive? Some Branching Rumination.

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Among the most notoriously pernicious effects of asset price inflation is that it offers speculators the prospect of gain in excess of the costs of borrowing the money to buy the asset whose price is being inflated. This is how many unstable Ponzi financing structures begin. There are usually strict regulations to prevent or limit banks’ direct investment in financial instruments without any assured residual liquidity, such as equity or common stocks. However, it is less easy to prevent banks from lending to speculative investors, who then use the proceeds of their loans to buy securities or to limit lending secured on financial assets. As long as asset markets are being inflated, such credit expansions also conceal from banks, their shareholders and their regulators the disintermediation that occurs when the banks’ best borrowers, governments and large companies, use bills and company paper instead of bank loans for their short-term financing. As long as the boom proceeds, banks can enjoy the delusion that they can replace the business of governments and large companies with good lending secured on stocks.

In addition to undermining the solvency of the banking system, and distracting commerce and industry with the possibilities of lucrative corporate restructuring, capital market inflation also tends to make monetary policy ineffective. Monetary policy is principally the fixing of reserve requirements, buying and selling short-term paper or bills in the money or inter-bank markets, buying and selling government bonds and fixing short-term interest rates. As noted in the previous section, with capital market inflation there has been a proliferation of short-term financial assets traded in the money markets, as large companies and banks find it cheaper to issue their own paper than to borrow for banks. This disintermediation has extended the range of short-term liquid assets which banks may hold. As a result of this it is no longer possible for central banks, in countries experiencing capital market inflation, to control the overall amount of credit available in the economy: attempts to squeeze the liquidity of banks in order to limit their credit advances by, say, open market operations (selling government bonds) are frustrated by the ease with which banks may restore their liquidity by selling bonds or their holdings of short-term paper or bills. In this situation central banks have been forced to reduce the scope of their monetary policy to the setting of short-term interest rates.

Economists have long believed that monetary policy is effective in controlling price inflation in the economy at large, as opposed to inflation of securities prices. Various rationalizations have been advanced for this efficacy of monetary policy. For the most part they suppose some automatic causal connection between changes in the quantity of money in circulation and changes in prices, although the Austrian School of Economists (here, here, here, and here) tended on occasion to see the connection as being between changes in the rate of interest and changes in prices.

Whatever effect changes in the rate of interest may have on the aggregate of money circulating in the economy, the effect of such changes on prices has to be through the way in which an increase or decrease in the rate of interest causes alterations in expenditure in the economy. Businesses and households are usually hard-headed enough to decide their expenditure and financial commitments in the light of their nominal revenues and cash outflows, which may form their expectations, rather than in accordance with their expectations or optimizing calculations. If the same amount of money continues to be spent in the economy, then there is no effective reason for the business-people setting prices to vary prices. Only if expenditure in markets is rising or falling would retailers and industrialists consider increasing or decreasing prices. Because price expectations are observable directly with difficulty, they may explain everything in general and therefore lack precision in explaining anything in particular. Notwithstanding their effects on all sorts of expectations, interest rate changes affect inflation directly through their effects on expenditure.

The principal expenditure effects of changes in interest rates occur among net debtors in the economy, i.e., economic units whose financial liabilities exceed their financial assets. This is in contrast to net creditors, whose financial assets exceed their liabilities, and who are usually wealthy enough not to have their spending influenced by changes in interest rates. If they do not have sufficient liquid savings out of which to pay the increase in their debt service payments, then net debtors have their expenditure squeezed by having to devote more of their income to debt service payments. The principal net debtors are governments, households with mortgages and companies with large bank loans.

With or without capital market inflation, higher interest rates have never constrained government spending because of the ease with which governments may issue debt. In the case of indebted companies, the degree to which their expenditure is constrained by higher interest rates depends on their degree of indebtedness, the available facilities for additional financing and the liquidity of their assets. As a consequence of capital market inflation, larger companies reduce their borrowing from banks because it becomes cheaper and more convenient to raise even short- term finance in the booming securities markets. This then makes the expenditure of even indebted companies less immediately affected by changes in bank interest rates, because general changes in interest rates cannot affect the rate of discount or interest paid on securities already issued. Increases in short-term interest rates to reduce general price inflation can then be easily evaded by companies financing themselves by issuing longer-term securities, whose interest rates tend to be more stable. Furthermore, with capital market inflation, companies are more likely to be over-capitalized and have excessive financial liabilities, against which companies tend to hold a larger stock of more liquid assets. As inflated financial markets have become more unstable, this has further increased the liquidity preference of large companies. This excess liquidity enables the companies enjoying it to gain higher interest income to offset the higher cost of their borrowing and to maintain their planned spending. Larger companies, with access to capital markets, can afford to issue securities to replenish their liquid reserves.

If capital market inflation reduces the effectiveness of monetary policy against product price inflation, because of the reduced borrowing of companies and the ability of booming asset markets to absorb large quantities of bank credit, interest rate increases have appeared effective in puncturing asset market bubbles in general and capital market inflations in particular. Whether interest rate rises actually can effect an end to capital market inflation depends on how such rises actually affect the capital market. In asset markets, as with anti-inflationary policy in the rest of the economy, such increases are effective when they squeeze the liquidity of indebted economic units by increasing the outflow of cash needed to service debt payments and by discouraging further speculative borrowing. However, they can only be effective in this way if the credit being used to inflate the capital market is short term or is at variable rates of interest determined by the short-term rate.

Keynes’s speculative demand for money is the liquidity preference or demand for short-term securities of rentiers in relation to the yield on long-term securities. Keynes’s speculative motive is ‘a continuous response to gradual changes in the rate of interest’ in which, as interest rates along the whole maturity spectrum decline, there is a shift in rentiers’ portfolio preference toward more liquid assets. Keynes clearly equated a rise in equity (common stock) prices with just such a fall in interest rates. With falling interest rates, the increasing preference of rentiers for short-term financial assets could keep the capital market from excessive inflation.

But the relationship between rates of interest, capital market inflation and liquidity preference is somewhat more complicated. In reality, investors hold liquid assets not only for liquidity, which gives them the option to buy higher-yielding longer-term stocks when their prices fall, but also for yield. This marginalizes Keynes’s speculative motive for liquidity. The motive was based on Keynes’s distinction between what he called ‘speculation’ (investment for capital gain) and ‘enterprise’ (investment long term for income). In our times, the modern rentier is the fund manager investing long term on behalf of pension and insurance funds and competing for returns against other funds managers. An inflow into the capital markets in excess of the financing requirements of firms and governments results in rising prices and turnover of stock. This higher turnover means greater liquidity so that, as long as the capital market is being inflated, the speculative motive for liquidity is more easily satisfied in the market for long-term securities.

Furthermore, capital market inflation adds a premium of expected inflation, or prospective capital gain, to the yield on long-term financial instruments. Hence when the yield decreases, due to an increase in the securities’ market or actual price, the prospective capital gain will not fall in the face of this capital appreciation, but may even increase if it is large or abrupt. Rising short-term interest rates will therefore fail to induce a shift in the liquidity preference of rentiers towards short-term instruments until the central bank pushes these rates of interest above the sum of the prospective capital gain and the market yield on long-term stocks. Only at this point will there be a shift in investors’ preferences, causing capital market inflation to cease, or bursting an asset bubble.

This suggests a new financial instability hypothesis, albeit one that is more modest and more limited in scope and consequence than Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis. During an economic boom, capital market inflation adds a premium of expected capital gain to the market yield on long-term stocks. As long as this yield plus the expected capital gain exceed the rate of interest on short-term securities set by the central bank’s monetary policy, rising short-term interest rates will have no effect on the inflow of funds into the capital market and, if this inflow is greater than the financing requirements of firms and governments, the resulting capital market inflation. Only when the short-term rate of interest exceeds the threshold set by the sum of the prospective capital gain and the yield on long-term stocks will there be a shift in rentiers’ preferences. The increase in liquidity preference will reduce the inflow of funds into the capital market. As the rise in stock prices moderates, the prospective capital gain gets smaller, and may even become negative. The rentiers’ liquidity preference increases further and eventually the stock market crashes, or ceases to be active in stocks of longer maturities.

At this point, the minimal or negative prospective capital gain makes equity or common stocks unattractive to rentiers at any positive yield, until the rate of interest on short-term securities falls below the sum of the prospective capital gain and the market yield on those stocks. When the short-term rate of interest does fall below this threshold, the resulting reduction in rentiers’ liquidity preference revives the capital market. Thus, in between the bursting of speculative bubbles and the resurrection of a dormant capital market, monetary policy has little effect on capital market inflation. Hence it is a poor regulator for ‘squeezing out inflationary expectations’ in the capital market.

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.

Hyman Minsky, Karl Polanyi, Deleterious Markets and if there is any Alt-Right to them? Apparently No.

Karl Polanyi has often highlighted on the insight about the predicaments of the market. these perils realize that when the markets are left to their own devices, they are enough o cause attrition to the social relations and fabric. However, the social consequences of financial instability can be understood only by employing a Polanyian perspective on how processes of commodification and market expansion jeopardize social institutions. For someone like Hyman Minsky, equilibrium and stability are elusive conditions in markets with debt contracts. His financial instability hypothesis suggests that capitalist economies lead, through their own dynamics, to “the development over historical time of liability structures that cannot be validated by market-determined cash flows or asset values”. According to Minsky, a stable period generates optimistic expectations. Increased confidence and positive expectations of future income streams cause economic actors to decrease margins of safety in their investment decisions. This feeds a surge in economic activity and profits, which turns into a boom as investments are financed by higher degrees of indebtedness. As the economic boom matures, an increasing number of financial intermediaries and firms switch from hedge finance to speculative and Ponzi finance. Minsky argued that economists, misreading Keynes, downplay the role of financial institutions. In particular, he argued that financial innovation can create economic euphoria for a while before destabilizing the economy and hurling it into crises rivaling the Great Depression. Minsky’s insights are evident in the effects of innovations in mortgages and mortgage securities. Actors using speculative and Ponzi finance are vulnerable to macroeconomic volatility and interest rate fluctuations. A boom ends when movements in short-term and long-term interest rates render the liability structures of speculative and Ponzi finance unsustainable. The likelihood of a financial crisis (as opposed to a business cycle) depends on the preponderance of speculative and Ponzi finance in the economy under question.

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Minsky regularly criticized economists for failing to grasp Keynes’s ideas. In his book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy Minsky argued that while economists assimilated some of Keynes’s insights into standard economic theory, they failed to grasp the connection between the financial and real sectors. Specifically, he argued that finance is missing from macroeconomic theory, with its focus on capital structure, asset-liability management, agency theory, and contracts. He wrote:

Keynes’s theory revolves around bankers and businessmen making deals on Wall Street … One of the peculiarities of the neoclassical theory that preceded Keynes and the neoclassical synthesis that now predominates economic theory is that neither allows the activities that take place on Wall Street to have any significant impact upon the coordination or lack of coordination of the economy…

Minsky’s work on financial crises builds on Keynes’s insights, using terms such as “euphoric economy”, and “unrealistic euphoric expectations with respect to costs, markets, and their development over time”. Yet Minsky considered the issues of rational prices and market efficiency as only the tip of an iceberg. His broad framework addresses issues related to the lending practices by financial institutions, central bank policy, fiscal policy, the efficacy of financial market regulation, employment policy, and income distribution. Financial institutions, such as banks, become increasingly innovative in their use of financial products when the business cycle expands, boosting their leverage and funding projects with ever increasing risk. Minsky’s words on financial innovation are striking, as if foretelling the recent crisis.

Over an expansion, new financial instruments and new ways of financing activity develop. Typically, defects of the new ways and the new institutions are revealed when the crunch comes.

Commercial banks sponsored conduits to finance long-term assets through special purpose entities such as structured investment vehicles (SIVs), something similar to the Indian version of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). These were off balance sheet entities, subjecting them to lower regulatory capital requirements. Special purpose entities used commercial paper to raise funds they then used to buy mortgages and mortgage securities. In effect, banks relied on Minsky-type speculative and Ponzi financing, borrowing short-term and using these borrowed funds to buy long-term assets. Wrote Minsky,

The standard analysis of banking has led to a game that is played by central banks, henceforth to be called the authorities, and profit-seeking banks. In this game, the authorities impose interest rates and reserve regulations and operate in money markets to get what they consider to be the right amount of money, and the banks invent and innovate in order to circumvent the authorities. The authorities may constrain the rate of growth of the reserve base, but the banking and financial structure determines the efficacy of reserves…This is an unfair game. The entrepreneurs of the banking community have much more at stake than the bureaucrats of the central banks. In the postwar period, the initiative has been with the banking community, and the authorities have been “surprised” by changes in the way financial markets operate. The profit-seeking bankers almost always win their game with the authorities, but, in winning, the banking community destabilizes the economy; the true losers are those who are hurt by unemployment and inflation.

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Combining Hyman Minsky’s insights on financial fragility with a Polanyian focus on commodification offers a distinct perspective on the causes and consequences of the foreclosure crisis. First, following Polanyi, we should expect to find commodity fiction applied to arenas of social life previously isolated from markets to be at the heart of the recent financial crisis. Second, following Minsky, the transformations caused by novel uses of commodity fiction should be among the primary causes of financial fragility. Finally, in line with a Polanyian focus on the effects of supply-demand-price mechanism, the price fluctuations caused by financial fragility should disrupt existing social relations and institutions in a significant manner. So, how does this all peter down to alt-right? Right-wing libertarianism is basically impossible. The “free” market as we know it today needs the state to be implemented – without reading Polanyi, you just know for example that without the force of the state, you just can’t have private property or all the legal arrangements that underpin property, labour and money. So it wouldn’t work anyway. Polanyi’s point is that if we want democracy to survive, we need to beware of financial overlords and their ideological allies peddling free-market utopias. And if democracy even stinks of stability, then stability is destabilizing as Minsky would have had it, thus corroborating the cross-purposes between the two thinkers in question, at least to the point of a beginning.