Archives for posts with tag: investment

Swimming with Sharks – Joris Luyendijk (2015)

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In the years before the crash, commercial banks and mortgage providers lent far too much money to people who could not afford such debts – primarily in the US and the UK, mostly for mortages. This continued for a long period of time because the easy money drove up houses prices, making many people feel richer than they were. Commercial banks had no reason to worry about the risk of default on loans because they could sell them on to investment banks, which the chopped them up and repackaged them into ever more complex financial products. Assets managers at pension funds were keen to buy them because interest rates were low and these new instruments offered better returns. For protection, pension funds and others relied on American insurance giant AIG. In turn AIG trusted the credit rating agencies’ triple AAA ratings.

In 2007, millions of buyers would not be able to meet their financial obligations. Financial products that contained their mortgages began to lose value. Investors had to take big losses but banks, too, had kept some of these products. They had to write off huge sums but how much was difficult to estimate: not only some of the products where mind-bogglingly difficult to value but the same was true for the ‘vehicles’ in off-shore tax havens where banks had placed many of them. At Leman Brothers the buffers were not enough and the bank had to announce bankruptcy. Other banks and financial institutions stopped lending to each others (as none knew the financial solidity of the others). Suddenly the financial world was gripped by a paralysing fear. In response, Governments reached deep into the state coffers and central banks lowered interest rates and pumped unprecedented amounts of newly created money into the economy.  They had saved the system.

For bankers, the crash of 2008 was a perfect storm, or rather a black swam: unique and literally unforeseeable. But isn’t it all the more alarming if virtually nobody in the sector realised how dangerous these complex financial products could be?

The salaries of those who manage the risks in banks has always come from the revenues raised by those taking the risks. Historically, investment bankers worked in small partnership where management and owners partly overlapped. Partners were personally liable. From mid eighties these partnership started to list on the stock exchange or were taken over by publicly listed commercial banks who wanted to take advantage of the deregulation and move into investment banking. Those commercial banks took over dozens of other banks and became ‘too big to fail’.  In listed companies, the risk lies with shareholders rather than partners, while bankers are paid partly in shares and options. And a good way to raise the share price is to take risk (which ultimately the taxpayer will bear).  It was genuinely eye-opening to realise just how recently the investment banks had mutated in this way. Those who take the risks are no longer those who bear them.

If you can be out of the door in five minutes, your horizon becomes five minutes. That was the essence of zero job security. Not only does all loyalty evaporates, but continuity does too. Nobody can built on anyone else, the best can be poached at anytime and meanwhile there are swords of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head.

We need to get rid of the idea of ‘the bank’: that term implies a unity of action and purpose. There is no such a thing.

Perverse incentives: rewards for undesirable actions.

Traditionally there were separate firms for trading, for asset management and for deal making (mergers,listing of new companies etc.) . Since the 80’s, all three activities have been brought under the roof of one bank, through mergers and acquisitions in the financial sector. This is a conflict of interest of the highest order and banks have been asked to set up Chinese wall between their divisions and activities to avoid leaking of information and pressure from one sector to another (e.g. investing in companies whose listing is done by the same bank…)

Corporations can be hit hard by currency fluctuations (with increasing volatility in the 1970’s). So banks invented derivatives that allowed parties to protect themselves. This was a good idea that perform a useful service to the economy and society. But fast forward 20 years and you see the British bank Barings collapse as a result of a rogue trader using advance foreign currency derivatives.  A company or government can go bust, meaning investors lose money. Banks developed an insurance of sort: the Credit Default Swap (CDS). This was a good idea but a good decade later (in 2008) CDS played a crucial role in the financial crisisMortgages are good long term investments for pension funds but as a pension funds you are not going to by individual mortgages. Banks found a way to package those in instruments allowing investment by pension funds. 15 years later, those products would sank Lehman Brothers.

In 2012, a trader at JP Morgan (and his team) run up a 6.2bn loss. The year before, his pay came to 7m. He did not break any law and has never been prosecuted. (Bruno Iksil)

While doing research there are sometimes points at which lines of investigation suddenly coalesce into an insight.

Around 2000, the dot-com scandal revealed fundamental conflicts of interest between activities that used to be done by separate firms; taking company public, trading and asset management. The regulatory response was not to prevent those conflicts, it merely forced the banks to install Chinese wall – policed by their own risk and compliance staff.

Tony Blair is making 2.5M pound a year as adviser to JP Morgan. Hector Sants, chief regulator in 2008, has a top job at Barclays. His estimated compensation was 3M pound a year. The three major credit rating agencies have kept their de-facto cartel; as have the four accountancy firms who continue to do lucrative consultancy jobs for the banks there are meant to audit independently.

After quizzing interviewees on their motives, greed seemed a highly inadequate explanation of their behaviour. I have come to believe that the focus on greed is the biggest mistake outsiders have made in the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse. (The Wolf of Wall Street kept this popular). [The system was to blame in more general term, short termism etc.]

To think that blinkered bankers will one day wake up and decide to change finance from inside is wishful thinking.

Andrew Haldane, number 2 at English central bank told that the balances of the big banks are the blackest of black hole.

Four changes the laws should bring: banks must be chopped up into units so that they are no longer too big to fail; banks should not have activities under one roof that create conflict of interests; banks should not build or sell overly complex financial products, the bonus should land on the same head as the malus.

Political parties, politicians, regulators have come to identify themselves with the financial sector and the people in it. The term is ‘capture’. Politicians started to believe the world works in the way that bankers say it does.

As put by interviewee: The left insists on solidarity across the nation, with higher tax rates for rich people to help their less fortunate countrymen. But this solidarity is predicated on a sense of national belonging, to which the left is allergic; national identity comes with chauvinism and nationalism and creepy right wing supremacists.

Nobody is helped more by cynicism about politics than cynical politicians.






The End of Alchemy, Mervyn King, 2016

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The post-war confidence that Keynesian ideas – the use of public spending to expand total demand in the economy – would prevent us from repeating the errors of the past was to prove touchingly naïve. Expansionary policies during the 1960s, exacerbated by the Viet-Nam war, led to the great inflation of the 1970s, accompanied by slow growth and rising unemployment – the combination known as stagflation.

My own accounts of event (re the crises) will be made available to historians when the twenty-year rule permits their release.

Today we are stuck with extraordinary low interest rates, which discourage saving – the source of future demand – and, if maintained indefinitely, will pull down rates of return on investment, diverting resources into unprofitable projects. Both effects will drag down future growth rates.

Three bold experiments since the 1970s:  to give central banks much greater independence in order to stabilize the inflation; to allow capital to move freely between countries and encourage a fixed exchange rates (in Europe, between China and US); to remove regulations limiting  the activities of the banking and financial system (more competition, new products, geographic expansion) to promote financial stability.

Three consequences : the Good was a period between 1990 and 2007 of unprecedented stability of both output and inflation – the Great Stability with inflation targeting spreading to 30 countries; the Bad was the rise of debt level: eliminating exchange rate flexibility in Europe and emerging markets led to growing trade deficits and surpluses. Richer country could borrow to finance deficits and long term interest rates began to fall (too much saving). Low long term interest has an immediate effect: the value of assets (today’s value) – specially houses – rose. As value increased, more borrowing was needed to buy those assets – from 1986 to 2006, household debt increase from 90% of household income to 140% (in the UK). The Ugly was the development of an extremely fragile banking system. Separation between commercial and investment banking was removed. Trading of new and complex financial products among banks meant that they became closely connected: a problem in one would spread rapidly to others. Equity capital (funds provided by shareholder of the bank) accounted for a declining proportion of overall funding. Leverage (the ratio of total assets (liabilities) to equity capital rose to extraordinary level (more than 30 for most bank, up to 50 for some before the crises)

Total saving in the world was so high that interest rates, after allowing for inflation, fell to level incompatible in the long run with a profitable growing market economy.

No country had incentives to do something about imbalances. If a country had, on its own, tried to swim against the tide of falling interest rates, it would have experience an economic slowdown and rising unemployment, without having an impact on the global economy or the banking sector.

In 2002, the consensus was that there would eventually be a sharp fall in the value of the US dollar, which would produce a change in spending patterns. But long before that could happen, the banking crises of September and October 2008 happened.

Opinions differ as to the cause of the crises: some see it as financial panic as confidence in bank creditworthiness fell and investors stopped lending to them- a liquidity crises. Other see it as the outcome of bad lending decisions by banks – a solvency crises. Some even imagine that the crises was solely an affair of the US financial sector.

The story of the crises

After the demise of the socialist model, China, Soviet Union, India embraced the international trading system. China alone created 70 million manufacturing jobs, far exceeding the US 42 million jobs in US and Europe combined (in 2012). The pool of labour supplying the world trading system more than trebled in size (depressing real wages in other countries). Advanced countries benefited from cheap consumer goods at the expense of employment in the manufacturing sector. China and other Asian countries produced more than they were spending and saved more than they were investing a home (in the absence of social safety net, and a one child only policy in China preventing parents to rely on their children when retiring). There was an excess of saving, which pushed down long term interest rates around the world. Short term interest rate are determined by central banks but long term interest rate result from the balance between spending and saving in the world as a whole. IN recent times, short term real interest (accounting for inflation) have actually been negative (official rates have been less than inflation).  In the 19th century, real rates were positive and moved within 3% to 5%. It was probably 1.5% when the crises hit and since then has fallen further to around zero. Lower interest rate and higher market prices for assets boosted investment. It appeared profitable to invest in projects with increasing low real rates of return. For a decade or more after the fall of Berlin wall, consumer benefited from lower prices on imported goods. Confronted with persistent trade deficit, developed countries (US, UK, part of Europe) relied on central banks to achieve growth and low inflation by cutting short term interest to boost the growth of money, credit and domestic demand. This was an unsustainable path in many, if not most, countries. Saving in Asia and debt in the West produce major macroeconomic imbalance. Normally capital flow from mature to developing countries where profitable opportunities abound. Now emerging economies were exporting capital to advanced economies where opportunities were more limited. Most of these financial flow passed through the western banking system leading to a rapid expansion of bank balance sheets (all bank’s asset – the loans to customers – and liabilities – the deposit and loans taken by the banks). As western banks also extended credit to household and companies, balance sheets expanded. As asset prices increased, debt levels increased (more expensive to buy new houses, so more borrowing). With interest rate low, the bank also took more risk, in an increasingly desperate hunt for higher return. Central banks, by allowing the amount of money in the economy to expand, did little to prevent this better yield seeking behavior. In addition pensions funds and insurance were trying to find ways of making their saving more attractive. Banks created new financial instruments based (derived from ) basic contracts (hence ‘derivative’) such as collateralized debt obligation (CDO), more risky but with better return assets. Because return were higher (even if sometimes the financial instruments were very risky or even fraudulent) there was no shortage of buyers. Financial assets increased rapidly:  from ¼ of GDP in the US, it was 100% by 2007. It was 500% of GDp in the UK, even higher in Ireland. Bank leverage rose to 50 to 1 (for 1 dollar provided by shareholder, the bank borrowed more than 50). Substantial profits were made so regulators took an unduly benign view of these developments. The interaction between the macroeconomic imbalances (extra saving) and the developing banking system that generated the crises. Most policy maker believed that unsustainable pattern of spending and saving, would end with the collapse of the US dollar. The dollar was the currency in which emerging economies were happy to invest (the renminbi was not convertible – China in 2014 owned US$4tn). So the dollar remained strong and it was the fragility of the banks that first revealed the fault lines. First law of financial crises: an unsustainable position can continue for far longer than you would believe possible. The second law of financial crises: when an unsustainable position ends it happens faster than you could imagine.  In august 2007, BN Paribas announced it stopped paying investors on three funds invested in the sub-prime market. End of 2007 market liquidity in a wide range of financial instrument dried up: the banks were vulnerable to the US sub-prime mortgage – loans to households on low incomes who were highly likely to default. In September, central banks did not believe the problem could bring down large bank: the stock of mortgage was only US$ 1tn, so losses could not be large enough for the system as a whole. This time however banks had made large bets on sub-prime markets (derivative contracts). Although those bets cancelled out as whole, some banks were in the money, other were under water. Because it was impossible to tell those apart in the short term, all banks came under suspicion. They stooped lending to each other. Banks needed injection of shareholder’s capital (not new loans as central banks were offering). Two options: either to recapitalize or to drastically reduce lending – for the economy, the former was preferable. The system staggered for a year. In Sept 2015 Lehman Brothers failed, generating a run on the US banking system by financial institutions (such as money market funds). The run spread to other advanced economies: banks around the world found it impossible to finance themselves (because no one new which bank were safe. It was the biggest global financial crisis in history. With Bank unable to refinance themselves, the Central Bank had to intervene (with recapitalization of banks starting less than a month later). The problem was that government ended up guaranteeing all private creditors of the banks, imposing on future taxpayers a burden of unknown attitude.  Between autumn of 2008 and summer 2009, 10 millions jobs in US and Europe were lost, world trade fell more rapidly than during the Great Depression. In May 2009, the US treasury and Fed announced that banks could withstand the losses under different adverse scenarios. The banking crises ended but the economic crises remained. By 2015 there had still been no return to the growth and confidence experience earlier.

The strange thing is that after the biggest financial crisis in history, nothing much has changed in terms either of the fundamental structure of banking or the reliance on central banks to restore macroeconomic prosperity.

In practice buyers and sellers simply cannot write contracts to cover every eventuality, and money and banks evolved as a way of trying to cope with radical uncertainty.

In the middle of 2015, we were still searching for a sustainable recovery despite cuts in interest rates and the printing of electronic money on an unprecedented rate. Central banks have thrown everything at their economy and the results have been disappointing.

The sharper the downturn, the more rapid the recovery. Not this time.

From an imbalance between high and low-saving countries, the disequilibrium has morphed into an internal imbalance of even greater significance between saving and spending within economies.

Central bank had to create more money by purchasing large quantities of assets from private sector – the practice known as Quantitative Easing. QE was long regarded as a standard tool of monetary policy – but the scale on which it has been implemented is unprecedented.

Pounds, shilling and pence where already used in 1066 (Domesday book was the first inventory of wealth done at the time). The decimalization of anglo-saxon monetary unit happened on 1971.

The amount of money in the US economy remains stable at around 2/3 of GDP. The share of bank deposit in total has also been roughly constant at 90% (no less than 97% in the UK) (the rest is in coins and banknotes). The amount of money in the economy is determined less by the need to buy ‘stuff’ and more by the supply of credit created by private sector banks responding to borrowers.

The ability to expand the supply of money in times of crisis is essential to avoid a depression. The experience of emergency money reveals that the private sector will not always be able to meet the demand for acceptable money. [in short : Acceptable money is money accepted by all banks, based of confidence in these banks to meet their obligation if needed – what was missing in the early days of the crisis. In those days, only government was able to issue assets that were acceptable by all banks]

The creation of independent central banks with clear mandate to maintain the value of a currency in terms of a representative basket of goods and services, proved successful in stabilizing inflation in 1990s and 2000s. The conquering of inflation over the past twenty-five years was a major achievement in the management of money, and one, despite the financial crisis, not to be underrated.

5,500 tons of gold are in the vault of the Bank of England (worth US$235bn). 6,700 tons are in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The US hold 8,000 tons in reserve, 10,784 tons are in reserve in the Euro area, 1,000 tons in China, Uk only has 310 tons as reserve.(Wikipedia: est. 170,000 tons of gold mined on earth as at 2011).

Most money are created is private sector institutions – banks. This is the most serious fault line in the management of money in our societies today.

If before the crisis banks had exited the riskier types of lending, stopped buying complex derivative instruments they would, in the short term, have earned lower profit. Even understanding the risks, it was safer to follow the crowd.

It is remarkable how equal global banks are in terms of size. Among the twenty biggest banks, the ratio of assets of the largest to the smallest is little more than two to one. These 20 banks accounted for assets of US$42tn in 2014, compared with the world GDP of US$80tn, and for almost 40% of total world-wide bank assets.

Investment banks have been described as inventing new financial instrument that are “socially useless”. With their global reach, their receipt of bailouts from taxpayers, and involvement in seemingly never ending scandals, it is hardly surprising that the banks are unpopular.

Bank grew fast: JP Morgan today accounts for almost the same proportion of US banking as all of the top ten banks put together in 1960. Most of this has taken place in the last 30 years and has been accompanied by increasing concentration. The top ten banks in the US account for 60% of GDP (was 10% in 1960). In the UK, the assets of the top ten banks amount to over 450% of UK GDP, with Barclays and HSBC both having assets in excess of UK GDP.

In less than 50 years, the share of highly liquid assets held by UK banks declined from 33% of their assets to less than 2% today. The turning point came when the balance sheet of the financial sector became divorced from the activities of households and companies. Deregulation and derivatives in 1980 contributed to this divorce. Lending to companies is limited by the amount they wish to borrow. But there is no corresponding limit to the size of transaction in derivatives. The market for derivative in 2014 is just over US$20tn, about ½ of the assets of the largest 20 banks.

Since 1999 in the US, stand-alone investment bank that were previously organized as partnership (ie risk shared between partners – so more controlled) turned themselves into limited liability companies (where only assets are at stake, not borrowings to invest in shady business).

With a growing proportion of bank activity deriving from trading of complex instruments, it was difficult to work out how big the risks actually were. The banks themselves seemed not to understand the risks they were taking. And, if that was the case, there was not much hope for regulators could get to grips with the potential scale of the risk.

Whether selling oversized mortgage to poor people in the US, selling inappropriate pension and other financial product to millions of people in the UK, rigging foreign exchange and other markets, failing to stop subsidiaries  from engaging in money laundering and tax evasion, there seem no ends to the revelations about what bank had been doing. The total fines imposed on banks world wide since the banking crisis ended in 2009 amounted to around $300 billion.

Perhaps the enormous losses banks incurred in the crisis, and the fines levied by regulators around the world, will bring a change of heart in the banking sector.

Many of the substantial bonuses that were paid as a result of trading in derivatives reflected not profit earned in the past year but the capitalized value of a stream of profits projected years into the future. Such accounting proved more destructive than creative.

Someone who invested $1000 in Berkshire Hathaway in 1985 would by the middle of 2015 have an investment worth $161,000. A compound annual rate of return of 17%.

Limited liability  in a bank with only small margin of equity capital means that the owner have incentives to take risks – to gamble for resurrection- because they receive all the profits when gamble pays off, whereas their downside exposure is limited. Those who manage other people’s money are more careless than when managing their own.

Money market funds were created in the US as way to get around the regulation that limited the interest rates banks could offer on their accounts. They were attractive alternative to bank accounts. Such funds were exposed to risk because the value of the securities in which they invested was liable to fluctuate. But the investors were led to believe that the value of their funds was safe. Total liability at the time of the crisis repayable on demand was over $7tn.

All non-bank financial institutions have been describe has shadow banking. Special purpose vehicle issue commercial papers – not dissimilar to bank deposit – and purchase long term securities (such as bundles of mortgages. Edge funds are also part of this shadow banking, although because they do not demand deposit, the comparison with banks is less convincing. Financial engineering allows banks and shadow banks to manufacture additional assets almost without limits, with 2 consequences: first, the new instruments are traded between big financial institutions, more interconnection results and the failure of one firm causes troubles for the others. Second, many of the banks position even out when seen as a whole, balance sheets are not restricted by the scale of the economy. When the crisis started in 2007, no one knew which banks were most exposed to risk.

And in some country the size of the banking sector had increased to a point where it was beyond the ability of the state to provide bailouts without damaging its own financial reputation – Iceland, Ireland – and it proved a near thing in Switzerland and the UK.

Equity, debt and insurance are the basic financial contract underpinning our economy. The total global financial stock of marketable instruments (stocks, bonds) plus loans must be well over $200tn.  Over the last 20 years, a wide range of new and complex instruments has emerged (known as derivatives as elaborate combination of debt, equity and insurance contracts). Derivatives typically involve little up-front payment and are a contract between two parties to exchange a flow of returns or commodities in the future.(Wikipedia : total derivatives market value as at 2014: $1,500tn, 20% more than in 2007) .

Credit Default Swap (CDS): the seller agrees to compensate the buyer in the event of default; Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS): a claim on a payments made on a bundle of hundreds of mortgages; Collateral Debt Obligation (CDO) a claim on cash flows from a set of bonds or other assets that is divided into tranches so that the lower tranches absorb the losses first –with investor able to choose which tranche to invest in. A set of five pairs of socks – like a CDO – is a legitimate tactics by a sharp salesman to sell contracts of different value (there is always a pair of socks you would never wear….).

It was rather like watching two old men playing chess in the sun for a bet of $10, and then realizing that they are watched by a crowd of bankers who are taking bets on the result to the tune of millions of dollars.

Derivative also allowed a stream of expected future profits, which might or might not be realizes, to be capitalized into current values and show up in trading profits, so permitting large bonuses to be paid today out of uncertain future prospect. These trading, with the benefit of hindsight, were little more than zero sum activity generating little or no output.

By adopting accounting convention of valuing the new instrument at the latest observed price (marking to market) and including all changes in asset values as profits, optimism in the future, whether justified or not, created large recorded profits from the trading of these new securities. In effect, anticipated future profits were capitalized and turned into current profits.

Once markets realized that different banks had different risks of failure then the whole concept of single interbank borrowing rate (LIBOR) became meaningless. With few or no transactions taking place, it was difficult and at times impossible for banks to know what rate to quote. It matters because LIBOR is used as a reference rate in drawing up derivative contracts worth trillion dollars. The benchmark interest rate used in those contract had shallow foundations and in a storm it just blew away.

High frequency trading: trader have faster access to the exchange, the computer of such firm can watch the order flow and then send in their own orders microseconds ahead of other traders, so jumping the queue and getting to the market before the price turns against them.

The switch from a fixed rule, such as gold standard, to the use of unfettered discretion led to the failure to control inflation, culminating in the great inflation of the 1970’s. Attention turned to the idea of delegating monetary policy to independent central banks with a clear mandate to achieve price stability.

Monetary policy affects output and employment in the short-run and prices in the long run. There are lags in the adjustment of prices and wages to change in demand.

The method used to create money was to buy government bonds from the private sector in return for money. Those bond purchases were described as unconventional and known as quantitative easing (QE). But open market operations to exchange money for government securities have long been a traditional tool of central banks, and were used regularly in the UK during the 1980s.

The outbreak of the First World War saw the biggest financial crisis in Europe, at least until the events of 2008. Yet even after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, there was barely a ripple in the London markets.

Countries like Germany have become large creditors, with a trade surplus in 2015 approaching 8% of GDP, and countries in the southern periphery are substantial debtors. Although much of Germany’s trade surplus is with non-euro area countries, its exchange rate is held down by membership of the euro area, resulting in an unsustainable trade position.

The ECB would, Draghi said, ‘do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough’. It was clear that ECB would buy Spanish and Italian sovereign debt. 10 year bond yields started to fell. By end of 2014, ten-year yield in Greece had fallen from 25% to 8%. Spain from 6% to below 2%. By end of 2014, Spain was able to borrow more cheaply than the US. Draghi’s commitment had obviously done the trick.

The euro area must pursue one, or some combination of the following four ways forward:

  1. Continue with unemployment in the south until prices and wages have fallen enough to restore the loss of competitiveness.
  2. Create a period of high inflation in Germany, while restraining prices and wages in the south, to eliminate differences in competitiveness.
  3. Abandon the need to restore competitiveness within the euro area and accept the need for transfers from north to south to finance full employment in the periphery. Such tranfers can well exceed 5% of GDP.
  4. Accept a partial or total break up of the euro are


Some economist would like to return to the original idea of the monetary union – with a strict implementation of the no bail-out clause (which makes it illegal for one member to assume the debts of another) in the European Treaty. “Economically and politically, relaxing the no bail-out clause would open the door for a massive violation of the principle of no taxation without representation, creating a strong movement toward a transfer union without democratic legitimacy”.

Although the provisions of the European Treaty had the appearance of binding treaty commitments, in times of crisis the treaty was simply ignored or reinterpreted according to political needs of the moment.

Art 125: the no bail out clause which makes it illegal for one member to assume the debt of others.

Swiss dinars in Iraq: the value of the Swiss dinar had everything to do with politics and nothing to do with the economic policies of the government issuing the Swiss dinar, because no such government existed.

The tragedy of the monetary union in Europe is not that it might collapse but that, given the degree of political commitment among the leaders of Europe, it might continue, bringing economic stagnation to the largest currency bloc in the world and holding back recovery of the wider world economy.

The key to ending the alchemy is to ensure that the risks involved in money and banking are correctly identified and borne by those who enjoy the benefits from our financial system.

The toxic nexus between limited liability, deposit insurance and lender of last resort means that there is a massive implicit subsidy to risk-taking by banks.

Since the crisis, the minimum amount of equity a bank must use to finance itself – capital requirement – has been raised and banks must also hold a minimum level of liquid assets related to deposits (and other financing that could run from the bank within 30 days). Regulators also look at the shadow banking sector and conduct stress test. Countries such as UK and US have introduced legislation to separate, or ring-fence, basic banking operations from the more complex trading activities of investment banking. And most countries have introduced special bankruptcy arrangements (to protect depositors). Regulators have pursued cases of misconduct by bank employees and the banking system has changed a great deal:  Goldman Sachs balance sheet is 25% smaller in 2015 than in 2007. Many banks have turn to more traditional banking. Is all this enough? I fear not. More radical reforms are needed.

Since the bank bail outs in most advanced economies were huge, it is surprising that more has not been done since the crisis to address fundamental problem.

Irving Fisher : We could leave the banks free… to lend money as they please, provided we no longer allowed them to manufacture the money which they lend. In short nationalize money but do not nationalize the banks.

The prohibition on the creation of money by private banks is not likely to be sufficient to eliminate alchemy in our financial system.

It is time to replace the lender of last resort by the pawn broker for all seasons.  First ensure that all deposits are backed by either actual cash or a guaranteed contingent claim on reserves at the central banks. Second ensure the provision of liquidity insurance is mandatory and paid upfront. Third, design a system which imposes a tax on the degree of alchemy in our financial system – private financial intermediaries should bear the social cost of alchemy.


Keynes argued that when short term and long term interest rates had reached their respective lower bounds, further increases in the money supply would not lead to lower interest rates and higher spending. Once caught in this liquidity trap, the economy could persist in a depressed state indefinitely.

But the flaw with the great stability was that many people confused stability with sustainability. From the perspective of conventional macroeconomics, the situation looked sustainable. But the composition of demand was not, with disequilibrium resulting from China and Germany encouraging exports and trade surpluses. The consequence of those surpluses was significant lending to the rest of the world, with more savings invested in the world capital market. Long term interest rates started to fall (from 4% to 2% a year in 2008) and as a result asset prices (stocks, bonds, houses) rose (as future spending are discounted at a low long term rate). Household brought forward consumption and investment spending from the future to the present. GDP was evolving on a right path but the stability brought about was not sustainable: the demand was just unsustainably too high.

In 2014, Jaime Caruana, the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements said ‘there is simply too much debt in the world today’. And Adair Turner, former chairman of Financial Service Authority, asserted that ‘ the most fundamental reason why the 2008 financial crisis has been followed by such a deep and long lasting recession is the growth of real economy leverage across advanced economies over the previous half-century’. Although such statements point to the great fragility resulting from high debt levels, debt was a consequence, not a cause of the problems that led to the crisis. Debt resulted from the need to finance higher value of stock of property. In turn, those higher values were a reflection of the lower level of long term real interest rates. The real causes of the rise of debt were the ‘saving glut’ and the response to it by western central banks that led to the fall of real interest rates.

Short term Keynesian stimulus boosts consumption, reduces saving, and encourages households to borrow more. But in the long term, US and UK need to shift away from domestic spending toward exports, to reduce trade deficit, to raise the rate of national saving and investment. The irony is that those countries most in need of the long term adjustment, the US and UK, have been most active in pursuing the short term stimulus.

By 2015, corporate debt defaults in the industrial and emerging markets economies were rising. Disruptive though a wave of defaults would be in the short run, it might enable a reboot of the economy so that it could grow in a more sustainable and balanced way. More difficult is external debt…Sovereign debts are likely to be a major headache for the world in years to come. Should these debt be forgiven? Greece encapsulates the problems. When debt was restructured in 2012, private sector creditors were bailed out. Most Greek debt is now owed to public sector institutions (ECB, IMF). There is little chance that Greece will be able to repay its debt (austerity in Greece cannot work because exchange rate cannot fall to stimulate trade).

In 1931, a crisis of the Austrian and German banking system led to the suspension of reparations. They were largely cancelled altogether at the Lausanne conference in 1932. In all Germany paid less than 21 billion marks (out of 132 billion original figure of the Reparations Commission), much of which was financed by overseas borrowing on which Germany subsequently defaulted. ‘ A debtor country can pay only when it has earned a surplus on its balance of trade, and …the attack on German exports by means of tariffs, quotas, boycotts etc. achieves the opposite result’ (Schaft, 1934)

One way of easy the financing problems of the periphery countries would be to postpone repayment of external debt to other member of the Euro area until the debtor country had achieved export surplus.

Debt forgiveness, inevitable though it may be, is not a sufficient answer to all our problems. In the short run, it could even have the perverse effect of slowing growth.

Resentment towards the conditions imposed by the IMF (or the US) in return for financial support has also led to the creation of new institutions in Asia, ranging from Chiang Mai Initiative, a network of bilateral swap arrangments between China, Japan, Korea and ASEAN, to the Chinese led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank created in 2015.

Because the underlying disequilibrium has not been corrected, it is rational to be pessimistic about future demand. That is a significant deterrent to investment today. To solve this our approach must be twofold: to boost expected income through raising productivity and encourage relative prices, especially exchange rate, to move in a direction that support a more sustainable pattern of demand and production. The second element can be achieved through promotion of trade and restoration of floating exchange rates.

After the crisis, demand for Chinese exports fell away, and chines authority allowed credit to expand in order to boost construction spending. But before the crisis there was already excessive investment in commercial property. As a result, empty blocks of apartment and offices are a commonplace sight in new Chinese cities.

Chine now faces serious risks from its financial sector.  A policy of investing one half of its national income at low rates of return financed by debt is leading to an upward spiral of debt in relation to national income.

Germany will find that it is accumulating more and more claims on other countries, with the risk that those claims turn out to be little more than worthless paper. That is already true of some of the claims of the euro area as a whole on Greece.