Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Is Business Borrowing For?

In comments, Woj asks,

have you done any research on the decline in bank lending for tangible capital/investment?

As a matter of fact, I have. Check this out:

Simple correlation between borrowing and fixed investment

What this shows is the correlation between new borrowing and fixed investment across firms, by year (Borrowing and investmnet are both expressed as a fraction of the firm's total assets; the data is from Compustat.) So what we see is that in the 1960s and 70s, a firm that was borrowing heavily also tended to be investing a lot, and vice versa; but after 1985, that was much less true. The same shift is visible if we look at the relationship between investment and borrowing for a given firm, across years: There is a strong correlation before 1980, but a much weaker one afterward. This table shows the average correlation of fixed investment for a given firm across quarters, with borrowing and cashflow.

Average correlation of fixed investment for a given firm.
So again, pre-1980 a given firm tended to borrow heavily and invest heavily in the same periods; after 1980 not so much.

I think it's natural to see this change in the relation between borrowing and investment as a sign of the breakdown of the old hierarchy of finance. In the era of the Chandler-Galbraith corporation, payouts to shareholders were a quasi-fixed cost, not so different from bond payments. The effective residual claimants of corporate earnings were managers who, sociologically, were identified with the firm and pursued survival and growth objectives rather than profit maximization. Under these conditions, internal funds were lower cost than external funds, as Minsky, writing in this epoch, emphasized. So firms only turned to external finance once lower-cost internal funds were exhausted, meaning that in general, only those firms with exceptionally high investment demand borrowed heavily; this explains the strong correlation between borrowing and investment.

from Hubbard, Fazzari and Petersen (1988)

But since the shareholder revolution of the 1980s, this no longer really holds; shareholders have been much more effective in making their status as residual claimants effective, meaning that the opportunity cost of investing out of internal funds is no longer much lower than investing out of external funds. It's no longer much easier for managers to convince shareholders to let the firm keep more of its earnings, than to convince bankers to let it have a loan. So the question of how much a firm borrows is now largely independent of how much it invests. (Modigliani-Miller comes closer to being true in a neoliberal world.)

Fun fact: Regressing nonfinancial corporate borrowing on stock buybacks for the period 2005-2010 yields a coefficient not significantly different from 1.0, with an r-squared of 0.98. In other words, it seems that the marginal dollar borrowed by a nonfinancial business in this period was simply handed on to shareholders, without funding any productive expenditure at all. This close fit between corporate borrowing and share buybacks raises doubts about the contribution of the financial crisis to the downturn in the real economy.

The larger implication is that, with the loss of the low-cost pool of internal funds, the hurdle rate for investment by nonfinancial firms is higher than it was during the postwar decades. In my mind this -- more than inequality, tho it is of course important in its own right -- is the structural condition for the Great Recession and the previous jobless recoveries. The downward shift in investment demand means that aggregate demand falls short of full employment except when boosted by asset bubbles.

The end of the cost advantage of internal funds (and the corresponding erosion of the correlation between borrowing and investment) is related to the end of the collapse of the larger post-New Deal structure of financial repression that preferentially channeled savings to productive investment.

UPDATE: I should clarify that while share buybacks are very large quantitatively -- equal to total new borrowing by nonfinancial corporations in recent years -- they are undertaken by only a relatively small group of firms. For smaller businesses, businesses without access to the bond market and especially privately held businesses, there probably still is a substantial wedge between the perceived cost of internal and external funds. It is quite possible that for small businesses, disruptions in credit supply did have significant effects. But given the comparatively small fraction of the economy accounted for by these firms, it seems unlikely that this could be a major cause of the recession.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Did We Have a Crisis Because Deficits Were Too Small?

In comments to the previous post on fiscal policy, Steve Roth points to a couple posts from his own (excellent) blog pointing to a similar argument by Randy Wray, that falling federal debt-GDP ratios nominal volumes of government debt have consistently preceded financial crises historically.

Also in comments, Chris Mealy asks,
Isn't the idea that sufficient government debts will prevent phony safe assets and the financial crises they lead to?
Right, exactly!

A couple years ago, VoxEU ran several good pieces making exactly this argument -- that it was the lack of sufficient government debt that spurred the growth of mortgage securitization. Here is one:
The increased demand for US government debt by emerging economy central banks led to lower yields, thus forcing those savers in the OECD countries who would normally have held government assets to frantically “search for returns”. ... The AAA tranches on securitised US mortgages ... seemed to provide the safety plus a “yield pick up” without any risk... 
The key technology that permitted the transformation of US mortgages into safe liquid assets was securitisation. ... The massive buying of US government paper by emerging market central banks had displaced other investors whose preference previously had been for safe, short-term, liquid assets.  ... The excess demand for short-term, safe, liquid assets created by emerging economies’ accumulation of reserves could not have been satisfied by the securitisation of US mortgages (and consumer credit) without massive credit and liquidity “enhancements” by the banking system. ... 
Looking forward, this analysis implies that the current (smaller but still sizeable) US current account deficit should not lead to similar asset supply and demand mismatches since US households are now starting to save and it is the US government which is running the deficit, thus supplying exactly the kind of assets needed...
And here is another, from an impeccably mainstream author:
The entire world had an insatiable demand for safe debt instruments – including foreign central banks and investors, but also many US financial institutions. This put enormous pressure on the US financial system... The financial sector was able to create micro-AAA assets from the securitisation of lower quality ones, but at the cost of exposing the system to a panic... In this view, the surge of safe-asset demand was a key factor behind the rise in leverage and macroeconomic risk concentration in financial institutions... These institutions sought the profits generated from bridging the gap between this rise in demand and the expansion of its natural supply. ... 
[Once the crisis began], the underlying structural deficit of safe assets worsened as the ... triple-A assets from the securitisation industry dried up and the spike in perceived uncertainty further increased demand for these assets. Safe interest rates plummeted to record low levels. ... Global imbalances and their feared sudden reversal never played a significant role for the US during this deep crisis. In fact, the worse things became, the more domestic and foreign investors ran to US Treasuries for cover and treasury rates plummeted (and the dollar appreciated). ... 
One approach to addressing these issues prospectively would be for governments to explicitly bear a greater share of the systemic risk. ... If the governments in asset-producing countries were to do it directly, then they would have to issue bonds beyond their fiscal needs.
The logic is very clear and, to me at least, compelling: For a variety of reasons (including but not limited to reserve accumulation by developing-country central banks) there was an increase in demand for safe, liquid assets, the private supply of which is generally inelastic. The excess demand pushed up the price of the existing stock of safe assets (especially Treasuries), and increased pressure to develop substitutes. (This went beyond the usual pressure to develop new methods of producing any good with a rising price, since a number of financial actors have some minimum yield -- i.e. maximum price -- of safe assets as a condition of their continued existence.) Mortgage-backed securities were thought to be such substitutes. Once the technology of securitization was developed, you also had a rise in mortgage lending and the supply of MBSs continued growing under its own momentum; but in this story, the original impetus came unequivocally from the demand for substitutes for scarce government debt. It's very hard to avoid the conclusion that if the US government had only issued more debt in the decade before the crisis, the housing bubble and subsequent crash would have been much milder.


While we're at it, I can resist reposting the old post where I first mentioned this stuff:

A focus on cyclical stabilization assumes that there is no systematic long-term divergence between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. But Keynes believed that there was a secular tendency toward stagnation in advanced capitalist economies, so that maintaining full employment meant not just using public expenditure to stabilize private investment demand, but to incrementally replace it.

Another way of looking at this is that the steady shift from small-scale to industrial production implies a growing weight of illiquid assets in the form of fixed capital. There is not, however, any corresponding long-term increase in the demand for illiquid liabilities. If anything, the sociological patterns of capitalism point the other way, as industrial dynasties whose social existence was linked to particular enterprises have been steadily replaced by rentiers. The whole line of financial innovations from the first joint-stock companies to the recent securitization boom have been attempts to bridge this gap. But this requires ever-deepening financialization, with all the social waste and instability that implies.

It’s the government’s ability to issue liabilities backed by the whole economic output that makes it uniquely able to satisfy the demands of wealth-holders for liquid assets. In the functional finance tradition going back to Lerner, modern states do not possess a budget constraint in the same way households or firms do. Public borrowing has nothing to do with “funding” spending, it's all about how much government debt the authorities want the banking system to hold. If the demand for safe, liquid assets rises secularly over time, so should government borrowing.

From this point of view, one important source of the recent financial crisis was the surpluses of the 1990s, and insufficient borrowing by the US government in general. By restricting the supply of Treasuries, this excessive fiscal restraint spurred the creation of private sector substitutes purporting to offer similar liquidity properties, in the form of various asset-backed securities. But these new financial assets remained at bottom claims on specific illiquid real assets and their liquidity remained vulnerable to shifts in (expectations of) the value of those assets.

The response to the crisis in 2008 then consists of the Fed retroactively correcting the undersupply of government liabilities by engaging in a wholesale swap of public for private liabilities, leaving banks (and liquidity-demanding wealth owners) holding government liabilities instead of private financial assets. The increase in public debt wasn’t an unfortunate side-effect of the solution to the financial crisis, it was the solution.

Along the same lines, I sometimes wonder how much the huge proportion of government debt on bank balance sheets -- 75 percent of assets in 1945 vs. 1.5 percent in 2005 -- contributed to the financial stability of the immediate postwar era. With that many safe assets sloshing around, it didn't take financial engineering or speculative bubbles to convince banks to hold claims on fixed capital and housing. But as the supply of government debt has dwindled the inducements to hold other assets have had to grow increasingly garish.

From which I conclude that ever-increasing government deficits may in fact be better Keynesianism – theoretically, historically and pragmatically – than countercyclical demand management.

(What's striking to me, rereading this now, is that when I wrote it I had not read any Leijonhufvud. Yet the argument that capitalism suffers from a chronic oversupply of long, illiquid assets is one of the central messages of Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes -- "no mortal being can hold land to maturity," etc. I got the idea from Minsky, I suppose, or maybe from Michael Perelman, who are both very clear that the specific institutions of capitalism are in many ways in deep tension with the development of long-lived capital goods.)

UPDATE: Hey look, The Economist agrees. I think that means it's time to move on.

UPDATE 2: So does Joe Weisenthal at the The Business Insider. His argument (and Stephanie Kelton's) is different from the one here -- it focuses on the fact that net savings across sectors have to sum to zero, as opposed to the government's advantage in providing liquidity. But the fundamental point is the same, that the important thing about the government fiscal position is the implications it has for private balance sheets.

UPDATE 3: Steve R. points out that I misread his posts -- Wray's argument is about the nominal volume of federal debt outstanding, not the debt-GDP ratio. Hmm. I'm not sure I buy that relationship as evidence of anything ... but it's still good to see that Wray is asking this question. Steve also points to this paper, which looks very interesting.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Prolegomena to Any Future Post on Fiscal Policy

Hyman Minsky famously asked, Can "it" happen again? No, he answered, it can't: A deep depression on the scale of the 1930s is not possible in the post-World War II US. One reason why not:
There is a large outstanding government debt... This both sets a floor to liquidity and weakens the link between the money supply and business borrowing.
In other words, a large government debt is stabilizing, because it means that the supply of liquidity -- assets that can serve as, and can readily be converted into, means of payment -- depends less on the state of the financial system. 

Let's take a step back. Any unit in a capitalist economy incurs various money obligations, and receives various streams of money payments. [1] If a unit cannot meet its contracted payments in any period, it must default, with whatever legal consequences that entails. To avoid this, economic units, especially banks, must manage both market liquidity (the ability to convert assets in their portfolio into means of payment) and funding liquidity (the ability to issue new liabilities.) In general, when a bank expands its balance sheet, it becomes less liquid -- that is, it increases the number of possible future states of the world in which it is unable to acquire the means of payment to meet its current obligations. This is why interest rates tend to rise in response to increased private borrowing. 

Or rather, a bank that expands its balance sheet in order to acquire private debt becomes less liquid, or is likely to find itself less liquid in a crisis. A bank that acquires public debt, on the other hand, becomes more liquid. This is why banks hold government liabilities as reserves, beyond any statutory requirements. Government bonds are, in Minsky's words, "ultimate liquidity" -- the only assets that can always be converted to means of payment as needed. This is why interest rates do not rise in response to public borrowing, even when government deficits are very large. [2]

DR is the federal deficit as a percent of GDP. It's the one that goes way up during the war. CPR and RRBR are the two main private interest rate indices for the period. They're the ones that don't.

This all respectable mainstream economic theory. But I don't think the Minskyan implications are really acknowledged in mainstream policy discussions. Do we agree that one of the main reasons that a crisis on the scale of 1929-1933 was impossible postwar was the "floor to liquidity" provided by banks' holdings of federal debt? Then perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that a crisis of that scale almost did occur in 2007, when the share of federal debt in financial-system assets had fallen to less than 5 percent, compared with 15 percent when Minsky wrote those lines.

Indeed, much of the Fed's response to the crisis was various policies to raise this ratio; and one danger of deficit reduction is that the banking system still needs more government bonds. Or as Brad DeLong says:
When the world is short of safe assets--and investors are desperate to hold them--to complain about budget deficits in rock-solid reserve-currency countries and thus about safe asset issuance is profoundly stupid.
Right on; Delong has read his Minsky.

Now, Brad, will you take the next step with me and Hyman? Can we also agree that even when there isn't a shortage of safe assets today, it's good to keep a stock on hand, just in case? Can we agree that if there's a chance that in the next decade the world economy will fly apart due to a lack of safe assets, then it's a bit foolhardy to deliberately reduce the supply of them? Can we agree that, in retrospect, those big Clinton surpluses were -- well, I won't say profoundly stupid, but maybe not the best idea?

And then we can agree that whenever anyone talks about "tackling our long-term government debt problem," what they really mean is "making future financial crises more likely."

EDIT: Obviously, this sounds a lot like Modern Monetary Theory. But while I agree substantively with MMT, I think it's better to think of government liabilities being special because they increase the net liquidity of the financial system, rather than because they can be used to satisfy tax obligations.

There's one other analytic issue, which I haven't seen dealt with satisfactorily. Government deficits operate through two channels: They increase the flow of demand for currently-produced goods and services, and they increase the stock of government debt in private hands. Now, under certain assumptions, you might say these are just two ways of describing the same phenomenon. If you think of the economy as a market with two goods, current output and bonds, then increasing the demand for one and increasing the supply of the other are logically equivalent. But this is not the only way of thinking of the economy. (Among other things, while markets certainly exist as social phenomena, describing the economy as a whole as a market is only a metaphor -- one that may be more or less illuminating depending on the questions we are interested in.) In general, the two channels are going to have two distinct effects, and it would be nice to be able to think them through separately. But almost everyone, across the whole spectrum, tends to collapse them into one.

[1] One reason I like David Graeber is that he understands that this is a better starting point for economic analysis than the exchange of goods.

[2] Obviously this claim applies only to the United States and similar countries. I am going to leave aside for now what "similar" means.